The Meliá Cohiba Hotel in Havana’s Vedado district differs from most other buildings in the capital. No faded colonial chic here. All sharp angles of stone and plate glass reflecting the stunning vista of the four-mile long seafront of the Malecón and the Straits of Florida, next stop Key West a mere ninety miles away.
History is everywhere in Cuba. Bang across the street – the Havana Riviera Hotel, once owned by mobster Meyer Lansky. Opened in 1957 to hide from the eyes of the F.B.I., Lansky ran his private fiefdom with impunity from the top floor, amassing unimaginable fortunes from gambling, drugs and prostitution. All that crashed on January 22, 1959, when the corrupt Cuban government was ousted. Castro held a press conference at the hotel’s Copa Cabaret to announce the revolution, outlawing gambling, and nationalising all the island’s hotel-casinos.
Fast-forward sixty years back to the Meliá Cohiba, managed by a Spanish hotel chain under government ownership. It’s a five-star operation with super-efficient staff. The huge lobby is as glittery as a Vegas leisure lounge but without the slots…naturally. Checking-in next to me, the self-same Virgin Atlantic crew that pampered me each of the four-thousand-plus miles from Gatwick; cabin staff still smiling and perky; gold-braided flight-deck wallahs a trifle jaded.
My fourth-floor suite, one of sixty one among four hundred-odd rooms, looks east toward the city. More history. I pick out the twin cupolas of the Hotel Nacional, site of the infamous mob summit in 1946 run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and attended by Santo Trafficante Jr., Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, and Vito Genovese, immortalised in The Godfather Part II. A multitude of VIPs have stayed over the years, including Winston Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, and President Jimmy Carter. Don’t put any bets on the current occupant of that post adding his name to the list.
Time to explore. There are several modes of transport on hand in Havana: ordinary yellow cabs; Coco-taxis, a mad scooter-powered fibreglass shell supposedly like a coconut, but more like a crash helmet to my mind, or indeed a crash waiting to happen (The UK government website states; ‘In view of serious accidents that have involved tourists, you should not use three-wheel Coco-Taxis for travel around Cuba’) ; 1950s Fairlanes, Cadillacs, Chevys, etc.; cycle rickshaws; public buses; an infrequent but free Cohiba shuttle bus; and walking. Some advice. It’s nearly four miles to the Old Town from the hotel and with average temperatures in the plus-thirties walking all the way in the daytime is a no-no. Coconut-roll-overs and rickshaws ditto. If the shuttle fits your timing, fine. The public bus system was incomprehensible to me, which leaves yellow cabs, and 50s classics.
To misquote Rat in The Wind In The Willows: “ My young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in Havana in a pink 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. Simply messing… about… .” The cars cluster across the way from the main entrance. Stroll over and pick your year, marque and colour, then haggle. Never agree to the driver’s price, they’ll always come down by half. Then sit back and wallow in nostalgia.
After a tour of Havana back to the peace and cool of the Cohiba and a drink in the ground floor Expresso Habana bar overlooking the seafront. It’s almost obligatory to have one of four local drinks: my favourite, Daiquiri with rum, ice, lemon juice and sugar, the traditional drink of the Floridita bar in Havana: Mojito with rum, sparkling water, sugar, lemon juice, ice and mint, Hemingway’s preferred cocktail: Cuba Libre, with rum and cola and perhaps a squeeze of lemon and ice: and Piña Colada, a blend of pineapple juice and coconut milk.
Don’t expect fast service anywhere in Cuba. Like all tropical countries, life moves at a snail’s pace. After all, what’s the hurry? Staff rely on tips. Give generously, extremely discreetly and always in cash, to bring their rock-bottom pay up to a living wage. Life is hard at present and it’s not at all uncommon to find that your chamber-maid is a university graduate, or your taxi-driver a doctor of medicine who cannot survive on a government-regulated salary.
The hotel has several places to eat; the MedRestaurant overlooking the pool a more relaxed room serving tapas and seafood, but for higher end eating the Plaza Habana with panoramic views across the bay is the place to head for. Then, most assuredly not for me, but for those who like to savour a Cohiba (not the hotel but the cigar favoured by Fidel) there’s the Relicario with its cigar-sommelier service, drinks, liquors, rums, coffee and a very gentleman’s club ambience.
JFK never made it to Cuba, but in early 1962 he gave press secretary Pierre Salinger 24 hours to source 1,000 Petit Upmann Cuban cigars. He was about to sign an embargo prohibiting any Cuban imports from entering the USA amid fears that Castro represented a security threat to America. Salinger somehow procured 1,200. The next day Kennedy signed the embargo. Cuban tobacco has been forbidden to Americans ever since.
In contrast, a pleasure in the fresh air which costs nothing is the super Havana Art Biennale, Cuba’s largest visual arts event, dotted along the Malecón. Best way to enjoy it? Check sunset times (around 20.16 now) get a classic clunker of your choice from the Cohiba an hour before, and ask the driver to drop you where the art works start. Then stroll towards the Old Town as you take in the pieces…a huge Turtle on its back with a the head of red-faced man; old colonial buildings with strange encrustations growing out of the walls and pillars; giant Banksy-like figures, all marvellous to behold.
One more treat is in store at the Cohiba’s Havana Cafe nightclub kitted out in 50’s style complete with a CUBANA airplane suspended from the ceiling and surrounded by Harleys, Buicks, and Hemingway memorabilia. If you’re lucky, as I was, one of the original Buena Vista Social Club members will do a spot. Trumpeter Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal raised the roof way into the small hours.
Tell Me More About The Meliá Cohiba Hotel, Havana
Meliá Cohiba Hotel, Ave. Paseo, entre 1ª y 3ª Vedado, Havana
T:(53) 78 333636 E: firstname.lastname@example.org Roms from £127 per night. The Level service features a private floor and highly personalised services, perfect for business travellers thanks to the superior facilities, executive ambience and exquisite attention to detail.