Here is a "summary" of our Cuban trip "a la carte" 12 nights in total (2 land + 7 cruise + 3 land) ... Many details may interest CC members as this was our first time in Cuba ... And it’s the first time I’ll make such a long post… So 7 nights on the Louis Cristal (25,000 ton ship chartered by Cuba Cruise). We are French speaking Canadians but think our report can be useful to our neighbors from USA as much as those from Canada. I made all efforts to translate, so please be understanding…
Saturday 14: Hotel shuttle at 3:00 am for an early flight Montreal / Varadero, arriving around 10:00 ... but the start will be delayed ... There, the plane remains at a distance, and after waiting on the stairs, we are piled with our hand luggage in fairly shabby bus to the terminal ... The fun begins ... We had to wait 3 or 4 lines up before moving to customs, but not a couple at the same time, we have to pass one by one, with picture taking, thorough review of our passports and tourist visa. Forget the slightest smile (I naively imagined that in Cuba, Quebecers would be entitled to a little smile ... Well no, well, no! A custom officer is a custom officer!) In short, it was long, more like us wondered what was going on, the lines were not moving! After more than 1½ hour, we end up almost the last, and then the X-ray ... and then, curiously, the lady employee, poker faced, have no patience and exhort us, rudely and with great sweeping arm gestures to put our cabin baggage, and other belongings in the tray and push on the conveyor (Push! Push !!!) What a coarse welcome to Cuba!
Transfer Varadero to Havana at NH Capri (4 *) for 2 nights. The transfer of some 1h30 goes well, by 7 seat minivan, fraternize with a couple of Quebecers who also go to this hotel. At the hotel reception, lukewarm reception, the lady’s obviously afraid of showing us her beautiful teeth ... The room is much too hot, because there is a widget that needs us to insert our key card to get electric current in the place... So rush, please give us come air conditioning! Short tour of 1410 room: it is clearly not in a typical 4-star hotel ... but hey, you're in Cuba and 2 nights, it will not kill us. An important detail for us (we are told that in Cuba and many other places in the Caribbean it is the same): don’t look for facecloths, well this simply does not exist ... Changing money (CUC! follows the USD to nearly $ 0.80) did not have time at the airport, the hotel can: 1.37 CAD for 1 CUC ... nice profit margin ... A good point for the hotel though: the breakfast (included) was of surprising quality!
Meeting with a representative of the tour operator in Cuba, Eduardo, friendly and with a quite decent French speaking.It gives us a city map and shared some info, etc. He sold us an interesting guided city tour for the next day, and a dinner and show package for the evening, which included a cocktail Mojito, a good Cuban meal and a fairly exotic show, Cuban nights of the '50s with music, dance, around 15 musicians / singers on stage, dancers, etc. to the "Sociedad Cultural Rosalia de Castro" (29 CUCs pp). Beautiful evening, if not later around us people will begin to smoke cigars ... The taxi to and from the hotel will cost 20 CUCs and will be 30 minutes late (the driver insisted on taking us back to the exact time ...)
Finally, between all that, I summarize, with our friends we will felt quite safe in that part of Havana and walked around… but not after sunset ... For drinking water, we found a small kiosk store that sold spring water in 500ml bottles for 0.45 CUC: Affordable, though, at least more than the hotel ... But his landlady quickly shows impatient if we do not seize easily his “rough” Spanish ...
Monday 16: We salute our friends after lunch to prepare to leave the hotel, our transfer to the port should take us around noon (Cubanacan) ... finally, it will be somewhat later ... Direction Cruceros Terminal (Cruise Terminal) ; we pass to have our luggage labeled ... and boarding for the cruise on the Louis Cristal (CubaCruises) around 14h ... Welcoming and reception rather cold, somewhat contrasting with what we were used to at Celebrity’s ...; scheduled departure from Havana at 23:30 ... Finally this will occur at 00h30 ... and we'll be in bed at that time!
By the way, before entering the ship, we pass through customs, scan / X-ray ... and upon return to earth 30 minutes later to explore the area of the port, we must return to the customs, remonstrate credentials (even with the ship’s ID card in hands) ... Passport, the customs guy told me! - Really? A color photocopy is not OK? - No, the original! ... Well, we go back on the boat, but given the extreme importance of the visa, a little paper we’d better not lose, and since the customs guy only asked for passports, we decided to leave our visas in the cabin safe ... Error !!! Back downstairs, the same guy leafs our passport, frrttt ... - Where is your visa ???... – Hey sir, you did not tell a word about the visa! ... Now it’s too for us! Tired of their ceremonies, we went back on the boat and stay there! Adios, Havana!
