Vintage cars and their owners mingle in Parque Central, with Gran Teatro de La Habana, home of the Cuban National Ballet, in the background. © Lucas Vallecillos
Originally published January/February 2017
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30 years later
Street musicians play traditional songs throughout Old Havana, a sound made popular in America through Ry Cooder’s bestselling 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club. © Dreamstime/Filipe Varela
In the gap between his first and second visits to Old Havana, the author found a renovated, spiffed-up city center—the most impressive in the Caribbean.
By Clark Norton
When I first visited Havana 30 years ago, much of the city had an air of decay, heightened by evident poverty and neglect. Once-grand Spanish colonial structures—with their signature balconies, courtyards, and wrought iron—stood weather-worn and crumbling. Food lines snaked around for blocks, as residents waited hours to buy rationed allotments of rice and beans. Vintage American cars, many dating from the 1950s or before and running on little more than jerry-built parts, mechanical wizardry, and a prayer, wheezed along potholed streets.
With the new rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, I returned recently to find that colonial-era Old Havana—the historic district of the city dating from 1519 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site—has been extensively renovated, scrubbed down, and spiffed up. Improvements have largely been funded by government revenues flowing in from European and Canadian tourists, soon to be augmented by the first waves of Americans arriving by air and sea.
While some pockets of disrepair remain, Havana’s colonial heart now lives up to its billing of what UNESCO praised as the “most impressive historical city center in the Caribbean.”
Extending inward from the waterfront for about one-and-a-half square miles within the outlines of Havana’s former city walls, Old Havana is best known for its spacious public plazas bordered by cathedrals, palacios, and an eclectic but attractive mix of architectural styles. Baroque, neoclassical, Art Nouveau and Spanish colonial-style gems all meld into a harmonious whole, despite emanating from different eras over several centuries.
Parts of Old Havana have gone upscale. A retail complex with interior courtyard hosts a band playing rhythmic Son and salsa tunes while shoppers sample fine Cuban rums, cigars, and sweet, strong coffee. And overall, the historic district is now much more visitor-oriented.
El Floridita, birthplace of the daiquiri, is also famous for its central role in the life of American author Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea, 1952). © Dreamstime/Kmiragaya
Landmarks of American author Ernest Hemingway, such as the bar at El Floridita, said to be where the daiquiri was born, seem out of character for a country so at odds with the United States for decades, except that The Old Man and the Sea author was equally celebrated when I first visited Havana. Back in 1987, my Cuban government hosts (I had been invited to write about the Havana Film Festival) lavishly praised the man they called “Papa.” Hemingway lived in Havana for more than 20 years and reveled in the tropical lifestyle. His well-maintained Finca Vigia in a small town near Havana houses his furniture and personal effects, which you can see from the open windows (no one is allowed inside), while his beloved fishing boat rests nearby. The views of Havana from the tower of the hilltop finca alone are worth the short trip out.
The Ambos Mundos Hotel of Hemingway fame is a prime choice in the center of the action on Old Havana’s lively Calle Obispo. While I haven’t stayed there, I loved the look of it and could spend hours nursing a drink or two at its rooftop bar, which offers striking views of Old Havana and beyond. Some of the “beyond” isn’t pretty—the government hasn’t invested nearly as much in upgrading the areas bordering Old Havana—a reminder that Cuba is still a country in which much of the population remains very poor.
Touring on foot
With its maze of narrow, cobbled streets, Old Havana is relatively compact and best toured on foot. Its spacious plazas—supplemented by parks and other green spaces—are ideal hubs for orientation, sightseeing, and relaxation.
The Plaza de la Catedral takes its name from one of Old Havana’s main attractions, the Cathedral de San Cristobal, an architectural tour de force that dates from 1777. Bell towers rise on either side of its colonnaded, Baroque façade. Remains of Christopher Columbus (the first European to discover Cuba) were reputedly housed inside during the 19th century—though other locations around the world make similar claims. The plaza offers a nice setting to linger in a café and debate the issue, or—better yet—watch the passing parade of locals and tourists.
The large, shaded Plaza de Armas is adjacent to the splendid Baroque Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. The City Museum (Museo de la Cuidad) located within the Palacio offers a good introduction to the Cuban capital’s 500-year-long history—for those who can read the mostly Spanish explanations (a guide would be helpful here). I found my way to the mirrored Salon de los Esperjos, where Spain’s centuries-long rule over Cuba came to an end officially in 1899. Nearby, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a thick-walled fort (complete with drawbridge and moat) built by the Spanish in the mid-1500s, now houses a maritime museum.
