‘We had the best sugar in the world… and we lived like kings. We had our own baseball club, bands, dances, concerts and movies,” 93-year-old Amparo de Jongh told me in her house in the model town of Hershey, Cuba.
De Jongh, the first person to be born in Hershey, went on: “We would go to the hotel for ice-cream, where they had lace tablecloths, English porcelain, and chocolate and cigars were sold. And when we were young all the girls would go and swim in the Hershey Gardens. This place was amazing.”
In 1917, chocolate pioneer Milton Hershey came to Cuba for sugar to supply his US chocolate company, and opened a factory here. He bought several sugar mills, established a town of 180 homes on this spot 40 miles east of Havana, and built a golf course, a sports field and an electric railway that ran from the Bay of Havana at Casablanca to the port of Matanzas 52 miles to the east. His Cuban sugar business supplied his chocolate empire, sent molasses to the rum factory up the road, and sold sugar to Coca-Cola.
Hershey would ride a sugar boom created by the devastation of beet fields in Europe during the first world war, that would become known as Cuba’s “Dance of the Millions”. It saw the price of sugar more than double in two months: Cuba’s total crop was worth $455m in 1919, and a cool $1bn in 1920. But oversupply hit hard in 1921, and in 1946, Hershey’s sold its Cuba business.
Today, the colourful clapboard homes and wooden swings on porches of Hershey homes, and the sugar mill (closed in 2002), languish in the tropical greenery, but the train still rattles to Matanzas three times a day.
Now Havana architect Renán Rodríguez is hoping to preserve the industrial heritage of Hershey and promote the rail route. Rodríguez plans to open the first B&B in Casablanca, a museum and restaurant, restoration of the Hershey hotel, accommodation for tourists in former workers’ houses, and repairs to the period homes.
Exactly when all this will come to fruition is uncertain but other B&Bs have opened close to the 46 little stations along the railway, so visitors can now take the train from Casablanca along Cuba’s north coast to Matanzas, stopping off along the way.
The daily 12.21pm left the navy blue-striped Casablanca station (transformed by French artist Daniel Buren for the Havana art biennial in 2015) with a jolt. The carriages – bare-bones cars from Spain – wheezed as they arced around Havana’s harbour, tussling with banana fronds and low-lying mango tree branches, carrying commuters, day trippers, tourists, goats, two trussed-up pigs, a cage of pigeons, and dozens of birds in tiny wooden cages.
The train’s top speed is 25mph, so it was a leisurely creak, shudder and sway through farmland, scrub, palm groves, parcels of sugar cane, sugar mill chimneys and huddles of remote homes. At just 8p for the entire three-hour-plus ride (it’s a local service and tickets are sold in pesos rather than convertible pesos used by tourists), it’s the cheapest way to get to Matanzas.
Many Cubans got off at Guanabo for the golden sands of Havana’s eastern beaches, but I headed on east. At Hershey (now renamed Camilo Cienfuegos and 90 minutes and 4p from Havana), I admired the mosaic counter in the bodega (grocery), and the wood-clad pharmacy, and met charming nonagenarian de Jongh, who showed me photographs of old-time Hershey. Down the hill are the Hershey Gardens, where locals have been bathing in spring waters surrounded by palms and lianas for almost a century.
It’s just two miles from here to the coast at Santa Cruz del Norte where, east of the town’s Havana Club rum factory, a string of coves with great snorkelling, collectively known as Jibacoa, curve along the coast.
Jibacoa, home to the low-key all-inclusive Memories hotel, and a series of basic Cuban resorts, is rated by many as the best beach area close to Havana. It’s also known for an August music festival, Verano en Jibacoa. (Its predecessor, alternative indy music festival La Rotilla, was shut down by the government.)
A monumental limestone ridge rears up behind the beaches of Jibacoa. In Matilde village, Jorge Luis offered to fuel my journey to the top by slashing open a coconut, and insisting I chew on a few sugar cane chunks. The ridge-top forest was a riot of vegetation opening to a view of paragliders and pelicans over the Atlantic. From my high perch, I could see the coral reef on the seabed so I arranged to head out to the reef with Pedro from Pedro’s House B&B (+53 5296 1900, jibacoareservation.com, doubles from £29). After admiring the bejewelled fish, I ate shrimps at paladar El Cacique, behind Memories.
Up the road from El Cacique, I stayed with Guille and Mirtha at their B&B, Casa Guille (+53 5275 6412, email firstname.lastname@example.org), and Guille drove me in his 1952 lime-green Buick to the beautiful Playa del Camping and the nearby Playa de los Artistas, a favourite backdrop for girls’ quinceañera (15th birthday/coming-of-age) portraits.
Next day, I walked the three miles east to Arcos de Canasí, where Natacha Fábregas has opened a stylish bungalow, Cabaña Montecorales (rooms £29, three meals a day £12pp), in gardens dangling with avocado, mango and coconut. Here she serves barbecued seafood with homemade lemony, minty sauce.
Later, I set off with guide Paulito Gómez, a biology graduate who works part-time at Cabaña Montecorales, to explore the coast. We snorkelled out of the river mouth to the open sea, passing trumpet fish, brightly splashed parrot fish, purple fans, elkhorn coral and a silver school of barracuda before emerging in a cove where we spent the morning jumping off a ledge into the warm water. Natacha’s barbecued octopus and piña coladas made from the coconuts in the garden greeted us on our return.
I was reluctant to leave Natacha’s tropical haven but I had a train to catch, to Matanzas. We wobbled past caramel-coloured horses, and a lazy cow on the line, which nearly didn’t make it. I wondered if Milton Hershey ever thought his train would still be running a century later. As a man of grands projets, he would be heartened that Havana’s young architects are trying to preserve his legacy.
Way to go
The trip was provided by Cuba Holidays (020-7644 1600, cubaholidays.co.uk), which has a seven-night holiday to Cuba (three nights in downtown Havana and four on the beach) from £999pp, including B&B (two sharing) and flights from London with Virgin Atlantic