Trouble in paradise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2006, 12:00am

There is certainly something comforting about going on holiday with an unusually accident-prone friend. Far from delighting in the endless misfortunes they experience, you merely find yourself relishing the good fortune of escaping the same fate.

But it is unwise to be complacent. My usual travel companion, Fred, who will later in the holiday find himself waiting at the closed gate of the Church of St Elvira in a sleepy town on the Peninsula de Hicacos in the hope of finding a much-needed Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, is enormously accident prone. 'An accident waiting to happen,' as he says of himself.

When Fred and I were invited to spend 10 days in Cuba with family and friends, it never crossed my mind it would be anything less than perfect - for me at least. Cuba, in the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, is one holiday destination we had always had great hopes of reaching.

Having flown from Beijing to Paris, then from Paris to Cuba, we finally clear customs amid a tense atmosphere at Havana's Aeropuerto International Jose Marti, named after a pre-eminent martyr of Cuba's long fight for independence. And then it's time to rendezvous with family and friends at the Hotel Nacional De Cuba in Havana.

On the ride from the airport, Havana woos us. We peer out into the dark in silent excitement, the windows of the car wound down, the sweet smells and rhythmic sounds of Cuba drifting in. We hear music and the distant beat of drums. We see the familiar classic American cars, low to the ground, kicking up dust. In the dimly lit interior of a battered 1952 olive-green Chevrolet we see six people squashed onto the back seat. The car motors slowly past us as if in a scene from a film.

Arriving at the hotel, we dump our bags and go in search of food. In the foyer, there are rows of black-and-white postcards of Che Guevara, poster boy of Cuba's 1959 revolution, and wall-mounted photographs of Fidel Castro.

The Hotel Nacional, built in the 1930s and now something of a city institution, overlooks the choppy waters of the Bahia de la Habana and retains the mood of the city's revolutionary past. Our group - my sister, brother, their families and our friends - is dispersed throughout the hotel.

On the first morning, we gather, half asleep, by the swimming pool, trying to ignore the near-horizontal palm trees and driving rain. This is weather to expect during the tail end of hurricane season.

Stepping up to the diving board, I am the first to brave the wind-whipped waters of the pool. As I dive, but before both feet have left the diving board, I hear a loud snap in the back of my left leg and I tumble into the water, writhing in pain. As I am helped back out, a commotion gathers around me. As the younger among us look on, I remember I forgot to stretch and recognise the humiliation of being over 40.

One ruptured Achilles tendon later, I am confined to my room, unable to do much but hobble. Fred goes out sight-seeing with the rest. They visit Old Havana and wander around Cathedral Square, bribing colourful local women to pose with hand-rolled cigars.

Old Havana dates back to the 1700s and stands on the site of a city founded by Spanish settlers in 1519. It is in pretty good shape, all things considered. Yet large parts

of central Havana, dating from the 19th and 20th centuries, have the look and feeling of a city bombed and left to crumble. The effect of this time-locked, sad, yet alluring place registers as shock on the faces of tourists. Its decay is, perhaps, a mixed blessing because modern Havana stands out from other South American cities thanks to its lack of chaotic, commercial cacophony.

Later that afternoon, Fred returns to the room, crestfallen. His camera has stopped working and it can't be fixed in Havana. But he doesn't sulk. In the evening, he joins the others to watch Buena Vista Social Club in the hotel ballroom.

Our next destination, five days later, is Paradisius, three hours' drive east of Havana, in the town of Varadero. In contrast to Havana's tumbling splendour, the Paradisius Varadero Resort, an all-inclusive hotel, is an open-plan white-sand-beach affair on the glorious Caribbean. We take one look at the empty beaches, luscious palm trees and sun-baked sand, shed our clothes and go swimming.

For the uninitiated, all-inclusive hotels mean one price, everything included. This allows guests to sit on poolside barstools, sipping cocktails all day long without handing over a cent. This information sends my companion scurrying towards the hotel internet cafe to find out when the next AA meeting is taking place. In the time it takes for the barman to knock up a Shirley Temple, he finds what he is looking for.

Although he returns from the Church of St Elvira the better for having gone, the meeting moved on with no forwarding address, leaving Fred alone in his sobriety.

Equipped with sun hats and sunscreen, we forget our troubles and get down to the business of doing nothing - with cool blue water lapping at our heels. As my leg improves with massages and talk about it 'really feeling better now', the injury is swiftly overshadowed by an allergic reaction to the sun. My sister's children begin to refer to their Uncle Eczema. But holidays require that you make the most of them, those of a lifetime especially so.

And so we do. My friend survives without drinking and I get back the use of my leg. We return to Beijing tanned, tired and laden with Che pins and T-shirts and fistfuls of Cohiba cigars.

Getting there: Air France ( flies from Hong Kong to Paris and on to Havana.

Reservations for the Hotel Nacional de Cuba can be made at and for

the Paradisius Varadero at www.cuba-vacation.