Lauded in innumerable salsa songs, elegised in boleros sung by homesick Habaneros in foreign bars, the Malecón is Havana’s emblematic sea wall and esplanade. At night, the darkness hides lovers of all ages and persuasions; by day, playful children and tourists mingle with street-food vendors and fishermen, while pockmarked Chevrolets judder past, kissed by spindrift from the crashing waves.
The Malecón is where the soul of the city resides; it was built during American military rule at the beginning of the last century – a typical Cuban contradiction. And it’s where I come to remind myself that nothing has changed: that Havana is still Havana, and Cuba still Cuba – that a state of suspended animation still prevails on this island.
While some may insist that Cuba is suffocated by dictatorship and its people oppressed, even the country’s sternest critics are apt to find themselves bewitched by the sweet lure of decay, the scenic ruins. This is the ultimate neo-romantic country: the large majority of its citizens, banned from living in the technological here and now, instead spend their time celebrating the history that surrounds them, losing themselves in gossip and watching as the elements claim their buildings.
Some 53 years after the revolution, Cuba clings to communism by a thread, still hollowly trumpeting its educational and medical achievements. While a frustrated generation of youth is kept down, a geriatric political class fights a battle with corruption. And so nothing moves – at least, not to the naked eye.
But the winds of change are gently blowing here, and it’s affecting everything, though in truth it’s a reforming breeze rather than a gale. A clutch of companies offering tailor-made travel experiences have been quick on the uptake, dedicating themselves to carving out a small space at the top end of the market – showing that Cuba, land of the all-inclusive package, can be very exclusive, too.
The major transforming changes are yet to come, but 2012 is set to be the year of the resort roll-out. Whether ideologically convinced or not, the Cuban government will sign off on its new tourism strategy, or face the economic doldrums. In 2010, Cuba instituted a plan to develop as many as 15 golf-course resorts across the length and breadth of the island. The strategy is not without attendant controversy in a country suffering profound water shortages due to a dilapidated pipe system, but it’s one that will undoubtedly bring new riches, and which denotes another move towards an opening-up of the economy. Significantly, it will also allow the sale of residential property in these developments to foreign nationals through 99-year leaseholds. Furthermore, it will extend luxury development, even to the most remote parts of the island. Currently, top-end travellers must restrict themselves to Havana and one or two of the more spruced-up cays.
As a frequent visitor, I’ve been forced on several occasions to endure the phenomenon of the “five-star” beach hotel filled with holiday-makers bulk-drinking cocktails from Thermos flasks. So I was curious about the notion of tailor-made luxury. Esencia Experiences is a new British presence whose target is the upmarket client bent on that peculiar brand of elite that Cuba, like no other place, affords.
First impressions count, of course: Esencia sends a sleek, top-of-the-range silver Audi to pick me up. It’s discombobulating to be transported this way, after the suspension-free Cuban jalopies, clapped-out Ladas and horse carts to which I’ve been accustomed over the years. Little boys on the street point and shriek as the shiny car purrs by; outside the capital, the sleek beast may as well be something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Most un-revolutionary. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Visitors seeking a luxury adventure might commandeer one of Camper & Nicholsons’ yachts, whisked over from Grenada, and embark on wild fishing trips à la Hemingway. Nothing is seamless – this is Cuba, after all – but the point is that now you can do it.
Apart from the sharp improvement in my means of transport, I’m immediately struck by small but pertinent changes. First thing: the remarkable, near-ubiquitous apparition of the American. After decades when US citizens were in effect banned from travelling to Cuba, the forbidden fruit has been (partially) offered. The US Department of the Treasury and the Office of Foreign Asset Control, which allows humanitarian or educational visits, has sanctioned a “People to People Exchange”. Americans who want to satisfy their curiosity about this forbidden land are signing up in droves. Earnest, educated American accents can be heard in every top tourist spot.
Another significant change came last year with the legalisation of villa rentals. The number of high-quality houses available to rent is small, but growing. With the top-end hotel scene for the moment still static and overstuffed with holiday-makers – the only decent opening in years has been the Parque Central’s swish new contemporary wing – many clients are choosing to go private with the villa option. Why deal with uninterested concierges and irritating security guards at the hotels? The bigger luxury-travel organisations currently operating in Cuba – Abercrombie & Kent, Audley Travel, Kuoni, Cox & Kings among them – have for the most part foregone the local offerings as not quite up-to-scratch (yet); so adventurous visitors must choose smaller, savvy, grassroots companies such as Esencia, or UK-based specialist tour operator Cuba Direct, to realise their dreams of Cuba living.
But Wi-Fi, Bang & Olufsen and thread counts are not what this place is about in any case. Journeying into retro living is the reason to take a villa here; to expect state-of-the-art luxury would be to miss the point. You come to feast your eyes on unreconstructed 1950s modernism, immaculately maintained art deco, restored colonial elegance, unrestrained art nouveau. Amid the embassies and mansions of ocean-hugging Miramar in Havana, for instance, there are some interesting homes on offer. Vast piles once owned by wealthy families but now in the hands of the state are offered to visiting foreign dignitaries or rented to affluent overseas Cubaphiles with the right connections.
Or you can stay in an apartment block, recently built with Italian money on the Malecón, whose top-floor Atlantic Penthouse has an alfresco pool with views out over the ocean. The concierge lets drop that cigar-loving David Tang stays here when he is in town, so I ask to feast my eyes on the view. It is sensational, and the apartment is immaculate, though the all-white interiors exude an Ikea-esque sensibility that seems divorced from Tang’s dusky, luxuriant, urban spaces. But for Havana, admittedly, this is sophistication at its peak.
