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Forbidden Land

While Cuba Remains Off-Limits to Americans, Havana and the Island's Beaches Draw Tourists from the Rest of the World

There are two dreams that all cigar aficionados eventually share: first, to smoke one of the greatest of the great cuban cigars, a Cohiba Esplendido, Romeo y Julieta Churchill, Montecristo "A" or a Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona for example; and second, to be able to smoke that cigar in Havana. Tell a fellow aficionado that you have been to Cuba and watch his expression cloud with a mixture of envy and wistfulness. Because travel there is restricted by the U.S. government, only a few thousand Americans visit the island each year. While their counterparts from Europe, Canada and Latin America bask in the bright Cuban sun, U.S. cigar lovers can only view the "pearl" of the Caribbean as a distant Mecca.

Of those aficionados who do manage to get to Cuba, few are disappointed. The largest and most populous Caribbean island (pop. 11 million), Cuba is also one of the most beautiful. There are miles and miles of clean, uninterrupted beaches, tropical forests teeming with wildlife and some of the best deep-sea fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling the world has to offer. And there is Havana, not only the capital of Cuba, but also long the most important city in the Caribbean.

Say Havana, and vivid images leap to mind: of men in white linen suits and Panama hats, tropical breezes and cool drinks, sultry nights, hot salsa rhythms and exotic women. It has always been an intriguing city, peopled in truth and in fiction by characters from the novels of Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway. In the pre-Revolution Batista days, it was the sin capital of the Americas, a wild city of mobsters, corrupt politicians, loose women and petty thieves, all vying for a portion of the profits from gambling, prostitution and other lucrative rackets. The easy money attracted some of America's biggest celebrities and highest rollers, as well as a flood of tourists eager to indulge in the island's many carnal pleasures.

Though its wilder side has diminished, Havana has regained much of its old allure. With tourism again flourishing, famous old bars, restaurants and hotels are enjoying a comeback, and stunning new places are being built. The old town, with its colonial buildings, narrow streets, secluded courtyards and shaded plazas, is finally getting a much needed face-lift. In the commercial district of Vedado, investment and construction is on the rise, and out in the once-fashionable residential area of Miramar, long-neglected mansions are being converted into posh restaurants, bars and boutiques.

All this change has not come without some pain. The end of Soviet-era subsidies has brought shortages of nearly everything, and the move to a de facto dollar economy in 1994 has caused the value of the peso to plummet at home. Today in Cuba, the dollar is king. With dollars, you can buy anything; with pesos, even beans and rice can be hard to get. The illegal money changers who once haunted the tourist spots have now disappeared. In their stead are legions of illicit street vendors, offering guide services, cheap trinkets, counterfeit cigars-you name it. Gypsy cabs are everywhere, many driven by moonlighting doctors, architects, engineers and other professionals trying to augment meager peso salaries.

Yet, the Habaneros, as the locals call themselves, remain a people of gracious ways and friendly smiles. Despite tensions between the two governments, Americans are welcomed with open arms. As one civil engineer cum taxi driver put it, "All Americans should visit Havana. Here we have the best rum, best music, best cigars and most beautiful women in the world. What more could you want?"

To help the adventurous take advantage of that invitation, Cigar Aficionado offers the following guide to cigar stores, hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other pleasures in Havana and the beach resort of Varadero.

Make no mistake though-unauthorized travel to Cuba remains a crime. Under the U.S. government's Trading With the Enemy Act, a conviction could result in a fine of up to $50,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 10 years, as well as forfeiture of passport. In other words, you can be harassed, get a hefty fine, go to jail and lose your travel rights for as little as spending a long weekend in Havana.

But, hey, we're talking Cuba here!



HAVANA Cigars

If there is one thing Havana is known for worldwide, it is fine cigars. In fact, cigars and the city are so closely linked in the international psyche that, to avoid confusion, the state-owned cigar marketing and distribution company, Cubatabaco, recently changed its name to Habanos S.A. Of the six factories in Havana, half (Partagas, La Corona and H. Upmann) are clustered together in the old city. The other three (Romeo y Julieta, El Rey del Mundo and El Laguito) are all within a few minute's drive from downtown. Unfortunately, all but one is closed to the public. The one you can visit, Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas (located on Calle Industria just behind the Capitolio Nacional), is the oldest of the six and something of a showpiece. This year, the factory celebrates its 150th year in continuous operation. Little has changed since it first opened its doors in 1845. There you can see some of Cuba's best cigars being made, including the Partagas 8-9-8 and Cohiba robusto, Esplendido and the Siglo series.

