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The fuscia pink Cadillac glided gracefully up the long, sweeping, palm fringed driveway to the grand porticoed entrance of the Hotel Nacional, its chrome curves glistening in the Caribbean sun. No other way seemed appropriate to arrive at this most celebrated of Cuban icons. For the Hotel Nacional is not simply a hotel, it is an institution, that has weathered revolutions and political shocks, that has hosted the famous, the respected and the decidedly criminal.
On entering the hotel, one is immediately enveloped by its sense of 1930s luxury and grandeur. Rich dark wood prevails, lit by the mellow glow of period lighting. The picture frames are ornate gold affairs, the flooring intricate mosaic tiles. The lobby provides the perfect introduction to any hotel, exuding their character. The Nacional is no different. The sense of history pervades every corner, every picture, every door. Did Winston Churchill walk on these floor tiles when he visited the hotel in 1946, is this the door that Fidel Castro walked through on his many visits to the hotel, did infamous gangster Meyer Lansky drink at this bar?
The Hall of Fame is filled with pictures of the celebrated and the infamous who have frequented the corridors of the Nacional. The Hotel, it seems, has touched all those who have frequented it. Gangster Lucky Luciano once said that as he gazed at the Caribbean sea from his suite window, the water was as beautiful as in the Bay of Naples. Winston Churchill’s favoured pastime during his stay was to sit on the terrace with his canvas and paints in hand, capturing the orange hues of sunset over the Malecon.
The adjacent bar is the perfect spot to settle for sundowners, with its low rise leather chairs and dark wood panelling. Beyond the window, the palms over the pool sway in the gentle breeze, the Malecon is lined with locals enjoying the sunset, the Caribbean Sea is coloured orange. As the sun begins to set, one cannot help but ponder how much this hotel must have seen. The Nacional has gazed steadfastly out across the Straits of Florida towards the land beyond the horizon. It has seen a golden era of trade and commerce with America evaporate and seen cold relations gradually thaw. Looking towards the future, one is in no doubt that the Nacional will stand the test of time, the constant in an everchanging world.
It is only when venturing out onto the gardens of the Nacional, facing the Caribbean sea, that one can get a real impression of the hotel’s immense sense of presence. Perched high above the sea front Malecon, its distinctive towers are firmly embedded within the Havana skyline, reflective of how the hotel is itself so tightly interwoven with the Cuban psyche. It withstood army shelling in 1933, and it was on the dawn of the New Year in 1959, that shots could be heard shattering the peace in the wake of President Batista’s speedy escape. Early risers were politely advised not to leave the hotel.