Hotel Nacional Still Reigns Over Havana
Like rum from sugar cane, if Havana could be distilled into one symbol redolent of Cuba’s golden age, it’s the Hotel Nacional. Poised like a grand dame on a hill just above the seafront, the Nacional demands attention from most anywhere in central Havana. Completed in 1930, the elegant dual-towered building was designed by a New York architectural firm in a mixture of Art Deco and Spanish colonial styles, and took a crew of 8,000 workers 14 months to finish. Part of the expenses were supposedly financed by American mob money made during prohibition.
The Nacional’s story chronicles 84 years of Cuban history, from its early days as luxurious getaway for Hollywood stars and the international elite, to women’s literacy training center after the 1959 revolution. Previous to the revolution it had become a symbol of Cuban-heeled corruption, with mob leaders Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano running its casino in cahoots with the island’s then dictator, Fulgencio Batista. (Scenes of the Hotel’s notorious times were recreated in The Godfather II.) Having been built on the site of an 18th century naval battery, partly still on display in the Hotel gardens, the strategic site was newly employed during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when Cuban soldiers dug tunnels beneath the lawns to install Soviet anti-aircraft guns. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara set up their headquarters there so as to plan the city’s defense from aerial attack. Castro had closed the Hotel to tourists after the revolution, and it fell into sad neglect, being used only for visiting foreign diplomats and government officials. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Nacional was restored and reopened for the new influx wave of international tourism that started in the early 90s.
The Nacional’s illustrious guest roster says it all: from Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Lucky Luciano, Errol Flynn, Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Mickey Mantle, Fred Astaire, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, to the likes of Kate Moss today. While the Revolution put an end to casinos, the Hotel’s cabaret is still going strong, featuring concerts and Parisian-style reviews in a garden setting. A World Heritage Site and Cuban National Monument, Hotel Nacional is not to be missed on a visit to Havana. Even if you don’t stay there, you can stroll the grand hallways and gardens, catch a show or have cocktails in one of the elegant bars. Wearing a shirt and tie from the Nick Graham “Crazy for Cuba” collection will definitely help invoke those glamorous times when Frank and Ava ruled.
By Jorge Socarras