Written by Puff Staff

Tuesday, 28 October 2003

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Cruising & Cigars in the Caribbean – Puerto Rico, St. Marten, St Thomas, and Nassau

Cruising the Caribbean and smoking cigars.  Sound good?  This report tells about one cigar smoker’s impressions on an eastern Caribbean cruise.  We will head almost due south from Miami stopping at ports east of Cuba and the Dominican Republic.  (This article is intended neither as a review or critique of the cruise ship or the ports of call.)

Our ship, “The Explorer of the Seas,” is one of two sister ships built for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in 2000.  These ships are the largest cruise ships built to date and are 50% larger, in tonnage, than the largest US nuclear aircraft carrier.  This ship is awesome, extending the length of three football fields and standing 14 stories high above the water line.  The Explorer has a capacity for over 3300 passengers and 1300 crewmembers. 

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines
"The Explorer of the Seas"

In addition to the cruise ship standards such as multiple pools, restaurants, and casino, the amenities include an ice skating rink, 1000 seat stage show theatre, miniature golf course, full size basketball court, complete spa and fitness center, rock climbing wall, and a shopping mall that runs half the length of the ship.

On the cigar-smoking front, because we booked a cabin with a balcony, I knew if all else failed, I could smoke out there.  Once on board, I ask one of the smartly uniformed staff members where cigar smoking is allowed.

“Smoking is allowed in 2 public places,” the young man said politely.  “The first area is on the starboard side of the top deck.  The second is in the Connoisseur’s Club.” 

“Must be some dimly lit, smoky bar and disco combination,” I think to myself.

We find our cabin and meet Julius, our cabin attendant for the week.  We survey the room and wait for our luggage.  Suddenly several tones and a voice crackle over the intercom system announcing the mandatory lifeboat drill for all passengers.  We don our life vests and merge into the stream of passengers moving purposefully down the hallway.  Orange vested passengers crowd onto the lifeboat deck as crewmembers direct us to our appointed positions.  I feel like I’m in a scene from the movie Titanic

Crewmembers mold us into small, organized blocks that face the shore.  The intercom system blares out the lifeboat procedure, then clipboard-toting crewmembers take roll call.  The “all clear” bell sounds and the orange blocks of passengers melt into an amorphous herd that quickly dissipates into the ship.  Returning to our cabin, we find our luggage… and my cigars.  The ship slowly begins to sail as I step out onto our balcony.  The late afternoon sun is streaming through scattered clouds above the Miami skyline as I light my first cigar. 

San Juan, Puerto Rico

The first stop is San Juan, Puerto Rico, a US territory that follows almost all the US Federal laws, including the prohibition of all Cuban goods.  This of course eliminates the potential for finding Cuban cigars.

We have only 5 hours in San Juan so my wife and I take a city tour and walk the shopping district in the old city.  The walled city has many points of historic interest including the Caribbean’s largest fort.  In addition to tourism, the current economy is based on trade with Caribbean nations.  The shopping district consists of a dozen blocks of old, brightly painted, multi-storied buildings.  High-end designer clothes and jewelry stores abound, with local souvenir shops interspersed.  The brick streets are narrow (and very slippery) and packed with cars and tour buses.

A steady rain tempers our visit to the old city almost our entire time.  We visit the restaurant where the Pina Colada was invented, window shop and enjoy a cup of espresso.  I don’t find any cigar stores.  With the rain and little time remaining I give up.  We head back to the ship just before dusk.

St. Maarten / St. Martin

St. Maarten or St. Martin is a divided island that has been a joint possession of both the Netherlands and France since 1648.  The dual French/Dutch heritage lets visitors experience 2 cultures on an island only half the size of Washington DC.  The economy depends almost entirely on tourism and was devastated after Hurricane Luis in 1995.  Freshly renovated, St. Maarten drew nearly a million visitors in 2000.

La Casa Del Habanos in St. Maarten

Year-round sunshine provides swimming, snorkeling, and sailing for sun worshippers.  Duty free shopping makes the towns of Phillipsburg and Marigot a shopper’s paradise by day.  The many casinos, restaurants, and bars support an exciting nightlife.

St. Maarten is a beautiful island with, perhaps, the most “laid back” culture of the ports we visited.  The locals don’t appear to be rushed, by anything, and take the time to wave and talk to friends and strangers alike.  The only time I see an expression of consternation is when they encounter people in a hurry, usually tourists.

I watch the cruise ships grow smaller as our sea taxi heads for St. Maarten.  The calm, crystal blue waters of the bay lighten as we approach the shore.  The white sand beach between ocean and town grows brighter.  Upon mooring, the small herd of passengers slowly disperses as we walk towards the edge of town only a block away.  The sky is clear, the sun hot, and the humidity high.

