Telegraph.co.uk | Peter Robinson
It’s always been easy to walk on the wild side in Havana. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the city brought pirates, slavers and sugar barons in search of trade, treasure and tobacco. In the 20th century, the city has played host to notables from Bugsy Siegal and Ernest Hemingway to Che Guevara and the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club.
Successive waves of thrill-seeking big spenders have left a must-see legacy of architecture embracing Spanish fortresses, Caribbean colonial and Miami-style art deco. They have also spiked the town’s party culture like an extra shot of rum in your mojito. In a place where everyone is musical and born with dancing feet, this has a noticeable effect and as such everything sways a little.
So despite the social order imposed by Fidel Castro’s regime, and periodic crackdowns on late-night drinking, dancing and other forms of decadence, Havana is more alive than most places you might visit. The warmth of the climate and people, the constant backbeat of Latin music and the distinctly rumtinged bonhomie set a mood for indulgence in this most stimulating and cosmopolitan of Caribbean cities.
However, until recently, it’s been difficult to find much in which to indulge. In a city largely under reconstruction, the lack of good places to stay, universally appalling food and daily difficulties that expose travellers to the lucha (struggle) of Cuban life have made it a destination more suited to backpackers than five-star travellers.
Now all that is changing, and Havana is beginning to offer visitors the first glimmerings of the luxuries they take for granted in other destinations. Local opinion is divided as to the reason for this. Some say it’s a simple need for foreign currency in a country without vast natural resources and still excluded from tourism and trade with the US. Others speculate that it is the work of Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother and often touted as his natural heir, paving the way for a more financially comfortable life for himself and his people.
Whatever the reason, smarter hotels are opening (or planned), Virgin now flies to Havana twice a week and, armed with the right information, visitors can stay, eat and play in Havana in considerable style. There’s going to be more from Cuba in this vein, but for now, here’s how:
At the airport
Havana’s passport control and immigration queues are among the worst in the world, with waiting times of between 90 minutes and two hours. However, the VIP service offered at http://www.gocubaplus.com allows a rapid passage through passport control to your own transport for €35 per person, the same plus a pre-booked car for €55, and a pre-booked limo and 24-hour support for €80.
The best hotels
In theory, Havana is crowded with iconic hotels marked forever with the stamp of the artists, writers, gangsters and revolutionaries who’ve stayed in them. Unfortunately, many have fallen into disrepair.
The Nacional (0053 7 836 3564; http://www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com), for example, whose twin towers and 1930s frontage in the past welcomed visitors such as Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra, is not only out of the centre of town, but it has seen better days. While the rooms on the executive floor are fine, if characterless, those on the other floors and the hotel’s public areas are looking very tired.
For more luxurious accommodation in Havana, you have two options. The first is to stay in one of the hotels run by the state-owned Habaguanex company in the centre of old Havana. There’s a growing range of Habaguanex properties, each housed in a Spanish colonial building and restored to the highest standards. Visit http://www.habaguanex.co.uk for links to all the hotels in the scheme.
The Santa Isabel (860 8201; http://www.hotelsantaisabelcuba.com; doubles from £87), for example, is one of the original Habaguanex restorations, based in a building that was the Count of Santovenia’s palace right in the centre of the old city. It is arranged around a central courtyard and has genuinely five-star rooms. It also has a fantastic roof terrace, which our host had hired for his birthday party, with local musicians and great views of the city.
Habaguanex has several other hotels in the old town, including the Ambos Mundos, the Florida and Conde de la Villanueva, which has its own cigar centre where you can buy and smoke the finest hand-rolled Cohibas, Coronas and Julietas, as well as renting humidor space to store your purchases.
Our favourite was the Hotel Raquel (860 8280; doubles from £74), which is in the town’s old Jewish quarter and has been restored with a Jewish theme. Each of the bedrooms is styled after a scene from the Old Testament and the hotel’s restaurant is kosher. Despite the rather surreal theme, the hotel is beautifully done, with architectural features exquisitely crafted to recreate the marble staircases and stained-glass ceiling of the original grand house.
