Combining resort-style relaxation and local history proves the perfect recipe for enjoying the communist Caribbean country

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Shy smiles from Cuban school children during a chance meeting in Remedios is a fond memory from a recent trip to Cuba.

So too, are wandering expeditions in the mid-island colonial city of Santa Clara and on the expansive beach-front property of Memories Resorts and Spa, located on Santa Maria.

With seven trips to the communist Caribbean country under our collective belt, we agree the big draw is still a combination of resort relaxation and local interaction.

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The 20-oz Bubba mugs are the first clue there are savvy veterans among us.

They’ve packed them from Canada as an essential item to enjoy a week-long stay at one of Cuba’s under-the-radar sun and sand resorts. While the Cristal beer, which tastes much like Bud Light, is on tap and free flowing everywhere for guests, the pours are four-ounce cups. Gracious pourers have no qualms about filling the big travel mugs instead, saving often winter-weary Canadians the task of rising from their beach-side lounge chairs ad infinitum.

Memories Sanctuary is relatively undiscovered compared with its popular cousins three hours away in Varadero.

Located on the Cuban keys (or cayos in Spanish), the sprawling Memories resort is reached after passing a security gate and travelling some 40 kilometres along a rocky ribbon causeway built almost 20 years ago to open the area to foreign tourism.

Memories Sanctuary, where we stayed as invited guests of the resort, is the adults-only part of the complex featuring a series of three-storey, no-elevators buildings surrounding a stunning infinity pool.

A bar and beach grill intercepts visitors on the short stroll to a private, sandy white beach where waves and warm, clear tropical water beckons and where seabirds, mostly pelicans, provide “swooping” entertainment.

Farther down the beach, a pretty outdoor chapel is available for increasingly popular destination weddings, and sailboats are at the ready for one-kilometre rides, part of the all-inclusive rate.

The rest of the 1,386-room resort includes buffets and a la carte restaurants such as the cut-above Italian Tesico at Memories Paraiso. All were available to us with the lobby bar open 24 hours. Service throughout was friendly with a few of the hiccups common to many Cuba resorts, such as slow check-ins and one water shutdown lasting several hours.

Entertainment was ongoing, often at poolside with such kid crowd-pleasers as the Berenstain Bears, plus traditional musicians and dancers.

A highlight was an evening performance of theatrical synchronized swimmers.

We also recommend the resort’s weekly carnival show which includes Cuban live music — traditional and modern — and invites the crowd to join in. A fire dancer was spectacular.

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As travellers with a passion to explore the “real Cuba” we were initially disappointed that Cayo Santa Maria is too far from Havana for a day trip. However, the day excursion to two less-visited locales offered by Nexus Tours, was a treasured cultural outing.

We boarded an early morning bus, packed with Canadians and led by an knowledgeable and articulate guide, for Remedios and Santa Clara, the former of which is filled with surprises and the latter of which played a pivotal role in the Cuban Revolution.

Our first stop is Remedios, the eighth oldest town in Cuba. Spanish colonial buildings ring the busy downtown square, where a cigar shop and open-air market draw attention.

But it’s the San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) Roman Catholic Church that is the unexpected highlight.

Here, gold was once hidden under paint to shield it from raids by pirates.

Today, a remarkable floor-to-ceiling gold leaf altar is but one of the features of faith in a nation where being a Christian hasn’t always been easy.

Look up, and cleverly carved wooden panels turn from tulips to the face of Jesus, depending on your angle.

A statue of a pregnant Mary is perhaps only one of two such portrayals in the Americas, the other being in Quebec.

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Busier and bigger is Santa Clara, founded in 1689 and one of the important cities in the story of the Cuban Revolution.

It is here Ernesto (Che) Guevara derailed a freight train carrying guns to government troops trying to end Castro’s populist uprising.

The train wreck remains the centrepiece of a Santa Clara park. Tributes to Guevara are omnipresent in Cuba but Santa Clara is the go-to place to learn about his contributions to Cuba. He is honoured with a museum and mausoleum. Guevara was killed while involved in a revolution in Bolivia in 1967.

Atop the mausoleum a bronze, six-metre statue of Che, a nickname for “friend” or “mate” in his native Argentina, looks over a massive gathering area.

History blends with reality at the historic site as tipping by tourists has become expected, including at the Guevara public washroom where attendants depend on it. It’s one of the reasons why visitors venturing off the all-inclusive resorts should have some Cuban convertible pesos. At resorts, Canadian or American cash is accepted, along with major credit cards. Tips shouldn’t be left in loonies or twoonies because of the difficulty for locals to convert the coins into pesos.

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Santa Clara’s Tabacuba cigar factory offers a walk-through where we silently view workers handcrafting the world-famous exports. A sign in Spanish translates to: No communication for solidarity.

We particularly enjoyed free time on the tour, popping into a barber shop, chatting to craft vendors and observing locals in the city square, especially students in uniform chilling after class.

And yes, those classic American cars are omnipresent on the roads and perfectly parked for photographs. But perhaps more intriguing was the common use of horses, bicycles and motorcycles as transportation for locals heading home at the end of the work day.

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Sunwing flies direct Toronto to Santa Clara:

Memories Resorts & Spa:

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