Cigar Aficionado

Hotel Nacional, Havana

In the warm Cuban twilight, the silhouette of a man can be seen wading in the pool of the Hotel Nacional and smoking a long, pungent cigar. Forty years ago, it could have been Winston Churchill, who had an affinity for this grand hotel in Havana, but today it is simply another tourist enjoying the facilities at the city's finest hotel.

The Nacional showcases old Cuban traditions for luxury and service and suggests that they have not been completely forgotten in the wake of the 1959 Revolution. A face-lift costing $64 million has brought the hotel back to its former glory. Everything--the simple yet tasteful rooms and apartments, elegant dining areas and vibrant swimming pools--has been restored.

Located on a small knoll overlooking the entrance to Havana Bay, the Nacional was originally built in 1929--30 through a joint agreement with the Cuban government and U.S.-based banks. American companies designed and built the Nacional, and as soon as it was completed, tourists from America flooded the hotel's spacious reception areas, dining rooms and gardens. It was "the" place to be in Havana.

Unfortunately, like most other hotels in Cuba, the Nacional declined precipitously after the Revolution. Finally, in 1990 the government decided to renovate the hotel and bring it back to its showpiece status. In May 1992, the 483-room hotel reopened, catering primarily to businessmen and high-class tourists. Unlike most other hotels in Cuba, the Nacional does not focus on the package tour business, giving it an altogether more professional and luxurious ambiance.

The Nacional is now a major business center in Havana. Businessmen are in abundance, speaking English and Spanish and making deals. The Havana Libre hotel used to be where the deals were made, but the power center is quickly moving to the Nacional. There's even an executive floor in the hotel with concierge service, meeting rooms, faxes and computers. All the guest rooms have air conditioning and are well-equipped with minibars, direct line telephones and cable television (including CNN).

However, this doesn't mean that you can't come to the Nacional just to relax and enjoy the Cuban weather and culture. The main swimming pool is large and extremely welcoming after a hot day spent on the Havana streets or visiting cigar factories. There are few things better in Havana than taking a quick dip in the pool and then sipping an ice cold Cuban beer while overlooking the cityscape or the bright blue Caribbean. A three-minute walk from the hotel and you are on famous Malecon Boulevard, which runs along the rocky coast of Havana. In addition, the hotel has a good gym, tennis courts and plenty of gardens to stroll through.

Service at the Nacional is extremely helpful and the most efficient in Cuba--which isn't saying much by European or American standards. But it is welcome in a country where most waiters or hotel employees seem half asleep. On a four-day stay at the Nacional, we asked the concierge to do a number of things, from reserving tables at restaurants and rental cars to hand-delivering parcels to business associates. Nothing fazed him, and nothing was too small or too large for him to do for us.

The only major failing of the Nacional is its food. Breakfast is good, with rich Cuban coffee, pastries and fresh fruit, but it slides downhill for the rest of the day. Eating lunch or dinner in the main dining room may take hours, and when the food finally does arrive, most of it is barely edible. The cafeteria-style restaurant and its neighboring coffee shop are nearly as bad. What comes out of their kitchens make school food look like Michelin-starred cuisine.

For lunch or dinner, you'll do much better at the poolside barbecue with grilled chicken or fish, sautéed potatoes and vegetables. Dinner is especially good, since you don't even have to move after your meal to enjoy the warm Cuban night, a shot of rum and a great cigar. Finishing the day in such a glorious way, it's easy to see what Churchill liked about the Nacional--or whoever it was in the swimming pool that evening.