My first day in Havana is always filled with little bureaucratic tasks. A visit to the Center for International Press to obtain my credentials for the week. A quick stop at Habanos S.A. to nail down a few appointments for later in the week. But I have one thing in mind—finish those tasks as quickly as possible so I can get to my first cigar of the week. I could have had it last night but I was exhausted after a 4 a.m. wake-up call in Mexico. Sure, there was an opportunity riding around in my car this morning, but I knew I wanted to savor the first smoke of the day during my first full day in Havana. And, I wanted something special to smoke.
The press center only took an hour, somewhere midway between the quickest and the slowest time it has taken to get the little plastic press ID. I then stopped by Habanos' offices to say hello to the two co-presidents, Luis Sánchez-Harguindey and Inocente Núñez Blanco; my appointment with some other Cuban tobacco experts remains up in the air, but at least everyone knows I'm in town. Finally, I stepped out of the "officially" smoke-free offices of the Cuban tobacco monopoly—like everywhere else in the world, Cuba's laws about workplace smoking can be quite strict—and headed across the street to the Meliá Habana hotel, and my favorite Casa del Habano in Havana.
Why is it my favorite? Well, that's where I have a locker with cigars I leave behind here, my own personal Mecca. I stepped into the well-appointed shop and lounge with its dark wood display cases and plush leather chairs and couches. The shelves in the walk-in humidor were filled with plenty of our favorite cigars, everything from my favorite Montecristo No. 1s, and some 50-count cabinets of Ramon Allones Specially Selected to stacks of boxes of every other major brand—Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, H. Upmann and Partagás. No Behikes at this particular time, despite sightings elsewhere around the world. I have my eye on one of the Ramon Allones boxes but I'd have to leave the cabinet of 50 behind since Mexico, my new home, only allows 25 cigars be brought into the country duty free.
After my quick tour, the store staff brought me the locker box. Yes, I had a smile on my face. But what to smoke first? It was simple. I pulled out a Diplomaticos Excelencia, a 2015 Regional Edition that was a Cuba exclusive; it carries the small band identifying it as an Exclusivo Cuba. The robusto-size cigar (50 ring by nearly 5 inches) is a little powerhouse, filled with coffee bean and earth notes that linger on the palate. I sat down in one of the leather chairs, and lit up the short cigar, savoring every puff. I stuck with a cold bottle of water, since I had just had a Cuban coffee at the Habanos office, and it was a little too early still to be knocking back a glass of rum—that comes later today.
People are always asking me, "What's different in Havana?" since the advent of changes in Cuba's relationship with the United States in December 2014. First impressions are always a pitfall of any journalist, but in this case, first impressions are probably important and even warranted. The trend toward more fresh paint on buildings continues, and there are more scaffoldings on old crumbling buildings that are under repair. There are more old vintage U.S. cars on the streets, both ones being used as local taxies and those carrying foreign tourists, the women always dressed in brightly colored blouses and the men wearing their best Ernest Hemingway imitation Panama hats.
Sitting in the harbor was Carnival Corporation's Fathom line cruise ship, the 700-passenger MV Adonia; it was departing as I arrived at Havana's port so I was unable to grab a few passengers for their impressions of two-days in Havana. I also noted at lunch that the menu prices at El Templete, a government-run seafood restaurant on the port, were higher than I had ever seen them before. And, as I returned to my hotel, and passed the building of the former U.S. Interests Section office, in big bold gold letters on the façade was "Embassy of The United States," a visual affirmation that diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba have been restored.
Some things never change. I ate my first meal late last night at El Aljibe, my favorite roast chicken restaurant in Havana. And, the waves were crashing over the seawall on the Malecón, most likely the remnants of Hurricane Matthew out in the Atlantic Ocean which fortunately passed by Havana last week without significant impact. It is nice to be back.