There’s been plenty of change in Cuba since 2014’s ‘Cuban thaw’. Under President Obama, relations between the Caribbean island and the United States started to warm up, after 54 years of famously stormy relations between the two countries.
Tourists have flocked to the country since then. Although there’s been some uncertainty and a drop in numbers under President Trump, many travelers are still coming to Cuba and, in particular, the capital, Havana, to experience streets filled with colorful classic cars, rum, cigars, lively Afro-Cuban music and plenty more.
One of the more recent changes is the opening in June 2017 of Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, a new 5-star luxury hotel right in the heart of Havana’s UNESCO-listed Old Town. It’s around a 20-minute drive from Havana’s international airport to the hotel, but the city starts making an impression immediately. We get picked up by private taxi from the airport, arranged through our holiday company, and start to count off the colorful old classic cars (Chevrolets, Dodges, Buicks) that we see as we drive through the capital to Havana’s Old Town.
The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana also makes an immediate impression, a large, grand-looking building with a striking sheer white facade. The historic Manzana de Gómez building, built between 1894 and 1917, was originally Cuba’s first European-style shopping centre. It’s now a 246-room hotel, with three restaurants, three bars, a gym, a health and wellness spa and the city’s most enviable rooftop pool.
It would be difficult to have a better or more central location. Floridita, famous as Ernest Hemingway’s favorite Havana bar, is just across the road, around 20 metres away, marking the entrance to the popular Calle Obispo (Bishop’s Street). The neighbouring building is the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana (National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana). Parque Central is also right on the doorstep, bordered on one corner by Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso (Great Theatre of Havana Alicia Alonso) and, just a short walk away, El Capitolio (the Capital Building). In terms of being exactly where you want to be for exploring a capital city, it’s like staying on New York’s Times Square or right next door to Buckingham Palace.
Our bags are collected from the car and carried inside. The lobby has high ceilings and weighty chandeliers but a modern feel, with lots of white and reflecting silver, as well as a colorful statue of a chihuahua standing guard by the lifts. There’s a modern, uncluttered, elegance throughout the hotel, including a lounge/bar area on the second floor and the quiet hotel corridors, as well as inside the suites and rooms themselves.
Our room, up on the fourth floor, is mainly white and grey, with occasional touches of pink for color, including the throw on the bed and a comfy armchair by the window. It’s a high-ceilinged room, more than six meters, which gives a feeling of space. There’s a writing desk tucked away in one corner and a coffee table by the window. The bed’s mattress is hard and solid, and makes for a comfortable sleep, with a large screen TV hung on the wall opposite. Hanging above the bed, there’s a modern chandelier, the sparkling elements set inside a silvery metal cover.
Though the room has a European feel, there are a couple of Cuban touches, including a statuette of La Girardilla, the symbol of La Habana, and a colorful framed photo of an Afro-Cuban woman smoking a cigar.
The bathroom, which contains Kempinski’s own soap, shower gel, shampoo and conditioner, has a big mirror leaning over the sink set in the marble unit. A shower room, featuring both a standard hand-held shower and a rainshower, has a glittery, silvery mosaic of floor tiles. Notably, there’s an incredible amount of space, which, given our valuable central location, is a real luxury.
The best part of the room for me, though, is the outward-looking balcony (some of the hotel’s rooms face inwards to the central patio area). Large French doors/windows open out for a view across Old Havana. Floridita is visible down on the corner of a small plaza. Colorful classic cars, modern taxis, cyclists and horse-drawn carts all pass by on the road far below. From the balcony, we can see daily life on the balconies of the crumbly, characterful city. It’s the kind of balcony I could spend hours on, if there weren’t so much to see and do in the city outside. Though we’re right in the heart of the city, once the windows are closed, it’s peaceful and still inside the room, with just a very distant whisper of traffic below.
