To get an indication of Cuba's booming hotel market, consider that Havana now has a small inn catering to cigar aficionados. Cuba's capital now offers accommodations for just about any preference, from ultramodern business hotels to full-scale beach resorts to small exclusive inns.
Since the early 1990s, foreign investors and the Cuban government have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on building and renovating hotels on the island--especially in the capital. A decade ago, Havana had only 4,000 rooms available to tourists, according to the Ministry of Tourism. By next year, the agency estimates that number will approach 50,000. Most of the expansion is the product of joint-venture projects between Cuba and foreign hotel groups, primarily from Europe, although the Cubans have been responsible for a fair amount on their own.
Despite the improvements, however, you can still go horribly wrong in selecting a hotel in Havana. One friend from London recently spent a difficult week in the Hôtel Deauville--now under renovation--which he described as a "roach hotel with no hot water and disgusting food." A number of hotels in Havana still look like low-income housing or urban crack houses.However, one needn't visit such haunted houses. A hotel in Havana can be an oasis, a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. There's nothing better than a rich cigar and a cool mojito cocktail next to the swimming pool after a long day walking the dusty streets of Old Havana.
The best hotels in Havana certainly can hold their own with those in most other Latin American countries, but for the greater part, they are second-rate by global standards. Don't compare any of these hotels to the best in Europe, North America or the Caribbean. They just don't have the panache or nuts-and-bolts service of world-class hotels.
Poor service is the worst problem. Many Cubans have no concept of what the hospitality business is about. From reception staff to waiters and even managers, they often give the impression that they don't care about their clients or their jobs. It doesn't matter if you order a drink at the bar or ask for a fax to be brought to your room--there is a good chance that it will take close to forever to complete your request. And even then, they still expect to be tipped. Havana seems to run on dollar tips these days.
Another problem with Cuban hotels--especially in Havana--is their policy to bar most locals from their premises. This is primarily to keep young women and men from hustling and hassling their customers in lobby areas and bars, but the guards at the entrances and elevators sometimes lend a prison-like atmosphere to even the best hotels. And they are not beyond bothering hotel guests and their legitimate friends.
Such drawbacks make the high prices all the more annoying. Room rates are expensive by anyone's standard for the quality, especially if you arrange your room directly with the hotel. Most per-night rates average about $80 for a single, $150 to $250 for a standard double and about $400 for a suite. It's much better to use a travel agent to book your room, since Cuban hotels are very aggressive in price discounting. Some reduce prices by as much as 50 percent.
Location is important when selecting a hotel in Havana. The list of hotels below are grouped by address. Those under the heading of Central Havana are within walking distance to nearly everything in Old Havana. Hotels listed under the Vedado group are about a 10- to 15-minute taxi ride to Old Havana, while those under Miramar are 20 to 30 minutes away.
The hotels under each heading are listed in my order of preference. Rates are per night, in U.S. dollars, and range from singles to doubles to suites. Outside Cuba, phone and fax numbers need to be preceded by 53-7, the codes for Cuba and Havana, respectively.
Hotel Santa Isabel
Calle Baratillo No. 9 entre
Obispo y Narciso López
Plaza de Armas
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 33 82 01
Fax: 33 83 91
Rates: $110 to $210 with breakfast
This is the most elite hotel in Havana. A former palace of a Spanish noble family in the early nineteenth century, the Hotel Santa Isabel has lost very little of the elegant ambience of that period. Small and exclusive, it's like staying in a large private home. There's a secluded lobby with a patio as well as a good restaurant. Everything is done in Spanish colonial style. Rooms are large, with poster beds and reproduction antique furniture. Many have large terraces overlooking the Plaza de Armas, the shaded square behind the Castillo de la Fuerza, where booksellers set up stands every day. A rooftop swimming pool is planned for this year. The Santa Isabel is a favorite with affluent European tourists and businesspeople.
Hostal Conde de Villanueva
202 Mercaderes esquina Lamparilla
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 62 96 82
Rates: $53 to $135
This tiny hotel, located in the middle of Old Havana, could be a cigar smoker's paradise. The inn is a former Spanish merchant's house built in the eighteenth century, and it has been restored to perfection. The rooms are large and airy, with all the modern amenities. In addition, there's a small bar, a restaurant, a cigar shop and a cigar club. Lockers to keep cigars in perfect condition will be available for VIP guests. Renovations were nearly complete when this report was written.
