Feature

An insider's tour of Havana

It helps to have a well-connected friend

A circa-1950 Buick cruises downtown Havana.

Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Havana, Cuba.

Courtesy image

Even our flight from L.A. to Havana was "almost too good to be true," said Steve Chapple at The San Diego Union-Tribune. Not everyone can enjoy the insider's view of Cuba that my family and I had on a recent whirlwind four-day vacation, but I urge everyone to get there now, because Cuba is about to be remade by tourism, and the communist island nation is "just too much fun" to hold back the onslaught. If America pulls back because of politics and its travel industry isn't allowed to book more group travel packages, then other countries will. You might not have a well-connected friend like we do, but a lot of our experience can still be yours. We called it "the Manny Tour."

Manny picked us up at the airport in a vintage Renault and dropped us at a $40-a-night apartment he'd secured for us just across from the U.S. Embassy. Instantly, I was struck by Havana-style traffic: '53 blue Buick Specials sharing the streets with brand-new Chinese-built buses. Some streets we walked nearby were "pretty much the slums," though crumbling centuries-old churches and apartment buildings sometimes sat cheek by jowl with $500-a-night hotels, and everywhere felt safe. On our first morning, Manny took us to Los Pinos Beach, a "perfect stretch of sand" where we could hear music from a rumba class as we swam away from the shore. Our lunch, in an unpainted restaurant, featured a paella with "shrimp so fresh, they squirmed on the plate."

At Cuba's National Museum of Fine Arts, the paintings are "as good as anything you'll find at the Museum of Modern Art in New York." Even more eye-opening, though, was Museo de la Revolución, which offers a strongly anti-American account of post-1950 Cuban history. Visiting Ernest Hemingway's former home the next day was more fun. The house, Finca Vigia, is open on all sides, with animal skins on the floors and the great writer's Royal typewriter sitting on a desk like a holy relic. Rain interrupted our stroll on the grounds, so we ran to a tent where an Afro-Cuban jazz band was playing, and joined a dancing crowd while young women handed us Havana Club rums. It was barely noon.

Read more at The San Diego Union-Tribune, or get your travel visa for $85 through Cuba Visa Services.

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