While Cuba Remains Off-Limits to Americans, Havana and the Island's Beaches Draw Tourists from the Rest of the World
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
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For decades, the Hotel Nacional was the preeminent place to stay in Havana. Situated in a parklike setting on a rise above the Malecón, this 1930s grande dame of hotels has played host to kings and queens, mobsters, Hollywood stars, writers, schemers and mega-deal makers over the years. Everybody who was anybody stayed at the Nacional. Not anymore. The new place to stay in town, and by far the best hotel on the island, is the Meliá Cohiba.
Opened in February 1995 after seven years in construction, the 22-story, five-star, 462-room Cohiba is a tribute to Cuba's newfound commitment to the business and tourist trades. Located just off the Malecon at the end of Avenue Paseo, it features a large, airy, well-appointed lobby, four restaurants, five bars, a lively disco/cabaret, two enormous swimming pools, a gym, several good shops, 24-hour in-house medical service, a business center and a cigar store. The rooms are world-class in comfort and decoration.
Operated by Spain's giant Grupo Sol hotel chain, the Cohiba prides itself for its smooth, efficient service. If there is a flaw, it lies in the near-total absence of Cuban influence. This hotel could be in London, Barcelona or Rome. The exception is in the gourmet Abanico de Cristal restaurant, which serves excellent fare based on traditional Cuban colonial cooking. In fact, the food at all four of the hotel's restaurants is as good or better than any in the city. But the big treat at the Cohiba is the smoking bar, El Relicario. Here, in a cool, quiet, plush setting, you can sample the best cigars and finest rums the island has to offer. Bar manager Juan Soneira, on hand nightly, speaks fluent English and is a willing source of information about cigars and where to buy them.
After the Cohiba, there is the five-star, 495-room Nacional. Designed by the same architect who built The Breakers in Palm Beach and the Biltmore in Coral Gables, Florida, this recently renovated Havana landmark retains an air of restrained elegance. The well-appointed, colonial-style lobby opens onto a wide terrace overlooking lush back gardens and the sea. At one end is the restaurant Comedor de Aguiar, which offers good international and Cuban dishes, as well as an extensive list of French and Spanish wines. At the other end of the lobby is Le Parisien, featuring one of the best shows in town. Upstairs, the rooms are large and adequately furnished; most have views of the sea. With its long driveway and extensive grounds, the Nacional provides a sense of isolation from the dust and hurry of the city.
Quieter yet is the comfortable four-star, 139-room Comodoro hotel in Miramar. Featuring a resortlike atmosphere, with beach access as well as a beautiful pool complex and extensive gardens, the hotel also functions as a school for young Cubans eager for jobs in the tourist industry. The service, if a bit stiff, is very good. So are the hotel's three restaurants. The lobby and rooms have all been recently renovated. The hotel's strength and weakness is its distance from town (at least 15 minutes by taxi). If you want to escape the noise and hustle of the city, this is the place for you. But be prepared to spend considerable time (and money) getting around.
In the heart of Old Havana there are three good--if less luxurious--hotels, all in easy walking distance of major tourist sites, restaurants and cigar stores. The best is the newly renovated four-star, 188-room Sevilla, with its large, beautifully appointed colonial lobby, garden swimming pool, quiet patio bar, shops and spectacular rooftop restaurant. Though not up to the level of the Cohiba, the rooms are comfortable and all are equipped with satellite television, touch-tone phones and air conditioning. On Paseo del Prado and Trocadero (and just around the corner from the La Corona factory), the Sevilla makes a great rest stop when touring the old town.
On a similar scale, if slightly faded, is the four-star, 206-room Hotel Plaza, located at one corner of the Parque Central, not far from Floridita bar and restaurant. The spacious lobby has an Old World feel, and the lobby bar offers good, light lunches in a cool, tropical setting. The rooms are adequate, if somewhat sparse, with similar features to those of the Sevilla. The four-star, 86-room Inglaterra, also on the Parque Central (near the Gran Teatro de la Habana), was Havana's first luxury hotel. Though the large, inexpensive rooms are in need of renovation, the lobby bar and restaurant, with their tiled walls and cool, spacious Mediterranean atmosphere, make a great rest stop after visiting the Partagas factory, which is just three blocks away.
One last, relatively unknown gem of a hotel is the four-star, 31-room Victoria. Not far from the Nacional on Calle 19 in the commercial district of Vedado, it has the graceful charm of a good European inn. Rooms are spacious, with all the amenities of five-star lodging. The lobby is cool, quiet and relaxed. The small, elegant restaurant serves well-prepared European and Cuban meals and offers private rooms for business lunches and other meetings. In the walled garden behind the hotel is a small, tasteful pool and patio area. Photocopying, fax, bilingual typing and other secretarial services are available.
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