Why I Took My Kids to Havana
"You brought your kids to Cuba?” The question was repeatedly posed to us upon our return, a bit of incredulity mixed with a slight tinge of envy.
Yes, between Christmas and New Years of last year, we took our well-traveled 5- and 7-year-old children to Havana for a five-day trip. Affordable, safe, filled with friendly people, live music spilling out onto nearly every street corner in old Havana, and stunning beaches a stone’s throw away, this city was surprisingly perfect for a family vacation.
Since November 2016, it has been extremely easy to simply hop on a plane to Havana from the U.S. You can get your visas at your check-in counter. There are three direct flights a day from New York City, priced as low as $250 a ticket. As long as you go for one of the 12 approved types of travel, there are no other restrictions. We went under the auspices of a “people-to-people” trip, in which our goal was to meet Cuban people and have the kids learn some Spanish. That was not a challenge. Cubans are incredibly warm and friendly, and it’s easy to make new friends with a couple of smiling moppets in tow.
A bit of pre-travel advice: Before leaving for Cuba, it’s extremely useful to exchange your U.S. dollars into either Canadian dollars or Euros. U.S. dollars are hit with an additional 10 percent exchange penalty that other currencies are not. There are actually two currencies in Cuba: Tourists use the CUC, or convertible peso; Cubans use the CUP, or Cuban peso, pegged roughly at 25 CUP to 1 CUC. In general, tourists do not have access to Cuban pesos, unless they get a local to swap some notes on the sly. And cash is king: U.S. credit cards and ATM cards are still not accepted in Cuba. Unless you have a foreign credit card or bank account, you need to bring a large amount of cash with you.
Havana's splendors have been described by great writers over the years, but that doesn’t prepare you for the sensation of actually walking its streets. It's a full-frontal assault on all five senses. You’ll love feeling the tropical breeze caress your face while viewing grand 18th-century architecture and vintage 1950s American autos trapped in time, hearing the sounds of Son and Charanga emanate from the musicians and radios on seemingly every street corner, the smells of Havana's finest cigars wafting through the air, while sipping on the best mojito you've ever tasted.
Back in the 1950s, Havana was Paris in the tropics, one of wealthiest cities in Latin America. Now it's the world’s greatest urban paradox, simultaneously modern and a trip back in time. The iconic old American cars cruise the street in equal numbers with new Toyotas and 1970s Soviet Ladas. While the Edsel may be found only in car shows and museums in America, it's a common sight on Havana's streets, as are Studebakers, '57 Chevys, and almost every other classic automobile. Our kids preferred to get around Havana in bright yellow, three-wheeled coconut shaped rickshaws, called “coco taxis.” Be prepared for a bumpy ride.
Ernest Hemingway's ghost haunts every corner. He's so revered in Cuba, you'd think he was part of the Revolution. At least three bars claim to be his "favorite drinking place,” and considering Hemingway’s reputation, I suppose he could have spent enough time at each of the three bars to justify the claim. There are lines out the door at the Bodeguita del Medio on Empedrado, where Hemingway drank his mojitos. For a proper daiquiri, he would head up Calle Obispo to El Floridita. Both spots are must-visits for Hemingway fans and cocktail lovers. Finca Vigia, his residence on the outskirts of town, has been preserved as a museum exactly as he left it in 1960.
Most hotels in Havana are actually rather expensive, and usually booked months in advance by package tour groups. Thankfully, Havana has a well-established and government-sanctioned program of private homes and rooms to rent, called casa particulares. Since 2015, the vast majority of these can be booked on Airbnb. A room in old Havana can be had for about $40 a night. We splurged and rented a two-bedroom apartment in a high rise on the water for $90 a night in the heart of Vedado, in the newer part of town. Our apartment overlooked the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform, which prominently features a statue of Cuban hero Marti holding a young Elian Gonzales, with a reproving finger pointing at the U.S. Embassy across the plaza.
Well-stocked supermarkets don’t really exist in Havana. You’re at the mercy of what’s in stock, which is generally very little. While we was there, there were shelves full of Panettone and Gerber baby food, but very little in the way of eggs, fresh fruits, and vegetables. For an extremely satisfying breakfast, however, the Hotel Capri in Vedado has a vast and sumptuous buffet, open to the public. For just $12 per person ($6 for kids), a feast awaits that can fill a belly for half the day. Kids can have their fill of fruits, eggs, pancakes, cereal, and even donuts.
