Hilton Blue Lagoon Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Two Swimming Pools That Will Turn You into a Mermaid

This is the tale of two small bodies of water separated by the most important 90 miles of ocean passage in the geopolitical Americas. That passage is the natural aquatic border wall known as the Florida Straits between South Florida and Cuba.

The “bodies of water” are two superb swimming pools. If you are as lucky as I am, you can swim in each of them on the same day. You can do this at the Hilton Miami Airport Blue Lagoon and the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana.

And if you are like me, you will not want to climb out of either of them.

Hilton Miami Airport Blue Lagoon’s blue pool
Hilton Miami Airport Blue Lagoon’s blue pool. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Pools With a View

Miami International Airport is the travel gateway to Latin America. There are daily flights and connections to Havana, Guayaquil, Punta Cana and beyond.

Any length of layover deserves a stay at the Hilton Blue Lagoon Miami Airport. This Hilton is also a perfect property for cruise passengers and Miami tourists. Also, meeting planners who seek a centrally convenient, accessible location.

Accessibility starts with free, frequent shuttles from the airport to the Hilton. Shuttles are found just off the airport property, across the expressway, and surrounded by a lagoon.

Eduardo, one of the shuttle drivers, is a Cuban immigrant who displayed ebullience and shared cultural stories. He is a magnificent “first touch” ambassador for the “sense of arrival” at the Hilton Blue Lagoon Miami Airport.

The “bienvenidos” spirit continued with welcomes at the front desk and from the housekeeping staff I encountered.

Resort on the Runways

The concept of an “airport hotel” does not raise much in the way of expectations. But the Hilton Blue Lagoon would be more accurately titled as a resort because that is how it feels. Think: convenience meets comfort.

Travelers on a tight timetable never lose sight of the airport—literally. And those with more time on their hands are close to the conveniences of Coral Gables, the cultural flavor of Little Havana and a $25 ride share to South Beach (all of which I tested.)

When asked, airport shuttles even drop guests near the local stores and restaurants, which are also within walking distance. (A broken carry-on zipper in transit had me seek out the Burlington store in the strip mall. I was blissfully back to the hotel in 45 minutes.)

The Hilton also offers affordable airport parking.

For those who want to bunker-in at the resort, an exercise room overlooks the pool deck and lagoon.

For entertainment, the Hilton’s Cove Bar stages weekly events, such as Fridays’ “Havana Social Night” with music, mojito and Cuba libre cocktails and cuisine such as ham croquettes and vaca frita sliders.

Thursdays are “Oyster, Meet Bourbon,” with drinks and three types of fresh oysters.

There is a higher-end curated kiosk in the middle of the lobby named Herb n’ Kitchen. Here you’ll find gifts, conveniences, craft beers, juices, coffees, snacks and baked goods. Plus, a menu of takeout hot food such as quesadillas, pizza, flatbread, wings, burgers and salads.

My room had a mini fridge, which I put to good use with some of the aforementioned craft beer.

Shady spot to see the Hilton Miami Airport’s pool and lagoon
Shady spot to see the Hilton Miami Airport’s pool and lagoon. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Why I Did Not Spend Much Time in My Room

My 10th-floor, two-room suite was a space I could live in if I had to. The curved, screened balcony gave me an eastern-facing view of the Miami skyline, the lagoon surrounding the hotel, Miami Marlins Ballpark and the runways of Miami International Airport. Watching airplanes coming and going to destinations around the world provokes a soothing sense of wonder and excitement.

Every room in the hotel has a view of the airport and/or the lagoon. My room also had a view of the pool deck, which is where I tried to spend every waking moment while on property.

The huge, warm, wandering swimming pool has a fauna-surrounded view, too: the lagoon surrounding it; the airport runways and the Miami skyline. Chaise loungers, wicker couches and patio tables with umbrellas that sit on the lagoon between the trees invite guests to linger and lounge. As does the tiki bar in the middle of it all and the bubbling jacuzzi.

Resting my head on the edge of the pool, I watched bright green iguanas meander across the deck and under the lounge chairs.

There is a classic song called “Moon over Miami,” but a morning backstroke in the Hilton pool while viewing the pink, orange and aquamarine sky while breathing in the Magic City’s moist, fragrant air is a dreamy eye-opener.

