Cuba: What to know before you go

Henry Shukman, who lives on a farm northwest of London, writes fiction (he was a recent O. Henry Award winner) and poetry, as well as travel stories. Eight years ago he was working in the Caribbean as a musician -- and even then he had his eye on Cuba. "I actually wrangled a press visa, but then I got so caught up in the Trinidad Carnival that the visa ran out," he says.

A longtime aficionado of Cuban music ("I once had a lesson from a Cuban trombone player in a hotel room in central London"), Shukman says that Cuba's musicians "really do have a significantly more exciting sound than any other nation's -- including a tradition of screaming trombone that they play brilliantly." He experienced that tradition firsthand again in a recording studio when he walked up to one of the trombonists from Cuba's famed group Los Van Van and told him how much he enjoyed his playing. The trombonist, Shukman recalls, "held up his trombone and blasted out a note slightly more than half an octave higher than anybody in Britain could hit -- and then held this fantastic, fat, thick note so that it sounded like a trumpet." For a trombone player like himself, Shukman says, it was an epiphany.

For music-loving photographer Bob Sacha (a one-time clarinetist who also played some guitar), traveling to Cuba on this assignment was "a magical, out-of-body experience...The sun slanted straight down the streets in Old Havana. You could sit at the back of a hotel and watch the people go by. Within an hour, two or three groups would come by, singing. Life there was like a little opera every day." Sacha, who works primarily for Fortune, National Geographic, and ISLANDS, also notes that rank has its privileges everywhere in Cuba. "Musicians and athletes are at the top of the food chain, so traveling around with great musicians was like being in the company of royalty."

Who Knows Bureau de Tourisme de Cuba in Montreal, telephone 514-875-8004.

Ticket to Ride Since Americans are, at least officially, discouraged from traveling to Cuba, there are some oddities associated with traveling. For instance Sacha made the reservation for his Air Jamaica flight in the United States but could not actually buy the ticket until he arrived in Montego Bay, even though he was able to check his luggage all the way through from New York to Havana. In Cuba, ask officials not to stamp your passport. The New York-based Center for Cuban studies has a site at: cubaupdate.org

Room Key None of Cuba's hotels are four-star by American standards, but Sacha says accommodations are "quite nice for what they are - the richness doesn't come from the hotel but from the spirit of the people." Shukman stayed at Hotel Nacional, "a wonderful deco extravaganza" where gangster Meyer Lansky ran the casino in his Havana days; the price of a single was $100.

Beach Time In Havana the older hotels tend to have the best beaches, with clean water that's nice for swimming. Or you can head about two hours out of Havana to Varadero, with its miles and miles of lovely white sand broken only occasionally by rocky outcrops. For good snorkeling take one of the many boat trips from there out to the cays.

On the Road Cubans generally take the bus; taxis are relatively cheap but sometimes hard to find. Your best bet is to rent a car with a driver (about $65 a day).

What's to Eat If you like rice and beans, you're in luck. Shukman suggests eating in the paladaras, the small private restaurants that people are now allowed to operate out of their own homes; they tend to have the best food. His favorite? The Restaurante Amor, in a wonderful antique-filled, turn-of-the-century villa in central Havana.

Cash Flow There are really three kinds of currency: U.S. dollars; convertible pesos (valued at 1-to-1 with the U.S. dollar); and national pesos, which are worth about 4 cents each and are seldom encountered by tourists. American credit cards are not accepted, so you'll need cash for hotels, meals, and other expenses. (There are no malls.) ATMs are nonexistent; however, changing money is easy, as long as you do it in the right places: hotels and official currency exchanges.

Read It and Leap The Rough Guide to Cuba is full of helpful tips and insights. For atmosphere try Three Trapped Tigers. The brilliant portrayal of Havana in the sleazy Batista days is by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Cuba's greatest living novelist, who has lived in exile in London since the '60s.

Special Screening Shukman applauds the recent success of the Buena Vista Social Club album and film, but with one caveat: "It was great for those ten musicians on the album," he says. "But Cuba is full of wonderful musicians - there are another thousand who are just as good." There is also the 1994 Cuban film Guantanamera, directed by Tomás Gutierrez Alea, which takes a satirical look at life on the island.