Tue, 16 Dec 2003

Viva Havana in the heart of Jakarta

Rudijanto, Contributor, Jakarta

Though proud of their democratic society, Americans and Europeans still turn to Cuba, the last bastion of communism in the western hemisphere, for its famous Havana cigars, to seek relief from the pressures of daily life.

That is why while most Americans and Europeans tend to be skeptical about everything that comes from communist countries during the cold war era, they still covet Havana cigars as part of their high standard of living.

Even today many westerners still seek Havana cigars wherever they go. No wonder, even in Jakarta, most international hotels stock Havana cigars for their guests.

In Jakarta's Intercontinental Midplaza, for instance, one is pampered with premium cigar brands at its lobby lounge, Bacchus and Scusa. The cigars offered at those places are exclusively Cuban or Havana cigars such as the best selling Montecristo Joyitas and Cohiba Siglo.

"Most cigar smokers here, or about 80 percent, in this hotel are Americans and Australians but we also get some local customers," said Yudith Nurwulan, Intercontinental Midplaza's public relations manager.

Though not designed exclusively for cigar aficionados, Bacchus provides a more secluded space. Located on the lower ground level of the InterContinental MidPlaza, Bacchus is actually a wine bar and restaurant that provides a perfect setting for social and business gatherings in a casual yet elegant atmosphere.

Designed by Yasuhiro Koichi from the Tokyo-based Spin Design, Bacchus evinces a homey European style with a touch of Indonesian ethnic elements. The dominant terracotta colors and the inclusion of Indonesian red and gold tenun (handwoven cloth) results in a harmonious blend of East and West.

Within such an environment, smoking cigars and enjoying wine in the heart of the Indonesian capital do not seem to be a major contradiction.

Its collection of 150 wine labels from all over the world stored in the temperature-controlled wine cellar perfectly complements its Havana cigar collection since wine is always believed to enhance the pleasure of cigar-smoking.

"Usually cigar smokers will come after office hours in groups for social gatherings or business meetings. Each customer usually smokes up to three cigars," says Yudith.

Mostly above 40 years, cigar smokers belong to the established social class. With prices ranging between Rp 70,000 (about US$9) to above Rp 200,000 per stick, cigar smoking clearly reflects the social status of its aficionados.

Another perfect place to enjoy cigars is at Grand Hyatt's burgundy bar (it is spelt with a small 'b'). Though burgundy itself is actually a bar, it has a special corner for cigar- lovers.

With metallic look, the burgundy bar' design is dominated by straight lines of metal and glass. Its entire atmosphere is contemporary and chic.

What is interesting here is that the people inside the bar become part of the design as their silhouettes are reflected in the glass wall.

The cigar corner at burgundy exudes a romantic ambience with its illuminated glass floor. The candles on the tables accentuate the exclusiveness of the three-by-four meter bar.

In its efforts to bring cigar smokers closer to the ancient tradition of cigar manufacturing in Cuba, last month burgundy invited one of Havana's cigar makers to "enlighten" local cigar smokers. At this yearly event they have the opportunity to enjoy the products direct from the Cuban maker.

Unlike Bacchus, burgundy does not offer only Cuban cigars, but also cigars from the Dominican Republic, such as Davidoff special "T" and special "R", Davidoff 2000, Davidoff grand cru No. 1, Davidoff grand cru No. 5, and Davidoff ambassadrice.

"At our place, the cigar smokers here are 50 percent local and 50 percent foreigners, most of whom are Dutch or German," said Gina Desmeralda, Grand Hyatt Jakarta's public relations manager.

Meanwhile, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel provides a special place for cigar smokers, La Casa del Habano. Here, the theme is mainly cigars, while wine and other drinks simply complement.

"At our cigar divan our customers select their favorite cigars," said Elvin Elviana, business development manager of Pacific Cigar, owner of La Casa del Habano.

One can enjoy some of the finest Cuban and Dominican's cigars at Borobudur Hotel's Churchill cigar lounge. Borobudur Hotel is located at Lapangan Banteng area in Central Jakarta.

Churchill refers to the former British prime minister, Winston Churchill, who was famous for smoking cigars almost incessantly. Borobudur's Churchill cigar lounge also has a cigar shop with an extensive variety of products.

Churchill's manager Gunarwan Tenardi said that cigar smoking has become the lifestyle of an established segment in Indonesia, mostly CEOs above 40. Some younger executives have also developed a taste for cigars.

According to his estimate, there are about 30 places in Jakarta, including hotels, clubs and karaoke rooms, that specifically cater to cigar smokers. Most star-rated hotels provide such facilities, including the J.W. Marriott and Le Meredien hotel.

As both manager of Churchill and a supplier of cigars for some hotels and clubs, Gunarwan estimates that Indonesians consume between 10,000 and 15,000 sticks every month. Currently he sells 2000 sticks per month.

Though Indonesia also produces good quality cigars, he said that the demand for local products has yet to grow. Most Indonesian cigars are bought as souvenirs or gifts intended by the purchaser to subtly inform the recipient that the country also produces fine cigars.

Elvin of Pacific Cigar, also a cigar importer, said that in her opinion not only Indonesian cigars but even other cigar producing countries find it difficult to compete with Cuban cigars. "Cuban tobacco has a distinctive characteristic. It's like a blessing for Cuba." she said.

Indonesian cigars such as Adipati and Ramayana are made of entirely local tobacco, while other brands -- Wismilak and Dos Hermanos use imported tobacco, especially for their cigar fillers and binders.

Currently, Wismilak and Dos Hermanos are sold at almost the same price as Cuban cigars in Jakarta but Adipati and Ramayana cigars carry far lower price tags.

Cigar smoking is gaining popularity among the upper class here and is increasingly becoming a hallmark of success. Probably, what Yudith of InterContinental MidPlaza often says rings true: "Cigar smoking is more a reflection of one's prestige than anything else."