By Alice Garrard

My husband, Danny Holland, and I usually take a road trip to Florida in February, driving down one coast and up the other, stopping along the way. But this year we took advantage of the now-open border between the United States and Cuba and visited the intriguing Caribbean island country that lies only 90 miles south of Key West.

We were fortunate that our friend and neighbor Chuck Horton also wanted to go and that friends from Bat Cave and Lake Lure had recently returned from Cuba and shared their experiences with us (thanks to the Kellys and the Proctors). From them, we learned there are daily direct flights from Charlotte to Havana; that there is an additional 10% fee to change U.S. dollars into Cuban pesos beyond the usual 6% charge (so we bought Euros before we left home); that credit cards are not accepted, and that we could reserve a room in an Airbnb before leaving the United States. We were relieved to learn that getting the required “license,” or reason, to visit Cuba was easy (we chose journalism) and not questioned. We filled out that form at the American Airlines check-in the day we left, then got our visas at an adjacent counter, paying $100 for each visa.

More than anything, we were eager to see the old American cars in Cuba that we had heard so much about, and they were in view from the time we arrived, an immediate throw-back to the 1950s. The cars are beautifully maintained, though few parts under the hoods are original, and are painted in colors far brighter than Ford, Chevrolet, or Buick could ever have imagined. Many double as taxis that may be rented for $60 an hour to see local sights, but the real appeal is the ride itself and accompanying photo ops.

We stayed in a house in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana for $50 a night for all three of us. The house manager, a lovely woman named Cristina, lived next door and saw to our every need, including preparing a sumptuous breakfast for an additional $5 each that included fruit, fresh-squeezed juice, eggs, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, bread and butter, and coffee. Through her, we met Oscar, who met us at the airport and was our driver and tour guide the four days we were there; his prices were far lower than those of the taxistas in Old Havana. He spoke some English – Cristina spoke very little – but I had ample opportunity throughout our stay to use my halting Spanish learned years ago.

Highlights in Havana were Old Havana with its stately buildings (some in disrepair but many restored or in the process of being restored), squares, inviting streets, shops, and cafes, and the ubiquitous vintage cars. Though we brought money belts, we never wore them because we felt so safe. Within walking distance of our lodging was the immense Christopher Columbus Cemetery, part breathtaking and part crumbling ruins, with the most beautiful angel statues I’ve ever seen. But the most fascinating place we visited was Fusterlandia, a fantastical neighborhood covered in mosaic tiles that defies description but must be seen.

One day we took a twelve-hour day trip to the Vinales Valley and Pinar del Rio Province, at the western end of the island, where we saw tobacco fields, colorful farmhouses, Cuba’s version of Rocky Mountains, and an enormous mural on a cliff of prehistoric creatures and humans. Our tour bus carried a mini-United Nations, with travelers from all over the world. For a change of pace, we spent the last few days of our trip in the pretty colonial town of Trinidad, filled with excellent restaurants where musicians played salsa music nonstop. A wonderful Caribbean beach, Playa Ancon, was a half hour away by taxi.

In closing, some random observations: Cubans are a warm and welcoming people. They are also impressively fit; we saw no obesity. We also saw no abject poverty. Although there were posters and souvenirs with Che Guevara’s image everywhere, we saw none of Fidel Castro, whom everyone calls Fidel, except in a few photos in museums. We were told Castro had decreed that that be the case. He is not buried in the large cemetery in Havana, but in the small village where he was born. Despite the absence of Americans until recently, Cuba welcomes a multitude of tourists each year, first among them Canadians, Germans, and Spaniards. During our short visit, we met people from Japan, Greece, Turkey, Colombia (South America), the Bahamas, Sweden, England, and Latvia. The two American tour groups I saw were African American, an excellent choice, given Cuba’s African heritage.

Friends often ask if we’d return to Cuba. In a heartbeat.