I had the pleasure of sailing around Cuba onboard the Celestyal Crystal. Unlike me, the Celestyal Crystal is no stranger to this island nation. This is her fifth year cruising in Cuba, bringing guests to this attractive island of warm hospitality, salsa music, and cigars. The company enjoyed a monopoly as being the only cruise line to sail from Cuba to Cuban ports until this year when American-based cruise lines began sailing to Cuba after travel rules were relaxed.
But even before that, Americans were already arriving in droves. The Cruise Director reports that on average, 50% of Celestyal's guests are Americans, with Canadians being 30%, and the remainder are international guests. All Americans are obligated to participate in People To People - a paid program that includes excursions with various educational experiences, and onboard lectures on Cuban history and culture led by Cuban professors and historians. This is the only way Americans are able to visit Cuba.
All of the American guests I spoke to onboard said that they wanted to see Cuba before it changes. According to one guest: "before there is a Starbucks at every corner and Hilton hotels everywhere." And some repeat visitors have already noticed changes even within one year - the use of cell phones is now widespread, and many buildings have now been repainted and remodeled. One Canadian is already lamenting: "Give it a couple more years and Havana will commercialize into San Juan." Another surprising comment I keep hearing was that many Americans wanted to see Cuba before more Americans arrive. And all of the Canadians I spoke to wanted to see Cuba before more Americans arrive.
No matter the reason, Cuba is a destination best visited by cruise ship, as it allows a port hopping experience that would be otherwise unfeasible by land. Canadians have always loved Cuba, but most go to all-inclusive resorts. Celestyal Crystal offers a great alternative to enjoy more than a beach holiday.
My itinerary started with two full days in
Havana, allowing evening excursions to the popular Tropicana floor show, and the music of the Buena Vista Social Club. The included walking excursion took us to the major city squares to admire the architecture. We meandered past Hemingway's hotel, the Ambos Mundos, and ended in Floridita, where Hemingway is immortalized in a bronze statue at the end of the bar, his favourite hangout. Everyone is treated to a frozen daiquiri and a live performance by a Cuban band.
A tour in a classic car is also a popular add-on, although I must admit, it is much better looking at someone in a classic car tour than actually being in one. Although it is a beautiful drive, when you are inside the car, you can't see the outside of the car! There is heavy traffic congestion in the city and I found myself a few times breathing in fumes while idling behind tour buses and trucks.
My visit to Cienfuegos was also delightful. Our morning walking tour took us to admire the Palacio de Valle, a mishmash of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Moorish architectural wonder built in 1917, now home to a museum and restaurant. Amongst the other beautiful buildings found in the city is the peach and white Teatro Tomas Terry built in 1889. The grand theatre's well-preserved interior features marble, hand carved hardwood seats, paintings and frescos. There is a small charge if you wish to take photos inside.
The highlight of the cruise for me, other than Havana, was Santiago de Cuba. A must-visit is the grand Santa Iphigenia cemetery, the final resting place of Cuba's national heroes, including Jose Marti and Fidel Castro. Occupying over 130,000 square metres, the cemetery is adorned with marble flooring, and many of its 8,000 tombs are topped with elaborate sculptures, crosses and monuments. Our tour also included a stop at Revolution Square, and the impressive Castillo del Morro fort that guards the entrance to the city.
Photos by Ming Tappin and Celestyal Cruises
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A day was spent in Montego Bay - the drop-off and pick-up point for American guests. Guests in transit can participate in a tour to one of the Great Houses. The well preserved, 18th century Rose Hall built high up on the hills have been lovingly restored to its former glory as a plantation home. Visitors can tour the mansion and take in the gorgeous views of the azure ocean below.
The Celestyal Crystal is a refurbished vessel which began her life as a Baltic ferry in 1980. Through various incarnations, she came to the Celestyal Cruises in 2007, then known as Louis Cruise Line. Her latest update in 2015 includes the addition of 43 balconies added to the junior suites. Public areas are pleasant and comfortable, but since the ship has only been partially refurbished, it results in areas that remain dated, with pastel hues, wood trim, and brass fittings. Staterooms are also of basic décor and in retro colours and styling. However, I did not find this to detract from my cruise experience. The focus of this cruise is the destination. The ship is a comfortable and pleasant method of conveyance, and it should be viewed as such.
What I was definitely not disappointed about was the food and service. The bland Cuban resort food that I always hear about is nowhere to be found onboard. I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of menu items offered at all meals, accompanied by attentive and efficient service. One morning, I noticed there weren't any bananas at the buffet station, so I asked a staff member who immediately fetched a new batch. Every morning after that, the same staff member would greet me to tell me that he has personally stocked the bananas for me. Nice touch!
Entertainment and activities onboard also receive top marks from me. The house band is composed of Cuban musicians, playing Cuban instruments. The entertainers sang in Spanish, and along with the dancers, treated us to a blend of Cuban folkloric and modern performances. A variety of interesting lectures included Cuban history, politics, cuisine, music, and of course, the cigar. End your perfect day at the open-air aft bar, where waiters can cut and light said cigar as you enjoy one with your favourite after dinner drink.
The Celestyal Crystal sails to Cuba on a seasonal basis. Roundtrip from Havana, the 2017/18 season is from October to February. In Canada, the Cuba program is sold as an all-inclusive package with open bar, excursions, and gratuities.
Air Canada Vacations and
Transat Holidays offers roundtrip charter flights into Cuba from major gateways. Contact your travel agent for more information.
Ming Tappin -
Ming took her first cruise in 1991 and was immediately hooked. She took a cruise every year after that, and she had so much fun researching and learning about cruising, she enrolled in travel school and became a travel agent in 1994, specializing in cruises. A marriage and a move to Vancouver two years later, Ming began working in the administration side of the cruise business, helping travel agencies promote cruises to their clients through marketing, promotions and training. Today, Ming continues to work closely with cruise lines and travel agents, and she cruises several times every year to broaden her experience. Ming has sailed on 45 cruises with 17 cruise lines, with many more on her list still to try.
In 2015, Ming created her own company
Your Cruise Coach, and began her career as a cruise journalist serving the travel industry. She has been published on three leading Canadian travel industry websites and currently has a cruise column in a travel industry magazine distributed to 8,000 travel agencies across Canada. Ming also writes for the consumer - her goal is to educate the traveling public on the value of a cruise vacation, and share stories of her cruise experiences to help travelers make informed decisions. Ming can be reached at