It was late in Cuba's capital city. The air was warm and heavy, with no hint of a breeze, and the royal palms stood still, unswaying, as if they were made of stone. The car stopped on a quiet street, and our party walked through the flowered courtyard of La Moraleja, a fine paladar in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.
We sat at a quiet corner table. Soon a bottle of wine had been relieved of its cork. A ceramic ashtray appeared, unbidden, subtly, placed in the middle of the table. The clack of cigar cutters and the snick of lighters springing to life were the only sounds other than unhurried, civil conversation, and soon plumes of rich cigar smoke were rising into the air as delicious food made its way to the table.
Such is life in Cuba, where cigars remain welcome at many restaurants and American cell phones and Internet plans simply don't work, leaving evenings free (for the most part) of chirping electronic devices.
I landed in Havana around midday, flying on a charter from Miami. The American Airlines plane was nearly full of tourists, some heading to the annual Habanos Festival, others simply exploring this land that has remained off-limits to most American travelers for more than 50 years.
The Habanos Festival—Cuba's weeklong celebration of all things cigar—began last night with a party themed around one of Cuba's most familiar brands, the iconic Romeo y Julieta. Officials from Habanos S.A. spoke about new additions to the Romeo line, including a Romeo y Julieta Pirámide Añejado and a RyJ Wide Churchill Gran Reserva Cosecha 2009. Both cigars were passed out at last night's party. I puffed the Añejado, which took a long time to express itself, but the cigars passed out here are typically not ready to judge, and smoking at a party with hundreds of people doesn't give a fair chance to the cigar, so I'll reserve judgment until later.
The crowd was thick last night in Havana, and as usual the Festival is filled with distributors, retailers and cigar lovers from all over the world. I met people from Canada, Great Britain, Kuwait, Ireland, Brazil, Serbia, Hong Kong and (of course) Cuba last night alone.
There's a certain energy in Havana I haven't felt before, and it's exciting. I'm getting ready to look around cigar shops to see what's in stock (and what isn't) and what is smoking well.
The smoke I had at dinner? It was a Bolivar Super Corona 2014 EL (90 points, Cigar Insider, November 2014) given to me by a friend who knows his Cuban smokes. Remember the old flavors of Bolivar, the thick leather, the heavy power, the nose zinging spice? This cigar had it in spades, heavy and distinctive, full bodied with a take-no-prisoners attitude. That's old-style Bolivar, and it was the perfect end to my first night here in Cuba.