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Your man in Havana: notes from a Caribbean island

Gala Night at the Habanos Festival, Cuba, March 2, 2013

It feels like a distant memory already.

Four weeks ago I made a long-awaited trip to Havana. I haven't written about it before because I've been too busy. On Sunday however my flight to Cork was delayed by the weather so I had a spare moment to jot down a few thoughts. I finished this post on the return journey last night. Apologies for its length – you'd be surprised how much I've missed out!

I went to Cuba at the invitation of Ranald Macdonald, a long-time supporter of Forest whose business interests have included Boisdale and Floridita which is named after the bar in Havana made famous by Ernest Hemingway.

As regular readers know, Forest has hosted a number of smoker-friendly events at Boisdale including last year's Freedom Dinner. We've also collaborated on events like Revolt In Style at the Savoy Hotel in London and a Prohibition themed reception for 400 people at the Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth.

After each event, sometimes in a state of mild intoxication, Ranald would urge me to join the Boisdale Jazz and Cigar Club jaunt to Havana. Each year, with more than a pang of regret, I said no. Finally I said yes. It seemed rude not to.

This annual act of escapism is now in its tenth year (I think). It coincides with the Habanos [Cigar] Festival which was launched in 1999. That festival, now in its fifteenth year, is organised by Habanos SA, a joint venture between Cubatabaco, a state-owned Cuban company, and Altadis, the Spanish company owned by Imperial Tobacco.

The first thing I discovered was that the famous festival is basically a private corporate event. Walk around Havana and you'll see no evidence of it in bars or restaurants. As far as the ordinary Cuban or foreign tourist is concerned, the Habanos Festival might not exist.

The programme this year included a trade fair, seminars, tastings and marriages (tobacco and gastronomy, for example), visits to tobacco plantations and cigar factories, and a master class in cigar rolling.

Book-ending the five-day festival were two big events that were also included in the Boisdale itinerary – the Welcome Evening at the El Morro Fortress, and a Gala Night in Hall C of the functional Pabexpo conference centre.

The Gala Night in particular defied description but I'll try. We arrived by taxi to find 1500 people taking their seats at dinner tables in a large exhibition hall with a stage running the length of one side and giant video screens on every wall.

After being given a somewhat thrifty half glass of champagne, we each picked up a goodie bag. There was a box in each one containing two classic cigars. According to Cigar Inspector the Partagas Lusitanias is a very long cigar and "smoking one requires patience and concentration". In a second, smaller box was a sturdy Habanos Festival cigar cutter. Finally, in a small pouch, was some tobacco flavoured cooking salt "made in Croatia". According to Ranald there is a small chance that the cigars, kept in pristine condition, might be worth something in 30 years. I suspect I will be dead by then so why wait?

When everyone was seated the entertainment began. After a series of singers and dancers took to the stage the headline act appeared and was immediately dubbed "Shirley Bassey's Cuban granny" by a fellow guest. Don't get me wrong, the organisers put on a superbly slick show but it seemed at odds with what we experienced elsewhere in Havana. Think Saturday night television circa 1975 with a twist of Eurovision, Latin American style.

Thankfully a familiar face brought some relief from the high octane entertainment. Simon Chase, another friend of Forest who once presented us with 30 Cuban cigars at an event to mark Forest's 30th birthday, took to the stage at 11.00pm to conduct what was described as the "traditional humidor auction".

There were six humidors up for grabs, each one designed specially for the occasion and capable of storing hundreds of cigars of different shapes and sizes. Encouraged by Simon, the first went to someone from the Middle East who paid €100,000. The second was bought by a man from the Far East for a similar sum. The third and fourth humidors attracted even higher bids before the fifth went for €300,000.

After the sixth humidor had been auctioned the total stood at over one million euros, all proceeds going to the Cuban public health system. (Imagine Jeremy Hunt conducting a similar auction on behalf of the NHS at a corporate function attended by businessmen from all over the world. The way things are going I wouldn't rule it out. Cyprus should try it.)

