Havana is preparing for the re-launch of two completely different yet equally beautiful and unique properties, each set in two strikingly different areas of the city - the old town and the more modern downtown zone.
On the one hand we have the reopening of what once was one of its most popular and iconic hotels during the late 50s and 60s - the high-rise Hotel Capri, boasting the most magnificent views over Havana's Vedado district and the Malecon. The pride and honour of the New York mobsters who made the initial investment to build it, the Capri once housed what was during its heyday, the largest casino in Havana, presided by Hollywood actor George Raft - a movie icon from the 30s made famous by his characterisations of gangsters and his real-life association with the mafia.
On the other hand, the Hotel El Comendador in Old Havana is also preparing to reopen after a few months of refurbishment works carried out throughout the guest rooms and communal areas. A remarkable architectonic gem, El Comendador is housed in a former colonial mansion, one of the oldest and finest examples of the Hispanic-Moorish design in the capital.
Read on to find out more about these two extraordinary properties, soon to be welcoming back guests to two totally different experiences.
Capri - an introduction
Word on the street now is that it will officially reopen in February 2014, so we could just be days away from the big re-inauguration and I'm officially excited after having personally witnessed the downfall of this once great hotel after years of neglect that finally resulted in its complete shut-down, only to be rescued seven years later with a new refurbishment plan that took almost four years to complete.
My personal interest in this reopening draws from the fact that my own parents celebrated their honeymoon here back in August 1987, when the hotel was still much in trend. They told me about the great pool on the last floor and the restaurant below it from which you could see the bottom of the pool and the people bathing in it. I saw their honeymoon photos and made that magical connection between the hotel and my parents' honeymoon bliss. Then after the mid-nineties many of the hotel areas were badly in need of repairs and a lick of paint or two - it was downhill from there on and up until its closure.
So, what happened to this once glorious building? Well, back in the early nineties after the downfall of the former URSS, Cuba's fragile economy collapsed and along with it the city's infrastructure rapidly deteriorated. The U.S. embargo meant that Cuba was isolated from the world and was banned from international trade while the Soviet downfall meant their constant supplies to the island were immediately cut off, and the first to feel the pinch where hotels as international tourism wasn't yet established, unlike nowadays when tourism is the main income for the island's economy.
Capri, the mafia-funded gem of the 50s
The history of Capri goes back to pre-revolutionary Cuba, more specifically to1955 when the then president, Fulgencio Batista enacted Hotel Law 2074, an incentive to build more hotels on the capital by offering tax breaks, government loans and casino licenses to those wishing to open new hotel properties in excess of $1,000,000 or nightclubs of over $200,000 in Havana.
As it turns out, the Capri was one of the first to be erected under the new motivational law with the help of a mafia-related injection of cash. The owner of its plush casino and main investor was Florida mobster Santo Trafficante, Jr. and its operation was under the hands of New York's Santino Masselli, a.k.a "Sonny the Butcher". Meanwhile the public front of the hotel's shiny new casino was handed to Hollywood movie star, George Raft, famous for interpreting gangster roles in crime melodramas of the 30s and 40s. His gangster portrayals were all the more captivating because in real life the actor was associated with the mafia. So it came as no surprise to anyone at the time that he would be chosen to front the hotel's entertainment areas.
Designed by Cuban architect Jose Canaves and owned by his family, its construction started on 1956 and the building was ready for inauguration a year after during Thanksgiving holidays. So, November 1957 saw the grand opening of the city's most ultra-modern hotel, located just two blocks from the iconic Hotel Nacional and towering above it.
Capri in its heyday - the late 50s and early 60s
As the capital's youngest and trendiest hotel, Capri soon rose to fame and popularity, welcoming a large influx of American travellers, lured by the glitzy new casino and its host, George Raft, the popular gangster-playing Hollywood star that proved an incredible asset to the hotel's reputation as Havana's hottest new casino. As the book by Lewis Yablonsky on the life of George Raft quotes:
"During the few weeks in the spring of 1958 that George Raft hosted at the Capri, it did phenomenal business. He booked Tony Martin, Jose Greco, and Mexico's most popular singer, Pedro Vargas, into the club."
The very same book also described the Capri as:
"A large, luxurious, 300-room hotel equipped with a posh gambling casino. Brooks [the manager of the Capri's casino at the time] felt that with Raft on board he could edge out the keen competition from the other Havana gambling casinos and hotels. Raft's name would draw not only visiting Americans, but big-name entertainers."
