November 01, 2002
Meetings & Conventions: Newsline newsline.gif (8042 bytes)International Focus Cuba

Old World elegance: Havana’s Parque Central hotel

Beyond the legendary cigars, the Guantánamo Bay naval base and a fatigues-wearing, notoriously charismatic leader, Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S. border, remains a mystery to most Americans.

The island, which is slightly smaller than Pennsylvania, will continue to be off-limits for most Americans as long as the 1963 travel embargo remains in place. (The U.S. Senate tabled a bill this fall that would have ended such restrictions.)

In the meantime, planners and attendees can pack their bags meeting-goers are among the few American visitors welcome here.

To get the required permission from the U.S. Treasury Department to travel as a group, planners need to obtain a “specific license.” According to rules established by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (202-622-2520;, any “persons traveling to Cuba to do professional research or to attend a professional meeting” are eligible to obtain this license (only one per group is necessary).

Attendees do not require visas but must have passports valid for at least six months after their trip. The Cuban government has licensed three destination management companies to work with groups: Amistur (, Havanatur ( and San Cristobal ( San Cristobal has an office in Canada and can arrange both group travel and special events on the island.

Old Havana
The old town’s beautifully restored churches, plazas and mansions stand in sharp relief against the dilapidation that has engulfed much of the city. But even the faded structures, with their intricate wrought-iron balconies dressed with drying laundry, are fascinating as they evoke the ghosts of a lively heyday.

The number of hotel and tourism projects, led by the government’s Habaguanex agency, is impressive. In the past five years, several areas within Old Havana have been rescued from extinction.

One of the first places to be restored was the Plaza de Armas, a shady square lined with antique booksellers, the Palacios de los Capitanes Generales museum and the 27-room Hotel Santa Isabel, where former President Jimmy Carter stayed during his visit in 2001. Nearby is the 55-room Ambos Mundos hotel, Ernest Hemingway’s home while he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Another gem by Habaguanex is the 25-room Hotel Florida, a former mansion, with a breezy interior courtyard perfect for sipping the national drink, the mojito.

Three new boutique properties are expected to open by the end of this year: the 41-room O’Farril, 30-room Raquel and 12-room Beltran de Santa Cruz.

Central Havana
A former Golden Tulip property, the 281-room Parque Central now flies the nH Hotels flag. Bordering one of the city’s most picturesque parks, the hotel has plans to add meeting space and a spa.

Accor’s Hotel Sevilla continues with a top-to-bottom renovation of all 188 rooms and public space; work is set to finish in late 2003.

On Cuba’s most famous stretch of white-sand beach, the Sandals Varadero Royal Resort and Spa is scheduled to open next month with 404 guest rooms and a spa.

Lisbon’s 194-room Pestana Carlton Palace Hotel, formerly the Palácio Valle Flor, opened last year. The main building, a national monument, was restored to its grand 19th-century ambience, and two wings were added to house the guest rooms. The property has 15 meeting rooms, a fitness center, formal gardens and an outdoor pool. (011) 351-291-209100; Back to NewslineM&C Home Page
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