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A Sneak Peek at the High-Tech Hotel Room of the (Near) Future

By Liza Weisstuch
May 9, 2018
tablet in hotel room
Courtesy Aloft
From voice-activation to streaming features galore, hotels are bringing creature comforts into the digital realm

The instruction was simple enough: there was a cute robot on a sticker on the mirror at the entrance of my hotel room. If I needed a wakeup call or anything else, I could text the phone number next to the 'bot, whose name is Botlr, and voila! Done. I sent the text, and it immediately confirmed it was set. "No problem!" it continued. Then came the rest: "I'm happy to help. FYI, breakfast is available at Re:fuel from 6am to 10am. My favorite is the English muffin, egg and bacon. Basically the best way to start your day." There was a frying pan in there, too. 

Noted, Botlr. I don't eat bacon, but thanks. 

ALL THE COMFORTS OF HOME, ON THE ROAD  

Bottl is merely one example of how hotels are incorporating smart technology into their everyday guest experiences. The Aloft property’s efforts don’t end there. In a select rooms in their 130-room Boston property, which opened in 2016 in the city’s rapidly developing Seaport district, ten are equipped with voice-activated technology, making it the first room of its kind in the industry. Guests set up use a custom app so they can use their own voice to adjust lighting, play music, surf television channels, and explore options for local attractions. And regardless of what room you stay in, anyone with the Starwood Preferred Guest awards program has access to the keyless room, which allows you to use your smartphone to unlock your room as well as bypass the desk at check-in. Add to that the fact that the 100-plus hotels around the world have put a premium on its fast, free Wi-Fi and Aloft stands as a fine example of how hotels are using implementing digital services on a variety of scales, from the full-fledged Futurama intensity to the basic, but increasingly necessary, convenience-is-king level. 

“In this day and age, there are blurring lines between home and away. People who are away want to feel at home," said Christy Loy, Aloft's hotel manager. "Tech is so intrinsic in our lives, from the way we watch content to setting security and lighting at home. It's part of how guests expect to live life. So at a hotel, it helps guests feel connected to what’s important to them.” 

The future is now at hotels around the country. From high-end luxury palaces to budget-minded chains, companies are pulling out all the stops when it comes to technology. Some digital programs and amenities are designed as a matter of convenience, others are intended to ensure guests can feel like they’re in their home away from home when they’re on the road, complete with creature comforts like one’s personal Netflix account streaming right to the television. And other initiatives yet are created to astonish. This tends to involve robots, artificial intelligence, or some other ultra-high-tech wonder. Want to do yoga in your room? Program a smart mirror to instruct you. But for the most part, it’s just hotels doing their part to keep up with the rest of our everyday lives.

Deanna Ting, hotels editor at Skift, a travel trade organization and publication, commends Starwood, calling out Aloft in particular, for it being an early adopter. She notes that Marriott’s approach is to work with Legrand, Samsung, and other electronic brands to incorporate voice activation and take personalization to the next level, but these early implementations are merely just a suggestion of where the technology can go. But she warns to not to be too swept away by Jetsonian elements.    

“If something sounds outlandish, it probably is. In terms of guest experience, the biggest tech trend to keep an eye on is deployment of smart hotel rooms," she told me. "Some chains are doing it to various degrees. Hilton’s idea of internet of things is to put control of rooms in guest hands.”

YOUR SMARTPHONE: THE KEY TO THE HOTEL ROOM OF THE FUTURE

Indeed, to enhance guest experiences, Hilton’s services include choosing a room through the app, which is available to any Hilton Honors member. (The awards program is free to join.) Josh Weiss, Hilton's VP of Brand and Guest Technology, explains that the app lets you control the room before you even arrive. For instance, you can open the door, set the lighting and thermostat, which contributes to energy efficiency, as energy isn’t being wasted to heat or cool a room unnecessarily. Upon checking in, you can open the door, raise or lower the curtains, and sync the television to a personal Hulu and Netflix accounts. And as a clever thoughtful bonus, the app lets you select channels by icon instead of spending time figuring out what channels correspond to which network if you don’t feel like scrolling through the menu. And as an added convenience, the app alerts the hotel if any system isn’t working.

Focusing on software, versus equipment, in the nearly million rooms of its 5000-plus hotels allows for aggressive flexibility.

Weiss says Hilton is also tackling another tricky aspect of travel: exercise. Hilton’s recently implemented Five Feet To Fitness initiative lets you book a room with exercise space and equipment, even a bike. “Five Feet To Fitness transcends price-points. It’s a convenient, comfortable ways to stay fit,” he said, explaining guests can stream fitness instructions on their television. It won’t replace fitness centers, it just gives another option to guests who prefer privacy.

Weiss also notes Hilton’s focus on sleep. "In terms of the Internet of Things, there are devices for white noise and sound isolation," he said. "We’re working on making them compact and scalable so guests everywhere can enjoy them.”

FROM VIRTUAL REALITY TO THE REALITY OF A HOTEL STAY

Best Western Hotels & Resorts, another mega-chain, uses virtual reality to allow guests to experience the hotel pre-arrival, allowing guests to see layout online and give a sense of what they’ll experience at the property. “It’s more than just a static picture, they can sense it,” said Ron Pohl, Best Western's Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.

Other initiatives include using the Echo Dot to ask about the weather or request extra towels be delivered. “We’re all connected 24/7, so how can we apply that to apps, to the phone, to make it feel more like home. Expectations are set at residence, and people want the same capability when traveling,” Pohl told me. “If you come into hotel, we want to identify who you are without you having to tell us. We’re always looking at how to inform before you ask, so we ask you. Then we can send things based on what we know, like notification of a seafood special in the restaurant, or something going on in the area.”

