Cuba badly needs American tourists in order to finance rebuilding of it's infrastructure, but in the short term this means that the first waves will struggle to find housing and food that meets expectations. You can pay a lot for the few good hotels and search out the emerging private restaurants, but this requires effort. The easiest solution is to take this cruise around the island relying on it for the basics. Then in order to really experience the island you must be willing to add your own walking adventures to the bus tours offered by the cruise. And since the ship always docks in the oldest, most important parts of the cities, this is simple. Furthermore, Cubans are friendly, polite,and welcoming and we have never been in a country where we felt so safe. What we would most advise is to get out and absorb the distinctive cultural atmosphere and do what you can to learn about this society that does some things much better than we do.
And when we refer to the basics, we mean very basic comforts travelling Americans are used to such as restrooms that are free. And restrooms that are equipped with toilet seats and paper. You may not find these even in costly hotels and must rely on the generosity of restaurants and bars to provide very basic facilities most often for a price. Once you encounter this reality it will make you more appreciative of the small bathroom in your cabin and the even smaller ones on the tour buses. As most every report on Cuban tourism advises, bring your own toilet paper and be prepared to lower expectations. But sense we knew these things in advance, we had less problems than we had feared.
The People to People programs throughout the cruise provided excellent educational and cultural programs on the ship and on land. Two young and very interesting professors from the University of Havana provided a number of lectures on Cuban history and politics and musical groups from the island entertained each evening. Others provided Cuban cooking and dance lessons too.
The Celestyal Crystal is a good ship to do this trip on. It's small and friendly and well maintained and due to it's size can get into all of the city ports around the island. We had read reviews saying it was old and needed to be retired, but that is not what we experienced. It was clean and appeared newly painted with some apparently new flooring as well. Some public areas appeared dated with 1980's era furnishings and decor, but they were comfortable and in good order. Our cabin on deck 5 was adequate with a large window and close access down the hall to the deck which in the back offered a great bar and viewing area.
The staff was friendly and efficient and made an effort to please and be courteous. Some people stood out. Our head waiter, Mohammed, sincerely wanted to hear if we and others were being served well and the few times we had a complaint he patiently listened and asked questions. Most servers at the bars and in the two fine dining areas performed well, too ,and one stands out in our memory - Shane, He was always scanning to see who needed service or what needed to be done and when we complimented him toward the end of the trip he said sincerely that he loved doing his job. Impressive. And our two Cabin attendants kept ours clean throughout the day and were wonderfully warm and gracious.
The one negative for this cruise was the food. We had read lots of reviews warning about the mediocre dining on board and concluded at the end, that they had been too complimentary. Breakfast at the buffet was the best and we could put together a satisfying meal each morning with lots of choices. The weakest link was the bread and this was true during all of the meals. Selection and quality were poor. Lunch entrees were often an artfully prepared mush of leftovers and by the last few days we learned to have a cheeseburger, which was always available, and a self crafted salad. Dinners were provided in elegant settings with good service, but they never satisfied. We cannot recall a single item in the five course meals throughout the trip that was very good. In particular, soups were always thin and lacking in taste and entrees often involved inferior meats and vegetables. The last entree we selected was the very worst. It was an eggplant dish that was so barely cooked and with such little flavor that one bite was all we needed. We filled up on the desert. And the deserts were always wonderful.
But mediocre food is not the real story of this cruise. Bottom line - we came back sensing this was the trip of a lifetime. Who knows how Cuba will be transformed by changing relations with the U.S.. Now it offers quite a contrast and that contrast is enlightening, but as it gets transformed by us, it will be a more comfortable place to visit, but a less challenging and engaging one.
Adequate room, comfortable beds and great service from the cabin attendants. Always kept clean as were the halls and other areas of the ship.