My husband and I jumped at a last minute opportunity to join George Mason University’s week-long cultural cruise around Cuba in January. We joined approximately 500 other passengers who boarded the Celestyal Crystal in Montego Bay, Jamaica. This was our first cruise and we were happy with our outside cabin though not large, with only had two twin beds, also had a small writing desk, wardrobe, and bathroom. We found it worked for us and we were well-cared for by the staff. We enjoyed exploring the amenities found on each of the nine decks, named after Greek gods, and easily accessibly by elevators and stairs fore and aft. Other amenities included the Muses Lounge area where we enjoyed presentations by Professor Jorge Arocha about various aspects of Cuban culture, as well as the nightly entertainment. There was also a vary small pool, a bar, spa, gym, and two restaurants. We preferred eating at the Leda Buffet because it was quicker, but many people liked the chance to sit down and chat during at the more formal Almathia Restaurant. The food was pretty run-of-the-mill, but we had plenty to eat and had not signed on to the cruise for fine dining, we were there to see Cuba!
Everything did not go as planned. The Celestyal Crystal was not allowed to dock in Havana due to some combination of high winds and too few berths for ships. After a whirlwind tour of of the historic city center, Morro Castle, San Juan Hill, an African-Cuban cultural center, the Moncada Barracks Museum, and a Bacardi Rum Factory in Santiago de Cuba, we ended up docking in Cienfuegos. The tour company then rented buses to ferry us into Havana where we visited the Jose Marti Museum overlooking Revolution Square, an enjoyed a Cuban meal, and were given 15 minutes in a large covered market. None of this, however, was worth the three and half hour bus ride to and from Cienfuegos.
There were some silver linings to this unexpected itinerary change. We had more time on our own to visit the UN Heritage city of Cienfuegos and its environs. We were able to rent vintage old American cars for a trip to Cienfuegos’ Botanical Garden with friends from the cruise where we got a fantastic guide to tell us about the half a dozen different kinds of bamboo, palm and other indigenous plants. Our little group also walked around La Reina Cemetery, a national monument. We also hired a horse drawn taxi for a trip back to the town square to buy rum and cigars. This unexpected adventure was my all-time favorite day of the trip!
Another silver lining was a trip to Trinidad, another UNESCO Heritage site, courtesy of our tour company, as a small compensation for not being able to dock in Havana. Once again, we had a great tour guide who told us about the sugar plantations and lead us through the twisting, cobble-stoned streets past pastel colored mansions once owned by slave traders. It was a great place to for street and architectural photography which pleased my husband, and we wished we had more time this enchanting town that wasn’t even on the original itinerary.
We enjoyed our introduction to Cuba aboard the Celestyal Crystal in spite of not being able to dock in Havana. The George Mason Cultural Tour was a wonderful experience!
While I wanted to see everything we visited in Santiago de Cuba -- historic city center, Morro Castle, San Juan Hill, an African-Cuban cultural center, the Moncada Barracks Museum, and a Bacardi Rum Factory -- there wasn't enough time at any one place to appreciate it.
I am so glad we got to spend some time in Cienfuegos because it is not only a UNESCO World site in Cuba with unique French influences, it has a wonderful Botanical Garden, a fascinating graveyard (La Reina), and is only about an hour from Trinidad, another well-preserved colonial town that has delightful restaurants, lovely cotton tatted cloths, and opportunities for great street photography.