No. 55 Trocadero
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 33 85 60
Fax: 33 85 82
Rates: $89 to $157
Of the old Spanish-style hotels in Old Havana, Hotel Sevilla remains one of the best. Everything is a cut above the rest, whether it's the recently repainted wooden shutters or the clean and airy patio bar on the ground floor. The restaurant on the top floor is spectacular, with an awe-inspiring Venetian-style painted ceiling, not to mention the panoramic views of the city and the sea. Unfortunately, the food is dreadful. It's better to have a drink at the bar. Rooms are generally small and dark, more Third World than what you'd find in Europe or America. However, service is personable and attentive.
Neptuno e/ Prado y Zulueta
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 66 66 27
Fax: 66 66 30
Rates: $180 to $250
The recently opened Parque Central has the potential to be one of the best downtown hotels, but it's still too early to tell. Located in Old Havana near the capitol, everything from the Partagas cigar factory to the Cathedral is a short walk away.
It's a slightly strange-looking building, a pastiche of neocolonial and modern architecture. The lobby is light and inviting, with a large, airy bar. Rooms are good-sized and well outfitted. The rooftop swimming pool and Jacuzzi are bliss. There's even an excellent cigar shop and smokers' club and bar. The restaurants have potential because the hotel has arranged a special permit to import its own food. The big question mark is service. Late last year, I tried twice to reserve a room and the response was late and unaccommodating.
416 Prado entre San Rafel
Phone: 33 85 93
Fax: 33 82 54
Rates: $75 to $126
Nothing ever seems to change at the Hotel Inglaterra, which is located in the center of Havana near the theater and El Capitolio. With its painted wood and ceramic tiles, this colonial-style hotel has loads of character even though it is rather run-down. It looks as if it hasn't been renovated since English author Graham Greene last stayed here in the late 1950s. The lobby and bar are tatty yet comfortable. It's a good place to take a break from the hustle of central Havana. Unlike most places in the area, here you can sit outside and watch the world go by on the street. Rooms are the big drawback here, unless you reserve one with a balcony facing the Parque Central. Most are spartan, dark and dusty. Yet some people keep coming back for the Our Man in Havana experience.
No. 267 Calle Ignacio Agramonte
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 33 85 83, 33 85 89
Fax: 33 85 91
Rates: $70 to $155, including breakfast
Stepping inside the high-ceilinged, marble-floored lobby of the Hotel Plaza is like going back in time to nineteenth-century Spanish Cuba. However, the abundance of tourists in shorts and bright T-shirts brings you jarringly to the 1990s. The hotel is full of low-budget travelers on package tours, armed with hotel vouchers. Rooms are dark and dire. At least there's air conditioning--when it works.
Hotel Ambos Mundos
Calle Obispo No. 153 esquina
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 66 95 30
Fax: 66 95 32
Rates: $55 to $90
One of the few hotels in the heart of Old Havana, the Ambos Mundos was a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway in the 1950s. Renovated about two years ago, it looks wonderful from the outside with its well-restored eclectic facade. The reception area is mostly taken up by the bar, which is a pleasant place to relax and have a cocktail or coffee and watch the street action on Calle Obispo. A terrace on the top floor has a bar and restaurant that offer excellent views over the rooftops of Old Havana. Unfortunately, the rooms are a nightmare. They are small, dark and tacky. One friend was recently given a room without windows. And the service is very poor.
Hotel Meliá Cohiba
Calle Paseo entre 1ra. y 3ra.
Phone: 33 36 36
Fax: 33 45 55
Rates: $190 to $350
Do not judge this hotel solely by its outward appearance. Although it resembles one of thousands of other modern high-rise hotels throughout the world, the Meliá Cohiba continues to be one of the best places to stay in Havana, especially for business travelers. On the Malecón overlooking the sea, and managed by Spain's Meliá hotel group, it has no comparison in Havana.
The top feature of the Meliá Cohiba is its excellent service. Manager Carlos Villota has instilled a professionalism and confidence in his staff that makes them extremely helpful and efficient. Rooms are modern and well equipped, with comfortable furniture and all the modern conveniences, including satellite television and direct-dial international telephones. The handful of restaurants serve good food, especially the Italian pizzeria. The large swimming pool is an enjoyable place to retreat from the grind of the city. Don't forget to stop in at the Relicario cigar bar for a drink and a smoke. The cigar shop in the lobby often has cigars you can't find in other places.
