While Cuba Remains Off-Limits to Americans, Havana and the Island's Beaches Draw Tourists from the Rest of the World
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At the other end of the scale, La Bodeguita del Medio is casual and almost always crowded. The walls of this narrow, three-story bar/restaurant are covered from floor to ceiling with graffiti, much of it signed by internationally known artists, writers, statesmen and scoundrels. Shoved in a tiny room at the front, the bar buzzes with activity, as mojitos, Cuba libres and frosty Hatueys are served up at a dizzying speed.
Neither Floridita nor La Bodeguita del Medio are known for serving high-quality food. At Floridita, the menu is mainly seafood, service is stiff and the food, overpriced. At La Bodeguita del Medio, service is relaxed to a fault, the food is simple Cuban fare (rice, beans and pork), inexpensive and fresher at lunch than at dinner.
It is not easy to get a good meal in Havana. Most restaurants suffer from the generally tough economic times and a blasé socialist approach to dining. As with bars, some of the best restaurants are in the better hotels, where the food, wine lists and service come closer to meeting international standards.
There are some notable exceptions, including a trio of Miramar eateries. The best of these (and one of the best restaurants in Cuba) is Tocororo, at Third Avenue and Calle 18, which occupies the ground floor and garden patio of a neocolonial mansion. Here, the antique-filled interior rooms are formal, yet the huge, plant-filled covered patio is tropical and relaxed. A favorite spot of diplomats and the multinational business set, its cuisine is international with a criollo flair. Dishes such as chilled shrimp in basil vinaigrette, mixed seafood brochette and grilled lamb chops are superb. The wine list is limited to a few Spanish selections, but they do make the best mojito in Havana, if not in the whole island.
A few blocks farther out in Miramar is La Casa de 5 y 16's El Ranchon garden restaurant. The cuisine here is typically Cuban, with grilled fish and meats, and beans and rice; mixed salads are the specialty. The portions are huge, and the food is expertly prepared. Particularly good are the thick grilled pork chops. The setting and the service are casual, making it a great place for lunch or an early dinner after a visit to the cigar store inside. Again, the wine list is limited, but the beer is as cold as you can get anywhere in the city.
Farther out in Miramar, also in a restored turn-of-the-century mansion, is La Cecilia, a good surf-and-turf restaurant where you can dine outside on a large, covered patio. The specialty is grilled lobster. The list of French, Spanish, Italian and Chilean wines is ample and reasonably priced. Master roller Rodolfo Bermudez, who has been plying his craft for over 50 years, is on hand nightly, rolling cigars (he specializes in the highly rated Montecristo #2). For the late-night crowd, there is lively salsa music and dancing under the stars.
Finally, at the western end of the Malecón just before the tunnel leading to Miramar, there is the 1830 restaurant, located in an elegant setting in what was the huge waterfront mansion of a former Batista government official. Though known for its high-quality international dishes, the real treat here is the wine list, which under the careful attention of table captain Angel Rodriguez and sommelier Jorge Sanchez has become one of the best on the island. They offer selections from France, Spain, Portugal, Chile and California. Both men are also keenly interested in cigars, which is reflected in the restaurant's well-stocked humidor. The enclosed dining patio has great views of the bay, as does the outdoor bar. There is good salsa in the evenings, with dancing into the early hours.
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If Havana swelters under the hot Caribbean sun by day, by night it sizzles. When darkness falls, the pace quickens, bars and nightclubs fill and the pulsating criollo spirit takes charge. Good music, great dancing and hot shows can be had at most hotels and in many private clubs. Among the best are the Cohiba's disco/cabaret, Aché, the Nacional's Parisien, the Habana Libre's Caribe and Turquino cabarets, the Salon Rojo at Hotel Capri, the poolside show at the Copacabana and the Club Nacional in Old Havana, a favorite of locals.
But no entertainment in Havana (probably nothing south of Las Vegas) can compare in terms of quality and explosive energy to the twice-nightly extravaganzas at the Tropicana Nightclub, Cuba's best-known and most spectacular cabaret. Opened in 1939 and in continuous operation ever since, the club is located outdoors in a lush, garden setting. There is a dazzling light show, state-of-the-art sound equipment, world-class singing and dancing and over 100 of the island's most beautiful women, wearing little but the extravagant headdresses for which the Tropicana is famous. Tickets run from $35 to $65, depending on proximity to the stage. They can be purchased at any hotel tourist desk or before each performance at the door (there is usually a crowd, so book early for good seats). Simple, inexpensive meals are available before the 9:30 performance, and drinks are reasonably priced. This is a great show.
For late-night dancing, there may be more discotheques per capita in Havana than any other capital city in the Western Hemisphere, if not worldwide. The action starts about midnight and rolls on until dawn. You can dance to great Cuban, Latin and international sounds at the Cohiba's Aché, the Copacabana's Ipanema and the Riviera's El Elegante discos, to name but a few.