He also noted that the hotel industry is merely following trends set by other industries. “Before hotels dictated how they communicated with customers. Today customers are driving that, they decide when they want to talk to the hotel. Automation caused that. People would rather do it themselves and not rely on other humans. It adds to ease of the customer experience. We call it 'frictionless,' from booking through departure.”

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE DELIVERS REAL SERVICE

Speaking of note relying on other humans, Caesars Entertainment Las Vegas Resorts implemented a 24-hour virtual concierge that can, in typical Vegas fashion, perform some over-the-top feats. Michael Marino, Chief Experience Officer, describes it as a remote control—with artificial intelligence-- for stays at over 10,000 rooms across several Las Vegas resorts. (Plans are to roll it out to the rest of the properties later this year.) Her name is Ivy and she’ll greet you with a welcoming text upon arrival. After that, she’s capable of making reservations for restaurants and each hotel's spas, booking tickets for shows, ordering food that can be delivered anywhere on the premises, even the casino floor. It’s so efficient and engaged that people have been text it soliciting advice. (“Is this outfit right for tonight?”) TripAdvisor reviews suggest guests ask for Ivy, as if it’s a human concierge. But Marino is hardly resting on his laurels. 

"It's quickly becoming table stakes. People are starting to expect this kind of stuff," he says. "Even 18 months ago, it was a 'wow' factor, but there's not nearly as much reaction like "I've never seen anything like that in my life." There are cool things everywhere, but this isn't just a bell or whistle that’ll be stale soon. It’ll always be helpful to people.”

