Monday 24 September 2012

Cuba Day 4: Waiting, Smoking and Drinking

Day four in Cuba and we were about to say Adios to Havana.

We woke up early and were very thankful that we had packed the previous night. We went down for breakfast although I didn't eat much. I am not a morning person and eating pancakes at 7:30am was wearing thin.

Fed, watered and checked out, we waited for our pick up which was due at 9am. We waited, waited and waited some more. The Mrs went to find the rep who informed her that the bus was 20 mins away. So we waited, waited and waited some more. 

Another conversation with the rep and we were informed that a message was left for us at reception to inform us that our pick up was at 12pm. Off the reception we went and low and behold, there was no message nor had they ever received one.

At this stage I could have got irritated and angry and if I was in Ireland the rep and everyone else involved would have got the full hairdryer treatment. I wasn't in Ireland, I was on holidays, in Cuba, so I went and bought some Cigars!!

I went up to the Cigar shop in the hotel and bought a load of singles. I cant remember what I bought (sorry) but it cheered me up. 

At this stage it was around 11am. The whole morning had been wasted sitting in the lobby. The Mrs was a little pissed off as we could have spent the morning enjoying our last few hours in Havana. 12pm came and went with no sign of our pick up. Eventually, an hour later, a little six seat van arrived and we were ready to go. 

We were the only two in the van and we were on our way to Varadero. The journey didn't take too long. The Mrs fell in and out of sleep as I took in the surrounding countryside. Outside of the city, Cuba is a beautiful country. Green fields, red soil and a beautiful ocean accompanied me on the journey. Dotted along the roads were people selling fruit and refreshments and the odd bus stop seemed to be thronging with locals going too and fro. In my opinion, this was Cuba!!

We pulled into Sandals Royal Hicacos just before 3pm. The weather was glorious and we were happy to arrive. We checked in at reception and received a glass of Champagne. Then the waiting resumed, an hour of it, waiting on our room. Once again the urge to blow up was calmed by my idyllic surroundings.

We finally got into the room in time for me to turn on the TV and see that Manchester United were losing 1-0 to Everton. The Mrs unpacked as I watched the rest of the game puffing on a Cohiba mini (a great "I want a cigar but I don't" cigarillo) United lost, I showered and we hit the resort to get something to eat.

We ended up in the beach bar & grill where I had a very quick and satisfying Burger and Chips. After the food we went for a walk on the beach. The sand was golden and the water was crystal clear. 

We walked around the resort for a while, getting our bearings, before returning to our room to chill out before dinner. We were informed that all the Al a Carte restaurants were closed that night so the buffet was our only option.

After reading reviews about the buffet on the lead up to the holiday I was a bit wary. I shouldn't have been. Like the breakfast in Havana, the buffet had enough choice to suit any palate. I cant remember what I had but it would be a safe assumption to say I had a bit of everything. There was pizza, pasta, salad, seafood, burgers, hot-dogs among an array of other food choices. Nothing to complain about.

After dinner we went to the lobby bar and started on the cocktail menu. I started with a Whiskey Sour and lit up a Sancho Panza ( my 1st and last). We went in search of the outdoor show but nothing seemed to be happening. On our travels we spotted the Cigar Bar and with the lack of entertainment we popped in and I finished my cigar while sipping on a Glenlivitt 12yr old whiskey.

I finished my Cigar and we returned to the lobby bar. We sat at the bar and before long got chatting to a lovely Scottish couple, Barry and Emma who will be here on out know as "The Scots".

Now the Scottish and Irish are very similar people and when it comes to drinking neither want to let the side down. The excitement of a great week ahead, along with meeting new people, the paradise that surrounded us along with the heat it brought with it, throw in an all inclusive bar and a Scottish and Irish couple and you have the making of a very good night.

Before long we were back in the Cigar Bar as Barry and I sipped on 12yr old whiskey and puffed on a couple of cigars, a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No.2 for him, a Partagas Series D No 4 for me. The better halves looked on sipping on their cocktails.

Cigars extinguished, we headed for Sandals world famous nightclub, originally named, Varaderos!! If its not world famous, it should be, for all the wrong reasons. The DJ was playing a lot of dated hits and when I requested a few songs he had never heard of them. At this stage we were well on and decided to call it a night. The Mrs and I went to the late night Bistro and grabbed a burger and a couple of pizzas.

We brought them back to the room and after eating the burger I fell asleep, pizza untouched, and dreaming of a great week ahead.