For more serious entertainment, Havana has several theaters offering good to very good dance and music performances. The most important is the baroque Gran Teatro de la Habana, home to the well-known Alicia Alonso Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the national opera company. You can also see good Spanish dance and listen to jazz there. Performances run Thursday through Sunday nights most weeks throughout the year.
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No visit to Havana is complete without a walking tour of the old city, which can easily be done in a day. Most of the major sights are within a stone's throw of the Partagas factory and the old city's best tobacco shops. The more important ones include the Capitolio Nacional (a copy of the U.S. Capitol building, it now houses the Academy of Sciences and a science museum), the Museum of the Revolution, the Castle of the Royal Guard, the Cathedral, and the Museum of the City, located in the old Captain General's residence on Plaza de Armas. There is also a small cigar museum (Museo del Tabaco), on Calle Mercaderes between Obispo and Obrapia, which has a limited but interesting collection of cigar artifacts, including several nineteenth-century humidors. On the ground floor is a small, elegant cigar store. Here you can see master roller Jesus Lara ply his craft. The selection is limited and prices are not as good as in other stores.
To see the rest of the city, take an air-conditioned taxi and spend an hour or two touring in comfort. Central Havana, mainly a rundown residential district, has little of interest. In Vedado, the principal sights are the Plaza de la Revolucion, with its austere government buildings and monuments, the University of Havana (which appears to be loosely modeled after New York's Columbia University) and the busy five-star Habana Libre hotel. Built by the Hilton chain in the mid-1950s, the Habana Libre is in need of renovation and not recommended as a place to stay. In Miramar, the main attraction is the once elegant, mansion-lined Fifth Avenue, which is beginning to make a comeback under the more laissez-faire economic policies of post-Soviet supported Cuba. Farther to the west at the city's edge is Marina Hemingway, a yacht basin and nautical club connected to the writer in name only. The marina has nothing special to recommend it, except that it is the staging site for the annual Ernest Hemingway International Marlin-Fishing Tournament that takes place each May.
More intimately connected with the great writer, and well worth the half-hour taxi ride from downtown Havana, is the Hemingway Museum in the eastern suburb of San Francisco de Paula. Finca Vigia, as it is called, was Hemingway's Cuba home from 1939 until 1960. The estate includes a Mediterranean-style villa and guest house, lush walled gardens and Hemingway's fishing boat, Pilar, which is dry-docked under a huge awning in one corner of the property. From a tower addition there is a commanding view of Havana in the distance and the sea beyond. The house, constructed in 1888, is airy and open with cathedral ceilings, whitewashed walls and a tiled roof. It is filled with Hemingway's personal mementos and has been kept just as it was the day he and his fourth wife, Mary, left the island for the last time. Though visitors are not allowed to enter the house for fear of theft, you can get a good view of the rooms and their contents through the open doors and windows.
A fitting end to any Havana stay is to take the six-mile drive east of the city to the sleepy fishing village of Cojimar. It was here that Hemingway kept Pilar docked during his Cuba stays. La Terraza, the one restaurant in town, was a popular tourist spot in Hemingway's day (he mentions it in the closing paragraphs of The Old Man and the Sea). Recently renovated, the restaurant serves good traditional Cuban seafood dishes in a pleasant setting at very reasonable prices. With any luck you will meet Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway's mate on Pilar, now 98, who lunches daily at the restaurant and loves to tell stories about the Hemingway days.
When the heat, dust and noise of Havana start to wear thin, it's time to do what the Habaneros do: Go to the beach. Though there are beautiful beaches and inexpensive hotels just east of the city at Playa del Este, Cuba's premiere beach resort is Varadero, a narrow, sandy peninsula two hours to the east of the city that juts about 12 miles into the blue Caribbean. Beaches here are said to be among the 10 cleanest in the world, and the snorkeling, scuba diving, surf and deep-sea fishing are among the best in Cuba.
Getting to Varadero from Havana is as easy as taking a taxi (about $90 each way) or having the tourist desk at your hotel arrange for transportation by tourist bus or van ($25 each way). There is an international airport on the peninsula, serviced by several European, Canadian and Latin American airlines. Several tour companies run first-class overnight excursions from Varadero to Havana, if you prefer to spend most of your time in Cuba at the beach.
Long a seaside playground for wealthy Cuban, European, Canadian and Latin American vacationers, there are a number of good to excellent hotels on the peninsula, with new ones being built every year. The older hotels are clustered around the town of Varadero, just over the bridge from the mainland. The best of these are the Paradiso-Puntarena complex, a five-star, 518-room luxury resort to the west of town, and the four-star, 222-room Cuatro Palmas slightly to the northeast, which is built on the grounds of Fulgencio Batista's summer home. Both offer well-appointed rooms, large pools and easy beach access.
The true luxury hotels are all located on the southeastern half of the peninsula, around the old Du Pont mansion Xanadu (now Restaurant Las Americas). Here, development has been strictly controlled, with the ample space between each resort filled with parklike landscaping, upscale shopping plazas and tastefully designed bungalow complexes.
