This trip is not a standard cruise experience. And Cuba is not a “standard” country. This Cuba Cruise trip is perfect for people who are adventurous and like seeing unique things and having experiences that cannot be replicated ... Read More
This trip is not a standard cruise experience. And Cuba is not a “standard” country. This Cuba Cruise trip is perfect for people who are adventurous and like seeing unique things and having experiences that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Independent-minded travelers will love the chance to wander through Cuba’s enchanting cities. The people who enjoyed things the most were those who were flexible and open to doing things differently as well as those who were interested in experiencing the culture, history, vintage cars, architecture and people of Cuba. Those who were traveling for reasons related more to convenience or pricing seemed more disappointed. You need to be prepared to encounter some differences and difficulties. This is not a luxurious or “relaxing” cruise. It is, however, interesting and exhilarating.
This is very much a ship that is booked for its itinerary, rather than for the onboard experience. In light of that, and especially taking the ship’s age into account (the vessel was first built in 1980, and completely rebuilt 10 years later after a fire), the ship generally exceeds expectations. Many passengers were very well-traveled and have been to destinations all over the world. Passengers on my sailing came from 32 different countries, and, accordingly, announcements were made in four languages: English, French, German and Spanish.
A lot of the people who were frequent cruisers with whom I spoke were partial to Celebrity in particular, followed by Royal Caribbean and Princess. There was one couple in their 30s (?) traveling with a son (approximately age 10) who were first time cruisers and loved everything about the experience. It’s important to note that children are welcome, but the “kids’ program” consists of kids being allowed to attend the usual activities that are available for anyone on board, including karaoke, Wii games, and Spanish lessons. There were even a few young couples traveling with infants.
The food onboard was mainly quite good (and occasionally excellent) at dinner in the dining room. A four-course menu was offered every night and there were generally two vegetarian main dishes to choose from in addition to the usual meat and seafood offerings. Dessert was ordered at the same time as the other courses. Lunch, offered as a buffet either in the main dining room or in the small buffet restaurant, was fine as well. Several Canadians told me throughout the trip that the food on this cruise is drastically better than what is served in the all-inclusive resorts in Varadero. On the beach day, a BBQ lunch is served with Caribbean items. Most days I was off the ship at lunch. Afternoon tea was disappointing, with substandard pastries. Breakfast was sorely lacking unless you like British items (black pudding, tomatoes, etc). I wound up having oatmeal and canned pears or pineapple every morning. Not good. The coffee the first night in the dining room was an atrocious instant/powdered type, but the rest of the time and in the buffet, Douwe Egberts drip coffee was available and quite good.
There are two seatings in the dining room on Deck 8 every night, at approximately 6:15 and 8:30. Seating is first-come, first-served, and one night (the Captain’s reception night on Tuesday) the restaurant filled to capacity before I made it in for the second seating. Three of us from my group wound up having dinner with a crew member in the buffet on Deck 9. Fortunately I wasn’t too concerned about my formal night “gala” dinner! The segment from March 23 to the 27th had 877 passengers on board -- full capacity, and the most Cuba Cruise has ever carried. So this will not likely be an issue for future passengers.
There is an entire restaurant, Olympus, located on Deck 5 that is not in use on these Cuba Cruise sailings.
There is one specialty restaurant available, the Alberta Prime Steakhouse, at $35 Canadian per person. This “restaurant” is the other half of the Deck 9 buffet rather than being an enclosed dining room.
Bar service was highly variable but tended toward the slow side. One drinks server in the dining room was very rude; fortunately, she was the only crew member all week who did not provide an acceptable (or better) level of service. Frozen drinks tended to be served already completely melted and alcoholic drinks were incredibly weak, at least those from the package we were given in our group (2 alcoholic or non-alcoholic cocktails, 2 coffee drinks, 2 sodas or juices and 2 small bottles of water per day). This package is not available for sale, but would be a great option that would serve a lot of people well. The per-drink menu prices would add up quickly, so choosing one of the all-inclusive packages might make the most financial sense for many cruisers.