Our lobby view for the morning
Happy Arrivals

Not so happy waiting

View from the beach bar

Whiskey and Sancho Panza

Posing after dinner

Enjoying the night

Cigars and Whiskey

Monday 17 September 2012

Cuba Day 3: Mojitos and Sandwiches

Breakfast in Cuba was confusing me. As I mentioned in my last post, the variety is there, nobody should have any reason to complain. What I found confusing was the steaming tray of sloppy Black Beans that sat beside the pancake tray. Now,I admit, I am new to the Bacon and Pancake thing, sweet and savory, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Come on, who wants mash potato, black bean and a slice of toast? Maybe people do? Maybe I am the odd one!!

Anyway, after breakfast, we decided to head back to the Partagas shop. I was going to have a better look and ask about the cigars I was searching for.

As soon as we went outside the Hotel, Nelson and his Posse were there to greet/annoy us. He was offering another tour, cigars, whatever we wanted. It was early in the morning, I politely turned him down.

When we reached the Partagas shop I was amazed with the amount of staff they had outside(sic) Everyone seemed to work in the store and they could all get me the same cigars at half the price. Once again I turned them down, one by one, each one less politely than the other.

Inside, there was one woman behind the counter. I was looking for a few different Gran Reserva and Edition Limitada Cigars that are VERY expensive here in Dublin. I was told that these Cigars were very rare in Cuba and a lot of the expensive product is exported to Europe. No cheep deals for me.

During our conversation the shop started to get busy. The lady went to deal with her customers while I continued to browse around, a little bit dismayed. As I have said before, the shop consisted of Monte's, Cohibas and RyJ. I am not knocking these brands. I smoke all of them and if I had the cash I would have bought a box of everything on display but I wasn't looking for an everyday smoke.

Once the lady got a spare moment I asked her if she had any 8-9-8 in stock. Her eyes lit up, it seemed not everyone asked for them. I inspected the box and the cigars inside. They smelt great. I bought them straight away. As I received my receipt, the lady gave me a single unmarked cigar. I asked what it was and was told it was the house blend. House blend from the Partagas factory? I didn't know there was such a thing but I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I thanked her and left.

We dropped the cigars back to the hotel and then made our way towards "Calle Obispo". This is the name of the busiest shopping street in Havana (apparently). The street in lined with restaurants, markets and nic-nac stalls.

The Mrs loves markets so we spent our time making our way down the street, purchasing bits and pieces along the way. We eventually made it to our main destination. La Bodeguita del Medio.

This is a bar, like Floridita, made famous as the place where Hemingway enjoyed his Mojito's. Unlike Floridita, this bar was not large, spacious and air-conditioned. I was a small bar, jammed with tourists separated from the street by wooden banisters. There was a band in the corner as we have come to expect from most Cuban bars but there was none of the niceties and classy touch you would find in Floridita. 4CUC for a Mojito and there was no waiting around. The service was fast and simple.

It may sound like Floridita was a nicer bar and in every way it is. It is a salubrious, comfortable and very classy. It is also boring. In Bodeguita there was no air-conditioning, the walls,counter and roof were covered in scrawling's from tourist, the bartender didn't have time to chat to you (he was too busy). We were lucky enough to get two stools at the bar right beside the entrance. We sat in the sweltering heat, refreshed by our Mojitos, listening to music and watching the throngs of tourists come and go. I loved it.

Hemingways said :
"My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita"

I could forget the daiquiri if I could sit in Bodeguita every day.

Reluctantly we walked back to the hotel, on the way dropping into a Cigar store where I purchased A box of Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial and a couple of Montecristo 'A's.

At the hotel we freshened up and went back out to take a bus tour of Havana. The tour only cost 5CUC and leaves every 30mins. It lasted over two hours and took us all over New Havana, Mirimar and other places I cant remember. The commentary lacked in information but it was still enjoyable and made us regret the Horse & Carriage tour we had taken the day before.

After the tour we took another walk down the Calle Obispo and ended up in Plaza Vieja, a lovely square surrounded by bars. We took a seat outside Factoria Plaza Vieja.

Here I ordered two liters of beer, on tap, for the sum of 12CUC. The waiter looked at me strangely when I ordered one just for me, he obviously didn't know I was Irish. We also ordered some snacks. I had the Lobster (again) and the Mrs ordered a Cuban Sandwich. When the food arrived I almost laughed at her for ordering what I though was just a big Ham & Cheese sambo. How wrong I was.

The Mrs asked me to try some and I bit into the sandwich without any expectation or feeling what so ever. If was been wearing socks they would have been knocked right off. It was a TASTE SENSATION. It baffled me how they turned a simple sandwich into something so moreish. I called the waiter and ordered a second for myself. Since we have returned home, that sandwich has been one of the things we miss the most.

After spending a few hours drinking, eating and people watching it was back to the hotel for us. We both repacked our suitcases in preparation for the journey to Varadero, after which, we went to the lobby bar. We had a couple of cocktails and I enjoyed a Punch Corona.

Once I finished my cigar we went to the rooftop pool bar. There was a lightening storm in progress. We sat on the pool loungers watching the storm for a while before heading back to the room to get some sleep in preparation of our journey the next day.

Sitting there, watching the lightening, listening to the thunder,I knew right then that I was going to miss Havana!

Box in a Box

8-9-8 Varnished

Partagas 8-9-8

Partagas House Blend

La Bodeguita
Hemingways Creed


Ready to go
I left my mark
HdM Epicure Especial

Another Box

Monte 'A' - Its massive
Plaza Vieja
The Mrs and my Beer


Taste Sensation

Punch and a Mojito

Monday 10 September 2012

Cuba Day 2 : Spot the Tourists

After the exhausting day of travel from day one I was up surprisingly early on day two. After a quick shower we made our way down for breakfast.

My worries about the standard of Cuban food had been eased the night before however I was unsure what was going to greet us for breakfast. I need not have worried. The buffet breakfast had everything from pancakes and bacon to mashed potato and veg. There was fresh fruit, pastries, cold meat, breads and even an omelet station. Something for everybody.

After breakfast we ventured out of the hotel for the first time. The heat hit us straight away and almost immediately we were also hit by the locals offering guided tours around the city as well as maps and the promise of cheep cigars.

A bit taken aback I went back into the hotel and asked the concierge what the story was with the people outside. He assured us that they all work for the government and there was nothing to fear.

With our new information in mind we hired the services of Nelson, who offered a Horse & Carrige Tour of Old Havana  for the reasonable sum of 35CUC.

The tour started of great. Nelson's colleague, Ra-something or other, was very informative and friendly, half way through the tour we stopped of for a Mojito at a local bar. There we were entertained by a local band and another local drew my caricature. We resumed our tour and once again our guide was very informative regarding the various buildings around Old Havana.

Nearing the end of the tour we took a turn up a very dilapidated street. The carrige stopped and the guide asked him to follow him. A bit unsure, we followed him into a small house. He informed us that it was his own place and his sister worked in the local cigar factory. I knew what was coming next.

He tried to push various cigars on me at a very cheep price. To be honest, they were very impressive and you would never know the difference. I declined, then declined again, and again, and again, and again....You get the point. It bordered on bullying but as soon as he realised I wasn't going to buy he ushered us back to the carriage.

The remainder of the tour ended very quickly and in silence. Once we were outside the Hotel, Nelson informed us the tour was 70CUC it was 35CUC EACH. I was in no humour to argue and at that point just wanted to get away from them so I gave him the money. Overall the tour was enjoyable but we were left with a bitter taste in our mouth.

After the tour we headed to the Partagas Factory. It was only around the corner from the hotel so we walked. I was already aware that the factory was closed for renovations and only the shop was open so I knew there would be no chance for a tour.

The shop itself was a little disappointing. On display were as many Montecristo, Cohiba or Romeo y Julieta cigars as you could wish for. A surprisingly very small Partagas selection and not much else. I didn't see anything that I wanted and left the shop a little downhearted.

On the way back to the Hotel, taking in our surroundings, we were approached by another local. He spoke Spanish  we looked at him blankly, he realised and spoke in English. We spoke briefly and he gave us some history and information. I thanked him and tried to give him 5CUC. He refused the money, told us his son was friends with Irish people and asked us if we wanted a drink. We accepted.

He brought us to a bar called "5 Villa". A quaint little place with a friendly bartender. We ordered three cocktails, sat in the heat and enjoyed the company. A second round was ordered and enjoyed. I then asked for the bill and was shocked when it came to 87CUC. Really, 87CUC for six drinks.

The bar man showed me the price list. Each cocktail cost 8CUC. Even at that "tourist" price the bill should have come to 48CUC. He told me there was service charge and them rambled on about some other charge. At this stage I was done with the "friendly" locals. I gave the bartender 40CUC and told him that was all he was getting. He threatened to ring the police, I told him I would ring the number for him. After a lot more arguing, I just walked out of the bar, leaving the bartender with a shocked and confused look on his face. Most tourist probably just pay the bill but I was not going to be scammed twice in one day.

