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Top 5 highlights of Cuba, beyond Havana


Thought it may seem dwarfed by its greatest frenemy, the USA, Cuba is deceptively large. It takes around 12 hours to drive from Havana to the second city, Santiago de Cuba, on the islands southernmost coast. Fortunately for anyone looking to explore beyond the capital, internal flights are becoming increasingly available, making hitherto far-flung towns and cities more accessible. And while Havana is an intoxicating place to soak up Cubano music, architecture and the rhythms of daily life, its only part of the picture. Our specialists have been arguing passionately over the best places to explore outside of Havana: heres their shortlist.

Trinidad and the Valle de los Ingenios

A showpiece for Baroque architecture and the best preserved colonial city in Cuba, theres a lot more to the mansions and red tiles of Trinidad than meets the eye.

Once you have had your fill of salsa in one of the towns plentiful and excellent casas de la trova (music halls), take a trip to the nearby Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills). Now a placid-seeming expanse of palms and the remains of sugar cane plantations, in the 19th century this was an area teeming with slaves toiling in the industry that made Trinidad so wealthy, and financed its gilded dwellings.

With so much of Cubas history taken up by Castro and communism, its easy to forget its complicity in the slave trade, but a guided tour of the valley can bring it viscerally back to life. Youll see the skeletons of watchtowers overlooking the fields, and derelict barrancos huts where slaves lived.

Viales

Another glimpse of rural Cuba, but without the dark backstory of the Valle de los Ingenios: Viales is a long, flat valley cloaked in tropical vegetation and tobacco plantations. Its also punctuated seemingly at random by curved limestone outcrops, called mogotes.

A visit here can be anything from a sedate getaway or an adventure playground. You could spend a day rambling along the valley floor, perhaps stopping to visit working tobacco plantations and watch nimble-fingered farmers roll you a homemade cigar. Alternatively, theres one of the largest cave systems in Latin America to explore, more challenging hiking trails, horseback riding, or several cycle tracks.

Many visitors choose to experience a traditional cigar factory in Havana, but its possible to see one during your stay in Viales, too. A guide can take you around the Pinar del Rio factory, a 45-minute drive away. He/she will explain about customs including the role of the lector, whose job was to read educational texts aloud to workers.

Santiago de Cuba

The former capital, Santiago de Cuba is Havana, only with the heat, noise, music and attitude tuned up a notch. Its a city of peeling pastel buildings that pounds with conga (an African music style with a powerful beat), trova and other rhythms. The descendants of slaves, the citys Afro-Caribbean community has sculpted the city, from the music heard in bars and on the street, to the syncretic religion of Santera. Walking around, you can identify adherents by their white clothing and kaleidoscopic beads.

Its also a city thats witnessed much history. Fidel Castro spearheaded the revolution here by attacking a barracks, and hid out for six months in the nearby Sierra Maestra mountain range with the revolutionary army. More recently, the city hosted his funeral, when busloads of people came in from surrounding towns and villages to mourn and pay their respects.

Cayo Levisa

If youre looking for a more authentically Cuban beach retreat, shun the all-inclusive resorts of Varadero and catch the boat out to this white-sand cay on the countrys north coast. Its accessible from Viales as well as Havana, and setting foot on it feels like a total escape from both the all-pervading greenery of Viales and the humid streets of the capital.

Theres only one small hotel made up of rustic cabaas (beach huts), and theres blissfully little to do apart from stare out to the aquamarine sea, snorkel, and relax. The more energetic can walk across the islet through tangled mangroves to reach footprint-free stretches of sand, keeping an eye out for jutias (beaver-like rodents endemic to Cuba).

Camagey

Located almost bang in the middle of the country, this is a town of cobblestone dead-end streets (designed, allegedly, to confuse unwelcome pirates) and half-restored, half-dilapidated buildings. Few visitors see it as little more than a stopover en route to eastern Cuba, but theres much more to it than that. Camagey is studded with art.

Beyond its ubiquitous tinajones (clay pots used to store rainwater), in the main square and throughout the town, youll find bronze sculptures of citizens. They come in all shapes and sizes, from a man perched on a bench, reading a newspaper, to a trio of housewives named The Gossipers. Theyre the creations of local artist Marta Jimenez, who opens up her studio to visitors interested in her work.

