From the parasol-fringed pool, and the panoramic city views, to the stylish bars, rooftop spa and plush rooms, this glossy addition to the Havana hotel scene is a huge draw.
The first time I walked out onto the top floor of Havana's new five-star hotel, I gasped. The view is gorgeous, and unexpected.
Beyond the still blue of the long infinity pool, framed by cream parasols and sun beds, is the sculpted facade of the Museum of Fine Arts. Once a club building for Spaniards from Asturias, its curves, cherubs, palm trees, scrolls and crowns can be seen up close - a view unseen by many for years.
Beyond these sculptured stories in stone is the sweeping view of Cuba's marble-white Capitol building, and close by the lively sculpted facade of the Gran Theater Alicia Alonso with its marble angels, enticingly lit at night. Towering around these important buildings, clustered around Cuba's Central Park, are Cuba's regal royal palms. It's a beautiful, mesmerising view.
Redefining luxury in Havana, Cuba
Poolside glamour and relaxation
As I soaked up the sun's rays on my sun lounger, I watched people leave the elevators and audibly gasp at the spectacular view, too. I could have spent all day by the hotel pool, and many guests do - sipping on ice-cold daiquiris, smoking cigars, posing for pictures, ordering from the bar menu, and sinking into a state of holiday slumber.
When the sun seared towards mid afternoon, and after a fresh tuna salad from the pool bar, I wandered to the spa, just a few steps away, cocooned in its own top floor corner surrounded by a hair salon, and the gym. There's a sauna, steam room and an ice pool, but I made a beeline for the bronze- and teal-toned main room where a line of cabanas with white drapes leads towards the spa pool where water cascades from two giant spa taps.
Most of the spa area overlooks the less-than-pretty-side of Havana, the jumble of rooftops with water tanks, and antenna poking into the sky. But there was something mesmerising about this messy roofscape as I lay on my double cabana, my eye continually drawn to the jumbled skyline.
The stand-out view from the spa pool, though, is the caramel-coloured art deco Bacardi building topped by a ziggurat and crowned by the signature bat sculpture of the famous rum company. It's rare to get such a close-up view of this eye-opening rum HQ tower.
Cuban cocktails and cigars
The rooftop pool, and pool bar are the hotel's major draw, so much so, that the hotel's other restaurants and bars seem little favoured by guests. It's a shame as the Constante Bar, named after famous bartender Constante Ribalaigua Vert, is a glamorous, inviting concoction of emerald green walls, tropical prints, pretty, slatted bronze oval lampshades, which look like floating delicate petals, a long gold bar, original tiled floors, and the smart wicker and wood reclining Cuban tobacco chairs where a smoke in comfort would be de rigueur.
On the other side of the lobby bar - which is not in the lobby but on the second floor - is the warm ambience of the tobacco lounge Evocacion. Attended by Cuban master cigar sommelier Juan Jesus Machin, guests can learn about Cuba's world-famous puros in the bronze- and burnt-orange toned lounge with its balconies overlooking leafy Central Park. Connoisseurs, or would-be connoisseurs can combine their cigar with a dreamy, amber rum - a trago of the $3,000 CUCs-a-bottle Ron Santiago 500, or the ultra-expensive Havana Club Maximo Extra Anejo, and less expensive tragos, of course.
Dining under the stars
During a sultry Havana evening, most guests chose to sit out at the pool bar tables, ordering from the San Cristobal Restaurant menu. The views of the glorious central park are panoramic, and the main buildings - such as the Gran Theater, looking like a fairytale castle from this height - are enchantingly lit.
The San Cristobal Restaurant with its predominantly white look, embellished by the embroidered blue-and-green hummingbird on the backs of the dining chairs, leaned towards a pared-back menu of fish, seafood, pork and beef: pasta with shrimp in a rum and cream sauce, pork fillet, and grilled salmon.
The breakfast was more memorable with unseen-in-Cuba apple, and guayaba yoghurt, plus eggs Benedict with crispy bacon, and American pancakes. The breakfast staff, I also found, were the friendliest staff in the building - also throwing out the Cuban "piropo" (flirtatious lines) to hotel guests. For some reason, I thought I would be immune to the "piropo" inside the Kempinski - but, no, it's alive and well in the breakfast room where guests can linger over a huge spread until 11am.
Smart interiors and colourful shades
The Kempinski offers nine room categories across 246 rooms at the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana ranging from the Patio rooms with interior views of the revamped shopping mall, to a variety of suites - including the Mezzanine - dominated by photographic images of Havana's architecture, statues, and design motifs.
The Kempinski room ceilings are huge - up to 6.5 meters high - so a mezzanine-styled room makes perfect sense. Where rooms enjoy the full room height, it creates a feeling of heightened luxury, and with louvred doors opening onto small balconies.
The colour palette brings the bright pop-shades of Havana's colourful streets indoors - magenta and teal - set against a background of silver, white and grey. The overall effect is one of cooling - sheltering you from the intense heat outside.
The style is ultra contemporary mixed with traditional pieces of Cuban furniture. Rooms feature elegant louvred windows, desks, closets (higher-end suites boast spacious walk-in closets), Bose speakers, and flat-screen TVs with a speaker installed in the bathroom so you don't miss anything on the TV. There are luxury rain showers installed next to baths. Morning coffee can be made while you check your emails on the free Wi-Fi (accessed by a scratch card) before breakfast.
The Kempinski's signature Lady in Red, a major-domo service, was an efficient and pleasant personalised service. I was less impressed with the concierge's suggestions for eating and drinking; the recommendations need refining. Recommending the loud Esencia Bar in Vedado doesn't quite seem the right fit for guests who might stay at the Havana Kempinski hotel.
Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana
There's nowhere else in Cuba offering this kind of luxury. From the elegant rooftop pool, the luxe spa, the high-ceilinged rooms with contemporary colours wrapped in the heritage of the 19th-century Manzana de Gomez building, and the major-domo service, it makes a perfect spot for a stay in Old Havana. The only problem, though, is you might be reluctant to leave your pampered surrounds to visit the capital's star attractions.