Cuba’s 1st U.S.-run hotel in 50 years has shaky start

Michael Weissenstein
Associated Press

Havana — – Cuba is a land of architectural splendors, stunning scenery, warm, welcoming people and some of the world’s worst hotels.

Communist states aren’t known for their hotel management, and I’ve heard and lived a string of hotel horror stories since I moved here in 2014: inedible food, rude staff, sewage leaks in kitchens, glass doors collapsing into shards onto guests as they shower.

So when American hotel giant Starwood announced a deal to manage the Fifth Avenue Hotel run by the Cuban military in the upscale Miramar section of Havana, I was intrigued. Would Starwood be able to upgrade a facility that guests had lambasted online for crickets, cockroaches and dirty carpets?

A lot’s riding on the answer.

Tourism rose 20 percent last year after Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared detente. Commercial flights from the U.S. begin in September, bringing another surge in visitors. With patron Venezuela collapsing, Cuba needs tourists’ money.

But there’s a shortage of decent hotel rooms even in facilities labeled as five-star. U.S. chains hope to help solve that problem and get back into a one-time American playground that’s slowly reopening its economy after a half-century of communism.

If American companies can expand and improve Cuba’s state-run hotel industry, there could be a lot of winners.

So I made a reservation.

Using Starwood’s website, I booked a “Classic Room” with king bed for two for $250. Testing Starwood’s invitation for special requests, I asked for extra pillows, water and a map upon arrival.

Starwood has been retraining staff at the Fifth Avenue, which it’s renamed Four Points by Sheraton Havana. The training shows: Check-in was remarkably smooth for a Cuban hotel. Front-desk clerks were solicitous and spoke fluent English. My fiancée and I got our key and headed to our room. It had two single beds instead of a king, and no water, extra pillows or map. The front desk quickly changed us to a room with a king.

But the rest of our experience was pretty unpleasant. The hotel had been rebranded with great fanfare a month earlier, including promised amenities like Starwood’s comfortable “signature beds.” But our mattress was saggy, with a stained decorative cover and flat sheet tucked over the sort of squeaky rubber pad used for bed-wetting children. When I investigated why a bedside lamp wasn’t working (due to a missing bulb), I realized that the entire wall-mounted light was loose and balanced in the sole position that kept it from collapsing.

The hallways carpets looked new and the paint looked fresh, and our room did have a new-looking hairdryer, showerhead and bathroom tiles. But the walls were scuffed and dirty. Tables looked like someone had scraped stickers off them with a piece of sharp plastic. The minibar door hung loose on its hinge, with drinks inside in a pool of room-temperature water.

The coffee maker came with two packs of coffee, a teabag and a sign: “Coffe-Te NOT INCLUDED.” In-room internet was $5 an hour.

Dispirited, my fiancée and I headed to the pool. The front desk clerk said it was open ’til 7 p.m. but added graciously, “You can swim until 9 or 10.”

We arrived at 6:30 p.m. It was closed. A worker treating it with chemicals from a plastic bucket told us to come back after two hours.

We went to the spacious terrace for cocktails and snacks. The shrimp cocktail wasn’t terrible: a handful of shrimp doused in Russian dressing in a martini glass filled with lettuce. But the menu dated to around the hotel’s opening in 2010, when it was run by the Spanish hotel chain Barcelo. How do I know? Because someone had taped a little piece of paper with the “Four Points by Sheraton” logo on the front. When I pulled it back, it said “Barcelo.”

Unwilling to try our luck with entrees, we fled for an excellent privately run restaurant nearby, then stopped in the lobby for a nightcap.

I asked for an Absolut vodka, soda water and lime. I don’t know what came, but it wasn’t Absolut. It tasted of paint thinner and curdled my mouth.

When I complained to the bartender, she tasted and agreed it wasn’t Absolut, but showed me the bottle and insisted no one at the hotel had filled it with a cheaper brand or adulterated liquor. She opened a fresh bottle of Finlandia and poured me a drink that tasted as advertised.

I headed to the men’s room, but fled the moment I opened the door, driven back by the smell of raw sewage. We headed for our room.

Our stay ended the next morning on its lowest note.

The complimentary buffet looked inedible and was: a series of warming pans containing two-toned scrambled eggs, greasy sausages and swollen boiled hot dogs floating in tepid water. To accompany the spread, a mix of stale and fresh bread rolls and puckered chunks of guayaba, papaya and watermelon.

I tried a grayish sausage patty and spit it out. It was colder than room temperature. I washed it down with coffee that was thin and bitter with a chemical aftertaste.

We checked out and headed home to recover.

Pablo Casal, the hotel’s manager, appears to be working furiously to upgrade the rundown facilities he took over from Gaviota, the tourism arm of the Cuban military. Asked for comment about our experience, he said that all hotel conversions take time and guests should expect rapid improvements in coming months, including the arrival of new, Sheraton-standard mattresses and bed linens by the beginning of September.

“If you stay right now at the hotel, you can have a good experience. It’s not the experience that we want,” he told me. “We want to have all the standards in place.”

I believe he’ll be able to improve his hotel dramatically in coming months. But until then, those expecting international standards from the first U.S.-run hotel in Cuba in more than 50 years may go home disappointed.