Get to know Varadero, Cuba's leading beach resort
Varadero's long lick of dazzling white sand, which unfurls into the Atlantic Ocean, is the setting for Cuba's top beach resort. For 21 kilometres, the sparkling sands, fringed by turquoise seas, lie baking in the tropical sun. Lined with a series of B&Bs, low-key resorts, and luxury all-inclusives, Varadero enjoys a laidback vibe with classic American car taxis, horse-drawn carriages, and the hop-on-hop-off double-decker Varadero Beach Tour ploughing the length of the strip.
People come for the stellar beach, shimmering shallow warm waters, water sports, and all-inclusive hotels. And the best bit? Virgin Atlantic recently launched a weekly direct service from London Gatwick to Varadero, which promises to deliver you straight to the beach all year-round.
Varadero: an introduction
Varadero falls, broadly, into three main sections: the small town area of around 32 blocks sits at the base of the peninsula, closest to the mainland, and is home to a mix of cheap hotels, a range of cheap to luxury B&Bs, private restaurants, shops, bars, and craft markets. The middle section features a cluster of modern, long-standing resorts, a shopping centre, and golf course. The far end, and the tip, is home to the more luxury all-inclusive resorts, and a brand new marina with berths for over one thousand boats.
Varadero became a holiday spot in the 1920s when wealthy Cubans began to build beach-front holiday homes following the opening of the first establishment - the wooden Hotel Varadero in 1915. US chemical magnate Irénée Dupont de Nemours built the grand, stone Xanadú Mansion (now a small hotel) on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic in 1929. At the time of Fidel Castro's Revolution in 1959, there were only three hotels on the beach; today there are more than 50 and the area welcomes around a million visitors a year.
American mobster Al Capone was said to have holed up in a wood and stone villa right on the sand, storing his bootlegged rum in a secret tunnel in the house. Today, it's La Casa de Al restaurant with its mafia-themed menu built in what's known as the Varadero style. The 18-hole golf course - the only one in Cuba - wraps around the Xanadú Mansion, and first opened as nine holes in 1933.
Where to get on (and in) the water
While many people come to flop on a lounger, if you like to get out and about, you can take a catamaran cruise (or 'seafari') to the small island of Cayo Blanco for snorkelling, drinking and dancing. You could also head out on pedalos, and splash about on banana boats. If you fancy diving, book a trip to the south coast from Varadero where there is great diving and snorkelling at the Bay of Cadiz.
Kitesurfing is now hugely popular on Cuba's north coast with classes for beginners, and kit hire for pros; you can also windsurf here. On the landward side of the peninsula, mangroves and canals prove a great route for a popular powerboat adventure tour, which offers a thrilling ride.
Jeep Safari tours are popular day trips, exploring the Yumurí Valley, offering swimming in the Saturno Cave sinkhole, snorkelling just offshore at Coral Beach, and a visit to the city of Matanzas, known as the Athens of Cuba for its rich cultural heritage. Paradiso, Cuba's cultural agency, also offers dance and music workshops, and adrenaline junkies should book a skydive for extraordinary high-altitude views of Varadero below.
Sights to see in and around Varadero
Away from the beach, discover the beautiful painted blue and white wooden Varadero Museum in the town, a building with gingerbread trim which dates back to Varadero's early days. Sadly, it is slated for demolition so get there while you can. Across the road from the museum is the town park, Parque Josone, once a private retreat, with its lakes, winding paths, gazebos, and scattering of restaurants.
Look out for the surviving original wooden homes of Varadero when you walk through town. The Varahicacos Ecological Reserve, close to the tip, contains evidence of early indigenous settlement; the Ambrosio Cave features indigenous rock art.
Various crafts markets are scattered in Varadero, and potters can be seen at work at the Taller de Cerámica Artística (Ceramic Workshop). Flip-flop fans should look out for genuine Havaianas sold in Cuba for considerably less than on UK high streets. And, of course, you can stock up on genuine Cuban cigars through the authorised purveyor of Cuban smokes, Habanos, and buy plenty of bottles of Cuban rum.
Varadero after dark
Varadero used to be a culinary desert but private restaurants (paladares) have been permitted in Varadero for the last six years. Top billing goes to Salsa Suárez with its eclectic menu, and Italian-owned Nonna Tina.
Head to the cabaret Tropicana Matanzas, twin sister to Havana's famous Tropicana nightclub, the Casa de la Música, and the more low-key La Comparsita. La Marina Sala de la Música at the Gaviota Marina at Varadero's tip attracts big-name live acts, while a sundowner on the top floor bar of Xanadú Mansion is a must.
Does Varadero sound like your kind of beach break? Blending sun, sea and excellent facilities with exciting activities and a dash of culture, it's easy to see why this is Cuba's leading resort. For the latest deals on direct flights to Varadero from London Gatwick, check out the current offers available online with Virgin Atlantic. You can also find out more about the weather in Varadero, and see when we think is the best time to go for ultimate beach holiday weather.
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