What’s happening, everyone!?!?
Here we are on our sixth day in Cuba. It was VALentine’s Day, and it turned out to be a pretty great one! Especially compared to the day before. For starters, the rain stopped. Yes! Then we left the bustling city of Havana, in our third reserved classic car, for the laid back beach of Varadero. We made a few fantastic stops along the way and ended the day eating at a kickass restaurant.
Before I go onto journaling my day, quickly let me point out, Valentine’s Day in Cuba is a big deal. I mean, BIG deal! They really go all out for the day. Here I thought I was would be the love-day-centric one with dressing cute and having the kids wearing springy heart headbands, but everywhere we went, places were themed, decorated to the nines. It was like a magical place for me. haha (Get it? nudge Cuz I love all holidays? nudge nudge..)
Overnight, the storm came back. The sounds of the pouring rain and wind were horrendous, and we were so thankful our children slept through the whole thing. Waking up on this morning, I noticed before jumping out of bed, that a lot of birds were singing and chirping from the trees below our room. Something we hadn’t heard on this trip yet. The skies still looked grey when I peaked to check, but also seemed like the clouds could break to sunshine. Just couldn’t tell.
Secretly the night before bed, I had set up a surprise in the corner of the kitchen by the terrarium for the girls. Nothing crazy; silly cards, themed candies and a few fun toys. When I walked from the bedroom through the kitchen, I noticed that they had left cards there for me and my husband, and each other, too! Those rascals got me!!
As we got to the patio for breakfast, we were surprised by the staff, too. They had set a table for us with a special Valentine’s Day chocolate treat at each place setting. Gee, I wonder how long they waited for us to come down!? Right when we got coffee, we had the girls exchange cards and open gifts.
Ok, onto breakfast. Our last breakfast at this casa particular. Which looking back, was such a beautiful, special place. We absolutely enjoyed this location with its people and beautiful landscape. I hope if we ever go back to Cuba we start our trip off right from this casa particular!
I laughed when we got coffee because what showed up…that darn bowl of fruit salad! haha My husband didn’t have a chance to say we wouldn’t be needing it on this morning. So, he did eat some, I don’t know how, but I watched him do it!! (If you have no clue why I am laughing, it’s because during this trip we found the fruit to be strange in texture and flavor, just very undesirable.)
With the sun struggling to appear, our car showed up right on time at 10AM. It was a 1949 blue Plymouth sedan! The tour guide who picked us up was Lester, the owner and best friend of the driver who took us to Viñales a few days before. Lester was a very young and pleasant man. We packed up the car with every bag and person then headed on our way. The drive to Varadero is about two and a half hours long. We had planned two stops beforehand, the Museo Ernest Hemingway (Ernest Hemingway’s House now a museum), which was 20 minutes away from the casa, and then the Bacunayagya Bridge lookout for pina coladas, which was an hour and a half away from the museum.
For some reason Lester, his voice and demeanor, reminded me of the comedian/actor/podcaster Bryan Callen. If you don’t know who Bryan Callen is.. shame on you, and I highly recommend The Fighter and The Kid podcast.
Lester started driving us in a totally different direction through Havana. He told us to get to Hemingway’s House, our first stop, he had to take us through a different ward, which is a neighborhood that not many tourists go through. This neighborhood was totally different on every level from where we had been before on this trip. The serious economic problems were glaring. I had alluded to this previously in my Cuba posts, but driving through this neighborhood it was raw. In your face. There were no impressive embassies, no large distinguished hotels, no crystal ocean views, no historical monuments, and definitely, no vividly bright buildings; here had none of that.
Side note: This is what I battled with emotionally through this trip. It is a beautiful country with a lot of history and culture. So much of its modern-day culture, however, is draped in its socialism, which lends to this devastating way of life and poverty peppered throughout. We would see poor living conditions a lot, not to this extreme as we did here, but every night I was left feeling sad. Wanting to give everyone I saw whatever I had to offer. The people we were meeting were so wonderful and generous, even if they were living in what we know as an oppressed society. Which seems to be on some uprising, or at least I hope it is. It really is a complicated country. It’s hard to explain to people that it’s beautiful, with its rich history, without telling them of this heartache. I mean, I am sure people can turn a blind eye, it’s just I don’t know they can.
This neighborhood spilled into another and then into the San Francisco de Paula ward. This is where Hemingway’s house/museum is found. It is definitely a different vibe from the streets we just traveled through. We were now on a wider boulevard with large homes, and green trees tucked perfectly around. Such a shock from the one we just drove through. We were just observing a man wheeling cakes through black exhaust to sell by the train tracks, then we were driving up this amazing wooded driveway to a villa.