Ten years ago Castro himself made an appearance at the Gala Night. In his absence through illness (or the fact that he reportedly gave up smoking some years ago) guests have had to make do with "distinguished international personalities" such as Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson, Jeremy Irons, Matt Dillon, Gerard Depardieu and Peter Coyote.

This year American actor Danny Glover was invited to receive a special award. "I am here to praise the Habano and all Cuba," he told the audience before changing tack and demanding "justice" for the Cuban Five, also known as the Miami Five. Eh?

A more welcome sight was that of Boris Becker who took part in the Habanos Awards ceremony. The former Wimbledon champion presented the Communications Category Award but wisely kept his mouth shut.

That was the second time I had seen Boris in Havana. At the Gala Night he was a small figure on a huge stage looking a trifle bemused. The previous evening however, at another function, I stood no more than a few feet away while he smoked a cigar and chatted to other guests. (I took great pleasure inhaling the great man's fumes.)

We were wearing almost identical cream linen suits and I swear we looked like twins. One or two people commented on how stout he seemed so it's official – Boris Becker is my doppelgänger (with a bit more hair).

Read on ...

Although it complemented and occasionally crossed paths with the Festival, the Boisdale itinerary was largely independent of the official programme.

There were organised events but compare our 'Intrepid Expedition to Las Terrazas National Park' (above) with the official guided tour of the tobacco plantations.

Describing the Festival tour Ranald wrote:

"You will learn more than you ever thought there was to know about the best tobacco leaf in the world ... It pretty much takes the whole day (five hours on the bus there and back) and includes an adequate lunch but not free flowing booze as on the Boisdale bus! It is utterly fascinating but fairly laborious."

The Boisdale excursion was described thus:

"Travel through stunning scenery on a very comfortable air-conditioned coach with a fully stocked open bar. Arrive at Buena Vista, a restored French colonial coffee plantation with breath-taking views of the Atlantic and the Caribbean ... then a short journey on to a spit roast pig lunch by the river in the National Park."

Like the official programme there was a guided tour of a cigar factory but the Boisdale itinerary allowed plenty of time for options like exploring bars and restaurants. One morning some of us even spent an hour with a Cuban dance coach and two glamorous assistants 'learning' how to salsa. Very educational!

Not everything went to plan.

We were promised the "party of the decade" featuring Eliades Ochoa, a Grammy Award winner and "Cuba's greatest star". While Ochoa did indeed perform there was no sign of the "traditional Cuban barbecue featuring lobster and marinated fillet of beef, delicious wines, some of Havana's best cocktail bar tenders mixing wonderful drinks, and three other great bands to see us into dawn".

What we got were four young belly dancers, limited bottles of cheap wine, and the worst dim sum ever! (Well, we were in the Chinatown district of Havana.)

The weather was a bit of a letdown too. It was 30 degrees and dry when we arrived but as the week progressed it began to rain and when the wind picked up it got progressively colder before the sun eventually reappeared on the final day.

Read on ...

Minor gripes aside, nothing could spoil what was genuinely a trip of a lifetime. Looking back, however, what I shall remember most was our agreeably eclectic (some might say eccentric) party.

The youngest was a very sweet girl, a musician, who was in Cuba to assist the oldest member of the group. Over lunch one day she confided the name of her boyfriend, another (quite well known) musician, but swore me to secrecy. You can view some of her own music videos here.

We were also joined by an American couple who flew to Havana direct from the United States. I didn't know this was possible but they told me they travelled on a chartered flight using missionary visas.

The group included two American brothers who work in Moscow. Their wives came too, one Russian, one English. The latter is about to launch a wine-related website in the UK and if I could find her business card I'd happily link to it!

When we weren't on organised trips we would explore Havana in small groups of five or six. That's how I got to know and like Bob, a retired oil trader. Bob introduced us to several bars (and one nightclub) that weren't in the Boisdale Pocket Book to Havana. They weren't part of the Habanos Festival programme either!