There is something thrilling about buying Havana cigars in their hometown. Though most shops sell by the box only, many hotels and restaurants offer well-stocked humidors from which you can sample to your heart's content. Because of high demand, cigars are now often on back order. But if one store doesn't have something on your list, another might, and since prices can vary as much as 20 percent from store to store, it pays to shop around.

Three of Havana's better cigars store are in the old city. Of these, the most impressive is the Partagas factory store, owned and managed by Habanos S.A. The shop features a well-stocked walk-in humidor large enough for entertaining distinguished guests. Due to a brisk tourist trade, prices here are unabashedly higher than in most other shops. Still, it is a convenient place to buy if you are on a limited time schedule (even with the premium, prices are reasonable).

Another good old-town shop is the Palacio del Tabaco, on the ground floor of the La Corona factory on Calle Agramonte (across from the Museum of the Revolution). This recently opened, stylish shop is clean, cool and friendly. There is even a bar where you can get an espresso or a cold drink while contemplating your purchases. Check out the roller there too; most often, he is working diligently on Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas, a cigar he has rolled for several decades.

If you still can't find what you want, try the small, no-frills shop in the Infotur office on the ground floor of the Manzana de Gomez building off the Parque Central (just across from the Hotel Plaza), which often stocks otherwise hard-to-find smokes. Also nearby, in the Palacio de Artesanias, which is down on the waterfront, there is a shop at the rear of the open courtyard. This one still seems rustic and appears a little run-down, but Peter Napolis oversees the shop with a keen eye and keeps a good stock of bigger cigars on hand.

At the opposite end of town is the well-known La Casa de 5 y 16 tobacco store, located upstairs in an aging Miramar mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Calle 16. This shop, known for its volume sales to VIPs worldwide, has an excellent selection at good prices. Here you can rent a locker in the humidor to hold your purchases between trips to Havana. Farther out in Miramar (at the corner of Third Avenue and Calle 28) is another shop with the name Palacio de Tabaco. Though small, it is recommended as a good place to find cigars that other stores don't have in stock. There is also Casa del Tabaco El Corojo, located behind the lobby in the Hotel Melio Cohiba. New, clean, well-stocked and efficiently managed, it is a great place to buy cigars, especially if you are staying at the hotel.

Don't forget the other grand hotels in the city. Both the Nacional and the Comodoro, out in Miramar, have well-stocked humidors. On one recent trip, the former was the only location with some nearly impossible-to-find double corona cigars. You have to look for this shop. It's up a narrow staircase at one end of the lobby. The Comodoro's shop is more open and contains a standard selection of the major brands. The roller there is Eduardo Rivera Irizarri, who started the El Laguito factory and created the blend for the Cohiba cigar over 30 years ago.

A word to the wise: When in Havana (or anywhere else in Cuba), don't buy cigars on the street. It is a given that you will be approached time and again and offered what sounds like the deal of the century. But chances are 99 to 1 that any cigars you buy on the street will be counterfeit. They may bear official stamps and be in the regulation boxes, but nobody is going to sell you authentic Cohiba Esplendidos (which have an over-the-counter value of $270 or more) for $40 a box. When approached it's best to just say no.



Hotels

For decades, the Hotel Nacional was the preeminent place to stay in Havana. Situated in a parklike setting on a rise above the Malecyn, this 1930s grande dame of hotels has played host to kings and queens, mobsters, Hollywood stars, writers, schemers and mega-deal makers over the years. Everybody who was anybody stayed at the Nacional. Not anymore. The new place to stay in town, and by far the best hotel on the island, is the Melio Cohiba.

Opened in February 1995 after seven years in construction, the 22-story, five-star, 462-room Cohiba is a tribute to Cuba's newfound commitment to the business and tourist trades. Located just off the Malecon at the end of Avenue Paseo, it features a large, airy, well-appointed lobby, four restaurants, five bars, a lively disco/cabaret, two enormous swimming pools, a gym, several good shops, 24-hour in-house medical service, a business center and a cigar store. The rooms are world-class in comfort and decoration.

