Where are the liveliest people in all the world? Where are the most romanticseafront walks? Where is the least amount of plastic (burger joints and shoppingmalls and theme parks)? And which country has the headiest and subtlest and mostmorally complicated texture? Cuba, only 90 miles -- and several decades -- awayfrom the U.S. And despite travel restrictions, it is eminently accessible. (Ifthe Baltimore Orioles can go, you can, too.) To travel to Cuba today is to meetconundrums of high-spirited skepticism and ardor, and emotional extremes ofpoignancy and laughter, that are like nothing else on earth. It is also to seethe American Empire in its purest form (the Ricky Ricardo nightclubs, the Mafia-built hotels, the juddering old De Sotos); a unique experiment in tropicalMarxism; and a rare, intoxicating mix of African, European, and West Indianrhythms. You learn almost too much when you go to Cuba, and you give a greatdeal back to the warm-hearted, quick-witted people who are often in desperateneed of the most basic amenities (soap, aspirin, socks). To go to Havana, find acharter flight (with tourist card included) and stay at the Hotel Colina, which,for less than $65 a night, offers you an in-house band; slovenly cashiers;whispers in the shadows; and proximity to the Malecón seafront, the grand stepsof the University of Havana, the Coppelia ice-cream park, and the Habana Librehotel (once the Hilton). Cuba is changing fast, though, as Castro ages andtourism from everywhere except America brings glitzy hotels and prostitution: gonow, before the Golden Arches appear.
DETAILS Hotel Colina (011-53-7-52-3535; doubles start at $62); for travelinformation, call the Center for Cuban Studies (212-242-0559) or Marazul Tours(800-223-5334).