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Inspiration

Why You Should Visit These Historic Cemeteries

Vincent and Robert Gardino have always been history buffs. Brothers and native New Yorkers, the two love reading about past events and following current events with an eye toward the historical perspective, and they’re both avid autograph collectors. But it wasn’t until a trip to Arlington National Cemetery that they discovered what may very well be their true calling: a form of tourism they like to call grave-tripping. Equal parts scavenger hunt and history lesson, the Gardinos’ cemetery visits are a regular part of their travel itinerary. “We look for the interesting stories, the ones that have a little bit of something unknown,” says Vincent. “We also try to make it fun.” To unearth those undiscovered gems, they’ve picked up a few tricks and tips along the way. “Whenever we go to a major city, we go to findagrave.com and see what cemeteries are there and who's buried there,” he says. “It’s the best way to navigate. The site shows you a picture of the crypt as well as its location, and the photo is helpful when you’re looking for people. If you have an idea of what the crypt or tombstone looks like, you find it a little quicker.” That was a lesson he learned the hard way during a trip to Paris, when he and his late wife spent 45 minutes wandering Père Lachaise cemetery in search of actress Sarah Bernhardt’s grave to no avail, and he’s still kicking himself for it. “Jim Morrison’s grave is easy to find—you just follow the people,” Vincent laughs. “But even with a map, I still couldn’t find Sarah Bernhardt.” Now, the Gardinos are aiming to bring their passion for history and storytelling to the masses: They’re currently writing a Grave Trippers book for Temple University Press for publication next year and  looking to create a Grave Trippers show for public television, searching for sponsors to cover the million-dollar cost of the first 13 episodes. The book release and the premiere might both be a ways off, but while we wait, they’ve offered to share five of their favorite burial grounds with Budget Travel, plus three they’re eager to visit. After all, Vincent says, “there's always an adventure.” REMEMBERING THE FALLEN AT ARLINGTON Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia Robert: My favorite is Arlington. Back in the mid ‘90s, we made our first trip to Washington, D.C., together, and part of our planned itinerary was to visit Arlington National Cemetery and see President John F. Kennedy’s grave. We had distinct memories of watching the funeral on television when we were very very young. Arlington as a cemetery is such a spectacle. It's a somber place, but it's beautifully maintained, and it reflects the devotion of a country to its fallen service men and women, and we were very much impressed by that. There are so many other notables in Arlington: Another president, William Howard Taft, the boxing champion Joe Louis, the Academy Award-winning actor Lee Marvin, Audie Murphy, who became an actor but is the most decorated veteran of World War II. Vincent: Louis and Marvin, they're buried side by side. Louis has this elaborate tombstone, and then Marvin has the regular G.I. Joe one, the small one that you'd expect to see. There are over 300 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients in Arlington, and when you're a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, your headstone has gold leaf. Audie Murphy does not have any gold leaf. None. And he was probably the most decorated soldier in history of the Army—this guy won like every award known to the Army—but the family requested that there was no gold leaf, that he just wanted it to be a regular stone. Here's another one for you. Admiral Peary is generally credited with discovering the North Pole. Well, his right-hand man was Matthew Henson, who was African American. He went with Admiral Peary on all of his expeditions—they were a team for 25 years, and when they discovered the North Pole, Admiral Peary gave Matthew Henson joint credit. So fast-forward a little bit: Peary dies in 1920 and has a very impressive monument [in Arlington], and Henson lives until 1955 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. And then by executive order of President Ronald Reagan in 1988, he was exhumed, along with his wife, and buried right in front of Admiral Peary in Arlington. And now he’s got a very, very impressive monument too. Robert: We were so impressed with Arlington and visiting the graves of those famous people that that's what got us hooked on visiting other cemeteries, and this is how we became what we call Grave Trippers. STARS AT YOUR FEET IN LOS ANGELES Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles Vincent: Westwood Memorial Park is a very small cemetery, believe it or not, in the middle of L.A., right off of Wilshire Boulevard in between—are you ready for this?—skyscrapers. It’s teeny-weeny, but per foot, there are more celebrities buried there: The most famous resident, obviously is Marilyn Monroe, and she just got a neighbor, Hugh Hefner, who bought the crypt right next to her. But there’s tons of people there: George C. Scott, Natalie Wood, Dean Martin, Jack Lemmon, Farrah Fawcett, Merv Griffin, Walter Matthau, Donna Reed...it goes on and on and on. You could just spend two or three hours and literally run into people buried there because it's so small. It's just a fascinating place, and the fact that it's right between two skyscrapers makes it even more fascinating. A GATHERING OF JAZZ GREATS IN THE BRONX Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York Vincent: We call it our home away from home. Robert: It's a beautiful cemetery, very well maintained. That's where the jazz corner is—where the graves of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Miles Davis are. Vincent: Miles Davis is actually buried above ground—he did not want to go underneath....  They're all buried within feet of each other. It was the first rural cemetery in New York City. In the middle of 19th century, they were actually running out of space in Manhattan, so a group of concerned citizens bought out about 60, 65 acres in the Bronx, and that's how Woodlawn got started. The very first celebrity funeral in New York was Admiral Farragut [Ed. note: of “damn the torpedos” fame]. When he died in 1870, they got him in there, and his funeral cortege was like two miles long. It was headed by then-president Ulysses S. Grant, so they got their money's worth. Other people there are Bat Masterson, the master builder—though some people will debate that—Robert Moses, and Fiorella La Guardia, probably our favorite mayor. PRIME REAL ESTATE IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA Forest Lawn - Glendale, Glendale, California Vincent: Forest Lawn – Glendale is massive. That's the only way to describe it. The difference with Forest Lawn is that they don’t give you directions to graves. Normally when you go to a cemetery, you go to the office and they have maps that'll show you where all the famous people are buried and directions to the sites—and that's also where the fun comes in, ‘cause you always get lost trying to find these people. But Forest Lawn will not tell you where anyone is, and there are a lot of sections that are private and only available by key, so it's an interesting place to navigate. I've been there three times searching for Lon Chaney's crypt, which I can never find, but Elizabeth Taylor is there, Clark Gable, W.C. Fields, Jean Harlow, Jimmy Stewart, L. Frank Baum, to name a few. AN UNDYING BASEBALL RIVALRY IN SUBURBAN NEW YORK Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York Vincent: I think Kensico is probably my favorite because it's incredibly well manicured—just immaculate grounds.... About five or six years ago, I was there with Robert, our close friends, and my late wife, and we go up this hill and I see this impressive above-ground sarcophagus that says Harry Frazee. I’m going, “Oh my god, Harry Frazee!” and everyone's looking at me like I've got five heads on my shoulders. Well, Harry Frazee was the owner of the Boston Red Sox who sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, and the guy he sold him to, Jacob Ruppert, the owner of the Yankees, was down the hill from him! So they were united. Harry Frazee is not on Kensico’s map of famous folks, but he was an interesting character. Not only did he own the Boston Red Sox, but his primary claim to fame was as a Broadway impresario. His most famous play was No, No Nanette, and he actually built the Cort Theatre on 48th Street in Manhattan. [If you’re curious where Babe Ruth himself is buried, he’s actually just up the road, at Gate of Heaven Cemetery, in Mt. Pleasant, New York.] The other people at Kensico Cemetery are Anne Bancroft, Tommy Dorsey, Billie Burke [Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz], Danny Kaye, and David Sarnoff, who, as the head of NBC, really put radio on the map when he went out and got Arturo Toscanini to conduct New York Philharmonic concerts on the air for NBC. WHERE WILL THE GRAVE TRIPPERS GO NEXT? Even the Grave Trippers haven’t seen it all. Here’s what’s on their cemetery hit-list: Mt. Carmel Catholic Cemetery Where: ChicagoWho’s buried there: Al Capone Sparkman/Hillcrest Cemetery Where: DallasWho’s buried there: Mickey Mantle Holy Cross Colma Where: Colma, California, the “City of Souls”Who’s buried there: Levi Strauss, William Randolph Hearst, Joe DiMaggio UNUSUAL RESTING PLACES Not all historical figures are laid to rest in cemeteries, and some of the most noteworthy graves are in unusual places. “Woodrow Wilson is actually buried in the nave of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC,” Vincent says. “General Worth, the person Fort Worth, Texas, is named for, happens to be buried in the middle of the street in Manhattan, on 21st Street and Broadway. He's right at that intersection with a 51-foot-high monument. You can't miss it. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin's grave is right on the street—you don't even have to go in the churchyard. Also in Philadelphia, John Pemberton, a famous Confederate general, is in an obscure part of Laurel Hill cemetery—like, when they put him in, they didn't want people to know they had a guy like him in there. Andrew Carnegie, probably the Bill Gates of his age, has a very simple grave in Sleepy Hollow, New York, and buried around him are his servants, butlers, and maids.”