The internationally renowned flavor of handmade Cuban cigars begins with the careful selection of tobacco leaves. Learn about the arts of producing and smoking some of Cuba’s finest on a tour of the Partagas Cigar Factory. © Dreamstime/Pablo Hidalgo
Old Havana in general is prime territory for museum-goers. Fine art (colonial to contemporary), archaeology, political and natural history, and much more are on display. The three-year Castro-led Cuban revolution, which culminated in victory on New Years’ Day 1959, is documented at the Museum of the Revolution, where you can puzzle over how a ragtag band of mountain-based guerrillas managed to topple the dictatorial Batista regime.
I peeked in on niche museums focusing on cigars and classic cars. While not a cigar aficionado, I was intrigued to learn about the arts of producing and smoking some of Cuba’s finest at the Partagas Cigar Factory. And the smallish Old Car Museum has special resonance in Havana, focusing on classic motor vehicles here since the turn of the last century.
Shining like jewels
Havana’s array of mostly American classic cars is one thing that’s little changed since 30 years ago—remarkable in that I considered the cars “vintage” back then. But rather than the wheezing, rusting vehicles of my memory, seemingly clinging to the last vestiges of spark plugs and shock absorbers, many of them now shine like jewels in the tropical sun, buffed and polished like treasured heirlooms. Some with bright new paint jobs have been reborn as taxis and tour vehicles.
For my city tour, which started and ended in Old Havana, I joined two others in squeezing into a candy pink 1951 Chevrolet convertible as our genial Cuban driver shot off, blasting her multi-toned horn. Though the engine sputtered a few times, and the driver had to coax it to start after occasionally stalling out, the Chevy took us around much of the city, stopping to see some of the sights, cruising through leafy neighborhoods and breezing along the Malecón, the waterfront avenue that skirts Old Havana. As we passed, I smiled and waved to a number of pedestrians who greeted us with envious stares.
Still, I wondered how long these remarkable vehicles—many of them now 60 years or older—can survive the harsh realities of time and economics. But Cubans are indeed resourceful people. So I wouldn’t be surprised if—another 30 years from now—my candy pink Chevy convertible and the rest will still be chugging along the streets around Old Havana, defying the laws of mechanics and the inexorable forces of change.
Clark Norton is a Tucson-based writer who blogs on travel topics at clarknorton.com.
By Michael DeFreitas
From above, the Bahamas resemble ivory-fringed emeralds scattered across a turquoise and cobalt-blue tapestry. As a frequent visitor—I have family in Nassau—I find them irresistible. With each visit, I discover something new, or see old things in new ways.
Nassau, on New Providence Island, offers a centuries-old collage of tropical pastels, ancient colonial architecture, Victorian mansions, horse-drawn carriages, and white-gloved Bobbies … a rich tapestry of British colonial charm seasoned with enchanting Caribbean hospitality.
I also enjoy exploring the more laid-back Caribbean rhythms on the sparsely populated Out Islands. Most of them are only a short, fast ferry ride or flight from Nassau or Freeport. We usually spend a few days on one of the family-friendly islands like Andros, Abacos, Harbour Island, and Eleuthera (our favorite), with their pink sand beaches, but sometimes we leave the kids in Nassau and enjoy some alone time on Cat Island or one of the other off-the-beaten-path cays like Long Island and San Salvador—popular with newlyweds and minimalists looking for that secluded hammock-between-palm-trees escape.
The emerald light
The iconic Arch at Finisterra (Land’s End) stands above the mysterious Sea of Cortez as it mingles with the mighty Pacific. © Kerrick James
By Kerrick James
Once the desolate haunt of pirates awaiting the passage of Spanish galleons, Los Cabos (the Capes) has transformed itself into the poshest, safest, and (to my eye) the loveliest of all seaside resorts of Mexico. Here at Finisterra (Land’s End), the mysterious Sea of Cortez mingles with the mighty Pacific. Honey-hued granite headlands separate more than 20 beaches of rare beauty between Cabo San Lucas to the west and San Jose del Cabo to the east.
Los Cabos is truly Mexican in nature, but English is spoken here, so it’s easy to book fishing, sailing, snorkeling, ziplining, even a camel ride. One of my favorite memories is watching the Green Flash from high atop the granite cliffs of El Pedregal, that evanescent burst of emerald light vanishing into the Pacific.
You can find near solitude at Bahia Santa Maria, or enjoy the social whirl and great people watching at Medano Beach or Playa Amour (Lover’s Beach).
Los Cabos prides itself on being very high end and very well behaved. I’ve taken my family and friends here many times since my first wow experience in the early ‘90s, and it’s always been a rave review. Just three air hours separate the Rockies from the Cabo sun.
