The Kempinski: Havana's first five-star hotel

There is something about the open-air pool on the top floor of the Kempinski hotel in Havana that reminds me of James Bond. Daniel Craig should be up here, as in that scene in Skyfall where he broods manfully over London from a Whitehall rooftop.

It's got that same sort of feel to it; the low-rise city skyline laid out before you, a magnificent panorama of grand edifices such as the elegant white cupola of the Capitol building, all crammed full of history and revolution and intrigue. It's early morning, the sky pale pink and pastel blue and there's nobody else here, so I try to emulate the pose. The name's Austin. Keith Austin.

It's not quite the same when you're wearing sopping-wet board shorts and sporting a beer gut but you get the picture. Havana, despite (or because of) the infamously crumbling infrastructure, is spectacular – and the Kempinski is a brand new jewel in the communist crown of the Republic of Cuba.

The last time I was in Havana we stayed at the iconic, historical and somewhat faded pile of the Hotel Nacional, a 10-minute drive from the town centre. I recall being entranced by the little brown bug squashed flat on the wall and wondering why housekeeping didn't think to "scrape it off, paint over it or, I don't know, frame it and make a feature of the thing".

No such shenanigans at the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, to give it its full name. No, the stakes have been raised by the opening of Cuba's first luxuriously five-star hotel last year.

The building, which sits in a prime location in Old Havana, was originally built between 1894 and 1917 as Cuba's first European-style shopping arcade. Known then as the Manzana de Gomez building, it is just a short stroll from the Capitol building, the palatial Great Theatre of Havana (built in 1838) and Paseo de Marti, the wide and leafy boulevard that runs through the city.

Owned now by Gaviota, the tourism arm of Cuba's military, the building is managed by luxury hotel group Kempinski. It might seem an odd pairing but between them they have managed to create a hotel that is a joy to stay in.

There has been an extensive internal makeover, of course, but the result is a stylish, modern hotel – 246 rooms, three bars, a tobacco lounge, three restaurants, top-floor gym, a rooftop pool and gorgeous spa – which still manages to retain an air of old-fashioned elegance.

My room on the third floor has the sort of lofty ceilings you only find in very old buildings and tall louvre doors that open on to a small balcony overlooking the small square in front of the hotel. Below, there seems to be a constant succession of the brightly coloured classic mid-20th-century American cars for which the city is famous, and on the adjacent corner is Bar Floridita, a regular haunt of Ernest Hemingway (the hotel's Bar Constante is named after the Bar Floridita bartender who supposedly invented the Hemingway daiquiri).


The room is done out in cool white, grey and silver pretty much from floor to ceiling but enlivened with bold slashes of cherry red in the bed runner, a comfy Louis Seize-style armchair in the corner and the occasional pillow (other rooms are splashed with tropical blue). I am stupidly taken with the glass window between the bedroom and the bath that magically frosts over at the touch of a button.

The rooftop pool, terrace, spa and gym are dazzlingly good, the first-floor restaurant, Confluencia, serves excellent local and international cuisine and the Evocacion Tobacco Lounge is a good place to sample top-notch Cuban rum and an authentic Habanos cigar. Be warned, though; as a non-smoker I thought "when in Rome" and sucked my way through most of a terribly large cigar before someone told me you aren't supposed to inhale.

Finally, one of the hotel's greatest attributes is its location right on the edge of the buzzy warren of old Havana. Go for that daiquiri in Bar Floridita and then follow your nose, and ears, into the wonderful musical heart of this crumbling, vibrant, astonishing city.



Constellation Journeys offers all-inclusive itineraries aboard privately chartered aircraft and trains. Upcoming Constellation Journeys tours include a 20-day trip from Moscow to Berlin in first-class compartments on a privately chartered train (departing June 2019) and an 18-day trip from Cape Town to Addis Ababa (departing April 2019) by privately chartered aircraft and the renowned Blue Train. See


The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana is at Calle San Rafael in Old Havana. Rooms from $A650; see


Keith Austin was a guest of Constellation Journeys.