Inspiration

Hotel We Love: Front Street Inn, Wilmington, NC

A family-friendly coastal community that's home to both a healthy university crowd and a thriving population of retirees, Wilmington, North Carolina, is a year-round destination, thanks to its temperate climate, proximity to the beach, and wide array of food, drink, and artsy activities on offer. In the heart of downtown, Front Street Inn is a quirky independent property with individually themed rooms, reasonable rates, friendly staff, and a decidedly welcoming approach. THE STORY Originally built as a Salvation Army headquarters in 1924, the red-brick building was home to an orphanage, office space, and apartments before it was gutted and converted to an inn in the early ‘90s. The current owners—a couple, married for nearly six decades—felt restless in retirement, first opening a restaurant in Lilliington, a few miles inland, before relocating to the coast and purchasing this property in 2005; their son, a former schoolteacher, manages the day-to-day operations. THE QUARTERS The Inn has two floors, and it retains the feel of a bed and breakfast, with first-floor rooms mainly accessed through the Inn itself and rooms on the second accessed via a balcony. (The Taverna suite on the first floor has a private entrance.) Each of its 12 rooms and suites has a different theme, from the nautical touches of the Jacques Cousteau suite to the southwestern-accented Georgia O’Keeffe; amenities vary by room size and location, but all accommodations have free WiFi access, and most have mini-fridges. I stayed in the first-floor Pearl Buck, a sunny, quiet, queen room with 14-foot-high ceilings, tall arched windows, maple flooring, and a selection of the famed writer’s books on the built-in shelf by the headboard, conveniently situated for bedtime reading. THE NEIGHBORHOOD Located smack-dab in the middle of downtown Wilmington, just a 20-minute drive to Wrightsville Beach, Front Street Inn is spitting distance from the area’s restaurants, bars, breweries, galleries, and museums, close to draws like the Riverwalk, a collection of shops and restaurants set on nearly two miles of boardwalk overlooking the Cape Fear River, and historic homes like the Bellamy Mansion (bellamymansion.org), the Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens (bwhg.memberclicks.net), and the Latimer House (latimerhouse.org), which are open for tours and offer an idea of what life was like for rich folks in the days before modern conveniences. (Set on the site of the former city jail, the Burgwin-Wright also incorporates an overview of how things were for the less fortunate, in the days before habeas corpus—i.e., not great.) It’s around the corner from the Children’s Museum (playwilmington.org) and a quick drive from the USS North Carolina (battleshipnc.com), a World War II battleship that saw action in the Pacific and now welcomes visitors for self-guided tours. If you’re looking for a peek at the local arts scene, Wilmington’s Arts Council (artscouncilofwilmington.org) hosts a monthly gallery walk; pop into one of the 20 or so participating venues for wine, snacks, live music, and small talk with the artists themselves. Art is subjective, obviously, but I loved the black-and-white photography, cool collages, and amazing blown glass at Art in Bloom (aibgallery.com). THE FOOD Front Street has a beautiful kitchen, with a thick-wood-beamed ceiling, blue-and-white tiles, and a vintage, workhorse oven that turns out a daily complimentary breakfast (during my stay, ham-and-cheese quiche, blueberry muffins, and two kinds of pound cake, plus fresh fruit, boiled eggs, and cold cereal) for the inn’s guests. For the rest of your meals, nearby dining options are bountiful and varied, with joints serving everything from sushi to Southern in divey digs and highbrow environs alike. We splurged on dinner at PinPoint (pinpointrestaurant.com), named to Southern Living’s list of best new restaurants in 2016 and serving coastal cuisine that’s been living up to the billing ever since, with a menu starring meat, produce, and seafood sourced from local farmers and fishermen. For a light lunch or a more substantial meal, Savorez (savorez.com) is a small, colorful corner room with reasonably priced Latin American fare. Snack-wise, Front Street Brewery (frontstreetbrewery.com), offers half-priced appetizers from 4-6pm daily; pair a pile of light, crispy onion rings with a five-beer tasting, and you'll be more than sated. ALL THE REST There’s a small lot adjacent to the inn, and parking is free for one car per room. One room can accommodate a dog, but just one dog at a time, and it must weigh less than 40 pounds. Rates include breakfast and WiFi access. RATES & DEETS Starting at $129 per night. Front Street Inn215 South Front StreetWilmington, NC800.336.8184frontstreetinn.com

Inspiration

Confessions of a Singing Tour Guide

Jan Tervoort, known as “Amster Jan,” will lead you on a walking tour of Amsterdam and serenade you with traditional Dutch folk songs along the way. Here, his insider hints for visiting the uniquely gorgeous city. (Hpbfotos/Dreamstime)Q: What inspired you to become a singing tour guide? A: I fell in love with Amsterdam when I moved here 12 years ago and started giving tours to friends who were visiting, then decided to go professional. The city’s tourist industry is very competitive, so I needed something to stand out. I brought along my guitar and sang old folk songs. I’m still the only singing tour guide in the city. Q: What’s your best money-saving tip for the first-time visitor to Amsterdam? A: Contact me at Amsterjan.nl. Start with a general tour of the city. A two-hour tour costs 100 euros, but the tips and advice you will get in the two hours will help you save time and money the rest of the trip. Q: I’ll bet you get asked a lot of interesting questions on tours. A: One family brought their 89-year-old grandma in a wheelchair to the old Amsterdam neighborhood where she was born. They brought along a very old picture of the house where she was born, and for some reason she didn’t know the address. From clues in the picture, we went for a search through the neighborhood and found the place. It was very in­teresting and emotional. Q: What’s your number-one Amsterdam secret that you’re willing to share? (Frank Cornelissen/Dreamstime)A: Visit the Western Islands, created in the 17th century for the shipping industry. Tourists haven’t discov­ered them yet. They’re in the center of Amsterdam close to central station, the busiest part of the city, but on the islands it is totally quiet. There is almost no traffic, beau­tiful old storehouses, little old wooden walking bridges, a little children’s farm, nice canals, a local bar, and no shops. You’d actually feel as if you’re going back in time if it weren’t for the big yellow submarine that rests in the central canal. Q: What’s the weirdest encounter you’ve had on a tour? (Hpbfotos/Dreamstime)A: In the posh neighborhood of Jordaan, I was telling a tour group about one of Holland’s most famous gangsters, and the gangster in question actually pulled up on a scooter to say hi. Every­one went silent, then be­gan to laugh. The man is currently in jail, charged with several murders.

