Cuba has always held an allure for me; especially Havana. More than just the city’s crumbling grandeur, or the vintage cars, but also the food, the music, and the art. This year the island’s capital is celebrating 500 years of history, so I knew I had no excuse to put off my visit any longer, writes Andrew Forbes (@andrewaforbes)
My home in Havana was the fabulous Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, probably the finest hotel in Havana, if not in the whole of Cuba. The extravagant, belle-epoque Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski offers the quintissential Havana experience, enhanced by the comforts of contemporary luxury. Undeniably indulgent, the hotel brings together the magic of old Havana ( La Habana Vieja). Think grand architecture, candy-coloured vintage American cars, rhythmic Afro-Cuban music and the flavours of the Caribbean. Discovering Havana is a journey for the senses – intoxicating, seductive and truly memorable.
The Kempinski Hotel is an impressive, early twentieth century building occupies an entire city block (Manzana de Gómez) and was, in its time in the early 1920s the city’s first luxury shopping centre. After the Communists took control of Cuba, the beautiful building fell into disrepair…until a few years ago when it was developed by the authorities into a 240+ room luxury hotel, operated by Kempinski, Europe’s oldest hotel group. Interestingly the ground floor is once again dedicated to luxury boutiques, echoing the building’s history.
The team captures the allure of Havana – warm, friendly people that naturally make you feel welcome.
This 246-room landmark hotel has many notable features, but for me the stand-out was the rooftop El Surtidor Pool Terrace and Bar. Guests are afforded privileged access, so I started my days with a refreshing swim in the infinite pool each morning, accompanied by remarkable views, and the hum of the city below as it awoke.
The vistas are remarkable, with skyline views including the iconic El Capitolio Nacional.
In the evening, the pool dining terrace and bar is a memorable place to enjoy a cocktail as the sun sets over Havana’s skyline before dinner in San Cristobal Panoramic Restaurant.
Spa & Wellness
Also, on the 6th floor level is the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski’s Spa Albear by Resense – a 1000 square metre, elegantly designed sanctuary with a beautiful relaxation area, treatment rooms, pool, sauna, steam bath etc. and also a Technogym-equipped exercise room.
Bars & Dining
Breakfast is offered in the hotel’s main restaurant Confluencias. Décor makes the most of the Caribbean light, using mirrors and glass to reflect and refract the light. The space is intended to pay homage to the city’s classic Cuban Paladars. Considering the constraints of food availability in Cuba, the breakfast buffet was good. Quality and variety may not be quite to the standard of other Kempinski properties across the world, but it was still a generous spread, and surely something that a regular Cuban could only dream off. As a guest in Havana one of the things one has to adjust to is the contrast between daily life of Cubans and the experience of guests in luxury hotels.
One evening the rhythmic tunes of a live band drew me into Bar Constante, on the first floor. The bar has a classic style, probably my favourite space in the hotel, as it felt less extravagantly ‘shiny’ and more sympathetic in style to its vintage setting. Tables for two are set on small window balconies with views out across the vintage American cars parked outside, towards the famous Cuban Bar La Floridita. I was told Bar Constante is named in homage of the creator of the Daiquiri cocktail. This is the place for a rum cocktail, as it specialises in classic and modern creations using the ten best known rums from Cuba. It’s also one of the few places one can enjoy an ice cold local Cuban beer, rather than the ubiquitous imports from neighbouring Mexico.
Cigars are very much part of the Cuban culture of course, and smoking lounges in hotels are popular with aficionados that travel to the island to invest in the finest tobacco products. Evocación is the Tobacco Lounge of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, an elegant space, infused with the rich, earthy aromas of Cuban’s finest. I found the aroma to be compelling and attractive and really part of the sensual experience of Old Havana.
The Gran Hotel Manzana retains the striking façade and original structure of this compete city block hotel, but the interiors are all new and purpose built for contemporary hospitality standards. So, expect high standards for all facilities and infrastructure – from air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, through to guestroom bathrooms. Everything was of a much higher standard than I expected. It’s quite remarkable how Kempinski has created this luxurious property, against the backdrop of operating within a ‘Communist’ country where food and materials are hard to come by.
Guest rooms embrace three categories, from Patio Rooms that overlook the internal courtyard of the property; Deluxe Rooms, overlooking the city; to Gran Deluxe Rooms, the most spacious of all.
High ceilings, and classical contemporary style and well-equipped bathrooms are found across all categories – it’s the space and orientation that differentiates each room type.
We stayed in a Deluxe Room with twin Queen beds, with views across to elegant sandstone library opposite, being renovated. The space felt welcoming nd was full of light Materials used were not of a particularly high standard, but the overall look was pleasant, of ever so slightly ‘blingy’.
Luxe hotel amenities included safe; capsule coffee machine, mini bar etc. When I ordered hot milk for my coffee I was impressed by the swift and friendly room service.
The bathroom includes a separate W.C. and also had a huge walk-in shower, divided from the bedroom by a glass wall that could be turned opaque by the touch of a switch.
5-star amenities included robe, slippers etc. and a mini bar and coffee machine.
The hotel’s location is superb; right by the Central Park; opposite the city’s museum (which like so many of the capital’s iconic period buildings, is under renovation); and with views across to El Capitolio (under renovation for the city’s 500th anniversary); and the ornate Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro de La Habana (with its Catalan modernist architecture).
This is the place to capture the buzz, glamour and allure of old Havana. It feels like being in a movie. Cuba is of course a tropical Caribbean island yet when one arrives in Havana, it is quite unlike any other island city. Romantically dilapidated, it still is a sophisticated metropolis, rich in culture, an extraordinary place where modern life is lived against a vintage backdrop of faded glory.
In my experience, when it comes to enjoying a short luxury break in Havana, with the desire to truly explore the magical UNESCO World Heritage La Habana Vieja, then there are few (if any) luxury hotel locations that can compare to the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski.
Old Havana – 500 years old
From the hotel it is easy to stroll the colourful streets of the old town. There is much poverty in Havana’s historic districts, yet the authorities are clearly investing in restoring the architectural fabric, in preparations for the city’s 500th anniversary in November 2019.
Images are copright @andrewaforbes – please do not use without permission
Of the 3,000 or so buildings that are just about standing in old Havana, the most emblematic Spanish colonial, neoclassical, and Cuban baroque are being saved and restored.
With the city’s official 500th anniversary fast approaching, work appears to be accelerating.
Think of Havana and most people will picture vintage American automobiles. I was surprised to see so many still on the roads after 60 years! During the 1950s economic boom Cuba’s elite was a huge consumer of imported products; from movies (Havana is said to have had more cinemas than New York) to motorcars. Over 100,000 Detroit made cars were imported before Castro seized control.
Today over half of those cars are thought to have survived; remarkable when you think that spare parts were not allowed to be legally imported for 60 years!
Restored, painted in bright candy colours, with new engines from China or Korea, these huge machines lend a sense of surreal, anachronistic glamour amongst the poverty and dilapidation of Havana.
Visitors can book a tour of the city or just hail one as a taxi. Taking a taxi is expensive here, so you might as well travel in style.
Havana is rich in culture – including galleries, museums and music venues. I found the Museum of the Revolution particularly interesting, and the Fine Arts Museum, specialising in Cuban art is unmissable.
Dining in Havana is a surprising diverse experience. For those able to pay in the Convertible Pesos, the options are good. From traditional Cuban gastronomy to Caribbean interpretations of international cuisine like Italian, French and even Russian.
Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana
Calle San Rafael, La Habana Vieja, 10100 Havana, Cuba
Tel: +53 786 99100