Hemingway’s house lays upon serene wooded and hilly grounds, with a vista of Havana from the back patio of the house. It is just beautiful. My gosh. Though the house is not open to visitors to walk through the inside, it is completely open for viewing from the outside through doorways and windows. This goes for the three-story look-out building adjacent to the house, as well. Everything is preserved, and staged, as he had it while he was alive. While you poke your head into a living room, or a bedroom, or even into his bathroom, you can’t help but want to jump in there to play house with all of his belongings.
Walking the paths of the gardens was peaceful. We went down the main path towards the recreation area; there was a swimming pool, cock-fighting ring and his boat. What an amazing sight! First you come across the pool to the left. It was empty, but all I could think of was the blue glistening water on a sunny day. And, Ava Gardner skinny dipping and how I would totally be there doing that same thing! The cabanas that flank the back of the pool are decorated with poster sized photos of Hemingway with his famous friends. Just thinking of all the people who went through that space is dizzying; must have been an amazing sight!
Right past the pool is the burial spot of his favorite cats. They were in front of his boat; they look as if they are guarding it! His fishing boat, recently restored, is not accessible by guests, as it’s grounded in the tennis courts space. I spent a long time looking at this boat. This boat saw a lot of action in the water with Hemingway. He invited notable guests on that boat. He caught record-breaking sized fish. He made a few epic water trips like those we read about to Bimini. Also, he used this boat to search for German U-Boats during WWII and on science expeditions off the coast of Cuba! How cool, right? Also, two of his books were influenced by the time he spent on this fishing boat, The Old Man and the Sea, and, Islands in the Stream. So much history. If that boat could talk, it would probably have some insane stories!
We left the Hemingway House with the sun still struggling to come out. It did peep out a few times. Ahead of us was another hour or so of driving before our next stop. We were headed for a little stretch and drink at the Bacunayagya overlook. This overlook is in the town of Bacunayagya and faces a valley where the highest bridge in all of Cuba is located. The Bacunayagua Bridge is considered a modern Cuban engineering marvel. It is quite impressive, and the view from the overlook was magnificent of the valley.
The overlook had an outdoor cocktail bar. This place was a lot of fun; a great place to check out views holding a pina colada. An interesting little fact about cocktail bars like this is Cuba is that they make the drink virgin, then you put the alcohol in the drink. So, we had a lot of fun making questioning faces with the bartender pouring lots of rum into our drinks.
We were feeling pretty happy leaving there, to say the least. 🙂
After leaving the bridge, which we were able to drive over, we drove along the coast line of Cuba. Wow, it was beautiful. The colors of blue and aqua beaming from the water looked like a postcard. It was fascinating to see how not the Cuban government nor its people capitalized on the spaces along the water. I mean, we drove for a good hour along the water without any homes or businesses, not that they were needed. That isn’t what I am inferring, but all I could wonder was how prime real estate could exist without any need for it. Back in the States this space would be eaten up! (I hope for Cuba’s sake no one does overbuild and ruin the coast.)
We made it to Varadero! Yes! The skies were still a little grey. No!
Varadero is known as a beach resort town. This town is located on the Hicacos peninsula, which lends to great surrounding views of the Atlantic Ocean. One side of the peninsula is beach front, the other side is a coastal highway. The beach is about 13 miles long, with government-run resorts along a small stretch of beach. (We never walked to that part.) As colorful homes are conveniently located along tightly nestled grid alleyways, roughly a block away from the beach entrances. Between the homes and the beach front are the restaurants and souvenir shops. There are no boardwalks lined with stuff, this is a natural sight where the streets make their way to the sandy edges of the beach paths with small fences and trees. Walking the paths towards the beach is a HUGE treat, visually.
We were reminded along the drive by Lester that the Cuban government did not allow its citizens to vacation in Varadero until a few years ago. We learned this information before arriving in Cuba. The boom for its privately owned industry is very recent, open a handful of years. Which is something we thought about throughout our trip. I can’t imagine my government telling me that I couldn’t vacation with tourists in my own country. But that is what they did, and that is how they lived.
We arrived to our casa particular, the Casa de la Familia Cubana, at 2PM. We were greeted by Iris, one of the staff helping the owners of the house. Iris took us on a great tour of the house, showing us all the ins and outs, and details for breakfast. We had a lot of space. Two bedrooms equipped with AC and fans. Our bedroom had a mini fridge, which was stocked with waters and beers. We had two full bathrooms, which was a treat! A kitchen with dining area that had access to the roof deck and to the patio where they served breakfast every morning.
