The mojitos were in our hands, and we could see the shimmering blue of the Caribbean.
But this was no ordinary island vacation.
Television cameras whirred while a group of Americans checked into Havana's stately Hotel Nacional, as history was being made -- by us.
Except for a brief period from 2000 to 2003, this was the first time in 50 years that the average American could legally visit Cuba.
The trip, through Insight Cuba, highlighted Havana, Santiago de Cuba for arts and music, Trinidad on Cuba's southern coast for colonial charm and Pinar del Rio for its rural natural beauty.
The group of 30 Americans included a goat farmer, a psychologist, a wine expert, a social worker, an entrepreneur, a hospital administrator, a stock adviser, a lawyer and more. Their common denominator? They were all experienced travelers. They all were fine with the requirement that the trip focus on cultural activities, not beaches or leisure, though one man wistfully asked, "Any chance of playing golf?"
So I sipped my mojito and let the August heat seep into my bones. I was excited. And slightly worried about the dour rules of the trip.
And, also, already in love with Havana.
Havana, a great Spanish colonial city founded in 1515, is like an exotic orchid with a few wilted petals. Fifty years of communism hasn't been kind to its upkeep, though Old Havana, its fortress, the neighborhood of Miramar and the Revolution Square area are splendid.
The city of 2.2 million sprawls in all directions, part pastel, part crumbling ruin, elegant in its promise of what was and could be again.
At Friendship House -- the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples -- the group got a warm welcome, then a blunt description of Cuba's suffering because of U.S. policies and "terrorism." Then came a far more nuanced talk by Carlos Alzugaray, a professor and expert on Cuba-U.S. relations, about the complex issues that bind and divide the two countries.
Journalists, academics and people with family in Cuba have long been able to travel here, but tourism has been off-limits to the rest of Americans, even though 2.5 million tourists from other nations routinely vacation in Cuba each year.
Yet times are changing, Alzugaray said: "Cuba is undergoing a major economic transformation. For foreign relations, Cuba is in its best moment."
His advice for the United States? "If you want to influence a country, you have to be present."
That afternoon, the group strolled through Old Havana past a hotel where novelist Ernest Hemingway used to hang out, then visited the Leonor Perez maternity home.
The home cares for high-risk pregnant mothers, four to a room. It's hot, but they are used to the heat. We asked questions about Caesarean section rates (about 25 percent) and epidural drugs (they use few), and everyone kept smiling and saying "gracias."
After that, the group tried to go shopping, but in Cuba there are almost no stores, not much to buy except on the black market -- and spoilsport U.S. regulations allow Americans to bring back nothing except literature, artwork or music. That's right -- no cigars, no rum, no panama hats.
In the evening, the group got a last-minute invitation to a concert in honor of Fidel Castro's 85th birthday, held at the Karl Marx Theater. Four hours, no intermission! Fidel did not attend. We did.
After that, it was dark, and Carnaval, which is held in August in Cuba, was rocking the Malecon promenade near the hotel. Thousands of people were mingling, dancing, swarming.
The thumping beat lasted long into the night.
As the days went by, the group visited more museums than I can count, including the Literacy Museum, a hot, small spot devoted to Cuba's accomplishment of teaching nearly its entire population to read in the years 1961-62. (I didn't enjoy it, but many in the group said it was one of their favorite moments.)
There was Revolution Square -- which looks a bit like a Walmart parking lot surrounded by government buildings. There was the impressive Jose Marti memorial that honors the father of Cuban independence from Spain.
At the memorial art gallery, every photo and painting was of Fidel Castro.
In the evening, the destination was the Fortress of San Carlos, the enormous defensive fort built by the Spanish in 1774. On the hot night with the moon rising, soldiers in 18th century uniforms set off a cannon shot that echoed all the way across to the twinkling Havana skyline.
Before we left town, there was more to see.
There was the Rum Museum, where tourists had a shot of "Cuban breakfast."
There was the Revolution Museum, which includes everything from Castro's boots to the typewriter of a New York Times reporter who covered the conflict. The museum also displays pieces of an American B-26 shot down in 1961 and a turbine from a U-2 spy plane shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 -- somewhat uncomfortable for Americans.
As the pieces of the trip all merged together and we stuck with it, it was clear we had gotten a very decent introduction to a piece of Havana's heart.
Now we were ready to head out of town to Pinar del Rio, a rural province to the west.
>In the country
VIN ALES, Cuba -- Waterfalls, mountains and the most handsome farmer in Cuba.
Those are the top three sights in Pinar del Rio, where nature provides a lush setting for peaceful moments.
