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A First Timer's Guide to Havana

Everyone knows it's illegal for Americans to go to Cuba. So why does Barnes & Noble stock four different guidebooks?The answer is simple—everyone is wrong. Going to Cuba isn't illegal, or even very difficult. The operative law is the Trading with the Enemy Act, a Cold War relic—loosely enforced by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC)—that prohibited Americans from spending money in the Communist bloc. The Clinton administration recently relaxed the policy, and while restrictions remain, OFAC is making it easier for a wider range of Americans to go to Cuba. "I wouldn't be surprised to see museums allowed to sponsor trips to Cuba by 2001," says John Kavulich, president of the U.S.‚Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

OBEYING THE LAW For years, the only Americans who could go were journalists, government officials, and citizens with Cuban relatives, and getting an OFAC license could take weeks. Last spring, OFAC began granting approvals more speedily—sometimes within 24 hours—to a wider range of people, including academics, aid workers, artists, and students. With a license, you can book a seat on a charter flight from Miami, New York, or Los Angeles (and soon, from Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, and New Orleans) and bring back $100 worth of Cuban rum and cigars. Check out www.treas.gov/ofac for details.

DISOBEYING THE LAW It's easy to go on the sly—almost any travel agent outside the United States will sell you a ticket. To book a connecting flight from Cancún or Mexico City, call Cubana (52-5/250-6355) or Mexicana (52-5/448-0990) airlines. From Nassau, the connection costs $201 and can be booked through Havanatur (800/645-1179 or 242/326-8643). Be warned: You may fly on an antique Yakovlev YAK-42. Once you're on the island, Cuban customs won't make a fuss. The cash-starved government welcomes all tourists, provided they have American dollars (the official currency of the Cuban tourist economy). The customs folks know not to stamp an American passport, but like most Cubans, they typically don't speak English.

PACK GREENBACKS Since U.S.-issued charge cards don't work anywhere in the country, and ATM's are nonexistent, you'll have to bring all the money you'll need.

WHERE TO STAY There are 30,000 guest rooms in Cuba. Some are found in private houses: staying at Sylvia Vidal's (53-7/34165; doubles $30), in a faded mansion in Havana's Vedado district, is a great way to see how ordinary people live. For accommodations worthy of Sinatra—as well as easy access to air-conditioned taxis and English-speaking tour guides—try the Hotel Nacional in Vedado (53-7/333-564; doubles $140-$165). The more intimate Hotel Santa Isabel (53-7/338-201; doubles from $150), probably Cuba's finest hotel, is a colonial palace whose 27 rooms were restored in 1997.

GETTING AROUND It's certainly possible to rent a car in Havana, but much less complicated (and less expensive) to hire a car and driver. Because of the 39-year trade embargo, most cars in Cuba date from the fifties.

WHERE TO EAT Skip the restaurants. Ask your concierge or taxi driver for the address of a paladar (a restaurant in someone's house). La Esperanza, in Miramar (105 Calle 16; 53-7/224-361; dinner for two $20), is one of the best.

COMMON SENSE Havana is extremely safe, for the most part. Still, it's probably not a good idea to wander around in the dead of night looking for a taxi (another reason to hire a car). It's also wise not to leave hundreds of dollars sitting in your hotel room. Ask to prepay for your hotel stay.

UP IN SMOKE U.S. Customs will confiscate cigars, of course, unless you have an OFAC license. If you do, keep your receipts—before any cigars leave the country, you have to prove you bought them at a government-authorized store.

DEPARTURE TAX At the airport you have to pay $20 (or you won't be going anywhere).

LIVING DANGEROUSLY No tourists have ever been jailed for visiting Cuba without a license, but OFAC has meted out thousands in fines—which could theoretically run as high as $250,000.

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