It’s our first time in Havana so Pip has booked a couple of nights at the Roc Presidente while we find our feet. One glance at this gracious 1920s classic with commanding views down Avenida De Los Presidentes, immaculate staff, a nearby bank, and taxi drivers on tap confirms that we’ve made the right choice. Baked Europeans encircle the pool by day and a Cuban girl band entertains guests at night.
However our delight on arrival is dampened by “… we have a problem ”. We don’t know it yet, but this is a common greeting in Cuba. The explanation is vague, but the crux of it is clear — there is no room for us at this inn. To compensate, the charming Spaniard in charge has arranged for us to spend the night in a nearby hotel, courtesy of Roc Presidente.
This is the traveller’s lot in Cuba: a few days later, in Vedado, our Casa hostess (actress cum yoga teacher) was redecorating. In Cienfuegos the previous guest had overstayed, at Juan and Margarita’s, the Casa owners had died. Luckily, a community of grace and generosity is in place to remediate these challenges. In time, we reailse that staying somewhere we haven’t booked can add a surprising twist to the holiday.
Today’s problemo leads us to Qunita Avenida and our first brush with the law. After twenty minutes, a jaunty “nearly there” from our chauffeur (hotel manager) is abruptly interrupted by the universal sign for STOP as a uniformed officer deftly blocks our path. A conversation ensues, papers are perused, silences endured, notes jotted. The dialogue drags on. Were they speculating about Castro’s health or Industriales chances this week. It’s all foreign to us.
Abruptly the policeman steps aside, our driver veers left and his twenty year old auto glides to a stop in front of the slender, upright, and soulless Hotel Neptuno. This throwback from the Soviet era and its twin (Triton) are a million miles from the grace of Roc Presidente. As we trudge up the stairs, it is not difficult to imagine the party faithful assembled here.
None the less, the view from our room is gorgeous and the evening is lovely so we embark on a seaside stroll. Broken bits of the sea wall and rusting rubbish bins share our evening; the Russian Embassy looms like a grey Autobot, ready to twist into shape and transform the world. Apart from a fisherman with an empty bucket, we two are alone out here. As the night unfolds, it is easy to understand the lure of the Florida Straight just a few paces away.
Below the surface, Neptuno is a cavernous maze. Every turn reveals remnants of a life once lived – abandoned stalls, mysterious diversions, artwork that has succumbed to mould. Eventually a twinkling oasis beckons from a shadowed curve in the bunker and we are welcomed into the world of Cuban dining.
It’s Leagues club circa 1970s with a grand Polynesian mural on the wall and complimentary and insubstantial Mojitos. Mint leaves with stems (good) but skimpy on the rum. Awkwardly I follow up with “dos cervezas, por favor” but am stumped by the response until the waitress mimics “drunk” or “light headed”. Opting for the latter, Cristal becomes an immediate favourite. Light, refreshing, it is the perfect beer for this island life. Dinner is lobster and prawns accompanied by insipid, wafer thin vegetables. Day One and we’re already craving greens.
Breakfast next day introduces us to the Cuban hotel staples of early morning champagne and what appears to be a meringue wedding cake. We skip both but the tropical fruit is superb and the pastries a welcome surprise. Against one wall, perched on a small stage, the omelette maker understands and excels at herbs and no cheese.
Nothing to do now but wait for the Señor Roc Presidente to collect us. A Cuban beauty languidly mops the polished floor and trades banter with handsomely groomed doormen. Their exchanges have the air of a practiced routine, whiling away the hours until the old guards come.
Our new friend welcomes us back to the Roc Presidente — we settle into a sumptuous room and the real holiday begins.
Looking towards Key West from our room at the Neptuno-Triton Hotel in Havana.
This bus trip from central Havana to Miramar shows some of our route, starting around 12:20 mark (Avenida De Los Presidentes).
There are many appalling reviews of the Hotel Neptuno-Triton online, apparently written by people who have forgotten the maxim, you get what you pay for. Hotel Neptuno-Triton is a basic hotel where the rooms are clean and unpretentious, the food is fine but unexciting, and the staff are pleasant and obliging.
The photo at the top of the page was taken at the Roc Presidente in Havana, Cuba. On a warm evening, the veranda of this hotel is a gorgeous place to be.