Inspiration

Just Back From: Cuba

Back in the fall, I was on a plane-ticket buying spree. Cheap airfare is my Achilles heel, and post-holiday flights are always irresistibly inexpensive; true to form, I couldn’t say no, booking tickets to San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, for two cross-country trips within less than a month of each other. (Irresponsible use of my credit cards? Perhaps. Proven method of combating SAD? Most definitely.) So when my oldest travel friend got in touch and invited me to crash her trip to Cuba, I was predisposed to politely decline—she would be traveling in between my two West Coast sojourns, and I’d already racked up enough debt to make my New Year’s resolution null and void before 2017 was even over. But true to form, I just couldn’t bring myself to say no, and that’s how I found myself skipping town the morning of a nor’easter and disembarking at José Martí International Airport a few hours later to bright sun, blue skies, and 90-degree weather. During the next five days, we wandered around Havana, lingering in plazas and browsing through museums and galleries, eating and drinking and taking in the rhythm of the city. (We also spent a day at the beach, because it was February and how could we not?) Here’s how it all went down. Day 1: Habana Vieja View from the Airbnb. (Maya Stanton) Our first two nights, we stayed in a casa particular (a room for rent in a private home) near Plaza Vieja, a square in Old Havana with eclectic architecture, bars with live music and towers of beer, and restaurants that cater to a tourist-heavy crowd. As we walked through the narrow streets in and around the square, we dodged groups of happy, noisy school children and peeked in the windows of all kinds of stores, from upscale chains to hole-in-the-wall souvenir shops.   A gussied-up gin and tonic at O'Reilly 304. (Maya Stanton) We’d read that O'Reilly 304 (O’Reilly between Habana and Aguiar) was vegetarian-friendly, which suited the third member of our party—we expected to be inundated with pork and seafood during the next few days, so it seemed smart to start someplace that had options for all of us. The bar is known for its gin drinks, and my G&T was suitably over the top, with a smattering of fruit and peppercorns in the mix, and a spiral of lime peel and a pink-edged petal for garnish. Our non-meat-eater gave two thumbs up for her veggie tacos, while my friend and I tucked into plates of octopus (extremely tender), lobster (a bit overcooked), and grilled vegetables (copious but pretty plain). Fishing on the Malecón. (Maya Stanton) We rolled out of the restaurant and ambled over to the Paseo del Prado esplanade, pausing to watch a small ensemble performing traditional tunes as couples danced and visitors filmed. From there, we made our way up to the Malecón, the seawall that separates the road from the surf and serves as a meeting place, a fishing hole, and a WiFi hotspot all in one. We took in the ocean breeze for a bit, admiring Cuban sculptor Rafael San Juan’s Primavera, a 23-foot-high ballet-inspired bust of a woman, created from recycled steel for the 2015 Havana Biennial and installed in front of a bright-green building, then continued our walkabout.   A colorful street in Habana Vieja. (Maya Stanton) We circled through the vibrant old town, its dusty streets teeming with people—tourists making the rounds, locals chatting with neighbors, running errands, and calling out from souvenir-shop doorways, sidewalk cafes, and pedicabs to earn some business. A woman with a baby strapped to her chest walked with us for a bit, asking for money, and as we wound our way through neighborhoods with dilapidated facades and sparse markets, dodging stray dogs and catcalls, the contrast between our fancy lunch and what we were seeing on the streets in front of us was striking. As the sun set and we grew closer to home, a nightcap seemed in order, so we made a quick stop at Siá Kará (facebook.com/siakaracafecuba), a café with cheap beer, good piña coladas, and a tempting menu, then made our way back to our casa particular.   Day 2: Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, & Vedado Museo de Arte Colonial, Havana. (Maya Stanton) The next morning, we woke to the sounds of roosters crowing and breakfast sizzling. Most casas offer a homemade morning meal, and for CUC$5 per person, our host provided a generous spread of eggs, fruit, rolls, plantains, and coffee. Properly prepared for our first full day on the island, we started off to explore, heading first to the Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, a 16th-century square that faces the Havana Harbor. After a quick photo op, we swung over to Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a fort built in the 1500s that stands guard over the bay. We decided against visiting the navigation museum housed within, instead rambling a block south to Plaza de Armas, the oldest square in the city. A group of exuberant kids played a variation of Duck Duck Goose in front of the statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the Cuban revolutionary who got the ball rolling on independence from Spain, as we looked around for the secondhand book market that’s reportedly there Monday through Saturday. But the vendors were nowhere to be found, so we consoled ourselves with a few minutes of eavesdropping on a guided tour, then moved on. Somehow resisting the siren call of baked goods from Panadería-Dulcería San-José (Obispo between Mercaderes and San Ignacio), we poked our heads into a store that carried a preponderance of white-linen dresses and guayaberas; a few steps further led us to their place of origin, an open-front workshop humming with sewing machines. As we wandered the cobblestone streets, lined with sherbet-hued buildings and dotted with shops and cafes, we stumbled upon Piscolabis (piscolabishabana.com), a boutique-cafe combo carrying unique apparel, accessories, and home decor, all made by Cuban artisans. I wanted to buy everything, then remembered my already-full suitcase, limited funds, and disinclination to carry shopping bags around the rest of the day, and left empty handed.   