Going to Cuba has been a life-long dream of mine, which I realized this past February onboard Celestyal Crystal. I did lots of research on here which helped with my decision. I hope my long review helps some of you!
This was my 30th cruise, and I will admit that I am a big fan of smaller, more traditional ships. The Celestyal Crystal was perfectly-sized for the smaller ports of call in Cuba such as Santiago and Cienfuegos. I consider this less a mainstream cruise than a casual learning experience with like-minded passengers. Unlike the Carnival, NCL, and Royal Caribbean ships that are now starting to visit Havana, this wasn't about a fun-and sun vacation and quite frankly I was glad to be there just ahead of the cruise ship invasion. While this is sold as a "5-star ship" it is clearly not; it is a comfortable, unassuming vessel which I became quite fond of but will not appeal to everyone.
You can either board the ship in Havana, or in Montego Bay, Jamaica. I opted for Jamaica mostly because by doing so, there is more time for you to enjoy in Havana as a passenger, versus boarding the ship in Havana and losing a significant part of the overnight stay. I will also point out that on our sailing the guests embarking in Havana did not get to embark until probably 9pm...meaning the whole day that we had just enjoyed in Havana was a waste to them. Additionally, Montego Bay has an excellent airport with a great VIP lounge, Club MoBay, which I highly recommend.
As an American passenger, I was signed up for the People to People program sold as yourcubacruise.com. Due to US Treasury restrictions, US passengers can only visit Cuba for 12 specific reasons, the most lenient being the previously-mentioned P2P program. While there were Cuban entertainers, lecturers, etc. onboard, the primary "requirement" of the program was participating in the included shore excursions in Santiago, Havana, and Cienfuegos. At the end of the trip, you receive a certificate which you are advised to hold onto in case you are ever asked for it by the US governement. I doubt very seriously if this would ever happen; accordingly, there were passengers who participated fully, some did not. In the case of Havana, there is a tour both days. On the second day the excursion was over around noon, and then I spent quite a bit of time walking by myself all over Havana. I will say, there are quite a few tourists in Havana; some areas of old Havana near the dock and the central squares were downright crowded. When you got out of that locale, it was much more casual. Cuba's largest economic engine is now tourism.
The Celestyal Crystal Cuba cruise is interesting in several ways (to me at least)...first and foremost it wasn't a typical cruise environment although the ship had really good facilities for her size (25,000 tons). The passengers onboard were there primarily to see Cuba and the ship was secondary; a form of transporation. The ship does NOT have the mainstream cruise amenities like rock walls, water parks, etc. This is a traditional cruise ship which has been, among other things, NCL's Leeward, and a Silja Line Scandinavian cruise ferry. Much of the ship is dated in that 1990s fashion, with the reflective ceilings of that time and more pastel colors and brass. I loved many things about the Crystal, such as the real teak decks, the ability to walk completely to the bow (on most days, and especially spectacular when arriving or leaving port), and the great bar and terraced decks overlooking the stern. Recently, a number of balcony cabins were added to the ship.
In addition to American passengers, the Crystal attracts an interesting cross-section of Cuba-centric travelers: lots of Canadians, and in Havana a large number of Germans arrived. The split boarding also means a portion of the passengers will change out during the voyage.
In many ways, this was an EXCELLENT value trip: I went single occupancy, and was originally booked in an outside cabin at the usual 2x premium. Later, there was a single special offered with no single supplement...to take advantage i moved my departure date forward by several weeks and moved to an inside cabin vs. an outside one. Also, tips were included as was a beverage package. This all added up to a really great value.
Haven't had an inside cabin in forever but the savings made it a no-brainer; while it was rather small it had been recently had some renovation. One important consideration is that the cabins don't have many electrical outlets. Mine for example had one US fixture and one European one...accordingly I carried an adapter and could use both outlets which is important on such a photo-centric itinerary where you need everything to be charged and ready! The bathroom is rather small and dated but the shower was really nice with a curved glass door. Some reviewers have mentioned the moody plumbing onboard, but I had no issues with my cabin toilet...I suspect this problem exists in certain areas of the ship, for example lower decks.
As I mentioned, the Crystal is a small ship, 25,000 tons, about 500 feet...it is extremely easy to get around from day one...there are two elevator/stair towers which you can almost see from each other...there is a pool with glass cover, which stayed semi-open the entire trip...there is a tiny jacuzzi at the stern near the bar which perhaps could fit 4 people. There is a surprisingly large 2-story show lounge and a tiny casino which I never saw a soul in.
