The days of Hemingway and Revolution are fading like a puff of Cuban cigar smoke. Christopher P. Baker visits the new Havana
Before the revolution, Havana was a place of intrigue and tawdry romance. Walking Havana's streets you sense you're living inside a romantic thriller, with all the sharp edges and sinister shadows that made Ernest Hemingway want "to stay here forever". It's easy to imagine the novelist strolling down Calle Obispo on his way for a 'papa doble' (double shot of rum, no sugar) at La Floridita – his favourite bar. "Mi mojito en El Bodeguita, mi daiquiri in La Floridita" the novelist had scrawled on the sky-blue walls of El Bodeguita del Medio, a watering hole half a block from Havana's cathedral. Errol Flynn thought it "a great place to get drunk". Both of them are still there, in black and white on a wall, squinting at the camera through a haze of rum and cigar smoke.
But things are changing. Last June I was strolling along a cobbled street in Habana Vieja when my pal Ernesto Guevara, son of Che (yes, the revolutionary icon), bounded out of a bar. Like his dad, Ernesto 'Jr' is a motorcycle enthusiast. When we first met five years ago he was riding a jade-coloured 1948 Harley-Davidson Flathead. Now, after dining together at a newly opened bar-restaurant – Chacón 162 – in the rapidly gentrifying Cinco Esquinas, Ernesto rides off on a 2015 Electra Glide Ultra Classic. Every third building in this once-sclerotic quarter is in the throes of a remake as a boutique B&B, art gallery, Miami chic restaurant, or – what's this? – a gourmet heladería selling homemade ice-cream.
Still, Cuba's beguiling capital offers more enduring fare. Housed in the grandiose erstwhile presidential palace just steps from Cinco Esquinas, the Museo de la Revolución offers a sombre homage (think blood-stained uniforms) to the 1959 Revolution that brought Castro to power. Next door, the Museo de Bellas Artes – housed in a handsome 1950s Modernist structure – has three storeys of airy galleries displaying the best Cuban art through five centuries. English-speaking guides give a surprisingly honest account of the repressive post-Revolution period.
Havana is a mere 45-minute flight from Miami. The proximity is made surreal by billboards still featuring socialist slogans and images of Che and Fidel. The whiff of cigar smoke and sea mist wafts over the Malecón seafront boulevard as the sun sets and the city succumbs to nights of sexy showgirls and sizzling salsa. Ah... the music! Everywhere the music is hot enough to cook the pork. Caribbean communism? Socialism and sensuality? Havana is the capital of the double-take.
Habana Vieja – the city's Spanish colonial core – overflows with castles, convents and cobbled plazas. Don't miss the superb Museo de Navegación (Naval Museum), displaying recovered treasures of the Americas plus an interactive scale-model galleon. It's in the New World's oldest castle – Castillo de la Real Fuerza – on Plaza de Armas, from which Spanish governors ruled Cuba for 400 years. But, for me, the most magical of the colonial quarter's four major squares is Plaza Vieja. Its quirky attractions include the Museo de Naipes (Playing Cards Museum) and the rooftop Cámara Oscura projecting a real-time 360º view over the ramshackle rooftops.
Now in its third decade of restoration, much of Habana Vieja gleams afresh, while the streets of once-glamorous 'modern' Havana – principally the Vedado district – are lined with astonishing Beaux Arts and Art Deco buildings (many corroded to the point of dilapidation), plus Modernist skyscrapers of the pre-Revolutionary mobster era.
Hollywood couldn't have dreamed up a more atmospheric stage set. Calle Neptuno, for example, is adorned with faded adverts for Woolworth's and Singer, soldered by tropical heat onto weathered storefront façades. Cars from the Eisenhower era are everywhere: your first move should be to hire a 1950s convertible with fins sharp enough to draw blood (they're found outside every hotel) and head to Fábrica H. Uppmann for a cigar-factory tour. Few Cuba experiences beat smoking the world's finest cigars, fresh from the factory, as you rumble down the highway in a chrome-laden Cadillac to the rhythm of rumba on the radio.
Christopher P. Baker (www.christopherpbaker.com) has written and photographed six books on Cuba, including Mi Moto Fidel.
Where to stay
With glam styling behind a retro-fitted colonial façade, Hotel Saratoga (Prado 603 corner Dragones, Habana Vieja, +53 7868-1000) is considered the city's top boutique hotel. Cavernous, high-ceilinged rooms are fitted to 21st-century standards, while a rooftop pool and sundeck give postcard-perfect views.
The landmark Hotel Nacional (Calle 21 & O, Vedado, +53 7836-3564) is a Havana grande-dame that has hosted everyone from Winston Churchill to Al Capone. It's a bit timeworn, but the setting is unbeatable, the architecture stunning, and the patio bar a great place to savour a cigar and mojito.
For a homestay, try Casa Concordia (Concordia 151 corner San Nicolás, Centro Habana, +53 5360-5300, casaconcordia.com), which is atop a rather knocked-about Beaux Arts building in tumbledown central Havana. The three-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor is beautifully furnished with antiques and chic retro pieces. Roof-to-ceiling windows offer awesome views, and maid service is provided.
Where to dine & dance
Although frequented by tour groups, Atelier (Calle 5ta 511 altos, between Paseo & 2, Vedado, +53 7836-2025) is a choice paladar (private restaurant) in a centenary mansion, where contemporary art adorns the walls. Try to grab a seat on the rooftop patio. The owner offers experimental fare, but stick to such Cuban dishes as the ropa vieja or lobster enchilada.
The world-renowned La Guarida (Calle Concordia 418, Centro Habana, +53 7866-9047, laguarida.com; pictured above) – setting for the Oscar-nominated movie Fresa y Chocolate – is Havana's don't-miss paladar, with its operatic setting, eclectic décor, and superb Cuban fusion fare, not least the signature honey-mustard chicken.
A spiral staircase drilling up through a red-brick chimney spills you into the chic gourmet restaurant El Cocinero (Calle 26 corner 11, Vedado, +53 7832-2355), situated in a former cooking-oil factory. Havana's farandula (bohemian in-crowd) frequents the rooftop tapas lounge-bar, before migrating to the adjoining Fábrica de Arte, an avant-garde cultural venue where the night might range from an acrobatic dance performance to experimental electronic raves.
The classy, high-octane, Miami-style neon-lit nightclub Sarao (Calle 17 corner E, Vedado, +53 5263-8037) is the hotspot for discerning party animals, not least visiting VIPs such as Katy Perry and Usher, but stiletto-heeled hedonism still rules at Tropicana (Calle 72 4504 corner Linea, Marianao, +53 7267-1717).
It is Havana's largest Las Vegas-style espectáculo (cabaret). It'll burn a hole in your wallet, but a cigar and a bottle of rum (plus cola) are thrown in to ensure your enjoyment. C.P.B.