CUBA - The bad old days
Before 1959, Havana was the swinging fun town of the Americas, a decadent haven for tourists and gangsters, a Caribbean Las Vegas. Today, the only real vestige of that era is the Tropicana cabaret which opened in 1939 - still going strong. Open to the stars, this impressive entertainment complex was a paradise for US tourists who descended on the island in droves, taking over their Chevys and Buicks on ferries from Miami, even arriving on special planes that came just for the show.
Prohibition in the 1920s really kick started tourism in Cuba with high rollers coming down to Sin City, sun and sleaze mingling in the balmy tropical air. Bars like Sloppy joes (recently restored) did a roaring trade. But the relative calm was soon altered by the arrival of the Mafia from the USA who sided with the then president Batista in a cosy mix of Casinos and racetracks where the President received a kickback for every dollar gambled. The US turned a blind eye, no doubt pleased that these mobsters were well away from their own turf.
Yacht clubs, country clubs and golf courses such as the Biltmore proliferated alongside tennis Clubs and gourmet restaurants. Hemingway inspired many would be adventurers to sail across to this languid isle and catch a Marlin or two. Followed by downing several Daiquiris (he invented the grapefruit daiquiri), Mojitos, Cuba Libres or Manhattans - all making Cuba a veritable paradise for a nation not allowed to drink at home. Famous stars including Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Maurice Chevalier provided the entertainment.
Meyer Lansky built the Hotel Riviera, a perfect 1950s masterpiece; actor George Raft was front house manager at the Salon Rouge club in the hotel Capri. Then came the Revolution terminating this splendour. It closed the casinos, tore up all the parking meters, turned the hotel Hilton (now the Habana Libre) into the headquarters with Fidel Castro occupying a whole floor of suites.
Today, the light still filters magically through the Royal Palm trees, the Hotel Nacional is buzzing with Americans who visit the Hall of fame bar, take a ride in a perfect Packard, play a round of golf at the original British built course, down a Daiquiri or two at El Floridita and a Mojito at La Bodeguita, just like Hemingway did (he frequented the former), fish for a giant marlin in the deep channels off the Marina, caress the warm seas at nearby Playa del Este beaches, take a tour around an up and coming contemporary Cuban artist. Vive la Vida Loca!