In December interior designer Jay Jeffers and husband Michael Purdy toured Havana at an historic moment, arriving just days after the passing of Fidel Castro. Thirsty to experience everything the city had to offer, Jeffers soaked up the history, architecture and art of a nation entering a new era. Here, he shares his travels with SFC&G.
What struck us immediately upon arriving in Havana is that you could see what it once was: The city is a step back in time, from its classic 1950s cars to its crumbling buildings. Hotel Saratoga was our home for the trip, an elegantly curved, neoclassical building originally constructed in 1879 and reimagined as a luxury hotel in 2005. Its location—across from the Parque de la Fraternidad, and diagonally opposite the legendary Partagás Cigar Factory and iconic El Capitolio—has been a draw for over a century.
Our first stop of the tour was Universidad de las Artes. Originally a private golf club for Havana’s elite, today, it is a prestigious art academy. It’s apparent that artists are revered in Cuba; we visited several in their studios, and many of them had traveled to the U.S. and Italy for training.
Next was Casa Catalina, a 1920s manse with interiors by Lalique—it houses a beautiful central receiving room with soaring ceilings and a grand staircase, crystal Lalique panels and beautiful antique mirror.
On the way to dinner we stopped at Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), a former factory converted into a vibrant complex for artist exhibitions, performances and more. We capped off the evening with rum cocktails on the Saratoga rooftop. Viva Cuba!
Our day began with a lecture on the history and politics of Cuba by Jose “Pepe” Viera, a former minister of foreign affairs, and his wife, Cecilia. Next stop was Ernest Hemingway’s iconic home, Finca Vigia, just outside of Havana.
Set amongst trees and what were once beautiful grounds, you can imagine Hemingway inspired and typing away. The home is almost fully intact and is full of furnishings, taxidermied trophies, notes written on the walls and bookcases in almost every room. His study was a simple room above the main house, complete with chaise lounge for napping and the tiniest typewriter I’ve ever seen. There I discovered my favorite new color combination: mint green and navy blue!
Lunch was a joy at a paladar called Rio Mar—paladars are restaurants that Cuban citizens are allowed to run out of their homes—where we had fantastic fish, steak and seafood seated outside on the water.
The day concluded with a tour of Old Havana, and dinner was at La Guarida, one of the more elegant paladars, where we ascended beautiful marble staircases to reach the restaurant and rooftop where we took in its views of the entire city.
Next? The Riviera Hotel, which has barely changed since being built in 1957. Originally owned by mobster Meyer Lansky, it was the hot spot in its day, with its domed casino and pool cabanas overlooking the water.
Arriving at the Hotel Nacional, built in 1930 by American architecture firm McKim Mead & White, felt like pulling into The Breakers in Palm Beach—the buildings look almost identical from the exterior, from the grand driveway lined with palm trees up to the central court entrance. At dinnertime, our group departed in style in 17 beautiful 1950’s classic convertibles; ours was a 1958 Pontiac. We dined in the lovely private home of local artist Damian Aquiles.
What better way to conclude our Havana pilgrimage than with a visit to the Tropicana? A world‐renowned cabaret launched in 1939, the Tropicana is a six‐acre suburban estate with lush tropical gardens in Havana's Marianao neighborhood. The show was Cuban camp at its finest. It was amazing to realize that we’d not heard music anywhere in Havana until that evening, because of the 9-day mourning period for Castro. A return trip is in our future– we haven’t had our fill of the music of Cuba.
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