While Cuba Remains Off-Limits to Americans, Havana and the Island's Beaches Draw Tourists from the Rest of the World
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
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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.
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joe a acosta — January 3, 2014 7:25pm ET
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