Havana, Cuba: The city of rum cocktails and fab motors 


THE pink-tiled infinity pool on the roof of Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana glows against the crumbling stone towers and domes of Old Havana which surround it.

Since opening its doors earlier this year, the glamorous terrace on top of the city’s first truly five-star hotel has fast become the glitziest location to view its beautiful, but faded, colonial buildings.

Lounging on one of the daybeds, a simple glass balustrade is all that separates me from the giant pillars of Gran Teatro de la Habana.

If I sit up, I can see the Capitolio Nacional, Havana’s answer to the White House, as well as Central Park. Here on the pool deck, I watch cocktails being mixed by waiters in crisp white uniforms while a live band plays energetic Cuban rhythms for dancers dressed in silk blouses and frilled skirts.

Soaking up the sights and sounds from my seat is the sky proves to be the ideal way to ease myself into life in this effervescent city.

I am staying in one of the hotel’s junior suites, where muted grey walls are contrasted with sparking chandeliers and ornate furniture draped in regal purple.

On the hotel’s second floor is a cigar room, complete with tobacco sommelier, as well as a lounge bar boasting the city’s largest variety of rum.

I grab a stool and savor a pink strawberry daiquiri, made from white rum, sugar, lime and ice.

Then, eager to untangle Havana’s rich history, head out into the atmospheric city streets. I dodge shiny, well-preserved Corvettes and Buicks, exported from the US back in the fifties, as they are proudly paraded by their owners.

Havana is full of them, with spare parts fashioned from old kitchen utensils and seats restitched using discarded mattresses – anything to keep these classic beauties on the road.

It was the capital’s car-obsessed culture which inspired fi lm bosses to use it as the backdrop for The Fate of the Furious, the first Hollywood studio movie to be shot in Cuba since the 1960s embargo.

The eighth instalment of the Fast and Furious franchise, released on digital, DVD and Bluray on Monday, sees frontman Vin Diesel tearing through the city streets – the narrow alleys, sharp turns and angled roads helping to ramp up the edge-of-seat excitement.
Film producers said that the city’s lack of wifi created its own set of problems when it came to organising locations.

Cards to buy wifi are available in shops, but they often run out and the speed is slow. So if you’re a tourist used to relying on travel apps and satnavs, keep a map and a guide book handy.

To get a feel for the city, I take a Fast and Furious location tour which includes the corner of Cárdenas and Gloria, where the first race begins.

It also takes in the Avenida de Maceo or the Macelon, the main esplanade which runs for 8km along the Havana coast, and Calle 17, another main road in the city.
Both of these had to be shut off to shoot the high-speed chases. But if you fancy doing your own Havana-style driving experience, hire a vintage car for a self-drive tour.

 Steering a pink Chevrolet with the top down around this confusing jigsaw of jumbled streets is certainly a fun way to feel connected to the city.

Another Havana highlight has to be the open courtyard of Palacio de la Artesanía, famous for its rum-tasting and cigar-rolling sessions. Here connoisseurs pour generous measures of their authentic Havana Club rums while explaining the history of one of their biggest exports.

In between each sampling, tourists are offered hand-rolled cigars to smoke and, even as a non-smoker, I was pleasantly surprised how they brought out the smoky flavors in the rum.

Should you get a taste for Havana’s delicious drinks, head to the world famous El Floridita.

Celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, the seafood restaurant, with its bright red bar, is the birthplace of the daiquiri. Along with Hollywood stars of the 1930s and 40s, novelist Ernest Hemingway was a huge fan.

There’s even a life-size bronze statue of him propped up at the far end of the bar and a long queue of tourists wanting a selfie with it. Those who prefer the mint and lime fix of a rum-soaked mojito, however, should head to La Bodeguita del Medio in Empedrado No. 207.

The famous drinking den claims to have created the sweet and potent cocktail and its walls are scrawled with the autographs of patrons from days gone by including Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende and king of calypso Harry Belafonte.

The Daily Star UK