We spend a little snack at Leda buffet bridge 9. Not bad for a little sustenance ... Do not ask too much, after all! Dining: now: at Almathia MDR, Deck 8, were assigned to a table of 8, with other French-speaking Quebecers, 2 pairs of nice friends,at which table will be added some other nice fellow passengers ... Good point for MDR reception staff who made the effort to group Francos together ... Oh, one other thing: to dine at the first service, we had to show up between 18:00 and 18:15 or it would go to the second service. We are not used this rigor, as we were used to in previous cruises, since with "Select Dining" we could get to MDR between about 18h and 21h, or something near, I remember. Our servers, Sanjeev and Ruwel, as friendly as effective, make our dinner lovely and memorable! Monica always brought us cocktails and wines with kindness and smile. Food in the dining room for dinner: very good and varied in general, except in our opinion for salads, including lettuce, which often lacked freshness (edges "rusty", etc ...) All in all, good points for this cruise!
Entertainment on board: good points again. Evening shows at the "Muses Lounge" are entertaining thanks to the excellent performance of singers, dancers and "gymnasts". The cruise director was very good and proactive. One thing negative is that if every evening the content is different, the formula is quite the same. Oh I forgot ... the layout of the room is poor, with too large tables and chairs all stuck ... more cabaret style than theater. Internet access near reception desk: simple and affordable.
. Tuesday 17: At Sea. At dawn, our toilet got “shortness of breath” and did not aspire at all. Well, we never experienced this problem elsewhere; however a technician quickly changed the faulty valve. After lunch, explore the new boat ... Short and simple. The ship is clean, but actually ordinary (the travel agent had warned me well, so I cannot blame her), and somewhat banal and childish decoration with these colorful flowers appliques glued everywhere ... We meet our nice maids (well, this is new to us, as during the 6 previous cruises we’ve had men). Like in Havana, no face cloths in the bathroom, but friends give us a hint: we just must ask to our maids. Successfully, we had some every day but I don’t know where they found them, as each facecloth was different in thickness and size… Oh!, I was about to forget: the XD outside cabin is quite small (around 165 sq.ft.); for the safe, well, it is not included in the cruise fare ... An option of $24 CAD for the week ... Which means the loan of a small magnetic "key", and not as usual our free and simple 4-digit PIN ... And do not lose this key, as you owe them $75! The bed: correct comfort, without more, and it is too low, as our luggage this time do not come under the bed.
Tomorrow, the first stop. Ah !, an health issue: Cuba does not lace with tourists, as before landing, medical staff (2-3 people) embarks to take our body temperature, thanks to God, they used a digital forehead thermometer ... We go there all in single file, and no one debarks until all passengers and staff have been checked (we’ve never seen that before) ... No matter about the time it will take!
Wednesday 18: Antilla (Holguin). Anchor is thrown near Antilla, a small village quickly passed by in small bus to travel to Holguin. But before, our guide stopped us going, face of a small bank and asked whether we would need to get some convertible pesos (CUC) ... I summarize a little, since this is part of a series of Cuban unpleasant anecdotes...
We will therefore be two down, it will not be long, I told myself ... Well no, the cashier, kind, however, has been for an eternity with the gentleman in front of me, and then, my turn ... But once back on the bus, the guide calls me to return at the bank, apparently there is a problem with one of the 8 bills I gave her (the brand new polymer 20$ polymer bills I got from the bank!). One of these has an unfortunate defect, as one of the corners is "cut off" approx. ¼ inch ... and the bank will not accept it! I did not have another one and the cashier could not change nor cancel the transaction! Thanks to another passenger who had four 5$ CAD to fix the deal!
The bus then starts again to Holguin for the excursion "Life Cuban way" ($ 100 / person, lunch included). Overall, we enjoyed the visit, the native dances and meals on a covered terrace with live music! On the downside, though, and it will happen many times in our visits to Cuba, in some places, such as in a cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, there is a “covercharge” of 5CUCs (over CAD $ 6.50) to allow us to take pictures! A first for us, which leaves a bitter taste ... We felt like squeezed lemons.
