Step into the early 1950’s Havana, a time when American mobsters, Hollywood starlets, renowned figures of the arts and upper class Habaneros would gather at Vegas-style casino-hotels, sporting tuxedos and heavy evening gowns despite the scorching Caribbean heat.
Few hotels can compete with the Habana Riviera, operated by Gran Caribe Hotels, as the ultimate symbol of that era. At the time opening (1957), it was the world’s largest purpose-built casino-hotel outside the Las Vegas strip. Today, it serves as a window into 1950s Cuba and the society that preceded the revolution.
The hotel was owned and conceived by American mobster and casino tycoon Meyer Lansky (who knew a thing or two about evading tax regulations via offshore accounts and properties) and funded by the Bank for Economic and Social Development (BANDES), a state-run development bank set up by then President Fulgencio Batista.
American actress, dancer, singer and all-round icon Ginger Rogers was the hotel’s opening act, performing on 10th December 1957 in the legendary Copa Cabaret. Just thirteen months later, Fidel Castro held a press conference in the very same room, addressing the world about the Cuban Revolution. Under the new socialist government, all American properties were seized and Castro announced that he preferred to execute gangsters than deport them. Unsurprisingly, Lansky fled Cuba, abandoning the Habana Riviera and his dreams of becoming el presidente of Cuba’s gambling scene.
Though vestiges of the mafia and gambling were quickly scrapped, the hotel still reflects the glamour of pre-Revolution Cuba. In the lobby, royal blue chaise lounges and red club chairs sit on a glistening marble floor. They are accompanied by bronze and marble statues, sculpted by prominent Cuban artists specially commissioned for the project some sixty years ago.
To this day. the lobby bar, poolside cafeteria, and the elegant L’Aiglon restaurant exude a 1950's atmosphere, when cocktail dresses and tuxedos were de rigueur and this was a spot to see and be seen. Flash forward to today and the lobby’s Salon Internacional is abuzz with conversation, while a young Cuban practices a few sassy salsa moves nearby.