It wasn’t that long ago when staying in a Cuban hotel meant roughing it in a grubby, Soviet-style concrete building with dark and dingy rooms and little or no service.

Today, the best hotels on the island are on par with hotels just about anywhere in the world. Places such as Havana’s Melia Cohiba and Melia Habana, as well as Cayo Largo’s Sol Club Cayo Largo, have all the amenities that a well heeled tourist expects, including comfortable and  well-appointed air-conditioned rooms, friendly personalized service, good restaurants, and well kept swimming pools and health clubs. Most of these top establishments are partialy owned or managed by international hotel groups such as Spain’s Sol Melia, however, local hotel organizations such as Cubanacan and Gran Caribe have also made improvements in recent years.

Be warned, however. Despite recent advances, the majority of hotels on the island still offer substandard quality, from shabby rooms and dilapadated facilities to inefficient staff and poor food. Some of the more seasoned travellers to the island have now turned to renting rooms in private houses. The private-house-and-room-market is now so popular that visitors arriving at the island’s airports are often inundated with offers for casa particular from locals standing outside the baggage claim. Even taking a room from a stranger may be worth the risk, since the government regulates these establishments and police come down on owners like a ton of bricks for thefts or other illegal behavior. Besides, Cubans are some of the most welcoming people on earth. But forget about using credit cards at these homes. (No matter U.S.-based credit cards and traveler’s checks are useless anywhere in Cuba; American banks cannot accept Cuban transactions.)

Forget about such amenities as telephones, televisions and fax machines when staying at a private house. Hot water as well as electricity can also be scarce (as they are for most of the island’s residents). Transportation can be equally frustrating without renting a car.

Business travelers continue to stay in hotels when they are in Cuba. It may be more expensive and less romantic than some smaller places, but business travelers  need the accomodations and service of a good hotel, particularly in Havana. Moreover, the best hotels in Cuba usually have an executive floor with its own concierge, lounge and bar as well as a separate check-in and checkout counter. The latter is a real plus, especially when busloads of package tourists have just arrived at the registration desk, when it can take hours to register or pay your bill, not to mention just getting simple information. Executive floors offer the best hotel service on the island, and they can help sort out many of the minor yet frustrating inconveniences one may encounter in Cuba, from reserving a table in a popular restaurant to changing an airline ticket.

Most of the hotels with executive floors are  in Havana, including Melia Cohiba, Melia Habana, Hotel Nacional and Habana Libre. Most of these hotels charge between €150 and €300 a night for a double room on their executive floors, about 25 to 35 percent more expensive than a similar room on a regular floor. It’s best to book a room through travel agents specializing in trips to Cuba, because they usually can obtain rooms at much lower than suggested prices. However, hotels can also be contacted directly. Ask for a special or corporate rate.

The best hotels accept all non-U.S. credit cards as well as traveler’s checks, as long as the funds are not drawn on U.S. banks. Cash, of course, is always welcome. Be careful not to miscalculate your expenses and run out of cash when paying your hotel bill. Unless you have a local friend that can help bail you out at the last minute, you may find it difficult to leave the island.

Here are the best hotels Cuba has to offer, listed in our order of preference. Prices are for double rooms or suites, Outside Cuba, phone and fax numbers need to be preceded by 53-7, the codes for Cuba and Havana, respectively (the code for Cayo Largo is 5).

Hotel Melia Cohiba
Av. Paseo e/1 y 3
Vedado, Municipio Plaza
Tel: 833-3636
Fax: 833-4555
342 double rooms, 120 suites
Rates € 123 to € 174

This is the business hotel in Havana, although it’s equally comfortable for those on vacation. If you want to know what big deals are coming together on the island, just spend some time in one of the hotel’s bars or restaurants, not to mention the pretty swimming pool and health club. The executive floor, Servicio Real, is the best in Havana, with quick, freindly and efficient service; it even has a private bar  for breakfast and snacks during the day, as well as meeting rooms. Bedrooms are clean, modern and quiet, with execellent views of the city. Some say the Melia has the best buffet breakfast and lunch in town, although its Spanish restaurant, Abanico de Cristal, is also very good, as is the pizzeria next door. Don’t miss a night in the Habana Cafe’, with some of the best bands on the island. There is a cigar tasting club with top-of-the-line smokes as well as mixed drinks, a library and Internet access. The hotel is located on the Malecon, about a 10 minute taxi ride from Old Havana, and despite its rather dull high-rise look, it remains the best hotel on the island.

Hotel Parque Central
Neptuno esq. Prado y Zulueta
La Habana Vieja
Tel: 860-6627
Fax: 860-6630
278 rooms
Rates: € 92 to €473

This is the best deluxe hotel in Old Havana. Located a stone’s throw from the National Theater and the Capitol building, it has the best location of all of Havana’s fine hotels. Parque Central is a slightly strange mix of old and new, built from the ruins of a seventeenth century hotel in the same location. The lobby is bright and airy with various bars, and the second floor houses a very good cigar shop and smoker’s bar. The hotel resembles a colonial courtyard in one of the many palaces in Old Havana, but in modern style. The rooms are well equipped and extremely comfortable in neo-Regency style. Service is friendly and slightly forgetful. The rooftop swimming pool on the ninth floor is fabulous, with great views of the city. The bar and small grill on the same floor offers good simple food and delicious drinks. There’s even a small gym and massage salon for those feeling inclined.

