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.
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
Tel.: (7) 833-3636
Fax: (7) 833-3946
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
Tel.: (24) 3-0090
Fax: (24) 3-0095
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.
Tel.: (45) 66-8700
Fax: (45) 66-8705
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
Tel.: (7) 860-8201
Fax: (7) 860-8391
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
Tel.: (7) 204-8500
Fax: (7) 204-3905
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.
Calle O, esq. 21
Tel.: (7) 836-3564
Fax: (7) 836-5054
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
Tel.: (7) 860-6627
Fax: (7) 860-6630
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.
Paseo del Prado, No. 603, esq. Dragones
La Habana Vieja
Tel.: (7) 868-1000
Fax: (7) 868-1001
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.
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."
Probably only 300 to 400 seats combined in good-quality restaurants exist in Cuba. Most can be found in La Guarida and other paladars such as La Cocina de Lilliam, La Casa and La Esperanza. And it's not inexpensive anymore. Prices can be the same as Miami or Los Angeles at $40 or $50 a head for a three-course dinner without drinks. A large part of this is because very few Cubans eat out. They simply can't afford it. And the majority of tourists eat in their hotels at large buffets or other down-market venues. So the few who go out have to pay for everything.
"We don't have the [restaurant] culture here yet," lamented Núñez. "And we don't have the customers."
This lack of culture, or dedication for a better word, is why I haven't listed more restaurants in this article. They just aren't worth making the effort to go to. In addition, a number of places have gone down in quality, including La Fontana, La Floridita and El Ranchón.
But this doesn't mean that it's not fun to go out for a meal in Cuba, especially Havana. There's something intriguing about going to a good paladar, and it's an experience that can't be replicated, especially in the United States. I have never eaten in a restaurant in Los Angeles or New York that doubles as someone's house.
Take Havana's La Casa for example. It is one paladar in the city that has improved in the last year, and shows that a tiny restaurant culture is slowly taking hold. Alejandro Robaina, nothing to do with the cigar legend, looks more like a Spanish movie star than a restaurateur, but he has spent time in Europe and aspires to make more sophisticated, refined food, instead of the criolla cuisine he served before. A recent dinner on the patio of his small restaurant included roasted rabbit in a creamy mustard sauce, grilled smoked pork chops, pan-fired snapper, and fresh vegetables and creamy puree potatoes. Granted, it's not New York or London, but it's the beginning of haute cuisine in Cuba for the moment.
"It's not easy," Robaina said, waiting on a handful of tables with his father, while a friend manned the small kitchen. The restaurant is the first floor of their 1950s modern-style house. "But you always have to try to do better, no matter the difficulty."
Paladares pay high taxes, which is one reason many are no longer in business. Moreover, the government now heavily regulates private restaurants, and many could not keep up with the health and financial rules.
Government restaurants, on the other hand, are used to the regulation. In fact, they were created with rules in mind. This makes for tidy organization but results in mostly mediocre food and service. Food, even in the best hotels, is insipid at best. In the 16 years I have traveled to Cuba, I have never had an exceptional meal in a hotel.
This doesn't mean a few good government restaurants don't exist. For example, El Aljibe is an outdoor restaurant that is one of the most popular in Havana, both with tourists, expatriates and international businessmen. The restaurant can serve hundreds of covers in a day, with most customers eating its specialty of roasted chicken in tangy citrus gravy with black beans, rice and French fries. I like to say it is the Habaneros' answer to a grand Parisian brasserie. Plus, El Aljibe has a temperature-controlled wine cellar with 20,000 bottles, from Italy's Tignanello to Chile's Almaviva.
But at the end of the day, a seasoned traveler to Cuba, in particular Havana, is going to go to the same five or six restaurants in the city. In fact, you often see the same people and they all seem to know one another on a first-name basis. There's often an exchange of pleasantries as well as cigars at the end of the meal. I am sure the American woman I met on her gastronomic tour found the same thing, if she was able to find the handful of places to go other than hotel restaurants.
Here are my favorite restaurants on the island. All are in Havana.
Calle Concordia, No. 418
Entre Gervasio y Escobar
Tel.: (7) 866-9047
Monday to Sunday, dinner only; cash only
Enrique Núñez and his family produce the best food on the island in what has to be one of the coolest restaurants in the Caribbean. A walk up the spiraling marble staircase to the third floor of a decaying town house where the restaurant is located is like going back in time. Stop on the second floor and gaze at the crumbling ballroom. When you get to the restaurant, knock on the small door with a peephole, and the door opens to a dreamy, bohemian ambience. La Guarida doesn't change its menu much, but it always delivers stylish dishes like a tasty roasted tuna filet with a vanilla sauce or hearty rabbit vegetable lasagna. It has a well-selected wine list too. You'll be satisfied gastronomically and spiritually here. Don't miss it.
