By Jodie Jacobs
“Fasten seat belts.” You’ve left Miami International Airport, winging your way to Cuba.
What seems like just a few minutes later you again hear, “Fasten seat belts.” You are already landing at the Jose Marti International Airport, Havana. The distance is a mere 229 miles but the difference in the style of cars, buildings and form of government make it feel as if the plane zoomed through a time-barrier back to mid-last century. So, how would you get there in 2017?
Miami isn’t the only airport where planes take off for Havana, but it has been a popular US starting point for charter flights. That changed Nov. 28, 2016 when American Airlines was allowed to come in as a commercial flight from Miami and JetBlue landed from John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York. Air carriers, once limited to Cuba’s smaller towns of Varadero, Santa Clara and Holguin, will continue those flights but they are scaling back now that the Havana airport is open to non-charter flights from the United States.
With regular flights being scheduled by American from Miami and Charlotte, N.C., and by Jet Blue from Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale, plus Alaska, Delta, Frontier, Southwest, Sprint and United planning to fly – going over to Havana has moved from a wistful someday to a definite reality.
However, there is still a hurdle to overcome for U. S. citizens. The ban on US tourism is still in effect.
Charters carrying members of groups with specific missions ranging from humanitarian to educational have been landing for years. Missions will still be the primary way to visit Cuba for US citizens. But with more airline options now open, travel organizations and other groups are planning more trips.
So, if you can hook up with a group that is going, you will find it easier to fly to Havana.
Your group price likely includes accommodations. But if you have a choice here are three top-notch possibilities.
- Hotel Meliá Cohiba is excellent. Take the concierge level option if available. Well located near the water on the edge of the downtown, it is a short drive west of Old Havana at Av. Paseo e/ 1ª y 3ª, Vedado, Ciudad de La Habana, Cuba.
- Hotel Nacional de Cuba is the historic, (built 1930) 1950s playground of famous entertainers such as Frank Sinatra. It is across from the Malecón, a popular seaside promenade.. If not staying here, go over there to walk through its lobby and side lounges covered with pictures and stories of who did stay there. Its Cabaret Parisien is a fun diversion but can be a bit too long. The hotel is at Calle 21 y O | Vedado, Plaza, Havana http://www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com/
- To be smack in the middle of colonial Old Havana, check out Iberostar Parque Central. An elegant old hotel with a new tower, both capped by pools, Parque Central sits across from El Capitolio (Seat of the government until 1959 after the revolution), and Gran Teatro (home of theCuban National Ballet). It is also near the famed bars of Sloppy Joe and El Floridita and the Museo Nacional de las Bellas Artes. The hotel is at Neptuno e/ Prado y Zulueta, Habana Vieja, Ciudad de la Habana, http://www.hotelparquecentral-cuba.com/
What to see
Browse Old Havana with its narrow cobblestone streets, open squares and Catedral de San Cristóbal. Definitely Shop San Juan handicraft market. The back end of the building usually has a terrific art display. Other items are made for the tourist market but are reasonably priced and make excellent souvenirs.
Go under the harbor channel to the high ridges where two forts guard the city. You can walk the narrow streets and see historic exhibits or just take picture-perfect photos to share on social media. The first one, Castillo del Morro (Morro Castle) dates to the late 1500s. La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña is an 18th century fort. Cross back over to the city to walk along La Rampa (historic 23rd Street) in the Vedado district.
Take a taxi ride in a 1950s Chevrolet or Ford convertible. Seen all over the city, they can be rented with knowledgeable drivers who will take tourists through the upscale Miramar neighborhood of mansions, embassies and hotels, particularly along Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), the former Avenida de las Américas.
While there stop in at Iglesia de Jesús de Miramar, Cuba’s second largest church. Built Roamanesque-Byzantine style by Eugenio Cosculluela y Barreras it has a fabulous organ of 5,000 pipes and 14 huge paintings by César Hombrados Oñativa
If time allows take in the Museo Napoleónico in the 1920s Villa Fiorentina and Museo de Artes Decorativas. Museo de Artes Decorativas in a gorgeous mansion at Calle 17 | No. 502, Havana,
Go over to Revolution Square, a severe Russian-style space of sculptures, murals and buildings that reflect the country’s change from capitalism to Cuban Communism.
Take Havana’s “Hop on-Hop Off, a red double-decker bus that can cover many of the sights in about two hours. http://cuba-junky.com/havana/havana_bus_tour.html
Where to eat
Most of the restaurants are owned and run in partnership with the government. However, more paladars (private restaurants), particularly in the Vedado and Miramar districts are opening every year. Here are three restaurants to consider.
San Cristobal Paladar in central Havana, is eclectic, authentic and fun. It is at San Rafael No 469, E/ Lealtad y Campanario. For seafood with a water view try Rio Mar, 3ra y Final # 11, La Puntilla in the Miramar district. To celebrate a special occasion, go fancy at Café del Oriente in the colonial Old Havana on Plaza de San Francisco.
Plan to return
Havana is a town that embraces the arts. You will hear music and find dancing and art everywhere so no matter what you see and do, you’ll feel as if there just want enough time. You’ll want to go back.