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Hotel We Love: Hotel Zoe, San Francisco

By Liza Weisstuch
January 12, 2022
Outside of hotel Zoe
Courtesy Hotel Zoe
This centrally located, nautical-themed hotel delivers a thoroughly local experience.

San Francisco is the kind of city that offers such an overwhelming bounty of things to do, eat, drink, and see that you'd almost feel the FOMO start to set in if you spend too much time in your hotel. In the City by the Bay, location is a premium and Hotel Zoe, situated front and center in the Fisherman's Wharf district, delivers just that at a supremely excellent price. Go for the location, stay for the way this locally-minded hotel offers a distinctly local experience.

THE STORY

Given its waterside locale, It makes sense that the $17 million renovations that were completed in 2017 transformed what opened as a Best Western in the early 1990s into a nautical-themed haven. Its tasteful subtlety gives the space a luxurious yet casual feel. Browns, blues, and cream colors infuse the lobby with an oceanic feel, the couches, chairs and table resemble classic nautical furniture designs, and decorative touches evoke undulating waves. It's a conceptual extension of the mesmerizing bay just outside.

THE QUARTERS

That nautical theme extends to each of the 221 rooms, but still only subtly. The desk chairs, for instance, resemble captain's chair. Otherwise it's all stark minimalism, brown and grey tones, blonde wood, and rounded edges, calling to mind a yacht's cabins. Except for one thing: this being San Francisco, and all, there are delightful technological accents. The rooms, which range from single queen to double queen to single king, are equipped with Cubie radios, which can charge four gadgets at once, complimentary high-speed wifi, and streaming capabilities for Netflix and Hulu. All the rooms without a city view feature an interior courtyard. It's also worth noting that the hotel is right in sync with the eco-mindedness that pervades this city, opting for giant bottles that dispense shampoo and conditioner instead of small disposable sizes. The local love is also evident in the mini fridge, which features Sierra Nevada and San Francisco's own Anchor Steam beers and Simi Cabernet.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD

If central location is your top priority, this is your spot. Lombard Street, the notoriously steep and twisty road, is a quick walk away, as is the other waterfront attractions, like the Buena Vista, known the world round as the bar that created Irish coffee, Also in walking distance is the city's epic Chinatown, North Beach, which is chill during the day but livens up at night, and the Embarcadero, the scenic three-mile thoroughfare that runs along the water and ends at the famed circa-1898 Ferry Building.

THE FOOD

Pescatore is the hotel's restaurant, an Italian affair that's sophisticated yet laid-back, with huge windows overlooking the street, patio seating, and dark wood and tiled accents. The's a wood-fired oven, but the menu is far more than just gourmet pizzas. Charcuterie, local seafood, and homemade pastas are just a few other options. Breakfast and lunch are also offered here. The hotel's chill lobby becomes a bit more buzzy around 4PM each day, when Bar Zoe opens across from the front desk and the cocktails start flowing, imbuing the space with a lounge-y vibe.

ALL THE REST

There are quite a few added bonuses offered to guests, like a complimentary glass of wine upon arrival and free bike rentals. Helmets are available upon demand. An outdoor seating space off the lobby in an inner courtyard features firepits that invite extended sessions of loitering before hitting the town.

RATES & DEETS

Starting at $229

Hotel Zoe
425 North Point Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 561-1100 / hotelzoesf.com

CLUB DISCOUNTS

Save up to 50% on Hotels

1 rooms, 1 guests
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Inspiration

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

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.”

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Washington, D.C.