With its 250 rooms (the author of the above-mentioned book wrote a gross rounded up figure) and extending over 19 floors (or should I say 18, as there is no 13th floor, as was the norm of other hotels of the time built by superstitious Americans), the Capri shone brightly.
Famous for its "dazzling and thrilling" cabaret shows, in the 1950s the Capri and its club/casino were famous for headlining local talents including famous American singers Tony Martin and Liberace, as well as the Cuban Queen of Guaganco, Celeste Mendoza.
With its stunning, modern interiors, glamorous rooftop pool and its bad-boy mafia image of the ultimate American corruption, unsurprisingly it became the chosen location for a series of films, including the Cuban-Russian propaganda film "I am Cuba" and the 1959 British film "Our Man in Havana". The latter's opening scene shows the hotel's famous panoramic swimming pool. The hotel had such a reputation for being so often frequented by American gangsters and mafia members that it even gets mentioned in Mario Puzo's iconic book and subsequent film saga "The Godfather".
As an anecdote, on New Year's Eve of 1958, Raft welcomed the New Year with his usual "champagne flair" and shortly after, Julius "Skip" Shephard (the Miami hotelier to whom the hotel was leased to claims that after the triumph of Fidel Castro's revolution on 1st January 1959, Raft was ordered by the new regime to accept 200 soldiers, which he picked up the tab for.
The 60s, 70s and 80s - still popular under new management
Located on Calle 21, esquina N, the amazing new and shiny hotel and casino was positioned in one of the city's most centric downtown areas and as such it continued to be popular long after the revolution - only that this time it was filled with locals instead of the masses of American tourists and gangsters that flooded its rooms and casinos, which were ultimately banned from entering the country after the 1962 trade embargo which prohibited all Americans from visiting the communist nation with strong Soviet ties - the ultimate American enemies of the time.
Immediately after the revolution the hotel became vacant, its property passed hands to the Cuban government who started operating it for the benefit of the locals that came to celebrate family holidays, special occasions, and - as was the case of my parents - romantic honeymoons.
No longer was such a glamorous and modern hotel out of the reach of working class ordinary Cubans, anyone could save up to spend a few days of relaxation there. All throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s the hotel kept entertaining guests and giving them a recreational respite from daily working life.
And what became of Havana's greatest casino? Well, the new Cuban regime made all forms of gambling strictly forbidden by law and as the country's new communist stance viewed casinos as rotten capitalist centres of American corruption, all of them were closed, down, demolished and officially banned. But Capri's casino was lucky to escape its demolition, and instead of being thrown into oblivion it resurfaced as a completely new venue. It didn't close down as expected, instead it was converted into a nightclub renamed "Salon Rojo", a venue that soon became popular among locals as a favourite night time entertainment centre, with cabaret shows and concerts regularly held up to the present day. In fact, even when the hotel deteriorated badly after the 90s and had to be closed down, its adjacent former casino and converted nightclub remained opened and in full swing.
Capri's slow decline and final downfall
Upon the imminent fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the country suffered a major economic crisis that shook the nation. Public government funds were stretched to the limit as the large sums of Soviet subsidies stopped coming. Hotels stopped receiving maintenance, operation costs were too high to keep rates accessible to Cuban salaries and the government had to look elsewhere to pick up the pieces of its shambled economy.
For the first time the country had to turn to foreign capital to rescue its fragile and rapidly sinking economy and welcoming international tourism was the answer. The island turned to using its unique appeal as socialist Caribbean island stuck in time to attract thousands of curious world travellers. It offered an attractive package of sun and beaches mixed with cultural riches. The move proved successful and quickly resulted in the island's means of acquiring strong foreign currency.
As a result many hotels were spruced up to welcome foreign tourists but such wasn't the case of the Capri, which suffered more and more neglect until its tired faÃ§ade showed the unmistakable signs of significant wear and tear, installations started malfunctioning in its interiors until it ultimately failed to appeal to tourists and had to be eventually closed down indefinitely in 2003, partly because of the lack of guests and partly for fear of possible safety issues.
It showed no sign of ever resurfacing (in fact it looked as though it would collapse and come crumbling down any second) until four years later when in 2011 the Cuban, government-owned hotel chain Gran Caribe took it under its wing for extensive renovations, so extensive in fact that it cost more than US$11 million to bring it back to life.
