It is no secret that Cuba has a treasure trove of classic American cars. As we made our way over to a nearby parking lot, anticipating the next leg of our tour, driving on the streets of Havana, we were stunned at the extent of cars slowly parading out onto the main drag. Convertibles and hardtops packed with passengers from our ship, the Norwegian Sky, showcased fantastic hood ornaments, polished chrome grilles and headlights, and a palette of colors that would put a Jackson Pollock painting to shame.
The guys in our group were reduced to utter disbelief. Jaws dropped; cameras came flying out of pockets as we momentarily halted until the long line of cars dispersed. 1957 Impalas, ’58 Buicks, and 1950 Fords slowly eased by us. It was as if we had been transported onto the movie set of American Graffiti, and cruising became the popular pastime! Shouts came from the cars to anyone who was standing on the sidelines. “Get a car. This is fun”, “Join the parade,” “See you later,” “You wanna lift?” We were laughing by the time it was over.
Four hardtops waited for us along the Malecon. Through the commotion and fuel exhaust, we crossed the parking lot and finally sat in our own classic beauties. The interior of the car was spotless. I gazed at the dash and thought, “So this was the era my dad lived in!” The cream-colored seats were plush and comfortable. The air conditioner blasted away as we headed towards the center of town.
We drove by pastel-colored buildings, beautifully landscaped boulevards, ornate palaces, and mansions. Our guide, Roley, pointed out landmarks as our caravan headed towards our first stop at a cigar factory, the La Corona Tobacco Company. This was a last-minute change made by our group, and HavanaJourneys readily accommodated the request. Unfortunately, the factory was closed. We were told that it was a mandated holiday. All the workers were at home. We instead dropped into the cigar store next door to view the product and purchase a few cigars. It was one hitch in the tour that was eventually overshadowed by a relaxing seaside break at the Hotel National.
Before arriving at the hotel, however, we drove through the Vedado neighborhood, a mix of government buildings, businesses and beautiful mansions. Revolution Square is located here. We left our cars and stood in the middle of what looked like a vast parking lot. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have gathered here for political rallies and special events led by Fidel Castro. We took a moment to reflect on the developments that changed Cuba. My gaze fell on the weeds that broke through cracks in the asphalt. A hot tropical wind swirled around us, drying my lips, heating my skin. It seemed to carry a reminder that hardships were endured, change wasn’t easy.
On the perimeter of the parking lot stood the stark, grey rectangular structures of the Ministry of Interior and Telecommunications buildings. Iron murals dominate the walls. They are images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, both instrumental in Cuba’s Revolution. Across the street on the opposite end rose the Jose Marti Memorial. The 59-foot image of Marti sat in contemplative thought. Known for his inspired writings, I wondered what he would have written for Cuba today.
Back on the road, we continued along rolling hills into wealthier residential areas, passing through the Havana Forest. The bright sunshine transformed into intermittent shadow as we drove under lush, green trees, draped in crisscrossing vines. Our guide quipped, “Welcome to the jungle.” The large park was a welcomed reprieve from the hot sun.
The Almendares River flowed alongside the road. We found out that the government is making an effort to vastly clean up the water. Havana is slowly improving and revitalizing all aspects of itself. Back on Quinta Avenida(5th Avenue), we passed stunning mansions where Cuba’s wealthiest resided before the Revolution. Today a mix of restoration and neglect dot the neighborhood, where homes stand in grandeur while others are in disrepair. Many of the mansions are now foreign embassies. The Venezuelan Embassy caught my eye with its banner of Hugo Chavez.
Descending down into a four-lane tunnel that connects the Miramar neighborhood to Vedado, our trip eventually led us to the HOTEL NACIONAL DE CUBA. Situated on a hill overlooking the harbor and city, it was an ideal spot to have a drink and smoke a Cuban cigar. Walking through the lobby, we fanned out.
The hotel’s past is fascinating. I strolled along the corridor reading short comments below photographs covering the hotel’s history. The guys were interested in something else. Finding an outdoor bar, they ordered drinks and pulled out their cigars to smoke on the terrace.
Ancient cannons stand on the hotel’s grounds. Used as a network of Havana’s fortifications during Cuba’s formative years, today they are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Further along, I discover bunkers hidden among the grassy knolls. Stepping down into one, I read a plaque memorializing the Cuban Crisis and Fidel Castro’s preparation against American warships. It was an era that frightened my parents.
The hotel opened on the night of December 30, 1930. Guests like Johnny Weissmüller (Tarzan), Edward VIII (Prince of Wales), Jack Dempsey, Winston Churchill, Nelson Rockefeller, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, John Wayne, and Walt Disney stayed in its opulent setting. It was here that Batista enlisted the help of mobster, Meyer Lansky, in running the casinos in Havana and where the infamous 1946 gathering of the Mafia occurred. The walls have withstood bullet holes, from gangsters, revolutionaries, and Batista’s military. Today, the grand halls decorated with tile, dark wood accents, crystal chandeliers, and polished floors mask these tumultuous times.
Walking back to the terrace, the rest of my party was engaged in convivial conversation, enjoying their drinks, smoking their cigars. It is an ideal spot to enjoy the fresh sea air and the beautiful Caribbean blue sea. But it’s only momentary. We have one last stop to make.
Our tour wraps up with a late lunch at the San Cristobal Paladar in Central Havana. Once a private residence, Chef Carlos Cristóbal Márquez uses the bottom floor of his mansion as a restaurant. Rooms that were once living spaces are turned into dining areas. We have the honor of being placed into the “clock” room where President Obama’s portrait hangs on the wall, marking his visit to the restaurant in 2016.
A long, rectangular table is elegantly set with white table cloths and tableware. Although we didn’t expect a reception usually reserved for royalty, it was what we received. Two to three waiters stayed in the room, ready to address our needs. Drinks were refilled automatically. Menu recommendations were given with great care. A lobster and fish entree was the popular choice. My husband deferred to a local beef dish smothered in “grandmother’s” sauce. I tried the whitefish warped in foil. Everyone agreed that it was one of the best meals we had on our trip.
After lunch, our waiter had a surprise. As a thank you for visiting the restaurant, our host treated us to a gran reserva rum. It was a Cuban custom, we were told, to end the meal with a toast. With shot glasses passed out, we were schooled on the right way to consume the liquor, slow and easy! In the same mood of good cheer, our waiter then honored us with an impromptu song. Heartfelt with perfect pitch, his voice vibrated in the room. It was the end to an excellent meal and a fabulous day.
Could it get any better? We still had an entire evening ahead. Our guides, Monica and Roley, had some great ideas for us as later we would take to the streets on our own.