Operated by Spain's giant Grupo Sol hotel chain, the Cohiba prides itself for its smooth, efficient service. If there is a flaw, it lies in the near-total absence of Cuban influence. This hotel could be in London, Barcelona or Rome. The exception is in the gourmet Abanico de Cristal restaurant, which serves excellent fare based on traditional Cuban colonial cooking. In fact, the food at all four of the hotel's restaurants is as good or better than any in the city. But the big treat at the Cohiba is the smoking bar, El Relicario. Here, in a cool, quiet, plush setting, you can sample the best cigars and finest rums the island has to offer. Bar manager Juan Soneira, on hand nightly, speaks fluent English and is a willing source of information about cigars and where to buy them.

After the Cohiba, there is the five-star, 495-room Nacional. Designed by the same architect who built The Breakers in Palm Beach and the Biltmore in Coral Gables, Florida, this recently renovated Havana landmark retains an air of restrained elegance. The well-appointed, colonial-style lobby opens onto a wide terrace overlooking lush back gardens and the sea. At one end is the restaurant Comedor de Aguiar, which offers good international and Cuban dishes, as well as an extensive list of French and Spanish wines. At the other end of the lobby is Le Parisien, featuring one of the best shows in town. Upstairs, the rooms are large and adequately furnished; most have views of the sea. With its long driveway and extensive grounds, the Nacional provides a sense of isolation from the dust and hurry of the city.

Quieter yet is the comfortable four-star, 139-room Comodoro hotel in Miramar. Featuring a resortlike atmosphere, with beach access as well as a beautiful pool complex and extensive gardens, the hotel also functions as a school for young Cubans eager for jobs in the tourist industry. The service, if a bit stiff, is very good. So are the hotel's three restaurants. The lobby and rooms have all been recently renovated. The hotel's strength and weakness is its distance from town (at least 15 minutes by taxi). If you want to escape the noise and hustle of the city, this is the place for you. But be prepared to spend considerable time (and money) getting around.

In the heart of Old Havana there are three good-if less luxurious-hotels, all in easy walking distance of major tourist sites, restaurants and cigar stores. The best is the newly renovated four-star, 188-room Sevilla, with its large, beautifully appointed colonial lobby, garden swimming pool, quiet patio bar, shops and spectacular rooftop restaurant. Though not up to the level of the Cohiba, the rooms are comfortable and all are equipped with satellite television, touch-tone phones and air conditioning. On Paseo del Prado and Trocadero (and just around the corner from the La Corona factory), the Sevilla makes a great rest stop when touring the old town.

On a similar scale, if slightly faded, is the four-star, 206-room Hotel Plaza, located at one corner of the Parque Central, not far from Floridita bar and restaurant. The spacious lobby has an Old World feel, and the lobby bar offers good, light lunches in a cool, tropical setting. The rooms are adequate, if somewhat sparse, with similar features to those of the Sevilla. The four-star, 86-room Inglaterra, also on the Parque Central (near the Gran Teatro de la Habana), was Havana's first luxury hotel. Though the large, inexpensive rooms are in need of renovation, the lobby bar and restaurant, with their tiled walls and cool, spacious Mediterranean atmosphere, make a great rest stop after visiting the Partagas factory, which is just three blocks away.

One last, relatively unknown gem of a hotel is the four-star, 31-room Victoria. Not far from the Nacional on Calle 19 in the commercial district of Vedado, it has the graceful charm of a good European inn. Rooms are spacious, with all the amenities of five-star lodging. The lobby is cool, quiet and relaxed. The small, elegant restaurant serves well-prepared European and Cuban meals and offers private rooms for business lunches and other meetings. In the walled garden behind the hotel is a small, tasteful pool and patio area. Photocopying, fax, bilingual typing and other secretarial services are available.



