5 essential places to enjoy a mojito in Cuba

Habana Vieja, Cuba

Habana Vieja

As a firm fan of a mixed drink (and rum in general), one of the things I day-dreamed about prior to my visit to Cuba was enjoying an authentic  mojito or two.

What I found was a succession of warm, gritty-with-undissolved-sugar disappointments. I am not sure whether it is because cocktail making has become so sophisticated elsewhere in recent years, or Cuba just got lazy with their national beverage, but most of the mojitos I tried – and I tried a few – were average at best.

dsc_7073I soon realised pure enjoyment of Cuban mojito was highly dependant on location –  atmosphere, the view and sense of history being as integral to the mix as the quality of the rum and the freshness of the limes.

So here are five wonderful places, serving knock-out mojitos, that I am instantly transported back to whenever I get a whiff of some muddled mint.

1. The historic celebrity haunt – The Nacional Hotel, Havana
Nacional hotel from the Malecón

Nacional hotel from the Malecón

 

Sitting on Havana’s famous Malecón waterfront boulevard, the historic Nacional Hotel was a playground for wealthy Americans before relations with the neighbours soured.

Purpose built during US prohibition in the 1920s, it is an eclectic architectural mix of art deco, neoclassical, neo-colonial – with some moorish influences thrown in. Essentially it is a summary of Havana’s pre-revolutionary architectural history in one building. 

The 40s and 50s were the heyday of The Nacional when it was frequented (and briefly part-owned) by the mob and the hotel and its casino attracted the great and (not so) good of American and European society. In more recent decades it has welcomed notable visitors sympathetic to the revolutionary cause.

Several suites are now named in honour of former guests. This diverse call-list includes Frank Sinatra, Jean Paul Sartre, Alexander Fleming, Errol Flynn, Walt Disney and an oddly generic ‘Mafia’ suite. Former guests who, it appears were not deemed worthy of such recognition include Sir Winston Churchill (although there is a creepy portrait of him in the presidential suite), Yuri Gagarin, and, briefly during the Cuban missile crisis, a selection of anti-aircraft emplacements.

The lush, palm-lined gardens at the back of the hotel offer a rare green sanctuary in a densely built city. The waterfront location provides a peaceful place to enjoy a cooling mojito before heading onto the Malacón to enjoy the sunset over the ocean and watch Cuban night life play out before you.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Calle 21 y O, Vedado, Plaza, La Habana

2. The one with the view – Inglaterra Hotel, Havana

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The Inglaterra is one of many Havana institutions frequented by writers Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene – although you will be hard pressed to find a bar standing in Havana that notorious lush Hemingway didn’t prop up at some point.

The Moorish influence in the lobby of The Inglaterra makes for a grand entrance and it is the perfect place to enjoy a morning coffee and a pastry before a days’ sightseeing.

But to enjoy a cooling sundowner – and the best views of the city – head to the roof where the waiting barman will promptly furnish you with a long, refreshing mojito. From this shady vantage point you can trace the history of the city through its architecture – from the both crumbling and restored wedding cake stylings of the old towns colonial and neoclassical buildings through to the post revolutionary tower-blocks and plazas.

Hotel Inglaterra, Paseo del Prado, No. 416 esq. San Rafael, La Habana

3. The perfect retreat -Salón 1720, Holguin

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Although Holguin, Cuba’s fourth largest city, is a charming destination in its own right,  many visitors are just passing through. As a hub for long distance buses and the gateway to the regions popular beach resorts, it is a place that many find themselves with a few hours to kill before the next leg of a journey.

The perfectly restored colonial  mansion house, Salón 1720 is the ultimate sanctuary for the weary traveller. Its bright courtyard is perfect for a revitalising drink, and the cool, white table-clothed restaurant the ideal place to enjoy a restorative meal. You can also store your bags here, stock up on cigars and even hire a car.

The mojitos are icy cold and punchy with fresh lime – no ready-made mixes here.  They are perfect aperitif to some of the best food I have eaten in Cuba – buttery fish and seafood and the most vegetables I had seen in ten days in the country. It is often said that the best Cuban food is to be found in Florida, and that is probably not far from the truth.  With most establishments government owned and with limited access to fresh produce, the food quality can often be underwhelming.

This is beginning to, and will continue to change. The growth of Paladares – privately owned restaurants, usually in peoples homes, is inspiring more creative and innovative cooking. Menus are usually limited and constrained by the availability of ingredients. How this will improve following the normalisation of relations with the United States is an exciting prospect.

Salon 1720, Frexes, Holguín 80100

4. The best soundtrack : Casa de la Trova – Santiago De Cuba  

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The Southern city of Santiago de Cuba is half distance from neighbouring Haiti that it is to Havana, and it definitely has much more of a recognisable Caribbean feel than the northern cities.

 Haitian immigration from the late 1700s onwards has created a unique cultural melting-pot in Santiago – the Afro-Caribbean influence contributing to making it home to Cuba’s biggest carnival, its best rum and most celebrated music.

Son music, made world famous by The Buena Vista Social club, was born here – alongside Trova, a style which originated from the Trovadores – lone guitarist who would sing their own poetic compositions whilst wandering the streets. Modern Trova follows some of the original rules – the music is poetic storytelling – sometimes political or satirical, but now groups of artists commonly perform together.

The ultimate place to experience Trova, is the Casa de la Trova which after 50 years continues to attract Cuba’s best musicians, as well as international stars.

Here  you can enjoy a pleasingly strong mojito – spiked with rich local rum, and (if you feel inclined) take to the dance floor. Alternatively you can pull up one of the heavy monogrammed chairs and watch as local hustlers fulfil the dance fantasies of a hundred frustrated suburban European salsa teachers. If you have had your fill of mojitos, you will also find one of the best daiquiris in Cuba mixed here.

Casa de la Trova, Bartolomé Masó, Santiago de Cuba

5. The literary classic – Casa Granda, Santiago de Cuba

dsc_7174 Built in 1914 and featuring in Grahame Greene’s ‘Our Man in Havana,’ this grand old dame is also where the British author wrote much of his spy farce. Beautifully restored to its former glory,  the Casa Granda boasts atmospheric public spaces that are the perfect place to while away a few hours and escape from the summer heat.

The shady terrace is a wonderful place to watch the comings and going in the adjacent Parques Cespedes whilst enjoying a generously minted and icy-cold mojito – probably the best of my trip. It can become crowded though, as the ubiquitous upturned guide books on the tables attest – it is Lonely Planet recommended.

If you are staying here, or willing to pay a 2CUC cover charge – you can jump in the lift to the roof to enjoy some of the best views of the city and beyond. The drinks (and service) are marginally better downstairs, but it is quieter on the roof and a great vantage point to get a close up view of the intricate architectural detail on the cathedral next door and the other historic building that surround the plaza. At night you can unwind with your mojito and enjoy the strains of Trova bands drifting on the breeze from the nearby Casa de la Trova. Bliss.

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View from the roof of the Casa Grande

Hotel Casa Granda, Calle Heredia # 201, esquina San Pedro 90100 Santiago de Cuba

Inspired by….

Cuba had been on my to-do list every since I saw The Buena Vista Social Club on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Dublin over 15 years ago. It finally moved to the top of the list  following the announcement of the normalisation of relations between the US and Cuba, made it a ‘must do now’ destination, before it changes forever.

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