ABOARD THE CELESTYAL CRYSTAL – I was the only person in the Love Garden. It is a bit out of the way at the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana. Seemed like most people were walking through the hotel’s historic halls or heading down to enjoy the beautiful view of the sea.
In truth, I discovered the garden because I was looking for a public restroom. Stepping around the corner, I saw the Love Garden sign and photos of famous folks who once were said to have shared their affection in this little nook.
Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra. Rita Hayworth and Ali Khan. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Of course, we know from history that those love affairs didn’t always end well.
Engraved upon the garden entrance is a quote from Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”
Curious and well worth contemplating.
Along with the photos of famous folks are circles with the names of couples who pledged their love here. The circles are embedded in the concrete wall of fame with the names and dates handwritten on them.
A hotel employee told me that the hotel is a popular wedding venue and that the circles are pledges of undying love. The hotel employee also told me that newlyweds like to have their photos taken at the Wishing Well in front of the hotel.
Since 1930, people have stopped at the Wishing Well to make a wish. Instead of tossing a coin as is often the case in so many of these wishing places, wish makers are supposed to make it come true by holding their hands over the mouth of the well. I tried it.
I wasn’t staying at the legendary hotel. My accommodations are on the beautiful Celestyal Crystal cruise ship. Stopping at the hotel was part of my Havana itinerary and, as always, I certainly could have used more time here. That’s the way it has been at every stop. Must mean I have to return someday.
Rising over the seafront Malecón, this landmark grand dame was once the playground of the rich and famous. Constructed in 1930, the hotel was built and operated as a hotel for American tourists. Cubans didn’t stay here.
The hotel was designed by the prestigious architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, which also designed such iconic buildings as the Boston Public Library. Its architecture is Art Deco with a hodgepodge of other eclectic elements.
A parade of A-listers stayed here – Walt Disney, Marlon Brando, Gary Cooper, Winston Churchill, Fred Astaire, Errol Flynn, Buster Keaton, Mickey Mantle and John Wayne.
Rita Hayworth and Frank Sinatra spent their volatile honeymoon here. Mafia also found the hotel to their liking. Lucky Luciana and Al Capone are said to have been guests for rum-soaked getaways.
In December 1946, the hotel hosted the Havana Conference, an infamous mob summit when about 500 Mafiosos alighted at the hotel. During their six-day meeting, the Mafia dons divided the spoils of Cuba’s lucrative gambling, drug and prostitution rackets. Francis Ford Coppola memorably dramatized the crime conference in his film “The Godfather Part II.”
All of that came to an end with Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. The expensive resort was nationalized and its walls hung with pro-communist banners. Under Castro, the hotel became a training center for illiterate peasant women.
But Cuba’s economy was struggling and having a popular place for international visitors would help the country. In 1990, the hotel closed for a total renovation. It reopened in 1992 with 457 rooms, 15 suites and a Presidential Suite on eight floors and has been drawing visitors ever since.
The hotel’s History Room showcases former guests of the hotel and its colorful past. The Hotel Nacional de Cuba was declared a National Monument and it was inscribed in the World Memory Register.
A tip for future travelers, a nice clean restroom is located near the hotel’s patio bar. I should have known that. In big hotels, restrooms are often placed conveniently near bars and restaurants.
Sitting on the hotel’s expansive patio on this balmy day, I was joined by a strutting peacock. The bird wandered close, seeming quite at home. It looked me eye to eye as if seeing what I planned to do. So we sat. Until the peacock flexed its tailfeathers and moved on.
Just another fascinating day in Cuba.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch