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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Of those aficionados who do manage to get to Cuba, few are disappointed. The largest and most populous Caribbean island (pop. 11 million), Cuba is also one of the most beautiful. There are miles and miles of clean, uninterrupted beaches, tropical forests teeming with wildlife and some of the best deep-sea fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling the world has to offer. And there is Havana, not only the capital of Cuba, but also long the most important city in the Caribbean.
Say Havana, and vivid images leap to mind: of men in white linen suits and Panama hats, tropical breezes and cool drinks, sultry nights, hot salsa rhythms and exotic women. It has always been an intriguing city, peopled in truth and in fiction by characters from the novels of Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway. In the pre-Revolution Batista days, it was the sin capital of the Americas, a wild city of mobsters, corrupt politicians, loose women and petty thieves, all vying for a portion of the profits from gambling, prostitution and other lucrative rackets. The easy money attracted some of America's biggest celebrities and highest rollers, as well as a flood of tourists eager to indulge in the island's many carnal pleasures.
Though its wilder side has diminished, Havana has regained much of its old allure. With tourism again flourishing, famous old bars, restaurants and hotels are enjoying a comeback, and stunning new places are being built. The old town, with its colonial buildings, narrow streets, secluded courtyards and shaded plazas, is finally getting a much needed face-lift. In the commercial district of Vedado, investment and construction is on the rise, and out in the once-fashionable residential area of Miramar, long-neglected mansions are being converted into posh restaurants, bars and boutiques.
All this change has not come without some pain. The end of Soviet-era subsidies has brought shortages of nearly everything, and the move to a de facto dollar economy in 1994 has caused the value of the peso to plummet at home. Today in Cuba, the dollar is king. With dollars, you can buy anything; with pesos, even beans and rice can be hard to get. The illegal money changers who once haunted the tourist spots have now disappeared. In their stead are legions of illicit street vendors, offering guide services, cheap trinkets, counterfeit cigars--you name it. Gypsy cabs are everywhere, many driven by moonlighting doctors, architects, engineers and other professionals trying to augment meager peso salaries.
Yet, the Habaneros, as the locals call themselves, remain a people of gracious ways and friendly smiles. Despite tensions between the two governments, Americans are welcomed with open arms. As one civil engineer cum taxi driver put it, "All Americans should visit Havana. Here we have the best rum, best music, best cigars and most beautiful women in the world. What more could you want?"
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To help the adventurous take advantage of that invitation, Cigar Aficionado offers the following guide to cigar stores, hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other pleasures in Havana and the beach resort of Varadero.
Make no mistake though--unauthorized travel to Cuba remains a crime. Under the U.S. government's Trading With the Enemy Act, a conviction could result in a fine of up to $50,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 10 years, as well as forfeiture of passport. In other words, you can be harassed, get a hefty fine, go to jail and lose your travel rights for as little as spending a long weekend in Havana.
But, hey, we're talking Cuba here! HAVANA
If there is one thing Havana is known for worldwide, it is fine cigars. In fact, cigars and the city are so closely linked in the international psyche that, to avoid confusion, the state-owned cigar marketing and distribution company, Cubatabaco, recently changed its name to Habanos S.A. Of the six factories in Havana, half (Partagas, La Corona and H. Upmann) are clustered together in the old city. The other three (Romeo y Julieta, El Rey del Mundo and El Laguito) are all within a few minute's drive from downtown. Unfortunately, all but one is closed to the public. The one you can visit, Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas (located on Calle Industria just behind the Capitolio Nacional), is the oldest of the six and something of a showpiece. This year, the factory celebrates its 150th year in continuous operation. Little has changed since it first opened its doors in 1845. There you can see some of Cuba's best cigars being made, including the Partagas 8-9-8 and Cohiba robusto, Esplendido and the Siglo series.
There is something thrilling about buying Havana cigars in their hometown. Though most shops sell by the box only, many hotels and restaurants offer well-stocked humidors from which you can sample to your heart's content. Because of high demand, cigars are now often on back order. But if one store doesn't have something on your list, another might, and since prices can vary as much as 20 percent from store to store, it pays to shop around.
Three of Havana's better cigar stores are in the old city. Of these, the most impressive is the Partagas factory store, owned and managed by Habanos S.A. The shop features a well-stocked walk-in humidor large enough for entertaining distinguished guests. Due to a brisk tourist trade, prices here are unabashedly higher than in most other shops. Still, it is a convenient place to buy if you are on a limited time schedule (even with the premium, prices are reasonable).
