Cigar Aficionado

Dreaming of Cuba

Brightly colored bungalows in pastel shades of pink, turquoise, violet and lime green shine brightly in the Caribbean sun, a stone's throw from the shallow, warm sea and powder-like sandy beach. A few windsurfers race across the early afternoon chop, while a smart sportfishing boat and a large catamaran bob up and down in the distance. People stroll along the water's edge. Children play and build sand castles. Two men sit on the beach sunbathing, drinking cocktails and smoking cigars.

The hotel grounds have just about everything a person could want in an upmarket beach resort. Not only are the beautiful rooms adorned with soft, welcoming decor and private balconies, but there are two large swimming pools, tennis courts, three bars, four restaurants, a fully equipped gym and various game and crafts rooms, as well as an array of available boats and aquatic sports.

It sounds like just about anywhere in the Caribbean. Barbados, St. Martin and Grand Cayman are just three islands with similar accommodations. But this is Cuba. For years, the island boasted some of the most beautiful beaches and clearest seas in the Caribbean, but its accommodations were third class at best. Today, it's a different story.

The Spanish hotel group, Sol Meliá, is managing a $25 million, 296-room resort on the isolated island of Cayo Largo, located about 115 miles southeast of Havana. Cayo Largo has a history as a beach resort; but it wasn't until the early 1980s that the first decent hotel was built on the island. Wealthy Americans before Castro's revolution knew about Cayo Largo, since they tied up their yachts in its small harbor and spent long weekends fishing and partying. However, since they left it hasn't been the same. Until the Sol Club Cayo Largo was built, most of the hotels on the island were tacky and rundown; it was a sort of Gorky Park by the sea.

It's the Sol Club Cayo Largo that illustrates the slow but gradual changes in Cuban tourism, even since our last review of the island in our June 1999 issue. Whether it's the government itself or foreign companies like Sol Meliá, someone has finally decided to offer sophisticated, affluent tourists somewhere to go in Cuba. It's the same in Havana. Small new restaurants offer good service and interesting food in a charming atmosphere. Cozy nightclubs and bars deliver some of the best jazz and Caribbean music this side of Miami. Granted, it's all very limited still, but it's a beginning. It's also a huge change from the cheesy, low-budget fare dished out to the hundreds of thousands of package tourists roaming Cuba in large white-and-red buses.

"It's something," admits Enrique Nunez, the young owner of one of the best restaurants in Havana, La Guarida. Last year, the Queen of Spain canceled a state dinner in a government house to take over his funky restaurant for a private dinner party. From European royalty to Hollywood stars such as Jack Nicholson, everyone is knocking on his door to eat at his small restaurant. Nunez isn't making Michelin-starred cuisine, but his decor and service are defining Havana chic. "The only problem we have is that there are still only a handful of good hotels, restaurants and clubs to go to, so they are always full," Nunez says. "But Havana is definitely coming of age for the sophisticated traveler."

Nonetheless, the seasoned independent traveler looking for a high level of comforts is bound to be disappointed with Cuba. Most of its hotels and restaurants continue to offer substandard accommodations, service and food. The low-budget approach may be fine for package tourists looking for some cheap sunshine, but for someone paying three or four times more per day, the value for the money is just not there. The only way to really enjoy Cuba is to be choosy--stay in the best hotels, eat at the best restaurants and visit the best cigar shops, bars and nightclubs.

Last year, Cuba attracted more than 1.8 million tourists, according to the Cuban government. Just 10 years ago, that number was only 300,000. Cuba is now the fastest growing tourist destination in the Caribbean, and for good reason. It remains an icon for many of the good things in life, from music to history to cigars. (Yet nearly all of Cuba's hotels and restaurants remain out of the reach of most Cubans, either due to expense--the average Cuban salary is less than $25 a month--or because they are declared officially off-limits to Cubans by the government.)

Despite the political problems between the United States and Cuba, many Americans are now traveling to the island, many of them illegally. Official sources say that more than 100,000 Americans visited Cuba last year.

If a recent flight from Cancún, Mexico, to Havana is any indication, there will be even more Americans in Cuba this year. The airplane was full of Americans, from groups of men sneaking over for scuba diving and deep-sea fishing to churchgoers making a humanitarian visit. Whatever their reasons, they seemed extremely excited to be seeing Cuba and the Cubans with their own eyes.

"Cuba represents many things for many visitors," says Nunez. "It's the music, the history, architecture, people, government, beaches and even cigars. Maybe it still doesn't really live up to the expectations for some visitors. But for many it represents a dream."