A meal with a view at Club Cienfuegos, a grand palace overlooking the sea

A dreamlike structure seemingly arising from the sea, one of Cienfuegos' must-see attractions is also one of its must-try dining places. Most commonly known as the Yacht Club (though its official name now is Club Cienfuegos) this eclectic-style 1920 palace enjoys a privileged location overlooking the Jagua Bay. It's a great place to enjoy cooling cocktails as the sun melts over the waters.

A meal with a view at Club Cienfuegos, a grand palace overlooking the sea

Cienfuegos’ former Yacht Club, a recreational centre built in 1920 by a group of aristocrats who only a couple of years earlier had founded a nautical sports society, still stands as one of the city’s greatest, most grandiose architectural gems. Its regal structure in simple, light tones, its strategic location overlooking a marina where yachts still dock, not as many as there used to be prior to the Revolution though, its exquisite marble interiors and luxury facilities like swimming pool and panoramic restaurants, make it one of the city’s focal points. One from which to observe this rather sleepy, immaculately clean and picturesque city and enjoy the most spectacular sunsets as our planet’s closest star sinks into the glistening tropical waters.

A picture of ultimate bliss and postcard beauty perfection, yes, but also one that evokes decades of glamorous history, a time that saw the edification of this palace have a ripple effect in the area of "Punta Gorda", which had been previously inhabited. Soon after the yacht club’s construction, other grand houses and mansions followed, such as the nearby Palladio Lazuli, now a hotel, creating Cienfuegos’ swankiest neighbourhood, where the bourgeoisie of the time chose to settle.

But most importantly, it was thanks to this palace that Cuba developed nautical sports at all. It was here that it all started. Promoted by the wealthy aristocrats who founded it, the Cienfuegos Yacht Club was the first in the country to hold rowing regattas and they proved enormously popular. These not only helped generate a local interest in the sport, and thus help forge outstanding local talent. These regattas soon drew city-wide interest and the celebrations extended to the entire town, attracting crowds of curious locals keen to be part of the action.

Nowadays, fancy boat regattas and rowing competitions no longer take place but seeing the government’s interest in rescuing old traditions to appeal to tourists, both events could soon make a comeback. It would be lovely to see part of the city’s heritage return, as I’m sure many of Cienfuegos’ older generations agree. Bringing back airs of nostalgia to revive a pretty seaside city with distinct French influence.

The Cienfuegos Yacht Club - more than boats and regattas

Despite becoming most famous for its regattas and the glamorous members of society who frequently gathered there to drink, party and be merry, the Cienfuegos Yacht Club’s official residence had another claim to fame. The grand structure of its building.

Of outstanding architectural value and with an eclectic style that was very much in vogue in the Cuba of the early 20th century, this magnificent palace cost 100 million pesos to build, and the funds were collectively gathered by its founding members. The main investors were: club President Acisclo del Valle y Blanco and Vice President Jose Ferrer Sires, alongside members Emilio Menendez Acebal, Dario Mendez and Juan Silva Fernandez among others.

The Eclectic Style, Regal Design and Exclusive Nature

The Cienfuegos Yacht Club would cover two hectares on the fringe of the city’s Jagua Bay and took two years to build, with an official opening ceremony on 28th August 1920. Initially, the building had two stories and a basement, with four towers at the top, crowned by domes, and not by accident, as Cienfuegos has been dubbed the “City of Domes” for a reason, and this palace is no exception.

Its refined interior decoration and excellent, highly-detailed finishes were the talk of town. Though not everyone who wanted to could enter the club or so much as get a glimpse of the inside. It was an exclusive members-only club and you could only get access to it via an official invitation. It was precisely its elitist and exclusive nature that prompted the Revolution to eventually transform it into the complete opposite after Fidel Castro came into power. Once its original owners fled the country, the palace became government property and they opened it to the public as a recreational club for everyone. But more on that later.

The structure’s design allowed for plenty of balconies and terraces directly overlooking the sea. The white and green paint on its façade were inspired by the colours of the palace’s pavilion. Beyond exquisite rooms, some of which functioned as restaurants, ballrooms and cigar lounges, the building also included a large swimming pool and various sports facilities. Yachts, rowing boats and regattas became not just the club’s identity seal, but the city’s, as Cienfuegos soon came to be known for its rowing races, regatta and water sports. Club Cienfuegos put Cuba’s "Pearl of the South" on the map for its nautical facilities, its luxury yachts and the local talent of rowers.

But that wasn’t all, the Yacht Cub’s majestic palatial design made it the ideal hosting ground for numerous balls, elegant lunches, sports parties, society parties and all manner of posh celebrations. All high-brow events limited to the club’s members and their friends and families. During the frequently held gatherings, the yacht club’s rules were discussed, and among other topics, setting a limit to the number of associate members allowed was a priority, as the directors wanted the selection process to be thorough. Not just anyone could get in…unless a rowing competition or a regatta was taking place…and even then, access was only granted to the club’s external areas, never inside the actual building.

The development of nautical sports - creating the best rowers in Cuba

Despite the club’s exclusivity, thanks to its creation the development of rowing as a competitive sport was kick-started in Cuba and the team of Cienfuegos’ professional rowers was the best in the country. The regatta sponsored by the Cienfuegos Yacht Club not only helped foster a culture of nautical sports in the area, but they also transcended into wider society to become a gigantic public celebration, in which the entire city took part, albeit never inside the club’s main building, always around the palace’s exterior areas.

