What to do on your visit to Cuba

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As the Obama administration begins the first, tentative steps toward opening relations with Cuba, it's worth wondering what, exactly that change will mean for American tourists.

In the short run, travel will be limited to Cuban-American citizens, although the White House's decision to encourage telecommunications providers to cover the country means that a few Verizon and T-Mobile employees may soon find themselves packing swimsuits and t-shirts for a trip to Castro's imprisoned island.
However, if this initial attempt at detente bears fruit, it seems likely that Cuba will soon be open to a broader range of American tourists. While a visit to Miami can offer an exciting glimpse of Cuban food, cuisine, and culture, it is hardly a substitute for the real thing.

Of course, for the truly determined, Cuba has never been completely off limits. Even under President Bush, who famously restricted access to the country, many Cuban-Americans could still travel once every three years to visit family members on the island. Those who didn't have connections to Cubans, on the other hand, had to travel to Mexico, where they could pick up a flight to Havana. However, this route was illegal and dangerous.

Once upon a time, Cuba was famous for its nightlife and exciting, vice-laden excesses. A combination of Vegas, Tijuana, and Bankok, it was the kind of place where one could gamble all night, lounge on the beach all day, and generally indulge the most depraved tastes imaginable. However, given that popular disgust at the Batista regime's close relations to American organized crime underlay the Castro revolution, it seems unlikely that visitors will find the lawlessness that once plagued the island.

Of course, there are still some amazing beaches. Varadaro Beach is famously beautiful, and is one of the largest resort areas in the Caribbean. It caters to Western tourists, and offers swimming, diving, snorkeling, sky diving, deep sea fishing, golfing, and much more. If your tastes tend more to quiet solitude, Cayo Santa Maria is the kind of place where you can perch under an umbrella with nothing but the sand and waves for company.

As far as accommodations are concerned, there's nothing like the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana's world-famous resort hotel. Designed by McKim, Meade, and White, the grand edifice has entertained luminaries including Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Hemingway, not to mention Jesse "the Body" Ventura. For Mafia fans, it was also the site of a the "Havana Conference," a 1946 organized crime summit hosted by Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.

Cuba is also a wonderland for fans of history. With a rich Spanish colonial heritage, it offers thousands of nooks and crannies where one can get lost in the past. Moreover, with relations opening, it seems like the perfect time to wander around in Hemingway's footsteps.

With so many options available and so much to see, here's hoping that 2010 will bring a truly libre Cuba!

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