Cuba has always been on my radar but it wasn’t until last year, when I was offered a trip to Cancun, Mexico, that I was able to realise my ambition. I had little knowledge about the country outside its popular mythology but I knew exactly 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 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 Cuba’s numerous casinos from the mid-1950s under the patronage of Cuban President, Fulgencio Batista.
The Nacional thus had just the sort of pop cultural juice I thirsted for. The hotel itself opened in 1930, designed by the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White (also responsible for the New York Public Library). Co-founder, 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. One morning, there appeared on a serving tray what appeared to be a huge slab of pre-sliced bacon that had had all the meat carefully removed and had then been boiled in one piece. For once, I went with the Europeans and chose the stale bread rolls and hard-boiled eggs.
The staff, with the exception of the housekeepers, seem under the impression they’re working in a museum. Any request, no matter how trivial, is dispatched 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 $US20 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 hit on “Bugsy” Siegel was planned or the corporatisation of the drug trade was finely honed. It looks more like the place where 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 must have been extremely dexterous to accommodate 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 past decade, 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 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 exuberant security guards chase away anybody who looks like a local.
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.
Words and photos © David Latta