In a city where so many buildings are absolutely frozen in time, many showing signs of wear around the edges, there is always great excitement when something “new” opens, or even, reopens in Havana. The NH Capri La Habana has a rather notorious past, born during an era when Havana was being quickly transformed into a Caribbean Las Vegas, a southern City of Sin.
To some, the Hotel Capri represented all that was wrong with the island at the time: a city overrun with U.S. mobsters who were controlling many of the city’s tourist revenues while allegedly slicing off ample payoffs to the island’s political leaders. Eventually the pendulum of corruption swung too far right and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, slowly some of this history is being embraced for the greater good. And some of this mobster intrigue might actually be good for business.
I know when I researched the hotel for my recent stay in Havana my pulse quickened knowing it was somewhat connected to the mob legends of the time. What, pray tell, was this mob connection? In 1955, the Cuban President at that time, Fulgencio Batista, introduced tremendous financial incentives to anyone who was willing to invest $1 million dollars or more in any hotel or $200,000 in a nightclub or casino. One of the great mobsters of the time, one Santo Trafficante, Jr. an apparent Capo from Tampa Florida, was quick to rise to the occasion, and so the Hotel Capri was born. Myer Lansky, probably the most infamous gangster of that age, is often wrongly credited for building the Capri even though he may well have had some fingers in the pie. (All of this lore was blissfully wasted on the mobs of European tourists that had invaded the hotel while I was there, I am sure, but its allure awaits the Canadians and even the US tourists who are chomping at the bit to get in).
While the NH Capri La Habana is not exactly new (it originally opened in 1957), it has been impeccably renovated in a manner that is true to its original Jose Canaves design which reminds one of a cross between a Jetsons’ cartoon and a Palm Dessert hideaway. It is easy to imagine groovy beatniks lounging around the lobby in black turtlenecks and smoking out of long black cigarette holders. In fact, today’s NH Capri La Habana is as cool as any hotel currently on offer in the country.
Located on Calle 21, a well-hit baseball’s distance from the famous Hotel Nacional, it is a block away from Calle 23,The Rampa, the busy Vedado main drag), home to a number of cafés and nightclubs. In fact, part of the Hotel Capri’s original footprint included the Salon Rojo, which was one of the country’s most popular casinos of the day and continues operations today as one of the city’s premier nightclubs. Also nearby is the Latin jazz club, El Gato Tuerto and the Coppelia, Havana’s ice cream palace. Old Havana is simply a 5 CUC cab ride away.
The hotel itself offers one of the city’s best breakfast buffets, normally included with the price of a room, so good that guests from other hotels are known to frequent it, too. Also on top of the hotel is their fabulous rooftop pool, which originally included a glass bottom so that those sipping mojitos in the bar on the floor directly below could enjoy an aquatic view, of sorts. However, the glass bottom did not survive the new incarnation though the spectacular views of the Florida straights and the Malecon prevail.
Each of the 220 rooms is well appointed with everything functioning normally (not always a statement that can be made in Cuba) complete with vintage photographs from the 50s and three working elevators (which is an unparalleled luxury). In addition, there is an exclusive “business floor” with its own accruements that will appeal to the weary business traveller. Back on the roof is a well appointed bar with some light dining available. The 19th floor penthouse, that once housed George Raft, a US actor of the day known for his screen portrayals of gangsters, and who was the hotel’s official greeter for the early years, has been converted into a dining room serving diners with delicious meals and breathtaking views. The main lobby features inlaid marble floors, professionally trained and polite front desk staff, original brass chandeliers and a small bar that serves mojitos (what else?) and Cuban coffees made to order. Plus a crack security staff keeps a close eye on the front door, which is no small feat when the Salon Rojo gets in full swing later in the evening.
The NH Capri Habana is a welcome addition to the Havana hotel scene. Its mystique is thrown in for free!
Hotel NH Capri La Habana Calle 21/Calle N,
Vedada, Havana, Cuba
To learn more about the U.S. mob’s past involvement in Cuba, read T.J. English’s, “Havana Nocturne”.
A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer.