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My recent weekend in Cuba was absolutely amazing! If you haven’t done so already, check out my recent posts on Who Can Go to Cuba?, Tips For Traveling to Cuba, How to Get to Cuba (and Back): Flight and Award Options, Where and How to Book Hotels in Havana, Cuba and What to Do and See in Havana. Keep an eye out for airport lounge reviews, soon to come.
After reading the recent and exciting news from the White House regarding more relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, I made a snap decision to go. Teaming up with my travel companion and close friend, TPG International Correspondent Lori Zaino, we began to assess our options.
At present, you can’t just jump onto an OTA like Orbitz.com and search for hotels in Cuba, just as you can’t search online for flights. Also, U.S.-based hotel points won’t help you in Cuba as there aren’t yet any large U.S. hotel chains in the country.
Our Hotel-Booking Experience
When attempting to book, we soon found that just about everything was full, for two important reasons: 1) this is the high tourist season in Havana, and 2) most hotels in Cuba require a two-day advance booking.
Our Plan B was to call travel agents in Canada. We finally got in touch with one, A Nash Travel, that really saved us! Although all the hotels in Old Havana (where we originally wanted to stay) were completely booked, one of the A Nash agents, Martha, was able to get us two rooms at the Hotel Occidental Miramar (which may be rebranding to Hotel Memories, but is currently known by everyone in Havana as the Occidental Miramar) in a high-end neighborhood of Havana called Miramar, about a 15-minute drive from Old Havana. According to TripAdvisor in Canada, the hotel is ranked #26 out of 75 hotels in Havana—and was one of our only options—so we decided to give it a go.
We were able to make the booking payment through the agency, who tack on a $25 fee for this service—a small price to pay to be able to put the charge on my U.S.-issued Chase Sapphire Preferred and earn double points for this travel expense. The rooms at the Occidental Miramar, which were more like semi-suites, ended up being about $140 per night with taxes and fees.
When we arrived at about 2:30 a.m., the hotel hadn’t yet received our payment (Cuba’s technology tends to be far less modern than what we’re used to in the U.S.) so we couldn’t gain access to our two rooms. They wouldn’t accept any of my U.S. credit cards, but luckily Lori had a Spain-issued credit card that they did accept, and the hotel put a hold on her card in the event that our previous payment didn’t go through. Throughout this whole process, the staff was friendly and helpful, doing their best to make the process pleasant despite our the late hour and our exhaustion. By the end of our stay, the hotel finally received their payment from our travel agency and all was fine, but having that Spanish credit card was extremely helpful during during this unexpected issue.
It bears mentioning that if we’d simply booked ahead, we most likely wouldn’t have encountered this problem. And happily, as of March 1, 2015, MasterCard will be offering service in Cuba. However, it’s still a good idea to have a foreign-issued credit card or plenty of cash on hand in case of an inconvenience or emergency.
At first, we were concerned about the location of the hotel because we had hoped to stay in the heart of Old Havana. Looking back, I think staying in the luxe Miramar neighborhood was the right choice for a number of reasons. First, this gave us the opportunity to check out another neighborhood of Havana. Had we stayed in the center of Old Havana, we may have never ventured out to visit other sections of the the city. Second, Miramar is a tranquil, beautiful spot with ocean views (translated into English, the name Miramar means “sea view”) which made for a relaxing stay. During the drive into Old Havana, there are amazing 18th- and 19th-century mansions and buildings, and you cruise right along the Malecon, the road that runs right along the ocean.
The main downside to staying in Miramar is that it’s driving—rather than walking—distance from Old Havana. Taking a regular taxi or one of the cool 1950s vintage cars will cost you about $15-25 (depending on how well you haggle), and the trip can take 15-20 minutes (depending on traffic). The Hotel Memories does offer shuttle service four times a day for free, but our desired schedule never coincided with the shuttle’s, so we weren’t able to take advantage of the service.
Finally, the area around our hotel didn’t have much to offer except a nearby cell phone store. If you’re looking for restaurants and activities, you’re at the mercy of taxis, vintage car rides, or the free shuttle bus. If you choose to rent a car, know that there’s free parking available at the hotel.
The Hotel Occidental Miramar offers 427 rooms throughout five floors in a modern, unassuming sprawl of a building. My room was clean, but the furnishings were old, the bathroom was in need of a renovation, and the bed was hard as nails—not surprising in a country that doesn’t have much access to new and/or upgraded items. However, knowing ahead of time that rooms might be on the antiquated side, I didn’t really mind, and the gorgeous sea views made up for the lacking room decor.
One highlight of the room was that it was large, more like a semi-suite. It had a large window, a sofa, armchair, small table, TV, desk and chair, telephone and queen bed. The air conditioning, while a bit noisy, worked well.
