Shabby chic, Castro style

Characterful: Many famous names have stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana.
Characterful: Many famous names have stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana. Photo: Alamy

Keith Austin is entranced by the faded glory of a landmark.

There are little brown earwiggy bugs at the iconic Hotel Nacional in Cuba. One on my wall has been squashed flat and is dry and flaky, which is how I like them. Why didn't housekeeping think to scrape it off, paint over it or, I don't know, frame it and make a feature of the thing?

I think they call this "shabby elegance" in travel-trade parlance. This pastel pile, built on a rocky outcrop on the Malecon Boulevard sea wall near Havana's delightful old town, is a Norma Desmond of hotels - a once beautiful star turned faded legend.

It was opened in December, 1930, 29 years before Fidel Castro's revolution turned Cuba on its head, and was where mobsters and movie stars mixed - and mixed the drinks they couldn't get legally in Prohibition-era United States.

A hotel visitors' book from those rum-soaked days would include the signatures of Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Errol Flynn, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, Nat King Cole and mobsters such as Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.

It is where Winston Churchill, post-World War II, smoked Cuban cigars in the bar, and where Frank Sinatra supposedly slipped into his Mafia buddies' rooms via secret passageways.

At least so says Estela Rivas, our 82-year-old guide and former professor at the University of Havana who runs free tours of the hotel. Her afternoon tour starts in the hotel's soaring foyer, where she explains that the small squares inset into the floor tiles are the coats of arms of cities in Spain. This is, after all, a hotel in Havana, designed by American architects in an eclectic mish-mash of baroque, art deco and Spanish colonial styles, with a touch of Moorish Alhambra tile-work thrown in.

Rivas points out two Isadora Duncan statues by the hotel lifts, then runs us quickly through the hotel's history, including tales of the Mafia summit held here in 1946 to divide the spoils of the city's gambling, drug and prostitution rackets - a meeting immortalised in the 1974 movie The Godfather Part II.

What's in the Hotel Nacional's gardens is fascinating, too. Beneath the sea-facing oval, where a wedding party is sipping mojitos and taking in the afternoon sun on the day we visit, is a network of once-secret tunnels from the Cuban Missile Crisis-era.

A small subterranean entrance takes us into what was an anti-aircraft battery and is now a simple museum devoted to the 1962 crisis, a conflict that brought the world the closest it has ever been to the brink of nuclear war.

In here, the history of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the missile crisis is showcased on the walls, explained from the Cuban point of view. The rest of the tour takes us through a maze of claustrophobic, one-person-at-a-time Cueva Taganana (Taganana Cave) tunnels that criss-cross the earth under the grassy knolls above. Among the remnants on display today is a soldier's uniform that our guide says is her uniform from that time.

The tour ends back at the hotel's small but quaint Hall of Fame bar, where posters, statues and an old jukebox pay homage to the property's heyday as a magnet for the good, the bad and the ugly.

There is also, on one wall, a poster devoted to the oldest-lived Cubans - and there are plenty of them, including one Benito Martinez, who died in 2006 aged 124 (an unverified claim, as he was never able to produce a birth certificate).

Rivas, no slouch herself in the long-lived stakes, reveals that the secret to Cubans' longevity is the concept of "manana".

"The Cuban," she says as a sign-off to the tour, "never has the stress."

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba experience is bit like eyeing a pretty girl at a dance only to discover, close up, what miracles makeup can achieve, and then discovering - you shallow fool - that, underneath the foundation, this girl has more character than all the rest put together.

And that bug husk on the bedroom wall? Manana, comrade, manana.

The writer travelled courtesy of Captain's Choice.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

LAN Airlines has a fare to Havana for about $3299 low-season return from Sydney, including taxes. Fly to Santiago (about 17hrs, including transit time in Auckland, then to Lima (3hrs 55mins), then Havana (5hrs 35mins). Melbourne passengers pay $100 more and fly Qantas to Sydney or Auckland to connect. See lan.com.

TOURING THERE

The Captain's Choice 22-day Flavours of Central America and Cuba private charter aboard MS Island Sky runs from February 19. See captainschoice.com.au

MORE INFORMATION

hotelnacionaldecuba.com

Hotel tours take place every day at 10am and 4pm and are free.

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