Posted: Dec 6, 2010 12:00am ET
After a long delay in Miami, and then yet another long delay in Havana immigration, Dave Savona and I finally made it to the Hotel Melia Cohiba, our base for the next five days. It was almost nine o’clock. My day had started at 4:30 a.m. But hey, man has to eat. And, what’s a first night in Havana without a dinner at El Aljibe. The locals say it isn’t what it used to be, but Dave and I shrugged our shoulders and said, let’s go.
It’s a 10 minute cab ride from the hotel out to El Aljibe, a large open air restaurant. While it’s a complete menu, there’s really only one thing to order—the Pollo Asado, and it comes with rice, black beans, a cucumber and tomato salad and French fries and deep fried plantains. The tab? About $15. We ordered a bottle of Spanish Albarino, a delicious, tart white wine. When I asked for the wine list, they simply said, follow our sommelier and off we went to what everyone says is the finest cellar in all of Cuba—it’s temperature controlled. He said they had bottles from 15 to 1400 in the local CUCs, the local convertible peso. It’s about .8 to the dollar.
The chicken arrived. The rice and beans were perfect. The French fries crisp. The wine, a perfect accompaniment to the food. We ate our fill, and managed to avoid all the other temptations, including dessert. It was back to the hotel and, of course, what’s the first day in Havana without a cigar and a glass of rum? We headed up to the El Relicario cigar bar in the hotel. We both ordered a Havana Club 7-year-old, one of my favorite rums in the world. And we picked out two Punch Punch from the humidor—just the right size for a pre-dreamland smoke. It took about 12 seconds and we looked at each other, smiled and said, “What could be better than this?”
So, our first four hours in Havana were almost over. We were both about ready to drop. But there’s no doubt about it. We are in Havana. Can’t wait for tomorrow.
Posted: Dec 5, 2010 12:00am ET
The check-in line at the Miami International Airport was already stretching out at 11 A.M. for a 3 P.M. flight. Everyone seemed to have two or three pushcarts filled with luggage, boxes of stereo equipment and at least one bag wrapped in fluorescent green plastic wrap, a gaudy attempt at making it a little more difficult for someone to rifle through the contents.
Dave Savona and I had taken an early flight out of New York to ensure we had plenty of time to make our flight, and God forbid, deal with any questions about why two gringos like us were headed to Havana. No need to worry; by the time check-in started at 11:30, the first thing the woman behind the counter said was, ‘You know we have a two-hour delay."
I first went to Cuba in 1995, an exciting trip for Cigar Aficionado with Marvin R. Shanken that covered all the bases: the top cigar shops, the best factories in Havana and a trip to Pinar del Rio. But Cuba had been part of my professional life since the late 1970s, when I was a foreign correspondent covering the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and then the guerrilla civil war in El Salvador. Cuba was always the elephant in the room, the Latin American nexus of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the suspicions about its support, at least psychologically if not materially, for the revolutionary movements in Central America.
We paid attention to the pronouncements coming out of Havana with every bit as much attention as we did the news from the governments in Central America and Washington. Even then, we made more out of the Cohibas in the hands of Sandinista commandants than they probably warranted, but nonetheless, it was a sign of the unadorned admiration for all things Cuban in the post- Anastasio Somoza era in Nicaragua.
Posted: Nov 15, 2010 12:00am ET
The Las Vegas Big Smoke this past weekend reminded me of one of the enduring realities of being a cigar smoker. There is a huge community of us. And, it seems that everyone experiences our hobby, or passion—however you prefer to describe it—in much the same way. We have a lot like-minded folks out there who revel in the camaraderie that comes with a fine hand-rolled cigar.
I told the audience that in my personal world, I have cigar smokers around me all the time. My physician. My dentist. Even my car dealer. They are all cigar smokers who understand and share in some of the same pleasures that I have. It’s not that I’m out looking for cigar smokers among the people that I have to see for various reasons all the time. They are just there. And, I would bet that if you asked a few questions as you go about your daily business, you’d find some cigar smokers too. I remember a few years ago, I walked into a local hardware store with a jacket sporting a cigar brand logo. I had been in the store before, but there are other hardware stores around my community too. The man behind the counter spoke up and said, “I like that cigar a lot, but I usually smoke [another brand.]” Well, we talked cigars for a few minutes, and he helped find the items I needed that day. Now, when I have a choice of hardware stores, I always go back there.
