Havana staying as it was

The Hotel Inglaterra, Havana’s famous historic hotel, located near the National Theatre and the Capitol. Special taxis are available outside to take tourists through the narrow alleys of Old Havana.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
The Hotel Inglaterra, Havana’s famous historic hotel, located near the National Theatre and the Capitol. Special taxis are available outside to take tourists through the narrow alleys of Old Havana. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Poised on the edge of a new chapter in its history, Cuba’s historical hotels stand proud, finds Anabright Hay.

Standing firm and upright on his plinth in the centre of Havana's Parque Central, Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero, does not move a muscle. He can't - he is an Italian marble statue and has been standing in this position since he was put up in 1905.

But everyone else is moving to their own particular beat in this city which, not for the first time, is poised on the edge of a new chapter in its history.

History is ever present in Cuba and even the smallest village has a bust of Marti. He was the 19th-century founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, which fought valiantly for independence from Spanish colonialism.

Weaving between the vintage American cars, bicycle rickshaws, motor bikes and pedestrians, I make it safely across the road to the terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra.

 US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, stand with US ambassador to Cuba Jeffrey De Laurentis as they meet  embassy staff in a hotel in Havana earlier this year. Photo from Reuters.
US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, stand with US ambassador to Cuba Jeffrey De Laurentis as they meet embassy staff in a hotel in Havana earlier this year. Photo from Reuters.

 

The hotel, with its neoclassical facade, opened its doors in 1875. Jose and other liberals were reputed to have held meetings here.

Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and French actress Sarah Bernhardt were also among its famous guests. I'm just keen to sip on a lemon juice and tuck into one of its cheese and ham toasted sandwiches.

A band is playing and a crowd is gathering to listen, dance and sing along to sultry Spanish lyrics in the midday heat.

This area in front of the hotel is known as the ''Louvre Sidewalk'' and has been a gathering place for liberals, artists, musicians and people-watchers for generations.

The Hotel Inglaterra, once one of the most opulent in Havana, is still making headlines. Coinciding with the recent visit of President Obama to Cuba, the American-based Starwood Hotels and Resorts company announced it had won approval from the Treasury Department to manage the Hotel Inglaterra.

This represents the first foray by an American hospitality company into Cuba in nearly 60 years.

I push past the endless procession of visitors who walk into the lobby. Many gather to admire the adjoining Arabian-influenced yellow-tiled dining area.

Starwood chief executive Thomas B. Mangas said in an interview reported in The Washington Post that Starwood would not alter the style of the historic hotels it managed and renovated in Cuba.

Starwood has also signed a letter of intent, pending a licence approval from Treasury, to convert the Hotel Santa Isabel into part of its Luxury Collection.

It is unknown what effect the recent presidential election of Donald Trump will have on the United States' relationship with Cuba.

''These are beautiful, iconic locations and buildings with a style and decor which is very indigenous,'' Mr Mangas said.

''That's what our guests want.''

The Hotel Santa Isabel is splendidly located in the Plaza de Armas in the heart of Old Havana. Old Havana covers 4.32km and received Unesco World Heritage Status in 1982.

The main attraction for me, and the many others exploring it, is the chance to admire so many different architectural styles in such a concentrated area.

These include Spanish, Moorish, Havana baroque and neoclassical. The 20th century is also well represented with derivations of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and modern and post-modern also present.

The Hotel Santa Isabel is housed in the palace of the counts of Santovenia and dates from the 1800s. In 1833, the palace was the stage for the celebration of the royal swearing in of Princess Maria Isabel de Bourbon, who was later crowned Isabel II of Spain. It became a hotel in 1867.

British author Graham Greene has not been forgotten at the Hotel Sevilla at Trocadero No55. His classic espionage thriller Our Man in Havana was published in 1958 and provides an entertaining description of the city on the eve of the revolution. The hotel features prominently in the novel. I am pleased to see a photo of Greene hanging in the foyer.

I make my way up the lift to room 501, where Wormold, a former vacuum cleaner salesman, is recruited by MI6 to become their man in Havana. A plaque outside the room notes its use in the novel but I am not too keen to linger in case it is occupied.

The Hotel Sevilla opened in 1908 and pays homage to Moorish architecture. In 1996 the French Accor chain assumed its management and its recent upgrades have been sympathetic and loyal to its history. A happy group of tourists relax in its blue-tiled interior courtyard when I visit.

Another historic hotel to feature in Greene's work, and on the itinerary of nearly every statesman, film star and celebrity since it opened in 1930, is the Hotel Nacional in the Vedado district.

This magnificent hotel, designed by New York architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, honours its numerous famous guests in a history gallery on the ground floor.

Outside a room on my floor, a photo of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner denotes where the famous couple once stayed.

Its eight-storeyed splendour boasts a variety of architectural styles including Art Deco, Hispanic, Moorish and neoclassical.

Such is the cosmopolitan nature of its vast lobby that I am only a little surprised to encounter my next-door neighbour from New Zealand. Both of us were unaware the other was in Cuba.

Of course, Ernest Hemingway buffs make a beeline for the Hotel Ambos Mundos on Calle Obispo, where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls in Room 511. I did not visit this hotel but did pass his old bar, El Floridita, which seemed to be enjoying brisk trade.

Hemingway's old home, Finca Vigia on the outskirts of Havana, is a firm fixture on the tour bus schedule. It is beautifully restored and I enjoyed my visit, even if you do have to compete with the crowds to view the interior from exterior windows and doors.

Each room has been faithfully arranged and it is as if he is still living there, surrounded by books, posters and souvenirs from his travels.

Frozen in time is the phrase one often hears from tourists in Cuba. How long this dream-like quality will characterise this much-loved Caribbean island is anyone's guess.

-Anabright Hay paid for her own travel and accommodation in Cuba.

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