Havana's Plaza de la Catedral. (Maya Stanton) Finally, we arrived at Plaza de la Catedral, an 18th-century square in the northeast corner of the city with an asymmetrical stone cathedral at its heart. The entrance to the Museo de Arte Colonial (San Ignacio 61) faces the plaza; we took a lap around the gift shop and snapped a few photos of the canary-yellow courtyard, but we still weren’t ready to commit to a museum visit. A wood-block printing mold in the making at Taller Experimental de Gráfica. (Maya Stanton) Instead, we headed for the other end of the plaza, where there's a narrow alley awash with restaurants and a gauntlet of touts who gather at the base of the street, attempting to reel in customers. Past the tables of diners with stray cats begging at their feet, you’ll find Taller Experimental de Gráfica (Callejón del Chorro 6), a very cool space where artists create and sell their work—everything from painted tiles to carved-wood-block prints. I fell in love with a pastel-hued, old-school-style travel poster of the Malecón, but at CUC$300, it was out of my price range, so I settled on a small 8"x10” print for CUC$40 instead. It was the smart choice, but even now, months later, I’m still thinking longingly of the one that got away. Librería Victoria on Calle Obispo. (Maya Stanton) Our afternoon agenda included a visit to the Museo de la Revolución (Avenida Bélgica; CUC$8) in Centro Habana, and to get there, we had to pass one of the other vegetarian-friendly restaurants on my list, so we figured it was time for lunch. Before we could get there though, we were lured into Librería Victoria (Obispo 366), a dimly lit bookstore on the main shopping drag, with great silk-screened posters advertising Cuban films, Rolling Stones concerts, and classics like Singin’ in the Rain; a birdcage swinging above the door; and plenty of dusty old tomes. We browsed the stacks until our stomachs were rumbling too much to ignore.Lobster salad at Ivan Chefs Justo. (Maya Stanton) Luckily, we were just few blocks away from Ivan Chefs Justo (facebook.com/IvanChefsJusto), a brightly painted yellow townhouse with an antiques-jammed interior, every bit of available wall space covered with framed prints, paintings, and photos of varying sizes. We decided to forgo the visually busy dining room in favor of the shady rooftop terrace, accessed via a narrow spiral staircase. After consulting the chalkboard menus, we ordered a bunch of plates to share: a bread basket with dips; a salad layered with lobster, fresh tomatoes, and thin-sliced onions and doused with olive oil, tiny basil leaves, and a shower of cheese; golf-ball sized fish croquettes with plantains and a smear of tzatziki; and mixed seafood on a chunky, risotto-like bed of corn and pumpkin. Stuffed and fighting the urge for a siesta, we ordered coffee and headed across the street to the museum. My cortado must’ve done the trick, because as we made our way through the former Presidential Palace and gawked at glittering chandeliers juxtaposed with bullet holes dating from a student-led (unsuccessful) attack on then-President Batista, I didn’t yawn once. We took in the propaganda-loaded history lesson (let’s just say the Kennedy administration isn’t painted in the most positive light), then stepped out front to find a ride to our next destination. We were hoping to hail one of the city's famously photogenic vintage cars to take us there, but the drivers we spoke with were looking for passengers who wanted to hire them for the day, not a single ride. The regular cabs were a bit pricey, so we ended up squeezing into the back of a coco taxi (a yellow helmet-shaped scooter that seats up to three behind the driver) and holding on for dear life as our driver peeled out into traffic. A short ride later, we pulled up in front of Cuba Libro (cubalibrohavana.com), an English-language bookstore/coffee shop/community hangout in Vedado, a sprawling residential neighborhood to the west of the old city. We whiled away an hour in the shady, hammock-laden front yard, shooing away mosquitos, sipping iced tea, and flipping through the pages of a street-style book as the Sirius station streamed perfect sunny-afternoon soul tunes. (We especially enjoyed the cleverly labeled reading material in the restroom.) From there, it wasn’t a far walk to El Cocinero (elcocinerocuba.com), a rooftop bar and restaurant in a former oil factory, with a trendy, too-cool-for-school vibe. We showed up without a reservation, but the hostess eventually cleared us to climb the winding stairs up to the terrace...which turned out to be practically empty before the dinner rush. We opted for cold bottles of domestic Cristal (CUC$2.50) instead of something from the cocktail list, then headed for our dinner reservation at Río Mar (facebook.com/restauranteriomar), a seafood-centric restaurant on a tiny peninsula on the north coast. After a wrong turn through a neighborhood that didn’t seem to get many tourists and a detour past a burned-out, apocalyptic-looking seafront high-rise, we finally found the place. We ordered a few tapas-style small plates: ropa vieja on soft corn cakes, stuffed piquillo peppers, and another round of veg tacos for our non-meat eater. We’d planned to swing back toward El Cocinero to see what was on next door at Fábrica de Arte Cubano (fac.cu), a hipster-sounding arts and entertainment venue, but we were wiped out and instead opted for a cab back to Habana Vieja, where we ventured up to the plaza for a few glasses of wine, then called it a night. Day 3: Varadero We’d booked a taxi to take us to the beach at 8 a.m., and our driver was right on time. (At CUC$10 per person, it would’ve been less expensive to take the bus, but a cab offered a more direct route and a more flexible schedule, and since we didn’t have unlimited time to spend in transit, we sucked it up and paid the $100 fare.) The resort town of Varadero is a few hours by car, so we made a pit stop at a thatched-roof roadside plaza for a breakfast of coffee and ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Even at that early hour, a four-piece band was warming up, providing a serene yet slightly surreal backdrop, especially for those of us more familiar with the chaos of rest stops on the I-95 corridor.  