The $495 per bottle Krug circulated – the Torettos were back in town, and The Fate Of The Furious was monopolising the Bella Habana rooftop bar and infinity pool.
Vin Diesel was nowhere in sight but Tyrese Gibson (Roman) was puffing a fat, hand-rolled Cohiba, taking in views of the El Capitolio and Vieja (Old) Havana. And posing for paparazzi.
Universal Pictures chose Cuba’s new Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana for the DVD launch of the eighth film in the Furious franchise. I crashed the party, accidentally, and got a taste of modern Cuban high life.
“They brought in US cars for the first time in 60 years,” the hotel’s concierge told me, referring to the filming that took place here. “The movie’s like West Side Story. But with cars. It’s made a billion dollars.”
The hotel exterior
The hotel, in a converted shopping arcade, proclaims itself as Cuba’s “first true luxury hotel”, offering “re-defined luxury hospitality”. Indeed, it was a relief not to be handed a warm glass of pseudo-Prosecco or be issued with a colour-coded wristband to signify what had been pre-paid and what meal plan I was on. The Kempinski’s 246-room (50 of them suites) hotel is not all-inclusive, unlike most of the major resorts around the country. And that’s what makes it so exclusive.
The interiors of the historic building, built between 1894 and 1917, are South African. Arno Joubert of Archipolitan succeeds in creating those rare and prized commodities in a Cuban hotel – space and light – through white walls, louvered wooden French shutters, glass, stylish mirroring, marbling, high ceilings, original Spanish tiles, tropical decor and low occupancy.
A split-level suite
The hotel is determinedly cosmopolitan. The complimentary bedroom coffee is Italian, the chinaware Luxembourgian. The executive chef is Spanish, from Rioja. Chef Angel Gonzalez’s sixth floor, ridiculously panoramic San Cristobal Restaurant is fragrant with flamingo flowers and heliconia (lobster claw) plants. On the back of the chairs is embossed the world’s smallest hummingbird: the zunzuncito, found only on the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), where the Castro brothers were imprisoned.
What El Commandante would have made of five-star, 2017 Cuba is hard to guess. Fidel would’ve liked the small museum with the 16th-century city wall and photos by Claudia Corrales, granddaughter of one of his official chroniclers. But he probably would’ve frowned at the American pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast, and the degustation of burgers in the Confluencias international snack bar. He would have approved of the lobsters and pulled-pork sandwiches with boniato (sweet potato) chips. But may have struggled – ideologically – with the excellent beef tartare with truffled egg.
Cuba used to have three problems: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Kempinski’s latest opening is spearheading a gastro revolution. The food is better than elsewhere, although dearer. The views are what you remember, and the smiley waiters.
The hotel has a gym and Spa Albear by Resense. A 90-minute massage costs US$145 (about A$186). El Barbudos (the Bearded One) would have refused the targeted and lavish facials.
“It’s a privilege to work here,” a doorman told me with the subtext. “Now privilege has been reinstated. And permitted. Now that vintage Cuban luxury is getting a bit grubby.”
The bedrooms are soundproofed and you can make your electronic windows go opaque, shutting out the blare of how “fast and furious” Havana has suddenly become. Cuba may have received Hollywood’s endorsement. But at what price?