The town has the same name brand clothing, jewelry, and local souvenir type shops as Puerto Rico.  But being one of two non-US territory ports we would visit, St. Maarten may promise me some quality Havana cigars.  On Front St., there is one store I won’t find in our other ports: La Casa del Habanos.  The store will prove to be my first, and only, stop in Phillipsburg.

As I walk, almost every block has duty free stores with signs touting “Authentic Cuban Cigars.”  Having heard too many tales of counterfeit Cuban cigars from Caribbean ports, I keep walking.  I soon come to La Casa del Habanos and quickly step inside.  Walking into the air-conditioned store is like a welcome splash of cold water to my senses.  I am as happy about the respite from the heat as I am to find the store.  “This is where I’m camping out,” I think to myself contentedly.

A tiled fountain greets customers as they enter the store.  Beyond, the entire interior is covered with rich wood paneling and trim.  Leather is the fabric of choice for all the furnishings.  Tables and counters are piled high with cigar publications that guests can look through as they enjoy their cigars.  The right side of the store displays cigar clothing and accessories.  The heart of the store, however, is the huge walk-in humidor along the left and rear walls.  It occupies some 25-30% of the floor space.  The store is busy with a mix of local customers and tourists selecting and smoking cigars.

Ellis Belilos and wife

The proprietor Ellis Belilos and his wife warmly welcome each and every customer entering the store.  There are 2 or 3 customers in the humidor at any moment.  Some locals enjoying their smokes seem oblivious to the bustle of retail activity.  I’m sure the 4 cruise ships in port have provided the crowds for today.

I head for the humidor first, which is also air-conditioned.  As I open the door, I’m overwhelmed by the sweet, intoxicating fragrance of Cuban tobacco.  The glass walled humidor is packed with boxes of Havana cigars.  On the shelves, open boxes of every brand and shape display single cigars for sale.  Full boxes sit behind the open boxes and in storage cabinets below and above the shelves.  I survey a random sampling of boxes with date codes ranging from 2000 to late 2002.  I’m like a kid in a candy store.  I select a Partagas Serie D No.4 to smoke as I browse the inventory.

Ellis Belilos enters the humidor and introduces himself, asking if I need assistance.  I don my Top25Cigar identity and tell him about the website and bulletin board.  He isn’t familiar with either site and says he will check them out.

I ask him what seems to be smoking best.  After a brief discussion about favorite shapes and brands he selects a box of Bolivar Corona Extra from 2000 and a box of San Cristobal Fuerza from 2002.  The wrappers look rich and the cigars have a consistent feel to them.  I buy both boxes, along with a lighter and some linen shirts embroidered with various Havana cigar logos.

I ask Ellis about his history in the cigar industry.  He tells me he has been involved in various areas of the Caribbean cigar business for the last 30 years.  During that time he has worked with both Cuban and non-Cuban cigar manufacturers and distribution companies.  He names them throughout the story he’s telling me.  La Casa del Habanos store, though, is his pride and joy.  I mention that I know Enrico Garzaroli at the Graycliff Hotel in Nassau.  Ellis breaks into a grin and tells me he knows Enrico very well since they have both worked in the Caribbean cigar business for decades.

As we discuss Cuban cigars, Ellis tells me, “We suffered with very poor quality for a while.  But the quality has improved significantly over the last year.  Altadis will put draw testing machines into every factory by the end of this year,” he says with a smile.  “You will see, you will see.  The quality will improve much,” he says as he offers me a cup of Cuban coffee.  As I gather my purchases, he hands me an unbanded toro shaped cigar.  “Here is a little something special from the Festival de Habanos this year,” he grins.

“What is it?” I ask. 

“Smoke it and ask me the next time we meet,” he laughs.

I make my way back to rendezvous with my wife, who prefers to shop rather than listen to cigar talk.   We take a tour to see the French part of the island in the afternoon.

The town of Marigot is the center of the French side of the island.  Contrary to information given to us, Marigot seems slightly more refined than the Dutch side; still, tourism is central.  The French architecture and street signs, uniformed policemen, and the absence of the cruise ship crowds create an ambiance totally different from Phillipsburg.  Restaurants offer visitors some of the best cuisine in the Caribbean.  Movie buffs will recall that this is where the cruise ship in Speed 2 crashed into the port.

A resort, Marigot is also a destination for the rich and famous.  Some of the small islands that dot the harbor and coast are privately owned by an array of international celebrities, politicians and the well heeled.  We enjoy iced coffee and a snack at a sidewalk café, do a little window shopping and re-board our bus.  I wish we had more time to explore the town.  As the bus navigates Marigot’s winding streets, I spot another La Casa del Habanos.  “Oh well, maybe next time,” I think to myself.