Just as some Cubans have been allowed to rent their apartments for lodging as casa particulares, others have been allowed to operate restaurants out of their homes. These in-home restaurants, limited to 12 seats, are known as paladares and can be found throughout the city. In fact, paladares now outnumber official state restaurants. A tasty dinner including drinks can be had for $10 to $15 per person, and every cab driver will show you their favorite special “secret” paladar if you ask.
SMOKE (IF THAT’S YOUR THING)
Every souvenir hawker and tout in old Havana will offer to sell you “real” Cuban cigars, cheaply. While they may be indeed Cuban, and cigars, they are poorly made knockoffs of the stogies that made Havana famous. For the real deal, stop by one of the Casa de Habano stores found throughout Havana. They have every brand of Cuban cigar imaginable, and you can be assured that you’re not buying counterfeits. After teaching my kids since birth that smoking is disgusting and bad for them, I really had no explanation for why I was bringing home a box of Montecristos. I’m not sure if they bought my “a cigar is a sometimes thing” excuse.
Hugging the waterfront in old Havana is a wonderful children's park and playground, replete with aging carousels, see-saws, and newer bouncy castles. It’s enough to keep the kids entertained for a few hours. Convertible pesos are not accepted for the admission fee, so if you want to visit, you need to find a local parent and trade them some CUCs for CUPs. It’s about $0.15 to enter the park, and admission to the enormous bouncy castles and slides are another $0.15.
In the center of a leafy park in Vedado, an enormous mid-century modern UFO rises above the trees. Lines of locals stretch down the block on all four sides of the park. The UFO does not take trips to Miami, but houses the famed Copellia ice cream parlor. Established by Castro in the early 1960s, Copellia made ice cream accessible to the common folk. For about 20 cents and an hour’s wait, you can get an enormous bowl of Havana’s best Ice cream. For tourists who don’t want to wait and don’t mind paying a little more, there’s an opportunity to skip the line and go to a separate gringo section, where the same ice cream can be had for 10 times the price.
A 20-minute cab right out of town brings you to the gorgeous beaches of Playas del Este, a great day trip. A few hotels dot a 15-mile stretch of white-sand beaches, but it’s largely free of development. For $25 (half-price for kids), you can buy a day pass at the Hotel Atlantico in Santa Maria del Mar, which includes a buffet lunch, and use of the hotel’s pool and facilities. It’s a rather aging, communist-style hotel, mainly filled with foreign package tourists and complete with the requisite overeager activities staff giving poolside salsa and rhumba lessons. The kids loved it.
I should note that Cuban travel is not for everyone. Those accustomed to five-star accommodations and meals and streets lined with fancy boutiques may find themselves disappointed. Folks willing to forsake a few creature comforts for a unique experience a mere 45 minutes from Florida will find Cuba’s charms irresistible. My kids’ days of “people-to-people” experiences left them with beloved memories. As for their newfound knowledge of Spanish? The only word that seems to have lodged in their brains is helado. Ice cream, of course.
