HAVANA — Cuba is a land of architectural splendors, stunning scenery, warm, welcoming people — and some of the world's worst hotels.
Communist states aren't known for their hotel management, and you can find hotel horror stories with no problem: inedible food, rude staff, sewage leaks in kitchens, glass doors collapsing into shards onto guests as they shower.
So it was intriguing when American hotel giant Starwood announced a deal to manage the Fifth Avenue Hotel run by the Cuban military in the upscale Miramar section of Havana. Would Starwood be able to upgrade a facility that guests had lambasted online for crickets, cockroaches and dirty carpets?
A lot's riding on the answer.
Tourism rose 20 percent last year after Cuban President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama declared detente after decades of a U.S. trade embargo against the Caribbean country. Commercial flights from the U.S. begin in September and are expected to bring another surge in visitors. And Cuba needs tourists' money.
But there's a shortage of decent hotel rooms even in facilities labeled as five-star. U.S. chains hope to help solve that problem and get back into a one-time American playground that's slowly reopening its economy after a half-century of communism.
If American companies can expand and improve Cuba's state-run hotel industry, there could be a lot of winners. But a recent stay shows there is a lot to fix before the hotel is truly five-star.
Using Starwood's website, you can book a "Classic Room" with a king bed for two for $250. Starwood also has been retraining staff at the Fifth Avenue, which it has renamed Four Points by Sheraton Havana. The training shows: Check-in is remarkably smooth for a Cuban hotel. Front-desk clerks are solicitous and speak fluent English.
But the rest of the experience is pretty unpleasant. The hotel recently was rebranded with great fanfare and included promised amenities like Starwood's comfortable "signature beds." But mattresses are saggy, sometimes with stained decorative covers and flat sheets tucked over the sort of squeaky rubber pad used for bed-wetting children. A bedside lamp that doesn't work needs a bulb, but the entire wall-mounted light is loose and balanced in the sole position that keeps it from collapsing.
The hallways carpets look new and the paint looks fresh, and rooms do have a new-looking hairdryer, showerhead and bathroom tiles. But the walls are scuffed and dirty; tables look like someone has scraped stickers off them with a piece of sharp plastic. A minibar door hangs loose on its hinge, with drinks inside in a pool of room-temperature water.
The coffeemaker comes with two packs of coffee, a teabag and a sign: "Coffe-Te NOT INCLUDED." In-room internet is $5 an hour.
If you're feeling dispirited, you may want to head to the pool. The front desk clerk says it's open until 7 p.m. but adds, "You can swim until 9 or 10." At 6:30 p.m. it is closed with a worker treating it with chemicals from a plastic bucket. He says to come back after two hours.
So on to the spacious terrace for cocktails and snacks. The shrimp cocktail isn't terrible: a handful of shrimp doused in Russian dressing in a martini glass filled with lettuce. But the menu dates to around the hotel's opening in 2010 when it was run by the Spanish hotel chain Barcelo. How to tell? Someone has taped a little piece of paper with the "Four Points by Sheraton" logo on the front; pull it back and it says "Barcelo."
After a real dinner at a privately run restaurant nearby, you can return to the hotel's lobby for a nightcap. An Absolut vodka, soda water and lime isn't Absolut. It tastes of paint thinner. Make a quick trip to the men's room and, the moment you open the door, you're assaulted by the smell of raw sewage.
In the morning, the complimentary buffet is inedible, a series of warming pans contain two-toned scrambled eggs, greasy sausages and swollen, boiled hot dogs floating in tepid water. A mix of stale and fresh bread rolls and puckered chunks of guayaba, papaya and watermelon complete the horror. A grayish sausage patty is colder than room temperature. Coffee is thin and bitter with a chemical aftertaste.
Pablo Casal, the hotel's manager, appears to be working furiously to upgrade the rundown facilities that was inherited from Gaviota, the tourism arm of the Cuban military. He says all hotel conversions take time and guests should expect rapid improvements in coming months, including the arrival of new, Sheraton-standard mattresses and bed linens by the beginning of September.
"If you stay right now at the hotel, you can have a good experience. It's not the experience that we want," he says. "We want to have all the standards in place."