Sights

No visit to Havana is complete without a walking tour of the old city, which can easily be done in a day. Most of the major sights are within a stone's throw of the Partagas factory and the old city's best tobacco shops. The more important ones include the Capitolio Nacional (a copy of the U.S. Capitol building, it now houses the Academy of Sciences and a science museum), the Museum of the Revolution, the Castle of the Royal Guard, the Cathedral, and the Museum of the City, located in the old Captain General's residence on Plaza de Armas. There is also a small cigar museum (Museo del Tabaco), on Calle Mercaderes between Obispo and Obrapia, which has a limited but interesting collection of cigar artifacts, including several nineteenth-century humidors. On the ground floor is a small, elegant cigar store. Here you can see master roller Jesus Lara ply his craft. The selection is limited and prices are not as good as in other stores.

To see the rest of the city, take an air-conditioned taxi and spend an hour or two touring in comfort. Central Havana, mainly a rundown residential district, has little of interest. In Vedado, the principal sights are the Plaza de la Revolucion, with its austere government buildings and monuments, the University of Havana (which appears to be loosely modeled after New York's Columbia University) and the busy five-star Habana Libre hotel. Built by the Hilton chain in the mid-1950s, the Habana Libre is in need of renovation and not recommended as a place to stay. In Miramar, the main attraction is the once elegant, mansion-lined Fifth Avenue, which is beginning to make a comeback under the more laissez-faire economic policies of post-Soviet supported Cuba. Farther to the west at the city's edge is Marina Hemingway, a yacht basin and nautical club connected to the writer in name only. The marina has nothing special to recommend it, except that it is the staging site for the annual Ernest Hemingway International Marlin-Fishing Tournament that takes place each May.

More intimately connected with the great writer, and well worth the half-hour taxi ride from downtown Havana, is the Hemingway Museum in the eastern suburb of San Francisco de Paula. Finca Vigia, as it is called, was Hemingway's Cuba home from 1939 until 1960. The estate includes a Mediterranean-style villa and guest house, lush walled gardens and Hemingway's fishing boat, Pilar, which is dry-docked under a huge awning in one corner of the property. From a tower addition there is a commanding view of Havana in the distance and the sea beyond. The house, constructed in 1888, is airy and open with cathedral ceilings, whitewashed walls and a tiled roof. It is filled with Hemingway's personal mementos and has been kept just as it was the day he and his fourth wife, Mary, left the island for the last time. Though visitors are not allowed to enter the house for fear of theft, you can get a good view of the rooms and their contents through the open doors and windows.

A fitting end to any Havana stay is to take the six-mile drive east of the city to the sleepy fishing village of Cojimar. It was here that Hemingway kept Pilar docked during his Cuba stays. La Terraza, the one restaurant in town, was a popular tourist spot in Hemingway's day (he mentions it in the closing paragraphs of The Old Man and the Sea). Recently renovated, the restaurant serves good traditional Cuban seafood dishes in a pleasant setting at very reasonable prices. With any luck you will meet Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway's mate on Pilar, now 98, who lunches daily at the restaurant and loves to tell stories about the Hemingway days.



VARADERO

When the heat, dust and noise of Havana start to wear thin, it's time to do what the Habaneros do: Go to the beach. Though there are beautiful beaches and inexpensive hotels just east of the city at Playa del Este, Cuba's premiere beach resort is Varadero, a narrow, sandy peninsula two hours to the east of the city that juts about 12 miles into the blue Caribbean. Beaches here are said to be among the 10 cleanest in the world, and the snorkeling, scuba diving, surf and deep-sea fishing are among the best in Cuba.

Getting to Varadero from Havana is as easy as taking a taxi (about $90 each way) or having the tourist desk at your hotel arrange for transportation by tourist bus or van ($25 each way). There is an international airport on the peninsula, serviced by several European, Canadian and Latin American airlines. Several tour companies run first-class overnight excursions from Varadero to Havana, if you prefer to spend most of your time in Cuba at the beach.

Long a seaside playground for wealthy Cuban, European, Canadian and Latin American vacationers, there are a number of good to excellent hotels on the peninsula, with new ones being built every year. The older hotels are clustered around the town of Varadero, just over the bridge from the mainland. The best of these are the Paradiso-Puntarena complex, a five-star, 518-room luxury resort to the west of town, and the four-star, 222-room Cuatro Palmas slightly to the northeast, which is built on the grounds of Fulgencio Batista's summer home. Both offer well-appointed rooms, large pools and easy beach access.