Why I (For Real!) Love Traveling With My Kids
“Please. Please, just try for Mommy,” I said, kneeling on the airport bathroom floor next to my three-year-old. She whimpered again, tears in her eyes, terrified of the automatic flush. I knew she had to use the toilet, and we were 15 minutes from boarding. This was not how I had pictured the start of my first family vacation. When I had announced my plans to travel with my husband and two children, ages 3 and 5, from New York to Colorado for a week-long family reunion, I received mixed reactions from friends. There were those who told me I was crazy to travel with young children, and those who said we would make memories to cherish forever. “Just…lower your expectations,” came the sound advice of one level-headed friend, who had traveled around the world with her own kids. I knew it would be difficult; my children had never been on a plane, and it was a long flight. We would be staying in a house with five other families, including five grandparents and seven children under the age of 6. But it was in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have all of my side of the family together in one place. How could I say no? Dinner But now, here I was, kneeling on the cold tile floor, texting my mommy friends for moral support. “Do you have any Post-it notes in your purse?” a friend asked, noting they were excellent for covering automatic flush sensors. Who carries Post-it notes in her purse? Finally, I pulled out the parent’s last remaining resource: bribery. One pink vinyl Hello Kitty wallet from the airport gift shop later, my daughter used the toilet and we were good to go. Next stop: Denver! I have been blessed with well-behaved children, so I was not overly concerned about the flight. It was mostly a matter of keeping them occupied for the duration. We had loaded the iPad with Dora the Explorer episodes, brought snacks and games, and then my husband and I became the in-flight activity directors. “All right, I got this,” I thought, proud of myself for the foresight to consult Pinterest before packing for the trip. I had it all: coloring books, Wikki Stix, peanut butter crackers, and gummy bears. At the end of the flight, the generous pilot invited the kids to sit in the cockpit, and we took two of the best pictures of our trip: the kids flying the plane. They were elated. “This is so much fun,” I thought. That is, until we got to the car rental place. Anyone who has children knows that there are only so many hours you can ask them to sit still. After a four-hour flight, hanging out for two hours in the lobby of a rental car office is not a lot of fun. There had been a mix-up at the rental office and we were stranded until our car arrived. Thus began the whining. “I’m hungry… I’m bored… I’m tired.” And so was I. When we finally arrived at our destination, we had been on the road for more than 12 hours. “Remind me why we did this again,” I said to my husband. He looked at me with bleary eyes after driving two hours from the airport on winding mountain roads in the hot afternoon sun. Poor guy, I thought. This isn’t even his family. Had I brought everyone out here, halfway across the country, to be miserable? And then we saw the mountains. And the elk. Nothing quite beats the look of astonishment and wonder in your children’s eyes when they see something new for the first time. “There’s snow, Mama!” shouted my son, pointing at the peaks of the Rockies. “But it’s summertime!” “Look at that big deer!” my daughter said, eyes wide, as she gazed at a 700-pound elk, its antlers like a majestic tree. They ran to the fence to peer over at the huge animals. Although we took hundreds of pictures during our weeklong stay in Colorado, there are a few that remain etched in my memory, one being that day we arrived, their small lithe bodies leaning over the fence, eager to catch a glimpse of the new landscape. It will stay with me forever. By day, we hiked in the lower trails of the mountains, waded in cold mountain streams, watched a cowboy parade, and explored the local playground. At night we ate huge family dinners, and my children got their first taste of what it means to sit at the “kids’ table” together with the children of my cousins, slurping spaghetti and telling knock-knock jokes. Yes, they stayed up too late and then threw tantrums because they were tired. They ate too much sugar and bumped their heads, claiming it was another cousin’s fault. It was loud all the time, children shrieking, parents laughing, people banging pots and pans and dropping glasses and shouting over board-game victories. There were several temporarily “lost” dolls and even one trip to the emergency room, but there were also new cowboy hats and several trips to the ice cream shop, elk sleeping in the front yard, and, it bears mentioning more than once, THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS. As we flew home and I reflected on the trip, I remembered an essay I’d once read about Christmas by the writer Robert Fulghum, who says that Christmas “[is] just real life—only more of it all at once than usual.” Maybe that’s what traveling with children is, too. Fulghum writes: “And I suppose we will continue doing it all. Get frenzied and confused and frustrated and even mad. And also get excited and hopeful and quietly pleased. We will laugh and cry and pout and ponder… Hug and kiss and make a great mess. Spend too much. And somebody will always be there to upchuck or wet their pants…” Oh, yes. And yet, just as I continue to celebrate every crazy and beautiful holiday, I will continue to travel with my family again and again and again—next time with a pack of Post-it notes.
