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Cuba Travel Guide

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

(continued from page 3)

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.

These sorts of shortfalls at the Nacional and Santa Isabel have caused some independent and affluent travelers, especially from Europe, to stop coming to Cuba. Overall, tourism was slightly down last year to just under 2 million visitors. Yet, sources in the government believe the situation can be improved "overnight, the day Americans are allowed to visit Cuba" and "Americans can be more forgiving tourists compared to others from around the world."

Time will tell. Besides, some visitors are already finding a handful of Cuban hotels worth visiting. The spa at Río de Oro, for example, is nearly always fully booked and Meliá is considering expanding the hotel. "We could use another 10 of the beach cabanas at the spa for treatments," says Juan Tuñón, the Spanish manager of the property. "It's already very, very popular."

Here is a list of the best hotels on the island:

Hotel Meliá Cohiba
Calle Paseo, entre 1 y 3
Vedado
Havana
Tel.: (7) 833-3636
Fax: (7) 833-3946
www.solmeliacuba.com
Expensive

This is where most businessmen stay in Havana, but the 500-plus-room hotel offers everything you need, including two swimming pools, good restaurants, clean rooms, friendly service, satellite television and wireless Internet. It's the only hotel on the island that has entered the twenty-first century.

Paradisus Rio de Oro
Playa Emeralda
Holguín
Tel.: (24) 3-0090
Fax: (24) 3-0095
www.solmeliacuba.com
Expensive

The city of Holguín is not the easiest place to get to, especially from Havana, but those who find their way here will discover that this small beach hotel in a tropical forest is secluded and relaxing. Rooms are nicely decorated and comfortable. The pools and beach are serene and enjoyable. The big plus is the small spa, whose many treatments range from conventional Swedish massage to a rum body rub. This could be a sign of what Cuba will offer in the future.

Paradisus Varadero
Punta Francés
Varadero
Matanzas
Tel.: (45) 66-8700
Fax: (45) 66-8705
www.solmeliacuba.com
Expensive

With close to 430 rooms, this hotel is the most exclusive on the island, with tropical gardens, beautiful pools and gorgeous beaches. It is an oasis in an area frequented by tourists. For real exclusivity, choose a garden villa and hideaway from all the hustle and bustle of the town of Varadero.

Hotel Santa Isabel
Calle Baratillo, No. 9
Entre Obispo y Narciso Lopez
Plaza de Armas
La Habana Vieja
Havana
Tel.: (7) 860-8201
Fax: (7) 860-8391
www.hotelsantaisabelcuba.com
Moderate

With only a couple dozen rooms, a Spanish colonial façade and a location right in the heart of old Havana, this is the most romantic hotel on the island. Stay in one of the rooms with a large balcony overlooking the park. And take long strolls in the evening to many of the sites and restaurants nearby. It's a shame that the hotel's food and service are mediocre.

Hotel Meliá Habana
Avenida 3, entre 76 y 80
Miramar
Havana
Tel.: (7) 204-8500
Fax: (7) 204-3905
www.solmeliacuba.com
Expensive

This is very similar to its sister hotel the Meliá Cohiba, although the 400-room Habana has a more relaxed atmosphere owing to its coastal location in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar. Ask for a room with an ocean view. And enjoy a dip in the pool. It's more leisure than business here.

Hotel Nacional
Calle O, esq. 21
Vedado
Tel.: (7) 836-3564
Fax: (7) 836-5054
www.hotelnacional.com
Expensive

With about 450 rooms, this is the granddaddy of hotels on the island, with a rich and long history from the last century. It's worth staying here for the beautiful view of the ocean from the garden, which jets out on the Malecón, the city's coastal road. But the rooms could use some renovation and the service is slow. Forget about eating here.

Hotel Parque Central
Calle Neptuno, entre Prado y Zulueta
La Habana Vieja
Havana
Tel.: (7) 860-6627
Fax: (7) 860-6630
www.hotelparquecentral.com
Expensive

Many independent travelers still enjoy this deluxe hotel in Old Havana, mostly for its location, which is a stone's throw away from the National Theater and the capitol building. It's a slightly strange mix of old and new, built from the ruins of a seventeenth-century hotel. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the rooftop swimming pool is a great place to see the skyline of the old part of the city and then take a quick swim.

Hotel Saratoga
Paseo del Prado, No. 603, esq. Dragones
La Habana Vieja
Havana
Tel.: (7) 868-1000
Fax: (7) 868-1001
www.hotelsaratogahabana.com
Expensive

The newest of the centrally located deluxe hotels, the Saratoga has all the style and flavor of old Havana. The common areas and rooms are comfortable and nicely decorated. The pool on the roof is one of the best on the island, with a wonderful view of the capitol and the Partagas cigar factory. However, the service leaves a lot to be desired.

 

Intimate Dining
Gourmet cuisine in Cuba remains elusive, but a number of spots, chiefly the cozy private paladares, are trying to rise to the challenge

The American on Mexicana Flight 7324 from Cancún to Havana said she was traveling surreptitiously to Cuba for a culinary tour. "I want to see Cuba for myself, but I thought I would do it for a reason," she said, looking slightly nervous. "So I decided to discover the cuisine of Cuba."

I just smiled and nodded my head in agreement. But I thought to myself how her tour would be a very short one because serious gastronomy continues to be in its infancy on the island, even in Havana. There's only so much you can do with roasted port, black beans and boiled rice.

I had high hopes of dining out in the mid-1990s when the Cuban government opened up its economy to small private restaurants called paladares. In a few months, these small eateries, which were officially limited to 12 seats, were all over the island, particularly in the capital. Some estimated they numbered close to 1,000 in Havana alone. Most specialized in home-style cooking, or cocina criolla, which normally means simple roasted or fried pork and chicken dishes with lots of white rice, black beans and yucca or plantains. This is what most travelers to the island still find in restaurants, both private and government-owned.

However, a handful tried to do more, even emulating nuevo latino cuisine from across the ocean in Miami. One of the most successful was La Guarida in a run-down part of Havana called Centro. The small restaurant is still located on the third floor of a large dilapidated eighteenth-century town house that was once used for filming Cuba's most famous film, Fresa y Chocolate. The eatery became so popular with its hip bohemian atmosphere, refined food and friendly service that it was almost impossible to get a table. It's still the toughest reservation in Havana. Queen Sofia of Spain, Jack Nicholson, Matt Dillon and many other dignitaries and celebrities have eaten there. And most have their photographs on the wall.

"It's very sad," said Enrique Núñez, owner of La Guarida, who spends a large amount of his time searching for the best ingredients, from fresh fish to vegetables. "There just aren't a lot of places to visit on the island."


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