Playa Grande golf course’s 10 coastal holes stretch across the north shore of the Dominican Republic, far more than the one or two holes on Hawaii’s most acclaimed designs. © Amanera Resort
By Larry Olmsted
In the early 1970s, a little-known golf course architect visited the Dominican Republic, where he carved one of the world’s greatest courses out of the rugged rocky shoreline of the country’s southeastern coast. The result was Teeth of the Dog, the Caribbean’s first course ranked in the World’s Top 100. When I played it for the first time nearly two decades ago, I immediately understood why: the world’s best golf courses are predominantly on the coast, but most merely play along the sea, while Teeth plays almost in it, just a few feet above the crashing surf.
Today the DR is the 800-pound gorilla of Caribbean golf, with the most high-quality courses—by far.
While the southeast has always dominated Dominican golf, the big news is on the opposite side of the island, the overlooked rugged north shore.
The new Amanera Resort opened just before Christmas 2015, with the most stunning finish I have seen in a quarter-century of playing the top-rated courses around the globe: a five-hole cliff-top stretch along and over the sea, unrivalled in a sport where three consecutive oceanfront holes is considered excessive. But that is literally just half the story: Playa Grande is the only course in the Western Hemisphere with 10 coastal holes. By comparison, most acclaimed Hawaiian designs have one or two. Of course, this stunner comes at a cost: the course is an ultra-private course, closed to everyone but hotel guests and a few dozen members.
Wind surfing (and watching it) is just one of many ways to enjoy the water surrounding Aruba. © Michael DeFreitas
By Michael DeFreitas
I took one last peek at Tierra del Sol’s 12th hole fringed by Aruba’s rolling sand dunes and cactus-studded landscape. The squawking egrets on the adjacent 5th fairway seemed to mock my drive as it sliced toward the houses lining the fairway. After my ball ricocheted off a house and bounced back towards the fairway, my Aruban caddy chimed “good drive.” I laughed. “Are you serious, I just hit a house.” “Yes,” he smiled, “but that house is 295 yards out.” Now that’s attitude.
This tiny Dutch island puts “One Happy Island” on all its license plates.
Aruba is best described as Arizona surrounded by ocean. Undeterred, Arubans used their positive attitude to transform their desert island into one of the hottest and most welcoming destinations in the Caribbean.
As an avid scuba diver and windsurfer, it’s no coincidence that Aruba is one of my favorite Caribbean destinations. I usually plan my visits around one of the island’s many annual international kite-boarding or windsurfing competitions.
After a fun-filled day at the beach, I usually head to the Bugaloe Beach Bar for some of their happy hour rum punches and delicious red snapper or mahi mahi, and finish up my evening practicing a few new salsa moves at Club Hipsz.
But be warned, Aruba’s charming attitude is highly contagious.
Avoid an $800 phone bill
How could a smartphone bill run up into the hundreds or thousands on an international trip? Easy.
Even if you rarely use your phone beyond photography and a few texts, data usage is your enemy. Apps that track your location via GPS, social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, and the simple widget that checks local temperature, keep working in the background, costing you money. Checking email, Facebook posts, news streams, and using your phone to find a nearby restaurant, can make your bill skyrocket.
Some travelers solve this problem by purchasing a foreign SIM card for their phone. Other travelers leave their phones at home and purchase a cheap phone overseas. However, both options will change your phone’s number, so you’ll need to inform friends and family of your number. Also, a SIM card or new phone is only good in the country where you purchased it, so if you are traveling to multiple countries, you’ll need multiple SIM cards/phones.
Travelers who want to bring their own mobile phones should check with their service provider. Here are a few examples of international options:
Sprint (AAA discount partner) offers free texts and calls for just $0.20/min; however, it charges $30 per gigabyte (GB) of data usage outside of Canada, Mexico, and Latin America. Sprint users will need to register their phone at sprint.com for Sprint Open World service (free to register) before they leave the U.S.
AT&T sells international roaming packages between $40 and $120 a month. The top package includes unlimited free texts, calls for $0.35/min, and 800 MB of data.
Verizon offers international roaming options for $10/day in most countries (just $2/day in Mexico and Canada). Customers pay only for days they use the plan, but if a smartphone is on, it is pulling at least some data, which will activate billing for that day.
T-Mobile offers free international roaming to more than 130 countries, which includes free texting, calls for $0.20/min, and free, yet very limited data.
Affinity (AAA discount partner) offers low-cost, no-contract plans (see p. 7), that are designed to only work within the United States (excludes Alaska). Once you leave the U.S., your phone should not work. This includes cruise ship travel. If by chance it does, the rates are completely unregulated and set by the country in which you are traveling. Generally, it will cost at least $1–$3 per minute—even if you don’t answer your phone when it rings.
Unless you absolutely need your mobile phone when traveling abroad, it’s probably best to leave it at home.
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