Living in the Caribbean for the last 18 months gave me this chance and the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinsk La Habana opening in 2017, with its infinity rooftop pool with views of the Art Deco Bacardi tower, "sealed the deal", another www.sifrew.com dream came true!!!!
The 19th Century shopping mall Manzana (Spanish for city block) de Gomez, formerly owned by a sugar baron, has been through a 5 year transformation. The statue of Fidel Castro has been removed from the grounds & the glamorous Kempinski 'Ladies in Red' have taken his place. This hotel faces Ernest Hemingway's 'daiquiri haunt' the 200 year old El Floridita and is right in the centre of Havana.
However, the Cuban regime's red tape, and related US restrictions, mean there were lows, as well as incredible highs on this trip. It was an unforgettable trip, I do not regret, but Cuban is not geared for trouble-free luxury tourism yet.
Cayman Airways Business Class
I decided I must arrive in style and so booked Cayman Airways Business Class for the less than 1 hour flight.
Owen Roberts International Airport
I hoped to try the Sir Turtle Club lounge in the refurbished airport on Grand Cayman but it was not open yet. The airport refurbishment still continues.
The small friendly airport meant this was not a problem but the boarding staff were angrily brusk.
A Fun Quick Business Class Flight
I was in seat 1A. The crew were a complete contrast to the ground staff, full of smiles and helpfulness (eg offering to hang my suit bag).
I had an enjoyable flight chatting to the young Jamaican guy next to me drinking Rum Punches. I was just surprised there were no snacks offered to go with the cocktail. The plane was far from new but there was lots of legroom in Business Class.
A VIP Arrival in Havana
At the airport there was a lady waiting for me with a 'Hotel Manzana Kempiski (sic) Simon Frew" sign, as soon as I arrived in the airport and to help me through the 'VIP & Diplomatic Immigration' channel.
There was a VIP Lounge, with cocktails & snacks while I waiting for my luggage to be located. There was no US Coca-Cola. This US related restriction made me smile but little was I to appreciate the huge impact this issue would have on my whole trip, despite me not being a US citizen.
Ramses & His Better Than Perfect Car
I had booked a vintage 1950s American car to collect me from the airport and requested a red convertible. Ramses, the driver, greeted me with a Cuban cigar & Havana hat and his shining red car took my breath away. It was the most photogenic car at the airport and generated a crowd of admirers.
The drive to the hotel was perfect, there was even some refreshing rain for this ex-Qatar person, as Ramses explained the sights in perfect English.
Check-in, US Linked Credit Cards, Kempinski 'Red Ladies' & Manager Otilia
Check-in started well, chatting to a fellow guest from New Zealand, until my Cayman Islands & UK credit cards started to reject. Eventually a HSBC card worked, despite their extensive US operations.
I was rather flustered by the time I met Manager Otilia but her bubbly German enthusiasm soon had me chatting again.
My 3rd Floor Suite
I loved my quiet elegant suite but the welcome gifts were rather disappointing. I guess Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Ritz-Carlton, Raffles etc spoil #travelblog www.sifrew.com with their lavish personalised gifts.
I was impressed by the large bedroom (with huge shower with faulty light) and there were own brand bath products. However, I was soon trying to use the 'free' WiFi vouchers and quickly got frustrated by the number of times the long passwords had to be reentered and the fact the connection was not fast enough to access my blog. However, a call from General Manager Xavier, saying he wanted to buy me a drink, cheered me up.
The Stunning Rooftop Infinity Pool & Kempinski Legend General Manager Xavier
I then headed to the famous rooftop infinity pool. I read the Financial Times from Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman when I first arrived at the rooftop pool. This fascinated the waiter, as it is unavailable in Cuba.
When Xavier arrived I ordered a very dry Grey Goose martini. He liked the precise way I ordered this and so said he would try one too. In the end they did not stock Grey Goose, it is owned by US Bacardi these days.
I had an incredible chat with Kempinski legend Xavier, where he explained the challenges of opening & operating the first new 5 star hotel in Havana for almost 6 decades in a country where people do not have access to WiFi at home.
After he had to leave for a meeting I overheard two young American girls saying they could not function without good WiFi for more than 30 minutes.
I decided I should make coping without my iPhone X/WiFi a test on the trip, as I did not want to sound this spoilt/addicted. Having said this, Four Seasons have previously told me poor WiFi access is their number one complaint around the world these days.
A Daiquiri at El Floridita
A Daiquiri in El Floridita had to be part of my first evening in Havana. It is a fish restaurant & cocktail bar. The waiters wear red jackets and it has a plush upscale faded charm from the 1950s.
Katherine Hepburn has drunk there and I was full of thoughts of her, Graham Greene and Nobel Prize-winning Hemingway when I walked in I was shocked by how full the place was at 7pm.
My Daiquiri Frappe made me recall when I drank a Bellini in Harry's Bar in Venice and how different this 'bun fight' was. However, these things have to be done!
In fact, once I got talking to the Mexican customer next to me, & had to look after his bag while he went to the bathroom and then found out he was dating the flamboyant singer, I had grown to rather like this place.
