It’s easy to get lost when walking in the heart of Old Havana, where every street blends into the other and the days and years seem to roll into one. Whether it’s children playing, street dogs pacing, women sweeping the sidewalk, or vendors selling their produce from wooden carts, you can always expect the same. However, on one particular street, Villegas to be precise, something beyond the ordinary lies behind an unsuspecting wooden door. If you look up, you’ll catch a glimpse of a fresh white balcony woven with greenery and pink bougainvillea, the only hint of the beauty that can be found within.
Press the modern doorbell, push open the door, and climb the steep stone steps and you’ll be met with the leafy oasis that is Gardens, Havana. This colonial casa is one of the few boutique hotels in the city that have cropped up over the past few years that offer the ideal blend of the comfortability and amenities of one of the city’s major hotels but with the intimacy and charm of renting a room in a Cuban’s home.
This project started back in 2015 when two Brits, Jamie McDonald and Phil Winser, decided to partner with their long-time Cuban friend, Yunior Perez, to transform his property, situated in an unassuming Old Havana barrio, into a space that celebrated the design, craftsmanship, and architectural talent of Cuba and its people. The mission was to restore the colonial property in a way that honored its original format and history but also felt forward-thinking.
Sounds straightforward enough, right? Nope! This is Cuba remember. The restoration took a year longer than expected as the entire foundations had to be completely rebuilt from the ground up and the roof had to be replaced to ensure that the casa would stand the test of time and the island’s Caribbean hurricanes. Apart from the obvious issues such as shortages of materials and navigating Cuba’s endless rules and regulations, there were several cultural challenges for the two British partners to get their heads around:
Our grand piano in the front room is a testimony of Cuban problem-solving and raw skill. Unable to be carried up our narrow set of stairs, it had to be taken apart piece by piece at one end of Havana, transported across, and then fit back together inside the property.Jamie McDonald, Gardens, Havana
“If it rains in Cuba, which is every day in the summer, it’s pretty much a given that work won’t end up happening. Also, Cuban people prioritize their families above all else, including work, so we had to understand that and adjust accordingly. One time, we found an old bathtub that we wanted to install but to our surprise, it went missing. One of the workers had taken it to give to a friend of his who apparently ‘needed it more than we did.’ After the initial shock and outrage, we decided to let that one slide,” says Jamie.
Despite these challenges, it was the hard work and ingenuity of the Cuban people that makes Gardens so undeniably special as soon as you walk in. From the beginning, Jamie, Phil, and Yunior made sure that they didn’t just employ Cubans, but locals from the same neighborhood: artisans, craftsmen, upholsterers, and expert restorers living only a few blocks away. The house typically had around 20 people working on it on any given day.
This same approach extends to the objects within the house too. The property was made using almost entirely local products and materials which meant spending hours in local carpentry workshops hand-designing bed frames, tables, and chairs. Tiles were either original to the property or crafted by ceramists. This means that every piece in the property has a story or anecdote behind it:
“Our grand piano in the front room is a testimony of Cuban problem-solving and raw skill. Unable to be carried up our narrow set of stairs, it had to be taken apart piece by piece at one end of Havana, transported across, and then fit back together inside the property,” explains Jamie.
Gardens, Havana is more than just a beautiful place to stay, but a hub of travel planning and hosting that curates unforgettable experiences in a city that is difficult to navigate even for the most well-seasoned of travelers.
Since Gardens officially opened in 2019, the hotel has been an overwhelming success and its locally made artisanal feel attracts an array of interesting guests such as architects, designers, and writers who add to the creative energy of the space. Gardens, Havana is more than just a beautiful place to stay, but a hub of travel planning and hosting that curates unforgettable experiences in a city that is difficult to navigate even for the most well-seasoned of travelers. The Gardens team creates bespoke itineraries where guests can visit the studios of close artist friends of the partners, attend intimate dinner parties in the casa’s large dining room with a menu designed by a local Cuban chef, and organize picturesque sunset picnics with rosé wine, fresh fruit and gourmet snacks to enjoy on Havana’s eastern beaches.
Jamie, Phil, and Yunior very much see Gardens as an ongoing work in progress, where they want to continually elevate and expand on what they do. They are currently working on transforming their upstairs terrace into a rooftop allotment so that even the produce they use is in-house. Recently, they have been taking their mission of championing local Cuban talent even further. Last weekend, they partnered with new Cuban rum brand Eminente to put on their first major event: Gardens Clubhouse.
“We really want our property to be used not just for tourists but as an event space for Cubans that have something to say. The inspiration for this event came from us noticing the lack of meaningful cultural exchange taking place in the city, at a time when it’s needed most,” says Jamie.
The two-day event brought together a diverse mix of tourists, foreigners living in Havana, and creative and entrepreneurial Cubans to celebrate Cuban talent in all its forms. In the afternoon, Cuban and Cuban-based businesses gave informal and bilingual talks on the successes and challenges of creating a successful business on the island, with speakers including sustainable family farm Finca Tungasuk, urban planning project Friends of Havana, and Cuban fashion brand Jíbaro.
The evening was a celebration of Cuban creative talent in all its forms, with live music, live painting by street artist Estudio Supermalo, photoshoot sessions by fashion photographer Titina, bespoke Eminente cocktails, and food by upcoming chef Sergio González and food blogger Álvaro M. Llerena.
For Jamie, the event did exactly what they set out to achieve:
“There was such an eclectic group of people from all over the world and from contrasting walks of life, and, with so many different components to the event, we weren’t sure if it was all going to gel. However, so many people who attended spoke about what a special and intimate energy the weekend had and how many unexpected connections and positive conversations took place. This is definitely the first of many. We know from our personal experience with Gardens that when foreign inspiration is ignited by the raw talent of the Cuban people, and these two forces decide to come together, magic happens.”