After that, we vowed not to speak to anymore people in the street if we could help it. Believe me, it is harder than it sounds. After a few very harsh NO's later we strolled into Floridita. This bar has been made famous as the place were Ernest Hemingway drank his Daiquiris.

The place was packed. We eventually got a seat at the bar and ordered two of Hemingway's favourite. He was not wrong. On a extremely hot day, a refreshing daiquiri, good music and an air conditioned bar was welcomed with open arms.

Refreshed and ready to tackle the locals again we headed towards the Hotel National. This hotel is situated along the Malecon, a 17 kilometer stretch along the Cuban coast. It took is around one hour to reach the hotel. The reason for this trek, in 38c temperatures, was the Casa del Habanos situated on the lower floor in the hotel.

I picked up a box of Ramon Alones Specially Selected with a few years age on them along with a few single sticks. We went up to the terrace where I enjoyed a Ramon Allones "Alones Extra" Edition Limitada 2011 along with a couple of Cuba Libra's.

Exhausted, we got a cool little taxi back to our hotel. The Mrs went up to the room while I browsed the Hotels Cigar shop. In here I found a box of Montecristo Grand Edmundo Edition Limitada 2010 and snapped them up.

Back in the room the Mrs got a couple of hours sleep as I watched TV. When she awoke, we got ourselves ready and went for dinner. Rob Fox from James Fox, Dublin fame had recommended La Moraleja as a great spot for dinner. We jumped in a taxi and made our way there.

Our meal was fantastic. Since I was on my new Lobster buzz I ordered the seafood cocktail to start followed by a full grilled lobster with Parmesan sauce. The Mrs had a mixed salad followed by Pork w/pepper & onion. For dessert the Mrs had ice cream while I decided to have a cigar with a 12yr old Glenfiddich. The cigar was a house blend and was very enjoyable.

Half way through my cigar I noticed the restaurant was closing. The Mrs and I were now the last people there apart from the staff. Rob Fox had told me to ask for the owner. I was told she was a friendly woman and an avid Cigar smoker, however when I inquired I was told that she was unavailable.

As we were getting ready to leave, I wrote her a note and left it with the manger. The manager disappeared for five minutes and when he returned we were standing up to leave. He told us to sit down, filled up my whiskey with a more than generous measure, insisted that I would take another cigar, and a second for later. I should write more thank you notes.

Once we finished, well past the closing time, the doorman/host/random guy outside the restaurant ordered us a taxi. Five to ten minutes later, a guy pulls up in a Lada with his Mrs in the passenger seat. We were told that this was our taxi. At this stage nothing surprised me.

We hopped in and were traveling back towards the hotel when the Lada took an unscheduled turn of the Malecon. The driver jumped out of the car and walked over to a man standing on a street corner. The aforementioned man was a Hulk. His arms were as big as my legs. The two men spoke to each other, all the while pointing towards the car. This was it, we were going to be kidnapped. The scenarios rolled through my mind, how was I going to get us to safety, was he all brawn and no brain, maybe the skinny one was dangerous, should I be worried about the woman in the passenger seat.

While all this was running through my head the two men had crossed the road and were rooting through the trunk of a second car. What were they going to pull out? A gun, a knife, baseball bats? Then I saw it, it was rubber tubing. I could handle that. Something glittered, an empty plastic bottle. Now I was confused!

Not for long though as I saw the Hulk siphoning diesel. The Lada had run out of fuel. Five minutes later and after aging ten years we were back at the hotel. I gave the guy 10CUC and he almost kissed me, for another 10CUC I could have had his Mrs.

Once inside the hotel I needed a drink. I ordered a Mojito and a Siglo V. As I sat there and smoked my cigar I though of all that happened in one day. If nothing else this trip was going to be an experience!!

Partagas Factory

Shop Entrance

Cigar Selection


Floridita street view


Ernest Hemingway

Hotel National

La Casa del Habanos

Ramon Alones Alones Extra


Monte Grand Edmundo

La Maraleja

Chef's Grill


The Grill

House Blend

Cohiba Siglo V

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Cuba - Day 1: Airports,Havana and Cigars

 Right Folks, I'm Back!!! I have put this post off long enough. I have so much information about my trip to Cuba I didn't know where to start. What I have decided to do is break it down into several post which will be intertwined with the usual drivel of work, football and the occasional cigar. I hope you will enjoy it. So here we go.

We will start off with Day 1: The journey to Cuba!!

The Mrs and I arrived in Dublin Airport on a wet Friday morning. She was well rested and ready to go. Myself, on the other hand, due to excitement, nerves or the fact my body clock has not been right for the last thirteen years, hadn't got a wink of sleep.

