12/13/2011 08:27 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

Visiting With Cuba, The Stranger On Our Doorstep

Havana is a place that has been high on my travel list for years. My grandmother used to talk about going in the early 1950s, when the city was at the height of its glamour. From her stories, it sounded like the best of Vegas and Miami with European and Caribbean influences and, of course, Cuban music, cigars and rum. Naturally, when the Obama administration reinstated travel licenses for People-to-People Cultural Exchanges, I jumped at the chance to visit. Now it is possible-though not simple -- to visit Cuba legally, and I wanted to go before it becomes so easy that Cuba becomes the next Puerto Rico.

Since 1959, the island, which is about the size of Tennessee, has been isolated by American economic sanctions, and in many ways, it feels stuck in a time warp. Vintage Buicks, Cadillacs and DeSotos prowl the streets of Havana, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Grand colonial and neo-classical houses, their balconies crumbling and windows strung with electric and laundry lines flank the broad Prado boulevard, which was designed after the Champs-Elysées and boasts an opera house equal in elegance to Paris' Garnier. Strains of Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa float from the bars along Calle Obispo throughout the day. The island is only ninety miles off the coast of Florida, yet nowhere on it can you use American cell phones, credit cards or cash, and no American brand-names or products grace store shelves, road billboards or hotel buffets, which makes distant places like Tokyo and Shanghai, with their ubiquitous McDonald's and Citibanks seem, in a way, even less exotic than this, the Caribbean's largest island.

Fidel Castro, the father of Cuba's revolution, only began inviting tourism in the '90s, after the Soviet Empire collapsed, and the subsidies that had flowed into the island were replaced by a bill for billions of rubles. An era of severe economic hardship, referred to as "The Special Period," followed, and tourism was recognized as an unmined natural resource.

Many believe that in a few years, major foreign investment and mass tourism will bring radical gentrification and floods of tourists. Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, who has been the president since 2008, has already begun to ease some economic restrictions. In fact, many see him as a Cuban Gorbachev, trying to transition the socialist state into a more modern system. Among the recent freedoms that have been granted are the right to own cell phones, cars and real estate. This has improved daily life for Cubans but progress has been slow and the hardship of living with food rations (the monthly food allowance for families purportedly lasts around fifteen days), a censored press and strict travel restrictions remains palpable.

On the positive side, new laws that allow the owners of paladares (in-house restaurants) to seat more than a dozen diners and hire non-family members has led to a gastronomic flowering with new hot spots opening each week. Some are so sleek and sophisticated that they would inspire month-long waitlists in cities like New York and L.A. Still, power outages and hot water shortages in boutique hotels in Old Havana are common, and the most reliable hotels would not rate above three-stars in the West, though they now do come with amenities such as rooftop pools, CNN and occasional WiFi.

In sum, for those who love music, architecture, warm weather and cultural complexity, there is no country so near to the US that delivers such a sense of contrast to American life. Imagine a tropical New Orleans but, of course, with Caribbean and Communist twists. These days, with the prevalence of Apple and Vuitton products in China, Russia and Vietnam, former bastions of Communism hardly feel hard-line, but in Cuba you will see billboards that read "Mas Revolucion, Mejor Socialism" that feature images of Che Guevara on just about every street corner.

The People-to-People Cultural Exchange licenses that Americans can now legally travel on to Cuba require that visitors spend their time on tours with educational and cultural purpose, exchanging ideas and opinions with locals and with visits to see art and culturally significant sites.

"Go home and tell your friends about the beauty and the history and the arts that we have," said one resident. "Despite our governments' differences, we, as people, have more in common than we have differences."

Cuba Now