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How to do off-resort Cuba with the kids

"I told them that Cuba is hot, that we’d have great adventures, and that we’d stay in hotels with pools."

How to do off-resort Cuba with the kids

Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

Call me sneaky, call me clever. I celebrated a milestone birthday in Cuba and didn’t tell my kids that resorts exist. Hazel is nine and Charlie is five. I told them that Cuba is hot, that we’d have great adventures, and that we’d stay in hotels with pools. “Deal,” said the kids and my easy-going husband Rick, so I got to turn 50 in a country that I adore.

Cuba has the lock on the all-inclusive resort crowd, but adventurous travellers seeking cultural exploration over relaxation are now being enticed to the incredibly safe and friendly country. Plus, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—the food is delicious. Here’s how to enjoy urban and rural Cuba without the resorts.

How to do off-resort Cuba with the kids

A different kind of vacation

My birthday is just before Christmas, so Santa came early, which freed us up to spend December 25 in Cuba. I couldn’t handle a DIY trip, so I splurged and got a guide, driver and air-conditioned mini-van through a Cuban tour company for a five-day road trip. We requested an English-speaking guide, paid in advance and arranged our own flights. It’s sad that Canadians have been lulled into thinking Cuba should be a bargain vacation—even as the price of good resorts climb. We were happy to pay as much as we would have paid for any sunny vacation in the Caribbean or Mexico (our trip for four cost about $10,000).

Photo of a Cuban coastline with palm trees and a bright yellow housePhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

The ease of a guide

The kids got a kick out of being greeted at the Havana airport by a man clutching a sign bearing our surname, and we were grateful to outsource the driving, logistics, translating and reservations—even if it meant having a witness to various family squabbles.

Man holding two slider sandwiches with his mouth open widePhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

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Accommodations

While many travellers exploring non-resort Cuba will stay in casa particulares (bed-and-breakfasts), I had promised the kids pools, so our tour company picked the Meliá Cohiba in Havana and the Melia-managed Hotel Jagua in Cienfuegos. We took it in stride when we were given two adjoining rooms at each hotel and were told we could not squeeze four people in a room like we do in North America. Even with a translator, I never found out if this was a Cuban thing or a rule specific to these two hotels. To be honest, I loved spreading out over two rooms and we all slept better with extra personal space.

Family standing on a balcony in CubaPhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

Food

Fabulous breakfast buffets were always included, and we had a concierge, private TV lounge and VIP bar lounge where we could help ourselves to drinks, snacks and meals all day long. (Our contract with the tour company came in Spanish and wasn’t fully itemized, so the VIP treatment was a surprise.) While we could have feasted for free, my son, who is on the spectrum, fixated on the room-service spaghetti, sometimes ordering it twice a day.

Plate of food with slices of sausage around itPhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

Pink convertibles

We eyeballed the vintage cars parked below our hotel room window and picked a pink convertible 1952 Chevrolet. We pointed to spots on the driver’s laminated sightseeing map and hit the road for half a day, flying down the Malecón (seaside esplanade), passing the Plaza de la Revolución (one of the largest city squares in the world and home to Cuba’s iconic mural of revolutionary hero Che Guevara), the oddball Russian Embassy (the constructivist building looks like a Transformer) and stopped for ice cream at the beloved state-run chain, Coppelia.

Family sitting in a pink convertiblePhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

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Long live The Beatles

Our driver brought us to Parque John Lennon so we could pay our respects to the John Lennon statue. The late Cuban leader Fidel Castro banned The Beatles for decades before unveiling the bronze statue in 2000 and declaring Lennon a fellow dreamer. You’ll hear The Beatles, and covers of their songs, daily all over Cuba.

Kids sitting on a bench with a statue of John LennonPhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

Fusterlandia

I made sure the Chevy took us to Fusterlandia, a folk-art project started by Cuban visual artist José Fuster two decades ago. Hazel and Charlie romped around the public part of Fuster’s home/studio, gawking at the surreal space, colourful mosaics, sculptures, slogans and fountains. Fuster’s art has spilled across the Jaimanitas neighbourhood. “Visiting Fusterland is like being led by Lewis Carroll’s Alice to the other side of the mirror,” says the narrator on a souvenir DVD we watched back at the hotel.

Kids standing on the balcony of a mosaic sculpturePhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

Cienfuegos

That first Cuban morning in the colonial city of Cienfuegos, Charlie went on a hunger strike, then threw up from rich milk and an empty stomach. Once he recoved, he came to adore “Cuban Fanta” (Ciego Montero) and simple grilled pork or chicken and rice meals. He even took a few bites of cooked plantain. We took a boat trip, hiked to waterfalls and explored a flamingo-filled lagoon—not always together or successfully, but travel is never perfect. While everyone else hiked, Charlie and I discovered a gorgeously decaying sculpture park.

Plate of meat with sauerkraut and side dishesPhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

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Trinidad

It was crazy hot when we explored the cobblestone Spanish colonial town of Trinidad, and the kids wilted after a carriage ride and street market. Having everyone sing happy birthday at lunch was fun, but the highlight of that day was killing time on the highway while a bridge was shut for an emergency inspection. Patience and the ability to go with the flow are important life lessons.

Horse drawn carriage in CubaPhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

Horses and pigs

I wanted to go for a horseback ride and enjoy a pig roast, and our guide found a farm near Trinidad that offered both. Hazel and I rode to a tiny, perfect beach, while Rick and Charlie were driven there in a horse-drawn wagon. The adults devoured the whole pig, while the horrified kids turned their backs and ate rice.

Girl riding on a horse through a field of grassPhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

Fishing

The kids were pumped to go sea angling out of Hemingway Marina in Havana. They didn’t count on being seasick and bored when the fish didn’t bite. I loved just being on a boat, admiring the Havana skyline and the sight of Cubans fishing from makeshift rafts. Fishing is about quality time, not fish.

Kid smiling and holding the steering wheel on a boatPhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

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Old Havana

Rick and I made separate solo journeys to Callejón de Hamel, an Afro-Cuban art alley famous for rumba parties. But we explored Old Havana as a family, devouring churros (fried dough, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar), eating ice cream from coconut shells and loving Cámara Oscura, an optical device that projects 360-degree city views through a peephole camera. We rode in coco taxis, three-wheeled yellow vehicles that look like half coconuts. They were the charming and goofy highlight of Cuba done our way.

Woman sitting in a coco taxiPhoto: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

Read more: What I learned from taking one kid on vacation—and leaving the other behind 19 magical Airbnb rentals for families 6 ways to help your kids beat jet lag

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