Ever since I returned from the Partagas festival, I’ve wanted to write an article on my experiences. Writing reviews is easy in comparison to an event or trip because smoking a cigar is such a small amount of time whereas my trip to Cuba was an adventure that seemed unbounded by time, and when I try and think of specific portions I want to write in detail about, I find myself lost in the memory.
One thing I wanted to mention early was that while I am an experienced cigar smoker, this trip was also meant as an education on Cuba, the history of its tobacco, and the many cigar brands they have to offer.
I was happy to leave Calgary when the day to fly out finally arrived. Yes, I was excited to go away to Cuba and smoke tons of cigars, but the weather had been particularly cold and lousy in November. As a Canadian traveling during the winter time, you’re always left with the hard decision of what to wear to the airport. Do you wear shorts and a light jacket and freeze your tail off while walking to the airport? Do you wear cold weather gear and sweat profusely when you land?
Having previously been to a Latin American country I knew that wearing cold weather clothing was not the way to go. I instead opted for a light shirt and jeans which would meet a nice middle ground.
The flight itself was uneventful but the departure and arrival time was horrendous. In order to make the event and not miss any time with the group I was meeting there, I was going to have to fly in overnight and land early in the morning. I had hoped I was going to be able to sleep on the plane, but I ended up watching movies the entire time.
I’ve traveled a fair amount, especially over the past year, but I have to say that going through customs in Cuba had me particularly on edge. How hard was I going to be questioned landing in a communist country?
Any fears I had turned out to be groundless. Getting through the Cuban customs and paying my $25 entry fee ended as a footnote in my vacation.
I exited the airport and was immediately inundated with hot humid air and vendors trying to sell beers. Based on previous travel experiences, I knew the smart thing was to immediately hydrate. After grabbing some water I exchanged my Canadian dollars to CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) and then met up with the shuttle that had been arranged through Sun Wing travel for my long transfer to Havana.
Cuba struck me as a paradox. All around was a country that seemed frozen in time. The buildings were beautiful, yet old and decaying. The large fairly maintained highway stretching out in front of us was absent of traffic. Every few kilometers was someone energetically sweeping the streets and sidewalks to ensure they were free of dirt and garbage.
After more than 3 hours, our bus finally pulled in front of the Hotel Nacional in Havana, and I was able to relax and start to enjoy my vacation.
I was not surprised to find out it was too early in the day to check in. The hotel staff was more than eager to accommodate me, in flawless English, and to have the room ready at noon. With the check-in process handled for now, I went off to explore the hotel and get some food. The breakfast buffet was just opening up on the basement floor of the Nacional.
Prior to my departure, many people wanted to lend their different opinions on Cuban food. Several close friends told me they did not enjoy the food in Cuba at all, yet the experienced group I was to meet had advised that the food in Cuba was fantastic. If I were to judge all the food in Cuba based on the buffet, I’m sure I would have believed the former. The food was not necessarily bad, I would just later discover that Cuba was not the place for Western dishes. In later entries I will have more detail on the exquisite Cuban dishes we were served throughout the trip.
Getting back to the breakfast buffet; I enjoyed several very strong cups of black Cuban coffee and filled my belly with scrambled eggs and fruit. After a few minutes to settle, it was time to continue my exploration of the hotel.
The hotel Nacional is very beautiful. Decades of history are marked by photos on the wall.
The outside area of the Nacional is breathtaking. You are immediately met by hot, humid sea air and a bright blue harbor stretching out before you behind the Malecón. The Malecón is a very long road and seawall that stretches along the coast in Havana.
Comfortable wicker couches and chairs line the outside edge of the open air space with a fountain anchoring it in the middle. Several small bars were located strategically throughout. The center of the area contains various tables for dining as well.
After exploring the back of the Nacional, it was time to seek out the LCDH (La Casa del Habano) downstairs and find some tasty cigars of Cuba to keep me occupied. I had about 16 – 18 hours before the rest of the group was going to join me, and I felt like relaxing at the hotel instead of exploring Havana solo.
The LCDH is located at the far end of the hotel beyond the check-in desk. The upstairs area is primarily wines, rums and coffee. Downstairs is the cigar area, and as I descended the stairs, the smell of fine Cuban tobacco greeted me. This particular LCDH wasn’t very large, but it was more than enough to accommodate my cigar needs. I decided to settle into the back area for my first cigar, a Bolivar Royal Corona, and an espresso.
After finishing my cigar and coffee, I selected a Cohiba Maduro Secretos, another Bolivar Royal Corona and a Vegas Robaina and headed outside for more coffee, mojitos and some relaxation.
I was quite surprised at the number of Americans at the hotel. Over the course of the day, I had many conversations and inquired how they were able to travel to Cuba. As I sat enjoying my cigars, there were many other people from a variety of other countries taking in the beautiful afternoon as well. For lunch, I wandered over to the restaurant off to the side and enjoyed some roasted chicken, rice and black beans.
As I basked in the heat watching the sunset, I discovered my love for Mojitos. Eventually, I received a text notification from the group I was to meet that they were delayed and would be arriving late in the morning instead of the evening. I decided to go to bed early so that I could be up and ready to go in the middle of the morning when their flight came in.
Next up …