The newly refurbished Capri of today
After three years of ongoing works, where the entire woodwork had to be replaced as well as the electric and plumbing systems of the building to the point of leaving the whole structure bare, the Capri saw the light once again.
Although a partial reopening has already taken place since 27th December 2013, the hotel has not yet fully inaugurated. At present only the long bar and two of the restaurants are open; the Ana Capri in the cellar and La Florentina on the 19th floor. Some shops are also running under the island's Caracol brand. Meanwhile floors 14th and 15th are the only ones with single and double rooms available for 115 to 150 CUC per night including breakfast.
The new steam room, sauna and gym located on the 17th floor are not expected to reopen until mid May. The pool on the 18th floor had initially reopened but had to be closed down again due to filtration problems.
As you'll be able to see in the photos here, the renovations have breathed new life into the hotel's interiors, with sleek new decor, freshly painted and tastefully decorated rooms with a colourful, vibrant design. Many of them boast amazing views over the sea while others offer spectacular views of the city - the higher you stay the most impressive the views will be simply breathtaking.
Surrounded by the city's hottest clubs, jazz venues, salsa hotspots and discos, the Capri will soon become the place to be in Havana, re-establishing its once tarnished reputation as one of the capital's most popular hotels.
Hostal El Comendador - its origins
Housed within a former colonial mansion that belonged to the distinguished family of Don Pedro Regalado Pedroso y Zayas, the original "Comendador", a title that can be translated as "Regent of the Order of Spanish Queen, Isabella the Catholic".
The Hotel (or Hostal) Comendador, once home to the above-mentioned royal official, dates back to the 18th century, more precisely to 1801. It was erected in the oldest part of the city (well, it was the newest at the time of construction), with a privileged location next to the San Francisco de Asis Square.
Throughout time it has served numerous purposes. Once a jailhouse, butcher shop and then a meat market, after years of neglect and structural damage, it was rescued to be reborn as a brand new hotel whilst conserving all original colonial features.
Its interior patios, rooms and wooden stairways were re-designed in-keeping with the authentic colonial decor, with original time pieces, period furniture and brightly coloured paintwork.
Comendador' first inauguration as a hotel
After being rescued from years of abandonment and significant damage, in February 2000 Hostal Comendador reopened as a hotel welcoming guests to an authentic colonial experience with period features and a cosy atmosphere.
It offered a small collection of intimate rooms facing a beautiful interior patio with verdant greenery and comfortable patio furniture, from which to catch the cooling afternoon breeze whilst enjoying a rich cup of coffee.
It's re-emergence after refurbishment works
After a brief shut-down of only a few months, the Hostal El Comendador has recently reopened after a series of renovation works. Its collection of just 14 neatly appointed guest rooms, all air-conditioned and tastefully decorated, have all been upgraded. The Comendador of today now includes more modern amenities, including in-room safe, mini-fridges, Satellite TV, hair dryers and toiletries.
Beyond the refreshed decor, on its reopening the hotel strives to bring an improved, more personalised level of service to its guests, as well as improved quality standards across all of its facilities.
Hostal El Ccomendador has an onsite tavern called Onda, evoking a typical Spanish countryside tavern of the 18th century. It serves many different variations of the ever popular Spanish tapas accompanied by fine wines.
With a distinctive Hispanic-Moorish design, Comendador also enjoys a fantastic location next to Plaza de Armas and the San Francisco de Asis Square - the gateway to the rest of the old town.
New and old - more hotel openings on the pipeline
The newly refurbished Hotel Capri and Hostal El Comendador are not the only new hotels opening up in the city. Havana's got a few more surprises under its sleeve, and this includes the soft reopening of the Hostal Valencia (adjacent to Hostal Comendador and sharing some of its facilities) as well as the announcement of a totally new hotel - the Habana 612, also in the old town.
The new boutique property, Hotel Habana 612 is located just footsteps away from Plaza Vieja and will offer 12 comfortable rooms as well as a separate breakfast area. With a peculiar architecture and a design that pays tribute to the amazing restoration and conservation efforts of the city's historic centre, all the furniture of this new hotel, as well as decorative ornaments and other elements were created from the rubble resulting from restoration works and recycled materials, which were given a new lease of life at the hands of Cuban artisans. An innovative, unique and interesting must-see property to add to your itinerary on your next trip to the island - I for one can't wait to see it!