Volume 12 Week 5

Tuesday, Jan. 23


Posted Jan. 23

Posted Dec. 16

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Orléans Ward
Bob Monette

Beacon Hill,
Cyrville Ward
Tim Tierney





Four months after Hurricane Irma, Cuba is ready for tourists to return

Itís been four months since Hurricane Irma slammed into the Caribbeanís Leeward Islands, Cuba and the Florida Keys leaving catastrophic damage in its wake in Anguilla, Barbuda, St. Martin, and both the Cuban and Florida keys.

The storm caused 163 deaths including 10 in Cuba, where Irmaís impact was hardest felt in the resort regions of Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Coco and Veradero.

Having been there with my boys last May, I was most interested in the stormís inpact on Cayo Santa Maria, but also the capital city of Havana. And so it is under that premise that I decided to visit the island shortly after New Yearís Ė not that I needed a reason to visit Cuba in the dead of winter.

It was only coindence that while I was away Ottawa was hit by record low temperatures. My traveling companion this time around was Chantal who I have known for years and was eager to return to a place she hadnít been to in nearly 14 years.

Our itinerary was similar to the one I kept in May with planned visits to Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Cayo Santa Maria which we saved for last.

Overall, Cuba is doing surprisingly well considering it is one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean and still under an economic embargo by the United States.

Havana is completely back to normal, as are most other cities in the country. Thatís a far cry from nearby Puerto Rico, where 40 per cent of the population in the American territory are still without power four months after being hit by Hurricane Maria.

Cubaís biggest issue is the ongoing drop in tourism. While thousands of Canadians have returned to the islandís resorts, the numbers are still way down from a year ago.

At the Starfish resort in Cayo Santa Maria where Chantal and I stayed, they had 1,200 registered guests during the second weekend in January last year. This year they had just over 800 registered guests. Thatís a 30 per cent difference that is felt by everyone from the chambermaids to the servers, to the artisans in the nearby marketplace.

Everywhere we went we heard the same message from our Airbnb hosts to the restaurtanteurs, to the taxi drivers and market artisans Ė Cuba is back in business.

Personally, if it wasnít for a tour of the more damaged section of the Starfish resort where we stayed, I didnít notice any difference between the Cuba I visited in May and the post-Irma Cuba I visited on our trip.

The food in the privately-run restaurants was still amazing, the hospitality of the people we met was off the charts, and the beach at Cayo Santa Maria, which among the most beautiful in the world, was still 99.9 per cent intact.

It was nice to see that our flight from Montreal to Santa Clara was full, as have many of the flights from Canada since Christmas Ė but not all. So if you are thinking of taking a trip south this winter to escape the Great White North and have yet to formalize your plans, I canít recomend Cuba enough.

Sunwing is offering discounts of up to 60 per cent. Transat has deals up to 30 per cent and Air Canada has a deal where the second person booking can get up to 50 per cent off the price of their package.

As for my own trip, I will get into the details in my next column. But for now I can tell you that we werenít disappointed.

We stayed at an Airbnb right in the heart of Old Havana, and while it was a bit noisy especially during the day, it was well worth it.

The second floor room was two blocks away from Calle Obispo, which is the main pedestrian thoroughfare in the Old Havana and it was two doors down from 361 Lamparilla, one of the most original. delicious and outstanding little restaurants I have ever been to in Cuba, or anywhere else.

If you could pick it up and plop it down in the middle of the Byward Market the patrons would line up around the block. The biggest attraction, beside the food and the decor, and the countless little details that make your visit truly unique, were the servers who were eager to please with a friendly smile and a willingness to speak English even if it was in a limited capacity.

A special shout out to our server Adame who was an absolute dream.

During our first night in Cuba we visited the famed restaurant El Guarida, which is just south of the old sector. Unfortunately, when we got there, the place was fully booked so we were invited to go to the rooftop bar and terrace. Probably not the best place to be on the coldest night in Havana which was suffering under the same Polar Vortex as the rest of the eastern part of North America was last weekend.

I will tell you about our meal at El Guarida and the rest of our amazing trip in my next column.

(If you wish to comment on this or any other View Point column please write to Fred Sherwin at fsherwin@magma.ca)

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