The Emerging Cuban Culture Craze
With the United States raising its flag in Cuba for the first time in more than half a century last week, travelers and investors are excited at the future potential for this market. 

But before traveling to and investment in the island nation takes off, hotels are already cashing in on the emerging Cuban craze. 

With a little creativity powered by a devotion to authenticity on the part of some American hoteliers, Cuba has been transported instead to those Americans who, for now, are still locked out of that trip themselves in spite of a recent loosening of federal travel restrictions. Travelers from the U.S. have become eligible to visit the island nation for family, academic, religious and professional reasons – but vacations still remain, for now, little more than a Caribbean dream.

Visitors, however, are living the dream in visits to Miami, Kansas City and Key West, among other locales where Cuban food, art, culture and accommodations are close enough to touch.

At the Riviera Hotel South Beach, Jorge Moreno has crafted a mixture of the old and new Cuba, a double legacy passed on to him by his Cuban immigrant parents as well as his grandparents. Born in the U.S., Moreno said, his family upbringing “always had that classic Cuban culture of the pre-Revolution era,” he said. “It was a golden age, not only of Cuba but the U.S. And so I was raised with that music and knowledge and culture of that Cuba and always took it with me.”

A performer and Latin Grammy winner, Moreno’s role as hotel restaurateur, is to be a consummate Cuban host at Moreno’s Cuba, the restaurant at the Riviera. 

“It is very much in the DNA of the restaurant, this 1940s, 1950s Cuba that I inherited from my grandparents, but it is also a mixture with Miami’s ‘new’ Cuba,” he said. And indeed, he brings indoors the creative spirit of the Wynwood art district of that city, a showplace for the undying, ever-evolving Cuban spirit.

“Hundreds and thousands of new Cuban Americans are what made the city what it is today and it is very much what Cuba would have been if Cuba hadn't been frozen in time,” said Moreno. “So the restaurant is classic Cuban dishes and we have a Cuban décor and flair.”

The flair and the fun of the restaurant includes Moreno himself, as an active participant and performer, showing the talent that landed him the Latin Grammy. “Friday and Saturday nights are Cuban Nights,” he said, and the host-as-performer loves the chance to jump on stage when the Cuban bands command the spotlight.

“I am American, but I am also Cuban, and I respect and love the old traditional customs, and that is what I bring to Moreno’s Cuba,” he said.

John Sabates and his family have brought their Cuban legacy to Kansas City, Missouri, where Sabates and his younger brother opened an eight-bedroom bed and breakfast called the Oak Street Mansion, in the fall of 2013.

The turn-of-the-century Georgian Revival house is in the city’s arts district and its Cuban Room, one of the well-appointed guest rooms, is a showcase for the talents of Cuban artists, such as Victor Manuel Garcia, Mariano Rodriguez and Guillermo Pichardo.

Because the inn also serves as an art gallery, he said, “we also have a lot of Cuban artists outside the Cuban room,” said Sabates. 

Completing the experience are breakfast items that evoke Latin flavors.

In Key West, at the Avalon Bed and Breakfast, the guests often bring a Cuban flair of their own to match and even enhance that of the 19-room hotel on historic Duval Street – especially through their stories.

General manager, Yvonne Sermak, finds special delight in this, as it illuminates the decades of stories the 1890s-era building holds, along with the B&B’s many historical documents and the photographs displayed throughout the property.

“We have been very fortunate to have the daughter of the home’s original builder [Emelio Aymerich] stay with us [92 at the time] and the daughter of the next owner, a famous Cuban physician, Nilo Conrado Pintado [also, coincidentally 92 at the time],” she wrote in a recent email. In those final visits to their childhood home, the guests shared much, she said.

“The family descendants of Emilio Aymerich held a family reunion over Thanksgiving in 2011, occupying the entire property,” she said. “They shared stories and several documents about the original owner’s life and important part in Key West/Cuban history.”

The building, she said, was once a Cuban hospital and, on more than one occasion, visitors have revealed they had family members born there. She also treasures the historical documents she has on the home, and often shares them with visitors who may be doing their own research on Cuban roots and history.

“It is always fun to learn more about the home’s ever-changing uses,” she said, “and then to dig more and find out about the people who were part of its history.” It had been a school for Cuban boys, who were visited by Jose Marti, the Havana-born Cuban freedom fighter. And it was the first Cuban club on the island, used for social dances as well as to help train fighters for boxing matches.

In 1917 the building opened as the St. Joseph Hospital, and the daughter of its phyisician-owner, Nilo Conrado Pintado, has shared its story with Sermak. “In her words, he loved to eat and considered each meal time a feast time. As a result, he suffered from bad digestion so he developed a tonic to aid this, which was sold in the pharmacy owned by his brother, also a pharmacist.”

A recent renovation beneath the house revealed yet another treasure, she said: some old 1920s medicine bottles labeled “capudine for headache,” no doubt a well-prescribed remedy.

“Since Key West, with its Cuban connection, has always been known for its rum-drinking and cigar-smoking, I am sure there was plenty of need for this!” she said.

Avalon’s website continues to welcome visitors – those with Cuban roots and those without – although she expects there will always be traffic, and more Cuban stories, to tell.

“We never know who else will walk through the door with yet another story about the home’s history, especially with the upcoming changes in Cuban relations,” she wrote.
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