Ask any cigar smoker who travels frequently to Havana what his favourite patio in that city is and he is most likely to mention the one at the Hotel Nacional. Any trip to Havana with this bunch of people will almost always include at least one visit to the Hotel Nacional to basically just hang out and have a smoke or two, at any time of day and it is open 24 hours.
I have even had my breakfast there early one morning, cafe’ con leche and a croissant mind you but that was my breakfast. We ate at the ranchos to the side of the patio before the Cabaret Parisien show and don’t remember finding it any good. I have yet to eat in the main dining room but have had their breakfast buffet at “La Veranda” on the lower floor and found it to be pretty good.
The Cabaret Parisien ( restored in 2000) is a smaller version of the tropicana show for a fraction of the price. And it’s in the city close to everything. I remember being able to smoke my cigar while watching the show. I wonder if that’s still allowed, you can’t smoke at the tropicana. I visited the pool on several occasions when I rented nearby.
I loved it, no riff off, mostly guests or mature people. There is a charge to use the pool if you are not a guest but most of that money can go towards buying food or drink poolside. They offer some great sandwiches and beer as well as a full bar with all the typical cocktails. For an extra dollar I use the gym that’s right next to the pool in an air conditioned room. It has the basic stuff for a decent work out.
The so-called “Buena Vista Social Club” play here in the salon Tuesday and Saturday nights but they aren’t the guys we remember from the movie. Most of those people are dead and the band was never really a band except while touring for the movie.
The random original member will turn up on occasion..the bass or trombone player, most of the main guys have passed away. One place that took me a long time to discover is what some people call the museum. It’s a bar really, they call it the hall of fame. An antique jukebox adorns the room as do many photos of celebrities that have visited the hotel.
Of course there is a well stocked bar in the room, excellent space for those evenings when the breeze coming off the ocean is a little too cool..it happens. One thing we can’t forget is the cigar shop below the gift shop. The lovely and talented Milagro is the roller there.
There is always a doorman waiting to open the entrance door for you and taxis are always sitting just outside to your left when exiting..if not, walk just outside the property. As far as the hotel goes, although it’s been showered with accolades through the years, I have heard from different people that have stayed there that except for the history and of course the patio, it’s not one of the greatest hotels in the city, especially for what you are paying.
For sure it is not the five stars it claims to be. The rooms are very outdated, some of them smell of mould and because of the old plumbing sometimes there are issues in the department.
The service is always talked about in a positive light and issues are attended to. If a possible little inconvenience doesn’t bother you, this is a wonderful hotel set in an excellent location with great restaurants and nightclubs within walking distance. You can beat that potion, an excellent spot to end your evenings and you never know who will show up.
Have you ever wondered why those cannons are on the back patio? Centuries ago, Havana was constantly attacked by pirates and after the English captured the city in 1972 ( being returned to Spain a year later) they decided to do something about it by building numerous fortifications including this one ( now occupied by the hotel gardens) called the Santa Clara battered, which dates back to 1797. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. The two cannons, the Krupp and the Ordonez ( the world’s largest at the time) are what’s left of the defence system that was installed here.
Guided tours of the hotel with an outline of its history are offered Monday to Friday. The hotel with its 457 rooms, is 20 kilometres from the airport and 20 kilometres from playa Santa Maria (the beach). As well as the pool and the gym that I mentioned earlier it has tennis courts, sauna, and massage and medical services. Old Havana is a short taxi ride away but you don’t need to go far for some great eateries and terrific nightlife.
After having mentioned the good and the bad you might ask, what am I saying? Should I book here or not? I have to say that for historical value, no other hotel tops this one but are the sentimental attributes worth more to you than modernity and convenience? That’s a decision that only you can make and judge, so you will have to spend a holiday here to find out. If you are at all questioning it, I recommend you book it and partake in all of the hotel’s many splendours when you do. I myself have never stayed in any of the rooms. Here is a bit of the history: the Hotel Nacional de Cuba opened its doors on the night of the 30th December 1930 after fourteen months of construction.
The who’s who of guests that visited during this decade and the next are too many to mention: Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) used to jump from a second story balcony into the pool: actor Cesar Romero who was the grandchild of Jose Marti, as well as fellow actors George Raft, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, Tyrone Power, Rita Hayworth, Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper. Just to name a few, and countless luminaries from the entertainment world and royalty.
Sir Winston Churchill was a guest here in 1946. There was a scene in Godfather II where a meeting with all the capos takes place in a hotel in Havana. Although it didn’t happen in the timeline shown in the movie, if Fidel Castro is entering the city victorious it means it was 1959, it did actually take place in 1946. The hotel closed its doors to the public while catering to the likes of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Santo Trafficante Jr, Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia and Vito Genovese as well as many others. By 1955, Lansky had a piece of the hotel and in 1957 the casino was making as much as any in Vegas. Although Nat king Cole at first was not allowed to stay in the hotel on racist grounds, it would be allowed after the memorable concerts he put on in the hotel.
Eartha Kitt inaugurated the Cabaret Parisien in 1956. On the triumph of the Revolution on 12 January 1959, the representatives of the American company that operated the hotel left and the hotel staff took over the management.
Between 1960 and 1961, Cuba’s revolutionary government reorganised the hotel’s administration. The casino was closed in October 1960. Since there were no tourists during this time, the hotel was used to accommodate visiting diplomats and foreign government officials. With the collapse of the USSR, Cuba was forced to open its borders to tourism once again in the 1990s and after some restoration the hotel opened its doors to the world again in 1992. In 1998, the hotel was declared a national monument by the National Monuments Commission.