Family-friendly ski resorts
For some people, winter weather means shoveling snow, long slow commutes, and hopefully escaping to a Caribbean island or a Florida beach for a little while. But for others, winter is the absolute best time of year for every member of the family. Yes, ski season is in high gear across the country, and we're psyched to share some of America’s most family-friendly ski resorts. BRETTON WOODS, New Hampshire, recently received Liftopia’s Best in Snow Award for family-friendly skiing in the Northeast. It’s got a great bunny hill and beginner stretches plus plenty to keep intermediate skiers busy. They’ve also got ski school and childcare. Lift tickets from $51. CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN, Michigan, has been honored by Ski Magazine and Liftopia. It’s got award-winning kids programs like crafts and adventure activities, plus ski school, great on-site restaurants, and a spa for when Mom & Dad need a break from the powder. Lift tickets from $19 (that is an amazing deal). KEYSTONE, Colorado, is where my wife and I took our kids to learn to ski. The teachers were patient and smart, the Rocky Mountains are a beautiful place to learn, and Keystone has an awe-inspiring gondola ride that will thrill the kids. My daughters really loved the sleigh ride dinner and the epic snow fort at the resort's Kidtopia activity area. Every parent will love that kids ski free at Keystone if you stay at least two nights, no exceptions, no blackout dates. Lift tickets from $62.
Deal of the Day: Your Mt. Rushmore Summer Vacation Starts NOW
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How I (Finally) Learned to Ski
A while back, I admitted in Budget Travel's “Ski Resort Survival Guide” (in our November/December 2013 issue) that I had never skied. I had no idea where my confession, tossed in to spice up a Trip Coach column, would lead. When the folks at a major Rocky Mountain ski resort read my story, they suggested that I pay them a visit and finally learn. I took about three minutes to consider their invitation. The potential drawbacks in learning to ski in the Rockies—I can’t see well enough to drive, I take an hour to learn dance steps that others master in seconds, I get migraines at altitude—seemed a little whiny. The potential benefit—that I would finally be one of those guys who gracefully glide down a mountain—was tantalizing. Of course I took them up on their offer. In February, my wife and two young daughters and I flew to Colorado for a week at Keystone Resort. A FAMILY-FRIENDLY RESORT “Do we have to go all the way to Colorado?” was my daughters’ surprising first question. My next step was to find out if a western ski vacation was something we’d enjoy. Budget Travel’s photo editor, Whitney Tressel, gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up—her recent ski trips to Utah’s Snowbird, Deer Valley, and Park City, and Colorado’s Breckenridge had been unforgettable. Encouraged, my family and I found Keystone’s website an inspiring way to plan our visit. My daughters couldn’t get enough of the photos of snow-peaked mountains and pine forests. I, of course, eyeballed those slick families skiing together—that was gonna be us! My wife, Michele, a visual artist and native Californian, was drawn to the sheer beauty of the place—and to its menu of spa treatments involving hot stones, botanicals, and other delights. AN UNBEATABLE DEAL I needed to make sure the resort was a bargain, of course. Keystone participates in the extraordinary EPIC ski pass program—a season pass gets you on the slopes at Park City, Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Canyons, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Afton Alps, Mt. Brighton, and Arapahoe Basin. In addition, Keystone has a “kids ski free” policy, with no blackout dates or exceptions. We learned that you can rent a gorgeous townhouse (with frequent free shuttles to the ski areas) or book a traditional hotel room for well under $200 at the Inn at Keystone (a very short walk from the ski runs!), with plenty of options in between. ALTITUDE! We arrived at the airport in Denver late in the evening and boarded a shuttle for the two-hour ride up into the mountains. Considering that we were traveling with sleepy kids ages 6 and 11, the ride was smooth and scenic in a dark, we’re-not-in-New-York-anymore kind of way. The next morning, we hit River Run Village, the resort’s “downtown,” for breakfast, browsing for souvenirs, and getting used to the serious altitude. We giggled when we noticed that everybody seemed to be moving with a loping “moonwalk” stride thanks to their clunky ski boots. SUITING UP When it was time for our lesson, my daughters and I opted for a private teacher. Experts often recommend that adults and kids take separate lessons because the teaching methods for big and little ones can differ greatly—and the kids’ ski programs at Keystone are clearly first-rate—but I felt strongly that I wanted to see my girls learn to ski, and that they might enjoy watching me conquer