Gates of tourism to Cuba slowly begin to inch open

"Let's get this over with," I heard the stewardess mutter to her colleague, and with that she grabbed the microphone and blurted out a flight-regulation spiel she had made a thousand times before. There was no attempt at Spanish, though perhaps 75 of the 85 passengers were not masters of airline English. Still, the harried voice spoke one line of sheer poetry, a line we had all been waiting years to hear:

"Welcome to our DC-9 service to Havana."

Havana, at last. Most of the passengers on the 40-minute flight from Miami were Cuban-Americans, people going back to their homeland on bried visits as part of the so-called family reunification program Fidel Castro has installed. There was a handful of US tourists, and though we has not exactly been summoned in a "Yankee, Come Back" campaign, it was clear that Cuba had opened its long-locked gates to American travelers, if reluctantly. Fidel wants the dollars.

Free-lance travel to Cuba is still a dream; there are no regular commercial flights from the United States, and even from Mexico and Canada the arrangements are not simple. But a half-dozen travel agencies in the US have begun to specialize in Cuba in the last few years, and one of the most ambitious is American Air Ways Charters of Hialeah, Fla. (1840 W. 49th St., ZIP code 33012), a company that sends customers on one-night nightclub tours and weeklong scuba packages.

American Air Ways also books more conventional trips, like the three-night long weekend I spent at Havana and Varadero Beach. We flew both ways on a leased Air Florida plane; in fact we had the same crew going home, but this time the morale was higher and the stewardess enlisted an English-speaking Cuban woman to deliver the belt-bucking address. Package tours are not my specialty, but the advantage in Cuba is that the tour agency handles visas, airport clearance, and other red tape. Every expense (other than shopping, of course, or ducking out to eat a meal on your own) is figured into the total cost, so that a 3-day, 2-night package of $299 a person (double occupancy) includes city tours, nightclub visits, a Hemingway historical hunt -- the works.

Cuba is not geared to sate the American tourists as it was a generation ago (in 1957 it drew 250,000 visitors, 85 percent from the US; this year only 5,000 Americans will visit). But a government tourist official told me: "We are 30 to 35 percent cheaper than the other islands. Our services are not so good yet, but our hospitality is the best."

When you have waited a couple of decades to see Cuba, you will put up with delays in the hotel restaurant or a stuffy room greeting you on your arrival at the circa-1957 Riviera hotel. In minutes, the bellman was back with a key to a room with operable air conditioning. He smiled and shook his head at the offer of a tip. Never in Cuba. "Not yet, anyway," the tourist official had said. "WE are coming to the point of instituting a tip system, but first we have to improve the service."

As one who had feasted often on the zesty Cuban food in New York and looked forward to something even purer in Havana, I was disappointed with the meals. Since the revolution Cuba has surrendered its reputation as the dining leader of the West Indies. On a tour, you eat mostly in hotel dining rooms -- no black beans and rice, not fried plantains, no garlic, just ordinary Uncle Sam fare without much quality or freshness. We ate Cuban style once, on the trail of Ernest Hemingway, at a place he favored long ago, La Bodeguita del Medio.

It's cramped, cheerful cafe on a narrow street in Havana's colonial section, with walls covered with the signatures of artists, writters, statesmen, and everyday eaters. Francoise Sagan stopped by in 1959 and penned her thanks ("I'm very happy, content, and I will return. Long live Cuba") and Salvador Allende came in 1961 and wrote in Spanish -- words that are now protected by glass, near the entrance -- "Cuba is free now. Chile if waiting." I don't know what Hemingway wrote on the wall, but he is fondly remembered at the Bodeguita, the restaurant Floridita, and in the village of San Francisco de Paula, where his house and estate, which he willed to the government, are on display.

For reasons I could not divine -- perhaps the expense of staffing and maintaining the house -- you are not allowed within, and must content yourself with peering through open windows along the tiled verandah. Everything is as the Hemingways left is when they moved away in 1960. In the den I could see the old portable on the shelf where Hemingway stood and typed. In the living room, with its flora-pring slipcovers and dainty pillows, Mary's influence, no doubt, there is a record cabinet with albums of Cole Porter, popular American waltzes, "Oklahoma," and Russian folk songs.

In front of the house and indeed beside every public building where visitors gather, you will meet tireless, dauntless children who will not give up teasing and talking with you until they have every pen, pencil, stick of gum, and coin you can spare. Outside the 16th-century Fuerza Castle, as I sparred with the kids and tried to keep up a conversation with Nelson Sanchez, our guide from Cubatur (the government travel agency), I learned that Fidel has plans to restore much of colonial HAvana. "Culture means a lot to us," he said, launching into a litany I was to hear again. "three things are important in our social system -- education, health, and sports. Culture, such as the restoration, is part of education. And every bit of culture is free, except the theater."

Nelson was spouting the party line, too, I suppose, when we passed a statue by the waterfront, and he said, "That monument is to the battleship Maine . . . and the first intervention of US forces."

"I remind you," said a Miamian in our group, "we drove the Spaniards out of Cuba." Nelson Sanchez smiled to himself. He is growing accustomed, as the gates of tourism begin to inch open, to the candid, demanding, irrepressible ways of the American traveler. We are learning some lessons, too. It seems a fair exchange.

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