Steps from San Antonio’s renowned River Walk, Hotel Havana is a hymn to vintage Cuban glamour, all soft pastels and wrought-iron retro. When a hotel bar stocks its sodas on the basis of bottle design, you know you’re in good hands.
Noon, but flexible up until 2pm. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £130.40 ($179), including tax at 17 per cent.
Rates exclude breakfast, from $20.
If you ask at the front desk, they’ll bring an Apple TV, loaded with Cuban movies, to your room.
At the hotel
Private parking, free Wi-Fi throughout. In rooms: flatscreen TV, pre-loaded iPod with dock, fully stocked Smeg minibar, radio, and Red Flower toiletries.
Our favourite rooms
We love the exposed brickwork and modest price tag of room 15, a Havana King. Room 12, a Queen suite, has even more exposed brick, and a separate living or working area, sectioned off by large floor-to-ceiling windows. For full-blown luxury, room 31, the Penthouse Suite, is definitely worth the splurge. The duplex apartment features a dramatic blue wrought-iron staircase that leads up to the mezzanine bedroom. The ensuite is tiled in a retro sky blue and contains a huge tub, exposed drencher shower and a mustard yellow velour armchair.
A sunhat for battling the Texan heat; active types should pack running shoes: the Riverwalk is a picturesque favourite for joggers.
The terraces dotted around the hotel are perfect for evening mojitos.
Rakish open shirts, smouldering skirt suits – channel Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not.
Ocho restaurant has a tempting pan-Latin menu, glass walls, a soaring ceiling (opened up in warmer months) and a prime perch overlooking the River Walk. The inventive breakfast menu has caused a bit of a buzz: try the plantain griddle cakes with Mexican crema and blueberries or the shrimp and crab campachena.
Hidden in the basement, Ocho Lounge is a sexy speakeasy lit with dozens of candles encased in red glass. The saffron yellow, red, brown and orange furnishings contrast with cool turquoise walls, and the drinks menu includes mescal coffee, Mexican beer, rum, and cocktails. In keeping with the Cuban spirit (if not it's still-embargoed tobacco exports), cigars are available to smoke from the hotel’s terraces.
The bar opens at 5pm, and closes at midnight (2am on Fridays and Saturdays).
San Antonio’s international airport is nine miles from the hotel. The hotel doesn’t arrange transfers, but there are hire car desks at the airport.
The nearest Amtrak station (www.amtrak.com) is St Paul Square, roughly a mile and a half from Hotel Havana.
Hotel Havana is in downtown San Antonio, along the River Walk. Parking costs $17 per day. San Antonio is around an hour’s drive from Austin, along the I-35.
Worth getting out of bed for
Meander (or jog, if you’re feeling energetic) along the Riverwalk, accessible from every street downtown. An excellent way to see the history of Texas and San Antonio is the Mission Trail. The Alamo is the most famous of the missions, but that isn’t to say some of the others aren’t worth a look. San Jose is the largest, and was restored to its original design in the 1930s. TheSan Antonio Museum of Art (+1 210 978 8100) hosts permanent collections of Western antiquities, Asian, Latin American, and contemporary American artwork.
For the best tacos in town, head to Taco Haven at 1032 South Presa (+1 210 533 2171; www.tacohaven.info), a family-owned establishment teeming with loyal locals. A tip: if you see the little old Mexican lady walking around the tables and selling slices of cake, we highly recommend taking her up on the offer. For authentic Mexican street food, try La Gloria at 500North Zarzamora Street (+1 210 435 3376). It has a dizzying array of options, and smaller portion sizes make it great for a light lunch.
Built in 1914 during the Mediterranean Revival, Hotel Havana has historic-building status, and boy does it know it. The design radiates old-world elegance, with interiors featuring exposed brick, hardwood floors, chandeliers, blue and pink-tinted glass doors and the kind of vintage furnishings you’d expect in a Hemingway novel.
