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The Best Hotels in Cuba

Once limited in lodging options, travelers now have a choice of top-flight accommodations
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

It wasn't that long ago when staying in a Cuban hotel meant roughing it in a grubby, Soviet-style concrete building with dark and dingy rooms and little or no service.

Today, the best hotels on the island are on a par with hotels just about anywhere in the world. Places such as Havana's Meliá Cohiba and Meliá Habana, as well as Cayo Largo's new Sol Club Cayo Largo, have all the amenities that a well-heeled tourist expects, including comfortable and well-appointed air-conditioned rooms, friendly personalized service, good restaurants, and well-kept swimming pools and health clubs. Most of these top establishments are partially owned or managed by international hotel groups such as Spain's Sol Meliá; however, local hotel organizations such as Cubanacan and Gran Caribe have also made improvements in recent years.

"Despite the fact that the tourist industry in Cuba is quite recent, Cubans are more and more getting to understand how to accommodate the independent traveler, especially with hotels," says Carlos Villota, who as manager of the Meliá Cohiba since it opened in 1995 has been credited with running the best hotel on the island. "The government has invested millions of dollars in renovating and building hotels as well as in training staff. Each year the situation gets a little better."

About 200 hotels are operating on the island, according to government figures, representing a total of about 36,000 rooms. Approximately half of the hotels are totally owned and operated by the Cuban government, with another 25 percent structured as joint ventures between the government and foreign companies, and the remainder owned by the Cubans and managed by foreign hotel operators. One of the newest foreign hotel groups to enter Cuba is France's Novotel, which has opened a 427-room resort in Havana's Miramar section.

Be warned, however. Despite recent advances, the majority of hotels on the island still offer substandard quality, from shabby rooms and dilapidated facilities to inefficient staff and poor food. This is primarily due to Cuba's reliance on low-budget package tourists from Canada and Europe who pay $500 or $600, airfare included, for a week in the sun. Apparently, the Cubans believe that it doesn't pay to offer more than the absolute minimum to such visitors. And few people seem to be complaining.

Unfortunately, low-budget travel in Cuba can be a lot worse than anyone can possibly imagine. I have had a number of friends who have traveled on cheap tours to the island and have returned with horror stories of their stay, from cockroaches and broken air conditioners in their rooms to rancid food and rude service. Even some of the better-known and recommended hotels are notorious for substandard service and mediocre food, such as the landmark 1930s-era Hotel Nacional in Havana, despite its beautiful decor and fabulous location.

Hotel Nacional
Some of the more seasoned travelers to the island have now turned to renting rooms in private houses. I have one friend who regularly rents a five-bedroom house in the upmarket neighborhood of Miramar for $300 a day, complete with cook, garden and pool. He found the house through a friend in Havana. "Why pay the same rate in a large, international-style hotel when I can have my own house in Havana?" he asks. Granted, he also has his own car service as well as a full-time Cuban assistant, so he's well established in La Habana when he is visiting the city.

The private-house-and-room market is now so popular that visitors arriving at the island's airports are often inundated with offers for casa particular from locals standing outside the baggage claim. Even taking a room from a stranger may be worth the risk, since the government regulates these establishments and police come down on owners like a ton of bricks for thefts or other illegal behavior. Besides, Cubans are some of the most welcoming people on earth. But forget about using credit cards at these homes; it's dollars only. (No matter. U.S.-based credit cards and traveler's checks are useless anywhere in Cuba; American banks cannot accept Cuban transactions.)

Forget about such amenities as telephones, televisions and fax machines when staying in a private house. Hot water as well as electricity can also be scarce (as they are for most of the island's residents). Transportation can be equally frustrating without renting a car.

This is why I continue to stay in hotels when I am in Cuba. It may be more expensive and less romantic than some smaller places, but I need the accommodation and service of a good hotel, particularly in Havana. Moreover, the best hotels in Cuba usually have an executive floor with its own concierge, lounge and bar as well as a separate check-in and checkout counter. The latter is a real plus, especially when busloads of package tourists have just arrived at the registration desk, when it can take hours to register or pay your bill, not to mention just getting simple information. Executive floors offer the best hotel service on the island, and they can help sort out many of the minor yet frustrating inconveniences one may encounter in Cuba, from reserving a table in a popular restaurant to changing an airline ticket.

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