Party... and don't forget the cigars

Even after 40 years of sanctions, the joie de vivre of Cubans is undimmed. Rory Ross prepares to join Fidel Castro and a host of stars at the capital's annual cigar festival
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The Independent Travel

The Havana Cigar Festival is something of a misnomer. Instead of "cigar", you could insert just about any noun you want, so long as it is strongly linked with some form of self-indulgence. Cigars are merely the excuse.

Whatever your ostensible reasons for visiting Havana - music, architecture, sun, sea, sand or cigars - you cannot help but be swept up by the totality of this city's dance-happy, fluorescent, high-tempo social orbit. Once you've experienced Havana's frolicsome, bare-shouldered, orange-blossom and frangipani-scented nights, it's hard to resist going back for more. If I may inject a personal note, I'm living proof of this point. I'll soon be a veteran of three Havana Cigar Festivals, yet I've never smoked anything in my life.

The timing of the festival is critical. The harvest is in full swing, cigars are being rolled, the bougainvillea and hibiscus are in bloom, and one's children are back at school. It's time to dust down the Panama hat, take the mothballs out of the linen suit, move to the salsa beat, drink in the splendid gaiety and glittering sociability of Havana, and reflect that life can indeed have its moments.

The festival made its formal debut in 1999, when a gobsmacked Fidel (as he is known) declared, "We must do this every year." He'd just signed five humidors that raised $750,000 (£450,000) at a charity auction during the climactic Gala Dinner, attended by 850 guests, then the biggest slap-up banquet ever held in Cuba for which the organisers had to import extra plates and glasses.

Today, the festival has matured into a world event, drawing CNN and celebrities. In 2000, Gabriel García Márquez sat next to Fidel at the Gala Dinner. Last year, Gran-Corona-sized cigar personality David Tang gathered together a star-spangled coterie of Lord Rothschild, his son Nat, Bianca Jagger, Matt Dillon, Sir Mark and Lady Weinberg, Jocelyn Stevens and Vivien Duffield - the "Tang Gang". Cigar "tastings", factory tours, plantation visits, dinners and cocktail parties are played out to a soundtrack of pulsating Cuban music, against a moody backdrop of crumbling Havana. The architectural vernacular is one of Cuba's glories. It is the most sustained and magnificent anthology of Spanish colonial piecrust, garlanded with revolutionary iconography.

As Christopher Columbus discovered when he set foot on Cuba in 1492, the island is a welcoming, friendly, orderly and mostly unthreatening place. Sadly, the indigenous inhabitants were all dead of coughs and sneezes within 70 years, but their hospitable tradition is upheld by present-day Cubans, who descend from early settlers and slaves. Petty theft has expanded in line with tourism, but violence is rare. So, too, are the Cubans who will openly criticise a political system that abhors pluralism and dissent.

One wishes it were otherwise. Cuba raises so many fascinating questions. What will happen post-Fidel? How has he survived the Soviet implosion, the posturing of the United States and the encroachments of globalisation? How have the revolutionary ideals of the Fifties weathered the years? Why are Cubans so outwardly happy, yet so poor and lacking in shopping malls? How can such an educated people still accept Fidel? What would the US President think if Air Force One ran out of fuel over Havana?

One of this year's highlights is the Floridita-Churchill dinner held amid the strutting peacocks and splashing fountains of the gardens of the Nacional Hotel on 25 February to celebrate Winston Churchill's 130th birthday. Churchill's great-granddaughter Jenny Repard will be present. Mark Hix, executive head chef of The Ivy and Le Caprice restaurants in London (and columnist for The Independent Magazine), will be supervising the cooking. Hix's involvement will come as a relief to those who regard Cuban "cuisine" as key to explaining why Cuban women are so slim. ("If you want to lose weight, go to Cuba," begins the section on food in one guidebook.)

