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Cienfuegos Palacio Azul

We are in Cuba's heart, the middle of this long streak of island, in search of the country's provincial face and a gentler pace than Havana.

In a country where a car is a precious commodity, hitchhiking is popular.We start in the northern peninsula of Varadero, two hours east of Havana. It has turquoise seas and an endless and exquisite white-sand beach spotted with palms.

But it's the land of the all-inclusive hotel and has precious little local flavour.

Our hotel is Palacio Azul on Punta Gorda, a horse-drawn clip-clop from the centre, which looks like suburban Florida.

This tiny hotel, built in 1921 as the home of a tobacco baron, becomes one of my favourite in Cuba, with a tight-knit staff, legant colonial decor and dreamy balcony views over the dolphin-filled bay.

Cienfuegos was settled late for Cuba, in 1819. The streets are spacious compared with the claustrophobic small-scale chaos of other Cuban provincial capitals.

On the Paseo del Prado, the longest street in Cuba, people-watching seems to be the only activity.

That evening we discover pretty Parque Jose Marti, the main square, dominated by the beautiful Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion and the lively social scene at Teatro Tomas Terry's patio (the theatre itself, an 1890 frescoed museum piece, is
unaltered, down to the dinky wooden seats).

We take in romantic bay views from the rooftop of Hotel La Union, a pistachio-green colonial renovation with neo-classical pool sculptures.

We leave for Trinidad via Cienfuegos' Botanical Gardens, a tropical park of palms, orchids and bamboos. Founded in 1899, it has 2000 species of plants.

To reach Trinidad we edge through the foothills of the palm-smothered Escambray Mountains, then dip down to the coast, passing villages backed by mountains and roads criss-crossed by giant crabs.

Trinidad is the most handsome town in Cuba, in one of the most idyllic provinces, Sancti Spiritus.

Founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514, from here Herman Cortes recruited soldiers for the conquest of Mexico and it became an important colonial town, which grew fat on sugar between 1750 and 1850, when its beautiful valleys were dotted with scores of sugar mills.

When the slaves were freed, fortunes dipped and Trinidad stopped growing.

Today, it's an exquisitely preserved museum piece of cobblestone streets and sumptuous squares.

Walk a few streets and the village peters out into red earth, drooping palms and mountains.

rive about eight kilometres and you reach a perfect stretch of beach, Peninsula Ancon. We visit Museo Romantico - an old merchant home now a colonial museum, with Italian marble floors and fireplaces, Viennese bureaux, Limoges and Wedgwood-packed French dressers.

By LYDIA BELL - Sun-Herald


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