Havana is a city of contrasts, and the people who spoke with us hope for the embargo to be lifted for the sake of economic development.
Havana is a city of contrasts, and the people who spoke with us hope for the embargo to be lifted for the sake of economic development.

There’s no doubt, travel to Cuba is hot as relations between it and the U.S. are easing. Our eagerness to return was influenced by a vivid teenage memory of a daylong shore excursion in exotic Havana — which concluded at the extravagant La Tropicana nightclub. Our chance to revisit, in April, as one of 20 American travel media professionals, arrived via email, and off we went.

Our customized, five-day people-to-people tour was organized by SmarTours via a Sun Country charter from Miami. Like most American tour operators, the trip was booked through Cuba Travel Services (CTS), which holds a special license as a Travel Service Provider (TSP) with Havanatur, the official Cuban government sponsored inbound tour operator.

Atelier is one of about 400 paladares, or privately run restaurants, established in Cuba.
Atelier is one of about 400 paladares, or privately run restaurants, established in Cuba.

Cuba, which is famed for its cars, cafés and Castros, is a country of contrasts between the meticulously restored and the deplorably dilapidated. Both are visible in La Habana Vieja, established in 1519, a square-mile declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. From Plaza de Armas, with its 16th-century Baroque castle, a maze of cobblestone streets passes squares and sumptuous 19th-century buildings among which 300 have been restored under the autonomous direction of Eusebio Leal Spengler, historian of the city. He is also the chief administrator of Habaguanex, the company that preserves and redevelops the historic colonial center using 45 percent of each tourist dollar.

Among the countless blighted blocks in Old Havana, one which we experienced, El Callejón de los Peluqueros (Barber Street), is being transformed by an individual resident: he created a barber shop and museum in his apartment, launched a free barber school, hired gardeners to enhance the street (where Le Figaro is a welcoming café) and is currently constructing a children’s park.

Further from the city center, in Jaimanitas, one artist, Jose Fuster transformed Casa Fuster, his modest home, into a phantasmagorical, colorfully mosaic-studded, Gaudiesque, Park Guell-like home studio where Fuster’s disciples create and sell artwork.

Casa Fuster is home of artist Jose Fuster, who transformed it into a colorfully mosaic-studded, Gaudiesque, Park Guell-like home studio where his disciples create and sell artwork.
Casa Fuster is home of artist Jose Fuster, who transformed it into a colorfully mosaic-studded, Gaudiesque, Park Guell-like home studio where his disciples create and sell artwork.

Tours visit Revolution Square, which boasts a statue and 300-foot memorial to poet and national hero José Martí. Revolutionary heroes Che Guevarra and Fidel’s confident, Camilo Cienfuegos, are depicted in large iron sculptures fronting two of the adjacent government buildings. The plaza is encircled by “Yank Tanks,” the shiny shells of 1950s’ Ford and Chevy convertibles containing Russian or Mitsubishi engines, which are for hire and often do so with horns blaring enthusiastically.

Ernest Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia, within a five-acre park and 10 miles outside the city, is a tourist destination. In 1940, the author purchased the 1886 structure for $12,500; it’s where he lived until 1960 and wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “The Old Man and the Sea” and “A Moveable Feast.” Through open doors, visitors can see the furnishings, books and accessories, including a ceramic by Picasso.

Hotels

We stayed at the Melia Cohiba, a very comfortable four-star high-rise facing the Malecón — the five-mile esplanade and sea wall that links the harbor in Old Havana to residential Vedado. We also visited the two most luxurious city hotels, both more conveniently located in Central Havana and within walking distance of Old Havana, the Fine Arts Museum showcasing 300 years of Cuban masterpieces and the Great Theatre of Havana with its impressive exterior restoration and near Hemingway hangouts — the Bar Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio.

The IberoStar Parque Central is comprised of two buildings; the older, Spanish colonial-style building is connected to its sleek, newer sibling via an underground tunnel. The Hotel La Saratoga, the city’s best boutique hotel, is an 1879 Neoclassic building renovated by Habaguanex (2005). We viewed the impeccably restored Capitolio from the suite where Beyonce and Jay Z stayed; from the rooftop pool, an adjacent building appeared to be crumbling in disrepair. Nearby, an Accor hotel is currently under construction. (The Huffington Post reports that Hilton and Marriott hope to make their Havana debut soon.)

