There is nothing like arriving at a luxury hotel in unique style. See Xavier Destribats, above, being driven to what will be Cuba’s first true ultimate hotel, Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, right in the centre of town. It receives its first lucky guests on 1 June 2017, but I was tremendously lucky to have a preview, personally led by Destribats, the GM. His entire management team, still without uniforms, was there as guard of honour.
Why ‘Manzana’? As a note above the front door says, this was the site of Havana’s first shopping complex, opened by Senor Manzana in 1894. Enter through the door, today, and you are immediately in a theatre of stunning champagne-coloured local marble, with pink-grey fabrics and other accents. To beat Cuba’s famous, or infamous, humidity, Port Elizabeth-based designer Arno Joubert, who formerly worked with Jean-Michel Gathy, has here only used carpets up in the sixth-floor rooftop ballroom. Every other space has marble floors, or wood-look ceramics. Extra-high ceilings everywhere also speak ‘space’, which means that some of the lampshades, like a five-foot beauty in the lobby, can be outrageously large. Up on the second floor are restaurants and bars, including a magnificent cigar lounge with six balconies looking over the central plaza or side streets. Destribats is cleverly getting the country’s six top cigar companies each to sponsor a balcony.
And then, built in a triangle around a garden-filled central courtyard, are 264 bedrooms and suites, nearly half with balconies. Rooms follow the champagne-taupe colour scheme. They have wet-area bathrooms, with clear-or-frosted windows from the bed area. Up on the rooftop, all with outstanding views, are the outdoor pool, an adjacent eight-room spa, good Technogym, and a carpeted ballroom, ideal for meetings and weddings. Oh this hotel will, when it opens, have so many features that are unique in Havana, like masses of universal sockets, and the city’s only in-room Wi-Fi, and free (at all other hotels, you buy SIM cards to use routers in lobbies which then become gathering places for any outsiders who have also bought SIM cards).
Another big plus is that this luxury hotel has a French GM who obviously knows his food, which in Cuba is quite important unless you are addicted to more starch and sugar than you get at home. But Xavier Destribats, who awaits the arrival of both a French and a Japanese chef, is going to change the perception of Cuban food (he knows that man cannot live on daiquiris and mojitos and cigars alone, but good bread helps and he will be importing proper flour for proper bread made by his German baker).
Here, looking in front of you is Parque Central, and Gran Teatro de La Habana, and to one side of the hotel is the Museo Bellas Artes, with, behind you, the Bacardi building, the world’s largest Art Deco structure, and the iconic El Floridita bar, Ernest Hemingway’s renowned watering hole.
Ernest Hemingway, with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, first came to Cuba in 1928. They were in transit, awaiting another ship, and they spent their three nights in Havana at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, on Obispo, in La Habana Vieja. What is still rated a luxury hotel appears quaintly unique today, with its still-working open-sided elevator, taking some tourists up to room 511, his favourite when he returned on and off for many years after. But, says the Gal, the absolute must for any interested visitor to Havana is to head out to his farm, Finca Vigia, ‘lookout farm’, 19 kilometres from the city. After Hemingway’s death in 1961, his widow, his fourth wife Mary, travelled back to Havana and, although she took away unfinished manuscripts, she gave the farm and most of its contents to Fidel Castro and the Cuban nation.
It was opened as a government museum on what would have been Hemingway’s 63rd birthday, 21 July 1962. On 29 April 2016, the US Congress was told how the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognises the entire Finca Vigia estate as the only US Historic Preservation site outside the USA. When visiting today, you cannot go inside his house but you peer through the windows and doors, at some of the 9000-plus books on his shelves, apparently in over 30 languages. You see his study, where he wrote, mornings-long, standing up at his typewriter. The dining room, with a table for six, has a big Miró (now a copy) hanging over, and a Picasso ceramic on the end wall. The guest bedroom has the shortest beds for adults ever seen, but, judging by the number of empty liquor bottles displayed elsewhere in the house, perhaps sleeping was not number one priority here.
One tip: when visiting Finca Vigia, do try to get the deputy director of the museum, Isabel Ferrero, as your guide. A fluent English speaker and life-long student of Hemingway, she has access to all the private papers. Only she and Valerie Hemingway, the writer’s protegée and secretary, Valerie Danby-Smith, who married his son, Gregory, after Hemingway’s death, know as much about the minutiae of his life, and since Valerie Hemingway is now in her late 70s, I suggest you stick with learning from Isabel, who delivers her vast knowledge with such enthusiasm, as though she has all the time in the world and as if this is the first time she has ever given the talk. She takes you around the outside of the house, and through some of the six hectares of garden.
You hear about the 55 or so cats that Ernest Hemingway loved to have around him. You see the four gravestones for the family dogs. You see the swimming pool in which a guest, Ava Gardner, is supposed to have swum naked, and you see Hemingway’s beloved fishing boat, Pilar. After this, if you want more Hemingway, you can head back into Havana, for drinks at his favourite watering holes, La Bodeguita del Medio, where he had his famous Hemingway Mojito (double the rum, but hold the sugar), and, next to the gorgeous luxury Gran Hotel Mazana Kempinski La Habana, the bar La Floridita, where he tended to choose a daiquiri. Alternatively you could go back to his favourite hotel, Ambos Mundos, for a drink in the bar there. What a shame Hemingway never saw Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana because that, undoubtedly, would be his top for style, and authenticity.