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Cuba Travel Guide

James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

While it is still difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba, Cigar Aficionado provides a guide to the best hotels, restaurants and cigar stores on the Caribbean island. From lavish beach resorts to intimate paladares to meticulously run smoke shops, Cuba offers the visitor many sensual delights.

Cuba's Best Hotels
While many hotels on the island need a face-lift, several offer superior accommodations

The oceanfront spa felt more like one you'd find at a chic, minimalist beach resort such as Aman on Bali or Banyan Tree on Phuket than as part of a small hotel on an isolated shoreline in northeastern Cuba. An attractive blonde attendant prepared a cozy wooden beach cabana for my massage after a friend had finished his molten chocolate body wrap. It was thoroughly relaxing following a slightly harrowing hour-and-a-half flight in a small, rickety turbo-prop from Havana. My thoughts of imminent death during the flight seemed nothing more than a bad dream as the soothing sounds of the sea combined with the relaxing hands of the masseuse. The only thing better was the Montecristo Petit Edmundo I smoked afterward.

Paradisus Río de Oro is one of Cuba's best beach resorts, with a recent multimillion- dollar upgrade that includes the small spa and private villas. It's a tiny replica of the Sol Meliá beach spa resort on the Mayan Riviera in Cancún, but the Cuban version offers a more exclusive feel as well as a more beautiful beach and a lush tropical setting. It's an example of what Cuba could have to offer millions of Americans if and when they are finally allowed to visit the island. The 345-room resort's biggest customers are already North Americans, but most are Canadians arriving via Toronto or Montreal. Hoteliers on the island can't wait for the day when flights from major U.S. cities start.

"It will be amazing when it happens," says Rodrigo Silveyra, sub-director of operations for Sol Meliá in Cuba, the most successful and largest hotel operator on the island with two dozen facilities. Meliá has a number of joint hotel ventures with the Cuban government as well as management contracts. "Why would Americans want to go to the Dominican Republic or Mexico when they could come to Cuba? They are all going to want to go to Havana when it opens up."

The best hotels on the island are in Havana, and Cuba's capital offers the most in entertainment and culture, although the island has amazing beaches outside of the city. But you have to wonder where the Cubans would put all the Americans as some estimates say a few million would come the first year. The city only has about 8,000 rooms available, most of which are poor quality by international travelers' standards. They cater to inexpensive package tours for people seeking a week of sun, sea and sand. Most tourists pay about $600 to $800 a week, which is all-inclusive of their flights.

Conversely, the handful of good hotels on the island are too pricey for most independent travelers. Moderate hotels cost a little less than $200 a night for a standard room for two, while expensive ones can be as much as $300 to $400. Disadvantageous currency exchanges and commissions on credit cards only exacerbate what used to be an inexpensive place to visit. However, the majority of rooms may be heavily discounted depending on the time of year.

The big problem is that you often don't get much quality for your money. Many hotels, even the famous ones, are starting to look rather shabby, and food and service can be mediocre. A few years ago, some independent travelers rented rooms in private houses, but the practice has become less popular. None of the private lodgings offer the amenities and services of a hotelÑeven regular hot water, electricity and telephone service can be sparse.

Only one hotel on the island could be considered a luxurious place to stay by American standards: the Meliá Cohiba. Others may have better facilities, or are more picturesque, but the Cohiba, with its combination of modern amenities and helpful service, truly stands out. The hotel boasts a large swimming pool, good restaurants, satellite television and high-speed Internet; no other hotel on the island can compete. The service on the executive floor is second to none. The biggest letdown is the Cohiba's 1980s façade, which looks like something out of Las Vegas. Some people find it an eyesore compared to the Spanish colonial splendor of the old city of Havana.

By comparison, the Nacional is the most beautiful hotel on the island. Its 1930s-built Spanish colonial façade is a landmark in the city. It's worth staying here just to have regular access to the tranquil courtyard bar, which is one of the best places to relax and enjoy a cigar with a Cuban cocktail. The two pools are large and luxurious. However, the service is abysmal. The Hotel Santa Isabel, the nineteenth-century palace-cum-inn, shares much of the romance, style and history of the Nacional, yet it's much smaller and cozier, with many of the rooms boasting large balconies overlooking the Plaza de Armas. But like the Nacional, the service is poor.


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