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The rest of the trip was colorful, as we were there during the Mardi Gras parade. My association with the local street kids was also enlightening and entertaining. They gave me a tour unlike any tour guide could give of old Havana. I also picked up some pointers on top spinning and marbles. The kids there interact with each other and are inventive in their play. (No Nintendos!) Their entertainment was produced by themselves, rather than their being entertained at the flip of a switch, and very social. We walked many back streets and I got a real feel for the city. As you are aware, some of the better food may be had in people's living room restaurants (of 12 persons or less). The kids led me to a third-floor residence up a stairway without light. Fumbling up the stairs was a bit awkward, but I found the living room quite nice and the service exceptional. I highly recommend experimenting with the local eateries.
The trip's end was eventful as well. I lost my best friend in a fight on a Havana side street--over a woman, of course. Luckily, we didn't go to jail, as there is no nonsense tolerated by the police there. I walked the streets at 3 a.m. without incident. I suspect the consequences of harming a tourist are harsh, to say the least.
On the flight from Havana to Nassau I talked to the captain of the YAK-42 (a Soviet version of a 727) and was able to sit in the cockpit for the trip. As a student pilot at that time, this was another great thrill. It was especially exciting to come down through the clouds (zero visibility) and begin looking for the airport. (U.S. aviation regulations prohibit anyone besides crew in the cockpit.)
One experience that may benefit your readers: Nassau customs confiscated my cigars! They have 300 percent duty on anything more than 50 cigars. Since I had about 300 for friends, etc., they were seized. You can pay the 300 percent or they will hold them and escort you onto your outgoing flight, or at least to the U.S. Customs agents. Neither situation was desirable. It was a very tense 24 hours figuring out how to handle the situation. So, be advised, you can encounter difficulty bringing cigars into Nassau, not only the United States. As my friend Hercule Poirot used to say, it took many "little gray cells" to extract my confiscated cigars from the customs people in Nassau.
It's been a year since I've been there, and I can't wait to go back. I fell in love with the people, their culture and, of course, their cigars and rum. I learned a lot on the trip. Another trip might be anticlimactic, but I'll see. Most inconveniences are worth the price to be able to sit on the front porch of the Nacional at night, Cohiba Lancero in hand, mariachis playing among the palm trees, and thinking--this is living!
Tinley Park, Illinois
I have been following your ongoing controversy about cigar smokers' "rights" and would like to add my own opinion on the subject for what it's worth. I've never smoked cigarettes, but recently I have discovered the pleasure of smoking fine cigars. Over and over I am truly amazed at the wonderful complex taste of a well-made cigar! But, one thing I've found to be constantly true, for me at least--a cigar never smells as good as it tastes. I know that many of you enjoy the smell of cigar smoke, but for me, unless I am in a well-ventilated area (like outdoors!) I just can't stand it! If you can't comprehend what this is like, here is something that might bring home what I am trying to say. Have any of you men ever been stuck on an elevator with a woman who is drenched in perfume? Hey, it may be fine perfume, but it's still overwhelming. Well, it's the same way with nonsmokers who are stuck in a small room with cigar smoke. It may be a fine cigar, but it's just too overwhelming!
One thing I've noticed in Cigar Aficionado is that you promote not only fine cigars, but all the good things in life! Art, music, a gourmet meal, a fine cigar--these are the things that add to the pleasures of life. But, for all you people who feel you can light up anytime, anywhere, especially in a restaurant, well, that's pretty gauche! How can a person enjoy the subtle flavors of, let's say, a salmon mousse, and the complex bouquet of a vintage wine, when the robust smell of cigar smoke overpowers those delicate flavors?
Another thing your magazine seems to promote is the return to a more genteel era when men were gentlemen and lived by a certain code. I'm all for that, since gentlemen always retired to the smoking room after a meal to partake in cigars and brandy. Of course in the modern scenario, the women are going to have to join the men in their partaking.
So, instead of complaining about not being able to light up anytime, anywhere, let's use our energy to champion our favorite restaurants and hotels to open special cigar rooms, and we will be able to enjoy the pleasure of smoke without making it unbearable for the nonsmokers!
