15 JUN 2015: This year at FITCuba, now in its 35th edition, the annual tourism trade show was themed around the sea. Cuba’s ministry of tourism (MINTUR) alongside the major national travel companies showcased its latest catch, a full net of new nautical tourism products that were appropriately staged in what insiders declare as the country’s best dive site: Jardines del Rey.

So, it was smack in the center of Cuba’s northerly shores in the Garden of Kings (Jardines del Rey) eulogized by writer Ernest Hemingway who raved about the marlin fishing prospects where likeminded travel pros gathered to fish for new Cuban tourism partnerships.

The country’s newest luxury all-inclusive resort: the Melia Jardines del Rey stood as FITCuba HQ for the blockbuster three-day show where two notes of FITCuba history were made.  The conference, for the first time, occurred at a hotel and US travel professionals for the first time ever were present.

Here’s a tourism run-down on two provinces featured on my recent visit.

Ciego de Avila

Backgrounder: It’s common knowledge that when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue he first made a stop to what’s now known as Cuba. Columbus reportedly declared, “It’s the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.” But then again when another explorer Faro Diego Velázquez dipped his anchor off the mainland’s northerly shores by a string of cays in 1514, he must have gasped in awe yet again.

Velázquez named this cluster of fantasy islands, Jardines del Rey “Garden of Kings” with its archipelago of islands and cays. Two of its islets Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are quickly turning into the Garden of Eden for resort goers. There is the warm clear turquoise sea, coconut trees, and the tangled mangroves that protect the white sand beach from the inland. It’s really for beach loving holidaymakers craving solitude.

What to expect: Welcome to Heaven on Earth. These days, folks are willing to pay a premium for silencio, something you get gratis by the beaches on Cayo Coco’s Flamenco Beach and its kissing island cousin, Cayo Guillermo’s Pilar Beach.

Rated as the fourth largest tourism destination in the country, there are some big pluses here.  Be prepared for one long causeway jaunt to this chunk of tropical island bliss.  It’s a 27 km road built in 1988 that inevitably paved the path for future resortdom.

But the drive is worth it. An eco-rich area immersed in an aviary paradise, depending on the season, discover scores of pink flamingos and over 150 bird species. No big towns or cities, this is a pure unadulterated getaway fantasy for sun-seeking urbanites who want to escape from it all.

The big deal: Home to Playa Pilar on Cayo Guillermo, you have arrived to a heavenly 1.5 km virgin beach that has quickly gained a rep as “the Queen of the Caribbean.”

Pilar which is named after Hemingway’s boat is rated among the top 25 best beaches in the world (15 slot in 2015) by publications like CEOWorld Magazine and considered among the most beautiful beaches in Cuba. Void of crowds and resplendent in shallow turquoise clear warm water with a soft white sandy beach, this is the ‘next’ new beach destination.

Beach and eco-lovers will love the remote desert island feel while families like the tranquil shallow beach. Secluded, about 8 km from the nearest hotel, Playa Pilar is home to the Caribbean’s highest protected sand dunes hovering 15 metres high that teem in wildlife-rich mangroves, making it truly one of the country’s best birding destinations. Spot flamingos, pelicans, egrets, ibises, and other marine birds.

Room inventory: Expect more hotel rooms coming to this nature sanctuary. The minister reports by 2025 more than 20,000 rooms will be in operation at Jardines del Rey. But for now there’s the highly anticipated opening of the Iberostar Playa Pilar (482 rooms) west of Playa Pilar expected to open in late 2015 and the 566-room Pullman Hotel Cayo Coco managed by the Accor Hotel Group which is expected to open in December.

Moreover, this past December Melia Hotels International, the Spanish all-inclusive hotel brand, opened the Melia Jardines del Rey situated on Playa Flamenco, reportedly the company’s largest hotel in the world. The 1,176 roomed hotel configured with 25 bungalows was officially opened at this year’s FITCuba national tourism trade show. In May the west wing was nearing completion with plans to have it fully functional in time for winter bookings.

Jardines del Rey’s biggest client: Canadians - with an annual tourism growth of 15 percent

Highlights: A huge Crystal Tower is located on Cayo Coco, the island’s first zipline tower and one of Latin America’s first Fear Factor-looking towers with 90 activities - it’s nirvana for the outdoor adventurer client. There are three platforms designed for all ages. Managed by the Cuban company, Palmares Group, it’s designed in Germany by Con-impex with German and Cuban safety standards and was officially opened at FITCuba.

For cultural and train buffs, nothing beats the former sugar factory Central Patria near Moron.  Once a massive sugarcane hub, which later became a significant depot during the Revolution, this derelict mill is now a museum that bears witness to a storied past which comes to life via a lively steam train ride. Hop aboard, hear the whistle blow, and relax in this outdoor covered rail journey as it sweeps past grazing cattle, dust-ridden roads and thick sugarcane fields.  
A Baldwin steam engine from Philadelphia built in 1920 runs smoothly and chugs along the old railroad line. Watch http://tinyurl.com/pdratac

The largest international visitor arrivals to the sugar factory: Canadians - over 7,000 visited the museum this year alone.

For a real nature getaway, head to the Laguna La Redonda, a huge freshwater lagoon. There it’s all about the boat ride. Discover mangrove-rimmed channels dripping in Spanish moss that are studded by pretty wild orchids off hundred-year old trees. Anglers have a field day fishing for bass and trout.

For marine lovers, the Dolphinarium in Cayo Guillermo showcases a small pod of resident bottlenose dolphins that live in a collection of enclosed underwater cages housed off a long pier that is surrounded by thick mangroves. Guests have a chance to swim with them but there is no dolphin show.

Getting there:  The Jardines del Rey International Airport is nearby and clients are within minutes from the beach resorts. The new Melia Jardines del Rey is only 10 minutes from the airport.   In winter, Sunwing services Cayo Coco from 14 Canadian cities and has year-round service from Montreal, Edmonton, Toronto, Quebec City and Calgary.

Camaguey Backgrounder: Cuba’s largest province geographically has the longest coastline in the country that’s been a huge draw for Canadians.  Popular for diving (over 30 dive sites), the famous coral reef is also here. The main resort area is Santa Lucia.

The capital city also called Camaguey celebrated its 500th anniversary last year and since 2008 has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are many cultural and heritage spin-offs. For instance, Camaguey city sure can strut its stuff. See sections that harken to a mini Casablanca and Sevilla, Spain captured brilliantly in its bar scene, gastronomy and the latest hotel interior designs. “We celebrated the 500th anniversary even before Havana and we are older than Santiago de Cuba which is going to celebrate 500 years this year (in July),” proudly says a hotel rep of a new boutique hotel.

For centuries, the city has attracted cultural types like Cuba’s national poet Nicholas Guillen who was born there and continues to be a hot bed for artists to this day.

The big deal: Camaguey city is a hub of arts and culture and makes an ideal add-on to any resort stay. Enter the San Juan de Dios calle, renowned as gallery row for its profusion of contemporary artists who clearly draw inspiration from acclaimed US avant-garde artists like Keith Haring and others.

The oldest square in the city, Plaza San Juan de Dios is a cobblestoned quarter lined by restored 16th century facades that turn into a dreamy backdrop for street vendors selling locally made handcrafts. The food is unparalleled with a fabulous Spanish connection as demonstrated at the colonial digs, La Campagna de Toledo restaurant with its shady patio.  Order the steak, boliche mechado campagna and check out the bull head of Brilliante, a famous bull from Toledo that graces the bar. The signature cocktail, the Brilliante (3CUC) fused with pineapple juice, pineapple liquor, and 3-year old Havana Club rum makes a good thirst quencher.

Room inventory: New boutique hotels are quickly coming on the scene. These charming properties could easily be found in any world-class city. For instance, head to the 31-room Santa Maria Hotel (free wi-fi in the lobby bar area, breakfast included) located in an art nouveau office building at the city’s bustling main street.  Another new boutique hotel, the 25-room Hotel La Sevillana (only nine rooms were open at press time) is slated to be completed later this year. One of Cuba’s rising hotel interior designers, Natasha Hernandez wanted a Seville twist to this former private home that encapsulates Old World Seville with its fine antique collection and sumptuous stained glass windows depicting the famous Seville bullfights and flamenco dancers.

Getting there: Clients are serviced by the Ignacio Agramonte Airport (CMW), a small international airport located 8 km from Camaguey.

For more travel information see http://cubatravel.tur.cu/en

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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