OK, there were a few not-peaceful moments, such as the 6-inch tarantula that swimmers found in the hotel pool. And the night my hotel room air conditioner broke down. And the food was fairly wretched at the hotel, with the dinner menu offering "pork steak, roasted pork, fried pork chunks, chicken."
But after four days in effervescent Havana, I was glad for the sweet rural province.
Known for its national parks, it has tobacco farms, orchids, soaring limestone cliffs and picturesque towns. Out here, about three hours from the capital, there is little mention of Castro. However, many billboards feature Che Guevara, the Argentine doctor who was a co-leader of the Cuban Revolution in 1958-59.
"To victory," one suggests.
Other than that, there are a lot of chickens, people out walking and small, colorful houses. The local chapter of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution threw us a party, with cake. Many in the tour group ditched the hotel restaurant one night for an excellent private paladar restaurant, Villa Nene, stuffing themselves with lobster. There were lots of great old American cars painted in pastel colors.
But the true major highlights, as I mentioned above, were three.
*Water falling: The Soroa waterfall is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Walk 292 steps down from the parking lot, then stand at the foot of the 66-foot waterfall that spills over rounded rock at the top. Swim in the warm blue pool below the falls, or just float in the stream that wanders away from the gentle water.
Near the falls is the gorgeous orchid garden, brimming with white ginger (called mariposa blanca in Cuba), figs, epiphytes and hibiscus trees, whose hard wood is used for Cuban baseball bats.
*Mountains: In the Vinales National Park, the land spreads away in a broad, flat valley, punctuated by isolated broad columns of limestone. They are rounded off on the top like cupcakes and enwreathed with trees.
The domes hide thousands of caves. The group rode a boat underground through El Indio cave, with its high ceilings and greenish stalactites.
The Sierra del Rosario mountains in Pinar del Rio also contain Las Terrazas Biosphere Reserve, which has reclaimed bare land to forest in just 40 years.
Most handsome farmer in Cuba: At a Vinales tobacco farm, farmer Benito Camejo took us into his palm-frond tobacco barn and showed how tobacco is grown, harvested, stored and rolled into cigars.
Honestly, the women were barely paying attention to what he was saying. They were staring at the tall, dark and handsome farmer with his open white shirt and low-brimmed hat. And when he lit the cigar! Women swooned. Photos snapped of Benito. And of the women with Benito. And of guys smoking cigars rolled by Benito.
"Is he really a farmer, or an actor?" somebody whispered.
But Camejo's family has farmed on this plot since the 1840s, he told me in quite good English.
"What's the name of that farm?" someone asked the guide later.
"Benito's Farm," he said.
>On the beach
While American tourists on the new "people-to-people" trips are kept busy with educational and serious cultural interactions, Canadians and other world travelers are lounging around drinking mojitos on Cuba's gorgeous white sand beaches, similar to those in Jamaica or Grand Cayman.
The major tourist hot spots are Varadaro, Holguin and Cayo Coco. These and other Cuban beach areas have gigantic resort hotels, all-inclusives, stores within the compounds and many tourist trappings not found in "regular" Cuba. These hotels are mostly joint ventures between foreign hotel and resort developers and the Cuban government.
Trinidad, in Cuba's south, combines cultural themes with some beautiful beaches. Some people-to-people trips stop there.
But my trip, from Havana to Pinar del Rio province, never took us past a single resort beach.
>If you go:
*Getting there: Any American can go on an escorted people-to-people cultural trip under new U.S. government rules. The government has issued 50 licenses so far. Try:
Insight Cuba: Offering several trips a month, including a Havana International Jazz Festival trip Dec. 14. Cost of most trips is about $2,500-$3,000, plus airfare of about $550 round-trip from Miami (www.insightcuba.com, 800-450-2822).
University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse is taking names on a waiting list for its tour in April. The 10-day trip (http://uwlax.edu/conted/lir/cuba.html) is about $4,000.
Center for the Study of Cuban Culture and the Economy has two upcoming trips including a weeklong trip Dec. 28 to Jan. 4 in Havana and Trinidad, Cuba, for $3,440 per person including air (www.cubancultureeconomy.org, 540-230-3143).
*Money: $1 equals 87 cents in Cuban Convertible Pesos. No U.S. debit or credit cards work in Cuba. (Neither do U.S. cell phones.)
*Tips: Drink bottled water; however, we ate all the salad and fruit, and no one got sick.
Bring personal items because stores don't have much. Good things to bring include a folding fan, wash cloth, hair dryer, small snacks that travel well (granola bars or such), small umbrella (it rains), earplugs, a clock, bug spray and sunscreen.