A few decades after its creation, new additions to the palace’s structure were made, in the form of two side terraces with sea views. In 1953 refurbishment works took place, consisting of a complete overhaul to the palace’s interiors, the addition of reflective tinted glass, for added privacy, in the first floor’s windows and the “La Lobera” bar, as well as a structural enhancement and extension to the first floor terrace, leading all the way to sea and whose floors were tiled. New gardens and plant pots were also added to the building’s external grounds to beautify the overall.

Triumph of the Revolution

After Fidel Castro’s Revolution triumphed in Cuba on 1st January 1959, all private businesses, organisations and institutions were nationalised, which gave the entire nation access to previously off-limits enclaves, clubs and buildings. The Cienfuegos Yacht Club was no exception, its owners and most of its members fled the country in the months following Castro’s triumph and the property passed hands to the new revolutionary government. They decided to turn the former yacht club into a Consejo Voluntario Deportivo “Felix Eden Aguada”, shortened as CVD, a social sports club that continued focusing its attention on training the best local rowing talent for international competitions.

As the official hosting city of the 16th Central American and Caribbean Games, Cienfuegos’ former yacht club was chosen as the competition grounds for water sports and as such the government decided to spruce it up a bit. In 1982 a complete refurbishment process was carried out but a decade later the building’s exterior structure and interiors begun to crumble and deteriorate due to a number of factors, with lack of maintenance being the main one. Then, to add salt to the wound, the "Special Period" of the 90s, a time of extreme hardship for Cubans after the disintegration of the USSR; the island’s economic backbone, things went from bad to worse and authorities were forced to close down the building.

This, in turn, led to even more damage as the palace was abandoned to the will of weather fluctuations, the constant splattering of saltpetre, the battering of storms and hurricanes, the island’s high humidity levels and vandalism. Such conditions in an already aging property were devastating, to the point of a very real risk of parts of the structure falling and crashing down. It was then that the building was stripped of all of its interior furnishings, objects and valuable materials, including its entire carpentry work, a period masterpiece that was later added back.

Restoration and reopening in the early noughties

With the surge in tourism numbers by the end of the 90s, helped by a national drive to promote tourism as an alternative source of income, which in turn helped Cuba’s starved economy slowly start to recover, the state-owned tourist group, Cabana S.A. together with the Provincial Government of Cienfuegos, invested in the recovery of one of the city’s most special architectural gems. Yes, you’ve guessed it, we’re talking about Club Cienfuegos.

Looking at ways to restore national heritage while giving tourists more recreational options, especially of the nautical kind, which this city had been sorely missing for long, in this part of the island, a group of designers, builders and investors all contributed to the rebirth of Cub Cienfuegos, which re-emerged as a monumental work of art after restoration efforts were finished - an eclectic jewel of Cuba’s 20th century architecture.

Having regained its old-time splendour, Club Cienfuegos officially reopened its doors in September 2002, reviving an urban area that missed what had been the centre of water sports action for so long, and having a ripple effect in Cienfuegos Historic Centre, a declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Three years later, in 2005, the building received the "Premio Nacional de Restauracion" or National Restoration Award.

The Club Cienfuegos today - what to look forward to

Having proudly resurfaced after falling into absolute oblivion, Club Cienfuegos quickly reclaimed its throne as one of the city’s most panoramic places in which to enjoy a cooling drink or satisfy a hunger pang while enjoying the most soothing, inspiring views over the city’s bay.

I’m actually at a loss at why this place isn’t currently being marketed as a wedding venue, that could soon change though as both national and international interest grows for unique locations in which to tie the knot…how fabulous would a wedding abroad here look in pictures?. The palatial architecture and its dreamlike setting overlooking the shimmering waters of the Jagua Bay more than befit the ideal wedding scenario. So, it’s only a matter of time before people rush to book weddings here, I think.

In the meantime, enjoy the lack of big crowds while you can and soak up the amazing atmosphere of a bygone yacht-club, the cooling salty breeze tousling your hair, and a cluster of boats and yachts dotting the shoreline. It’s the picture of sophisticated relaxation perfection.

Nowadays, beyond a variety of places to drink, eat and be merry, there’s a pool table, an art gallery, a shop specialising in sports equipment, especially of the nautical kind, and a stage where local bands regularly play, and according to most recent TripAdvisor reviewers, they’re very good!. In the grounds adjacent to the club there are play areas, a tennis court, motorbike and car hire as well as a thin strip of beach.

In terms of wining and dining, there’s a lovely restaurant onsite and a bar, both offering plenty of food, snack and drink options. Head to Bar La Terraza for beers and cocktails, step into El Marinero for a smart light lunch or snack in a sea-level location or make it to the top-floor Restaurante Cafe Cienfuegos for an even more refined dinner atmosphere with an adventurous menu to match. Take your pick from juicy steaks and aromatic paellas. The food here, despite the restaurant being government-owned, is surprisingly imaginative and good quality, and you can tell they’re copying Cuba’s private restaurant trend here. Which is, most definitely, a good thing! 

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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