Another good old-town shop is the Palacio del Tabaco, on the ground floor of the La Corona factory on Calle Agramonte (across from the Museum of the Revolution). This recently opened, stylish shop is clean, cool and friendly. There is even a bar where you can get an espresso or a cold drink while contemplating your purchases. Check out the roller there too; most often, he is working diligently on Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas, a cigar he has rolled for several decades.
If you still can't find what you want, try the small, no-frills shop in the Infotur office on the ground floor of the Manzana de Gomez building off the Parque Central (just across from the Hotel Plaza), which often stocks otherwise hard-to-find smokes. Also nearby, in the Palacio de Artesanias, which is down on the waterfront, there is a shop at the rear of the open courtyard. This one still seems rustic and appears a little run-down, but Peter Napolis oversees the shop with a keen eye and keeps a good stock of bigger cigars on hand.
At the opposite end of town is the well-known La Casa de 5 y 16 tobacco store, located upstairs in an aging Miramar mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Calle 16. This shop, known for its volume sales to VIPs worldwide, has an excellent selection at good prices. Here you can rent a locker in the humidor to hold your purchases between trips to Havana. Farther out in Miramar (at the corner of Third Avenue and Calle 28) is another shop with the name Palacio de Tabaco. Though small, it is recommended as a good place to find cigars that other stores don't have in stock. There is also Casa del Tabaco El Corojo, located behind the lobby in the Hotel Meliá Cohiba. New, clean, well-stocked and efficiently managed, it is a great place to buy cigars, especially if you are staying at the hotel.
Don't forget the other grand hotels in the city. Both the Nacional and the Comodoro, out in Miramar, have well-stocked humidors. On one recent trip, the former was the only location with some nearly impossible-to-find double corona cigars. You have to look for this shop. It's up a narrow staircase at one end of the lobby. The Comodoro's shop is more open and contains a standard selection of the major brands. The roller there is Eduardo Rivera Irizarri, who started the El Laguito factory and created the blend for the Cohiba cigar over 30 years ago.
A word to the wise: When in Havana (or anywhere else in Cuba), don't buy cigars on the street. It is a given that you will be approached time and again and offered what sounds like the deal of the century. But chances are 99 to 1 that any cigars you buy on the street will be counterfeit. They may bear official stamps and be in the regulation boxes, but nobody is going to sell you authentic Cohiba Esplendidos (which have an over-the-counter value of $270 or more) for $40 a box. When approached it's best to just say no.
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For decades, the Hotel Nacional was the preeminent place to stay in Havana. Situated in a parklike setting on a rise above the Malecón, this 1930s grande dame of hotels has played host to kings and queens, mobsters, Hollywood stars, writers, schemers and mega-deal makers over the years. Everybody who was anybody stayed at the Nacional. Not anymore. The new place to stay in town, and by far the best hotel on the island, is the Meliá Cohiba.
Opened in February 1995 after seven years in construction, the 22-story, five-star, 462-room Cohiba is a tribute to Cuba's newfound commitment to the business and tourist trades. Located just off the Malecon at the end of Avenue Paseo, it features a large, airy, well-appointed lobby, four restaurants, five bars, a lively disco/cabaret, two enormous swimming pools, a gym, several good shops, 24-hour in-house medical service, a business center and a cigar store. The rooms are world-class in comfort and decoration.
Operated by Spain's giant Grupo Sol hotel chain, the Cohiba prides itself for its smooth, efficient service. If there is a flaw, it lies in the near-total absence of Cuban influence. This hotel could be in London, Barcelona or Rome. The exception is in the gourmet Abanico de Cristal restaurant, which serves excellent fare based on traditional Cuban colonial cooking. In fact, the food at all four of the hotel's restaurants is as good or better than any in the city. But the big treat at the Cohiba is the smoking bar, El Relicario. Here, in a cool, quiet, plush setting, you can sample the best cigars and finest rums the island has to offer. Bar manager Juan Soneira, on hand nightly, speaks fluent English and is a willing source of information about cigars and where to buy them.
