Arriving in Havana
Long queues at Havana Airport immigration - took 2 hours from disembarking plane to getting in a cab. They are individually testing each person for a temp being scared of Ebola. Even at each stop on the ship the Cuban ... Read More
Arriving in Havana
Long queues at Havana Airport immigration - took 2 hours from disembarking plane to getting in a cab. They are individually testing each person for a temp being scared of Ebola. Even at each stop on the ship the Cuban health authorities come aboard and temp test every person on their forehead before going ashore. Paid for Cuban visa at Cancun airport $US25 cash only before departure. Booked business class on Air Cubana (an extra $100 per person) but skipped a 2 hour check in queue as a result - well worth it for this alone. We were not asked for our proof of insurance anywhere (although we did have it), not even boarding ship. Cabs are a fixed price 25 CUC to anywhere in Havana (about a 30-40 minute ride). Pay the driver at the end. Cabs at the airport were plentiful. Some (few) are airconditioned, otherwise the windows are open all the way!
$US is ultimately king but only in clean unmarked notes. Exchange rate at airport and most other places was 87.5 CUC per $US100. My Australian credit cards would not work if linked to more than 1 account - the ATM does not have the option of choosing an account (Chq/SAV/CR) so could not specify. One debit card we had between us worked OK (ANZ) as it was only linked to the one account. Put aside CUC25 per person for departure tax on day one as you will not leave the country without it (and it must be CUC, not $US). Plan your currency requirements carefully - converting excess CUC back to $US at end of trip results in an effective exchange rate of about 0.50 cents after all the extra commissions etc and only to the nearest $10 and only back to $US (no other options). Better to spend any excess CUC at the airport on duty free - plenty of good liquor, food, cigar, clothing and touristy type souvenir shops and bars in departures area at Havana International. Credit cards almost non existent in Cuba - do not plan on paying by credit card for anything (except on cruise ship in $CAD). There were currency exchanges set up at each port we visited, so you could convert more currency as and when you needed it. There were also ATMs at each city if you have a working ATM card (but take $US as a back up in case even if you don't need to use it).
Beware - in Havana and many other Cuban ports AS WELL AS ON THE SHIP, you are not supposed to flush toilet paper but rather deposit it in a bin next to toilet. Bin is emptied often by cabin steward so not a real problem on the ship or in the Casa we stayed in, and after a few days you can get used to it. At cafes etc you often pay an attendant (eg cuc 1) to obtain a few sheets of paper in advance of entering the cubicle, toilets often had no seats. In Old Havana the sewage often seeps up through the ground so it has a distinct aroma!! We managed to bring our own toilet rolls in a backpack for emergencies. Not for the squeemish.
1950's cars means 1950's emission controls (ie none). The air quality in the busier parts of the various towns was stifling. Cars are spewing out almost pure petrol fumes and the engines are not "tuned" by any means. Traffic jams were common and there is no escaping the fumes. Be prepared for sore lungs, stinging eyes etc Massive pot holes in the road (even on the main route from the airport) help to add to the "experience".
A breeze - we arrived at Sierra Terminal at midday, no queues, you go upstairs, obtain your cruise card, complete a few bits of paperwork and boarding ship within about 5 minutes.
Was in 2 minds about buying the drinks package before embarkation with so many in port days so went on board to inspect drinks menu. Upon seeing bottled water at $5 per bottle, instantly bought the drinks package for $40 per day. Gives you unlimited water and alcoholic drinks but even using 4 bottles of water per day for room and shore excursions etc pays for half the drinks package already - the rest is a bonus. Hemingway Bar (Thalassa) at the stern of the ship was our absolute favorite
Quality and variety was great. It may not be Cunard standard, but really for the adventure that this cruise is it was fine (and the ingredients are fresh and identifiable unlike many places ashore in Cuba). Our cruise was probably only half full, so one restaurant plus the specialty Alberta Steakhouse and some snack venues were open. Breakfast and lunch were buffet but of decent quality. Dinner was a la carte and plenty of variety each night. The steak was some of the best I have had on a cruise, and plenty of fresh seafood etc. Jeans and a T-shirt Ok for dinner, rest of the time T-shirt and shorts and flip flops (Aussie thongs) were fine at any time in any location on board
We had a deluxe XF outside cabin on deck 7. Spacious (relatively) and nice bathroom with spacious shower and shower screen. Shower gel dispenser in shower. TV with limited Direct TV channels but mostly english speaking news, current affairs, sport and some soapie and movie channels. Nice furnishings, clean and well serviced.
The crew were comprised of quite a few Cuban nationals (very nice, very friendly), and the usual mix of Phillipinos, eastern Europeans, Indians, Mauritians etc (also nice and friendly). All very pleasant and well trained in customer service. I would rate them even higher than the usual friendly crew on Princess cruises. Being a smaller ship they very quickly learn your name and drink preferences, and are only too willing to please. This was one of the highlights of the cruise to me.
All announcements on board are made in English, then French, German and Spanish. One main officer did all of the announcements himself without a script. Very impressive to observe. English is the main language on board for menus, signs etc. In Cuba, Spanish is obviously the official language, but you can get by with some basic spanish phrases ("dos cervesas, por favor"), and most tourist orientated people have a command of some broken english. I had the Google Translate app downloaded on my phone including offline dictionaries which allowed for converting signs, menus etc, and typing messages in english to see the spanish translation. It also has camera real time text conversion - point at some spanish text or signs and the english equivalent pops up on the screen almost instantly.