You might say Washington, D.C., suffers a bit from its overexposure. With so much daily—nay, hourly—attention laser-focused on the White House, the Capitol Building, and the people who dwell there, it’s easy to forget that D.C. is a town of neighborhoods, a town of generations-old families, a town where creatives ensure vibrancy and originality on otherwise unremarkable corners and down unlikely alleys. Sunny Sumter can attest to all of that. Executive director of the DC Jazz Festival since 2009, she gravitates towards talent and anything that is, for lack of a better word, hip. Moreover, she’s a born and bred Washingtonian and a graduate of the city’s Howard University, so she has a thorough and deep-seated understanding of our nation’s capital and how it’s changed over the past few decades. We checked in with her to get the skinny on what goes on there, well beyond the bluster and chatter of Capitol Hill. ALL THAT JAZZ The DC JazzFest brings world-renowned artists to the city each June, and under Sunny’s watch, the dazzling array of musicians has gone well beyond traditional jazz and included artists like Common, The Roots, Maceo Parker, and plenty more. But even with the talent that she brings to town, she says, “We believe the finest jazz artists in the world live in DC.” And she’ll point you to any number of venues that back up that claim on a regular basis. Mr. Henry’s, for one, is a Capitol Hill joint that looks like an unassuming neighborhood joint from the outside, but go in and it’s a music-lover’s nirvana. Sunny loves the Wednesday night jam sessions, led by local fixtures Herb Scott and Aaron Myers. “Aaron is a comedian in addition to an amazing singer. And Herb plays loops around the sax. The sax has to work to keep up with him!” she says. “It’s a really cozy place. You always feel like you never want to leave.” The session is free, so it’s no surprise that it gets pretty crowded. She advises reserving a table ahead of time so you can eat while you’re there. And speaking of dining, The Hamilton, which fast developed a local following since it opened in 2011, features casual American fare and a subterranean music venue. “It's small enough that you can touch the artist and big enough that they can bring in big artists,” she explains. And happy hour here is not to be missed.  When she has fellow musicians in town, she always makes a point to take them to Blues Alley in Georgetown, the longest-running jazz club in D.C. “They do a great job every single week serving up the jazz in there, all forms of jazz,” she declares. EAT YOUR HEART OUT There are several Pizzeria Paradiso outposts around the region these days, but Sunny has been going to the original brick-walled location at 21st and P for as long as she can remember, and it’s the one she’d point anyone to for a quick helping of delicious pie. The menu seems simple, barely covering a single page, but considering there are about 50 toppings to pick and choose from, you’d have a hard time not finding a perfect meal for even the pickiest eater. One of the fun parts about eating out in D.C. is using it as an excuse to explore the neighborhoods. “People think of it as a federal city, but I think of it as a local city. It’s unique, truly a neighborhood town. You go to different neighborhoods and each has its own flavor,” she says. Ivy City, for instance, is a neighborhood in transition. Once a warehouse district, that industrial vibe has been stylishly appropriated at the rustic Tavern at the Ivy City Smokehouse, which specializes in house-smoked seafood. Its wood tables and floors and chalk-written menus give it a cool, laid-back vibe, making it a top pick for “date night” in Sunny’s book. They also have a market that offers a wildly popular takeout menu.  No market, however, is more popular than Eastern Market, the sprawling bazaar where area farmers, food purveyors, and craftspeople sell their bounty on weekends. It’s been one of Sunny’s go-to's since her college days. Staying in town for a while? Forget the grocery store and head here to stock up on everything from local cheese, bread, and produce to meats and smoked fish, or just wander the aisles and sample the tasty goods. OUT FROM UNDER THE SMITHSONIAN’S SHADOW Washington, D.C., is the envy of much of the rest of the nation when it comes to its museums. After all, the many branches of the Smithsonian are free to enter. Sunny's pro-tip: Don’t limit yourself to the Smithsonian, varied though its options may be. Just north of bustling Dupont Circle, the Phillips Collection is a serene and approachable space that features work by a vast array of artists and designers. “They’re so thoughtful in their installations,” she says. “And they do a good job featuring unknown and established artists, both iconic and modern, American and international. You wouldn’t even know it’s so ginormous from looking at it, but you can spend an entire day there.” Sunny admits to doing so herself. With an outside garden, a café called Tryst (“their cappuccinos are really good!”), it’s what she refers to as her “go-away spot” when she needs to get her mind off programming JazzFest for a little while. And parents, take note: There’s a kid-friendly arts and crafts room.  DAY TRIPPERS  Sunny is an unapologetic thrift shop forager, and she recommends anyone who shares the obsession make a day trip to Savage, Maryland. This quaint town about 20 miles north of DC is home to a range of stores, some of them located in an historic cotton mill that’s been converted to a very modern shopping complex that encompasses everything from antique palaces to galleries to second-hand boutiques. She’s partial to Charity’s Closet, which sells items for $5 and donates proceeds to an affiliate shop that provides clothing to unemployed women. While you’re there, might as well make a day of it. There’s a walking trail near the river and, for when you’re ready to recuperate, Rams Head Tavern is a dependable place to refuel with elevated pub grub and craft beer. It’s one of a handful of spots in town with live music.

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). 

Inspiration

Join Our #BTChat: U.S. Road Trips

We're hosting a #BTChat on Twitter this Thursday, March 28, at 2 p.m. Eastern all about U.S. Road Trips. We'll be joined by a multitude of participants who have an insider's perspective on affordable, scenic drives from coast to coast, plus Alaska, Hawaii, and even the Caribbean. Here are three easy steps to follow along and chime in with our #BTChat. 1. GET ON TWITTER Log in to your Twitter account (or create one at Twitter.com) on Thursday, March 28, shortly before the #BTChat starts at 2 p.m. Eastern 2. JOIN THE #BTCHAT First, follow @BudgetTravel on Twitter. Then, in a separate tab or window, search for the hashtag #BTChat and click on "Latest" at the top of the page so you can see the questions (which will be numbered Q1, Q2, etc.) and other people's answers (numbered A1, A2, etc.) as they come in. Depending on how chatty you are and how many people are responding to your answers, you may want to open a third tab or window to help keep track of notifications. 3. READ, RE-TWEET, AND POST YOUR OWN RESPONSES Feel free to re-tweet our questions out to your own followers so they can participate, too! The most important thing is to add #BTChat to your answers so the rest of us can see them. Take this as a fun, informal opportunity to chat with other people who care about travel as much as you do. Use the questions we ask as a jumping off point for conversation and to make new friends over the Twittersphere, and above all, have fun!