Havana’s enchanted palace still smokin’
IT is revolution. I will liberate myself from the ghosts of Christmas past and sidestep the festive season. The usual family crises? Not for me. The Caribbean, Cuba, salsa? Mojitos, mambo, bueno?Si,si.
Cruising the curve of the Malecon, the seawall and social strip that stretches along the city of Havana, the sultry sounds of son — Cuban salsa — are my salvation. As another gleaming, heavily chromed 1950s car roars past, music set to the max, I get the impression that silent nights in Cuba are as rare as immaculate conceptions. Confirming my theory, my driver turns up the music and happily we groove towards the white palace on the hill.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is renowned, and not just because of its five-star status in a socialist country. The eight-storey ‘‘ enchanted palace’’, as it is known, opened on December 30, 1930, and from its earliest days, was a casa beyond compare.
With the US still under Prohibition, Cuba was where tourism based on drinking, gambling and other vices flourished. The Nacional, a joint venture between the Cuban government and an assortment of USbased banks and companies, was completed in two years. It soon became the place where affairs, both amorous and commercial, were conducted, sometimes in secret, and where international political figures met and plotted. The Nacional was where musicians, models and Hollywood stars stayed and where many writers found their muse. Then there was the mob.
The 1946 Mafia summit took place at the Nacional and it was here that Lucky Luciano allegedly divided the mob’s business interests in Cuba. It seems Frank Sinatra’s alleged Mafia connections were also maintained at the hotel. Italian-American gangster Meyer Lansky oversaw refurbishments at the Nacional in 1950, opening and managing a new casino and nightclub, and it was about this time that the Batista government, and allegedly the CIA, became linked to the hotel.
In 1959, when Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba, taking an estimated $US40 million with him, the Nacional was among foreign-owned lands and business interests seized and nationalised by Fidel Castro. The hotel is now regarded as a national treasure.
In 1990, the Government began a two-year renovation program and, with tourism back on the agenda, the Nacional and the former Hilton (also seized in the revolution), now known as the Hotel Habana Libre, were to become stars of a new economy.
The exterior of the Nacional is all wedding-cake white with turrets, arches and decorative architectural flourishes that speak of its art deco and Spanish heritage.
The long, palm-lined driveway curves around manicured gardens and leads to an elegant, tiled entrance where disarmingly attractive bell-boys greet new arrivals, expertly deal with luggage and direct awe-struck visitors through the lobby.
Lofty ceilings give guests the sense of entering a cathedral, and oversize lanterns, glossy dark timber beams and miles of tiles are part of the elaborate design. Pictures of famous guests line several walls and in the bar murals are themed by decade, celebrating the great, the good and the gloriously bad who have stayed here.
Double doors directly opposite the entrance lead to a vast terrace and lawn, and another bar area with sea views. In the centre garden area, ringed on three sides by arches, guests lounge on cane seats, sipping daiquiris or mojitos and listening to music. (There’s a different band each afternoon and evening.)
The Nacional’s 480-odd guestrooms are not as striking as its public areas, but the hotel oozes atmosphere and much, including modest rooms, can be forgiven. Among the hotel’s many fine five-star features are some of the biggest tourist attractions in Havana: the Cabaret Parisien, where each night at 10 a colourful Cuban cabaret with about 100 performers kicks off; the Compay Segundo, a 1930s ballroom where members of the Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro Cuban All Stars perform; and Comedor Aguiar, an old-world silver-service restaurant.
The lobby is another of Havana’s great tourist sites. And, as has always been the case, anyone who’s anyone, who is in Havana, is at the Nacional.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Calle 21 y O, Vedado, Plaza, Ciudad de la Habana, Cuba, 10400. Phone: +53 7 836 3564; www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com. Tariff: Doubles from 170 Cuban convertible pesos ($224); packages are available. Checking in: Celebrities, politicians and international travellers. Bedtime reading: TheMafiain Havana:ACaribbeanMobStory by Enrique Cirules. Stepping out: The Nacional is in central Havana with all the city sights on the doorstep. The cobbled streets of Old Havana, filled with 1950s cars and lined with gloriously restored or tumbledown buildings (depending where you wander), is 8km away. The various bar and hotel haunts of Ernest Hemingway are among other must-do pilgrimages. Brickbats: Though the atmosphere under the arches, overlooking the gardens, is sensational, it doesn’t compensate for mojitos served without a good measure of rum (though the drinks in the hotel’s Cine Cafe are served extra strong, so maybe it balances out). Bouquets: Impressive staff. At Cabaret Parisien and Compay Segundo, see the greats of the Cuban music scene, drink and dance til 3am. It’s only a short stagger back to your room.
Converted to Cuba: Take a spin around the streets of Havana from the Hotel Nacional de Cuba