my fear of, um, everything and become one of those skiers I’d always secretly wanted to be. We met our teacher, Stephen, and spent about a half-hour getting fitted with helmets, boots, and ski rentals. Rather than tell you how to choose the best ski gear, I’ll suggest that you rely on an excellent, enthusiastic teacher like Stephen, who made the process look easy. I should also note that “extra” gear such as hand warmers, gaiters, and ski socks are not “extras” at all but absolutely necessary. During last winter’s polar vortex, I got sort of hooked on super-warm ski socks—some are wool, others are microfiber. Suited up, we were soon doing that loping moonwalk we’d found so amusing. (You get used to it pretty fast.) LEARNING CURVES Our first lesson was halfway up Dercum Mountain, a short ride on the River Run gondola. A far cry from the creaky wooden chairlifts I’d been worried we’d find, the gondola was completely enclosed and smooth, at least when the wind was mild. (In high winds, the gondola closes and the chairlift is the only way up—or down.) We hoppedoff at the mid-mountain bunny slope and Stephen showed us how to get in and out of our skis. My 11-year-old, Clara, a basketball and lacrosse player, got it in about two minutes. My 6-year-old, Rosalie, a dancer and gymnast, got it in about five minutes. Let’s just say I’m still obsessively reviewing in my 0mind how to master the fine art of stepping in and out of skis. This established a pattern for the remainder of our lessons. Stephen demonstrated how to glide down a gentle grade and stop by turning your skis inward, forming a triangle, or “pizza,” as they say in kids’ ski school. Clara? Got this. Rosalie? Got this. Me? Instead of stopping, I popped out of my skis and fell on my face in the snow. “Double ejection!” exclaimed Stephen, delighted. “I’ve never seen that before!” After a few hours, we took a lunch break with Michele in River Run Village and swapped stories: Her morning at Keystone’s spa was pretty much paradise. She also shared her drawings of the mountains—there’s nothing like the Rockies to inspire an artist to break out her sketch pad. (Lunch and all our other dining experiences at Keystone—from burgers to a fondue feast at the summit to a sleigh-ride dinner that took us up to an old homestead in the woods—were truly exceptional.) Because the girls had mastered gliding and stopping, post-lunch we hopped back on the gondola for the ride to the summit, where a more challenging learners’ slope awaited. Up there, with 360 views of the surrounding mountains, the kids got better and better, practicing run after run. I was content simply to remain vertical, mostly, and to practice easy turns and stops. I started snapping photos and enjoying watching my girls laughing and swooshing around, asking smart questions, and having a blast. After that first day, our week of lessons flew past—and just got better and better. Finally, it hit me: This trip was never about me. This was about giving my children the opportunity to become those girls—the ones who fearlessly glide down a mountain. Am I ever going to move beyond “beginner”? I still hope so. But I’ll tell you what: Clara and Rosalie are already asking on a regular basis, “When are we going back to Colorado?” A KID’S VIEW OF THE MOUNTAIN My daughter Clara loves to read (including Budget Travel) and write. On our visit to Keystone Resort, Clara, who was 11 at the time, took notes, and I suggested that if she took the “assignment” seriously, I would consider sharing her thoughts with BT readers. Here, Clara’s “kid’s-eye view” of Dercum Mountain and our skiing lessons: What I remember most about Keystone and learning to ski is the gondola rides up and down the mountain. I felt like I was flying up higher and higher in a magic cube. When we got out halfway up the mountain, I gazed at the gondolas, like little boxes, moving up, faster than I had felt in the actual vehicle. On the way down, I watched the antlike people and the toy-size buildings grow bigger and bigger as we made our way down. The gondolas were not only handy but magical, especially to me, a newbie. I will say that learning to ski was both fun and scary. Getting in and out of the skis was always tiresome, but the fun and exhilarating ride that came after made up for it! On my first try, I fell over twice, but after learning more, I was more confident and comfortable going downhill. At one point I questioned myself for trying to glide down a mountain on two thin slabs attached to my feet, but eventually I decided I was safe enough and not to question myself or my trainer any longer. At first I was scared to go flying down a hill very fast, but after learning simple tricks, like turning your head in the direction you want to go, I didn’t doubt my skill again. I certainly do appreciate the hard work that our teacher Stephen, my sister Rosie, Papa, and I had to go through so we could learn to ski, because it was really a fun, exciting, and lovely experience!
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