We spend several days at the hotel, each morning heading down to Confluencias restaurant for breakfast, where the window tables look out onto Parque Central. The restaurant has the now familiar high ceilings and columns covered in reflective mirror tiles. There are silver mosaic tiles lining the wall of the breakfast buffet too, where there’s also a strip decorated with fishermen and other figures from the city’s seafront Malecón area. The breakfast buffet is extensive and appealing, with hot and cold options, as well as a section of breads and colorful elegant little pastries. There’s a whole leg of Serrano Ham on display, as well as a wheel of Parmesan that would be big enough to fit onto one of the city’s old cars, while other cheeses are presented neatly in glass cases. As well as the buffet, there are other menu options, from omelettes to Eggs Benedict, to order fresh from the kitchen. Waiters also bring tea and coffee, while there’s a counter filled with fresh juices and bottles of Champagne to help ourselves from.
On our first morning, we step out of the hotel after breakfast and into the back of a pink 1952 Plymouth for a classic car tour of the city. “You are in a very old car”, Patricia, our guide, tells us, as her father, Carlos, drives us through the city. After the Revolution in Cuba, the country was cut off from the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, meaning importing new cars was impossible, Patricia explains; keeping the old cars fixed up and in working order was a necessity, now giving Havana a uniquely old world feel. Many of the old cars are “Frankensteins”, Patricia laughs, as they’re put together from many different parts.
Our tour takes us out past the Capital Building, through the Chinatown area and by the university where Fidel Castro trained to be a lawyer, then on to Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square), a massive space with the towering José Martí Memorial and Che Guevera’s face now looking down from one of the government buildings. Here on the square, Fidel Castro used to address the crowds for improvised speeches that could last all day. Parked along the square are more classic cars: Pontiacs, Chevys, Buicks, Forsd, Plymouths, Chryslers and more, all dating from the late 1950s and 1960s. From the Square, we drive on to the greenery of Parque Almendares and slowly circle back, via the Malecón, to the Old Town, where Patricia gives us a walking tour, taking in Plaza des Armes, Plaza Viejas, the Havana Cathedral and through the city’s life-filled backstreets.
There’s plenty to explore in Havana, but it’s also a pleasure to spend time at the hotel. Up on the sixth floor, there’s a Spa Albear by Resense, with eight treatment rooms, plus, less healthy, the Evocación Tobacco Lounge on the second floor, for rums and cigars. We spend much of our time at the hotel, though, up on the rooftop, which has a long blue pool with glinting tiles that catch the sunlight and what has to be one of the best views in the city. By day, you can swim or order beers, cocktails or bar food to enjoy on the loungers or comfy sofas, with a view of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and all the life down on Parque Central. Sunsets from here are exceptional, the sky turning pink behind the towers of Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso and Hotel Inglaterra, the view stretching all the way to the ocean off the Malecón. After dark, lights turn on inside the little tables, which glow pink around the terrace, and DJs play, giving the rooftop a mellow club feel.
One evening, we eat up on the rooftop at the San Cristóbal Panoramic Restaurant. There’s indoor seating, but it’s warm enough to sit outside on the terrace. The food is excellent, drawing on fresh Cuban seafood, starting with a pumpkin soup with a tasty, salty stew of shrimp, lobster and squid. A large piece of grilled snapper is perfectly cooked, served on a sweet-tasting carrot puree. Desserts are quite light, first a refreshing pineapple ravioli, then a white chocolate mousse with chunks of brownie, hazelnuts and apple. As enjoyable as the food and wine is, the location – dining while surrounded by the sights of Old Havana – is what makes the evening really memorable.
A relaxing and peaceful place to stay, right in the thick of the action, the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana is a hard place to leave. The hotel already has a reputation among local guides as the best in Havana. It’s likely to get some new competition in the coming years, as more change comes to Havana, but for now it’s hard to argue.
The author traveled to Havana with Cuba Holidays (https://cubaholidays.co.uk/, 1-305-264-3760) who offer tailormade and twin-center vacations to Cuba. City breaks to Havana, including a 3-night stay at Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana on a B&B basis, transfers to and from Havana airport and a classic car tour, excluding international flights, start from $1,299 per person.
For more on the hotel, see https://www.kempinski.com/en/havana/gran-hotel-kempinski-la-habana/.