Iris was a very sweet woman, but spoke no English. Which was fine with me! haha
After our walk through of the house, we ran to get into our bathing suits because you know what came out when we got to the house? THE SUN!!! Seriously, it was like a gift from the universe. We drove over the town border, onto the peninsula, then the skies cleared up and the sun just shone with all its might. I was beyond happy to see the sun.
We headed straight for the beach with towels Iris handed us and the water from the fridge. I stashed a few snack bars in the bags too. Oh I forgot to mention, that we had taken the rice and plantains from dinner the night before to have for lunch today. Which we scarfed down before the beach. I totally forgot.
This is all we had planned for the day, get to Varadero, sit on the beach then eat dinner somewhere nice!
The beach was literally a five minute walk away from our casa. We crossed one major street, then took a right down another toward the entrance of the beach. Along the walk there were restaurants and breweries, other casa particular, and public bathrooms lined up. The walk onto the beach transported you to a more private space. The sands were cool to the touch of your feet, even in the sunshine, and the turquoise waves were brilliantly crashing.
There were not many people on the beach, as we were warned not a lot of people would be. It’s Cuba’s Winter season, so not many locals will go, which was ok by us! The storm from the days prior really shook up the ocean, bringing us these crazy waves. I have never seen such clear blue water anywhere else as I have in Cuba. The colors made my eyes sparkle and my heart flutter.
The sun started to set, but we had to run to get ready for our reservations. We were so excited to go out tonight! Not just that we were all starving, haha. We got to the house to find the view of the sun set from our front door. We got ready as fast as we could because we were running behind, and still needed to flag down a car to get us to the restaurant.
We flagged down a watermelon colored vintage Pontiac. This car was cool! The girls loved it because, well, watermelon colored and a convertible! And my husband loved it because the driver of the car blared Cuban music along the drive, and would randomly honk his horn to pedestrians on the side-walk. The horn sound was whistling, you know, that sexy whistle. If you play the video below, you can hear it in the background of the song. That ten minute ride to the restaurant was super funny, and set a tone for the night.
The car dropped us off, with the music blaring, right out front of the restaurant that was booming with people! The entrance to the restaurant was decorated fully in red balloons with a sign above that read ‘love you forever’ with hearts. We walked up to the desk to check in with the woman. She greeted us by handing a Valentine’s Day themed cocktail to each adult, a caipiroska, and a virgin drink of the same to each child. We were then seated at a table outside which was perfect because the weather was warm and there was a light breeze. The table was set in red with flowers in the middle and a box of candies for the girls.
We had an exceptional waiter. He explained that they had a prefix menu for Valentine’s Day along with their regular menu… and what a menu they had! I decided to get the Valentine’s Day prefix. My husband opted for the seafood platter as the girls decided to get a risotto dish, which was black squid ink with seared beef, and a pasta dish, which was with a meat sauce, to share.
Soon served was the appetizer to my meal. It was a play on sushi; three large rolls on a plate neatly. One was a twirl of squid ink risotto with a black salmon center. The next was a red wine tinted risotto with Serano ham. And the third was a traditional white risotto with shrimp. We enjoyed that dish so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to take a picture; and I kick myself every day because it was so beautiful to look at! We grabbed another round of drinks, and then the mushroom cream soup with balsamic vinegar reduction was served. This soup was by far the best soup I’ve ever eaten in my life! And I’m not exaggerating. The soup was that good. The consistency, the finesse, it was all beautiful. My family took a bite but let me eat the majority of it..which I gladly did! haha Then everyone’s main dishes arrived. We tasted the pasta and risotto dishes, which were pretty great. My husband’s seafood platter was so good, but my dish really out shined them all. I had the paired pork chop and steak with a port wine salsa. The food on my plate was definitely cooked with love. Even the side of potatoes, that seem to be au gratin, were some of the best potatoes I’ve ever had.
All while we were there, about 3 hours, in the background was a band playing at the end of the enclosed patio. It was a guitar duo, playing classical versions of modern songs. No singing, just guitar. They were amazing. This restaurant just had such a great vibe.
What a joy of a meal. A great way to end a day.
My review of the day.
I was so grateful when the sun finally showed itself as we got to Varadero. This was the first day of our trip that I felt like I was on vacation. We got to see some sights, but knowing where we were headed, to the beach, my thoughts didn’t seem so heavy on my shoulders. Like I was letting go of thoughts of back home and focusing on …nothing, just me and relaxing. It was a day my family needed.
And I just have that to say in my review today. 🙂
Next Cuba post will be Days 7 – hanging out in Varadero.