After the Cohiba, there is the five-star, 495-room Nacional. Designed by the same architect who built The Breakers in Palm Beach and the Biltmore in Coral Gables, Florida, this recently renovated Havana landmark retains an air of restrained elegance. The well-appointed, colonial-style lobby opens onto a wide terrace overlooking lush back gardens and the sea. At one end is the restaurant Comedor de Aguiar, which offers good international and Cuban dishes, as well as an extensive list of French and Spanish wines. At the other end of the lobby is Le Parisien, featuring one of the best shows in town. Upstairs, the rooms are large and adequately furnished; most have views of the sea. With its long driveway and extensive grounds, the Nacional provides a sense of isolation from the dust and hurry of the city.
Quieter yet is the comfortable four-star, 139-room Comodoro hotel in Miramar. Featuring a resortlike atmosphere, with beach access as well as a beautiful pool complex and extensive gardens, the hotel also functions as a school for young Cubans eager for jobs in the tourist industry. The service, if a bit stiff, is very good. So are the hotel's three restaurants. The lobby and rooms have all been recently renovated. The hotel's strength and weakness is its distance from town (at least 15 minutes by taxi). If you want to escape the noise and hustle of the city, this is the place for you. But be prepared to spend considerable time (and money) getting around.
In the heart of Old Havana there are three good--if less luxurious--hotels, all in easy walking distance of major tourist sites, restaurants and cigar stores. The best is the newly renovated four-star, 188-room Sevilla, with its large, beautifully appointed colonial lobby, garden swimming pool, quiet patio bar, shops and spectacular rooftop restaurant. Though not up to the level of the Cohiba, the rooms are comfortable and all are equipped with satellite television, touch-tone phones and air conditioning. On Paseo del Prado and Trocadero (and just around the corner from the La Corona factory), the Sevilla makes a great rest stop when touring the old town.
On a similar scale, if slightly faded, is the four-star, 206-room Hotel Plaza, located at one corner of the Parque Central, not far from Floridita bar and restaurant. The spacious lobby has an Old World feel, and the lobby bar offers good, light lunches in a cool, tropical setting. The rooms are adequate, if somewhat sparse, with similar features to those of the Sevilla. The four-star, 86-room Inglaterra, also on the Parque Central (near the Gran Teatro de la Habana), was Havana's first luxury hotel. Though the large, inexpensive rooms are in need of renovation, the lobby bar and restaurant, with their tiled walls and cool, spacious Mediterranean atmosphere, make a great rest stop after visiting the Partagas factory, which is just three blocks away.
One last, relatively unknown gem of a hotel is the four-star, 31-room Victoria. Not far from the Nacional on Calle 19 in the commercial district of Vedado, it has the graceful charm of a good European inn. Rooms are spacious, with all the amenities of five-star lodging. The lobby is cool, quiet and relaxed. The small, elegant restaurant serves well-prepared European and Cuban meals and offers private rooms for business lunches and other meetings. In the walled garden behind the hotel is a small, tasteful pool and patio area. Photocopying, fax, bilingual typing and other secretarial services are available.
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Restaurants & Bars
If there is one basic guideline for drinking and eating in Cuba, it is to keep it simple. Though international fare is featured by nearly every upscale restaurant, it is always better to order traditional drinks and food.
Wine lists have improved greatly over the past few years, but nothing is more inviting and thirst quenching than the local Hatuey beer, a full-flavored lager usually served just above the freezing point. Rum-based cocktails are an island specialty, particularly the daiquiri and the mojito, both of which were favorites of Ernest Hemingway during his Cuba years. The Hemingway daiquiri is a mix of light rum, ice and lime juice (no sugar), blended to a frozen mass. The mojito is made with rum, sugar, lime juice, crushed mint, soda and a dash of Angostura bitters, served on the rocks.
All the best hotels all have at least one good bar (some have several) where you can drink and smoke in comfort. This is particularly true at the Cohiba, Nacional and Comodoro. But no one should go to Havana without visiting the legendary Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, two great Old Havana watering holes made famous by Hemingway, John Dos Passos and other internationally known personalities.
Abandoned for many years after the Revolution, Floridita has been painstakingly restored to its past splendor using old photographs and the memories of former employees. The large, dark barroom, decorated principally in red, has a plush, 1940s feel. On the walls are pictures of Hemingway during his Cuba days. White-jacketed barmen stand before the expansive back bar mixing daiquiris, which they serve up in huge stemmed goblets. On busy nights, the constant whir of the blenders rises and falls above the noise of the crowd. Most afternoons, though, it is cool and quiet at Floridita, and it is easy to imagine Papa dropping in for a drink after a long morning at the typewriter.
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.