PASTOR VALLE-GARAY / LA HABANA
January 2010 seemed so long ago. So far away. For the 172 Canadians arriving at the elegant, five-star Meliá Cohiba hotel, Cuba’s weather conditions were absolutely unusual. We had just left Toronto’s sub-zero winter. We had travelled to the island with the Canadian Ballet Youth Ensemble for their first-ever ballet performance at the world-famous Gran Teatro. We expected hot, Caribbean sunshine. It was not to be.
In fact, we were in for a major surprise. A freezing cold front from Canada -where else?- had Cubans and visitors alike reaching for anything warm. Havana was unbelievably cold. Lashed by constant rain and extreme winds. It was so windy that Cuban authorities closed access to the Malecón, the spectacular drive along the capital’s shore, lest people and traffic became engulfed by the enormous waves crashing against the promenade.
Were it not for the stunning welcome extended to us by the Meliá Cohiba, we would have been thoroughly disappointed. We were not. The management and staff at the Meliá Cohiba extended such extraordinary hospitality to the Canadian contingent that we decided to pay them a return visit.
Fast-forward to June 2010. A group headed by Belma Gurdil-Diamante, CEO, The Canadian Ballet Youth Ensemble, returned to Cuba. We planned to research Havana’s cultural offerings to small groups of Canadian visitors. We stayed again at the Meliá Cohiba, the superb five-star hotel by the breathtaking Malecón. Once again we are accorded a splendid reception.
There were some significant changes. All for the better. This time Havana was as warm and inviting as advertized in the proverbial travel brochures. Our hotel was packed with Brazilian and Italian tourists. Everyone anticipating the World Cup. Everyone engaged in a delightfully boisterous, contagious party mood. No problem. It fit like a glove with Havana’s noisy atmosphere and its exuberant summer feeling
The management at the Meliá Cohiba took every possible care to make that our stay was a unique experience. Their efforts surpassed all expectations. We were assigned immaculately clean suites with breathtaking views of the city and the ocean. The restaurants were as exciting as ever. The food superb. The efficient, courteous staff carefully looked after every need. Transportation had been carefully arranged. Our vehicles and guide arrived on time, unusual punctuality in easy-going Havana.
Our group included Veronica Tennant, one of the most accomplished Prima Ballerina in the history of the National Ballet of Canada and Michael Crabb, raconteur extraordinaire and internationally renowned art critic with the Toronto Star and the CBC, Canada’s national television. Our agenda was full. Hectic. A demanding task for any three-day stay anywhere but with the complete, professional support of the management at the Meliá Cohiba we were assured of a most successful program. It worked extremely well and we had the time of our lives. We also accomplished a great deal and will certainly return.
Our first morning at the Meliá Cohiba started at the hotel’s expansive, well-appointed main dining room where a delightful string quartet welcomed the guests to the elegant, all-inclusive buffet-breakfast. A wide variety of fresh fruits, juices and succulent dishes, expertly prepared right in front of you, satisfied the most demanding of tastes.
Around the hotel’s spacious, marble halls we discovered elegant boutiques, fine jewellery stores, art galleries and well-appointed rooms for Cuban cigar aficionados. However was truly caught everyoneˊs eyes in our group was the marvellous display of original paintings by famous Cuban artists adorning the walls of the Meliá Cohiba. No one should miss this extraordinary art exhibit.
Without exceptions, all the Canadians -experienced world travelers- were thoroughly impressed by the Melia Cohiba’s facilities, courtesies and attentions. We loved our stay. We enjoyed the hotel’s world-class restaurants, its excellent room service and the enormous swimming pool area. We will definitely return and when we do everyone plans to make the Meliá Cohiba its personal launching pad for another Cuban visit. The charms of Havana and the courteous service at the Meliá Cohiba are worth repeat trips.
*Senior Scholar, York University