In 1999, festival-goers were seen teaching Cuban waiters how to pour champagne. Let's hope those waiters have got the hang of it, because Pol Roger - Churchill's favourite champagne - will be flowing at Floridita-Churchill. The festival is also a chance to rub shoulders with great Cuban personalities like Alejandro Robaina, 84, legendary patriarch of the Robaina tobacco-farming family and the only living person to have a cigar named after him. Robaina's biography comes out at this year's festival. If he's playing, don't miss Chucho Valdés, the brilliant jazz pianist whose hands move at invisible velocity and make keyboards smoke. You may bump into Martin Guevara, Che's brother, who distributes Cuban cigars in Argentina.

The biggest personality of them all is the great bearded one himself. At 77, Fidel has just surpassed King Hussein of Jordan as he enters his 45th year as head of state. He is rapidly approaching Haile Selassie's 46 years, though still lags behind our queens Victoria and Elizabeth II. His vigour is a credit to the Cuban health system, which the charity auction at the Gala Dinner supports. Thanks to the deep pockets of festival-goers and the auctioneering skills of Simon Chase, director of Hunters & Frankau in London, the first five Gala Dinners have raised $2.75m (£800,000). With the monthly Cuban wage averaging some $30 (£18), that goes a long way in Havana, even with the plunging dollar. Some of the lots draw serious - even silly - money.

In 2001, the late Compay Segundo, of Buena Vista Social Club fame, leapt up in mid-auction, grabbed a microphone and sang "Chan Chan". He then turned to Fidel and said, "I'd like to sell my hat." Semi-jokingly, Fidel signed Segundo's hat, which then sold for $17,500 (£11,000). "I don't believe it," swooned Castro. "That will pay for 50,000 children's inoculations." The following year, Simon Chase auctioned another of Segundo's hats for $20,000 (£12,500). "What I'd really like to do is sell Fidel's jungle cap," says Chase. Then he can call out: "Fidel's old hat!"

Part of what keeps the Cubans happy - besides sun and rum - is their joyous savoir vivre. Their celebrations seems so unforced and in such contrast to their poverty. Unfettered by puritanical northern European sensibilities, they have no sense of guilt about what we would term indulgences. Yet you don't associate the Cubans with excess.

Take Tropicana, the open-air cabaret. The very word "cabaret" makes me reach for a blunt object, but at Tropicana, the daring music, the jungly vegetation and the open-air tropical softness conjure an atmosphere of sultry excitement that is both tranquillising and stimulating. And, as Peter Cook might have said, the bottoms follow you around the auditorium. But what I really like about Tropicana is that it was founded in 1939. While the rest of the world marched to war, the Cubans said, "Fine, we'll set up the world's greatest cabaret instead." I like their style.

Even the cigar factories have a beauty of their own. Take El Laguito. Folded in a leafy suburb, this gorgeous palm-fringed colonial-style villa comes with marble floors, French windows and a sweeping staircase awaft with the delicious aroma of tobacco leaves. The property once belonged to an English family, name of Fowler, who produced Fowler's Treacle. Today, smiling girls sit beneath posters of Che Guevara and roll the legendary Cohiba.

El Laguito boasts its own chiller cabinet, as it were, in the history of the Cold War. When the CIA learned that Cohibas were Castro's favourite smoke-cum-diplomatic-gift, it decided to experiment with exploding and depilating Cohibas that would have ruined Castro's day if not his macho bearded image. No, seriously.

To counter this threat, the Cubans concealed the Cohiba factory in the least obvious building, hence this grand and idyllic setting. Today, Castro has given up smoking and now gives away 7.5-inch Trinidad Fundadores instead, but don't tell the CIA.

A more conventional factory is the Partagas factory. Strewn around this aromatic, hot, noisy building in downtown Havana are bundles of tobacco leaves looking liked flayed, sunburnt, gossamer pelts, and bundled cigars like missiles. Beneath twirling fans, young men and women sit at rows of school desks and each roll at least 120 Coronas a day.

At the end of the rolling room, a chap sits on a platform, reading a newspaper or book into a loudspeaker system. His job is to keep the rollers entertained. The Romeo y Julietta cigar got its name because Romeo and Juliet was the favourite story of the factory that produced it; likewise the Montecristo cigar, as in The Count of.... So far, no one has named a cigar "the Speeches of Fidel Castro", but it can only be months before a Hogwarts 9-inch is unveiled.

