Sweet on Cuba: riding the Hershey town train

The town of Hershey once supplied the US chocolate giant with sugar for its bars and Easter eggs and the railway line built for it is an original route to get around an region, east of Havana, rich in beaches and beauty

We had the best sugar in the world and we lived like monarches. 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 Garden. This place was amazing.

Cuba Hershey town map

In 1917, chocolate innovator Milton Hershey came to Cuba for sugar to furnish his US chocolate company, and opened a factory here. He bought several sugar mills, established a town of 180 homes on this place 40 miles east of Havana, and constructed a golf course, a sports field and an electric railway that operated from the Bay of Havana at Casablanca to the port of Matanzas 52 miles to the east. His Cuban sugar business furnished his chocolate empire, sent molasses to the rum mill up the road, and sold sugar to Coca-Cola.

Hershey would ride a sugar boom created by the desolation of beet fields in Europe during the first world war, that would become known as Cubas Dance of the Millions. It saw the price of sugar more than double in two months: Cubas total crop was worth $ 455 m in 1919, and a cool$ 1bn in 1920. But oversupply hit hard in 1921, and in 1946, Hersheys sold its Cuba business.

An old print showing Hershey as it was in its early 20 th-century heyday.

Today, the colourful clapboard homes and wooden sways on porches of Hershey homes, and the sugar mill( closed in 2002 ), languish in the tropical greenery, but the develop still rattles to Matanzas three times a day.

Now Havana architect Renn Rodrguez is hoping to preserve the industrial heritage of Hershey and promote the rail road. Rodrguez plans to open the first B& B in Casablanca, a museum and restaurant, restoration of the Hershey hotel, accommodation for tourists in former employees houses, and mends 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 Cubas north coast to Matanzas, stopping off along the way.

A cove at Santa Cruz del Norte. Photograph: Claire Boobbyer

The daily 12.21 pm 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 automobiles from Spain wheezed as they arced around Havanas 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 trains top speed is 25mph, so it was a leisurely creak, shudder and sway through farmland, scrubbing, palm groves, parcels of sugar cane, sugar mill chimneys and huddles of remote homes. At only 8p for the entire three-hour-plus ride( its a local services and tickets are sold in peso rather than convertible pesos used by tourists ), its the cheapest route to get to Matanzas.

The railway survived the closure of the sugar mill in 2002. Photo: The Washington Post/ Getty Images

Many Cubans get off at Guanabo for the golden sand of Havanas 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.

Its only two miles from here to the coast at Santa Cruz del Norte where, east of the towns Havana Club rum factory, a string of coves with great snorkelling, collectively known as Jibacoa, curve along the coast.

A clapboard house in Hershey( now called Camilo Cienfuegos ). Photograph: Claire Boobbyer

Jibacoa, home to the low-key all-inclusive Memory hotel, and a series of basic Cuban resorts, is rated by many as the best beach area close to Havana. Its 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 position 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 Pedros 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 bided with Guille and Mirtha at their B& B, Casa Guille (+ 53 5275 6412, email les7francais @nauta. cu ), 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 quinceaera ( 15 th birthday/ coming-of-age) portraits.

Photograph: Claire Boobbyer

Next day, I strolled the three miles east to Arcos de Canas, where Natacha Fbregas has opened a stylish bungalow, Cabaa Montecorales( rooms 29, three meals a day 12 pp ), in gardens dangling with avocado, mango and coconut. Here she serves barbecued seafood with homemade lemony, minty sauce.

Later, I set off with guidebook Paulito Gmez, a biology alumnu who works part-time at Cabaa 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 expended the morning jumping off a ledge into the warm water. Natachas barbecued octopus and pia coladas made from the coconuts in the garden greeted us on our return.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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