Hola, Cuba!Posted on 09/05/2018
Havana is a rainbow in motion and oh, so very different from what I expected.
I had in my mind that this venerable city would simply look like The Alamo from end to end with crumbling 17th century Spanish architecture throughout, but as my ship, the imposing Sun of the Norwegian Cruise Line, approached the Havana Harbor, I saw a modern city skyline.
Another mistaken thought: the “old American cars” of Havana, that everyone talked about, would be on display in a mall parking lot or an automobile museum.
Here’s the truth of it: Havana has a long and amazing history, but make no mistake, this is not a city in a country where people live in the past. There is the wonderful Old Havana or La Habana Vieja with its colorful neighborhoods – a veritable display of Cuban culture and history. And it is here you will see the centuries-old architecture, but then beyond its boundaries are broad boulevards, stately parks, public art, statues, sculpture and beautiful buildings such as Great Theatre of Havana Alicia Alonso (Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso) or the National Capitol Building (El Capitolio), that rival any in modern world capitals.
And the 1950s-era cars? well, they are not exhibits, they are in motion, cruising the streets and highways in all their colorful glory – stretched shocking pink, fishtailed Cadillacs, flashy Ford Fairlanes, classic Oldsmobile 88s and gorgeous Chevrolet Bel-Airs. Automotive flashbacks to my youth, gleaming like new at the stop lights -- no big deal. There are thousands of vintage American cars on this island nation, manufactured before the revolution and subsequent US embargo in 1960. They are used every day and now have found an even greater use as touring vehicles for visitors, most recently, Americans who, like me, remember the great flashy automobiles of times gone by.
Our travel agent, Karen at Air, Land and Sea Travel, booked us on a three-hour tour in a 1955 Fairlane, shimmering in its turquoise and cream exterior and blessedly air conditioned (travelers take note: Cuba is hot, so dress appropriately and bring water). In part we chose this way to tour because we wanted the thrill of riding in a beautiful old car, but also because, like many older travelers, I have difficulty walking long distances. Air Land and Sea has an exclusive contract with the owners of this service and made the reservations for us. It was perfect. Our guides, Lester and Junior were gracious beyond the telling, always offering an arm to step up onto a curb, finding me a chair in a shaded alcove when my legs became weary, so that my traveling companion, who can walk miles, would not miss a thing.
I can not say enough about our guides’ kindness, thoughtfulness professionalism and knowledge (Lester is a walking encyclopedia and speaks perfect English). Their pride in showing off their country was touching as we drove along Havana’s coastal avenue Malecon, traveled to Ernest Hemingway’s Lookout Farm (Finca Vigía), stopped on the hilltop overlooking the bay to see the colossal statue, Christ of Havana (El Cristo de La Habana).
Our guides were also expert managing our time so we could enjoy a lovely lunch on the porch of charming restaurant in a pretty neighborhood (Karen suggested this place, as well, bless her), see the sights -- there are more than one day can accommodate therefore I must go back -- and still have time to visit a market to buy the renowned and amazingly low-priced Cuban rum (considered the finest in the world), cigars and coffee. Yes, it is legal to do so within limits. And then get us to our scheduled hour-long buggy ride around the old city. Here is a bit of the darker side of the Cuba. While the main streets and their bustling populace are impressive, turning a corner onto the side streets you will often see decaying buildings and poverty, but then the same is true in many American cities.
We were returned to our ship on time and, and while sad to say goodbye to our guides (it ended with hugs and promises to come back some day), we were more than happy to relax and recover in one of the Sun’s cool and comfortable onboard lounges with a very fine array of refreshing beverages and soothing music.
A word about The Sun: The object of our cruise was to visit Havana but getting there and back was made most enjoyable aboard this newly refurbished ship. Our rooms were comfortable and tidy, there is an array of restaurants, good food, good drink and a wide range of entertainment. (I won a t-shirt in a wild and crazy dance contest! Don’t ask.)
I’m a veteran of more than 30 cruises. This was one of the best.
A word about Air, Land and Sea Travel: Although I am a veteran traveler, my trip to Cuba was unique. There are rules that are different from any other country I’ve visited. The Sun offered an onboard lecture on how to behave, what to expect, and what not to do, but it did not compare to the detail and helpfulness of our pre-trip conversation with our agent, Karen.
Thanks to her expert tutelage, there were no surprises, everything went exactly as she promised, from exchanging money (you must use Cuban currency, no credit cards) to what classic Cuban fare to try (ropa vieja which means old clothes, is highly recommended – shredded beef in a flavorful sauce).
My traveling companion and I opted for the three-hour car and one-hour buggy tour, but there are so many options, from bus excursions to walking tours. Guided tours of cathedrals and churches, art exhibits and museums. There are evening adventures to nightclubs, and musical and dance venues. The options are exciting and numerous, but we found that our outing in Havana was far less expensive and far more extensive than those offered through the cruise line. Just so you know.
Patricia Mack is a seasoned food, wine and travel writer and an award-winning journalist.