On our cruise there were 7 Australians in total, and the passengers were about 1/4 Canadians, 1/4 English, 1/4 rest of Western Europeans and the balance from all over the world. Average age range was 40 to 60 years with some younger and some older. Mostly younger than a typical Princess passenger profile
WiFi is virtually non-existent in Cuba. The ship's satellite WiFi was quite good (relative) and reasonably priced at approx $30 for an hour access (can't remember exact price) which was enough just to download emails once per day, go offline, respond then connect again to upload messages for the week. Not recommended for browsing.
We only managed to see 2 stage shows (Cabaret and Cirque) but they were both first rate (much better than Princess standard). Performers included national Cubans and the quality and variety was terrific. I would gladly pay to see both these shows at a theatre. The feedback on the other shows was that they were all great (but the lure of soaking up the atmosphere on the aft deck at the Hemingway bar after a satisfying dinner was too great for us most nights!!). The disco and Karaoke was held each night in the top level bar - this was fun to go to on a few nights when the next day was due to be a late port arrival. Also the usual daily trivia, arts and crafts, port lectures etc were on offer and were of sufficient quality for the purpose.
This would have to be the best maintained "old" ship I have been on. Everything works, the crew are constantly doing maintenance 24/7, and it smells and looks nice and spotless. The public areas and restaurants are pleasant. The aircon works (usually slightly on the warm side including in the cabin but sufficient to be comfortable) Again, it is not Cunard, and you should not expect it to be, but for the purpose of the Cuba Cruise it is very appropriate. Tendering at a couple of stops was no hassle at all. The ride is smooth and mostly vibration free. The seas were mostly calm so did not experience any rocking and rolling. The pool was good to cool off in, and the spas were warm and working well and welcome after a long day exploring the towns.
Very close to Old Havana (terminal is across the road) and plenty to see and do just walking around the various squares and cobbled streets. No real need to do any organised shore excursion. There is a HOHO bus stops at the terminal for a very reasonable fare if you like, but easy enough just to walk everywhere that was of any interest.
A very small port (tender), and the whole town can be seen in 10 minutes. Recommend a shore excursion at this stop. We had "swimming with the dolphins" booked but not enough takers so it was cancelled 24 hours beforehand (understandable). We were offered another tour and in hindsight should have taken one. Plenty of local performers willing to entertain with music and song, or horse and carriage rides around town, small market at jetty.
Santiago de Cuba
Most fascinating entry to a port I have ever seen. Be sure to be on deck when you arrive at the port, it is mind blowing, especially as there were coral reefs barely metres from each side of the ship as we entered the very narrow channel. It was a nice hilly and vibrant town with plenty of shopping, markets, food and drink venues, etc. Ship docks over the road from the start of town, an easy walk. This was the most economically "wealthy" town that we visited (but also had the worst traffic and pollution)
What an experience was Montego Bay! $US10 in a shared cab for a hair raising 15 minute ride just to see a somewhat dirty town full of drugged up hippies, and shops selling Bob Marley souvenirs by the thousands - not to my liking at all. Would recommend an excursion out of town at this port. I suspect the only reason it is on the itinerary is to allow US passengers to embark without conspicuously "going to Cuba".
Very interesting stop with another somewhat interesting narrow port entrance. This town is very French influenced and the architecture is different from the other stops. Rather nice to walk around town which is very close to the port and along the esplanade out to the Yacht Club which was a nice place to end the walk for a drink before we got a long peddle cab ride back to the ship for 5 cuc (but we also tipped the young rider an extra 5 cuc which he thought was better than Xmas).
This is the view from the Hemmingway Bar on board looking back across the ship spa to Cienfuegos town
Nice beach stop for half a day. Great swimming in crystal clear warm water inside a reef, so calm water. Ship's crew organise some activities for those that wish to participate or else plenty of lounge chairs just to relax on. Ironically one of the only cloudy days on the whole trip but this helped to prevent it getting too hot or sunburning. Tendering process worked fine.
Havana - Disembarkation day
Why can't every cruise be this organised? Understandably we were asked to vacate our cabins at 8am so they can set up for the incoming passengers, but we were welcome to stay on board as late as 4pm and use the facilities, have lunch, get the last use out of our drinks package, etc. Large suitcases had to be left out the day before so the Cuban authorities can Xray them, but they were then kept in storage for as long as you wish. If you had a late flight you can leave your luggage all day, come and go from the ship, and even use a complimentary cabin for getting changed, or for $CAD50 you could "hire" your own late check out cabin for the day. This is the most relaxed disembarkation I have ever experienced. Combined with a cab ride to the airport in a 1950 Plymouth (or similar) it was certainly memorable and a great way to end this part of our holiday.
In summary - a great trip and adventure, well worth the cost. Do not go expecting 5 star luxury (it is normally a Greek ferry after all), but do expect great friendly service, comfortable surrounds, and lots of variety in scenery, as well as some extreme cultural experiences along the way. By normal Cuban standards the ship is relatively a super luxury way to see the country compared to the alternative ground transport and accommodation.
If you have any queries, feel free to ask away.... Read Less