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Destination Cuba

Theme Hotels in Havana

As part of an initiative to revive Havana’s historic city center, a number of fascinating hotels have been reinvented in the lush historical and cosmopolitan tradition of this Caribbean “City of Light.”

By:  Juan Abelardo Carles R.
Photos: Cristian Pinzón

Los Frailes

The hooded figure seated on an austere bench seems quite calm, unperturbed by the ruckus drifting in from the street or the brass quartet providing ambience in the hotel lobby. In fact, the hotel staff is dressed similarly to the figure and the decor recalls that of a medieval scriptorium. This is the welcome that awaits you at Hotel Los Frailes, inside the old colonial palace of the Marquis of Duquesne, a French aristocrat who moved to the island after the French Revolution. Why “Los Frailes”? Well, legend has it that the monks from the nearby San Francisco Church hid in this house during a period of religious persecution in the Colonies.

Conde de Villanueva

Near Hotel Los Frailes, just up Calle Mercaderes, we come to Hotel Conde de Villanueva. It is named after Claudio Martínez de Pinillos, a 19th-century nobleman who was responsible for, among other things, the construction of the city’s aqueduct in 1831 and Cuba’s first railroad, around 1837.

The massive columns of this mid-18th-century building surround a courtyard overflowing with tropical flora, but the Conde de Villanueva is known mainly as a mecca for lovers of authentic Cuban cigars. A discreet stairway in the inner courtyard leads to Casa del Habano, offering the finest brands of traditional Cuban cigars and assorted paraphernalia associated with their use and culture. All the hotel’s rooms are named after the island’s famous tobacco-growing regions.

San Felipe

Across from San Francisco Square and sharing space with the church of the same name, the Lonja de Comercio, the old customs houses, and other sumptuous edifices, we come to Hotel San Felipe, named in honor of the Marquesses of San Felipe and Santiago de Bejucal.

Seated eternally at the entrance to Hotel San Felipe is Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, serenading himself as pigeons peck at the pavement of San Francisco Square. The sober Baroque stone façade contrasts with the elegant minimalist interior. Its inner courtyard is rectangular, unlike the typical square interiors of neighboring mansions, and although it appears from the outside to have three stories, six floors of rooms overlook the white marble fountain whose lions and nymphs preside over the basin.

In a way, Hotel San Felipe symbolizes the economic elite’s defiance of colonial power since its builder, who owned a number of sugar cane plantations, designed the façade to emulate the height and elegance of the Captain General’s palace in the Plaza de Armas. One might say that it was molasses, and not mortar, that held together the heavy blocks of this palace. Currently, the San Felipe houses an important collection of Cuban art and handicrafts and its rooftop has become a popular lookout with views of San Francisco Square, the old customs houses, the inner canal, and the bucolic vista of tiled roofs and bell towers in colonial Havana. 

Santa Isabel

his hotel also reproduces the unique mixture of majesty and tropical languor that characterized Havana’s colonial upper classes. It is one of the few theme hotels in Havana that has required no recent remodeling, since it has operated as a hotel since 1867. Built in the early 18th century by the Counts of Jaruco, and purchased nearly a century later by the Count of Santovenia, the house was named in honor of the joyous pageantry that took place there following Queen Elizabeth II of Spain’s coronation in 1833.

Historical records state that the Santovenia’s ancestral home celebrated the event by lighting 3,000 multicolored candles and decorating the façade with diaphanous allegories alluding to the Bourbon dynasty. Today, its cool and shady salons feature a mixture of modern and traditional furnishings in rattan and mahogany, which in the old days dominated the furnishings of the best Havana families.

It is only fitting that we make a slight pause on our tour of Havana’s theme hotels to point out the historical value of the terrain upon which the Hotel Santa Isabel was built. Just north of the hotel stands the El Templete monument, as well as a kapok tree similar to the one in the shade of which San Cristóbal de La Habana was founded on November 15, 1519.

Across from the hotel’s façade is the Plaza de Armas and the palaces of the Captain General and his Second Corporal. To the north is the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, from where Hernando de Soto set off for Florida in search of his own El Dorado. And here his wife, doña Isabel de Bobadilla, spent the rest of her days, waiting in vain for his return, as De Soto perished on the banks of the Mississippi.

Raquel

Inspiration for Havana’s theme hotels is not limited to the city’s heroic, and at times tragic, colonial history. Hotel Raquel, for example, pays tribute, as its name suggests, to the contributions of the Jewish community to the city’s cultural and material wealth. The community grew as Jews emigrated, initially following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, and then in response to Nazi persecution before and during World War II, and by the 1950s totaled more than 15,000. Although much smaller in size, this group still exists today.

Hotel Raquel occupies a building constructed in 1905 and it is decorated entirely in the splendorous, intricate art nouveau style. The impressive skylight spanning the lobby, practically from one side to the other, illuminates the pink marble and gold leaf surfaces. In the middle of the lobby stands Raquel, the biblical matriarch, watching everything, with Joseph in her lap, while the tormented yet resolved Judith holds aloft the trembling head of Holofernes. The blue color common to nearly all the furnishings is that of the Star of David on the Israeli flag, and all the rooms have names taken from the Old Testament.

Ambos Mundos

Havana is a city rich in contrasts so we leave behind sacred references and venture into more profane, although still sublime, territory: Hotel Ambos Mundos is a place of pilgrimage for Ernest Hemingway fans. One enters Ambos Mundos in the spirit of the devout pilgrim, lining up to ride his cage-style elevator and waiting to step inside Room 511, where the methodical writer stayed each time he visited the city. There are red ribbons on the bed and chair (I suppose a city this full of history and historic figures must be full of them). Inside a crystal urn sits the typewriter whose keys were attacked furiously, frenetically, by the writer between sips of whiskey and long moments spent contemplating the sea, and upon which he wrote Death in the Afternoon (1932) and began The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1935) and To Have and Have Not (1937).

Inspired by both the Ambos Mundos and its faithful signature guest, it seems right to consider this author’s incredible emotion as we down a couple of mojitos on the hotel’s terrace and prepare for the final stop on our tour.

Telégrafo

he Telegrafo, like the Santa Isabel, was one of the forerunners in the city’s hotel tradition. It is said that the employees of this hotel, which was founded in 1858, would go down to the port of Havana to welcome their guests and take care of their immigration and customs paperwork.

Located between Paseo del Prado, the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, and La Acera del Louvre, and across from Parque Central and the Grand Hotel Manzana Kempinski, the Telegrafo is ideal for tourists who want to be in the thick of things and not miss out on Havana’s lively cultural activity. The hotel’s lobby incorporates the arcades of the original building (which collapsed in 1964) with the current structure and, together with an impressive ceramic mural, completes the feeling of being in a surreal place.

The number of themed hotels in the Cuban capital far exceeds the selection presented here. If you want to know more about these and other unique places to stay in Havana, visit :

www.gaviotahotels.com