Destinations

Havana travel guide

The nation said to be perpetually on the brink of change is, in fact, changing, and for travellers to Havana this means first-time access to unique holiday rentals, cool bars and edgy art galleries. Lydia Bell witnesses the Cuban capital’s new revolution.

By Lydia Bell
Casa Miglis

The first time I felt the changes rocking Cuba was earlier this year, when I visited a villa being rebuilt for holiday rental in Miramar, Havana's once-prestigious embassy district. In the 1940s it would have been a prototype three-bedroom suburban dream home, with a lush tropical garden, a wide veranda and an open-plan interior of Californian-style simplicity. The owner told me that when he bought it last year, he found mango trees growing in the bathroom. "Absolutely nothing had been done to it for more than 50 years," he said.

This didn't surprise me; I have grown used to seeing Cuban houses in this state. But I did a double take when I saw what Ydalgo Martinez, a trilingual Cuban émigré returned from working in Switzerland with an international eye and an entrepreneurial spirit, had achieved. His villa had been finished with Holguin marble floors, a cleverly kitsch bumble bee-hued kitchen and bathrooms with fittings from Panama and tiles from Italy. There were restored Art Deco dining chairs, 1950s modernist coffee tables, and colonial-era chandeliers. This is the new Cuba, I thought as I admired the vigorous contemporary art lining the wall.

Though Martinez's plans for his villa have since become mired in red tape, travellers can book Artedel, his other penthouse, a stone's throw from the 1930s Hotel Nacional. The apartment houses an impressive collection of contemporary Cuban art, Murano glass, bronze lamps, restored 1950s furniture and balconies from which to gaze across a sea of rooftops. Airport transfers, laundry services, proper bed linen, massages, drivers, salsa lessons and Nespresso machines are other novelties thrown in.

I've been visiting Havana for more than a decade, during which time the 50-year revolutionary Fidelista era has passed into history - and I've acquired a Cuban family-in-law and a daughter born to one of the city's sons. It's a place I've come to know and love, but a place that still surprises and often contradicts.

Havana is, for me, the handsomest little city in the world. Its beguilement lies in so much beauty amid decay, winking from every portico, every intricate, blackened façade, every tumbledown mansion and gloomy colonial rampart. Half a millennium of history is reflected in an architecture preserved by poverty: Moorish palaces built on the sweat of slaves, mid-century suburban show homes, mob-built hotels, relics of the Russian taste for eyesore brutalism. Amid the decay, however, is a culture that is incandescently alive, where seductive son music drifts from courtyards, where rumbas really do unfold on street corners.

For decades Havana has existed in a parallel universe, paralysed since the 1960s by a US embargo and an inefficient, highly centralised economy. Nothing works in Havana, goes the cliché; even the clocks have stopped and no one can be bothered to fix them.

These days, though, there's less talk of neglect. After almost 60 years of stasis, the nation perpetually said to be on the brink of change is, in fact, changing. Since Raúl Castro assumed the presidency from his brother in 2008, he has introduced a series of incremental changes that have allowed a piecemeal private sector to develop. Almost 500,000 Cubans now have licences to operate small, private businesses. Homes, businesses and land can be bought and sold among Cubans. The US has eased limits on remittances to Cuba since 2009, and the flow of cash has become a torrent; some estimates exceed $US3 billion annually. A new foreign investment law will make joint ventures more appealing. For a small élite, it's boom time in the Cuban capital.

The experience for travellers is being transformed, too. The Unesco World Heritage-listed colonial-era Habana Vieja - Old Havana - is being spruced up street by street, largely under the direction of city historian Dr Eusebio Leal. He has spent more than 40 years agitating for the city's preservation and is largely responsible for funnelling tourism revenue directly into restoring Havana's ruined streets. "You have to go back to the past to head with confidence into the future," he was quoted as saying recently. Leal is also tackling restoration of the Malecón, the city's crumbling sea-wall esplanade built by the American military from 1901.

Havana's largely car-free streets are filling with new imported vehicles. The American-era almendrones - 1950s Chevys and Cadillacs that are barely roadworthy these days - and the old Moskvitchs and Ladas of the Soviet era are being edged off the road.

Even the travellers have changed. In 2011 the US and Cuban governments sanctioned the People to People Exchange, allowing American tourist groups to enter Cuba on pre-arranged itineraries. (Some such tourists head off-piste and can be found carousing in the city's new bars, clubs and restaurants instead.)

Cubans can now let entire houses and apartments to foreigners instead of operating B&Bs from their homes. For the first time since the late 1950s, several unique houses have become available for holiday rental in the past three years, from mid-century architect-designed gems with original bars to penthouses with astonishing views. Every time I visit there are more on the market. Rumour has it Hong Kong socialite and businessman David Tang stays in the penthouse at the Edificio Atlántico on the Malecón, with spectacular views and WiFi, which is otherwise available only in hotels.

