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Places to Puff

In Havana, One Can Smoke Just About Anywhere, But A Few Time-Honored Haunts Guarantee A Memorable Experience
| By James Suckling | From The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

Jack Newhouse has been living in Havana for nearly two years, hustling local women and surviving off small business deals. An American who admits to such conduct is either telling tall tales or bragging of incredibly ballsy entrepreneurship. Then again, maybe he's working for the CIA.

Seated at the Relicario Bar at the Hotel Meliá Cohiba, Newhouse (not his real name) savors a Cohiba Robusto and sips a Cristal beer out of a long-necked glass bottle. Sporting khaki trousers, a blue Lacoste polo shirt and Cole-Haan penny loafers, the tall and slender Newhouse looks more like a recreational golfer than a businessman whiling away the afternoon in a dark and cool cigar bar.

That, of course, is part of Havana's lure: you never know whom you'll meet in its cigar establishments. While finding a place to smoke is not difficult, since you can light up just about anywhere, only a handful of places offer a truly sublime smoking experience.

One of the foremost venues in which to smoke is El Floridita, located in Old Havana. There's no better way to get into the Cuban spirit than to sit at the bar and puff on a premium habano while listening to the string quartet play Cuban folk music and watching the red-jacketed bartenders serve clients. El Floridita is known for its frosty Daiquiri, which is a great way to cool down after a hot afternoon walking the streets of the city. The tart and refreshing flavors of the cocktail are a perfect foil to the spicy and rich character of a Cuban cigar, such as a Montecristo No. 2 or a Partagas Serie D No. 4.

Ask for a "Daiquiri Nature," which is the hand-shaken version of the drink.

Besides El Floridita, several other places provide an inviting setting in which to light up, and not all are cigar bars or cafés or even indoors. Some cigar aficionados like to relish their habanos as they stroll down the city streets, surveying Havana's myriad sights, smells and sounds.

Here is a list of some of the best places to smoke in the city. Remember to bring your own cigars as most places, with the exception of cigar shops and cigar bars, do not stock them. Outside Cuba, telephone numbers require the 53-7 prefix.

El Floridita
Obispo No. 557
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 63 10 60, 63 10 61, 63 11 11
A trip to Havana wouldn't be complete without stopping at this watering hole. Maybe it's the ghost of Ernest Hemingway that beckons people back? The literary giant had it right when he said "my daiquiri in the Floridita and my mojito in the Bodeguita." The only drawback is that some customers are often more interested in having their pictures taken at the bar than enjoying the ambience.

Calle Obispo
La Habana Vieja
A walk down Old Havana's main thoroughfare is a must. Begin with a quick drink at El Floridita and finish with a coffee at the Hotel Ambos Mundos near the Plaza de Armas. The street is alive and bustling with a variety of stores and plenty of bars and coffee shops to try. This is a totally sensual way to experience the city; you can literally smell, taste, hear and feel the environment. View the crumbling but beautiful colonial architecture. Breathe in the aromas of grilled food, burning oil and cigar smoke. Smoking a cigar as you walk the dusty, bumpy road only enhances your senses. It will also attract a number of beggars and counterfeit cigar hawkers. But that's all part of the charm of Havana.

La Casa del Habano
Fabrica Partagas (Francisco Perez German)
Industria No. 520 entre Dragones y Barcelona
La Habana Vieja
Phone and fax: 33 80 60
No matter when you visit this cigar shop on the ground floor of the Partagas factory, there's always someone sitting at the bar drinking coffee and puffing on a cigar who's more than willing to strike up a conversation. It could be a wealthy American who recently docked his boat at the Marina Hemingway and who wants to smoke as many Cuban cigars as possible before heading back to Miami. Or it could be a Spanish cigar merchant who wants information on where to find the best double coronas or robustos. This is the place to go to get a feel for the cigar culture of the city.

Relicario Bar
Hotel Meliá Cohiba
Calle Paseo entre 1st and 3rd
Vedado, Municipio Plaza
Phone: 33 36 36
Although it has a similar feel to the Partagas cigar shop, the Relicario Bar is much smaller and darker. Either the place is full of cigar aficionados or it's empty. The best time to visit is usually in the evening before the bar crowd leaves for dinner and other nightly pursuits. There's always a great selection of individual cigars to buy.

Hotel Nacional
Calle O esquina 21
Vedado, Plaza
Phone: 33 35 62, 33 35 64
Among the many dignitaries and celebrities who have graced the hotel's grand, beautiful halls is Winston Churchill, who stayed here probably for the joy of relaxing in the glorious lobby or strolling in the garden while smoking a cigar. Built in the 1930s, the Nacional is not as exclusive as it was in Havana's glory days, but it's worth a visit. The cigar shop one step down from the lobby usually carries a decent selection of smokes.

La Casa del Habano
5ta Avenida esquina 16
Phone: 24 11 85
This is the one of Havana's top cigar shops but it lacks a bit of ambience; there's seldom more than five people there at one time. Nonetheless, a cigar aficionado or two can be found at the bar in the afternoon. If you have any cigar questions, Pedro Gonzalez, the manager of the store, knows his stuff.

La Bodeguita del Medio
Empedrado No. 207
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 62 44 98, 61 84 42
When not filled with tourists, La Bodeguita is a great place for a quick mojito or beer. Ask for your mojito with three-year-old Havana Club rum because the usual cocktail rum verges on rubbing alcohol. Although the drinks are expensive and poor and the bartenders are normally unfriendly, you should still pay homage to this famous drinking hole whenever you're in Havana.

La Roca
Calle 21 esquina M
Phone: 33 45 01
This dive bar is a must for anyone looking for the feel of the Rat Pack era of the 1950s. But forget eating in the restaurant; the food is not the draw. Bring a sweater or jacket since the air conditioning is set at arctic temperatures.

Cafe del Oriente
Plaza de San Francisco de Asis
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 66 66 86
After milling around the old book stalls in the Plaza de Armas, it's always a pleasure to stop at the Cafe del Oriente and partake of a coffee or cold drink. The food is poor but the cool neodeco atmosphere and live piano music are relaxing.


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