Ever since I first saw the film “The Buena Vista Social Club,” with those suave romantic ballads crooned on Havana’s streets, I yearned to visit Cuba. The music, so rhapsodic, stirred my being; its sweet, sultry Latin sound was the very heart and soul of this storied locale.
A sun-drenched tropical island with a rich culture and warm people, it’s now hotter than ever with the recent “opening,” and the fashionable and fabulous are taking note. It’s no surprise that America’s first couple of music royalty, Beyonce and Jay, celebrated their fifth anniversary in Cuba.
In its heyday in the 50s, glamorous Havana was the place to go, frequented by wealthy playboys, dazzling dames, and movie stars like Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. The dashing young Marlon Brando, a conga drums enthusiast, said he came to Havana because of the music. “The discovery of Cuban music almost made me lose my head.”
The moment you de-plane, you too will feel the magic. Havana oozes beauty and romance. Its breezy seawall promenade, royal palm trees, fragrant orchids, and magnificent buildings with ornate carvings and wrought iron balconies – some being restored, others in varying states of disrepair – are sights to behold.
Then there’s the excitement of seeing a place that’s been forbidden for more than five decades, a veritable time warp with vintage cars and some of the best music and dancing on the planet. You can’t help but be enthralled by the brightly colored 50’s Thunderbirds, Chryslers, and Cadillacs; many are taxis. Riding in these mint condition antique beauties, with cool sounds on the radio, is a signature Havana experience.
Another must-do is taking a salsa lesson before dancing with the suave locals in Havana’s hot nocturnal haunts. My friend Laurie and I headed to La Casa del Son dance studio where we met our sultry Cuban teachers.
The music started and Laurie’s partner, Lordanys, smiled, held her close and twirled her. My maestro, Ushua, more macho, gave me “the look” with his deep brown eyes, repeated that he was “the guy” and must follow his lead, then winked.
We finished our salsa-thon quite thirsty, so we zipped over to the famed Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s Havana hangout. Photographs of the famed author adorned the walls of the bar where the lime daiquiri was created. Los Hombres, a band of four handsome guys, sang “Besa me Mucho” while we downed the delicious concoctions, the best in town.
Close by you’ll find Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway stayed in Room 511 while writing “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” I gazed at his very typewriter, then went up to the roof to enjoy mojitos and glorious views while a live band, Los Reinos, serenaded us.
By day, I took in the city’s wondrous sights, walking the winding cobblestone streets and splendid historic squares of Old Havana, leafy Plaza de Armas with its outdoor book market, and the lively, tree-lined Paseo del Prado, marveling at the colonial and art deco architecture.
After meeting with local artists and visiting the superb Habana Compas Dance Company, I rode in a cherry red Chevy convertible to the legendary Nacional Hotel for a Cubanito (bloody Mary with rum) at the bar.
Nights in Havana are sexy, with visitors and locals strolling the dreamy seafront boulevard, the Malecon, caressed by gentle breezes off the bay. On the streets and in clubs and bars such as Casa de la Musica and Café Taberna, lovers dance to the sound of the Buena Vista Social Club and Guantanamera, or kick up their heels as they rumba, salsa, and cha cha.
Nightclubs like the Cabaret Parisien and the Tropicana, where Beyonce got up on stage with the gals, offer entertainment extravaganzas with showgirls and costumes galore that hark back to Havana’s golden era.
The annual Habaños Cigar Festival has become quite the social event, attracting jetsetters and celebrities who turn Havana into party central. Joining this year’s soiree, Paris Hilton posed for a photo in front of grandfather Conrad’s original Habana Hilton Hotel, now the Hotel Habana Libre, and Tweeted “Cuba Baby!” before taking a selfie with Fidel Castro’s son.
Following in the footsteps of Bey and Jay Z, I made my way to Havana’s most famous paladar (privately run restaurant) La Guarida, located on the top floor of a rundown tenement. Upon entering I found an elegant eatery with German silver cutlery, striking objets d’art, and a wall of photos of notable guests like Queen Sofia of Spain, Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson, and Benicio del Toro, to name a few. Amid a fashionable crowd, I dined on luscious lobster and papaya lasagna and snapper carpaccio paired with fine wine.
At Paladar Los Mercaderes rose petals strewn on marble steps lead to a charming pink room with stained glass windows and beautiful chandeliers. A violinist played romantic music while guests savored specialties like 12-hour roasted spare ribs.
I found Havana to be a jewel box with precious gems nestled in every corner.
WHERE TO STAY
The 5-star Saratoga Hotel, the swankiest one in Havana, boasts posh suites and a glamorous rooftop terrace with swimming pool and bar, knockout mojitos, and panoramic Havana vistas. HOTEL-SARATOGA.COM
HOW TO GO
Black Tomato specializes in arranging authentic, customized experiences in Cuba for discerning guests, including accom- modations and flights. BLACKTOMATO.COM
FOR ART LOVERS
Private collectors and those interested in con- necting with prominent artists and museum curators, contact Cuban born Alberto Magnan at his NYC gallery. MAGNANMETZ.COM
Contributed by Maxine Albert