The true luxury hotels are all located on the southeastern half of the peninsula, around the old Du Pont mansion Xanadu (now Restaurant Las Americas). Here, development has been strictly controlled, with the ample space between each resort filled with parklike landscaping, upscale shopping plazas and tastefully designed bungalow complexes.

The three best superluxury hotels are all operated by Spain's Grupo Sol. They include the four-star, 607-room Sol Palmeras, opened in 1990, the five-star, 497-room Melio Varadero, opened in 1991, and the deluxe five-star, 250-room Melio Las Americas, opened in July 1994. All three offer every possible convenience, including beautifully appointed lobbies, large, comfortably furnished rooms, satellite television, touch-tone phones, enormous swimming pools and extensive gardens. Among the rooms of the Las Americas (by far the most spectacular of the three) are 12 duplexes and 20 suites, including two presidential suites. All the rooms are painted in light pastels, as are many of the external walls, adding a festive, Caribbean quality to the decor. Also unique to the Las Americas is its ready access to the beach, with the back lobby entrance leading almost to the water's edge.

Two other hotels worth considering are the four-star, 330-room Bella Costa and the five-star, 235-room Tuxpan, both run by the LTI hotel chain and located just to the west of the Las Americas. The Tuxpan's atrium lobby (loosely based on a Mayan pyramid) is spectacular. The parklike grounds between the two hotels feature green lawns, palm trees and exotic plants. For all Varadero hotels, easy beach access is a given, as are enormous swimming pools where seminude sunbathing is quickly becoming the rule.

Most Varadero hotels carry a few brands of cigars as a courtesy to their guests. Habanos S.A. also maintains master rollers in the lobbies of all major hotels (the cigars they make are sold under a generic Habanos label). For the serious buyer, the company has recently opened Casa del Habano, a well-stocked shop on First Avenue and Calle 63 in Varadero (just across from the Hotel Cuatro Palmas). Unlike Havana stores, at Casa del Habano most cigars can be purchased individually as well as by the box, and many that are difficult to find in the city are often available here.

Dining can be as problematic at the beach as it is in the city, and, as in Havana, the most reliable restaurants are those in the better hotels. Both the Grupo Sol and the LTI hotels offer full and partial meal plans, which include good buffet breakfasts and adequate dinners in their main dining rooms. All the hotels have poolside grills where you can eat well-prepared seafood, chicken and meats. The Las Americas, Melio Varadero and Tuxpan also have gourmet restaurants, which offer a variety of Cuban and international dishes. Wine lists tend to be more limited than in Havana, though most have decent French and Spanish selections.

Outside the hotels, the Las Americas restaurant, located in the elegant Du Pont mansion at the edge of the Hotel Las Americas grounds, offers French-style seafood and meats in elegant surroundings. Lunch and light snacks are served afternoons on the breezy, covered terrace, where you can linger over coffee and a cigar while you watch the sea.

The walled Parque Josone on First Avenue, just down the street from the Casa del Habano store, was once the private summer estate of a sugar mill owner and is now Varadero's municipal park. The extensive and well-kept park has several outside cafus and restaurants clustered around a small lake, which are a perfect refuge from the beach and the hot Cuban sun. For dinner, try El Retiro, where good international fare is served in the original manor house, or La Campana, which is housed in a stone hunting lodge in the woods above the lake and serves inexpensive and excellent criollo cuisine.

Though nights at the beach are quieter than in the city, there are a number of hot cabarets and good discos in Varadero. The best show in town is the Cabaret Continental, at the Hotel Varadero International. It comes close to the Tropicana in energy and excitement, if on a lesser scale. There are also free nightly cabarets at the Melio Varadero and the Sol Palmeras. For a wilder time, try the Cueva del Pirata. Located in an underground grotto about two miles south of the Sol Palmeras, it features an Afro-Cuban show that really heats up after midnight. The best discos on the island are La Bamba in the Hotel Tuxpan, La Salsa in the Hotel Puntarena, El Rincon Latino at the Bella Costa and Mi Salsa in Parque Josone. On weekend nights these places beat and grind until dawn.

Saturday, October 25, 1997

Forbidden Land