Havana Nights

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I came across this 1958 ad photographed at Hotel Nacional in Havana shortly before vacationing in that city last week.  I subsequently made a point of visiting the hotel that was once the haunt of American mobsters and movie stars to see how it had held up in the years after the Castro revolution (which happened less than a year after the ad was published, ironically).  It turns out that it’s been treated very well.  It’s looking a bit dowdy in places but as my partner and I sipped our mojitos on the sprawling grounds overlooking the ocean at sunset it was easy to picture tuxedo-clad guests doing exactly the same thing back in hotel’s heyday.

In fact, despite Havana’s largely decrepit state and its tropical latitude the ambiance at the better hotels and restaurants is a distinctly formal one.  Serving staff are all smartly outfitted in black pants, white dress shirts and black bow ties, and often a black vest too.  Accordingly, seasoned guests (who are all foreigners as the average Cuban income is $20 per month) regularly wear long pants, shoes and short-sleeve dress or polo shirts making them quite distinct from the masses of resort tourists bused into the city each day wearing cargo shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts.  I’m not sure if this is the trend year round but certainly in the winter when temperatures are very comfortable at night there’s no legitimate reason to dress like a hillbilly after dark.

I for one would love to experience the unique elegance of a formal evening in the tropics, feeling the cool ocean breeze in the moonlight while sporting a bow tie and natty ivory dinner jacket.  There is something impossibly refined about maintaining high standards in a locale where there are so many apparent excuses to lower the bar (“I’m on vacation.”  “It’s too hot.” “It’s too much to pack.”). The closest thing I’ve experienced was wearing my tuxedo on a Caribbean cruise once but it was on a Carnival ship which is pretty much the equivalent of a floating Walmart.

Who knows, maybe the opportunity will arise at a future visit to the very hotel pictured in the ad.  For the record, this is how it looks now:

6 Comments

  1. A. R.

    “but it was on a Carnival ship which is pretty much the equivalent of a floating Walmart.”

    The first thing to make me laugh today. I’ve done a Transatlantic crossing*, but never a Caribbean cruise.

    *This required the use of all four of my Black tie ensembles, and ended in a private White tie dinner. Without question the best traveling experience I have ever had.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Funny you should say that as the only other cruise I’ve been on was the inaugural transatlantic crossing of the Queen Mary 2. (In fact, the research I did before buying my tuxedo for that crossing became the genesis of The Black Tie Guide.) And wouldn’t you know it, when we arrived at the port for the Carnival cruise the QM2 was docked right in front of our ship . . . and the QE2 just a few piers over! Talk about rubbing salt in the wound.

      Reply
      1. A. R.

        I was on one of the last Transatlantics the QE2 did. I can assure you that the vessel was far more elegant than the QM2. It’s too bad really that the new liners have been built to “modern” tastes.

        Reply
  2. David V

    “I for one would love to experience the unique elegance of a formal evening in the tropics, feeling the cool ocean breeze in the moonlight while sporting a bow tie and natty ivory dinner jacket. ”

    Had that experience Christmas 2010 on the Celebrity Solstice. Less than a handful of men wore white jackets. But I noticed women turning their heads to look at me. ME!

    Reply
  3. Hal

    By meaningless coincidence, I have just returned from Havana too. The Nacional is still an impressive building – one of a number of stunning hotels there, in fact. The lobby with its old fashioned original early thirties wooden counters was particularly impressive. I’d certainly recommend that anyone in Havana has a cocktail or two in its shaded veranda.

    I’m not wholly convinced by the white DJ look, however, even if in the tropics.

    Reply
  4. David V

    Hal, it has been around for almost 80 years. Women give you “that” look. What will it take to convince you?

    Reply

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