It is surprising just how much fun cigars can be without actually being smoked. Some cigar lovers get fired up by the imagery of cigars: the chopping boards, the cigar presses, the sight of a pile of loose cigars, or a box of newly minted cigars, or a whole vista of crisply minted cigar boxes stretching into infinity, or a gorgeous Cuban nymph smoking a month's wages as she rolls Cohibas on her thigh... "Actually, the Cubans don't do thighs," says Simon Chase. "Besides, you'd need big thighs to roll a 9.5-inch Gran Corona. Doesn't bear thinking about."

"Cigars are analogous to Shakespeare," one aficionado told me. "At first, you may not fully appreciate Shakespeare. But slowly you begin to realise how inspirational and deeply pleasurable the plays can be. Same with cigars and Cuba. The introduction is key. Just ask Monica Lewinsky."

As an insurance policy against Cuban bureaucratic headaches, it's a good idea to join a group of like-minded people and devise your own itinerary to take in other parts of Cuba.

If the Tang Gang is beyond your budget, another option is the Boisdale Cigar & Jazz Club. Although it sounds like a CIA front, the Boisdale Cigar & Jazz Club is in fact a party led by Ranald Macdonald, a London-based restaurateur. This year's festival will mark the Boisdale Cigar & Jazz Club's seventh visit to Cuba.

"Cuba itself is do-able in a week," says Macdonald, sipping a mojito worth two days' pay on the colonnaded patio bar of the Hotel Nacional - where anyone who is anyone stays or hangs out - and surveying the Malecon, Havana's seafront drag. "Tobacco plantations are three hours by car, the city of Trinidad is four hours' drive. Cayo Largo is one hour's flight. You can fish, snorkel and lounge on talcum-powder beaches."

Macdonald hastens to point out that Cuba is not for people who depend on "seamless sanitised perfection... It is an experience that demands a relaxed and patient countenance and an open mind. It also helps if you enjoy a drink and good company and have a spirit of adventure."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The only non-stop flights from Britain to Havana are operated on Mondays from Heathrow by Air Jamaica (020-8570 9171; you cannot book Havana flights online at www.airjamaica.com because of the US trade embargo). The lowest fare is £595 in economy class. In business, the price is £2,012 - though agents can usually secure a much lower fare.

The best you can say about the national airline, Cubana (01293 596677), is that it has not had a fatal accident for four years; unfortunately, it had two in the final fortnight of 1999, securing its position as the world's most dangerous airline for which records exist. Its weekly flight from Gatwick via Holguin to Havana is now operated by an Airbus A330, an aircraft type that has never had a fatal accident.

Fares on Cubana for travel later this month are £430 return; premium economy is available for an extra £220.

A US$20 (£11) tax is payable by everyone leaving Cuba by air.

RED TAPE

Visitors need a Tourist Card, which can be obtained from airlines or travel agents for £15. US citizens are not allowed to visit Cuba except on official business.

ACCOMMODATION

The five-star Nacional (www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com; 00 53 7 333564) features in the closing stages of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, and keeps some of its rooms in the form they were in when illustrious guests such as Frank Sinatra (room 225) and Johnny Weismuller (229) stayed. It is vast, and occupies a commanding position amid well-kept grounds on the western edge of Havana's city centre. While plainly the capital's top hotel, it isn't convenient for Old Havana, the heart of the city.

Ten years ago, finding somewhere characterful to stay in crumbling Old Havana was tricky. Thanks to a systematic investment programme for refurbishing buildings, there is now a splendid range. My favourite is the Santa Isabel (00 53 7 609619) on the Plaza de Armas - a luxurious and exclusive 28-room hotel occupying a former colonial monastery. You will get a better deal booking through an agent, such as Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) or South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk). Special Places (020-7313 6618) has specialist tours for cigar lovers.

FESTIVAL

This year's Cigar Festival takes place from 22 to 27 February; visit www.habanos.com.

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