Ernest Hemingway Tour in Havana: We Try It

Ernest Hemingway's house, Finca Vigia, near Havana, Cuba.

Perhaps no writer put Cuba on the map for Americans as much as Ernest Hemingway. The larger-than-life author, who wrote classics such as The Sun Also Rises, "Farewell to Arms" and "To Have and Have Not," embraced Cuba as his second home and lived there for more than 20 years before his death. A for-fee shore excursion offered by several lines allows cruisers to follow In Hemingway's Footsteps by visiting several of his haunts.

What It Is

The daylong tour takes passengers to the following stops that were notable for Hemingway during his years on the islands:

Finca
Vigia, the home outside Havana where he wintered for more than 20 years; Cojimar, the seaside village that inspired the classic "Old Man and the Sea;" La Terraza, the restaurant in Cojimar he frequented; and two bars in Havana where he drank -- La Floridita for daiquiris and La Bodeguita del Media for mojitos.

Our Experience

When Fathom announced this tour shortly before my cruise, I squealed out loud with excitement. While Hemingway suffered from depression and had myriad faults -- alcoholism, womanizing, a penchant for killing beautiful African animals -- I've always respected his writing and career as a journalist, particularly his years as a war correspondent. Plus any author who loves cats as much as Hemingway did has a place in my heart (everyone knows about the six-toed felines in Key West, but his love affair with them started in Cuba, where his home once swarmed with them).

The first stop on our tour was Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), Hemingway's former home found by his third wife, Martha Gelhorn, in 1939. Because the estate is 15 miles outside Havana, Hemingway originally didn't want to live there; he liked the bars of the city too much, we were told. Eventually, he learned to appreciate the silence and proximity to the sea; the couple bought the house in 1940 with the proceeds from the movie rights of "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

Since 2007, the home is a museum, but you're not allowed to go inside. The Havanatur guides who were leading the excursion from the ship turned us over to a museum curator, with perfect English. She was full of interesting facts and anecdotes, pointing out Hemingway's personal items through the windows that visitors can peer through. Apparently Hemingway, whose weight fluctuated greatly over the 20 years he spent at the house, was so concerned with documenting it that he wrote it down on the bathroom walls. We saw the scribbles, as well as the animal heads on the wall, souvenirs from hunting safaris to Africa.

The tour also included a visit to the pool, where Hemingway famously swam naked, and the former tennis courts, where Hemingway's original fishing boat, Pilar, now sits.

Ernest Hemingway's house, Finca Vigia, near Havana, Cuba.

Fishing proved to be a cornerstone of Hemingway's life. His Cuba outings, departing from the nearby fishing village of Cojimar, inspired the author to write his most famous work, "The Old Man and the Sea." Its release in 1951 won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the Nobel Prize several years later.

Hemingway's fishing guide and the captain of Pilar, Gregorio Fuentes, lived in Cojimar until he was 104, telling visitors stories about "Papa," our guide told us as the bus arrived at the sleepy town. Cojimar and Hemingway's main hang -- a restaurant called La Terraza -- once attracted international visitors, but now it's pretty deserted, save for when a tour bus like ours pulls up.

The restaurant itself is state-owned, which in Cuba is generally a hint that the food isn't going to be that good. Still, the restaurant did its best, serving up lobster in tomato sauce and a soup that definitely needed seasoning. The real attraction here was the historical connection, played up by the black and white photos of Hemingway on the wall, including several shots with Fidel Castro. A table in the corner remains reserved for Papa.

After lunch, our group took a short walk (or bus ride for those who couldn't walk) up to the bust of Hemingway that overlooks the harbor. Erected a year after his death, it's made with bits of old propellers and anchors from the fishing boats the author loved. At Finca Vigia, our guide stressed that the Cuban people saw another side to Hemingway beyond his dissolute reputation. "He did things for people, even ones he didn't know," she said. "The Cuban people knew that and loved him for it."

As our bus made its way back to Havana, threatening storm clouds broke and it began to rain. We rushed our way into the Floridita bar, skipping the short walking tour. The bar -- one of the most famous in Havana -- was packed, not just with people from our ship, but with crowds of other international tourists. A band jammed in the corner played bouncy Cuban music. The bartenders shook up the daiquiris that Hemingway made famous. The noise and spirit of the place reminded me of the writer, a notorious barfly. While he lived in Cuba, he collected notes from his youth in the Roaring Twenties of Paris, putting them into the book, "Movable Feast." It's one of my favorites and while Havana is far from Paris geographically, they aren't so differently spiritually.

Unfortunately, the next bar stop, La Bodeguita del Media, wasn't quite as fun. The rains kept us inside where our tour guides apologized; typically on the excursion at this point, we'd be drinking our mojitos in the street, dancing to the bar's band. Instead, I sat at a table sipping my drink, reading all the scribbled graffiti that covers every inch of the establishment. Taking a marker from a fellow passenger, I bent down and put a small CGF in the corner. Maybe sometime -- after I've written my novel, of course -- I'll come back with my husband and show it to him. Hemingway would be proud.

Hotel Amos Mundos

Worth a Try?

Sure, if you're a Hemingway fan and already know a bit about his life (and various wives -- it's hard to keep things straight otherwise). The tour guide at Finca Vigia was far better than the one on the rest of the excursion, and that stop far outshone the others. The tour is also a good way to get to both Finca Vigia and Cojimar without having to arrange your own transportation, as both are a fair distance from Havana.

Things to Note

The tour I took included four cocktails in the price (two at lunch and one at each of the bars); this might vary by line. If you don't drink or don't like to be around people who do, you might want to go to the house on your own and skip the bar stops.

The tour also doesn't stop by or mention Ambos Mundos, the Havana hotel where Hemingway lived for seven years when he first started visiting the island in the 1930s. It's a strange oversight, seeing as it's also in Old Havana and just a few blocks from the two bars.

There are no more cats at Finca Vigia, sadly. The felines left the home during the period between Hemingway's death in 1961 and the property's opening as a museum in 2007. The best Hemingway property to see cats remains his home in Key West, where dozens of polydactyl animals -- descendants of those Cuban cats, according to the Hemingway family -- abound.

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