St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

St. Thomas is part of the US Virgin Islands group and is one of the top 10 Caribbean destinations.  The mountainous island has something for everyone (except those looking for cigars from Havana.)  The crescent shaped natural harbor is one of the most beautiful in the world.  Sailboats and luxury vessels of every type are scattered across its clear, crystal blue waters.  The lush slopes rising up from the harbor shores are dotted with white stucco, tile roofed villas.  The picturesque capital of the U.S.V.I., Charlotte Amalie, sits neatly behind the beautiful beach and harbor.  Our island tour opens even more natural beauty to us.  There are secluded white sand beaches and steep mountains covered with tropical rain forests.  The secluded beach at Megan’s bay was voted one of the 10 best beaches in the world.  This is truly an island paradise.

Megan's Bay - St. Thomas US Virgin ISlands

Those interested in water activities will have too many choices.  Snorkeling amongst the reefs reveals 300 varieties of fish.  Scuba diving with 75 feet of visibility lets one explore shipwrecks.  There are power and yacht charters for island hopping.  Underwater sights 90 feet below the surface can be seen without getting wet by taking a submarine ride.  Less populated nearby islands can be visited by boat or plane.

St. Thomas is a mecca for duty free shoppers because of quality, selection, and prices.  In addition, the US Customs allowance for products from St. Thomas is higher compared to the other islands.  The city is clean, the stores are well run and the prices are good.  Price comparisons among the shops can often net an additional discount.

Walking along Waterfront and Main streets, I find several stores that have cigar departments complete with walk-in humidors.  They are well stocked with the best Dominican, Honduran, and Nicaraguan brands.  I’m surprised that the prices are higher than cigars purchased over the Internet in the US.  Because of this I decline to purchase cigars in St. Thomas.

However, my purchases do include a 25th anniversary ring for my wife and 4 bottles of single malt scotch for myself.  As my wife shops for postcards, I see a bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII for one third less than the US price, but come to my senses and settle for the scotch.  At dusk, we bid farewell to this sun drenched paradise and to my hard earned money.

Nassau, The Bahamas 

Nassau in the Bahamas is our last port.  The Bahamas are popular, in part, because of their proximity to the US mainland, only 25 minutes by jet.  However, this is what gave Nassau and the Bahamas a unique history.

The Bahamas were the first stop in the New World for Christopher Columbus.  Later, the first English settlers landed in the Bahamas because they were shipwrecked.  Their shipwreck was not to be the last.  Poor maps and bad weather wrecked many ships; their remains washed up on Nassau’s shores.  Salvage from wrecked ships became part of the economy early in Nassau’s history.  If shipwrecks were lacking, enterprising locals would put lights on the reefs to lure ships to destruction.  So Nassau became somewhat of an outlaw island.

During the 17th century, England’s Royal Navy was kept busy with a string of wars.  With her own naval forces stretched thin, England gave captains, called privateers, the right to attack enemy ships.  Unknowingly, England had essentially legitimized piracy, which grew rampant.  Many pirates including the infamous “Blackbeard” called Nassau their home port.  Later in history, Nassau’s bad boy status continued.  During the Civil war, Nassau was a safe haven for blockade runners, and during the US Prohibition, it served as a base for smuggling liquor into the US.

Over 1.6 million visitors come to the Bahamas every year.  The storybook colonial architecture, gloved policemen, and horse drawn carriages are a reminder of the Bahamas’ colorful past.  The traffic, shopping district, and abundance of ocean activities keep visitors in the present.  The warm, breezy weather is, of course, perfect.

The Bahamas are a coral island group as opposed to the volcanic islands we visited.  The Bahamas islands are flat and do not enjoy the mountains and lush vegetation found on the volcanic islands.  Yet the beaches and water are absolutely spectacular!  Anyone interested in diving, snorkeling, sailing or deep-sea fishing will be thrilled.

The shopping district is architecturally quaint and home to the same types of jewelry, clothing and gift stores found at the previous ports.  But Nassau has many more hotels than the other island stops and appears to be more of a resort destination.  The posh Paradise Hotel and Casino is the largest and most luxurious of these resorts but there are many excellent beach-front accommodations to fit every taste and budget.