On the day of the Big Game Fishing Expedition (which I and several others ducked out of) Bob arranged our own private tour of Havana in two open top cadillacs, one a 1950s Ford Mercury. Bob's adventures kept us entertained all week.

Equally engaging were Christopher Gilmour and Gerry Stonhill.

Christopher is the son of Sir Ian Gilmour, former editor of The Spectator and an infamous wet in the first Thatcher government. In the Nineties he founded Christopher's American Bar and Grill, a famous Covent Garden watering hole.

Today he owns Winslow Hall in Buckinghamshire and his latest project - launched last year - is an opera evening in the grounds of his Christopher Wren designed house. This year Winslow Hall Opera will stage six performances of Bizet's Carmen between Thursday July 25 and Saturday August 3.

Gerry is the proprietor of the Mason Arms in South Leigh, Oxfordshire. If the name sounds familiar it's because Gerry was fined £5,750 in 2008 after he admitted six separate charges of flouting the smoking ban. Following his conviction, he told the Oxford Mail:

"You make up what you want, old boy. I'm not making any comment, except Tony Blair can stick his anti-smoking law up his a***."

Funnily enough, our friendship was cemented in a rather strange fashion following our return from Havana. The last of our party to emerge from baggage collection at Gatwick Airport, we made our way to the South Terminal Car Park where we had left our cars. Lo and behold, Gerry couldn't get into his car because the central locking system wouldn't work.

Good deeds don't come naturally to me but on this occasion I didn't think twice. It was a fine sunny day and even after an eight hour flight I was curious to see the Mason Arms so I drove him to his Oxfordshire village where he gave me a quick tour of his idiosyncratic pub.

Gerry has since sent me some promotional material including several impressive reviews. According to Raymond Blanc, for example:

"I often drive around Oxfordshire to look for places to recommend to our guests. The minute I stepped into the Mason Arms I knew I had stumbled upon somewhere very special ... It's the sort of place where you never want to leave."

To his credit Gerry also sent me an absolute stinker of a review by the late Michael Winner that had me in stitches. It wasn't the pub or the food that Winner couldn't stomach, it was Gerry himself ("the most arrogant man in England", according to Winner, which is quite an accolade).

As you can see it was quite a group and I've not even mentioned Daily Mail columnist Peter McKay (who was very jolly) or the Libyan businessman with the Austrian passport or Christine the irrepressible Frenchwoman or her German friend Barbara who took two days out to fly from Havana to New York via Toronto (and back) so she could attend her daughter's graduation.

Nor will I forget Katie, Kate and Ella, Johnny (a source of endless fascinating stories) and Nicky who once did the PR for No Smoking Day.

Read on ...

But what of Cuba itself? I had no preconceptions prior to the trip but what I read in advance suggested that the worst excesses of a totalitarian regime - the imprisonment and torture of political opponents, for example – still take place.

I can't shed any light on that. All I can say is that Cuba is changing. Those in our party who first visited the country ten years ago say it has changed a lot already. A decade ago, for example, the authorities made sure there was little or no contact with 'ordinary' Cubans. Today they are far more relaxed.

Significantly I wasn't conscious of any military presence in Havana. Only on our final day, when we drove to the airport, did I see any soldiers in uniform. I didn't see many policemen in uniform either, although that doesn't mean they weren't around. We were warned, for example, not to buy cigars from anyone in the street because they might be plain clothes officers.

Contrast Cuba today with the Soviet Union of 30 years ago and despite its Communist regime it's a very different experience. I visited Moscow in 1981 and it's something I shall never forget. (If you want to know what living under an authoritarian East European regime was like watch the 2007 film The Lives of Others which is set in East Germany a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.)

Cuba felt nothing like that, although it may have been different had I been visiting people actively opposed to the government. One huge difference is the Cubans' very public love of music. I can't remember visiting a bar that didn't have a band playing, although how much of that is for the benefit of tourists I'm not sure.

Havana itself reeks of colonial history, mostly Spanish. Old Havana has been given UNESCO status so many of the old buildings are being preserved. There is very little money however so buildings that retain much of their original elegance on the outside are often derelict inside.