A beachy beverage at Vernissage. (Maya Stanton) By 11 a.m., we’d checked into our centrally located casa particular and found our way to the patio of Vernissage (corner of Avenida Primera and Calle 36), a restaurant and snack bar conveniently situated between home and beach. After a round of piña coladas and a rib-sticking lunch of roast pork, rice and beans, seafood bisque, and vegetable lasagna, we were more than ready for an afternoon in the sun.  A glorious day in Varadero. (Maya Stanton) We walked the block to the beach and stopped at the first place we found, Hotel Los Delfines (Avenida Primera and Calle 39), where we rented lounge chairs for a few CUC and spent the rest of the day swimming, reading, and sipping mojitos. After the beach, we rode the complimentary tourist bus to the end of the isthmus and back (don’t do this—it stops at every all-inclusive along the way, and it’s a long trip), then went in search of dinner. Our first choice, a Spanish spot, was permanently shuttered, so we settled for the next place we happened upon, an open-air joint called El Rancho, for an utterly forgettable meal. As we were paying the bill, we heard the music ramping up across the street at the Beatles Bar (Avenida Primera and Calle 59), and as a lifelong fan of the Fab Four—albeit one with an ingrained dislike of Beatles cover bands—I felt compelled to stop by and check out the show. A quartet of a so-bad-they’re-good sculptures greeted us as we entered, and as the band began cycling through an odd mix of Beatles tunes and random ‘90s hits from the likes of Shania Twain and the Offspring, we found seats in the back and watched the very enthusiastic crowd from a safe distance. A little went a long way and we'd soon had enough, making our way home to crash hard before our early-morning departure. Day 4: Matanzas & Havana  Breakfast, casa particular–style. (Maya Stanton) With the help of our host, we arranged for a driver to take us back to the capital via Matanzas, about a 40-minute drive from Varadero, making a stop or two along the way. We just had time to finish our homemade breakfast before the cab arrived, and we were on the road by 8 a.m. Our first stop was Cueva de Saturno, a freshwater subterranean cave with a swimming hole and snorkeling gear for rent. Sadly, and contrary to the intel we’d gathered in the planning stages, it wasn’t open that early, so we hopped back in the car, rolled down the windows, and let the wind blow through our hair as our driver blasted the timba. Riverside in Matanzas. (Maya Stanton) Half an hour later, we pulled into the waterfront city of Matanzas, winding our way through town until we reached Ediciones Vigía, a small-batch publishing company with serious artistic bonafides. Its books, released in limited editions and beautifully crafted from handmade paper and found materials, have received international praise, featuring in collections from New York’s Museum of Modern Art to the Library of Congress. I could’ve lingered in the airy, plant-filled space for another hour, but we had things to do and places to be, so we made our selections (a notebook for me and a volume of poetry for our vegetarian friend) and got back on the road. An array of books from Ediciones Vigía. (Maya Stanton) Before long, we were hitting the outskirts of Havana. Our final casa was the best of the bunch, with high ceilings, a mini fridge with honor-system bottled water and cans of beer, and a great location a block or two from the Paseo del Prado. We dropped our suitcases and set out to cross a few things off our list. After a quick stop at Hotel Sevilla (hotelsevilla-cuba.com), where we grabbed cigars to take home for friends and spent a few minutes in the atrium listening to the band, we hailed a cab to take us back to Vedado for lunch. Arroz caldoso and Havana's best mojito at Decamerón. (Maya Stanton) Inside a nondescript townhouse on a high-traffic street is Decamerón (facebook.com/RestauranteDecameron), a privately owned paladar with a plain facade that belies a genteel, white-tableclothed interior and well-executed, vegetarian-friendly Cuban cuisine. (It also served the best mojito I had all week. The secret ingredient? A generous dose of bitters to cut through the customary sugar for a more balanced beverage.) We commandeered a corner table on the leafy terrace and proceeded to have a leisurely meal of green salads—our first in days—and, for me, a highly satisfying bowl of arroz caldoso, brothy rice with chicken, pork, and Catalan sausage. After lunch, we made a pilgrimage to Parque Lennon (not to be confused with Parque Lenin) for some quality time with my favorite ex-Beatle. Though his music was once banned in Cuba, John Lennon is now memorialized in bronze and patiently accepts visitors from his perch in the park. His glasses were missing, but other than that, the resemblance was uncanny. From there, we caught another cab, this time bound for the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (bellasartes.co.cu). We started with the international collection, which was broad in scope and not super exciting, and took in José Manuel Fors’s Palimpsesto installation, but we spent the bulk of our time with the Cuban collection. I loved the ink-and-tempera illustrations from the 1930s, and the modern pieces on the second floor were stunning. Back in Havana. (Maya Stanton) With a few hours of daylight left, we spent the rest of the afternoon popping in and out of various galleries in and around the museum: The Merger (Monserrate 203), a studio directly across the street with contemporary sculptures and prints, and over on Obispo, the gallery of Ernesto Villanueva Morera (evillanueva.com), where I would’ve spent all of my money if only I'd had enough. On our way back to the casa to change for dinner, we came across a small collective in a gritty, ground-floor space just off the Paseo and spent a few minutes browsing and chatting with the artists. No matter where we looked, we seemed to find that creative spark.   