On the streets of old Havana, Tony Stephens sees the weight of history and the signs of change.
The housemaid in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba arrives promptly, with the requested iron, an extra towel and a beaming smile but not with the requested ironing board.
She lays the towel on the bed, plugs in the iron and makes the ironing motion over the bed. "A new experience in Cuba," she beams.
Much of the Hotel Nacional is a new experience. Some fellow travellers on a Captain's Choice tour of South and Central America are disappointed the Nacional falls short of the five-star standard to which they became accustomed in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Cuzco and Panama City, but the Nacional is the one others will remember most fondly.
Overlooking the Malecon, the sea wall in Havana bay that runs along one of the city's main arteries, the Nacional opened in 1930, when Cuba was a prime destination for travellers from the US and Europe. Guests included Winston Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Buster Keaton, Rocky Marciano, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Alexander Fleming, whose discovery of penicillin earned him a share of a Nobel Prize, and Sumner Welles.
Welles was the envoy sent by Franklin D. Roosevelt to sort out challenges to the US-backed dictator Gerardo Machado. In the chaos that followed Machado's overthrow in 1933, the Nacional was the site of a bloody siege in which a number of loyal officers were shot after surrendering. Fulgencio Batista became Cuba's next US-backed dictator.
In 1946, the hotel hosted a gangsters' summit run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and dramatised by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather Part II. Lansky became a part owner of the hotel and the Casino Parisien nightclub opened in 1956 with a show by Eartha Kitt, but the new prime minister, Fidel Castro, closed the casino in 1960.
Guests can soak up the history, enjoy the expansive public spaces that look towards the Gulf of Mexico and, perhaps, catch a performance by the latest incarnation of the Buena Vista Social Club beside one of the two swimming pools. The music might not quite match that of the original group, featuring Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Compay Segundo and Omara Portuondo, but dancers, of salsa, rumba and the slower habanera, add a pleasing dimension.
Cubans would like at least some of the audience to puff gently on local cigars. The country needs the money and every cigar helps. Besides, locals say, those who die from lung cancer succumb to many cigarettes rather than occasional cigars.
Although Cuba is poor by Western standards, the people, as well as the government, boast about achievements in health and education. About 300 Venezuelans were in Cuba for cataract operations while we visited, yet four fellow travellers taken to Havana's infectious diseases hospital as swine flu suspects found third-world conditions – no towels, soap, toilet paper or air-conditioning and with a hose through a wall as a shower. One paid a bribe to secure early blood tests, another had been reported for coughing by a maid at the Nacional; all were cleared.
Travel companies are lining up to cater for increased tourism in the expectation that when Castro dies (the ailing Fidel remains the communist regime's figurehead although his brother, Raul, is president) Cuba will open up to the world.
Many Cubans share that view. Many believe that, while the rebellion led by Castro and his military commander, Che Guevara, which overthrew Batista on New Year's Day 1959, was right for their country 50 years ago, reforms are long overdue. The US President, Barack Obama, has eased restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans and there are discussions about removing the US trade embargo entirely but the US wants economic, political and human rights reform.
The embargo hurts Cuba and much of Cuban life is hard. Even so, Cubans enjoy a relatively high life expectancy, and better education and lower crime rates than the rest of Latin America.
The embargo has probably saved Old Havana, the finest surviving Spanish colonial complex in the Americas, which remains free of high-rise buildings, McDonald's and Starbucks. UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site and foreign governments are funding the restoration of many buildings.
Havana offers wonderful contrasts. Plaza de la Catedral is dominated by the Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, believed to have been the burial place of Christopher Columbus until the end of Spanish rule. Communists care for Catholicism here.
In the Plaza de la Revolucion, formerly the Plaza de la Republica, Castro would lecture the patient, or tolerant, Cubans for hours from the podium in front of the 109-metre high Memorial Jose Marti – a tribute to the nationalist poet and independence hero whose words were adapted for Guantanamera, probably Cuba's most popular song. A huge outline impression of Guevara's face, topped with beret, covers an entire wall of the ministry of the interior. The San Carlos de la Cabana fort on Havana harbour, now a museum, was once Guevara's office. Before that, Machado and Batista used it as a military prison.
Ernest Hemingway is another omnipresent hero. The writer spent 20 years in Havana and tourists can drink, as he did, at the Hotel Ambos Mundos and the atmospheric La Bodeguita del Medio, near the cathedral, and hire one of those big, old American cars to visit Finca Vigia, the estate just outside the city he left to the Cuban people. Then they can buy, in the busy Plaza de Armas, a pirate edition of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana for their flight back to democracy.
Tony Stephens travelled courtesy of Captain's Choice Tour.
You will not be allowed to enter Cuba if there is mention of any US city or airline on your ticket. Lan Airlines has a through fare for about $2010 (low-season return, including tax) from Sydney via Auckland and Santiago (Melbourne passengers fly to Sydney to connect). Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
Touring there Captain's Choice Tour has a trip to South America, Panama and Cuba on June 7-24 for $24,990 a person, twin share, including all flights on a chartered Qantas 747, top-quality accommodation, meals with drinks, tour escort and doctor. Phone 1800 650 738; see captainschoice.com.au.
Double rooms at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba cost from CUC170 pesos ($197); see hotelnacionaldecuba.com.