There is long stretch overlooking the sea that with proper redevelopment could create a waterfront that would match anything that Cannes or Monte Carlo has to offer. Instead, every other building appeared to be empty or in serious disrepair.

We were warned that the state-owned Nacional Hotel, where we were staying, might seem a bit shabby but it seemed fine to me. Before the Revolution the Nacional was a favourite of American film stars. Sinatra was one of many who stayed there. In those days Havana was also a mecca for the Mafia who by all accounts ran the casinos and made a fortune from gambling. Cuba could enjoy similar prosperity again, without the help of the Mafia, but the country needs investment and the obvious source - the United States - is still off limits.

I'm sure that one day the blockade will be lifted and when that happens expect a huge influx of American tourists followed by a McDonalds and Holiday Inn on every corner. Yes, Cuba will change dramatically but is that such a bad thing? Understandably a lot of visitors like things the way they are but is it wrong to hope for better living standards for the majority of Cubans, many of whom have been enslaved by poverty or political oppression for far too long.

As for smoking in Cuba, rumours of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. Eight years ago it was reported that Cuba had banned smoking in the workplace (Last puff for Cuba as smoking banned).

That may be so but in Cuba the 'workplace' clearly doesn't include bars, restaurants, nightclubs or hotel rooms.

I didn't ask for a smoking room in the Nacional but I got one anyway because on each side of the large bed was a small table and on each table sat a large ashtray. Welcome to Cuba! In Havana, give or take some perfectly reasonable restrictions, smoking remains a natural part of everyday life.

Two more things. Patience is a virtue in Cuba and if there is one thing I would pass on it's this piece of advice from Ranald Macdonald who is pretty laid back even when he's arguing with a Spanish-speaking restaurateur about the size of the bill:

"It is a distinct advantage to be relaxed and 'tranquilo'. The Cuban people are some of the friendliest and most charming people I have ever encountered but circumstances do occasionally have the habit of combining to test one's equilibrium.

"If you find yourself feeling slightly exasperated remember that on the whole the solution is best arrived at by remaining calm and not displaying irritation or indeed anger."

That said I shall be forever grateful to Ranald for greasing the wheels so that even those of us travelling economy could join the VIP queue entering and leaving the country. Without that little arrangement, born of experience apparently, we might still be at José Martí International Airport.

Finally, having looked forward to my first ever Virgin Atlantic flight, I must report it was a bit of a disappointment. I'm not sure what I expected but I didn't anticipate the announcement that alcohol would be served but only in moderation, irrespective of our behaviour.

The majority of passengers were middle-aged or elderly tourists. Did they really need a verbal warning about their alcohol consumption? Half way into the flight came the added irritation that they had run out of alcoholic drinks anyway. A nine-hour flight and all I had was a single gin and tonic and a thimbleful of red wine!

Virgin Atlantic? They should re-name it Nanny Atlantic.

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Reader Comments (4)

Did they really need a verbal warning about their alcohol consumption?

C'mon, Simon. Are you really surprised? This was the first major airline, if I remember correctly, to ban all smoking on all of its aircraft, and who might therefore be said to have got the ball rolling on anti-smoking hysteria within the airline industry, well before the ban was even a twinkle in the antis' eye.

I wouldn't be surprised in the fairly near future to hear that Virgin will be the first airline to ban all on-flight alcohol sales completely, too, thus starting yet another nasty trend ...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 2:48 | Unregistered CommenterMisty

Misty, I don't think you can blame Virgin Atlantic for the smoking ban on planes. They were relative newcomers and it was the US authorities who, if I remember, insisted that smoking would not be allowed on any incoming flights. Air France held out the longest, if I remember, before they too were forced to fall into line.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 9:00 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

Sadly, those of us from the self-described "freest country on earth" are forbidden by law to visit one of our closest neighbors, ostensibly because it's too repressive....

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 18:09 | Unregistered Commenterchris

Simon you looked very relaxed.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 20:05 | Unregistered CommenterGary Rogers

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