For dinner, it was back to the Plaza de la Catedral for a meal among the touts. We’d made a reservation at Paladar Doña Eutemia (donaeutimia.restaurantwebexperts.com), the alley’s initial attraction; when the restaurant became popular, others sprung up in its wake to vie for its overflow, but none of them have the cachet—or the quality—of the original. Our table was out front on the terrace, which was lovely...until it started to rain. Relocated to the cheery dining room, we dug into plates of picadillo and roast pork (and garbanzo-bean stew for our vegetarian friend). The pork was dry, but the picadillo—seasoned ground beef sautéed with raisins and olives—more than lived up to the billing. The rain was still coming down when we left, and the streets had emptied out a bit. We made an impromptu stop on the way home, drying off a few seats on the balcony at Esquina de Cuba (facebook.com/esquinadecuba) for a farewell round of piña coladas and fancified gin and tonics. Day 5: Homeward Bound Definitely not waffles. (Maya Stanton) Lured by the promise of waffles, we chose Cuban fashion designer Jacqueline Fumero’s Café del Angel (cafedelangeljf.com) for our final breakfast. Sadly, it was false promise and there were no waffles to be found, so we settled for a colorful spread of eggs, toast, mango juice, and coffee instead. With our flights scheduled to leave in just a few hours, we had time for one more stop: the Saturday art market on the Paseo. My friend bought a print, but my last CUCs were reserved for the taxi to the airport; if I’d budgeted enough, though, I would’ve found room in my suitcase for a tiny watercolor or two.  Just off the Paseo del Prado in Havana. (Maya Stanton) Again, our host at the casa helped arrange our ride to the airport, and when we came downstairs, we were pleasantly surprised to find a vintage turquoise Plymouth waiting for us at the curb. I'd had mixed feelings about being one of those oblivious tourists gallivanting around in a classic car, and now that one had presented itself, it was like my internal dilemma had materialized before my eyes. I was still grappling with the disconnect between the cushy visitors’ experience and the poverty we were seeing on the streets; the two coexist in a way that’s troubling, to say the least. Though a recent survey puts the numbers slightly higher, Cuba’s National Office of Statistics reports that the average monthly salary is less than $30 per month—meaning many Cubans make less in a month than a visitor spends in a few days. They can’t eat at the same restaurants, take the same transportation, or spend the same currency, and the tourist restaurants get first crack at whatever produce is available, so food scarcity is a real problem. (More on this below.) Unsurprisingly, we felt some resentment during the course of our stay, but we also met people who welcomed us warmly and wanted to talk about everything from their day-to-day lives to their thoughts on America’s current political climate. As we slid into the Plymouth’s floral-upholstered backseat and passed through parts of the city most visitors only see through a cab window, I thought about the moments of beauty we'd experienced, the hospitality we’d received, and the creativity we’d witnessed, and let myself sit back and take in the ride. The Fine Print Though the U.S. State Department still forbids its citizens from traveling to Cuba strictly for tourism purposes, Americans can obtain visas under 12 categories of acceptable travel. You'll select one when you book your plane ticket, and then purchase and pick up the visa at the airport, so be sure to allow extra time before your departure.  Americans will need enough cash to last for the duration of the trip—our ATM and credit cards don’t work there. The country has two forms of currency, one for locals (CUP, the Cuban peso) and one for tourists (CUC, the Cuban convertible peso). Though it didn’t happen to us, we heard stories of people paying in CUC and getting literally shortchanged with CUP, so pay attention when you hand over those bills. Safety-wise, we never felt threatened, but as women, we were subjected the most aggressive catcalling I’ve ever encountered—and I live in New York. Also, as Americans, we got a bit of a mixed response from the locals, though I do think the lukewarm reception was due at least in part to my subpar Spanish.  If you want to get online, you’ll need a WiFi card, which should run around CUC$2 for an hour of access, and a hotspot, which probably won’t be well-marked. Your best bet is a property like the Hotel Sevilla, which sells cards at the front desk and has WiFi in the lobby. If you’d prefer an al fresco internet experience and you already have a card, try the Malecón, or just keep an eye out when you’re walking around—you’ll see clusters of people glued to their phones, which is usually the sign that you’ve found an access point. At night, it’s even easier: All you have to do is look for the glowing screens. Plan on buying bottled water while you’re there. The tap water isn’t potable, even for brushing your teeth. Accommodation in Cuba is a tricky thing. In November, the State Department declared 80-some properties with ties to the Cuban military off-limits for Americans, and all hotels there are majority-owned by the government—which, for my money, is even more reason to rent a room in a private residence. Known as casas particulares, these rooms vary in price and style, depending on the location and the owners themselves, but they’re not typically luxurious digs; they are fairly inexpensive by American standards, though, and while you might not be sleeping on high-thread-count sheets, you will be interacting with locals and getting a different perspective than a hotel would provide. Once upon a time, before smartphones and apps and Google Maps, the best way to book these casas was with a phone call or simply by showing up and ringing the doorbell, but it’s a bit easier these days: They’re all on Airbnb. Our favorite was Casa Meyly 2, which was centrally located with a wrap-around balcony and a private bathroom for just CUC$30 per night. Casa Meyly 2Consulado 203Havana, Cuba Finally, a word on the overall economic situation. While the Cuban economy relies heavily on tourism to bring in those dollars, euros, and yen, the influx of visitors is creating food shortages nationwide, with basic pantry staples and produce going to tourist restaurants and paladares instead of local markets. To say that it doesn't feel right to chow down on lobster sourced on the black market while citizens can't get enough to eat is an understatement. If you're going to visit, consider traveling with a volunteer organization, be mindful, and tip well (10% is standard, but more is welcome). 

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