Smoking is allowed on port side open decks and cigars are available for purchase at the aft bar on Deck 5. Smoking is also permitted in the casino/sports bar on Deck 8. Because the casino is fairly isolated, the smoke never seemed to present the usual issue with smells that occur when the casino is located in the middle of the ship (as on e.g. Carnival and Norwegian). The casino (strangely) operates in Euros rather than Canadian dollars like the rest of the ship. There is a nightly lotto for which the tickets cost 1 Euro, 1 Cuban convertible peso, or (a very poor deal) $2 Canadian.
Entertainment was excellent, with many Cirque du Soleil style elements and a lot of Latin-inspired music. After the show a disco was available in the lounge on Deck 10, but things were normally very quiet in there. It was the only bar open until 2am most nights.
The pool and hot tub were closed very early every day, at approximately 6 or 7. They claim it’s for safety so that no one is swimming alone late at night, but the pools closed well before sunset and frequently just as people were getting back on board from the day’s excursions. The roof over the pool deck is retractable and was closed most of the time in spite of the fabulous weather. The late night buffets were held on the pool deck and the roof was opened during those times to allow the cooking smoke to escape.
Spa treatments, a steam room and beauty salon are available. The exercise room is fairly small and doesn’t have an ocean view. Occasionally Deck 5 was open to allow walking all the way around the ship, but usually the bow section was off-limits to passengers. This meant the only reliable place to see out the front of the ship was from Deck 11, accessible only by stairs up from Deck 10. I watched the ship enter and leave many of the ports from a perch in one of the two small areas up there. The helicopter landing pad was occasionally used as a spot for loungers.
The rear portion of the ship was loud and had a lot of vibration from the engine. I normally prefer an aft location, but would recommend being midship or forward on this particular vessel. I was located near the front because I booked so late that nothing else was available, but I ended up happy with the location, and motion was never an issue. This is a smooth-riding ship. Deck 6 is a nice quiet deck in the forward portion of the ship and is well positioned between Deck 2, where you enter from the gangway, and Decks 8, 9 and 10 with the entertainment and dining. The multipurpose Deck 5 is just a quick flight of stairs away. It is no surprise, therefore, that the top two (Imperial) suites on the ship are forward on Deck 6.
Rooms need to be updated. Beds cannot be fully pushed together and one of the two beds in my room needed a new mattress. I was able to tour the various cabin categories available on board, with the exception of the suites (which I managed to get a look at on the morning the ship was in Havana). The lack of consistency in the room’s decor and features was very unusual. Some rooms have received certain upgraded features (flat-screen TVs or digital display phones).
The water temperature in the shower was too cold and the toilet (as mentioned in many other reviews) cannot tolerate paper being placed inside. Some showers had curtains rather than sliding doors. Face cloths are only available by request. The inside bathrooms need more storage beyond one narrow shelf below the mirror.
The in-room TV was ancient and tiny with a very fuzzy picture and limited channel choices. No refrigerators are available in inside rooms. The hair dryer was weak, as usual for a ship. Only two outlets are available in the room (one 110 and one 220). No paper or pens were provided for making notes.
There are a few odd “security” issues: The in-room safe costs $24 for the week, so I did not use it. The sea pass/room key had the stateroom number printed on it, which might be an issue if the card was lost. The room door does not have a deadbolt, chain or other extra locking measure. Pull up on the handle to latch the door securely.
Laundry service was relatively inexpensive.
You will become fully immersed in your surroundings in a way you likely have not experienced since the spread of mobile phones and internet access revolutionized the way we communicate and experience our daily lives. Very surprising to me, all of the Canadians and Jamaicans I spoke with could not get any kind of cell signal. I had an international SIM card and seemed to be the only one with any connectivity apart from the two people I heard of having Cuban SIM cards. Everyone all week kept asking me if my phone was working. Prepare to disconnect from the outside world!
