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(Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
(Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

I’m sick of big resorts – how do I see the real Cuba? Add to ...

With its photogenic reputation for vintage cars, effervescent residents and Spanish colonial architecture, Cuba tops the sun destination list of many Canadians. Despite its unique lures, however, visitors often take the easy route and stay in beach resorts that could be almost anywhere in the Caribbean.

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It doesn’t have to be this way, according to Brendan Sainsbury, lead author of the brand new Lonely Planet Cuba guidebook. His first tip? Get out of resort mode.

“Stay in a casa particular [private B&B] for a candid glimpse of the real country,” says Sainsbury. “There are thousands in Havana alone and you’ll never pay more than $40 a night for comfortable digs with a private bathroom. And the best part is you gain access to one of Cuba’s greatest assets – its people.”

He recommends a couple of options to narrow down your search, both handily located in the capital’s Centro Havana area: Hostal Peregrino (hostalperegrino.com) and Casa 1932 (casahabana.net). “Book ahead via their websites, as they’re very popular,” he adds.

But digging deeper into the country of Che and cigars requires an escape from Havana, after wandering its unmissable Habana Vieja old quarter, of course. Car rentals can be expensive, but Sainsbury says the bus company Viazul (viazul.com) serves many areas, while hiring a car with an English-speaking chauffeur via Car Rental Cuba (carrental-cuba.com) can also be surprisingly economical.

Where should you head? Sainsbury’s suggestions include the towns of Trinidad and Vinales. The former is “crammed with historical buildings and you’ll wake up to the sound of horses’ hooves on cobbled streets. It’s also near the Escambray Mountains – which is great for hiking – as well as the best beach and snorkelling options on Cuba’s south coast.”

In contrast, Vinales is a “laid-back rustic village in beautiful tobacco-farming landscape. Lie back in a hammock on a colonial porch and just relax here or partake of outdoor activities like cycling, caving and horse riding.”

Wherever you end up, dining will be a key concern. Luckily, the days of bland fare shaped by national shortages are largely over, so long as you know where to go. “Cuban food culture has improved immensely since 2011 when rules governing private restaurants – usually called paladares – were relaxed,” says Sainsbury.

His No. 1 pick? “Paladar Dona Eutimia, just off Havana’s Plaza de la Catedral. Go for the ropa vieja, which is spicy shredded beef, and also picadillo: minced beef with olives, rice and beans.”

When it’s time for a night out, Luis Miguel (owner of Casa 1932) has several suggestions. “For great mojitos – made with light Cuban rum – try Starbien. And for pina coladas and lovely city views, try Bar La Torre.”

Miguel also recommends live Latin jazz at the near-legendary La Zorra y el Cuervo and a visit to historic Plaza Vieja square to catch the steamy nightlife vibe at La Casa de la Cerveza Aleman. “It’s a great place to have full divertimento [fun] sharing with Cubans,” he says.

But Havana nightlife is just one way to hang with the locals. Sainsbury notes that live music is the lifeblood of towns throughout the country. “Make a beeline for the traditional music houses that punctuate every town. You’ll find that talented musicians perform nightly and dancing is de rigueur.”

While you’re having a good time, just remember one thing: “Cuban wages are low, so tipping is particularly important here – even if you’re staying in an all-inclusive resort.”

OUR READERS’ ADVICE

  • Book a two-week study Spanish program (just Google them). In this program, we had a homestay, which provided breakfast and dinner and two or three hours of language acquisition. We were free to explore the town or go to the beach afterward. Then, through the network of our homestay family, we were able to book homestays in other towns, moving steadily towards Havana. To get from place to place, we took local buses. A truly memorable holiday. Brian Pollard
  • Two girlfriends and I went to Cuba and we rented a room with a bath in people’s apartments or houses. We had breakfast with each family. That was $5 each. The rooms we stayed at in Havana were $45/night. Trinidad was $35. Accommodation was so inexpensive, the people are very friendly and the food was better than I expected. Patty Docal
  • Head to Vinales for dramatic scenery, tobacco farms and rural charm. Then Cienfuegos for urban vibe and a day trip to the mountains and waterfalls. Finally, Trinidad – music, colonial charm, and beaches 20 minutes away. Eric Westberg
  • Go to a baseball game. Also, you absolutely must speak, or go with someone who speaks, functional Spanish – no one speaks English. Lastly: pick up hitchhikers. @gierasimczuk
  • Actually leave the resort! Smaller towns other than Havana feel more real. @hvbabywilltrvl
  • Those little in-home restaurants – finding some old Cuban granny to make authentic food. @SnarkySteff
  • Make sure you go to Havana – lots of people don’t go because they just stick to the resorts, but it’s great. @DuaneStorey
  • My friends cycled the island (and therefore, the nation). That would be one way. @MothersTonic

Follow John Lee @johnleewriter.

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