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Guide to Havana

By Lauren Hill |  August 14 2017


By Charles Runnette

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Elite Traveler.

With hundreds of beautiful candy-colored 1950s Dodge and DeSoto finned sedans circling the architecturally stunning heart of the city, Havana is otherworldly. It feels as though you’ve been dropped into a movie set about an alternate time—one where nothing was built after 1959 and credit cards were never invented. Havana’s dreamy time-warp quality won’t last forever, but Cuba is in no rush to do anything, let alone restyle itself as the next Miami. The US government relaxed the travel ban in 2015, and there is only a sprinkling of new developments, such as the June 2017 opening of the island’s first five-star hotel since the 1950s.

Places to Have…

A light meal alfresco
MAR ADENTRO

Opened in May 2017, this modern Mediterranean restaurant has a breezy, sexy Miami feel to it (in the best sense), with an open front area where you can hear the crashing waves in the distance. The Cubans will tell you to get the meat dishes, but fish is the way to go, particularly the shrimp and lobster. The delicious chicken salad in a parmesan bowl is unlike anything else you’ll find in Cuba.

+53 78 332 060

Best mojito and organic meal
OTRAMANERA

Spanish-Cuban couple, Álvaro Díez and Amy Torralbas created a beautiful, sophisticated restaurant and bar compound that’s one of the jewels of Havana. Álvaro, a sommelier at three-Michelin-starred Catalan restaurant elBulli, and Amy, a Cuban artist, combined their tastes to make the most tempting paladar in the city, with a Cuban-Spanish menu using produce from local organic farms. The outdoor bar in the garden has the best mojitos you’ll have in Cuba.

+53 72 038 315, otramaneralahabana.com

Dinner in the Centro
MAS HABANA

The city is getting so chic with gringos that the paladars popularized by the visits of Beyoncé and President Obama are now overrun, and the food at many of the most famous has suffered. Try at your own peril or opt for delicious fresh fare in a modern setting near the heart of the old city. Private chef Renier Perez—who sometime caters for Pamela Ruiz (see To Do)—and his wife have just opened up this restaurant that has everything from a delicious steamed fish with the sauce of your choice to spaghetti with light Cuban sauces, to a perfectly cooked filet mignon and even teriyaki samosas. It’s an antidote to heavy Cuban food that you may need after a day or so.

+53 78 643 227

In the know

As with any emerging travel destination, the best way to arrange everything for your trip is well in advance, with the help of someone knowledgeable on the ground—it’s the only way you’ll eat well (not the easiest task in Havana) and have the sort of memorable cultural experiences that are impossible to stumble upon on your own. We highly recommend contacting the endlessly helpful, delightful Celia Mendoza of Concierge Habana (info@conciergehabana.com). She’s Cuban but grew up partly in the US, so she perfectly understands the needs of the well-heeled American visitors—especially after creating bespoke trips for the likes of Usher and Francis Ford Coppola. She can arrange vintage car rentals (again, not an easy task to attempt on your own), private villas, private tours of cigar factories, exclusive art tours with local artists, tickets to a baseball game and even a private dinner party at a prominent local’s house. As with all memorable travel experiences, who you meet in Cuba will provide the crucial difference between a trip to just gawk at the beautiful buildings of Havana and an authentic, intimate experience with Cubans that you won’t soon forget.

Top Stays

Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana
Suite Presidential Lorca

Opened in June 2017, the Kempinski is the only thing resembling a world-class five-star hotel in all of Cuba. Standing out like a gleaming tower of conspicuous 21st century modernity in the center of aging Havana’s Parque Central, overlooking the spectacular Bacardi Building in one direction, the stunning Bellas Artes building and the famous Teatro in another, it is situated in the middle of the Unesco World Heritage area. The massive, 1,615 sq ft presidential suite (the only in Cuba) with kitchen and dining room has the best views. Other hotel amenities include the city’s only world-class Resense spa, a stunning infinity pool, rooftop bar, three restaurants and a cigar bar, as well as a gym — all with the same unbeatable views.

