My fav beardyman and I were lucky enough to be invited to the Habanos Cigar Festival in Cuba. This is where all the global distributors and cigar aficionados gather to attend seminars and conduct business but most importantly to taste the new crop of tobacco. The large brown fragrant leaves expertly hand-rolled into perfect cigars, not rolled on women’s thighs, as folklore would like us to believe!
At this time of year Havana town is packed to the rafters, anyone who has anything to do with cigars, anywhere in the world, flocks here.
The place to stay is the iconic Nazionale Hotel. The deep cool verandahs echo the hushed voices as they discuss business puffing a customary cigar, fortunately after-hours are quite the opposite: exuberant, elegant, full of panache and old world charm. In short, it’s cigar heaven!
Havana is a sultry seductress. It begins slowly, the seduction starts with the beautiful pastel-hued historic buildings standing strong and tall in their faded glory along narrow cobbled streets, they ache for the story of their former magnificence to be told. Classic cars in pretty pop colours hum by, there’s bright blue skies, balmy cigar-hazed evenings and sensual full-bodied music is always within earshot. The enchantment crept up on me unannounced and that was just the beginning.
I was told Cuba had the best street music in the world and I wasn’t disappointed. Every evening different cigar distributors held spectacular soirees across Havana. As part of the Indian contingent I attended most of them, always dressed in my Indian attire. We were treated to live bands playing the more traditional string instruments with a modern twist; cello, bass, violin, every venue had a grand piano. It was a musical feast effortlessly fused with dancers and singers in stunning settings. One particular evening we were driven into the old part of town, we were dropped off in front of an old beautifully decrepit building, it was dark, a door opened and we were ushered up a tight winding staircase opening to an expansive rooftop and an exquisite pop-up restaurant for the night. There was a sense of adventure in the air. The men were dressed in their slick summer linens puffing on the world’s finest cigars and women in pretty dresses. The sweet music of the live band filtered through the humid smoke filled starry night. It was all so addictive…mysteriously beautiful in fact, like an aging beauty queen with secrets to hide. I certainly never tired of it.
As much as I was enamoured by this Cuban world of cigars, singers and soirees, I slowly realized that in these climes the allure of the 6 yards of fabric draped around my body had a similar effect. It aroused an unprecedented level of curiosity. The humble sari was a hit!
All these events were building up to the crescendo of the red-carpet gala night where officially the new range of cigars are revealed to the world and enjoyed by us over a 7-course meal which concludes with an auction of rare humidors that traditionally raises millions of dollars. The country’s best performers were on stage as 1500 people from around the world indulged in the finest Cuban cigars. Over dinner, I was told the banqueting hall’s exhaust fans were on full power and I remember thinking it was a shame to extract such high-end cigar smoke.
On gala night the cigar is the only star! With each course a carefully selected cigar is served to every table on a tray piled high, 7 course-meal meant 7 fine cigars of varying lengths and thickness. I was thankful for my Beardyman’s top jacket pocket where most of mine were eventually stored. Of course, I did try a few, how could I not? It was the 80th anniversary of the Monte Christo cigar and that was a cigar that definitely had to be relished.
Throughout the gala dinner my Beardyman was getting up for photographs. He is adored in Cuba; even here the ‘Sandokan’ legacy thrives. Distributors from countries around the world cautiously approached him then excitedly told him stories of the importance of ‘Sandokan’ in their lives, their childhood hero. The same men who aggressively bid half a million dollars for humidors were coy and shy in front of him. That’s the power of ‘Sandokan’, the power of its impact. Each time he happily got up and chatted. Staying true to his word, ‘it’s 2 minutes of my time but incredibly important to the other person. It’s the least I can do, it’s because of them that I am where I am.’
As he made these grown men smile from to ear to ear I paused to take it all in. By now the air was thick with smoke and fuelled by the finest wines and exquisite Cuban rums. The seductive music filled the hall adding to the heady mix; laughter, applause, smiles and all things good were being enjoyed. It was intoxicating and there we were, in these glamourous surroundings, the Indian contingent, me, sari clad, puffing on my cigar with my ruby red lipstick like one of the boys. At that moment I was fully aware that this would be my finest cigar-moment and one that I won’t forget for a long while. The perfect high to conclude my love affair with Cuba.