Calle O esquina a 21
Phone: 33 35 62, 33 35 64
Fax: 33 50 54
Rates: $90 to $350
Cosmetically, Hotel Nacional has changed very little since it reopened in the spring of 1992 after a $64 million facelift. It remains the most beautiful hotel in Havana, a twentieth-century neocolonial monument to the opulent days of 1930s Cuba. A walk through the lobby and into the garden is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Moreover, the hotel has two of the best swimming pools in Havana.
Nearly everything else about the hotel, however, is a letdown. Just one look at a guest room and you will understand. Why would anyone want to stay in such cheaply decorated rooms? Combine this with the slow and impersonal service, and it's no wonder that the place is now full of package tourists, when in the early 1990s it was the preferred hotel for businesspeople and diplomats.
19 y M
Phone: 33 35 10
Fax: 33 31 09
Rates: $80 to $100
This small hotel is almost forgotten among all the larger and newer places to stay in Havana, but it remains comfortable and friendly. Located a few minutes' walk from the Hotel Nacional, the Victoria has a devoted clientele of businesspeople and upscale tourists. The rooms are simple and well appointed in a 1970s style, but rather small compared to other top hotels. There's a decent restaurant as well as a small swimming pool.
Ave. 23 Calle L
Phone: 33 40 11
Fax: 33 31 41
Rates: $130 to $150
Another late-1950s monument, the Habana Libre has been busy renovating, and it has worked out relatively well. Called the Havana Hilton in its prerevolution days, this huge hotel has a hip '50s retro feel and remains popular with Latin American businesspeople and budget-conscious European travelers. Its main restaurants, the Polinesio and El Barracon, aren't bad, while the lobby bar and pool are pleasant. The cigar shop is also very good. Rooms are reminiscent of those at a hotel on any U.S. interstate, but everything works, from satellite television to direct-dial telephones.
Paseo y Malecon
Phone: 33 40 51
Fax: 33 37 39
Rates: $80 to $110
The giant flashing neon sign of the Habana Riviera only partially works (it usually just says: Rivie),which should give you an idea of the quality of this hotel. Despite recent renovations, it remains second-rate in decor, accommodations and service. The only good thing about the hotel is the occasional music gig at its club, Palacio de la Salsa.
Hotel Meliá Habana
Ave. 3ra. entre 76 y 80
Phone: 24 85 00
Fax: 24 95 05
409 rooms (including four suites)
Rates: $140 to $400
This is one of the newest and largest hotels in Cuba, giving travelers the services and pleasures of both a business hotel and a beach resort. The Meliá Habana is first-rate across the board, with numerous restaurants, swimming pools, private beaches, business centers, a gym and tennis courts. Rooms are new and up to the standards of most international hotel groups. Ask for one with a view of the Gulf of Mexico. Plus, there's an executive floor for more personalized service.
Ave. 1a y Calle 84
Phone: 24 55 51
Fax: 24 20 28
558 rooms (301 bungalows)
Rates: $80 to $240
For years, the Hotel Comodoro was the only serious upscale resort to be found in Havana, but over the past five or six years it has been outdone by new competition. This situation may change with ongoing renovations, which will include better restaurants and bars, a business center, a cigar bar and a fully equipped gym.
Located on the coast, Hotel Comodoro continues to have two types of rooms. The first are located in the main hotel and are small and uninteresting. The second are bungalows, which are large and comfortable, more like small condominiums than hotel rooms. These are the ones to reserve.
Service is friendly and surprisingly efficient. Despite the increase in package tourists here, Hotel Comodoro remains a relaxed and cool place to stay.
Ave 1 entre 60 y 62
Phone: 24 19 51
Fax: 24 02 24
50 rooms (41 doubles and nine suites)
Rates: $106 to $190
A favorite for business travelers in Havana, Château Miramar is a small hotel with a cozy reception area, a small and welcoming bar and a private pool. Located on the coast, it has a completely different feel than the impersonal monolithic hotels nearby that specialize in package tours. The big drawback here is the rooms, which are rather cold and sterile. They are reminiscent of a college dormitory, with cheap plastic furniture and concrete floors. But the suites facing the sea have gorgeous views and spacious terraces.