The three best superluxury hotels are all operated by Spain's Grupo Sol. They include the four-star, 607-room Sol Palmeras, opened in 1990, the five-star, 497-room Meliá Varadero, opened in 1991, and the deluxe five-star, 250-room Meliá Las Americas, opened in July 1994. All three offer every possible convenience, including beautifully appointed lobbies, large, comfortably furnished rooms, satellite television, touch-tone phones, enormous swimming pools and extensive gardens. Among the rooms of the Las Americas (by far the most spectacular of the three) are 12 duplexes and 20 suites, including two presidential suites. All the rooms are painted in light pastels, as are many of the external walls, adding a festive, Caribbean quality to the decor. Also unique to the Las Americas is its ready access to the beach, with the back lobby entrance leading almost to the water's edge.
Two other hotels worth considering are the four-star, 330-room Bella Costa and the five-star, 235-room Tuxpan, both run by the LTI hotel chain and located just to the west of the Las Americas. The Tuxpan's atrium lobby (loosely based on a Mayan pyramid) is spectacular. The parklike grounds between the two hotels feature green lawns, palm trees and exotic plants. For all Varadero hotels, easy beach access is a given, as are enormous swimming pools where seminude sunbathing is quickly becoming the rule.
Most Varadero hotels carry a few brands of cigars as a courtesy to their guests. Habanos S.A. also maintains master rollers in the lobbies of all major hotels (the cigars they make are sold under a generic Habanos label). For the serious buyer, the company has recently opened Casa del Habano, a well-stocked shop on First Avenue and Calle 63 in Varadero (just across from the Hotel Cuatro Palmas). Unlike Havana stores, at Casa del Habano most cigars can be purchased individually as well as by the box, and many that are difficult to find in the city are often available here.
Dining can be as problematic at the beach as it is in the city, and, as in Havana, the most reliable restaurants are those in the better hotels. Both the Grupo Sol and the LTI hotels offer full and partial meal plans, which include good buffet breakfasts and adequate dinners in their main dining rooms. All the hotels have poolside grills where you can eat well-prepared seafood, chicken and meats. The Las Americas, Meliá Varadero and Tuxpan also have gourmet restaurants, which offer a variety of Cuban and international dishes. Wine lists tend to be more limited than in Havana, though most have decent French and Spanish selections.
Outside the hotels, the Las Americas restaurant, located in the elegant Du Pont mansion at the edge of the Hotel Las Americas grounds, offers French-style seafood and meats in elegant surroundings. Lunch and light snacks are served afternoons on the breezy, covered terrace, where you can linger over coffee and a cigar while you watch the sea.
The walled Parque Josone on First Avenue, just down the street from the Casa del Habano store, was once the private summer estate of a sugar mill owner and is now Varadero's municipal park. The extensive and well-kept park has several outside cafés and restaurants clustered around a small lake, which are a perfect refuge from the beach and the hot Cuban sun. For dinner, try El Retiro, where good international fare is served in the original manor house, or La Campana, which is housed in a stone hunting lodge in the woods above the lake and serves inexpensive and excellent criollo cuisine.
Though nights at the beach are quieter than in the city, there are a number of hot cabarets and good discos in Varadero. The best show in town is the Cabaret Continental, at the Hotel Varadero International. It comes close to the Tropicana in energy and excitement, if on a lesser scale. There are also free nightly cabarets at the Meliá Varadero and the Sol Palmeras. For a wilder time, try the Cueva del Pirata. Located in an underground grotto about two miles south of the Sol Palmeras, it features an Afro-Cuban show that really heats up after midnight. The best discos on the island are La Bamba in the Hotel Tuxpan, La Salsa in the Hotel Puntarena, El Rincon Latino at the Bella Costa and Mi Salsa in Parque Josone. On weekend nights these places beat and grind until dawn.
Travel restrictions to Cuba can be waived at the discretion of the U.S. government (getting permission can take months) for journalists, researchers, Cuban Americans with immediate family members living on the island and members of other groups invited to participate by the Cuban government in specific events. For legal travelers, charter flights leave daily from Miami to Havana, though they are notorious for delays of 12 hours or more. Also, U.S. currency restrictions of $100 per traveler per day apply (barely enough to cover the cost of the average hotel room).
For others wishing to visit the island, getting to Cuba is still relatively easy. Connecting flights to Havana are available several days a week via Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Nassau, Santo Domingo, Kingston, Mexico City, Mérida and Cancún. In fact, on certain days of the week getting from almost any point in the United States to Havana is no more arduous than, say, traveling from Bangor, Maine, to Sacramento, California.
In solidarity with the renegade traveler, Cuban immigration officials will happily refrain from stamping your passport. Instead, a tourist visa is issued on a separate card, so that upon your return there is no permanent record of your Cuba trip with which to offend U.S. Customs and Immigration. And traveling via a third country means you can take along as much hard cash as you like. This is an important advantage, since U.S.-issued credit cards and travelers checks cannot be honored in Cuba.
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