(Havana) Cuba is not waiting for change, to change. Despite slow progress in normalizing relations with the United States, the island-nation is diversifying its tourism infrastructure.
(Havana) Cuba is not waiting for change, to change. Despite slow progress in normalizing relations with the United States, the island-nation is diversifying its tourism infrastructure. As far as tourism is concerned, despite difficult times for the nations economy, Cuba is following its own agenda.
The recent launch of the island-nation’s tourism campaign Autentica Cuba puts it plain and simple terms as it has never done. Cuba is now encouraging visitors to explore the island, its music, poetry, and rich culture. Gone are the days of relegating tourists to the isolation of its all too similarly styled all-inclusive resorts.
In order to give a new façade to its Colonial-era architecture, the Cuban government and its tourism firms have transformed a series of colonial-era buildings into niche boutique hotels in Old Havana, developed a similar chain in cities across the island and allowed the private development of popular B&B-style home-stays called casa particular or home-style restaurants, paladars. Even some all-inclusive resorts have distinguished themselves for their exclusive services or unique experiences.
New ways to experience Cuba
This year the cultural tourism firm Paradiso Turismo Cultural is even peddling “Havana Salsa”, an eight-day salsa holiday which takes place in various parts of the capital. KoSA Cuba, meanwhile, offers immersive cultural experiences for youth to involve them with jazz, a dance troupe or percussion ensembles.
Infrastructure to support tourism has also been developed in less traveled cities of Cuba like the bustling town of Santiago de Cuba, the verdant Pinar del Rio area or the small welcoming historic eastern enclave of Baracoa.
While cultural tourism starts in the capital of Havana, during my seven-week stay in Cuba last year I was able to taste both the traditional – visiting some 85 hotels and resorts; as well as enjoying real-life Cuban hospitality from Havana to my favorite enclave, Baracoa.
In Havana, the state-run hotel management and development firm Habaguanex has launched nineteen unique themed boutique hotels located in Old Havana, the capital’s colonial district. While parts of this area are still crumbling from disrepair, this series of restoration projects are bearing fruit.
Built in an eclectic art-deco style in the 1920s and situated in the heart of Old Havana, the Hotel Ambos Mundos is adjacent to the famed Plaza de Armas and plays on its associations with American author Ernest Hemingway, whose Room 511 has been converted into a small museum.
Hotel Los Frailes is housed in an 18th century colonnaded building once belonging to Marquess Prado Claudio Duquesne, a captain of the French Navy. This themed hotel features staff that greet guests dressed as Franciscan friars in tanned veiled attire. Amenities are topnotch but rooms are dark, matching the hotels theme.
Don’t ask for a non-smoking room at the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. Here rooms are named after famous Cuban tobacco plantations and guests are encouraged to try some of the islands most exquisite cigars at the La Casa del Habanero. Located on one of old Havana’s most colorful streets this unique hotel even has a resident peacock.
The newest of the Habaguanex lot has an endless name, Hotel Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal. The hotel is located on San Francisco de Asis Square, adjacent to one of Havana’s most notable concert halls for chamber and choral music.
Those looking for a more luxuriant way to experience the capital can look to the centrally located Hotel Saratoga, which sets the standard for all top-tier Cuban hotels. Located on the edge of Habana Vieja, the contemporary layout, open design reception and art-friendly atmosphere is unique. This property sits just across from the city’s landmark Capitolio, and harks back to the suave 1930s when orchestras played their wildly popular ‘aires libres’ on the terrace for local celebrities and socialites.
Catering primarily to business and group travel, the NH Parque Central is set in a superb location on the edge of Habana Vieja. The hotel is an icon of the city and the recently opened higher brow annex, NH Parque Central Torre. An underground tunnel connects the new wing, and is the most recent addition to the capitals premium-class lodging.
While a distance from the center of town, the Melia Cohiba with its 462 rooms is a traditional business hotel, and was the city’s first. Popular for group travel it is just off of the scenic Malecon. This property features four restaurants, pools, bars, the Habana Café and a gauntlet of entertainment options.
The staple that is Varadero
Varadero is the traditional destination for all-inclusive resort goers of Cuba, and benefits from its close proximity to Havana. An all-day hop-on-hop-off bus takes tourists from resort to resort, and into the small city-center. Day-trips to Havana are simple and offered in most hotel lobbies.
One of the most boisterous and animated resorts is the Barcelo Solymar, a favorite for group and party-travel. Located a short bike ride from the center of Varadero, this property has a high turnover, and enjoys one of Varadero’s most impressive pools. The resort is also located on some of the most pristine beaches, and wireless Internet is also available here.
Melia Las Antillas is an adults-only all inclusive property targeting singles and located in a small alcove off of Varadero’s Carretera Las Morlas. Junior suites here have a unique step-down design and are adorned with quality linens and comfy mattresses. The property has a vibrant, youthful atmosphere.
In the top tier of Varadero properties, the Sandals Royal Hicacos Resort Spa is an adults-only property set on a lovely beachfront. Lively colors, thatched Polynesian-style huts set the stage for this vibrant resort. Entertainment features cabarets, animations and a disco with an in-house band.
Set at the end of the Varadero peninsula is the Paradisus Princesa del Mar Resort & Spa which caters to couples, honeymooners and singles. It also features a private, premium royal service section. The main building is a colonial-style construction leading to a suave open-design lobby. The village-like grounds have Colonial-style architecture.
New frontier: Cayo Santa Maria & Cayo Coco
The lush tropical setting of Cayo Santa Maria is located in a pristine cay at the western end of the Archipelago de Sabana-Camaguey. This is the idyllic new frontier of Cuban tourism. Tied to the island by a man-made causeway this is where you find Melia Las Dunas, one of several five-star hideaways set amidst pristine azure-blue beaches.
Cuba’s most attractive all-inclusive resort is Melia Las Dunas, which offers a pleasing environment for families, couples and singles. This is an all-bungalow facility that includes forty-six two-story bungalows. Water fountains, pools and small islets with lounge chairs make the resort an appealing setting for getaways or weddings. It is a favorite among Canadian travelers.
The Sol Cayo Santa Maria is a family and singles centered property for those who are adverse to the all-inclusive concept. This eco-friendly resort is laid back and offers a lush environment. The beach here even features a clothing-optional area. The resort was the first on the island and is known for its friendly and dedicated staff.
Not far away is the most elegant all-inclusive, the Royal Hideaway Ensenachos. The grounds here feature Italian marble floors, original classical paintings, and a sophisticated ambiance. An exclusive Royal Suites section offers an even more exclusive gamut of private service. Rooms feature classical décor and furnishing.
The easternmost of the neighboring island of Cayo Coco is an all-inclusive hotel, the Melia Cayo Coco is an adults-only resort with fifty-three two-story bungalows that are set in a circular pattern spanning from a beachfront to a natural lagoon. The property has meandering trails, with restaurants, bars and entertainment dispersed throughout the grounds.
If the palette of Cuba’s offering changing it is because the nation is developing from the staid notions of rigid communist thinking. It seems obvious that somebody up on the higher echelons of this island-state’s government has realized that it is the rich, diverse and creative culture of Cuba is what travelers are most attracted to. They’re probably right. The new alternatives on the Cuban palette are just another small step towards a more pluralist view of the world.