by Claire Wrathall, The Telegraph, June 5, 2017
Given the extent to which the US began last year to make it easier for its citizens to visit Cuba, it was only a matter of time before mainstream luxury brands turned their attention to Havana. Starwood, for example, has announced it will be adding the Hotel Inglaterra (established 1875) to its Luxury Collection at the end of 2019 and has already opened a Four Points by Sheraton, one of its less exalted brands, in the city’s Miramar district.
In terms of a proper grande dame though, Kempinski, which prides itself on being “Europe’s oldest luxury hotel group” and celebrates its 120th anniversary this year, has beaten them to it. Its Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana is already accepting reservations and opens its doors on June 9.
It’s an unlikely fit, somehow, that the Geneva-based operators of the stately, staid and slightly stuffy Adlon in Berlin and the excessively blingtastic Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi should be opening in a crumbling city where the average wage is less than £25 a month. Certainly they would seem to be doing what they can to temper expectations of its Old Havana location, a block east of Paseo de Martí and El Capitolio, Cuba’s answer to the Capital in Washington, and a 15-minute walk from the Malecon, the five-mile esplanade that runs along the Gulf coast.
Take this, headlined Welcome to Havana, from the hotel’s website: “Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are there. Waves crashing against a mildewed sea wall; a young couple cavorting in a dark, dilapidated alley; sunlight slanting across rotten peeling paintwork; a handsome youth in a guayabera shirt leaning against a Lada; the smell of diesel fumes and cheap aftershave; tourists with Hemingway beards…”
But it’s stranger still, somehow, that a management company substantially owned by Thailand’s Crown Property Bureau, which manages the Thai royal family’s wealth and assets, should have been engaged to manage a building that belongs to Gaviota, the tourism arm of communist Cuba’s army, which owns 67 hotels on the island and is headed by General Luis Perez Rospide.
That said, the venerable Gran Hotel Manzana retains a certain majesty, having been built at the turn of the last century as part of the city’s first European-style shopping arcade, which has itself just been brought back to life and is now home to the Cuban outposts of Armani Jeans, Giorgio Gucci’s Giorgio G VIP, Lacoste, Montblanc, L’Occitane and Versace, among other brands. Though not yet Chanel, even if Karl Lagerfeld brought its 2017 cruise and resortwear collection to Havana for a runway show on Paseo del Prado, the street that divides the old and new parts of town earlier this month.
As to the revamped hotel, its décor has been contrived to signal opulence, what with the Louis Quinze-inspired furniture and Schiaparelli-pink accents one finds in its 246 bedrooms and suites. There’s a rooftop swimming pool and terrace, a spa, a lobby bar and, inevitably, a cigar lounge, as well as a restaurant, Confluencia, that has sensibly taken its inspiration from the nation’s paladares, the small independent restaurants run by locals, often out of their front rooms, and not the state-sanctioned hotel restaurants that have blighted so many holidays.
Wi-fi and high-speed internet access – still not a given in Cuba – will be available in the rooms (though as is the case everywhere here, it will be charged for). And for the moment at least, it will be in a class of its own.
Doubles at Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana start from US$330 (£255).