An article published by The Mail Online explains how Cuba's most famous hotel has had a complete makeover during lockdown and has come out looking better than ever. Read on and find out more about this fascinating old building!
Hotel Nacional de Cuba, more than just a hotel
For anyone who knows even a little of Cuba's past, they'll know that there's a lot of rich history on this island, enough to keep any amateur historian entertained.
It seems that every winding alley, every courtyard, every crumbling colonial façade, could tell a story. But as stories go, few could spin a yarn quite as entertaining as the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana - if only walls could talk!
Although less than a century old, its story begins in the late 1920s, when Americans used to make the trip to Cuba just 90 miles away across the Florida Straits, in order to enjoy the booze they weren't allowed back in the United States due to the prohibition.
Havana was known as the "Paris of the Tropics" for its opulence and effortless chic, and the fine living started a real golden age for the city.
"Las Vegas didn't exist and Cuba was the perfect place for gambling due to its proximity to the United States, the climate, the beaches, and the rum. Havana was ideally placed to become the gambling capital of the world." - Arleen Ortiz, specialist in Hotel Nacional de Cuba's history
From Hollywood stars to Mafia dons
If, by chance, you hadn't heard of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, or indeed the illustrious list of names to have stayed in it, you may be in for a surprise.
In the 1950s, Havana enjoyed another golden age similar to the one it had enjoyed in the 1930s. Many famous people around the world saw Havana as the fashionable place to be, and the Hotel Nacional de Cuba was the epicentre of Cuban chic.
The list goes on too. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Weissmuller, Ava Gardner, Mickey Mantle, Rocky Marciano, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Yuri Gagarin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Nat King Cole, and Jimmy Carter have all stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Quite a list!
The thing is, let's say that its doors have been welcoming to pretty much everyone on the societal spectrum!
Famously, in room number 211, Italian-born gangster Charles "Lucky" Luciano sojourned in December 1946 during the mafia bosses summit.
Beginning on 20th December 1946, the hotel hosted the Havana Conference, an infamous mob summit run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. It was attended by some of the mafia's biggest and most notorious names like Santo Trafficante Jr., Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese and many others.
At the conference, Luciano allegedly presented the motion to retain his position as the top boss in "La Cosa Nostra". Then Luciano's ally, Albert "The Mad Hatter" Anastasia seconded the motion. The result was one of the biggest mafia pacts in history and new mob tactics to begin massive narcotics operations in the United States.
"The entire hotel had been booked by the dons for their families to spend Christmas in the city. Perched on a hill overlooking the Straits of Florida, the Hotel Nacional was allegedly financed with mob money." - Mail Online
In need of a makeover?
You could say that the hotel was in need of a lick of paint here and there. After all, when a hotel has suffered heavy artillery fire, you'd forgive the odd renovation bill every few years.
In a political conflict fought in the 1930s, four hundred army officers loyal to the deposed president Gerardo Machado locked themselves into the hotel as government troops bombarded it from land and sea. Outnumbered and with ammunition running out, they were soon forced to surrender.
Thankfully, the hotel survived, but the pockmarked signs of the siege were evident. Just another fascinating chapter in this hotel's very interesting life!
Giving an iconic Cuban landmark a splash of paint
It's no secret that the tourism and hospitality sectors have had it tough throughout the Coronavirus pandemic. In Cuba alone, 2020 and 2021 saw vastly reduced numbers of tourists flying into the country to enjoy the many charms the island has to offer.
For example, before COVID-19, tourism represented the second official source of foreign income in Cuba. Tourism also contributed around 10% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
In the year 2021, Cuba received 225,417 foreign tourists from January to May, almost two million fewer than in the same period of 2020, according to the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI).
The Caribbean country hoped to welcome around 4.5 million international visitors in 2020, and reverse the fall of 9.3% of 2019, when 4.2 million tourists travelled to the country, 436,352 fewer than in 2018.
Yes, it's true - COVID has been a bit of a death knell for hotels and resorts all over the world. Therefore, it's a happy piece of news that sees the Hotel Nacional de Cuba soak up a bit of love whilst its rooms were empty.
During the pandemic, the hotel's old facade was restored and new floors and windows in the rooms were put in. These works took 20 months to complete, ending in mid-November, coinciding nicely with the country's re-opening of borders on 15th November.
"A lot of work was done so that when the tourists returned they would find the same 1930s hotel, although with greater comfort, reliving the past." - Arleen Ortiz
It was always a hotel that was worth restoring. Forming an iconic part of Havana's history and indeed now part of the UNESCO "Memoria del Mundo" (Memory of the World) programme, with the clientele that have stayed here, it would have been a tragedy to let it crumble into disrepair. Now, the halls and rooms are filled with photos, objects, and letters of the celebrities that have stayed at the hotel.
"The foreigners know this place and what they want is to sit where so many celebrities did before them." - Tania Fernandez, a Cuban doctor staying at the hotel.
With the re-opening of the island, and this beautiful and iconic hotel an option for tourists, it's likely that many people will choose Cuba as their holiday destination this winter, for the history, architecture, and culture by the bucketload.
"It's beautiful, it's magical being here. I love the Cuban people and I love the energy. It's incredible." - Sierra, 39, an American teacher staying at the hotel.
All being said, I cannot finish this piece without mentioning a fun fact related to this hotel that will surely amaze travel fans. Here it goes: Hotel Nacional de Cuba was the place where IATA, the organization that rules commercial airlines around the world, was founded on April 19, 1945. Yet another piece of glory for this gem of Havana.