Every year in December cigar enthusiasts from all over the United States land in Ybor City, Florida otherwise known as Cigar City USA – the historical cigar capital of the United States, to celebrate the cigar lifestyle and culture. I’ve been to the festival several times and this year the festival rights were acquired by Ms. Angela Yu, the owner of the Cathedral Cigar Lounge in Tampa FL so I was not sure what to expect with new owners.
My weekend started by visiting an old friend of mine who just retired, and we had a small retirement get together over in Indian Rocks beach right on the Gulf of Mexico. He has condo that overlooks the Gulf and offers some of the most amazing sunsets every night. We spent the evening on Friday enjoying some bar hopping and listening to some live bands and celebrating his retirement.
Time to Head Over to Ybor City
The following day on Saturday, I awoke early, bid my farewell, and headed over to Ybor City. Before getting there, I decided I would stop over and see Ricky Rodriguez. Many of you may know Ricky as the previous brand ambassador of CAO cigars. Ricky now has created his own company West Tampa Tobacco and we sat in his garage lounge for three hours chopping it up and talking everything cigars. It was probably one of my most relaxing three hours in a long time. No need to take a lot of pictures, no need to document the discussion. It was just two brothers of the leaf sitting and relaxing sharing knowledge about cigars and tobacco. Did you know that this a street named Tobacco Rd, just down the road from where Ricky lives?
After spending time with Ricky, I headed over to Ybor City and my first stop was La Faraona Cigars. This small boutique lounge and factory produces some terrific product and I got to once again reacquaint with owner and Master Roller – Odelmo Matos. The lounge was starting to fill up and spread into the back patio, where like all festivals you sit back and enjoy your cigars with fellow enthusiasts and meet and greet some new and old friends. As it got close to dinner I decided to head over to Carmines Italian Restaurant, which has been operating in Ybor City since 1948. Though it has one of the best Cuban Sandwiches in Tampa Bay, I opted for the Crab Enchilado Pasta on the recommendation of Ricky Rodriguez. He was spot on with the dish which I paired with a nice glass of red wine.
Once my meal was done, I went back to La Faraona for a little bit and then headed over to new Corona Cigar Lounge in Tampa FL where a good population of festival attendees we’re hanging out. In fact, the place was jammed both inside and outside. I would say it was a little difficult to get a drink as the bar area was 4 deep, so I bypassed the drink and bought myself a Viva la Vida Cigar. I would say in the future, maybe they should put some outside bar setups where people can get some beer, wine, soft drinks or simple mixed drink – that way they could sell more and alleviate the long wait for a drink. There were quite several brand owners floating through the crowd including the one and only Steve Saka who was holding court, as he always does, outside on the patio. The man just draws an audience and rightfully so.
So as the evening drew on and it was starting to get late, I went back to my hotel and awoke on Sunday morning and headed over to the main event at Heritage Park.
The Main Event
Getting to the Heritage Festival early is important, because parking can be a problem, though there is plenty of parking lots around the area and it only costs 10 bucks to park the car for the whole day.
It was easy to get in, you just walk down the street and immediately you are engulfed with cigar manufacturers, brand owners, food trucks and such. My first stop was meeting up with Leo from Platinum Nova cigars who was already having a jamming booth first thing in the morning. As I made my way around and worked my way down the main street along the park, I started meeting up with various other brand owners and even noticed on the large company row there was a brand called Dalzura Cigars that is based out of Costa Rica. It is my understanding it is a brand that Angela has just recently brought in to the Cathedral Cigar Lounge. They were kind of busy so I didn’t have much time to have a conversation with him.
I went to the festival this year with an open mind, especially with some of the news surrounding the festival with such things as general admission costs of $25 which eventually were reduced to being free. It’s important that this festival is free to the general public because it’s a celebration and it’s held in Centennial Park in Ybor City, an open air environment where people can walk around and experience the cigar culture, meet and greet various brand owners, vendors, and just have an all around beautiful day. I’m happy that the general admission turned out to be free but there was some other aspects of the festival which I think could be fixed in the future. The biggest complaint I heard was that the public bathrooms that are in the pavilion area were only available for VIP members. That made it difficult, especially for the female participants, to be able to use those bathrooms. The general admission folks ended up having to use portable bathrooms on the far end of the festival ground. I think in the future that should be changed.
As for the festival, it was a little different this year. There was certainly more big brands than have been in the past, which was usually anchored by JC Newman and A. Fuente – both of which hail from Ybor City. That didn’t detract from the festival, in fact I think that was an added benefit as they set up those booths along the street side in one row, so you could walk through and meet and greet some of the big brand owners or at least representatives. There seemed to be slightly less and a noticeable absence of smaller brand owners than in previous years. I did talk to a few of them earlier in the year that said they weren’t going for various reasons, but overall I heard from Angela that attendance was at a new record and based on my previous experiences I would say that she’s right. There certainly seemed to be more participants walking around the venue and enjoying themselves, as one would expect for a cigar festival.
Mobile Cigar Lounge
In the past there were more mobile cigar lounges, whereas this year I believe there was only one that I saw – Off Da Hook. I kind of like the mobile lounges, especially if you want to get out of the heat and off your feet while sitting in an air conditioned mobile lounge to smoke a cigar.
Old and New Friends
There were some new faces at the festival and plenty of old friends and acquaintances that I got to meet, which is what brings us to festivals in the first place. As in the past there was a calypso band playing on stage providing entertainment and plenty of roosters and chickens free roaming the park. It wouldn’t be Ybor City without roosters and chickens.
Dave the Cigar Life Guy
Besides cigar brand owners there were also various other cigar related vendors like Dave the Cigar Life guy. Gotta love Dave Arlinghaus, he can get you life insurance if all you do is smoke cigars and he can get that insurance at non-smoking rates for you, so go check him out if you are looking for life insurance. He always has these cool bags that usually have a mug or some other branded item which people just walk around with and just provides more advertising – it’s a genius idea.
As in previous festivals there was also numerous vendors selling a variety of accessories, beautifully crafted crafted fedoras, Michael Noelle Leatherworkx, Cigars for Warriors was there, and a number of others.
The Bakersfield Gentlemen were broadcasting live from the event, bringing on guests throughout the day to interview and bring the up to the minute action from around the festival. Great job guys!
Food and Drinks
If you bought a VIP ticket, you had access to the VIP section, which was larger this year than in the past and that VIP ticket provided special coupons for you to go to each select booth and get a cigar so there was a number of cigars included in the price. It also offered higher end drinks and food than the general admission free ticket. With the general admission ticket you had to buy your drinks and your food, but it wasn’t all that expensive and it’s what you would expect for festival prices and the food was quite decent.
Overall, I found the vibe to be as good as past festivals and other than the few glitches with the bathrooms and changing General Admission ticket prices, I would say it was, as always, a great cigar weekend getaway to beautiful Ybor City. I would hope next year there will be even more smaller brands invited to show off their product as that is what makes this celebration so good.