While the proposed liberalization of relationships with Cuba is expected to eventually reopen the door of unrestricted travel for American citizens, that day isn't coming anytime soon. Until it does, hankerers for Havana can content themselves with Miami's colorful and still reasonably authentic Calle Ocho.
Officially known as SW 8th Street (but also as U.S. Highway 41), Calle Ocho has been the commercial main drag of Miami's slightly shabby Little Havana neighborhood for more than half a century. In the years immediately following Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, Calle Ocho functioned as the heart and soul of the Cuban exile community. But as those first comers prospered and moved out, they were replaced by more recent Latin immigrants, and not just from Cuba.
As a result, Little Havana is no longer predominantly Cuban. But commercial Calle Ocho, especially the seven-block stretch between 12th and 19th avenues, is. There, interspersed among 4-foot-tall jaunty Cuban roosters, each sporting its own colorful regalia, you'll find a near steady lineup of Cuban-themed restaurants and cafes, markets and souvenir shops, art galleries, and cigar stores, all vying for tourist dollars.
By far the most evocative and authentic spot is Maximo Gomez Park (better known as Domino Park) on the corner of SW 15th Avenue. Here, at concrete tables under red-tiled cabanas, first-generation male exiles (known as historicos) gather to socialize just as their fathers did back in Cuba, oblivious to the constant clacking of tiles and clicking of cameras.
Things are considerably more reserved along Cuban Memorial Boulevard (SW 13th Avenue), where a quartet of monuments, most notably an eternal torch in honor of those who died during the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion, are reverentially visited. To learn more about the 1961 catastrophe that forever soured Cuban-Americans on John F. Kennedy and the Democratic Party, check out the small Bay of Pigs Museum & Library at 1821 SW 9th St. (305-649-4719, open weekdays 9 a.m.-4 p.m., free).
Back on Calle Ocho, it's all contemporary commerce, with handmade cigars the most prized commodity. At most of the half-dozen storefront mini-factories, the majority of which trace their origins back to the old country, you can see them being rolled. At Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co. (1528 SW 8th St., 305-649-2717), you're likely to see fourth-generation scion Pedro Bello, clad in his trademark guayabera shirt, smoking out front and signing autographs.
The only things you absolutely have to put in your mouth, however, are a Cuban sandwich (cubano) -- ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese and pickles pressed in a flaky Cuban roll -- and a Cuban coffee (cafecito), an extra-sugary espresso. And you will have no problem finding them at any number of corner restaurants or walk-up windows (ventanitas).
Unfortunately, you'll need your car to get to Calle Ocho's true culinary institution, the Versailles (3555 SW 8th St., 305-444-0240, versaillesrestaurant.com), a restaurant so thoroughly Cuban-American it can get away with a French name. Despite the throngs of gawking tourists, this is where Little Havana's old guard still come to meet and transact business. If the line's too long, try La Carreta (3632 SW 8th St., 305-444-7501, lacarreta.com) across the street. The menu is just as extensive, the food just as good and the walls are covered with photos of Old Havana.
Souvenir shops are also plentiful, but it's hard to beat the range and creativity at Sentir Cubana (3100 SW 8th St., 305-644-8870, sentircubano.com/index.htm), a relative newcomer featuring three rooms of both traditional and novelty island items (check out the Fidel toilet paper), all made elsewhere. On display in the backroom, however, are authentic Cuban memorabilia, brought over by fleeing exiles.
The best place to transport yourself back to Old Havana is undoubtedly Cubaocho (1465 SW 8th St., 305-285-5880, cubaocho.com), a pre-Revolution arts and research center that doubles as an upscale cocktail lounge. Of an evening you can enjoy a daiquiri, mojito or cuba libre while listening to live Cuban music. For the time being, it's as close as most of us can get to really being there.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE The heart of Calle Ocho is located less than two miles southwest of downtown Miami, with parking generally available on side streets. You can also get there via taxi and bus routes 207 and 208 (the Little Havana Connection). Calle Ocho is one of seven stops on The Big Bus' hop-on, hop-off "City" Tour. (adults, $45 for 24 hours, $50 for 48 hours).
GUIDED TOURS Miami Culinary Tours (786-942-8856, miamiculinarytours.com) offers a 2.5-hour "Little Havana Food Tour" Thursdays through Sundays at 12:30 p.m. for $59, while Art Deco Tours (305-814-4058, artdecotours.com) offers a 3-hour walking tour that also includes food (10:30 a.m. daily, $40 adults).
WHEN TO GO Calle Ocho is best visited during the day when Domino Park and all its commercial establishments are hopping. And while evening is great for leisurely dining and entertainment, safety can become an issue, especially on the side streets where you will need to park. The exception is Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays), a free, open-air festival of Cuban art and music right on Calle Ocho between SW 14th and 17th avenues, held 7-11 p.m. the last Friday of every month (viernesculturales.org). On March 26, Havana-born Miami music legend Gloria Estefan headlines an eclectic, noon-midnight, outdoor concert celebrating Miami Beach's centennial. Tickets are $55-$540 though there is a free public viewing area. Information at miamibeach100.com.