If you ever wonder whether cigar smokers are all the same, all you need to do is come to a Big Smoke (and you can read all about what happened this weekend right here on this site, starting tomorrow.) You’ll find men and women from all walks of life, and from all over the country walking around sampling the cigars, the fine spirits that are being poured and the great food offered up by the local restaurants. It’s a true meeting place where all the pretensions of whatever one does outside the doors are stripped away, and people bond around their love of a good cigar. Some come dressed in costumes. Some are wearing suits. Some are in jeans and sneakers. But everyone is happy and smiling, and just having a good time.
Posted: Sep 9, 2010 12:00am ET
The Big Dipper tilted across the western sky. A dazzling combo of Jupiter and Uranus had risen high in the east. And, about 10 men, nine Danes and an American (yours truly), were lighting up cigars after a night of revelry celebrating one of the Danes’ 25th wedding anniversary. The outdoor air at 1 a.m. was crisp, but apparently warm by early September standards in Denmark because some of the men were in shirtsleeves; the American was shivering, still in his sports coat and long-sleeved shirt.
The evening had been deeply steeped in tradition, with formal speeches by the spouses, their son, and a series of songs, poems and heartfelt toasts—some a little ribald—by friends from both sides of the couple; by heritage, the husband’s friends were all Danish, and the wife’s friends, mostly American. About 35 people sat at the table, mostly grouped by language facility, but with a lot of cross-cultural exchange happening all night long. Also by tradition, when the husband left the room to use the bathroom, all the men jumped up and circled around to the head table to kiss the wife; and vice-versa; when she left the room shortly thereafter, all the women headed for a quick smooch with the husband.
Of course, at the end of each toast, there was a loud Skål (pronounced skoal) shouted around the room, and an instruction to repeat a uniquely Danish chant, best described as a Nordic version of hooray, but pronounced more like “oooo, wahhhhh," and sounded out with either a short or long phrase on each syllable: so three shorts and a long was … well you get the idea. And, then, glasses were lifted and drinks were taken. The festivities started at around 6 p.m., and were still going at midnight. Thank goodness it was mostly wine and beer, and not Aquavit.
But shortly after the last course was served, and the toasts ended, the men looked eagerly to their cigar purveyor, moi. I had brought a sampler box of Dominican and Nicaraguan cigars for the evening, figuring that was easier, especially since not all were serious cigar smokers. We retired to the terrace behind a big building, formerly a barn on the manor house property where we were staying. I played the role of a classic cigar retailer, asking people what kind of things they liked to eat or drink, trying to figure out if they would like a stronger or milder smoke. The Man of the Night didn’t have a choice: I had a big Davidoff Millennium Perfecto for him, figuring after 25 years, he deserved a big smoke.
Posted: Aug 23, 2010 12:00am ET
I’m getting ready to re-stock my personal cigar inventory. I’ve been fortunate in that most of the cigars I smoke are at work, and supplied as part of our tasting reports. But you’ve all seen my humidor at home. It’s got a mix of cigars from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Cuba. There’s also a drawer full of “assorted” cigars, most of which are not my favorite smokes, but my friends appreciate getting them on the golf course, or as part of one of our after-dinner rituals at my house.
But thanks in part to a steady, if not rapid, consumption of my personal stock, and a tragic beetle infestation that took about 100 cigars to an early grave, I’m in the acquisition mode, especially for Cubans. Frankly, I haven’t purchased Cubans in a number of years because of my concerns about the construction quality, and even the tobacco quality, of their cigars. That period of questionable quality seems to be in the past.
So, I can tell you that I will be looking for larger cigars, and maybe a box or two of lanceros, one of my favorite sizes. In the double corona category, we’ve had some great Lusitanias recently, and since that’s always one of my favorites, so I’ll be searching for them. And, I’m always partial to Romeo y Julieta Churchills; they’ll be on my shopping list too. Believe it or not, one of my current favorite lanceros is the Vegueros, which are not always available, but they are a great value and usually pretty full-flavored. I’ll let you know as my stock gets re-built.
One thing I will do is buy enough so the bulk of the boxes can age for at least a year, and maybe longer. I keep discovering cigars in my humidor that are beyond five years old, and I’m almost always amazed at how smooth they are even if they were blockbusters when I first got them.
Do any one of you stock your humidors with the idea of keeping an aged inventory on hand? Are you laying down things that aren’t necessarily your every day smoke? Are you buying new brands on a regular basis just to try them out? How many cigars do you keep?
Posted: Jul 9, 2010 9:55am ET
Our faithful companion, Chloe, a.k.a. Clos Vougeot, left this world about three weeks ago. I haven’t been able to sit down to write this farewell until this week. The emotions were just too raw and too painful, but with a little passage of time, the pain is a little less acute. I’m slowly coming around to a place where I can remember her presence with a deep fondness without tears coming to my eyes. And, I can appreciate that the loneliness my wife and I feel without her around is testimony to how much we loved her and how much a part of our lives she was every day.