The seafront terrace lures visitors to Havana’s Grande Dame, the historic 1930s’ Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where an elegant Spanish colonial ambiance — complete with Moorish tiles — endures. Guest rooms have some issues (no hot water etc. have been experienced) though. Electrical outages, plumbing issues and other infrastructure problems do occur occasionally throughout the city and satellite television reception still depends on the weather.

Buena Vista Social Club putting on a show at the Habana Café.

Buena Vista Social Club putting on a show at the Habana Café.

Restaurants

Since 2010, when Raul Castro allowed private restaurants to operate in homes, about 400 paladares have been established and are acknowledged as far superior to state-run restaurants. We dined in a series of charming venues amidst family treasures, sometimes mismatched china, and complete where creative chefs who produce terrific meals, in spite of the challenge of ingredient shortages at local markets.

We selected Atelier on our free night because two concierges recommended it and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and his entourage had just dined there. It was a good choice: Chef Enrique prepared rice and beans, garlicky grilled shrimp (and a reputable California wine) within an art-filled upper floor of a lovely mansion. Elite, atop a mid-century apartment house, is chic, with a sleek black-and-white-striped foyer, white stucco dining rooms and a white awning-topped terrace. Chef Yudel serves ceviche sliced like carpaccio, fried plantains, sea bass and chocolate cake. Individual creativity adds to experiences: we entered Moralejo under a pergola with flowering vines. At the farmhouse Restaurant DiVino, the perfect tomato was among the homegrown produce. The welcoming host at La California also owns the fleet of old cars that transported us there. Among the “best” restaurants, everyone raves about the hospitality and traditional Cuban fare at Doña Eutimia, in a former 200-year-old monastery. And, El Cocinero, Café Laurent, La Guarida, El Litoral are all well regarded.

La Tropicana Showgirl in typical over-the-top costume adorned by tall headpiece.

La Tropicana Showgirl in typical over-the-top costume adorned by tall headpiece.

Nightlife

Music is the heartbeat of Havana, with Afro-Cuban rhythms, rumba, salsa and choruses of Guantanamera heard from breakfast buffets, to cafés, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. The well-educated population produces gifted musicians, dynamic dancers and talented singers. La Tropicana remains a glamorous musical revue with its showgirls in over-the-top costumes adorned by tall headpieces. We delighted at Grammy-nominated Cuban jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca’s performance at the Habana Café, where tables surround a 1950s’ Chevy Pontiac and a Buick, and at a performance of the Buena Vista Social Club, there. Buena Vista Social Club tribute bands also entertain at the Parisien Cabaret and the Cafe Taberna.

Festivals

More socialites than socialists attend Havana’s growing list of festivals in this smokers’ paradise. Paris Hilton attended the Cigar Festival in February 2015 and met with Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart at the Hilton Hotel, opened in 1958 by her great-grandfather Conrad. His father, who lived there for a time, nationalized the hotel. Recently, its long hidden, iconic mural over the main entrance, by artist Amelia Peláez, was restored. The World Music Festival made its debut in February 2014 and during December, events feature the Havana Festival of New Latin American Cinema and the Havana International Jazz Festival.

Havana is home to warm, amazing, resilient, educated people who earn a pittance (monthly salaries US$18 for waiters; US$30 for doctors); receive housing (though three generations often live together); pay little for utilities, which are not dependable; and receive monthly food rations (5 pounds rice, beans, 8 ounces olive oil and a half chicken, but no fruit and vegetables and milk only until age seven). Good education and medical care are free, but pencils, notebooks, supplies such as aspirin, band aids, diapers are much needed. The people who spoke with us hope for the embargo to be lifted, look forward to economic development, and want to preserve their culture. They fear greater inequity between rich and poor, crime, drugs, homelessness and corporate uglification.

Havana is a city of contrasts and definitely a destination to discover. We’ll be bringing you more firsthand observations of this dynamic country in the coming months.

Luxury Travel Advisor