Life as a Caribbean Queen at Hotel Internacional
There is something about retro elegance and gritty underworld connections that make Cuba seem different than it appears—it is always changing, a fluid culture made up of many world cultures: Spanish, Caribbean, African, European, aboriginal Cuban. It is as though I stepped into the movie Casablanca—wondering in and out of retro-elegance, mobsters and modern Cuba all week (Robert Redford’s Havana was a 90s remake of the film).
I am taking my readers on a Cuban trip for a week. Our first stop was the best beach in Varadero; next (with mojito in hand) we will wonder the halls of the fabulous, retro elegance of the Hotel Internacional…
I am in love with Cuba and Hotel Intercontinental! Our room is on the fifth floor with a full balcony view of the Caribbean Sea and the white sandy Varadero beach—the best in Cuba. The hotel seems virtually empty.
I run down the back marble stairs in barefeet and right into the sea—the beach is nearly empty save for one or two persons ½ km away down the beach. I then sun myself in a lounge chair afterward and run back up the marble stairs to change for supper. It is paradise and I feel so blessed to live the life of royalty and experience of solitude in the Caribbean—my own private Caribbean palace and beach for a week.
Visiting Cuba in low season is the greatest gift. I expected the hotel to be bursting with Canadian tourists but I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of Canadians. The guests include a few Cuban or other Latin American (many Mexicans) families and the very odd Canadian or European (mainly Russian). I feel a part of the Cuban experience here rather than a part of the N. American tourist industry.
I can swim in the sea and lounge on the nearly deserted beach and walk up empty staircase alone without any worry or a second thought. As a woman in Canada, I am always wary alone on dark staircases or on a vast beach. Not here. The Cuban culture is safer than Canada for me, as a woman, when I am alone. Peter and I can separate and do our own thing at the hotel from time to time with no worry.
I owe much of my rapture to the Hotel Internacional. It is the most unusual and wonderful hotel I have ever visited. There are hardships: no warm running water (cool showers), the buffet food is not the quality I (as a Canadian) am accustomed to, you cannot drink the tap water (or brush teeth with it), the mattress is uber firm and the blankets scratchy… but I happily give up those comforts for the freedom to just be—exist amongst the quiet splendour of a private hotel and beach of one’s own.
I knew nothing of Cuban Hotels, I picked Hotel Internacional simply because of its historical opulence and the fact that it has the best beach in Cuba. Who knew the staff would be as dedicated, polite and professional as though it still reined in its grand prerevolution fast-paced fabulousness?
Our meals are always ready and waiting three times a day. If we miss out there is always the retro snack bar for a sandwich and the bar that never closes–the Americano espressos are delightful. I have suddenly become addicted to the Cuban Americano–so rich and satisfying–I liken it to sipping a cup of dark, unsweetened chocolate. The food is as I expected: bland if not down right horrible at times. But I am already getting used to it and I want to remove the horrible statement and replace it with different. I find what I need to get by with each meal. I love when they serve beans with rice and all of the veggies. I only long for more legumes or nuts for protein as I am not a big fan of meat.
The hotel has had meagre renos since the 50s–enough to keep it running. But there is rotting plaster and missing windows in areas less frequented by guests. The hotel has 4 cats that wonder in and out of the open lobby and often curl up for a snooze on lobby chairs.
Today, the hotel is quiet but with the ghosts of grandness and top-notch staff. The staff here is pure elegance, running the entire hotel as though it was still a posh 50s resort: bow ties, formal wear, always a band or two playing on the patio each evening along with spectacular dancers, a piano and bass player in the restaurant.
Peter and I are entertaining the fantasy that we are living in a 50s Cuba and we are VIPs. It felt like pure romance and drama the other night as I ran up the back marble staircase in my long gown (from the restaurant, across the circular drive) to my room to fetch tip money. A romantic thrill as I ascended the dark staircase. I rushed back down the staircase (pesos in hand) and made it back to my seat before the first course was served.
The restaurant is now situated in what was the hotels casino is the 50s. The casino bar remains untouched in a small room off the restaurant–spectacular little room all glitz and glitter. The flooring is untouched underneath the carpet: clubs, spades, diamonds motifs in the cement poured/speckled floor. The casino has a dark history according to our waiter: a place where murders took place–I assume unpaid gambling debits pre revolution. His English wasn’t good enough to explain why and when the murders took place but he was very good at the finger slashed across the throat pantomime.
The hotel is quite sprawling–5 floors, 4 restaurants, massive marble lobby and one small elevator. The hotel never ceases to surprise with some grand, flamboyant room tucked away we never knew existed—the Cabaret and disco for example. It is very 50s Las Vegas fancy in its decor. We attended a professional cabaret show one evening (supper, mojitos and wine included).
It was an amazing cabaret show with singing, Vegas-show style dancers, acrobatic tricks and then a disco. 1950s glitz and glamour at its finest with a stage, restaurant, impressive disco lights, dry ice smoke effects and bar. The hotel must have been amazing in its days before the revolution.
This trip to Cuba has been like living in a novel: the gritty, the ghosts, the characters. I thank Cuba and Hotel Internacional for an unforgettable, story with a fascinating cast of characters, a lobby filled with interesting characters: the macho (pool playing, cigarette smoking) handsome Cuban guy (a 50s cool gangster-like sophistication and macho arrogance/elegance)with his tall Cuban girl friend, the French Montreal sailor, the California couple, the older british couple (blonde, tall wife), the seven Punjabi Canadian men (the rudest of guests), the four clone-like Toronto girls and their fisherman father, the Russian prostitute, the Argentinean Canadian and his Latin Canadian wife, the huge party of Mexican women, the small, odd bartender with the simple, uninterested expression, the tall waiter from Cardenas (a Washington University friend of Bill Gates–he liked to joke with us about this) and the skinny hotel cats.
Cuban Culture and the Caribbean…bliss. Where else can one stroll an empty white sand Caribbean beach for miles as the warm Caribbean splashes one’s legs and then lie under the stars with no fear, meander back to the hotel patio to listen to a live Cuban 5 piece string band and vocalist, sitting in comfortable rattan club chairs with the humid sea breeze until one is sleepy. It is a Caribbean of 100 years ago—one that is clean, quiet (save for the amazing Cuban music!) and safe.
*Sadly, Hotel Internacional is slated for demolition in a year’s time. It is tragic. I believe they need to renovate it to its past splendour and market it as such. The Cuban government doesn’t seem to get that a retro glitzy hotel will draw in the tourist.