Cuba has always been on my radar but it wasn’t until I was offered a trip to Cancun, Mexico, that I was able to realise my ambition. I had little knowledge about Cuba outside its popular mythology but knew instantly where I wanted to stay.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba was popularized in the movie Godfather II as the venue for what came to be called, in real life, the Havana Conference. Held in December 1946, it brought together America’s top crime bosses including “Lucky” Luciano, then in exile in Italy, and Meyer Lanksy, who was to head the push by American organised crime into Cuba’s numerous casinos under the patronage of Cuban President, Fulgencio Batista.
The Nacional thus had just the sort of pop cultural juice I thirst for when travelling. The hotel opened in 1930, designed by the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White (also responsible for the New York Public Library). Co-founder of the firm, Stamford White, had his own literary pedigree; his 1906 murder forms the centerpiece of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Havana was everything I was expecting and far, far more. While the people may be poor, they are overwhelmingly hospitable with a ready sense of humour. It seems as if every second Cuban is a musician; linger for more than a few minutes in a bar or café and a group will wander in unannounced and strike up a tune that would have the Buena Vista Social Club tapping their toes in appreciation.
The Nacional, however, was a mixed bag. The public areas, in dark local mahogany and imported Spanish tiles, are an intoxicating melange of Moorish and Art Deco, the design equivalent of Othello dancing a tango with Nora Charles. The guestrooms tend to the smallish and could most kindly be described as Period Shabby Chic but many have histories that almost make up for their lack of comfort.
The breakfast buffet was a constant feast of surprises, some of which were actually edible. One morning, there appeared on a serving tray what had most likely originally been a huge slab of frozen pre-sliced bacon that had had all the meat carefully removed and then been boiled in one piece. In another country it would have been a prop for a particularly obscure piece of performance art or an unwanted item from the Damien Hirst factory store. Guests gathered around it, curious and rather unsure of what to do with it. For once, I went with the Europeans and chose the stale bread rolls and hard-boiled eggs.
Hotel staff generally, with the exception of the friendly and efficient housekeepers, seem under the impression they’re working in a museum. Any request, no matter how trivial, is terminated with a sigh of detached reservation and a polite refusal. I was determined to get a tour of the hotel and eventually found a concierge who defrosted slightly under a relentless barrage of flattery and a folded €20 note.
It opened up a seemingly endless exploration of the second floor, where all the celebrities of the last 80 years stayed. The so-called Mafia Room is a double suite, numbers 211-13. It doesn’t appear like a hangout for a mob of wiseguys and their henchmen, where the 1947 hit on “Bugsy” Siegel was sanctioned or the corporatisation of the American drug trade was finely honed. It looks more like the place your grandparents would stay for their golden wedding anniversary.
Celebrity guests of a more benign nature included Frank Sinatra (Room 214), Nat King Cole (218), Ava Gardner (225), Fred Astaire (228) and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller (232).
Errol Flynn stayed in Room 235, two doors down from mine. If our rooms were identically sized, I figured he needed to be extremely dexterous to exercise his growing reputation. Flynn was also said to have been a drinking companion of Ernest Hemingway although it must be noted that, if you had a pulse and were in Cuba anytime between the 1920s and 1960s, there’s a pretty fair chance you’d end up drinking with Hemingway.
The Celebrity Hall of Fame in the Bay-View Bar shows that celebrities have been a little light on in the recent past, the best-known being Kevin Costner, Oliver Stone and The Backstreet Boys
The rear gardens amble down to a cliff-face overlooking the harbor. Pancho, the Nacional’s pet peacock, lives in a small shed in front of La Barraca, an outdoor restaurant promising, although not exactly delivering, Cuban cuisine. A living and breathing contradiction in terms (locals will readily admit that the best Cuban food is in Miami), I overheard a group of Australian tourists refer to it as La Berocca.
The centre of the hotel’s social scene is the colonnaded verandah just off the lobby. At any time of the day or night, hotel guests gather to consume fat cigars and over-priced, shamefully bad mojitos and watch the security guards chase away anybody who looks like a local.
The long driveway from the street to the front entrance is lined with the immaculate late-model Mercedes that function as official hotel taxis and decrepit but vigorously-maintained 1950s American cars. Enormous mid-century land yachts, masterfully-wrought slabs of Detroit steel, what little remains of their original paintwork faded and blemished but fastidiously polished, chrome pitted and cloudy, body panels rusted out by sea spray and held together with wire and prayers, these leftovers of the days when Cuba was America’s playground can be hired for tours of the city. The owner-drivers, once you break through their habitually gruff exteriors, are like classic car custodians the world over – proud and more than happy to share their enthusiasm. Cut off from such niceties as spare parts by more than 50 years of economic sanctions, a look under the hood of these automotive dinosaurs reveal wondrously inventive repair methods that would make MacGyver green with envy.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, as the Cubans might say (if they spoke Spanish as badly as me), offers up buenos tiempos but it’s all a matter of interpretation.
©David Latta. Words and photographs. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.