Longtime readers of Cigar Aficionado will remember her, a beautiful, jet-black Belgian Sheepdog. She and I were photographed along with Marvin Shanken’s Wheaten Terrier Christina for the editor’s page in an issue that launched a re-design of Cigar Aficionado magazine in June 2000. She was just two and a half years old at the time and if it looked like I had a virtual hammerlock on her in the photos, I did; it was hard to keep her in one place for any length of time. That remained true for nearly her entire life.
Then, two months ago, she woke up one morning and was unable to get to her feet. I helped her up, and within a couple of days that had turned into me carrying her downstairs every morning and back up every night. The world of advanced veterinary science did everything it knew how to do, at each turn of the diagnostic wheel, eliminating possible causes and coming up with potential treatments. As any dog owner knows, it’s tough; they can’t talk to you to tell what hurts or what’s wrong. Our vet, Dr. Brian Green, was fantastic, holding out hope and optimism at every step, but always with a cautionary note that we might be facing a tough decision. The diagnosis finally came—polymyositis, an autoimmune syndrome that, in Chloe’s case, was attacking her muscles. Even then there were treatments that worked for most dogs. Unfortunately, for her, nothing did.
Posted: Apr 27, 2010 9:29am ETSpring never seems to come soon enough in the Northeast, especially after the recent long, cold, wet winter of 2009-2010. But last Friday, the day offered up not just spring-like weather, but the promise of an early summer. It was all blue sky and bright sunshine, and I was lucky enough to enjoy it all on the terrace of the Metropolitan Club, a venerable institution at 60th and Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park.
I had lunch there with Max Gutmann, the owner of the Casa del Habano franchise in Mexico, and a true standard bearer for the words, cigar lover. In the style of traditional New York clubs, gentlemen at the Metropolitan are required to wear a coat and tie. The room was busy, and the food was good, but as we sat drinking a wonderful 2001 Bordeaux, and reminiscing about old times in the cigar business, and about Mexico, the terrace beckoned through the greenhouse-like floor to ceiling windows.
There are more than a few places like this in Manhattan—terraces and outdoor spaces where, when the weather warms up, you can enjoy a great cigar. We’ve reviewed a few of the public spaces, usually in restaurants, where you can be sure that lighting up is allowed. But the city’s private clubs also accommodate their members whenever it is possible. Apart from the Metropolitan Club, others that I know about include the Yale Club and the Knickerbocker Club. And, I know of other clubs that have been reviewing architectural plans to see if they can pull off an outdoor space, with their smoking members in mind.
So when Max and I finished up our meals, we headed out to the terrace. It was still a slightly cool spring day, with some breeze to freshen up the patio’s space, but the sun was bright and the table just protected enough so that I warmed up very quickly. Max offered me a Montecristo Open, a Cuban cigar with a second green band on it. It’s designed to be a bit milder, and, according to Max, is aimed at a younger smoker who isn’t looking for a blockbuster smoke. It was delicious, but just as described—a mild to medium bodied smoke without a lot of power. In some ways, perfect for an outdoor setting where the breeze makes it a bit more difficult to savor every aspect of a cigar.
Posted: Mar 12, 2010 3:20pm ETWhat do you get when you carve out 7,000 acres of Caribbean coastline, build a hotel with 265 rooms and 100 private villa rental homes, construct four golf courses, a new marina, private beach and a residential community the size of a small city? Paradise? Pretty darn close.
Casa de Campo started out life as a retreat for the Gulf & Western Corp. executives around 1970. Since then, it has become one of the most sought-after destinations in the Caribbean, especially for the golf, first at Teeth of the Dog and more recently, Dye Fore, two of the best golf courses you can find anywhere. The hotel recently underwent an extensive $20 million renovation, completely redoing the main lobby building, the pool area, the main hotel restaurant and the award-winning Cygalle Healing Spa. After nearly 40 years, the updates were welcome and have added a pleasant new sheen to an old dame.
Given the size of the property, and the fact that many of the amenities are spread out, it may not be the perfect destination for you. The marina, where there are many restaurants and shops is, for instance, at the opposite end of the property, a good 15 minute ride in the little red golf carts that come as part of your room. The beach is a 10 minute cart ride from the main hotel building too. That may not be what you want.
