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.