Eclectic style in the Cuban capital
Havana, Cuba - Habanavista straddles a sky-high penthouse and pool overlooking the Malecó*, Havana's serpentine seaside wall. At this height, the city looks like a children's playset with toy cars - classic US autos - motoring between the midnight blue Atlantic and the peeling pastels of oceanfront homes. Deliciously intriguing is the pelican's-eye view of the US Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy, a pseudo American mission. (The US and Cuba broke diplomatic relations in 1961.)
Habanavista's high-rise is part of a cluster of 1950s skyscrapers that sprouted near the seafront esplanade in the Vedado district during Cuba's last building boom. A few miles west of Old Havana, Vedado's tree-lined streets house classical villas, stylish restaurants, galleries and museums. It was here that businessman Someillan built three eponymous buildings. Legend relates that it was in Habanavista's Edificio Someillan that he kept a fully grown lion. Graham Greene would have relished this eccentric portrait during what was Havana's decade of libertine leisure.
The decor and furniture of the two-floor apartment - with a wall-to-wall black terrazzo floor - are eclectic, with its Spanish colonial one-piece statements, 1950s sofa newly upholstered in burnt orange fabric, and colourful portraits of women by contemporary Cuban artist Cuty. The two doubles, with modern beds draped in chenille throws, feature boxed-in balconies - a common architectural quirk in Havana. The Caribbean Breeze room overlooks the Straits of Florida with a window facing the US Interests Section, while the Malecó* suite, with its macro view of the city's seawall and Vedado's architecture, is fitted with walk-in wardrobe with an enormous inbuilt original safe. A marble spiral staircase leads to the small al fresco pool and a tiny sunbathing terrace. The panoramic views of Havana's slumping cityscape are outstanding.
Finding delicious food in a country with 50 years on the ration book is a time-consuming process, which makes the breakfast at Habanavista an incredible feat. The table is laid with French breads and pastries, fresh pineapple, mango and guayaba juices, plus hams, cheese and chorizo. Organic chicken or quail eggs are served as tu gusto. Fresh fruit is piled into cute, apple-shaped glass dishes and freshly brewed rich Cuban coffee accompanies the veritable feast. Linger longer to absorb the high-flung views of the Art Deco López Serrano building and the distant Brutalist Russian embassy.
Habanavista is run by accountancy student Lamay and her youthful mother, Estrella, a former agricultural scientist. They are also aided, off-site, by Lamay's Italian entrepreneur husband, Gualty, and on-site by the couple's delightful two-year old daughter Ginebra.
Habanavista opened in February. It's a new breed of casa particular (Cuban homestay), because it's not the family's ancestral home. It was acquired by swapping apartments - the only way Cubans could move house until a change in the law last year - and thus the feel is different from the majority of Cuban B&Bs. There's no extended family sitting around drinking coffee, packing kids off to school - in short, playing normal families. But the universally acclaimed warmth of Cuban hospitality is ever present. There was a coffee crisis when we stayed - the apology was lengthy and Estrella said she'd walked miles to secure our caffeine fix.
As well as rum, rumba and revolution, visitors come for the avant-garde art (guide Sussette Martinez Montero takes visitors on fascinating tours to the home studios of established and emerging artists: 00 53 7 267 7979); the ballet (festivalballet habana.cult.cu); and the festival of Latin American film (4-14 December; www.habanafilmfestival.com), and to wander amid Spanish colonial churches, baroque palaces, Art Nouveau villas and mob-built hotels before climbing into an old American car for a sunset cruise along the sea- and salt-battered ocean road.
THE PIT STOP
Havana's new wave of private restaurants (paladares) means it's now possible to eat well in the capital. Stylish Le Chansonnier (Calle J 257 between Linea and 15; 00 53 7 832 1576) offers delicious duck in orange reduction (13 cucs/R100) as well as one of the city's best dessert platters - a welcome change from the Cuban norm of bland chicken, rice and beans.
Habanavista, 51 Calle 13, corner of N, Vedado, Havana, Cuba (00 53 7 836 3895; habanavista.com). The Malecó* suite costs €100 (about R1 000); Caribbean suite €120. Breakfast €6 per person. - The Independent on Sunday