Skipping through all the mundane checks that are associated with Airports these days, we were sitting on the plane as it was taxied towards the runway. A short two hour flight and we would be in Paris for our change over. We were on the way and I was feeling good, that was until the plane stopped, was turned around and the Pilot informed us that we couldn't take off due to an indicator problem. As I sat on the plane for another half hour while they fixed the problem I wondered what the big deal was. How many planes do they expect to overtake?

Eventually we arrived in Charles deGaulle. The weather was glorious. The Mrs and I had spent Christmas in Paris with the Brynes and we loved it. We both remarked that we would have to revisit some time during summer when the weather was this good.

More mundane Airport stuff and we arrived at our gate to find out that the connecting flight was delayed. Probably due to the lack of a left falange!! We didn't have to wait too long though and before we knew it we were marched onto the plane.

I am off the opinion that Airlines tease people intentionally. They board the premium passengers first, than they force all the commoners to walk onto the plane, past these VIP's while they lounge in their first class cabins, with loads of leg room and without a 30stone, sweaty passenger pouring onto their seats.

I am not going to say much more about our flight or I might get upset. The plane was lovely, I got to watch three movies on the flight and we were sufficiently fed and watered. What killed me was over nine hours on a plane with not enough leg room, factor that in with the fact I had not slept in over 30hrs at that stage. I wasn't a happy bunny.

When we eventually arrived in Havana it was raining. As we walked through the airport there were people mopping up puddles as water leaked from the roof. At this point I didn't care about anything. I was finally off the plane and I was in CUBA!!

We met our representative, I changed some money and before we knew it we were on a bus to Havana. As I looked out the window it was hard to miss the poverty and squalor that people had to live with. Saying that, everything seemed to have its own little charm and all the people had a smile on their face. It seemed to be a theme with the locals and during the trip one man remarked to me "I may be poor, but at least I am poor in Cuba"

There was nothing poor about the Hotel when we arrived. We checked into the Hotel Parque Central. It was fantastic, modern and clean. What more could you want? A roof top pool you say? A cigar store? Three restaurants? A gym? A spa? It had all these and more.

A quick shower and change of clothes and we were at the lobby bar sipping on Cuba Libras. The cigar shop was closed however the bar had its own humidor and it didn't take me long to order a couple of sticks.

There was an English guy sitting at the bar who recommended I not purchase cigars in the hotel. "They rip you off" he said, "you can get the same cigar for half the price in a shop across the road" I thanked him for the information and was about to go in search of this shop when the bartender handed me the cigar menu. I looked at the aforementioned English guy with slight confusion. Cigars were available CHEAPER than this??

I decided a walk across the street was too much of an effort so I requested a Partagas 8-9-8 and a H.Upman Magnum 50 all for the "overpriced" sum off 15.40CUC. That's around €12, a saving of around €30 in my book when compared to Dublin prices.

I smoked the Magnum 50 while sipping on the best Mojito I have ever tasted. The cigar was fantastic but I didn't take notes. I was sitting in a Hotel in Havana, Cuba, smoking a Cuban Cigar and drinking Cuban rum. Who would want to take notes??

The Mrs was getting hungry at this stage so we headed up to the roof top restaurant. A fantastic setting, sitting at our table, swimming pool one side of us, looking out over Old Havana the other. We ordered Bravas and Lobster/Shrimp cocktail to start. The sauce on the Bravas were nice and spicy and the Seafood cocktail was to die for. It was the first time I had tried lobster and I had a feeling that I would be tasting a lot more.

The Mrs ordered Pizza as a main, it had a nice crispy thin base with plenty of toppings. I ordered a steak. I went through three options on the menu which they had run out off. After listing off most of the steak cuts I knew, the waiter told me none were available. I just asked him to bring me what he DID have. I'm not sure what cut I got in the end but I can tell you it was cooked to perfection and I enjoyed it very much.

The Mrs faded half way through our mains and headed back to the room. I finished up on my own and decided to skip dessert and to light up the 8-9-8 instead. It was bliss. The cigar, the setting, the alcohol. I sat there on my own, puffing away, looking out over Havana and sipping on my mojito. I had been awake for over 40 hours at this stage. I didn't finish the cigar. I put it down at the height of my enjoyment and went to bed.

A great way to start the Holiday!!

Havana Airport

Hotel Lobby

H. Upman Magnum 50 & Partagas 8-9-8

View from Roof Top

Roof Top Pool