But if what you’re looking for is more of a resort community feel, with all the amenities there, then this may be the perfect experience for you. I’ve stayed there now nearly half a dozen times, a couple of times in the hotel rooms, and at least four times in villas, as they are called. You can rent a two-bedroom house or, also up to a six-bedroom house that’s big enough for your entire family and then some. I prefer the villa experience, partly because it’s more private, partly because when you want to have a cigar and a glass of rum, you just light up in your living room, or you step out onto the patio, under the palm trees and flowering bougainvillea bushes and enjoy your smoke without interference from anything or anyone. I also recommend renting a car; it adds to the expense but if you want just that little added bit of freedom, getting around the property more quickly and dash up to Altos de Chavón for dinner without waiting for a shuttle bus, or head off to the grocery store in the nearby town of La Romana, it’s a godsend.
Posted: Mar 10, 2010 9:17am ETThe rating of golf courses is subjective. Some players like old-style parkland courses, some like the links format, others only get excited over target golf. The debate over modern versus traditional designs can go on forever. There are very few perfect golf courses, although we all know the ones that get touted as such by name: Pine Valley, Augusta, Shinnecock, Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, Winged Foot, Seminole and places like Pinehurst No. 2 are just a few of the great ones.
I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of great courses in the United States. My playing partners in Casa de Campo last week have been even luckier, playing not only great courses in America but around the world. About the only major resort they haven’t played is Bandon Dunes. And, in their mind the combination of Dye Fore and Teeth of the Dog (rated the 34th best course in the world by Golf Magazine) represents two of the best adjacent courses that they have played.
Dye Fore was completed in 2003, and the setting alone is spectacular, flowing down and then back to the Tuscan style hilltop village called Altos de Chavón; The front nine has numerous vistas of the Caribbean Sea to the south of Casa de Campo, and on the back nine, you can peer down 300 feet into the gorge where the Rio Chavón runs.
The front nine begins with a magnificent par 5 slight dogleg left that ends in a sharply elevated green, one of the common defenses of the greens on this Pete Dye design. The next stunning hole is number 4, a long downhill, dogleg left par 4 (495 yards from the gold tees) with a sharp drop into a gully on the left, that reminded one of my partners of the 18th at Kapalua. The second par 5 on the front nine feels like you play up a small gulley with mounds and houses on both sides, and the green is tucked away behind a hill. The back nine presents an entirely different character, an almost pure links feel across a windswept series of bluffs that overlook the river below. Both par 5s, 10 and 18 are challenging with the latter playing downhill for the latter 200 yards, with the green sitting 50 feet above the low point of the fairway at 100 yards. But the truly spectacular holes here are the two par 3s, one 220 from the blue tees, and 235 from the tips, and the other at 190 and 210. By the way, if you’re a masochist or simply a scratch golfer, the black tees run out to 7700 yards and bring the rating up to 77/134 slope.
Posted: Mar 8, 2010 9:50am ETYou could almost hear the collective sigh of relief around the stone coffee table on the outdoor patio, the palm fronds brushing against each other in the light breeze and the stars—especially the Orion constellation—shining in the clear, nighttime sky. We were sitting there in shirt sleeves, a glass of Brugal rum on the rocks with a slice of lime, and the magazine’s Cigar of the Year, a Padrón Family Reserve No. 45 Maduro in our hands. It was our second night at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, but the first night, after a three a.m. wake-up call for a six a.m. flight, the cigar and glass of rum hadn’t been quite as relaxed, more a defiant declaration that we were on vacation than a laid back moment before collapsing into bed—and the golf hadn’t even started yet.
We were at the Caribbean golf resort for a three-day binge of golf—36 holes a day which, trust me, is more golf than four guys in their late 50s should even dream about playing. Golf trips can be a bit problematic, the search for the right mix of personalities and desires potentially subject to miscalculations of intentions and incompatibilities. But the four guys—Chuck, Mory, Matt and yours truly—around the patio epitomized the synergy of the perfect combination. Three of us went to the same college, so even though we weren’t close friends 35 years ago, the shared history has smoothed the way to an adult friendship that can be rare to find as you get older. The fourth had known one of the college group for 25 years through a business association and the other two for more than 10 years through the same country club. We represented the medical, publishing, and business sectors, often with intertwined connections between each of those worlds.
We played straight up without handicaps for three days, the same pairs each day, and at the end of the six rounds, we had split 3-3 and there wasn’t much more than a two-hole difference between total holes won and lost. Each of us had at least one good round—not bad after a multi-month winter layoff—although we all had nine-hole stretches with excellent scores. Trash-talking? You bet. Laughter? More than you can imagine, including on the last hole of the weekend, when one of us (he shall mercifully remain anonymous) chili-dipped his drive off the tee, and we nearly all fell down laughing—no mercy in this group either.