Paladar La Guarida & the Evening Begins to Deteriorate
La Guarida was featured in the Cuban coming-of-age movie 'Fresa y Chocolate' ('Strawberry & Chocolate').
The entrance hall to the crumbling mansion, from the run-down Grand Havana street, is out of a movie set with the dilapidated grand staircase. There was already too much to photograph in Havana.
On the 3rd floor the place is New York busy. This is said to be the most elegant Paladares (small private/family restaurants serving homestyle Cuban food) in Havana.
Problems with My Booking
I had a 9:30pm booking. The Kempinski secured this, despite the place showing as 'fully booked' on-line and Xavier said he had rung the owner, a friend of his, personally. However, the young lady at reception said she had no record of my booking and was not interested in the various confirmation emails on my iPhone X.
I went to the busy rooftop bar, which was a great place to watch the trendy young population of Havana on a Friday night.
The interesting thing was they had Grey Goose vodka in this bar, as well as Coca-Cola, the next day I was told the Coke would be from Mexico.
I 'taught' the bartender how to make a perfect very dry Grey Goose martini and then enjoyed these before going back to reception to recheck about the booking. I returned, after no luck, to order the fish tacos Xavier had recommended.
Creamy Smoked Marlin Tacos
My smoked Marlin tacos were as good as Xavier promised with rum, mayonnaise & capers. Three creamy savoury sensations!
No Strawberries & Chocolate & then No Credit Cards
I had to finish with the strawberries & chocolate ice cream but this dessert was not available at the bar. I went back to reception to ask if they could make an exception, to make up for the booking problems. The answer was yes but then I was eventually brought the regular bar chocolate dessert. I argued again but ended up giving up and asking for the bill.
I produced my credit card to be told they do not take credit cards and was US$5 short of the cash to pay them and now had no cash for a taxi back to the hotel.
Bank 'Swallows' My Only Working Credit Card
I asked the taxi to take me to the hotel and said I would get him the cash there. His 'better' idea was to take me to bank to use their ATMS. Before I even tried to enter my PIN the bank 'swallowed' my only working credit card and the machine then went out-of-order. I felt like crying.
Back at the Hotel the Evening Got No Better
Back at the hotel, after paying the taxi driver, I tried to go to the Cigar Lounge but it had closed at 11pm, then I tried to order room service but could not find a menu in the suite. At a visit to reception I was told the menu was on the TV. Back at the suite I looked at the menu, which appeared to indicate food service ended at 11pm, I headed to the second floor.
In the 24 hour 2nd floor bar the last night of a conference meant the floor was a frightening mess. I ate my burger as quick as I could & went to bed, hoping the next day would be a better one.
First Full Day in Havana
Breakfast in the Suite
I woke, after a great night's sleep, deciding nothing would get me down.
I ordered breakfast in my suite. The menu on the TV did not explain whether bacon or sausage were available but the person on the 'phone seemed to indicated they were and bacon did arrive with my eggs. Breakfast was not very photogenic but tasted great.
Apple Store Blocked
Over breakfast I tried to call my parents but, when I tried to credit my Skype account, found the Apple Store was blocked. Even in Laos this was not the case. "We are not in Kansas now!".
The Rooftop Infinity Pool to Myself
At 9am I had the rooftop pool to myself for a swim. A bit cold at that time but blissful.
I had booked Dayana for a two hour walking tour. Before this I gave star concierge Regina a www.sifrew.com baseball cap to thank her for all her help & emails. The day before I also sent Xavier a cap after our drink.
The Four Historic Squares
On the tour we had to see the main four squares in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Havana but also wanted to see a cigar shop. It was great to chat to 29-year old Dayana about modern Cuba and the still positive views of Fidel Castro.
We saw so many beautiful classic American cars on the walking tour.
The National Capitol Building & Cuban National Ballet
The National Capitol Building was under renovation and inspired by, but not a replica of, the US Capitol. On its left is the Gran Teatro de la Habana, home to the Cuban National Ballet. I had been told to go to one of their performances but there was no time on this trip.
The Bacardi Building
Having once lived near the Bacardi Head Office building, when I first moved to Bermuda, it was a thrill to see the imposing Art Deco Bacardi Building completed in 1930.
My New Favourite Bank
The tour was overshadowed by my lack of cash or functioning credit cards but Banco Metropolitane eventually advanced me cash against my HSBC Premier Shrewsbury debit card. This was a huge relief.
We viewed the crumbling buildings in Centro Havana and talked about Hotel Nacional, which has had so many famous guests (eg Jean-Paul Sartre, Winston Churchill), had a casino and hosted the 'Havana Conference' (a summit of US crime families) in 1946, which was dramatised in Francis Ford Coppola's 'The Godfather: Part II'. There is a museum in its garden to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
It is mad to think a small Caribbean island almost started World War III. The tunnels where the missiles were aimed at the US are a short walk from Hotel Nacional.
The Malecon at Sunset
The Malecon is the historical stone wall that separates the City of Havana from the daunting ocean which I should have viewed sunset from. However, I did manage to buy some Cuban fridge magnets for my Godson & his sister and a Cuban necklace for Issy.
