Note: This review will be written from the viewpoint of an American traveller. I note this due to the unique situation of Americans travelling in Cuba.
First a little background, my wife and I are very experienced cruisers. We have lost count of the number of cruises we have taken. We have been on many lines. While we like some ships and lines better than others, we have never been on a cruise we did not enjoy. We do not like to nitpick cruises, and we try to avoid passengers who do. We look for the positives, of which this ship and its educational program had more than can be mentioned in a short review.
If you are an avid Cruise Critic reader, you will note that this ship gets very spotty reviews, at best. CC says something like “57% loved it”, a very low score. Be advised that the reviews need a much closer reading, however, as the rating is a composite score for the Mediterranean and Cuban cruises. A close look shows that, while the reviews in the Mediterranean are not very good at all, the reviews while in Cuba are generally quite good. Perhaps it is due to the Canadian management while in Cuba, but not while in the Greek Isles?
The strong Cuba cruise reviews made us take a look at their pricing. Cuba Cruise prices are per cabin, not per person, so the prices are much lower than they appear at first glance. In addition, the prices are quoted in Canadian dollars, so take about a 40% discount if paying with American dollars due to the present rate of exchange. If you do the math, this is a very good deal for Americans in particular.
With an exceptional itinerary, good prices, and strong reviews we booked. The booking experience will give you the impression that this company is a small operation and is learning as it goes. I think that is an accurate appraisal, but the experience was easy and personal.
Do your homework before leaving! Cuba is a very different country to tour, so read up on those differences. As an example, you will need to bring cash to use in Cuba, as credit cards are useless. Here’s a tip: See if your bank can get you Canadian dollars without charging an exchange fee. In Minnesota, this was easy to do. American dollars have a surcharge in Cuba. Canadian dollars do not. Take Canadian dollars to use in Cuba, if possible.
Once booked with money in hand, it is strongly recommended that passengers come into Montego Bay a day early. Montego Bay is the only departure port that makes sense for Americans for a variety of reasons. We decided to come in a day ahead to avoid possible weather issues. We were fortunate we did as our plane was diverted to Atlanta due to mechanical trouble. We arrived in Montego Bay very late and would have missed the cruise had the event occurred on the day of sailing. Over twenty cabins sailed empty due to weather delays, etc. The cruise line bears no responsibility for such cases. Also, there is no easy way to go from Montego Bay to Santiago de Cuba to catch up to the ship, so you are just out of luck in such situations. Take out trip insurance, which is also required by the Cuban authorities.
Boarding in Montego Bay, rather than Havana where the Canadians and Europeans board, is actually a distinct advantage. By boarding in Montego Bay, you will have two full days in Havana, perhaps the most interesting city we have ever visited. Travellers boarding in Havana lose valuable time there due to flight connections, unless they come in early and have an extended stay. Most such travellers had only one full day there, which was unfortunate for them.
If you do come in early, Khastle Khodero in Montego Bay is strongly recommended for your stay.
Embarkation was easy. Actually all of the housekeeping issues were well handled. Even the Internet was above average in speed and cheaper than other lines. All shipboard matters are handled in US dollars, by the way, so you will need your credit card.
You will be going back in time while in Cuba, so the Celestyal Crystal matches that theme perfectly. It is an old NCL ship with a most interesting history. Google it and be amazed. The Crystal has no ice rink, climbing walls, ice bars, artwork, or even an atrium. You will find no mints on your pillows. What you will find is a meticulously maintained, attractive small ship. Cabins are comfortable. The staff is stellar. You will love your fellow passengers and, due to the ship’s size, you will often run into your new friends. By the way, our positive outlook on the ship and the experience seemed to be shared by virtually every passenger we encountered.
Food on board was good to excellent. The ship has gone to great lengths to bring the Cuba experience on board with an array of Cuban treats at all meals. Every passenger gets caught up in questions about comparing food on lines, so take the following with a grain of salt. We thought the food was somewhere between NCL and Celebrity without factoring in the Cuban influence, which made the dining very interesting.
Cuban dancers and singers provided the entertainment. They were very good. There is other musical entertainment on board that was also quite good. A special mention goes out to Danny, the cruise director. This fellow is pretty amazing.
Americans are required to attend the People to People program while on board. Tours are also through this program. The shipboard portion of it was unbelievably good. Although for Americans, anyone can attend these presentations and many non-American passengers helped enliven our discussions. I learned more in two days than in all our other cruised experiences put together. The shore excursions, while very good, were a little over scheduled, not allowing for enough time to tour on your own. They are tweaking their tours to solve this problem, but it is a governmental matter rather than a cruise line issue. While in Havana, optional tours are available through the ship, which are not part of the People to People program.
You can also just walk about in any port. Havana has a large covered marketplace where you can buy souvenirs. Cienfuegos has a large open-air market and art houses for souvenirs, as well, which my wife felt surpassed what we saw in Havana.
Ports and Tours
This is not my favorite port in the Caribbean. Time is best spent here at a beach, staying at a good B&B visiting with people, and eating at Scotchies, which is famous for its authentic Jamaican food. You can also get away from the city and climb Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios, which is a great experience. Walking in the tourist area will be disappointing.
This city is deep into the history of the Revolution. Think of it as a Cuban Alamo or Valley Forge with a different political leaning. The People to People tour in Santiago needs tweaking, as it was too time intensive.
Did the first day tour, which was a very nice walking tour. We skipped the second day tour in order to concentrate on spending time in Old Havana. We ate at the Paladar Los Mercaderes, which was exceptional. In the evening, we went to the Tropicana. We would love to come back to Havana for a visit, a wonderful place.
Maria La Gorda
This is a leisurely beach stop. You can swim or walk on a long beach, or just get a drink, sit back, and enjoy the view.
This city has a lovely town square and active business district. It was highly enjoyable. We were on our own, but passengers also mentioned a very good People to People tour here.
It should be noted that you will meet and openly share with many Cuban people both on the ship and ashore. The Cubans we encountered were warm and welcoming. Those ashore were surprised to encounter Americans and were openly delighted, despite living in economic conditions caused in no small part by our country’s embargo. They will speak freely and, quite frankly, seem to have great regard for Fidel Castro and their government. All call Castro by his first name, as a term of affection. This was clearly not put on for show. They hope for future economic improvement, which is badly needed, but not at the expense of losing their form of government, which has brought them food, shelter, 100% literacy, free world class health care, and free education through advanced degrees. You will find that Cuba is very safe with little crime. There is virtually no military presence. The few police officers we saw carried no weapons. Eye opening.
In summary, a good deal, a nice, but not fancy, ship, great staff, unique well-prepared meals, tremendous shipboard programming, fun entertainment, and a wonderful itinerary – Who could want for more? See Cuba before it changes forever and see it on the Crystal.
As cruise cabins go, it was roomy. It had a couch, chair, and dressing table in addition to the bed. My wife stated that the drawers were shorter than usual, but some were empty after unpacking, so storage was more than adequate. The cabin has a large viewing window. The shower was roomier than most and the bathroom was a good size. There was good water pressure and hot water. You will need to dispose of toilet paper in a canister, not a big deal. The beds are pushed together for couples, but made up separately. The TV was up to date, but programming on board is VERY limited. This cabin is ideally situated for access to dining, entertainment, and ship services. It was also vey quiet. The steward in this area, Kam, was excellent.