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.
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.
Most of the hotels with executive floors are in Havana, including Meliá Cohiba, Meliá Habana, Hotel Nacional and Habana Libre. Most of these hotels charge between $150 and $300 a night for a double room on their executive floors, about 25 to 35 percent more expensive than a similar room on a regular floor. It's best to book a room through travel agents specializing in trips to Cuba, because they usually can obtain rooms at much lower than suggested prices. However, hotels can also be contacted directly. Ask for a special or corporate rate.
The best hotels accept all non-U.S. credit cards as well as traveler's checks, as long as the funds are not drawn on U.S. banks. Dollars, of course, are always welcome. Be careful not to be like a couple of cigar-loving Americans whom I met a few months ago in the lobby of the Santa Isabel; they had miscalculated their expenses and ran out of cash while paying their bill. Luckily, a friend bailed them out at the last minute. Otherwise, they might have found it difficult to leave the island.
Here are the best hotels Cuba has to offer, listed in my order of preference. Prices are for double rooms or suites. Outside Cuba, phone and fax numbers need to be preceded by 53-7, the codes for Cuba and Havana, respectively (the code for Cayo Largo is 5).
Hotel Meliá Cohiba
Calle Paseo e/1 y 3
Vedado, Municipio Plaza
Tel: 33 36 36
Fax: 33 45 55
342 double rooms, 120 suites
Rates: $165 to $650
This is the business hotel in Havana, although it's equally comfortable for those on holiday. If you want to know what big deals are coming together on the island, just spend some time in one of the hotel's bars or restaurants, not to mention the pretty swimming pool and health club. The executive floor, Servicio Real, is the best in Havana, with quick, friendly and efficient service; it even has a private bar for breakfast and snacks during the day, as well as meeting rooms. Bedrooms are clean, modern and quiet, with excellent views of the city. Some say the Meliá has the best buffet breakfast and lunch in town, although its Spanish restaurant, Abanico de Cristal, is also very good, as is the pizzeria next door. Don't miss a night in the Habana Café, with some of the best bands on the island. Plans are in the works for a large cigar bar with top-of-the-line smokes as well as mixed drinks, a library and Internet access. The hotel is located on the Malecón, about a 10-minute taxi ride from Old Havana, and despite its rather dull high-rise look, it remains the best hotel on the island.
Hotel Parque Central
Neptuno e/Prado y Zulueta
La Habana Vieja
Tel: 60 66 27 or 60 66 28 or 60 66 29
Fax: 60 66 30
Rates: $140 to $225
This is the best deluxe hotel in Old Havana. Located a stone's throw from the National Theater and the Capitol building, it has the best location of all of Havana's fine hotels. Parque Central is a slightly strange mix of old and new, built from the ruins of a seventeenth-century hotel in the same location. The lobby is bright and airy with various bars, and the second floor houses a very good cigar shop and smoker's bar. The hotel resembles a colonial courtyard in one of the many palaces in Old Havana, but in a modern style. The rooms are well equipped and extremely comfortable in a neo-Regency style. Service is friendly but slightly forgetful. The rooftop swimming pool on the ninth floor is fabulous, with great views of the city. The bar and small grill on the same floor offers good simple food and delicious drinks. There's even a small gym and massage salon for those feeling inclined.
Sol Club Cayo Largo
Cayo Largo del Sur
Archipiélago de Los Canarreos
Isla de la Juventud
Tel: (5) 48 260
Fax: (5) 48 265
Rates: $175 to $225
The Sol Club Cayo Largo is setting the standard for seaside resorts in Cuba. Opened last December, this all-inclusive hotel is stunning, with bright, comfortable bungalows, a selection of restaurants, bars and nightclubs, two swimming pools, two tennis courts and health clubs. Almost everything is included in the price -- accommodation, food and drinks, the use of the clubs and gyms, and windsurfing, sailing and other aquatic sports. Diving is extra. The hotel also organizes sportfishing outings (the area has some of the best bonefishing in the Caribbean) as well as boat trips to isolated beaches. Sitting in front of the hotel on one of the most beautiful beaches on the island, it's almost hard to believe you're in Cuba. Don't miss staying here.