We feared that the newest hotel in the chain, the Hostal los Frailes (862 9383; http://www.hostallosfrailes.cu; doubles from £57), might have taken the themed approach a little too far. The hotel is based in an old monastery and recreates the monastic accommodation - complete with life-sized bronze statues of monks in cowls sitting among the guests at the tables in the bar.
The other option for a luxurious Havana hotel is the five-star Saratoga (868 1000; http://www.hotel-saratoga.com; doubles from £80). This opened last November just opposite the Capital building in the centre of town on the edge of old Havana. While its purpose-built space possibly doesn’t have the character of the Santa Isabel, for example, the Saratoga does have its own roof-top pool.
If a decent place to swim and sunbathe is a fundamental part of your definition of luxury, but you really want to stay in a more authentic colonial building, the Havana Beach Club might solve your problem.
The beach club is literally that, offering beach facilities, bars and a restaurant to diplomats and their families, airline pilots and the like. A short cab ride away from the centre of town, you simply show your passport at the gate and pay around $10 in return for towels and entrance. Once inside, you can lounge on the beach for as long as you like. Alternatively, you can try the pool at the Nacional.
If you’re thinking of hiring a self-drive car in Havana, forget it. It’s expensive and dangerous, and there’s a good chance you might be held responsible if you’re involved in an accident. Travelling by taxi is not only luxurious, in Havana it’s also very good value, particularly if you want to hire one for a day or part of a day.
To help us on our way to the Hemingway trail, we picked up a cab in the old town and drove six miles or so to Cojimar, the setting for The Old Man and the Sea. The driver waited for us while we had lunch at the Teraza, then drove us the hour or so to Hemingway’s house, waited while we looked around and then drove us back into town. For six hours, the cost was less than £25. A hire car would have cost more than double.
For real luxury at the same price, there is a fleet of air-conditioned, leather upholstered Mercedes taxis outside the Hotel Nacional.
Where to eat
While no-one goes hungry in Havana, there’s very little variety and the quality of the food can be patchy. Knowing where to eat well is one of the greatest tricks to life in the city, and while nowhere we found was a foodie’s paradise, there were three places that we particularly liked.
The Taberna de La Muralla, at the corner of the Calle San Ignacio on the Plaza Vieja has fresh and plentiful barbecued chicken or seafood for around £5 a head. The restaurant also has its own microbrewery making some of the best beer in the Caribbean.
The Restaurante La Paella in the Hostal Valencia, not only serves several styles of authentic paella, but also has plenty of good and (unusually for Havana) well-kept wine to go with it.
And if you want a decent meal while walking distinctly on the wild side, try La Guarida. Bigger than many of the paladar restaurants that are run out of family homes, La Guarida has good food in a warren of chaotic rooms decorated with primitivist statues, ships’ mastheads and a weird and wonderful collection of art. La Gaurida is in an unrestored shell of a building at 418 Concordia, complete with waifs on the stairs and laundry hanging out to dry on the landings.
Obviously, cigars are great value and high quality, but you should go to a factory or a shop rather than buy them on the street. Good rum is also definitely worth a look, although the airport is probably as good as anywhere for variety.
Another great buy is hand-made cologne from Habana 1791 in the Calle de los Mercadores. Art can also be very good value, particularly engravings and lithographs, which you can buy from Taller Experimental de Grafica, 6 Callejón del Chorro.
Virgin Holidays (0870 220 2788; http://www.virginholidays.co.uk) can tailor-make trips to Havana and the rest of Cuba.
It offers a wide range of hotels, among them the new Saratoga, and flights with Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; http://www.virgin-atlantic.com), which flies twice weekly non-stop to Havana from Gatwick.
Hotels recommended in the text above can be booked direct either online or, in the case of many of the Habaguanex hotels, through In Cloud 9 (0870 242 4036 in the UK or 00537 860 6104/5 in Havana; http://www.incloud9.com or http://www.tobybrocklehurst.com). The company can also arrange a variety of specialist and tailor-made tours in Havana and the rest of Cuba, including one-week cigar tours and a wide range of tarpon, barracuda, bonefish, marlin and other fishing trips.