I was finishing up a final walking tour of Habana Vieja, the old Spanish colonial section of Havana that is being restored, when I stopped in again at the Casa del Habano in the Conde de Villanueva hotel. I was looking for a small cigar to have before lunch, and I picked out a Bolivar Belicoso for a little more than six CUCs, the Cuban convertible peso.
I got a voicemail from a friend who is a big cigar smoker. He said, with a plaintive note in his voice: "I can't believe you're going to Cuba again without me." After a few more grouses, he ended his voicemail with, "but have a good time. Just make sure you get it ready for me." And, I could tell, he sincerely meant it.
Thank god I have a cigar to smoke. Because if I had to focus on my golf game right now, the first three rounds of the season after a four-month layoff, I’d be going crazy. Yes, a group of my friends and I are at Casa de Campo this week. We got smart this year, and decided to take Friday afternoon off from a 36-hole-a-day routine, and I’m sitting on the pool terrace, checking email, enjoying a Presidente beer and smoking a Vega Fina cigar made by Jose Seijas at the Tabacalera de Garcia factory in La Romana.
The vision still remains; the flowing black and gold walls emblazoned with the Montecristo Gran Reserva emblem, the beautiful, tall models in floor-length, black gowns with gold bling and the elegant table settings with gold tablecloths. The sounds of traditional Cuban music floated around the room, with the ceiling draped with “tapado” cloth, the fabric used for shade tobacco, as the top names in the Cuban cigar business entered the room. Everyone was shaking hands and talking with everyone in attendance, from Cuban government ministers, to Casas del Habano shop owners and Habanos’s worldwide distributors, to simple consumers from everywhere, even the United States. Whether it was David Tang or President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alcarón, the evening was electrified by the shared perception: this was the pinnacle of the world of Cuban cigars.
By 10 A.M, I had the full Cuba buzz going on. Three cups of black Cuban coffee, a small corona size Partagas Mille Fleurs, and then a Behike BHK 52 lit in my hand got me up to full speed. Now, don't get me wrong. It was a good buzz, and when you´re in Havana, it is the only way to start the day. Somehow, it all seemed sweeter, lighting up that first cigar of the day sitting on a terrace outdoors in February overlooking a pool.
I started out with a Bolivar Belicoso Fino. Marvin had a Paratagas Serie D No. 4. David Savona had a Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill. We all had an icy cold Bucanero beer. They were our first cigars in Havana today.
We arrived shortly before noon, and by 1 p.m. everyone was starting to crave that first smoke. The first time you light up in Havana, it always seems the cigars are better, and then, the world seems right. You are in Havana, smoking a great cigar. We sat around a small table at the Melia Habana Casa del Habano, talking about where we wanted to visit and what we wanted to do during our visit to the Habanos Festival.
Any time reporters head home after a productive trip, there is a final assessment of what made it into a story and what didn't. You've gotten pretty much everything that Dave Savona and I tapped into on our last trip to Cuba, but there are a few things that haven't seen the light of the day ... some never will, but that's another story.
Let’s make one thing clear from the beginning—you shouldn’t go to Havana for the food. Decades of isolation and ongoing issues with agricultural production make it extremely difficult for restaurants to provide anything close to what we would call haute cuisine. At its worst, the culinary reality can result in really abysmal offerings. At their best, however, Havana’s restaurants can turn out simple, good-tasting fare, especially if it is seafood or poultry-based, and, every now and then, you end up with a dish in front of you that surprises, either because it is so innovative and creative, or just because you could find it in any restaurant in New York, or Miami. Wine lists are fairly limited, but a few places have been building their cellars to the point that you can easily find something good to drink, especially if you prefer Spanish or South American wines. And, for the most part, service is professional and friendly, even if you are a Red Sox fan like me; if you’re a Yankees fan, like Dave, you are treated like a king.
The name had barely slipped off the comedian’s lips when the crowd erupted in applause and shouts of admiration echoed in the small bar. A woman dressed in black, with shiny black hair down to her shoulders and eyes as big as round brown saucers shuffled toward the stage with the microphone already in her hand. The guitar player struck up the distinctive chords of Cuban music, in a syncopated rhythm to the percussionist’s seductive, body-moving beat. The singer launched into her first song, unfamiliar to a foreigner, but clearly memorized by most of the crowd. Ela Calvo’s midnight set at the Gato Tuerto had begun.
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