When T+L sent writer Gary Shteyngart and photographer Frederic Lagrange to Cuba in January 2015, there was little way of knowing just how rapidly, or dramatically, things would change for the country. Shteyngart reported “flying into one Cuba and out of another.” He had arrived just as the Obama administration made major moves to re-establish diplomatic relations.
By the time Shteyngart’s approved “people-to-people” tour dispersed, Americans could (more or less) visit the country on something of an “honor system.” Lagrange's pictures capture a similar story: a place preserved in amber, on the verge of a huge cultural shift.
Travel + Leisure is always seeking out the next, great places to travel, and it just so happens that the most intoxicating destination in 2015 lies just 90 miles south of Key West, Florida. It’s really no surprise that Cuba has earned the title of Destination of the Year. After all, it’s been forbidden fruit for American travelers for more than half a century—Cuba is the only country the U.S. has ever banned its citizens from visiting. It wasn’t until this time last year that the Obama administration significantly eased travel restrictions.
Related: The Best Beaches in Cuba
Spurred by traveler enthusiasm for an accessible Cuba, airlines, cruise companies, and ferry services have scrambled to offer a way in. It happened quickly; the allure of the island’s time-capsule qualities—like antique Ford Fairlanes and Buick LeSabre convertibles growling down cobblestone streets—may fade fast, even if the Che Guevara portraits on Havana’s Art Deco and colonial façades remain.
Though the thawing of diplomatic tensions arguably began in 2009, when President Obama made it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit and provide financial assistance to relatives in Cuba, the country truly opened up only in the last year:
“I just spent the last four days shooting my show all around the city of Havana. I made countless friends and had one of the best experiences of my life. Many laughs, but that could also have been the rum.” – Conan O’Brien
December 17, 2014: Obama's Plan
The Obama administration announced plans to restore diplomatic relationships between the U.S. and Cuba. In doing so, President Obama made travel ever easier.
January 16, 2015: Rules Ease Up
Straight, lounge-on-the-beach tourism is still prohibited, but new rules made it possible for Americans to travel to Cuba without applying for a license, so long as the trip remained within 12 pre-approved, and rather vague, categories. Best of all? Americans can now bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, and $100 of that can be rum and tobacco.
March 1, 2015: Credit Cards Accepted
MasterCard unblocked usage to Cuba, allowing American credit card holders to use plastic on their travels.
March 4, 2015: Conan Arrives
Conon O’Brien aired a one-hour special, Conan from Cuba. The comedian, donning a white linen suit, got drunk at the Havana Club Rum Museum, attempted to dance the rumba, and learned to roll a Cuban cigar.
April 2, 2015: AirBnb Arrives
Over 1,000 AirBnb listings in Cuba appeared on the home rental site—and the number has easily doubled since. With a major lack of hotel infrastructure, the country’s existing network of casas particulares (guesthouses) is crucial for accommodating the influx of travelers.
April 15, 2015: Online Booking
CheapAir.com became the first booking site to sell tickets for flights to Cuba.
May 6, 2015: Ferries
Four passenger ferries got the “thumbs up” from the U.S. to begin trips between Florida and Havana.
“We have witnessed an event which filled us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement.” – Pope Francis
May 29, 2015: Open for Business
Cuba may still be under a U.S. economic embargo, but it dropped off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list this summer. Now, private companies and banks can do authorized business with the country.
July 3, 2015: JetBlue in Havana
JetBlue made its first flight from New York City to Havana, becoming the first major U.S. carrier to make the trip. The airline makes the flight once a week, leaving NYC at noon on Friday and returning later that evening.
August 14, 2015: Embassy Opens
John Kerry helped celebrate the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana. He was the first Secretary of State to visit the country in more than 70 years, and the Stars and Stripes hadn’t flown over the embassy in 54.
September 17, 2015: Verizon Dials In
Verizon announced that it would become the first U.S. wireless company to support roaming in Cuba, allowing travelers to text, make calls, and use data (for a hard-to-swallow $2.99 a minute, or $2.05 per megabyte of data, of course).
September 21, 2015: The Pope Visits
On his way to the U.S., Pope Francis made a pit stop at the Cuban cities of Havana, Holguín, and Santiago—the significance of that decision did not go unnoticed.
December 12, 2015: LAX > HAV
American Airlines began operating nonstop flights between Los Angeles International Airport and José Martí International Airport in Havana—the only domestic carrier to offer nonstop service between the West Coast and Cuba.
December 16, 2015: Commercial Air Travel Resumes
For the first time in more than 50 years, the U.S. and Cuba shook hands, agreeing to resume regular commercial air travel. Tourism is still illegal, but the decision will make it easier and more affordable for both U.S. as well as Cuban citizens to fly back and forth between the two nations.
And that’s just what’s happened in the last year. Come May, Carnival Corporation’s “social impact travel” brand, Fathom, will set sail to Cuba, offering Cuba holidays with live performances and workshops at the ports-of-call.
Cuba may not have any Michelin stars (yet) but its culinary scene is blooming, thanks in part to privately owned paladares serving everything from ropa vieja to lechita—seafood in a broth of coconut milk, tomato, garlic, and spices—and interest from master chefs Massimo Bottura, Andoni Luis Aduriz, and Enrique Olvera.
American tourism increased by at least 36 percent this year, and the demand for accommodations is soaring. At least 30-plus new hotels in the works, including Accor’s Pullman Cayo Coco, which will be the country’s first hotel to offer wi-fi in every room.
“On the way down the staircase and into the humid Havana night, he tells me, we have to open up to the world. There’s no other way.” – Gary Shteyngart
There’s no better time than now to visit Cuba—while the country still maintains the rough, faded quality of a vintage photograph. Cuba's must-see cities are likely to change the fastest, including Trinidad (where time slips even farther back to the era of Spanish conquistadors and sugarcane plantations) and coastal Baracoa. Already, luxury golf resorts and multimedia art spaces are springing up across the country, and the airport is getting some much-needed renovations.
Whether you choose to get there yourself (for those with exceptionally deep wallets, there’s a $65,950 private jet trip) or opt for an organized vacation, like Black Tomato and Travel + Leisure’s luxurious 8-night journey, this destination promises to enchant, entertain, and surprise—even the most seasoned travelers.