La Cocina de Lilliam
Calle 48, No. 1311
Entre 13 y 15
Tel.: (7) 209-6514
Sunday to Friday, lunch and dinner; cash only
This is home cooking, 1950s Cuban cuisine, and a fun place to eat, either for lunch or dinner. Most customers prefer to eat on the patio of the Spanish colonial—style house built in 1937. The refreshing green garden with ferns and small ponds is refreshing during a warm, humid Cuban day. Food is hearty with lots of pork, fish, rice and beans. Desserts are sweet and delicious. Plenty of Spain's Torres wine is available, although a cold Cuban beer or refreshing Mojito does the trick as well.
Avenida 7 entre 24 y 26
Tel.: (7) 204-1584, 204-1583
Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner
Moderate; most major credit cards
You can't go to Havana and not eat at this sometimes raucous outdoor restaurant. It's great for people watching at night, so go around 9 p.m. The food is savory and satisfying. Just about everyone eats the same thing: roasted chicken in a pungent sauce made with fermented oranges, chicken drippings and garlic; spicy black beans; delicate boiled white rice; and deep-fried plantains. Ask one of the sommeliers to recommend a rich Spanish, Italian or Chilean red from the restaurant's 20,000-bottle cellar. Order a bottle of 2003 Don Melchor; the delicious Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon was Wine Spectator's No. 3 wine last year.
Calle 16, No. 105
Entre 1 y 3
Tel.: (7) 202-4361
Monday to Saturday, lunch and dinner; cash only
This restaurant has had its ups and downs, but the food and service seems to be back on track. It's as real a paladar as you get in Cuba, plus there's a romantic refinement to the 1930s Spanish colonial house. Relax and enjoy. Coming here is like being invited to a bohemian dinner party.
Calle 30, No. 865
Entre 26 y 41
Tel.: (7) 881-7000
Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner; cash only
This could be the second best restaurant in Havana, if owner Alejandro Robaina can continue to innovate in his kitchen. The atmosphere is relaxed, hip in a 1950s Miami sort of way. Plenty of good pork and fish dishes as well as the occasional rabbit or chicken. Food is light and refined now. Just what you need on a hot, humid night in Havana.
Calle 28, No. 111
Entre 1 y 3
Tel.: (7) 203-4718
Every day, lunch and dinner (reservation needed); most major credit cards
A very simple paladar in the back of a doctor's house, hence the name. The food here is solid criollo eats with lots of roasted and grilled meats, poultry and fish accompanied by black beans and rice. Arrive on an empty stomach.
Avenida del Puerto, No. 12
Esquina Narciso Lopez
La Habana Vieja
Tel.: (7) 866-8807
Every day, lunch and dinner; most major credit cards, but cash preferable
This is one of the nicest places in Havana for lunch, sitting outside on the terrace overlooking the harbor of the city next to the cruise ship terminal. Lots of fresh seafood is on offer, from snapper to lobster, and it's prepared various ways, from simply grilled to sautéed in olive oil and garlic. The standard Cuban side dishes are available. Good wine list.
Calle 17 y 190
Tel.: (7) 271-8167
Every day, lunch and dinner; cash only
When I am in Havana I always go here for lunch for the good, hearty simple, food and fun atmosphere. Located near the Palacio de Convenciones, it's the sort of place where you rub shoulders with everyone from diplomats to taxi drivers. The dining area is right next to the car park under open-air, palm-leaf-roofed buildings. Order something off the outdoor barbecue, like ribs or pressed chicken.
La Bodeguita del Medio
Empedrado, No. 207
La Habana Vieja
Tel.: (7) 867-1374, 757-1375
Every day, lunch and dinner; Visa; reservations needed
OK, it's full of tourists. And the bar can be very loud. But it's fun. Relax and enjoy a simple lunch or dinner of grilled fish or roasted pork with plenty of black beans and rice. Hemingway was said to drink his Mojitos here. But apparently it may not be true. Who cares? He should have drunk them here and you can too.
Calle 3 A, No. 305
Tel.: (7) 202-8337
Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner; cash only
The restaurant has been inconsistent at times, but it is currently getting it very right. The main courses of grilled meats and fish are good, like many places in Havana, but the starters are exceptional, from tender grilled octopus to spicy homemade sausages as well as sautéed garbanzo beans with tomatoes and smoked ham. Eating outside on the patio is a treat, but it's cooler, in both senses of the word, to eat in the air-conditioned bar. Good bottles of Torres are available, both from Spain and Chile.