Dramatic skies over panoramic Havana.
Dramatic skies over panoramic Havana. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Laughter in the Rain

I chatted with the Miami Hilton Blue Lagoon’s well-dressed general manager Jean Armas in the hotel breezeway long enough to learn there are considerable updating and renovation plans coming soon. They will coincide with World Cup soccer matches and, Lionel Messi’s new home, the under-construction Inter Miami CF Stadium and Miami Freedom Park entertainment district, scheduled to open in 2025.

Back in the Miami Hilton Blue Lagoon’s swimming pool at about 10 a.m., as I watched the flights take off and land at the airport, I noticed a bank of ominous clouds moving across the Florida sky. I stopped swimming for a moment and stood still to determine whether they were headed my way. Not being a meteorologist, I decided, “Maybe.”

Then I decided, “So what?”

I swam, paddled and backstroked while I watched the gray and deep-blue curtain of clouds draw over the lagoon and hotel. Eventually, it did start pelting the pool with raindrops. 

The pool water was warm, and so was the Sunshine State rain, so I figured water was water. I bathed in it and drank it all in—a very natural experience beside a modern hotel.

The hour passed, as did the storm, but the memory never will.

Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, Cuba

It is less than an hour’s flight from Miami Airport to Cuba’s Jose Marti International Airport, and about a half-hour cab ride from the landing strip to the Old Havana.

“Gran Manzana” translates to “Big Apple.” While Kempinski’s Gran Manzana hotel is across the street from Havana’s “Central Park,” the view from the sixth-floor rooftop infinity pool, restaurant and spa is more evocative of Washington D.C.

The oasis overlooks Cuba’s Capitol Building, designed as a replica of the USA’s (but slightly taller.) It provides a political panoramic view from the pool by day or night when uplighting makes the domed “Capitolo” look like a glittering jewel box.

Morning at Manzana
Morning at Manzana. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Pool Panorama

From the Gran Manzana’s multi-tiered pool deck and wraparound walkway, you can see the sea beyond Havana’s Malecon from the pool. You can also see Havana’s visually stunning old-world architecture, which in some cases is like seeing Roman ruins. As the light during the day changes its impossible to tear your eyes from the shadows and shades and painted palettes below all the way to the horizon, including the candy-colored vintage vehicles lined up below.

Sunset sets it all ablaze and brings an audio treat of lively Cuban music emanating from neighborhood patios.

Nourishment

Taking in all that sun – even under the chaise umbrellas and hotel towels – requires hydration.

“Drink wine. It is healthier for you,” advised Gran Manzana’s general manager – Kempinski’s President and COO of the Americas, in his humorous tone.

You needn’t leave the view – or even the pool – to sip an authentic daiquiri, with its ice piled high like an ice cream sundae, just like the ones Ernest Hemingway helped invent across the street at El Floridita, dubbed “the Greatest Bar on Earth,” with live music and red-coated waiters.

“Kempinski Hotels, founded in 1897, is the oldest European brand, with 84 privately-owned, unique properties worldwide. We like to open hotels in historic buildings and even palaces,” Destribats explained. “For our guests, every moment becomes a masterpiece.”

View from Hilton Miami Airport of the airport across the lagoon
View from Hilton Miami Airport of the airport across the lagoon.
Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Trading the Pool for the Beach

Destribats is a Frenchman who now lives in Havana, finds it a beautiful, fascinating city with art, theater, concerts, music and a jungle right in the middle of the city. But he also said visitors will never be disappointed if they take time to see more of the largest island in the Caribbean and its beautiful, clean beaches.

“And you can now fly to Kempinski’s Cayo de Guillermo – a luxury beach resort surrounded by the sea with six over-water bungalows,” Destribats said. “The beach is called Playa Pilar, named for Ernest Hemingway’s boat, because he used to go fishing there in the 1960’s.”

The cay provides the setting for the climax of Hemingway’s last novel “Islands in the Stream.”

In terms of a “natural swimming pool,” the Central Cuban beach, with its clear, coastal waters and towering sand dunes, was selected one of the 25 best beaches in the world. 

Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler and contact him at [email protected]

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