The dining situation onboard is as follows: compared to a mainstream megaship, there is less food availability, which wasn't an issue for me. There are two smaller dining rooms (one each on Decks 5 and 8) which operate with the same menu. Additionally, there is a small buffet restaurant on the port side near the pool (with another one on the starboard side for overflow seating). I doubt that each restaurant seated more than 100 people. I ate in the sit-down restaurant several times...you can arrive between 6 and 8:30 or 9; you are seated at random with other passengers. At the buffet, it was easier to have your own table. The dining room menu offered a Cuban specialty each night. I got quite frankly bored with the food at the buffet...basically it was either: chicken legs, pasta, and a fish fillet. Each night, the preparation of the three changed. There was also a carving station. Other than breakfast, lunch, and dinner, your other dining option onboard is free room service, which looked nice. I honestly didn't miss the usual mountain of food usually found on cruise ships.
I could bore you with all sorts of Cuba info but I figure you are primarily here for the ship info! I will say that Celestyal Crystal is the perfect-sized ship for Cuba. In fact, the size of most Cuban ports thankfully exclude the new mega ships...the largest ships going to Cuba seem to max out around 70,000 tons. I saw three other cruise ships in Havana, the European MSC Opera one day and MSC Armonia the next. Also, the tiny Hamburg was there. Being that there is only one currently-operating pier in Havana, we had to play musical ships on our cruise...on our first day in Havana, we had to arrive at the dock, disembark all the passengers, then the ship had to anchor in the harbor to make room for another ship...during which time the Cuban government wouldn't allow tender access. This made for a very long day in Havana: we weren't able to reboard the ship until around 9pm that night...in fact we were scheduled to reboard earlier but there were issues which delayed that. Also, the People to People shore excursions were quite good (there's nothing I hate more than a bus tour usually). The guides were generally open and frank about life in Cuba. To compensate for the additional time in Havana which we couldn't access the trip, a nice lunch was added to the trip.
I will be glad to answer any Cuba-related questions you have. The most important thing I will tell you is to absolutely positively have your passport on you at all times as well as your Cuban visa, which is included in the ticket price. You will also need CASH, as US credit cards (with one exception, those issued by Stonegate Bank in Florida) do not work. There are currency exchanges at all three ports, which will charge you about 10 percent. It is also very important to remember there are TWO currencies...a Cuban peso and a tourist peso. Be careful receiving your change as they have vastly different values.
In conclusion, the Celestyal Crystal is a great way to see Cuba as you circumnavigate the entire island. The size of the ship is, for me, perfect. You won't have to worry about the expensive (and mostly subpar) hotels available in Cuba...and in the instance of my sailing the prepaid gratuities and beverage package were nice bonuses. Your fellow passengers will be a more worldly lot, primarily interested in the uniqueness of discovering Cuba versus having a traditional tropical cruise experience. The food onboard was OK but there was one fantastic Cuban waiter who constantly smiled and seemed to sincerely enjoy his job. I'm trying to remember his name. Alberto maybe? I found the staff to be really great onboard, although some were initially more reserved. Both the cabin attendants were perfect and took great care of the room. During my voyage there were several issues at the reception desk...my problem got fixed immediately, however a friend onboard go the runaround for 6 days regarding his issue. I think this was a personality issue on both his behalf and whomever helped him. Other than that glitch, I really liked the staff; one day, it struck me that every single crewmember I encountered had greeted me with a smile and a "good morning" etc. I thought the senior management onboard however was distant and treated passengers as an imposition on their ship. Maybe this was my perception. Overall though, the general friendliness level was much greater than the impersonal megaship I cruised on several months earlier.
If you aren't expecting a spanking new, huge resort-style ship, and you want to make a historic trip to Cuba in an intimate setting with passengers interested in the same, Celestyal Crystal is a good value, especially for small-ship lovers not expecting the latest amenities. Next year, Celestyal is adding the Celestyal Majesty (at one time NCL's Norwegian Majesty) to the Cuba lineup.
I am seriously considering taking another trip onboard Celestyal Crystal to Cuba.
Compact inside cabin, around 110 SF, great location halfway between elevators. Very quiet! At the end of the corridor there is a great outdoor deck at the stern. Very cleanly maintained. Definitely take into consideration the dearth of electrical outlets (and the lack of storage space except in the closet, which was more than adequate for me).