A Good Tour But Could Have Been Even Better
The tour took three hours. Towards the end of the tour the heat in Havana had started to become oppressive and I should really have insisted we stick to the two hours. To be fair to me, I started talking about wanting to get back to the hotel 'soon' for the last hour.
I was surprised that I had to pay her in cash, when the tour was booked via the hotel.
Lunch on the El Surtidor Pool Terrace
I then had lunch on the hotel's roof. It was almost too hot to be outside but the Daiquiri was even better than the one at El Floridita, maybe that was the heat, and the octopus starter had perfect bite.
My langoustine pasta was sensational with creamy rich flavours but service on the roof was a bit hit & miss. However, the views of Havana from there meant you could overlook many flaws.
After all this, & my previous night, I had to take a siesta for a few hours.
A Perfect Location For My First Cuban Cigar
Later that afternoon I went to the hotel's Cigar Lounge for my first Cuban cigar. What a place for this, looking out over the Paseo del Prado in the centre of Havana.
I picked a Monetcristo No 2 (as a cigar aficionado friend had recommended) and was captivated by the theatre surrounding its preparation.
I paired this with a triple aged Havana Club Seleccion de Maestro rum. Both were so smooth and perfect. I had found a new vice! I ended the afternoon with a glass of Black Label thinking about my friends in Lebanon.
It was all improved even more by Otilia coming to check how I was doing. We talked about my time working for Coyle Hospitality being paid to review W Hotels, Four Seasons etc
A Brand Ambassador's Last Night in Havana
This had to start with Veuve Clicquot champagne by that stunning rooftop infinity pool at sunset. I decided on Veuve Clicquot Rich, after the hot day in Havana.
Dinner in El del Frente
'El del Frente' mean "the one in front" and is 'O'Reilly 304''s latest cool venture. The name is because it is over the road from their older parent restaurant.
Despite being a short walk from the hotel, it took me some time to find it. I walked past the inconspicuous white door a few times before a helpful local helped me find it.
It was funny to arrive to recognise customers from La Guarida the previous evening.
There is a large rooftop terrance and retro 1950s design features. I was seated inside on the 1st Floor and this suited me fine, after the hot day & the roof terrace the previous night.
Service was such a contrast with lunchtime. Delightfully friendly and attentive. The strong & large drinks were brimming with fresh garnishes and very good. Even I struggled to drink two. It is a great place to dine alone & people watch.
I picked the octopus salad to start and then the tacos as my main course. My Daiquiri was unrecognizable but had the right flavour and the salad bigger than I expected and bursting with fresh tastes with lime, capers etc
My main course of shredded beef tacos which were deliciously light & packed with flavours with fresh chunky guacamole with Cilantro etc I paired these with a Caipirinha that none of my friends in Brazil would recognize. However, I almost liked this supersized version better than the 'small' traditional ones in South American.
Back at the Hotel I Channel Winston Churchill
Back at the hotel I returned to the Cigar Lounge to drink the rest of the champagne and smoke more of the Cuba cigar. I was impressed, after direction from me, with the perfect presentation of the Veuve Clicquot Rich with cucumber. It was such an incredible way to end my last night. Wish I had the name of the member of staff in the lounge. He was extraordinary.
A Last Very Dry Grey Goose Martini
Once the Cigar Lounge closed I went for a last very dry martini, to smoke a little more of my Cuban cigar, on a balcony in the 2nd floor bar and was so glad I did, meeting a new friend who used to live in Cayman Islands.
'Testing' 24 Hour Room Service
Back at the suite I decided to 'test' the 24 hour room service & ordered a cheeseburger. I was told it would take 25 minutes but it was over an hour before it arrived. I was told there were problems in the kitchen and the meat was very pink but I ate it.
The Last Day
Sunday I woke to a servere case of food poisoning and spent the morning considering whether I should extend my stay and change my flight.
Check-out from Hell
Feeling like death, while trying to sort out credit card problems, was quite a trial. I asked if we could debit the bank card I checked in with, but no longer had, but was told this was not possible. I asked why the card details were given then and told "just in case". I tried to argue this was a "just in case" situation but was too weak and ended up using a bank card I did not want to use.
However, Regina than changed my mood completely by rushing out to present me with the 'Fresa y Chocolate' DVD and to apologize for all the problems. I assured her I knew almost all of them were outside the hotel's control.
I have been very ill with food poisoning for the last four days and it is really a miracle that I got back to Cayman Islands OK. Now understand the water in Havana may have caused my illness.
GM Xavier, Manager Otilia, Concierge Regina etc are doing exception jobs & I think it is unfair to 'teddy rate' the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinsk La Habana with the issues in Havana/ Cuba at this time.
In some ways the trip was a test of the argument that extraordinary service can compensate for infrastructure problems. The answer in Havana, Cuba is clearly that the problems are too big. My tips:- are to take enough cash to cope if none of your bank cards work for your whole trip. Euros are said to get a better exchange rate than US$s. I have lots more photos of Havana, when people next meet me.