Fifteen kilometres west of Havana is Santa Fe. A fishing hamlet in the 1930s, now it's a shabby-genteel suburb of Havana. Here Sarah Escalona, the daughter of a late Communist Party grandee, acquired an oceanfront weatherboard cottage 18 years ago when the walls were rotten and the roof full of holes. She patched it up, built a jetty with a thatched-roof platform and installed family heirlooms. Casa de Sarah has three guest rooms and it's worn-down in the Cuban way - there's an original 1940s pink bathroom - but it's marvellously romantic and great value, and an example of a beachfront home that would have been inaccessible to travellers until recently. Escalona's credentials are more socialite than socialist: local heroes have played in her garden, and she arranges house parties with bands, screens local films in her garden and can score invitations to nightclub openings, private parties and yachts.

Specialist guides offer the best portal to Havana's vibrant culture, vying to deliver design experts with the keys to private Deco mansions, curators with links to established and emerging artists, and historians who know the tales behind palaces and plazas. One of my favourite spots discovered on a guided tour with Esencia Experiences is the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym in Habana Vieja, a dilapidated open-air arena squeezed between apartment blocks. Olympic champions have been discovered and developed here, though the low-tech facilities and high-impact training are the antithesis of what one might expect of an élite academy.

The most dramatic change for travellers, and the most welcome, is the quality and quantity of the paladares, or private restaurants, that have opened in the past three years, often run by recently returned Cuban-born chefs with international experience and money. Among them is Osmany Cisnero Fernández, who opened Starbien in a restored colonial mansion in Vedado in 2011. To maintain quality and consistency of produce he found a plot of land just outside Havana to grow vegetables that can't be found in the state-run markets. It's farm-to-plate by accident: "My food is organic in that my fertiliser is chicken shit," he says, "but that's just because that's all there is." With an eye on wealthy Cubans rather than foreigners, Cisnero focuses on Cuban classics such as seafood broths and black-bean concoctions, with the occasional surprise appearance of guinea fowl and conch meat. His wine list is regarded as Havana's best, in a city where even mediocre imported wines are eye-wateringly expensive.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z dined at La Guarida during their cheeky foray to the forbidden isle last year. Travellers flock to this restaurant in a well-hidden mansion in Centro Habana to admire its magnificently dilapidated staircase entrance and enjoy a robust Euro-Cuban fusion menu. Also in Centro, Casa Miglis is an unlikely setting for a Swedish tribute menu listing Skagen toast and meatballs. The décor is even more unlikely in this part of town: cream walls, oyster-grey timber chairs, and an Yves Klein-blue bar.

Havana's hottest private restaurant at the moment is Le Chansonnier, in a colonial-style home with pretty tiled floors and big shuttered windows in a quiet street in leafy Vedado. A wall of metal collage by Cuban artist Damián Aquiles and frequently changing installations by experimental artists are the backdrop to daily menus mixing Cuban and international influences and pioneering the island's most interesting mezze.

At Milano Lounge Club, you'd hardly think you were in Cuba. This minimalist South Beach-style mansion in Miramar is a classic example of the current Cuban trend for erasing a sense of place. What stands out more than the beautifully presented but forgettable food is the boutique out front selling elegant handmade women's fashion - another first in Havana.

A raft of new, privately owned bars is keeping the state-owned hangouts on their toes. Almost all are in private homes, though El Cocinero is an exception. It occupies a rooftop below the towering brick chimney of the old Cocinero peanut oil factory, where a fashionably bohemian crew of artists, musicians and actors gather.

Next door is Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an arts project and night spot by Afro-rock musician X Alfonso, the frontman for Cuba's mongrel creative genius. Jointly funded by the Ministry of Culture and Cuba's artistic élite, this multi-storey industrial space is crammed with art, photography and installations. It's a place to practise art, music, dance and theatre by day and Havana's hottest club by night, every night - heaving with partygoers in a space that could be in London's Dalston or New York's Williamsburg.

Legendary bassist Juan Formell, one of Havana's most influential musicians of the past 40 years, had just died when I last visited the factory. That day his ashes had been on display in the Teatro Nacional and crowds of Cubans from all walks of life had come to pay their respects. Formell founded Los Van Van, Cuba's best-known post-Revolution dance band, which is still releasing albums and evolving its sound. It was hot and humid on the dance floor and among the trilbies and tattoos were clusters of hip-weaving salsa dancers paying homage to the island's musical roots that Formell and Los Van Van celebrated - and developed - so exuberantly. It was a joyous celebration - of old Cuba, and the fresh new face of Havana.

Edificio Atlántico
Edificio Atlántico
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  • Author: Lydia Bell