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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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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joe a acosta — January 3, 2014 7:25pm ET
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