From $5,000 per night, contact Xavier Destribats, senior vice president, reservations.lahabana@kempinski.com, kempinski.com

Villa VIP Le Blanc
Party House in Miramar

If you’re looking for something away from the center of the city and extremely secluded, Havana has a number of private villas for rent in tiny neighborhoods such as Miramar. This six-bedroom villa comes with a pool and you can add a bartender and private chef as well as a vintage car and driver. Warning: The decor of even the most luxe villas in Cuba will always be found wanting, but the wonderful service and ability to experience the “real” Havana will likely outweigh the assault on good taste.

From $1,500 per night, contact Celia Mendoza, info@conciergehabana.com, +53 53 197 569, conciergehabana.com

Marina Hemingway
BYOY (Bring Your Own Yacht)

In a surprise twist, Cuba is now open for boat visits, so perhaps the best way to go is to motor your yacht 90 miles south of Florida with your best friends and staff—heading to Havana’s most modern (and only) marina, named after local hero Ernest Hemingway. Just nine miles from downtown Havana, the marina lacks a lot of the modern conveniences seen in most harbors, so bring what you’re going to need. Oh, and don’t bring your superyacht; the maximum length the marina can handle is 230ft.

Latitude: 23° 5.35’ N, Longitude: 82° 30.5’W, comercial@prto.mh.cyt.cu, +53 733 115 056

To Do

Throw an Arty Dinner Party

American Pamela Ruiz, who the New York Times called “Havana’s Peggy Guggenheim” for her intimate knowledge of the great contemporary artists of Cuba, throws occasional dinner parties for up to 80 at the house she shares with her husband, noted Cuban artist Damian Aquiles. If you know her, or know one of her friends such as art collector Beth Rudin DeWoody, and ask her very nicely, she’ll arrange a party at her house for you and your friends as she has for Susan Sarandon and Will Smith. It’s not an inexpensive affair, but how else could you be introduced to everyone you want to know in Havana in one night? And the house, which has been featured in Elle Decor and the New York Times’s T Magazine, is stunning. Pamela can also arrange private tours to see the studios of all the top artists in Havana, and private collection viewings of collectors such as Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, as well as a tour of her husband’s Candy Factory studio where he tutors promising young Cuban artists.

Contact pamaquiles@gmail.com, +53 53 798 879

Cigars and More Cigars

As the birthplace of premium cigars, Havana is dotted with factories of all shapes and sizes. Most visitors believe only the Partágas factory is open to the public, but two others in Havana welcome tourists: Romeo y Julieta (the lighter cigars) and La Corona. A great tour operator can arrange a visit to all three, but only someone like the aforementioned Celia can arrange to have a private lunch at Partágas with the rollers who will show you some of their secrets and tell stories about Fidel Castro’s favorites. If you’ve never tried a cigar before, do not smoke one without asking for help — visitors who don’t know how to not inhale can get very sick.

Havana Nights

The fairly touristy Tropicana is more fun than you think — it feels very Desi Arnaz in a hilarious throwback way. The list of people who performed here is a who’s who of music history: Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, La Lupe, Xavier Cugat, Carmen Miranda, Nat King Cole and Josephine Baker. The world-class musicians have moved on, but the space is spectacular and the acrobatic performances are like nothing else you’ll see in the Caribbean. Don’t eat there, just go for the show and be sure to arrange a table up front. To really see world-renowned musicians, drop in at the Jazz Cafe. Located in one of the ugliest malls in Havana, it’s nonetheless home to some of the best acts in Cuba — Chucho Valdés, who played at Carnegie Hall recently — drops in to play frequently.

Cabaret Tropicana +53 72 671 717, Jazz Cafe +53 78 383 302

Batter Up

If you think you don’t like baseball, you’ve never been to a Cuban baseball game. This is more of a ritual where energy never dies. In fact, it’s an experience — particularly during their National Series — that you will never forget. Think Cuban party in a stadium, mix in a lot of rum, even more dancing, and some spectacular games, and you almost have a sense the scale of it. Industriales are the local team of Havana — they play at the historic Estadio Latinoamericano.

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