Janet L. McAuley
During a recent stay at the Hilton on Marco Island, Florida, I learned that anti-cigar policies may not only frustrate and embarrass, but can confuse the management as well as the cigar lover.
After a great day on the beach, I phoned from our room for a reservation that evening for my wife and myself in the hotel's premier restaurant, Sandcastles. The woman who pleasantly took our reservation casually asked if I would prefer the smoking section. "No," I said, "unless you permit cigar smoking." She said they did not permit cigar smoking and would seat us in the nonsmoking section. That was OK with us. As pleasurable as an after-dinner cigar is, I will never push the cigar smoking thing in the face of an establishment's policy on the matter.
Three minutes later, as we were dressing for dinner, the phone rang. It was the reservations woman with the pleasant voice telling me that her boss said it was OK to smoke a cigar in the restaurant's smoking section, and if I wanted to do a cigar after dinner she would seat us in the smoking section. I thought that was very considerate and accepted the offer. After all, I hadn't even pressed the matter. It was their decision, apparently trying to be all things to all diners. Preparing for dinner, I had visions of a cigar with espresso and brandy. My wife enjoys the aroma of a good cigar. It was going to be a luxurious and relaxing meal. I selected a Macanudo and we headed for Sandcastles.
The meal was great--that is, until we ordered espresso and I lit the Macanudo. The restaurant manager raced over to our table in the smoking section to tell us quite loudly that there was no cigar smoking at Sandcastles. I tried to stay cool as I told him about the reservations woman who called me back to offer me cigar smoking even though I hadn't demanded it. He smugly said he'd send over the assistant food and beverage director.
Again, I explained the situation and pointed out that we would have preferred sitting at one of the choice tables in the nonsmoking section if I hadn't been invited to smoke a cigar in the smoking section, the second-rate part of the restaurant, as usual. This fellow was somewhat more polite and listened with apparent compassion. But rules are rules, he indicated. By this time, other diners' heads were turned toward our table. Embarrassed, we canceled our plans for espresso and brandy. I extinguished the cigar, asked for the bill and we left the restaurant, the eyes of the other diners following us.
The next day, determined to get to the bottom of their switch on cigar policy, I spoke to the reservations woman again. She said she worked for two bosses, the restaurant manager and the assistant food and beverage director, the very guys who ordered me to ditch the cigar. She said she couldn't recall who told her to call me back to OK my smoking a cigar in Sandcastles. Then the assistant food and beverage director got on the phone. He admitted that there had been a screwup on their part and said that I had been needlessly embarrassed. He offered to take some of the sting out of the affair by refunding the cost of the dinner.
When we checked out, there was a credit for the meal on our bill. And I'll say this for the Marco Island Hilton: when they get contrite they really do a mea culpa. A few days after our return from Florida, I received a letter signed by yet another level of management, the food and beverage director himself, apologizing "for the confusion" they caused.
Pleasantville, New York
I am writing to you today regarding a disturbing letter published in the May/June Cigar Aficionado. I wholeheartedly agree with the writer's commendations of your journalistic excellence, but I cannot say the same for many of his opinions.
Specifically, I am extremely bothered by his characterization of Cigar Aficionado as catering to readers who are "primarily (even if not exclusively) upper middle class, the wealthy, and those who want to be wealthy."
I am a young professional, recently graduated from a four-year university, and have recently discovered one of life's fine pleasures in an occasional smoke. Along with my moderate indulgence, I thoroughly enjoy reading Cigar Aficionado. I don't need to tell you that when starting out in any new career, a tremendous salary is difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate. My ambition in life, however, is to be happy with my career choices and lifestyle decisions, not necessarily to be wealthy (although it would be a nice added benefit). One of those choices I make is to allow myself the privilege of being able to enjoy fine cigars in moderation. Though I must admit I cannot afford the high-end line of fine tobacco products and all of the glorious accessories, I very much enjoy and treasure my prerogative to indulge in some of the finer things that life has to offer.
With any new trend, like the increasing popularity of cigars, a diverse group of people will be captivated. I think that Cigar Aficionado realizes that within each issue. And for the reader who has such a bleak outlook on the increasing diversity of cigar smokers, I say relax and have a nice smoke!!
Chad R. Beckstrom