Again, while they were clean, the bathroom furnishings seemed dated. However, the bathroom itself was also nice and large, and came with a tub, shower, hair dryer, and some shampoo, body wash, soap and a shower cap.
Water pressure was average, but there was plenty of hot water to go around.
The room offered a large closet with a safe (see below for my safe-based shenanigans). The website suggests the room comes with an alarm clock, but neither Lori’s room nor mine did.
An interesting note for those who are addicted to their phones, tablets and computers: Lori, who has electronics from both Europe and the United States, was thrilled to find that the electrical outlets in our rooms were set up to fit both types of plugs—but only for those with two prongs. The fact that I was without an outlet converter for three-prong plugs (and so was the hotel) meant that I was also without my MacBook Air. Considering the general lack of WiFi, this wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but just know that if you’re planning to use anything with a three-prong plug, you should bring your own converter.
The hallways of the hotel were a bit dingy and un-airconditioned, but in the middle of each, there were small, welcome seating areas beside windows and near the elevator. At one point, Lori actually found herself stuck in the elevator (only for about 30 seconds, but still), inspiring her to make use of the stairs for the rest of the trip. When she mentioned this incident to an employee after the fact, he simply responded “No pasa nada,” or don’t worry. Gotta love that relaxed island living.
Generally, I found the staff to be smiling, helpful and quite friendly, doing their best to accommodate each guest. The hotel was almost full to capacity during our stay, so the front desk attendants were often busy but still striving to be efficient. They seemed excited to be hosting and talking with Americans, as they clearly don’t have a large number of visitors from the U.S.
Just before we were ready to head out on our city tour, my room safe—which housed my camera and wallet—wouldn’t open. The screen for the touch pad had gone completely dead, and in a panic, I immediately called the front desk for help. A man quickly came up with a toolbox and tried to get it working, but soon confirmed that the battery was so dead that it couldn’t be turned back on—and he’d have to break it open. Yikes! However, while another maintenance man went to get the necessary safe-cracking tools, somehow the other worker was able to turn the safe on, open it and change its battery, and it proceeded to work just fine for the rest of the weekend. Though this process was temporarily stressful and annoying, the service was both helpful and efficient, which I really appreciated.
The concierge at the hotel was also very amiable and accommodating, managing to get us a wonderful front-row table at the Tropicana show on short notice, as well as organize a tour for us.
The enormous pool area was by far the best amenity of the hotel, offering plenty of beach chairs and space to move around, sit, relax or swim.
Although they kill you on the exchange rate, it was also helpful to have a bank in the hotel to change money, and there was a small store where I was able to buy some toothpaste, which I’d forgotten at home.
The room rate also includes free breakfast from 7 – 10 a.m., though the food, while edible, wasn’t great. The large buffet had a wide variety of offerings, but the hash browns were extra greasy and the fruit looked un-appetizing. I didn’t even get near the bacon and sausage, instead sticking safely to the pancakes and scrambled eggs.
We chose to skip breakfast the last day and instead get a sandwich at the pool snack bar, which again, wasn’t the best. The hotel also has another snack bar with indoor and outdoor seating, where we were able to get a pizza and a fruit plate, which were average at best. The food in general, though inexpensive, was definitely lacking.
There was also a bar/lounge area where a Cuban band played in the evenings and a large, airy lobby with plenty of seating.
There were also tennis courts on the property, a fitness center and a spa, and unfortunately due to such a short trip, we weren’t able to take advantage of them.
For Internet access, our hotel charged the equivalent of $4.50 for a card that offers you one hour of browsing time, which you can use on only one device at a time. It was a huge hassle to actually connect to the web, but once there, access/download speeds were surprisingly fairly quick. We were eager to share our adventures via social media updates, which meant that we were continually purchasing Internet cards throughout our hotel stay— until the hotel reception staff politely asked us to leave some for the other guests.
It’s worth noting that the hotel staff mentioned to us that the Internet really only works in rooms on the fourth and fifth floors of the hotel and the staff was able to accommodate our request to be on one of these two floors.
Finally, after discussing with some other Americans who were staying at various hotels throughout the center of Old Havana, they mentioned that they also bought the same WiFi cards valid for one hour, from their hotels except theirs cost $10.5o each, and the connection was not good—so I suppose we lucked out in this area.
Where the Hotel Occidental Miramar wasn’t my first choice hotel, I think it provided us with a decent, reasonably comfortable stay. It was not anything out of the ordinary, but it was reasonably priced and convenient. In future trips, I would love to try some of the other, more famous hotels in Havana, but if those weren’t available, I would certainly stay at the Hotel Occidental Miramar again. With great transfer partners like United and Hyatt, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game.
With great transfer partners like United and Hyatt, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game.