Havana Nights

Posted on March 3, 2012

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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: