21 NOV 2016:  For nearly two decades Canadian sun seekers have been Cuba’s number one source market. We like to stretch out on our towels preferably with a thirst quenching bevvy of choice at one of the country’s generous all-inclusive properties.

Still, while Cuba continues to welcome us year-round to enjoy its talcum white beaches with its palm fringed coastline, there’s definitely a rumble in the jungle so to speak.

The sun-baked facades of many of the country’s finest colonial cities are currently being transformed to showcase the extraordinary beauty of the Cuban architecture, culture and hospitality.

I’m sure your repeat clients, have, over the years, consistently made reservations at their favourite all-inclusives. How could they not when the beach choices range from the rhapsodic Varadero playa to the heavenly playas of the islets to many others.

Now it might take clients some prying to leave behind their sunspots and their favourite John Grisham or James Patterson thrillers but perhaps this look at some of Cuba’s glorious colonial cities might help.

Indeed, Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba in 1492 but it took a Spaniard named Diego Velazquez who led the Spanish conquest of Cuba to establish the earliest cities.  By 1515 he was the founder of seven settlements there. Among them are Bayamo, Santiago de Cuba, Puerto Principe (present-day Camaguey), and Trinidad.

For a la carte, customized itineraries, why not have clients suss out a collection of them?

Here’s the first in a two-part series on the colonial city seeker and culture tripper’s eastern Cuba prep list.

Cienfuegos:The Pearl of the South

The calling card to Cienfuegos is the moon. “The moon of Cienfuegos is like no other,” smiles Betzy Olivares Betancourt, my extraordinary tour guide on this eye-opening introduction to Cuba’s finest colonial cities.

The other surprise was the exceptional architectural references. In between the French colonial and Moorish influences, facades dating back to the fifties lined the plazas and buzzing streets. Palacios (Spanish meaning palaces) are a dime a dozen too.

One afternoon at the lavish Punta Gorda district by the Bay of Jagua we lunched at the marina, Club Cienfuegos. Known for its Moorish architecture we indulged on a signature cocktail, the Cienfuegos, a refreshing elixir of coconut and pineapple juices, Curacao, grenadine, and rum.

In the evening the 1900s masterpiece Palacio de Valle built by a rich Spanish sugar baron is known for its lavish turrets, exquisite marble inlays, and one legendary pianist. Sadly the fabulous Carmencita Iznaga has retired but her spirit somehow mysteriously still echoes amid the marble interior. There was anticipation, a hope of her grand piano rolling in with her in tow. But it wasn’t meant to be.

Cienfuegos is the capital of Cienfuegos province. The city’s population of 150,000 residents has a unique blend of French and Spanish ancestry. Compared to other Cuban cities Cienfuegos happens to be a newer city on the block founded in 1819 by a Frenchman Louis D'Clouet.

Home to one of Cuba’s most famous singers, Benny More “the king of swing” who was born in the province, many tributes of him dot the cityscape. Swing by bustling Prado Street near the iconic ice cream parlour La Coppelia and see a bronze figure of a relaxed, fedora donning More.

Where to stay:

The 49-room Union Hotel is a neo-classical, colonial landmark located steps from the Marti Park named after Cuba’s national hero, Jose Marti.  The park is a popular Wi-Fi hot spot as seen by some lucky locals who possess smart phones.  

Other landmarks by the park include the City Hall, and the main theatre, the Terry Theater (1890) which once showcased greats like Anna Pavlova and Sarah Bernhardt. From the hotel, the seaside is an easy stroll away as is the main street, the Prado and a pedestrian-friendly boulevard. By night, order a mojito at the rooftop patio bar, La Venus Negra and get ready for awesome panorama night views.

Highlights of city and surrounds: Finest city pool ever with a Roman-inspired alfresco private pool.  

The city is home to sea-facing Moorish-inspired palacios. If you have a chance head up a palace tower and feel like Rapunzel as you peer from the top and let your hair flap in the Caribbean sea breeze.

A Living Museum

The Jardin Botanico de Cienfuegos in Soledad started by an American Edwin Atkins in 1901 is a must-see. Atkins, a sugar baron, wanted to delve into the world of sugarcane so he created this personal Garden of Eden of the most exotic flora collected worldwide. He had this chunk of green paradise until 1953. During the heydays Harvard University used the 97-hectared garden for botanical studies. Today, one zealous passionate botanist Roger Echevarria Galvez has catalogued over 2,000 tropical species using 18,000 research cards from Harvard University.  “This is the most perfect flower. It is beautiful,” he smiles cupping the Cannonball Tree flower. For me it was seeing the whimsical symmetry of the petticoat palm tree – simply perfect.

Trinidad City: “Daughter of honey and sugarcane juice”

Don’t be surprised if you spot more than the usual number of photographers around the ancient stone city. A historic hub nestled in the heart of Cuba, Trinidad is revered for its breathtaking downtown of cobblestone streets, terracotta rooftops and pastel coloured facades. But as of late the picture-pretty cityscape has become a favourite backdrop for photography classes.

Established in 1514 as the third Spanish settlement by Diego Velázquez, Trinidad was a bastion in the sugarcane industry. Walk into a time warp and see radiant vestiges from yesteryear. There is a fabulous collection of mansions, parks and grand squares that wrap around the city’s signature stone streets. The historic center is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Local handicrafts such as embroidered tablecloths flutter in the Cuban sun. I went overboard (so to speak) and purchased several. Each one is prettier than the next.

The Palacio Cantero, formerly a private sugar palace of a wealthy local industrialist is now the municipal museum. See a collection of period pieces culled from the 18th century and 19th century. It feels like an Antique Road Show of dazzling porcelain figurines from France, paintings from Europe, and handsome furniture with mother of pearl inlay. For the panorama lovers, head to the tower in the inner courtyard and get ready for a corkscrew climb.

Where to sleep: Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad

This 40-room boutique property located in the heart of Trinidad has typical quality service and amenities associated with the luxury brand. The elegant hacienda-themed hotel has a lovely enclosed lobby where Wi-Fi is available for a fee (2 Cuban Convertible Pesos for 1 hour).

Highlights of city and surrounds: So many birds eye views here.

At the top of a hill by the ruins of La Popa, an old church, which will be home to a future boutique hotel you get a good sense of the city’s layout. On the way, along Calle Simon Bolivar see a local crocodile, a mascot of the paladar restaurant, La Nueva Era.

For the finest sugar valley views, head to the small town of Manaca Iznaga on the outskirts of Trinidad. Expect more breeze flapping handmade tablecloths once there but the special surprise is to ascend an eclectic tower built during the height of the sugarcane era.

There’s plenty of tower lore too. One story says the local sugarcane barons, brothers Alejo and Pedro Iznaga originally from Spain’s Basque region, built this seven story tower to oversee the vast sugarcane empire as they kept a close watch on the slave workers.  During the 19th century when sugarcane was king, around 55 sugar mills clutched the city’s outskirts, of which some 15 were under the Iznaga empire.

Next Up: Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba

All images by Stephen Smith.

Colonial Cuba
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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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