Havana's historic centre is the atmospheric place to stay in the Cuban capital – just don't count on a room with a view
Ernest Hemingway checked into the Ambos Mundos in Habana Vieja, and scribbled here for a while. Always a good sign. He wrote much of For Whom the Bell Tolls in room 511, now a mini museum. Fighting our way through the snapping cameras in the lobby we rode the original 1920s wrought iron lift up to the roof terrace for a mojito. And ticked off another sight – and hotel. Snooping around hotels and sussing out the USP is, for me (an insatiably nosy travel writer with a boutique hotel-owning boyfriend) sightseeing. The Art-Deco Ambos Mundos has a famous author's stamp of approval. But a few too many fans in the foyer.
What draws you to a hotel is very personal. The importance of a room with a view has lost me boyfriends before now. One down-to-earth Aussie checked us into the Ibis in Marrakech, overlooking the station car park, instead of an atmospheric old riad in the medina. As I sank into a depression he packed his bags. It doesn't have to be five-star luxury, but a hotel has to have charm. So Havana, with its famously crumbling façades looked as though it couldn't fail to deliver.
Hotels in Havana were until relatively recently rather uninspiring. However, over the last 10 years or so rundown hotels have been given makeovers and dilapidated colonial buildings converted into stylish boutique hotels. Havana now caters for all ends of the market from top-end international standard (well almost) to casas particulares or Cuban B&Bs. The variety of small boutique hotels is thanks to Habaguanex, a state-run tourism organisation that, since it was founded in 1994, has restored a growing number of old buildings in the designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Habana Vieja, and turned them into quirky and characterful places to stay – from luxury palaces to simple inns.
For our first couple of nights I had booked Hotel Tejadillo
, a little three-star boutique hotel just round the corner from the cathedral, created from three mansions dating back to the18th century. I had asked for an upstairs room rather than one on the ground floor – with fingers crossed for an outside view (many of the old colonial houses have rooms that face onto an interior courtyard). Arriving at night we tramped up the stone staircase and opened the door. I scanned first one wall, then the other two. No window at all.
I headed straight back to reception. A smile, a polite request (OK I begged) and a room with a view was ours for the next night. Of the 32 rooms in the hotel only nine, it turned out, had windows. Tejadillo, however, is lovely. And once we had flung open the shutters onto a steamy street scene it was even lovelier. Breakfast is served in one of the pot-plant-strewn open-air courtyards, tables draped with jaunty red-checked cloths. Rooms have high ceilings and cool tiled floors.
Exploring the cobbled streets and squares of the capital's old town we stumbled across some of the other properties restored by Habaguanex. The flagshipSanta Isabel
is a gracious colonial building – all leafy courtyards, antique furniture, columns and fountains on the cobbled Plaza de Armas. Jack Nicholson and Sting have both stayed here. The Conde de Villanueva
was originally the home of an aristocrat who brought the railways to Cuba in the 18th century. The hotel has just nine rooms named after tobacco plants and a cigar theme throughout: there's a smoking room, cigar shop and photographs of famous cigar smokers on the walls – Hemingway again.
The elegant Hotel Florida
on the bustling shopping street, Calle Obispo, first opened as a hotel in 1885 and has live jazz and Cuban music every night, while the flamboyant exterior of Hotel Raquel
, in what was once the city's Jewish quarter, is matched on the inside by an Art Nouveau extravaganza, its magnificent marble-columned lobby topped by a stained glass dome. Hostal Los Frailes
is just round the corner from the St Francis monastery – and the staff are all dressed as monks. Somehow it works: the shady courtyard with its burbling fountain is a peaceful oasis from the chaotic city streets. At the cheaper end of the market is the Meson de la Flota. Once a sailors' inn, today it has five simple rooms and live flamenco and tapas in the open courtyard every night.
After a couple of days in the old town I checked us into the grand dame of Havana hotels, the Nacional
. This huge twin-towered monolith is in the Vedado district overlooking the sea – but with the Malecon below (a freeway that skirts the coast). The sweeping palm tree-lined driveway is still grand; however, the hotel is now the preserve of large tour groups. The breakfast buffet was like a motorway service station. But our room did have a view of the sea. A case of location, location, location.
For our final night in Havana, after a couple of weeks careering around Cuba's westernmost province, we splashed out on the five-star Saratoga
on the edge of Habana Vieja. Smart, sleek interiors, one of the best rooftop pool views – the white dome of the Capitol building and the sea in the distance – wi-fi in public areas and luxurious, beautifully designed bedrooms mark the Saratoga out as an international standard hotel. It still has its fair share of history too, however. In the 1930s a bohemian crowd flocked here to watch the all-female orchestra.