The town is also home to an internationally known classical violinist (shell give short private performances, on request) as well as a grand and much-loved theatre.

Craig Burkinshaw is Founder ofAudley Travel.

If you would like to be a guest blogger onA Luxury Travel Blogin order to raise your profile, pleasecontact us.

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Wedding worthy villas around the Med


Destination weddings are wonderful both for the bride and groom to be and for their guests, who get to travel to an interesting and beautiful place. As the summer wedding season approaches, here are some ideas to discover some of the most beautiful estates to choose for a wedding in Europe.

Louiza Estate, mainland Greece

Getting married in Greece is a dream many share: Louiza Estate, a beautiful property with breathtaking views, adds some more magic to this already magical land. Ideally located and surrounded by olive groves, the mansion offers every luxury and comfort and, with its 9 rooms, it can host your wedding party. The estate also has a private access to a beautiful beach and a garden that overlooks the sea both locations are perfect to say I do! And if you want to relax before or after the wedding, Louiza Estate features a pool, gym and hammam: everything the groom and bride-to-be could ask for.

Alegria, Mykonos

Mykonos: both romantic and fun, the trendiest of Cyclades, is the ideal spot to get married for those who want to organize a chic, fun-filled wedding. Beautiful villa Alegria is a wonderful estate with breathtaking sea views and a garden that is perfect for ceremonies: who wouldnt want to get married with the dramatic backdrop of the blue Aegean Sea? Thirty guests can be accommodated in the 13 en-suite bedrooms, inclusive of a Honeymoon suite, a Junior Suite and four Executive suites, so you and your wedding party can stay on the premises to add even more fun and memories to your special day.

Villa Centinale, Tuscany

The gently rolling hills around Siena are popular with many couples who want to get married in a naturally beautiful region that is also world-famous for its great food and wine. Villa Centinale, a stunning 17thcentury building in the Ancaiano district, has plenty of charm, both indoors and in its gardens: the rooms and furnishings call for a retro wedding party, so put on your best vintage dress and dancing shoes and get ready to throw the party of the century!

Villa Passalacqua, Lake Como

Theres a certain romantic aura that surrounds lakes, and Lake Como, when it comes to atmosphere, is one of the most romantic of them all. Villa Passalacqua, a 5 star property in Moltrasio, is a great option for those who want to get married surrounded by the lush mountains of Lombardy. Elegant and refined, this 18thcentury property is beautiful inside and out, so no matter what the weather is like outside, your wedding will be memorable and amazing.

Lou Casteou, Cote dAzur

A chateau in the beautiful Esterel mountains, only minutes away from the sandy beaches of the Cote dAzur sounds like the ideal place to get married if you are looking for a place that has a relaxed yet refined atmosphere, surrounded by stunning nature with unforgettable views. Those who want to stay active will be delighted to know that the estate features a large heated swimming pool, and a terrace to play boules. The explorers have many excursions to choose from to fully enjoy the area and keep entertained.

La Verrire, Provence

An ancient priory in the heart of Provence, La Verrire has been beautifully restored and is the perfect place to get married for those who are seeking timeless charm and romance. The outdoor spaces include a cascading swimming pool with stunning views of the gently rolling hills and vineyards the ideal backdrop for the ceremony. The estate produces delicious local wines, which of course can be served at the wedding party.

Cugo Gran, Menorca

If a wedding in the sunshine of Spain is what you have in mind, villa Cugo Gran in Menorca could be the perfect spot to tie the knot: the countryside outside Sant Climent makes for a beautiful setting for a rustic wedding and the concierge team of the estate will make sure that everything runs smoothly. The villa, with its understated elegance, is ready to welcome a large party of up to 300 guests so is ideal for those who have many friends and family members attending their special day!

Son Doblons, Mallorca

This exclusive Mediterranean pearl is a wonderfully manicured estate with seven gardens, a large swimming pool and different corners where different atmospheres can be created: from cozy and intimate, to extravagant and grand, any wedding can be organized at this unique property in Mallorca. The villa, of course is also large enough to sleep up to 16 people and offers a simple and elegant dcor that perfectly blends with most wedding themes.

Paolo Macchiaroli is CEO of My Private Villas..

If you would like to be a guest blogger onA Luxury Travel Blogin order to raise your profile, pleasecontact us.

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