A third major change came last year when the government tried to mitigate massive public-sector job cuts by deregulating the small-business sector, hoping that manicurists, café owners, entertainers and hairdressers might fill the gap. Private business owners, the self-employed, farmers and builders can now obtain loans from Cuban state banks. (At the same time, Cubans are finally allowed to buy and sell their own houses at market value.) The result has been a blossoming of new private restaurants – in and around Havana for the moment – with chefs and managers defecting from the classier state restaurants and teaming up with returned expats to fulfil long-held dreams. It’s exciting to find new talent in a scene that less than a year ago was utterly uninspiring.
It’s not easy to find the entrance to Héctor Higuera’s Le Chansonnier, Havana’s hottest private restaurant of the moment, concealed as it is in an unilluminated stretch of Calle J in the well-heeled central district of Vedado. But once inside the iron grille gates of this vast colonial-style home, you find that everything about the place – beautiful bespoke shelves, walls of polished concrete or patched-together reclaimed metal, fully stocked industrial-chic bar, moody ambient music, wispy girls shepherding you to your table – suggests a clued-up modern sensibility more associated with Paris than Havana. But this is Cuba; so the devoted young architects who worked on the project probably scoured the dumps to find the aluminium and hand-painted the blue bulbs that light the industrial hanging lamps in the bar. On the menu are strange fruits for this country: spicy baba ghanoush, rabbit terrine and mezze. Thus far, Havana’s new-found culinary sophistication hasn’t filtered far beyond the city limits. But it will.
Time spent enjoying Cuba’s diversity of cultural talent is an essential part of any proper trip. Esencia’s knowledgeable coterie of specialists, with its network of grassroots contacts, are adept at opening up the wealth of dance, music, art and other culture to the inquisitive visitor.
The professor of design who describes the spirit and soul of the various iconic plazas is far more García Márquez-magical than standard-issue tour guide. The architect who led my tour of modernist and art deco Havana took me through tired-looking streets in the city centre, uncovering hidden beauty beneath the grime – beauty to compare with the vast mansions of Vedado, built on the money of victorious soldiers after the wars of independence; with the suburban dream homes of Nueva Vedado; with the modernist chic of Miramar. A writer and practitioner of the Santería religion can teach you more about the African roots of this island than you’ll learn from any book currently in print. Its art consultant can connect you with just about anyone – from underground, politicised up-and-comers to established artists who exhibit internationally.
It is an intimate, and at times intense, experience – quite unlike any other I’ve had in many years of visiting this country. Esencia’s music consultant is a composer who knows what’s on every night. I watch Aldo López-Galvilán, a kind of Cuban Jamie Cullum, light up the crowd at Café Teatro Bertoldt Brecht, an exercise in 1940s modernism and one of a clutch of satellite venues breathing life into the cultural scene.
Not that there isn’t disposable cash about; Friday nights in the ocean-side garden at Don Cangrejo in Havana sees a young, hip crowd swaying to a kind of music best described as Cuban contemporary fusion. The tables are covered with bottles of rum; the clothes are up to the minute. In a land where everyone is on a state salary of around $20 per month, this is not insignificant.
But most high-end travel interest is now focused beyond the city. The first wave of four joint ventures in luxury resorts is about to break. The Carbonera Club in Varadero – Cuba’s fabled beach peninsula, east of Havana – is the most high profile, and enjoys an enviable position. Backed by Esencia Hotels & Resorts, of which Esencia’s bespoke holiday service is a spin-off, the development includes more than 700 planned villas and apartments, a Jacklin Design golf course and academy, a hotel and spa managed by GHM (the people behind The Legian in Bali and the Setai in Miami) and a yacht club. Conran & Partners has been brought in to design elements of the resort, including the fancier Conran Residences.
Elsewhere, Vietnamese and Canadian groups are pushing forward other projects, while a British-Spanish venture, La Altura, is designing – with the involvement of Foster + Partners – a 2,000-unit community in the western province of Pinar del Río. This is all exciting news, yet, frustratingly, the plans for all four remain on the drawing board; these players have agreed Cuban partners, obtained approval from foreign investment and tourism ministries, but are still awaiting the final go-ahead from Cuba’s Council of State.
The situation was not helped by the October 2011 imprisonment, amid allegations of corruption, of Amado Fakhre, CEO of Coral Capital Group, the company behind one of the projects, which also led the renovation of the Saratoga, Cuba’s only top-class boutique hotel. Coral is behind the Bellomonte Golf & Country Club, which will consume a 250-hectare slab of Havana’s eastern beaches with a hotel and beach club and up to 1,200 homes. Or will it? The scandal is the talk of the town. But Raúl Castro’s tenure as president has led to a clean-up of sorts, which is good news for those who want to do serious business in Cuba, yet it might spook foreign investors in a state with a history of capriciousness at best, asset-grabbing at worst.
Meanwhile, nothing changes on the potholed Malecón. But when that change comes, it will roll in like the salty, gusty waves that scale the sea wall and drench the passing cars, the bemused tourists and the hardened, jaded, unbelieving Habaneros. It will wash away, destroy to a degree, and renew as well. The change will reach every rustic corner of this island, beloved by so many; and all will look back, nostalgically.