And by the way, I’ve got a thing for Ernest Hemingway. An iconic world traveler, I love that in the Thirties he lived on and off in a Cuban hotel. Hoping to channel his salty wanderlust, I arrive wide-eyed at Hotel Havana. Strolling through the doors, I imagine I am such a writer, wearing a fedora and long linen caftan, with a long, brown hand-rolled cigarette dancing off the corner of my mouth. If only I could park myself and my manual typewriter at Ocho – the mostly maritime-blue lounge that’s edged with a garage door – lean over on its Riverwalk-parallel bar, and contemplate local life.
Or I could just take a seat on one of the low, mismatched couches and wait for my people. Just as I’m tucking into the night’s special of pan-Latin salmon risotto with chorizo a few friends surprise me. After a few stellar, lovingly concocted margaritas (each adorned with large luscious disk of lime), we shuffle down to the decadent basement bar, which was a dusty cigar lounge until owner Liz Lambert sauced it up with specialty Cuban coffee and handmade chocolates.
With the bravado of a world-respected author, I befriend bartender Hector, who takes care of us, darting from the tiny main bar to our long nook table, spoiling us with drinks and desserts. Lucky for us, the Ocho menu can be a true nightcap in the sultry basement. Though I am channeling a swarthy man more than a sweets-loving girl on this trip, the fried churros with lemon curd and a little mug of café con leche could make any gal giggle. No wonder this classic speakeasy-style watering hole is a favourite Riverwalk haunt. Bathed in candlelight, the vintage leather armchairs and sofas can’t help but encourage close conversation and clandestine whispers.
An original dark-wood staircase, lined with a regal red runner, leads up to Havana’s ravishingly retro bedrooms. Glowing from tequila, I shimmy up the wide, pine floors (sourced from Bastrop, a town east of Austin), which creak under my boots. In my room, I am surrounded by easy decor – timeless, simple, heavy in scale and weight, including a large brass bed with crisp white linens. I have to remind myself I am not on a Cuban art history tour, painting a portrait of Che Guevara in a class, taking a break to enjoy an icy TopoChico.
Soothing pastel soft furnishings do little to stop me from sleeping like a cartoon character. Solo for this stay, the arrival of breakfast is as good a wake-up call as any. The kitchen nails the scramble – that magic that happens when the eggs welcome in the butter like an old friend. And they are folded, not chopped. Though my beans arrive cold, they pack plenty of flavour. (I’ve eaten beans out of a can on many adventures, so this surprise is one to fortify my adventurous spirit, not thwart it.)
Simple pleasures delight me most… unless they are accessories. My costume for the day is especially festive, and I layer on a hand-beaded collar from Tibet the size of a salad plate. It’s a perfectly easy and grand way to celebrate the ethnic and rustic details of San Antonio, are this stylist’s sentiments.
Plans for this Texan weekend are simple – it’s a getaway with like-minded folks, just 75 miles from home in Austin. The hotel clerk recommends a cool place to shop for furniture, so I dart to the West Hildebrand Avenue’s vintage trove and find a great set of distressed club chairs for a steal. Craving comfort lunch and a good bit of charm, I set off for the old Liberty Bar, then remember that its owners vacated their crooked house setting. Instead I choose Josephine Street Café (where I have what may be one of the best chicken sandwiches of my life), and post-shopping victory chow-down, I retreat to my room for a siesta.
My quiet Havana quarters are a great place to practice meditation. Wooden shutters closed, I sit quietly, reflecting on the lucky ones who came before me in this little 27-room world. Did they, too, channel Papa Hemingway? More likely, they ended up smitten with Liz Lambert. Her refreshing approach to hospitality sets new Texan standards for a warm heart and keen mind.
Packing up, I realise I’ve neglected to inspect the retro minibar. Is that a knitted monkey staring out at me from the snacks? Will he mind if I take the spicy nuts? And there’s also a beautiful postcard to swipe. My stay at this Riverwalk retreat may not have had me pen my own epic novel, but I have enjoyed experiencing a chapter of modern history laced with discovery. And that’s definitely worth writing home about.