Sol Club Cayo Largo
Cayo Largo del Sur
Archipielago de Los Canarreos
Isla de Juventud
Tel: 524-8260
Fax: 524-8265
296 rooms
rates CUC$270-CUC$400
The Sol Club Cayo Largo is setting the standard for seaside resorts in Cuba. This all-inclusive hotel is stunning, with bright, comfortable bungalows, a selection of restaurants, bars and nightclubs, two swimming pools, two tennis courts and health clubs. Almost everything is included in the price-accomodation, food and drinks, the use of the clubs and gyms, and windsurfing, sailing and other aquatic sports. Diving is extra. The hotel also organizes sportfishing outings (the area has some of the best bonefishing in the Caribbean) as well as boat trips to isolated beaches. Sitting in front of of the hotel on one of the most beautiful beaches on the island, its almost hard to believe you’re in Cuba. Don’t miss staying here.

Hotel Santa Isabel
Calle Baratilloe No. 9, e/Obispo y Narciso Lopez
Plaza de Armas
La Habana Vieja
Tel: 733-8201
Fax: 733-8391
27 rooms
Rates: €121 to €210 with breakfast

Relaxing with a coctail and a cigar on one of this hotel’s room balconies, facing the Plaza de Armas, is one of the greatest but least known pleasures of Havana. You can almost picture the horse-drawn carriages and elegantly dressed aristocracy who centuries ago strolled through this area of Old Havana. A recently restored former nineteenth-century palace, the Santa Isabel is the most romantic hotel in Havana, with a secluded lobby and patio bar and large bedrooms-two with poster beds-and reproduction antiques. It’s right in the center of La Habana Vieja, offering easy access to just about everything. The only drawback is that it does not have a swimming pool.

Melia Habana
Calle 3, e/76 y 80
Tel: 204-8500
Fax: 204-8505
397 rooms
rates: €117 to €500

Whether travelling for business or pleasure, guests appreciate the quiet, out-of-the-way atmosphere of this hotel. Built in 1997, the Melia Habana has just about all the features and services of its sister hotel, the Melia Cohiba, but it is located away from the hustle and bustle of the city on the rocky coastline of Havana’s smart neighborhood, Miramar. The pool is exceptionally nice and is nearly always unused. Rooms are well appointed, clean and attractive. The executive floor is larger than the Cohiba’s, with more private meeting rooms. The only drawback here are the mediocre restaurants.

Hostal Conde de Villanueva
202 Mercaderes, esq. Lamparilla
La Habana Vieja
Tel: 862-9293
fax: 862-9682
9 rooms
rates: CUC$160  to CUC$242 with breakfast

Staying here is like renting your own colonial manor house in the center of Old Havana. The building was originally the property of a wealthy Spanish Count who built it in the late eighteenth century. Many of the original features are still maintained, including a gorgeous, leafy courtyard and an interior terrace that runs around the center of the building. It’s wonderful relaxing in one of the wicker chairs on the terrace, smoking a cigar or drinking a coctail. Rooms can be slightly dark and noisy, although they certainly give you the feel of being in Havana compared to the modern international hotels. There’s even one of the best cigar shops in-house, so finding a good cigar isn’t a problem. Unfortunately, there is no swimming pool.

Tryp Habana Libre
Ave. 23, Calle L, e/23 y 25
Tel: 834-6100
Fax: 834-6366
572 rooms
Rates: €94 to €230

Formerly, the Havana Hilton, this late 1950s hotel could one day be the hippest, most happening hotel in Cuba. It is a complete gem of Miami Art Deco architecture, with loads of glass, stainless steel and wood paneling, not to mention the sculpture and paintings in many of the communal areas and suites designed by some of the biggest names of the period. The large swimming pool is a dream, with its glassed-in bar and tiled sunbathing area. You almost expect to see the Rat Pack sipping mojitos with their feet dangling in the pool. The only place worth staying in the hotel at the moment, however, is on the executive floor, since rooms on the other floors resemble a cheap motel on any interstate. The Castellana suite is phenomenal (at about €1,350 a night, it ought to be), with four bedrooms, a living room, dining room, office and  and private kitchen. It’s furnished with 1950’s furniture and paintings, including a number from Rene Portocarrero and Cundo Bermudas. This is where Fidel Castro stayed in the early 1960s while organizing his revolutionary government, and it seems to have remained unchanged since.

Hotel Nacional
Calle O, esq. 21
Tel: 873-3564 or 873-3565
Fax: 873-5171
457 rooms
Rates: CUC$115  to CUC$950 with breakfast

No other hotel in Cuba is more beautiful than the Spanish colonial-styled Hotel Nacional. Built in 1930, it is a twin to the Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida. The Nacional is located on a small point  on the coastal road of the Malecon, with magnificient views of the ocean. With two swimming pools, gardens and patios, the grounds are gorgeous for taking strolls in the early morning and late afternoon. Or just relax and have a drink in one of the bars or lounges. Rooms were renovated in the mid-’90s and still offer all the amenities. The presidential suite, with two bedrooms, a dining room, sitting room, office and private kitchen, as well as housekeeping and food service, is €1,000 a night. The views are superb from the huge private terrace. Service continues to be a problem here, from not receiving telephone calls or messages, to breakfast and room service never arriving on time. The restaurants are mediocre. The situation is better on the 52-room executive floor, which has its own reception area, bar and private meeting rooms.