Havana's Cigar Shops
The Cuban capital has some of the world's best cigar emporiums, with great selection and service
Havana is the cigar mecca of the world and its unofficial guru is cigar merchant Enrique Mons. The 64-year-old has been selling cigars in the capital for close to two decades. He opened the first fine cigar shop in the city in 1990 after spending 18 years as head of quality control for the export company for Cuban cigars, then known as Cubatabaco.
"Back then I traveled frequently to Europe and I could see how well the cigars were kept at the stores," he says, smoking a lonsdale that a roller in his shop had made a few minutes before. His current store is located in the Club Havana in Miramar, an opulent area in the southern part of the city. "I always thought that Cuba, being the best producer of cigars in the world, that we should also be able to keep [and sell] our cigars with the same care that was done elsewhere in the world.
"I wanted to give to the foreign visitor the same service that they would receive in those countries I visited. That is when the store was opened on the corner of 5th Avenue and 16th, which was the first fine cigar shop in Cuba. Later came the Partagas shop and a few others, and now you see cigars being sold here like all the other great cigar shops around the world."
It was his dream of taking a more professional approach to selling cigars on the island that has made the Cuban capital the most exciting place in the world to buy a smoke. Visiting a top cigar shop in Havana is like going to a great wine merchant, chic jeweler or cool clothes store. Just about every cigar in current production in Cuba is available, each cigar is stored perfectly humidified, and the service is friendly and informative. There's nothing better than browsing through a Havana cigar shop and buying a few boxes while discussing your purchase over a smoke with a strong espresso or seven-year-old rum.
"There's nothing like buying a cigar in Havana," says Mons. "It's a new experience every time. Just to come to Cuba is a new experience for most people."
Every major hotel, restaurant, bar and club offers cigars for sale. Moreover, you can still smoke just about anywhere you want—although I was recently asked to leave a bakery when I walked in with my smoldering Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill. I guess it was justified, even in Cuba!
Although there are so many places to buy cigars in Havana, only a handful of shops offer top-rate selection, service and storage. There are too many shops where the cigars are not well kept and the staff knows very little, or absolutely nothing, about cigars.
In general, the La Casa del Habano shops provide the best selection, offering the latest sizes and shapes as well as special limited-edition humidors. They all have rollers on the premises who can make bespoke cigars for customers. Ask one of the salesmen for advice on what's the newest or rarest available. Many speak English. In addition, all of the top shops offer locker space to maintain your cigars if you don't want to take them all home, and these stores are a great place to meet other smokers, who tend to hang out, smoke and drink at these establishments, particularly at Mons's and the Partagas shop.
Interestingly, price is not a factor in deciding where to buy a cigar. The government regulates all the prices, whether you're buying a small carton of five Montecristo No. 4s or a box of 50 Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2s. Prices have increased significantly over the last three to four years and now cigars cost about the same here as they do in many key markets in Europe, including Spain and Switzerland.
When buying cigars, beware that the streets of Havana are busy with people selling fakes. I recently stopped in at the Partagas factory cigar shop in downtown Havana and I was almost knocked off my feet by aggressive fake-cigar hawkers. They all swore that they worked in the factory themselves or had family members high in the Cuban cigar industry to assure the authenticity of what they were selling. One even tried to entice me by saying that "you smoke what you like first and then you buy what you want." Don't believe any of them and stick to authorized shops.
The Cuban government has cracked down on the trafficking of fake cigars in recent years. For example, tourists are not allowed to leave the island with more than 24 individual cigars without an official receipt. And customs officials closely check anything above the limit. They even page travelers over the intercom system at José Martí airport to come to the customs office, so the authenticity of the purchases can be confirmed. In addition, restrictions exist on how many cigars passengers are allowed to bring to their next destination. For example, travelers to Mexico are permitted only one box of cigars and those who go to European countries are allowed 50 cigars, duty-free.
It's all more the reason to buy cigars from reputable merchants such as Enrique Mons. The veteran cigar man probably never dreamed he would help create the best place on earth to buy hand-rolled cigars when he opened Cuba's first premium shop. But he did seem to know that it was what he wanted to do and he doesn't have any regrets. "I now don't have to go anywhere because people from all over the world come to see me," he says with a huge smile and a smoldering cigar in his hand. "This gives me great happiness. I do this not as a job but out of love. It's more than a hobby or job. It's my life."
Here are my favorite cigar shops in Cuba, all of which are in Havana:
La Casa del Habano
Calle Industria, No. 520
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (7) 862-3772
La Casa del Habano
Calle 5ta., esq. 16, No. 1407
Tel: (7) 204-7975
La Casa del Habano
5ta Avenida, No. 188-192
Tel: (7) 204-3300
La Casa del Habano
(Hostal Conde de Villanueva)
202 Mercaderes, esq. Lamparilla
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (7) 862-9293