Hotel Santa Isabel
Calle Baratilloe No. 9, e/Obispo y Narciso Lopez
Plaza de Armas
La Habana Vieja
Tel: 60 82 01 or 60 96 19
Fax: 60 83 91
Rates: $115 to $210 with breakfast
Relaxing with a cocktail and a cigar on one of this hotel's room balconies, facing the Plaza de Armas, is one of the greatest but least-known pleasures of Havana. You can almost picture the horse-drawn carriages and elegantly dressed aristocracy who centuries ago strolled through this area of Old Havana. Formerly a nineteenth-century palace, the Santa Isabel is the most romantic hotel in Havana, with a secluded lobby and patio bar and large bedrooms -- two with poster beds -- and reproduction antiques. It's right in the center of La Habana Vieja, offering easy access to just about everything. The only drawback is that it does not have a swimming pool.
Calle 3, e/76 y 80
Tel: 24 85 00
Fax: 24 85 05
Rates: $165 to $500
Whether traveling for business or pleasure, guests appreciate the quiet, out-of-the-way atmosphere of this hotel. Built in 1997, the Meliá Habana has just about all the features and services of its sister hotel, the Meliá Cohiba, but it is located away from the hustle and bustle of the city on the rocky coastline of Havana's smart neighborhood, Miramar. The pool is exceptionally nice and is nearly always unused. Rooms are well appointed, clean and attractive. The executive floor is larger than the Cohiba's, with more private meeting rooms. The only drawback here are the mediocre restaurants.
Hostal Conde de Villanueva
202 Mercaderes, esq. Lamparilla
La Habana Vieja
Tel: 62 92 93 or 62 92 94
Fax: 62 96 82
Rates: $95 to $175
Staying here is like renting your own colonial manor house in the center of Old Havana. The building was originally the property of a wealthy Spanish merchant family who built it in the late eighteenth century. Many of the original features are still maintained, including a gorgeous, leafy courtyard and an interior terrace that runs around the center of the building. It's wonderful relaxing in one of the wicker chairs on the terrace, smoking a cigar or drinking a cocktail. Rooms can be slightly dark and noisy, although they certainly give you the feel of being in Havana compared to the modern international hotels. There's even one of the best cigar shops in-house, so finding a good cigar isn't a problem. Unfortunately, there is no swimming pool.
Ave. 23, Calle L
Tel: 33 40 11 or 55 40 11
Fax: 33 31 41
Rates: $150 to $230
Formerly the Havana Hilton, this late-1950s hotel could one day be the hippest, most happening hotel in Cuba if Spain's Sol Meliá group renovates it properly after taking over the management of the property last November. It is a complete gem of Miami Art Deco architecture, with loads of glass, stainless steel and wood paneling, not to mention the sculpture and paintings in many of the communal areas and suites designed by some of the biggest names of the period. The large swimming pool is a dream, with its glassed-in bar and tiled sunbathing area. You almost expect to see the Rat Pack sipping mojitos with their feet dangling in the pool. This is also where CNN has its offices in Cuba. The only place worth staying in the hotel at the moment, however, is on the executive floor, since rooms on the other floors resemble a cheap motel on any interstate. The Castellana suite is phenomenal (at about $1,350 a night, it ought to be), with four bedrooms, a living room, dining room, office and private kitchen. It's furnished with 1950s furniture and paintings, including a number from Rene Portocarrero and Cundo Bermudas. This is where Fidel Castro stayed in the early 1960s while organizing his revolutionary government, and it seems to have remained unchanged since.
Calle O, esq. 21
Tel: 33 35 62 or 33 35 64
Fax: 33 50 54
Rates: $97 to $450
No other hotel in Cuba is more beautiful than the Spanish colonial-styled Hotel Nacional. Built in the 1930s, it is a twin to the Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida. The Nacional is located on a small point on the coastal road of the Malecón, with magnificent views of the ocean. With two swimming pools, gardens and patios, the grounds are gorgeous for taking strolls in the early morning and late afternoon. Or just relax and have a drink in one of the bars or lounges. Rooms were renovated in the mid-'90s and still offer all the amenities. The presidential suite, with two bedrooms, a dining room, sitting room, office and private kitchen, as well as housekeeping and food service, is $1,000 a night. The views are superb from the huge private terrace. Service continues to be a problem here, from not receiving telephone calls or messages, to breakfast and room service never arriving on time. The restaurants are mediocre. The situation is better on the 69-room executive floor, which has its own reception area, bar and private meeting rooms.