In March of 2016, Air Force One touched down at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba. President Obama, his family, and a delegation of American officials emerged from the aircraft, and the minute Obama’s sleek black shoes hit the tarmac, history was made. This official state visit marked the first time that a sitting U.S. president had set foot in the cloistered communist country since 1928. Over the course of the three-day visit, negotiations with the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, jump-started the process of unravelling decades of sanctions and embargoes between the two countries. Cuba, which had evaded the influence of American capitalism and culture for over half a century, cracked open the figurative door, just a little, to its neighbour across the Florida Straits.
Fast forward to 2019. The laxation of travel restrictions for American citizens has created a swell in the tourism industry across the island nation. It’s also culminated in the opening of Cuba’s very first 5-star hotel.
Sounds impressive, right? Well…not so fast. Those accustomed to luxury travel and posh accommodations would be wise to check their expectations at the door. The hotel, much like the rest of the country, still has a long way to go when it comes to meeting the standards of luxury travel.
Situated in the heart of Old Havana, the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana has a lot going for it. Established by the Kempinski Hotel Group, Europe’s oldest luxury hotel group, the building itself used to be a European-style shopping arcade. It was built between 1894 and 1917, and there’s definitely a lot of history to be found here. (It’s also surrounded by UNESCO World Heritage buildings.) The renovation brings it up to speed with a contemporary aesthetic, featuring 246 rooms (including 50 suites), a panoramic restaurant, cocktail bar, gym, spa, rooftop pool, and meetings and conference rooms.
When you first enter the lobby, it’s easy to see that the Gran has all the makings of a 5-star hotel. The design is impressive. The décor is well chosen. There’s plenty of artwork around. The word ‘nice’ came to mind a lot as I checked into my room and explored the rest of the facilities. The room was nice. The bathroom was nice. The rooftop pool was nice. The gym was nice. But that’s the problem; nothing was extraordinary. Everything was just…nice. And when it comes to 5-star accommodations, don’t we tend to expect something better than nice?
The real problem, though, wasn’t with the hotel itself or any of its facilities. True luxury travel is about the fulfilment of desires — and sometimes that includes desires you didn’t even know you had. It’s about having your needs anticipated by those operating five steps ahead of you. I’ve stayed at luxury hotels and dined in fine establishments where I was greeted by name, without ever having to introduce myself. I’ve had my dietary preferences thoughtfully remembered, my likes and dislikes noted by observant staff.
The thing is, luxury travel is about the experience. It’s about customer service. It’s about a stress-free, wrinkle-free escape from the hassles of work and life. It’s about a streamlined process that enables you to kick back and relax, knowing that the logistics — and you — are well taken care of.
The Gran Hotel, unfortunately, isn’t that — at least, not yet. In a lot of ways, it’s an empty shell of 5-star standards: a nice building with a staff that isn’t capable of providing high end hospitality. Maybe this makes sense, given how cut-off Cuba has been from the world; maybe it also makes sense, in a communist nation, that the idea of going above and beyond just isn’t there. Customer service is a touchstone of capitalism, a system that gives us the incentive and drive to succeed, to improve, to be better than the competitor. And sure, there are competitors — for instance, the Iberostar Grand Packard, another new 5-star spot that I went to check out. But judging from online reviews, it has a lot of the same problems as the Gran.
It all boils down to this: nothing about my experience was better than adequate. Some things were complicated by the country itself — for instance, the fact that Cuba operates with two currencies, one for residents and one for tourists. The tourist currency is equivalent to the U.S. dollar and is worth about 25 times the local currency. Some major credit cards are accepted in various places, but if you’re trying to use an American credit card, you’re likely going to run into problems.
Other things are complicated by a lack of infrastructure and communication. There’s a concierge service at the hotel, but it’s like that old saying: the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. For instance, I tried to order food at the rooftop pool one day. I was told that in order to do this, I’d have to go down to the lobby to pre-pay for it on my room. I went down to the lobby, where I was told that I had to place a 300-dollar deposit for charges. (Ridiculous, but I did it.) I went back up to the pool, where I was told that I still couldn’t order because they hadn’t been informed of any deposit being made, and I ultimately had to pay cash for my charges.
This sort of experience became typical. If I ordered a drink, it took 30 minutes to receive it. One morning at breakfast, I ordered an espresso that never arrived.
It’s almost like the staff has been instructed to leave guests alone, but not in the thoughtful way of, say, the staff of this Petit St. Vincent Resort, a personal favourite of mine. There the name of the game is all about providing a private experience while still fulfilling the needs of guests; at the Gran, the name of the game is…the bare minimum.
My stay lasted 3 nights; on the 4th day I left for Varadero, on the peninsula, which starts to feel a lot like Florida with its beaches and all-inclusive resorts. I left Havana with the impression that it’s a city of shiny facades, and the minute you look beneath the surface, you’re going to run into problems. Case in point: the Gran is surrounded by luxury retail shops, but the minute you venture past this main strip, even to the back of the hotel, you’re going to find crumbling buildings that look like they’ve barely survived a forgotten war and umpteen natural disasters. (The country is regularly hit by hurricanes.)
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of beautiful architecture to be found, especially in Old Havana, which is full of Cuban Baroque and Neoclassical structures. One evening, on my way to dinner, I passed a beautiful house with a band playing in the yard — it looked like a wedding. I was struck by the grandness of the neighbourhood compared to the disrepair I’d seen elsewhere.
Every time I walked out of the hotel, I’d quickly gotten in the habit of keeping my head down, because everywhere I went, I felt pressured to buy what they were offering. If it wasn’t an outright sales pitch, it was someone pretending to be helpful to an unwitting tourist in the hopes of ultimately selling something. Havana seems to have a clear divide between the lower class and the upper class, with a serious lack of a middle class in between.
One of the best examples I can name, when it comes to appearances being deceptive, is Havana’s taxis. When I’ve thought about Cuba in the past, I’ve associated it with vintage cars. Havana especially is known for its antique vehicles, further solidifying that idea of a country stuck in the past. But one taxi driver told me (in one of my only frank conversations with a local, after he realized that I was not going to buy anything) that taxi company No. 8 had begun fixing up old cars years ago and flooding the streets with retro rides. It’s a gimmick, and not a way of life, that gives the streets of Havana that throwback aesthetic.
There’s no arguing with the fact that Cuba is a fascinating country with a complicated history. There’s plenty of beauty to be found there. But when it comes to luxury travel, the key is managing expectations in advance. Advertising can be misleading. Photos can be edited. Internet reviews are subjective and aren’t always to be trusted. Anyone can slap a filter on a digital image or spruce it up in Photoshop and make it look good. But when it comes to the real thing, from a western perspective at least, the Gran Hotel — like the country it inhabits — doesn’t measure up. At least, not yet.