No clocks are visible in common areas. Only 3 of 8 computer stations were operational. Internet was very slow on the computers that charged by the minute (30 cents per minute). Even though the Internet is nominally much cheaper on this cruise than a regular cruise, the complete inefficacy results in probably the same ultimate cost. The computers do not permit you to access any free sites or any files you may have on an external drive, so anyone used to being able to compose messages before logging in will be disappointed. Wifi was almost useless. The only thing I could get it to do was sync the email app on the phone which took a minimum of 5 minutes each time. Gmail and other basic sites will not load over wifi. If you wanted to use wifi at all, the minimum purchase amount was $12 for an hour. I was very glad I only bought an hour’s worth.
The photos were much more reasonably priced than the major line’s, at $14 for 3 photos. A nice touchscreen interface helped make locating photos easier than searching the gallery walls.
A duty-free store is available with the usual items.
The shore excursions staff were friendly. Tickets that were preordered confusingly did not get delivered to the room, but rather had to be picked up from the desk. No notice was given to that effect so some people arrived at the buses without tickets. For Montego Bay departures, only the first few days’ excursions tickets were available and you had to return to the desk to pick up the second batch on Tuesday after the new Havana sailing had departed.
Excursions were, in keeping with my usual experience with ship-sponsored tours, too large and overpriced. Some tours had 42 passengers per bus, which made getting around the sites more difficult. Spending 2 1/2 hours stopping for lunch is not my idea of a good use of limited sightseeing time. Four options are offered by the ship in each city. It is possible for independent-minded travelers to explore these ports separately.
ATMs and credit card machines are rare, so my usual methods of getting foreign currency did not come into play. Change cash at a bank on your first day in Cuba. U.S. currency is penalized 10% more than the 3% exchange fee levied on other currencies, so even though the Cuban Convertible Peso is technically the same value as the U.S. dollar, bring Canadian dollars or Euros if you have them. Currency exchange booths charge an additional 5% beyond what the bank takes, so skip the lines for those in each port. Only change enough for what you plan to buy, because the fees will be assessed again if you want to change money back at the end of the trip.
Port impressions and suggestions:
Cienfuegos: The third-largest city in Cuba, situated on an inner harbor along the southern shore. The nearby botanical gardens are worth a visit for their excellent collection of trees from Cuba and numerous imported species from the Southern Hemisphere. On my next visit, I’ll likely want to go to Trinidad, a 500-year-old colonial town that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Trinidad is a 90-minute drive each way from Cienfuegos.
Punta Frances, Isla de la Juventud: a beautiful beach with soft white sand and crystal clear warm water. Next year’s itinerary is bypassing this stop in favor of a beach in Maria la Gorda in Pinar del Rio province.
Havana: Fantastic architecture, wonderful cafes, a picturesque setting in a harbor along Cuba’s northern shore, and tons of history. Very walkable, or you might opt to tour in a vintage American car from the 1950s or earlier. A beautiful place to experience, day or night. Watch a sunset from the malecón.
Antilla: A small village in the northeast of Cuba in a heavily agricultural area (ox carts even ply the streets in town). Located a two-hour bus ride away from Birán, the birthplace of Fidel Castro. This port has been removed from next year’s itinerary in favor of an additional day in Havana.
Santiago de Cuba: Cuba’s second-largest city. Home to several important historical landmarks including the oldest house in Cuba (built in 1515), the Moncada Barracks, national hero Jose Martí’s tomb, San Juan Hill, and El Morro Fortress. The city itself is far less inviting than the other ports. Located near the Sierra Maestra Mountains, where Cuba’s revolution began in the 1950s.
I am so glad I got to experience this enchanting land that has been off-limits to U.S. travelers for the past fifty years. I hope that those who follow will have the same wonderful interactions that I was lucky enough to experience. I should also mention that this trip is an absolutely incomparable deal for U.S. travelers. The price I paid for this voyage [~$1,100 per person (double occupancy), including ALL expenses (except air): cruise fare, meals, entertainment, guided tours, tourist card/visa, people-to-people license, gratuities, souvenirs, ground transportation, internet] is anywhere from three to four (or more) times less costly than less-comprehensive land tours of the same duration offered by other operators.
This ship, for all its limitations, seems to be the best choice for people from any country who want to see and experience Cuba. On a ship, you can bypass all of the inconveniences of the road journey and get right to the heart of the cities of Cuba. Read Less