Ha­vana’s en­chanted palace still smokin’

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Ju­lia Gauci

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.

Check­list

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.

Pic­ture: Ju­lia Gauci

Con­verted to Cuba: Take a spin around the streets of Ha­vana from the Ho­tel Na­cional de Cuba

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