It was easy to see why Hemingway had been hooked.
As my feet sank in the soft sand, and the warm, clear water splashed over my feet, I stared across the Atlantic Ocean and understood why Papa chose Cuba's northern cays to cast his fishing lines. Walking along Playa Pilar, I could also easily accept the argument that this was Cuba's most beautiful beach.
Returning to my beach chair carefully placed under a weathered thatch shelter, I wondered what Hemingway thought when he first saw this stretch of land.
More than three kilometres long, Playa Pilar is found on the western tip of Cayo Guillermo, just north of Cuba's mainland, above the city of Moron. A tourist area in its infancy, the four large resorts that dot Guillermo's coastline are no more than a dozen years old.
It's an appealing alternative to the parade of resorts, golf courses and nightclubs in Varadero. With as many as 50 flights coming in each week from Canada alone, Varadero prides itself on packing its beaches and setting new visitor records.
Thankfully, Cayo Guillermo has no such aspirations as yet. But within this area's resorts, the buffets and bars are bustling. Guests from around the world have come here to trade office chairs for pool-side bar stools, sip pina coladas and slow down their pace of life to a tortoise crawl. Though content to be a part of this all-inclusive world, I was eager to leave the resort's grounds and add a literary element to my trip: to walk across the same stretch of sand as my favourite author.Hemingway loved this place. He loved to sail here and fish here for marlin and swordfish in the 1930s and 40s. A local resident told me that Hemingway was so inspired by the beach's beauty, he named his fishing boat the El Pilar. But he had it backward. His 38-foot cabin cruiser was indeed named Pilar, but it was the beach that was later named after his boat.
Apparently, the name Pilar has two inspirations. In 1926, Hemingway went to see the bullfights in Zaragoza, Spain, and visited the Pilar Shrine in honour of the patron saint of Zaragoza. The other inspiration may have come from his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, who nicknamed herself Pilar.
Hemingway's boat is now on display at his former property, Finca da Vigia in San Francisco de Paula, 15 kilometres southeast of Havana.
And, like the boat, Playa Pilar has also been preserved for more than half a century. It remains wonderfully undeveloped. Even the road leading to Pilar has remained unpaved and bumpy as it crosses the dusty landscape.
Once there, the only evidence that there is even a beach to visit is a small sign set atop two palm tree poles that reads, "Ranchon Pilar." Walking along a narrow sandy path, I was soon rewarded with a pristine and peaceful beach with no more than 10 people.
Back on land after a dip into the shallow waters, I marvelled at the silence compared with nearby resort beaches that echo with the sounds of roaring watercraft and the screams of tourists parasailing for the first time. Here, a child's laughter was distinct and carried across the beach.
Under one thatch-roof shelter sat a shirtless and shoeless wood carver who displayed his crafts on three rickety tables.
Under another was a group of men chatting -- two in military uniforms, the third with a clipboard -- charting catamaran excursions to small nearby islands for snorkelling. A lone restaurant with much-needed shade and cold beer completed Pilar's social scene.
The hours passed serenely with strolls, reading and an unplanned nap. Just before dozing off, I imagined the Pilar carving through the water, with its captain seeking his next big catch.
Touring Havana later in my trip, that image became real.
Wandering its historic streets, I discovered a large outdoor book market. Noticing mostly Spanish titles, I began to walk away, when one vendor spotted me and urged me to inspect his small collection of English books.
At the mention of Hemingway, he quickly found a large book of photographs. He wiped off the layer of dust before presenting it to me.
Flipping through the pages, one section was titled, "Hemingway and the Pilar." Sold.
Seeing my delighted expression, he stuck to his price, so the bartering was brief and he pocketed 20 pesos.
My book in tow, I hit Havana's Hemingway hot spots -- the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where he stayed from 1932 to 1939, and the El Floridita bar, where a life-sized bronze statue of the writer greets you at the bar.
Back at my resort, with a mojito in hand, (Hemingway's favourite Cuban cocktail), I studied the black-and-white images of the author on board his vessel -- tying lines, peering over the deck, hauling in his catch. In some photos, he was joined on deck with his fishing buddy, Gregorio Fuentes, who was an inspiration for Santiago, the main character in The Old Man and the Sea.
In Islands in the Stream, another novel set in Cuba, the main character looks across the bay at Cayo Guillermo and asks, "See how green she is and full of promise?"
More than 60 years later, she remains so, especially in Playa Pilar.
Pack your bags
Flights with tours to Cayo Guillermo, or neighbouring Cayo Coco, fly directly into the Jardines Del Rey International Airport in Cayo Coco. (The airport is about 15 minutes from Cayo Coco resorts and 35 minutes from Cayo Guillermo resorts.) Some of the resorts may have shuttles to and from Playa Pilar, or you can take a taxi for just a few pesos.
Cuba Tourist Board: Toronto; 416-362-0700; .
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