Part One: The 10th Anniversary Big Smoke Las Vegas

A decade after cigar aficionados from around the United States and the globe first ventured to a desert paradise to revel in smoke, they continue to come in astounding numbers. This past weekend, Cigar Aficionado held its tenth annual Big Smoke Las Vegas, hosting nearly 6,000 lovers of the leaf at the Paris Las Vegas hotel for three days of cigars, spirits, fine cuisine and camaraderie.

Since the very first Big Smoke was staged in New York City in 1993, the event has branched out to locations all around the country. The Las Vegas venue, however, is the premier location and holds the title as the biggest cigar celebration in the world.

Walking from the casino floor at the Paris along the meandering streets of the faux Parisian village storefronts on Friday or Saturday night, you could already catch the scent of cigars in the air. All roads led to the 85,000 square-foot ballroom where the stage was set for the throngs of thousands. Rounding the corner, the chatter of anticipation mixed with the clicking of lighters, hanging plumes of smoke, and smiles of attendees waiting for the doors to part.

Attendees light up smokes at the C.A.O. station.
At 6:30, the doors opened and music echoed into the cavernous hall welcoming patrons into the shimmering space. Eager veterans and curious first-timers flowed in with empty Cigar Aficionado tote bags waiting to be stuffed with smokes from some of the industry's premier makers of premium cigars.

From military personnel to businessmen to guys dressed in cow costumes and smoking jackets, people from all ages and walks of life stood shoulder to shoulder.

Heather Philips and Angela Loruss of Florida.
"Just a fun thing to do," agreed a couple from Scottsdale, Arizona attending their second Big Smoke. "We have three kids and this is a great little vacation."

A crowd of eight old friends traveling from San Diego, Houston and even overseas, met in Vegas for their fist ever Big Smoke. "We've already decided to make this an annual event," said one of the buddy group. "I flew over from London for the event," said another. "That's just how much of an event this is for us."

A mother and son also met up in the Paris for their first Big Smoke coming together from Iceland and Russia where they each make their respective home. "We are here to pick up cigars and meet people," they said. "This is great!"

Jim Sons displays some cigars from his tote bag.
A urologist from Newport Beach, California, brought a couple of colleagues with him this year. "I've been here ever since the first one. We enjoy the hell out of this." After ten years of big smoking, He has his strategy down. "We play golf during the day. Then come here."

Midway through the evening, tote bags brimmed with handmade cigars from around the world, many of them handed out by the owners of the companies making the cigars. The brands included Arturo Fuente, Ashton, Bolivar, Brazil Cigars & Tobacco, C.A.O., Flavours by C.A.O., Carlos Toraño, Cuesta-Rey, Cusano, Don Tomás, Felipe Gregorio, Helix, H. Upmann, Kahlúa, La Aroma de Cuba, La Aurora, La Carolina, La Flor Dominicana, La Gloria Cubana, Maria Guerrero, Montecristo, Oliva, Padrón, Puros Indios, Romeo y Julieta, Rocky Patel Premium, Saint Luis Rey, The Griffin's and Zino Platinum. (The Miami companies who distribute Camacho and Padilla cigars could not make the event from Miami due to problems arising from Hurricane Wilma.)

Carlos Fuente Jr. shakes hands at his booth with Richard Vukovics.
The elite of the cigar industry were there, including Carlos Fuente Sr. and Jr., Ernesto Perez-Carrillo of La Gloria Cubana, Benjamin Menendez and Sherwin Seltzer of General Cigar Co., Jim Colucci and Jose Seijas of Altadis U.S.A. Inc., C.A.O.'s Tim and Aylin Ozgener, Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana, Robert and Sathya Levin of Ashton, Orlando Padrón, Charlie Toraño, Jose Blanco of La Aurora, Peter Banninger of Davidoff, Philip Wynne of Felipe Gregorio, Rocky Patel, Bobby Newman of J.C. Newman, Mike Chiusano of Cusano Cigars and Kiki Berger of Cuban Crafters.

To cleanse the palate in between puffs, copious amounts of booze were poured. Cigars were paired with an array of high-end spirits on or off the rocks, from single-malt Scotches such as Laphroaig, The Glenlivet, The Glenrothes and Talisker; whiskeys such as Tullamore Dew, Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve Bourbon; Absolute Apeach and Level vodkas; Plymouth gin, Patrón Tequila, fine wines from Pine Ridge and Archery Summit and frosty brews courtesy of Michelob Amber Bock.

Al Carpenter of Canada takes a test drive in a convertible Chrysler Crossfire.
Gearheads parked themselves around a fleet of glittering new automobiles -- decked out with plush leather and state of the art sound and video systems -- and imagined themselves at the wheel. Those with visions of the ultimate in tailgating or bouncing and bucking off road were treated to SUVs from Range Rover, Dodge, Jeep, Lincoln, Chevrolet and Hummer. Others fantasized about speeding in luxury down the highway with Bentley, Corvette, Cadillac, Honda, Acura, Infiniti and Jaguar. The rider who prefers two wheels and the open air could saddle up on Triumph motorcycles.

John Long, Stephen Adams, David Robinson, Marcus Brent, Wayne Parmeter, Anthony Goins at the front stage.
To keep the mood of Sin City in the spot light, dancers gyrated center stage silhouetted in soft glowing hues behind transparent screens. The DJ kept them moving with booming beats and polled the seated crowd out front as to which body had the best moves. Visitors to the C.A.O. both had bags, C.A.O. merchandise and boxes signed by NFL great Dick Butkus. General Cigar gave guests a keepsake by photographing them in their very own Punch ad complete with a digitized jester shadow. Those who needed to work on their golf game strolled to the golf station where a pro gave pointers on better chips, drives and putts, while the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association gave tips on how to get inside the horseracing circuit.

What would the good life be without fashion accessories, travel and adventure? Tommy Bahama modeled the finest in island-inspired apparel; Colibri and Diamond Crown displayed the latest gadgetry in lighters and humidors; Golf Mesquite resort and Windstar cruises showed attendees how and where to spend quality leisure time; and Maurice Lacroix laid out the finest craftsmanship in time pieces.

Dan and Jane Barizanti enjoy a cigar together.
There would be no empty stomachs in the room with fine fare from Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, Aureole, Charlie Palmer Steak, Commander's Palace, Delmonico Steakhouse, Emeril's New Orleans Fish House, Piero Selvaggio's Valentino Las Vegas and Pinot Brasserie. It was all washed down with sparkling water from San Pellegrino and still water from Panna.

At 9:30 each evening, the lights began to fade and guests puffed merrily out the door on to the Vegas Strip. Most would no doubt continue into the night. The Big Smoke was just beginning as well, with much more to come.

Photos by Camilla Sjodin Hadowanetz