Best Hotels in Cuba: Gardens HavanaOctober 4, 2021
On a bustling street in Old Havana, an artfully restored building reveals the overflowing life and possibility in Cuba.
Gardens Havana is a privately owned boutique hotel built on sustainability and a commitment to elevating the Cuban people and their culture. To understand the journey of this unique property, we spoke with one of the visionaries – Jamie McDonald.
What inspired you to open a hotel in Cuba?
Jamie McDonald: It begins in 2013 about 3 years after I met my partner in this project, Phil Winser. Phil had spent years in New York designing restaurants, hotels and event spaces (Fat Radish, Ruschmeyers, Bar Belly, East Pole and many others). We became mates very quickly; both from England, both loved travel, both outgoing creatures.
We decided to plan a trip to Cuba in December of 2013 as we both always loved the vibrant, Hispanic culture and, from what we’d heard about Cuba, it was all that and more. Just after that trip, we met the third member of the team, Yunior, who lived in NYC but now lives in Havana. While in Havana, Phil and I were blown away by the raw beauty of the city and its clear potential if restored correctly and faithfully to its culture. That began our idea.. Can we restore beautiful old homes back to their original splendor maintaining the intended designs and ONLY using locally sourced products to give that intangible effect of being part of something locally made?
We thought yes.
Tell us a little about Gardens Havana.
Jamie: We currently have one 4 bedroom boutique hotel called Gardens and two apartments called Twins.
The hotel, Gardens, is based around the idea of both connection and tranquility. Just seconds after leaving the easily-missed front door, you are propelled into life in Old Havana, so it was important to us to have a quiet place even though it is right in the action. And that’s what we have created.
Secondly, it’s a house for people to meet and entertain. We have an 8-person dining room, a downstairs riad-style garden patio, and upstairs, we have a pergola with day beds. There’s plenty of room to hang together as one group or spread out if the rooms are taken by different parties. But, and here’s the kicker, everyone who is staying at Gardens is, we like to think, our kind of traveler – those who appreciate getting under the skin of a place and giving back to the local community. There’s also a music room with grand piano, a library and a serve-yourself cocktail bar as well as many other nooks in which to hideaway. Our house manager, Massiel, is on hand to plan anything you like too.
All our properties have a full staff including 24-hour host, cleaners, security and chef. Breakfast is included and served where you wish. We also offer a turn-down service when you can order freshly made snacks and cocktails before you head out to dinner.
Each room has air conditioning and en-suite bathrooms. We have reliable internet and Bluetooth sound systems throughout.
What makes your property unique?
Jamie: The properties are handmade, hand-painted and hand-stitched by locals (and us). From bed frames to cushion covers to marble bathroom tiles, as much as humanly possible was hand-made in Cuba deliberately to maintain as authentic an experience as possible, and support the local economy. When staying with us, our aim was to really make you feel like you are living in Cuba – you are part of the progress being made there, not just in a generic luxury property you can find anywhere in the world.
Old Havana itself is one of the best urban adventures in the world but even the thrill and excitement can be exhausting; as a result, each of our properties has been designed to be a refuge from the perennially infectious chaos below. We focused on making sure they have all the old-world glamour you think about when you envision Cuba but all the amenities and luxuries of a 5-star hotel.
How has travel benefited the local community you work with?
Jamie: We went on a mission to find artisan workers. Carpenters to build the furniture, old ceramicists to make the tiles and a team of restoration experts to bring the main features of the house back to life. We really went to extreme lengths to make sure we restored things, not replaced them and you can see that as soon as you walk in. I would say that all in all, we had over 50 people working on the house through different stages.
In fact, one thing we should mention is that we only employ local Cubans, and more often than not, people on the block. As much as possible, we want to put money into the pockets of local Habaneros and, for us, we started by hiring our neighbors. And we love that.
This includes a small team of about 20 across the properties and also a network of local suppliers that help on a day-to-day basis from drivers to take guests around, to bread-makers that freshly baked bread each day for breakfast. We work directly with an Irgit farm for our produce such as fruit and eggs.
What were some challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Jamie: Haha – it’s Cuba – each morning you never know what new challenges you would face. If it were raining, you could pretty much assume work would be on hold for any number of reasons. Cubans don’t have the same priorities or issues that we have in other parts of the world. For example, family is everything in Cuba and so that always came first for our workers and we had to respect that.
Also, at one point the country simply ran out of cement which is an issue when the house is built from the stuff; however, Cubans are the most resourceful people in the world and no matter what went wrong, they found a way to resolve it.
Another time, we found an old bath on the street so we restored it and went to install it in Twins. The following week it was gone and a worker had given it to one of his friends who ‘needed it more than we did’. Fair enough – we went to find another one.
Describe a fun memory from the process.
Jamie: I think every single thing we had made for our houses was both funny and unique! We shut down streets when we had piles of sand or plants taking up the road.
Well, we did buy a Grand piano for Gardens but we could not figure out how to transport it. It’s decades-old and hard to move. So the guy we bought it from just took out a hammer and screwdriver and took the whole thing to pieces. We put it into a car, drove it across Havana, carried it into the hotel and rebuilt the whole thing from scratch!
"Every step of the way we have been inspired by the talent and resourcefulness of those who have worked with us, and now are friends. They see the world through a different lens and it’s magical spending time with them."
What is your favorite part about working in Cuba?
For us, it’s all about the people. Every step of the way we have been inspired by the talent and resourcefulness of those who have worked with us, and now are friends. They see the world through a different lens and it’s magical spending time with them. The fact that the people there have had to rely on friends, family and culture to get by for the last 50 years (rather than industry and trade), means you have a country literally overflowing with life and possibility. It’s infectious.
Connect with Gardens Havana on Instagram by following @gardenshavana.