Thursday 19: Santiago de Cuba. Chosen tour "Panoramic Santiago", part of which is in a comfortable bus. A welcome visit with a qualified guide; the changing of the guard near the mausoleum of Jose Marti is a bit disappointing (at the change of the presidential guard in Athens, Greece, we were more enthralled).
Friday 20: Montego Bay, Jamaica. Selected tour: Greenwood Great House & Falmouth. Interesting guide during the trip he also teach us about the socio-economic situation in Jamaica. In Falmouth, the ride was cut short, with free time to visit by our own we ended up in a street just in front of a quarrel between two questionable looking guys ... and the parish church which was closed that day.
Saturday 21: Cienfurgos. Chosen tour "Tour of Cienfuegos." Again an interesting and varied tour with a friendly and knowledgeable guide, with a last stop at the Palacio de Valle, beautiful building, then close we are given a cocktail and a hellish spectacle on a huge covered patio, near water.
Sunday 22: Punta Frances (Isle of Youth). Tender. No tour (in fact, only one is proposed to go snorkel). Beautiful long beach is the only thing if you don’t go snorkeling.
Monday 23: Return to Havana; disembarkation.
Late by more than an hour, we take the transfer bus to the hotel Melia Peninsula (4½ *) in Varadero for a 3 night stay all inclusive, joining friends who arrived a week before. Hotel check in: really a mess, causing a time waste of 1h30! Beautiful location, paths lined with vegetation, palm trees, etc, a paradise. Bland room, decor zero, needs renovation, including exterior, balcony, etc. Very good service, especially the maid’s. Food: The buffet is large but the dishes are pretty much the same day after day; not suitable with a 4½-star.
24 and 25: The relaxing, beautiful huge swimming pool, a little animation, just enough ... Eating à la carte: the Japanese restaurant is good, we had a lovely evening with our host cook. For other restaurants, our friends had tried them and it was poor (Asian, Mexican and French, I think.)
Thursday 26: Up early to catch our hotel transfer bus to the Varadero airport scheduled for 7am ... but arrived at 8:15! Then, at the airport, do not forget to go pay our tax 25 CUC. Soon after, we pass the customs with yet taking pictures, everything goes well for our friends and my wife, but I, well no, the lady customs officer checks my passport and visa, little frowning, made a phone call, then me says - Please go back and wait there five minutes - There is a problem? - No, no, no problem ... Then another lady comes and goes with my passport and visa ... Then she comes back, and customs officer, hands them to me with a simple "It’s OK" ... Do not try to understand!
As for the cruise, my wife and I have discussed among ourselves and with other passengers: Overall it was good but if it is your first cruise you could be delighted, as we were in 1984 on a ship half the size! ... I do not say that with condescension, it's just that it can be difficult to imagine what it is to end up on a newest ship, more luxurious, much larger, with many public spaces where entertaining or relaxing and larger cabins ... (The ships photos are great but that's not all, we must have your feet in it!) This ... for a better quality / price ratio, all things considered ... For now, US cruise companies do not go to Cuba ... That could change in the medium term, but is what it will be for the better? Not sure ...
Finally, except for pleasant visits, knowledgeable and friendly guides who knew how to take us to beautiful sites, for good Mojitos, I am disappointed in Cuba. We had to have unrealistic expectations from many points of view, first about the Cuban people, whose kindness reputation, overrated, is far from omnipresent, and yet, it is not generally disinterested ... And over all, we never thought we were going to be subject to so frequent and harassing controls, with time loss as important. The numerous transfers (most with Cubanacan company, which nevertheless has beautiful vehicles) are usually very late and poorly organized; before boarding they do not want our e-tickets, and once in the bus then we lose 10 minutes to get the lists checked and take attendance on the bus, etc. A ridiculous and unsafe way of doing.Basically, we combined a cruise with 2 short land stays for an overview of Cuba, but we realize that this formula does not suit us, especially not in Cuba! Mea culpa!
Finally, I’ll say one more thing: think twice before booking a similar voyage to Cuba; over all, we spent nearly 8,000$CAD, for 12 nights! Way too expensive, for that price I would have been wiser to book Celebrity! Read Less