Like St. Maarten, the Bahamas is not a US territory so it allows the sale of cigars from Cuba.  And like St. Maarten, signs abound in many shop windows declaring “Authentic Cuban Cigars.”  Nassau does not currently have a La Casa del Habanos store.  According to Enrico Garzaroli, Habanos SA revoked the franchise from the Graycliff Hotel in 1998 when they hired Avelino Lara, the retired Cuban cigar master.  In Cuba, Lara was responsible for Castro’s personal cigars and the Cohiba line.  The Cuban government, apparently, wasn’t happy seeing Lara working at a cigar factory they didn’t own, even if he was retired.  The Graycliff, however, does have a very good inventory of Cuban cigars as well as those made by the Graycliff Cigar Co.

Enrico Garzaroli
Graycliff Hotel

Since this is my fourth visit to Nassau, I skip the island tour and shopping.  We head for the Graycliff Hotel and Cigar Co. where I hope my wife can meet Graycliff proprietor, Enrico Garzaroli.  We arrive unannounced and tour the hotel property and cigar factory while we wait for Enrico.  Then we meet the gregarious entrepreneur and talk about the hotel and cruise.  Knowing the cigar part of the visit is imminent, my wife departs for one of the beachfront hotels to catch some afternoon sun.

“How about a cigar?” Enrico booms out with a laugh.  We go to his office and he offers me several cigars.  “Go ahead, give them a try.”

The first is a presidente with an emerald green candela wrapper.  The construction is typical Graycliff, perfect.  I was expecting mild and smooth.  Instead, I tasted spice and more spice from one end to the other.

Enrico pours some vintage port and hands me another cigar sample.  Compared to the regular Graycliff line, the dark maduro robusto is as much a novelty as the candela.  The pre-light aroma is strong and spicy.  Once lit, three draws tell me this is the strongest Graycliff cigar I’ve ever smoked.  A third of the way through, an earthy taste emerges, combined with a big shot of power. 

“Wow”, I exclaim to Enrico.  “I don’t know if I can finish this cigar.  What is it?” 

“How do you like it?” he inquires. 

“Very strong, but not harsh.  This thing is on the edge!  I like it,”  I tell him.

“We’ve been working on a stronger blend for a while.  It takes time to find a blend that is really strong without being harsh.  Many of the newer, so called full bodied cigars are too harsh tasting,”  he explains.

“Seems like a Graycliff 1926 to me,”  I say before I can stop myself.

Enrico smiles and says, “I’m glad you like the cigar.”

As we drink espresso I suggest an idea for Graycliff.  I think a “cigar lunch excursion” at the Graycliff could be offered to the cruise lines.  By the end of the cruise, many guys don’t want to see another jewelry store or palm tree.  I think a chance to have a great lunch and great cigars in a cigar factory would be very interesting to cigar smoking passengers.  He agrees the idea might have possibilities.

Enrico hands me more samples of his new cigars and says, “Give them to your friends to try.”  He gives me a ride down to the waterfront, instructing me how to get to the ships.  We say goodbye and he disappears into the Nassau traffic.  I board the ship.  Tomorrow we’ll wake up in Miami.

Cigar smoking on the Explorer of the Seas

The Connoisseur Room

As mentioned earlier, there are only three places to smoke aboard the Royal Caribbean ship Explorer of the Seas; the starboard side of the top deck, one’s own stateroom balcony, and the Connoisseur’s Club.  Being from California, I have the habit of not smoking near non-smokers I don’t know, so smoking on the top deck is out for me most of the time.  If I want solitude, then my stateroom balcony is perfect; alone with my thoughts, I can enjoy the warm night air and watch the world go by.  But eventually, wanting the company of fellow cigar smokers, I decide to check out the club I’d heard about.

To my surprise the Connoisseur’s Club is a complete cigar lounge.  Open from 8 PM to 1 AM nightly, the room appears to be about 1200 sq. ft. with hardwood floors and rich wood paneling.  There is a well-stocked walk in humidor, bar, blackjack table, requisite leather armchairs and couches and a dedicated staff.  My routine is to attend the 8 PM stage show with my wife, then head over to the cigar lounge sometime after 10 PM.  I estimate that 30 or 40 cigar smokers use the club at various times each evening.

Through the course of the week, maybe 15 or 20 passengers become regulars.  It is great fun to exchange cigars and experiences with new acquaintances from different parts of the globe.  By the end of the week I think we all look forward to our nightly smoke together.  I don’t know why Royal Caribbean devoted so much valuable space to a cigar lounge, but I’m glad they did.  The ship, all its amenities, service and excursions are very good.  But for me, the cigar lounge is the feature on the ship that makes my cruise experience extra special.  If you are an avid cigar smoker planning a cruise, I suggest that you check to see if there is a cigar lounge on the ship.

That’s my experience with cruising and cigars.  I hope you’ll enjoy your trip as much as I did.

Rob Shibata for Top25Cigars

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