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Background: My family loves to cruise and have been on many cruises on many cruise lines. We find it is a great way for multigenerational trips with far-flung family as it allows everyone to go at their own pace and gives some breathing room. We can spend all the time we want together and find places to do our own thing as well. Food/drink/entertainment are provided….and it’s all prepaid, so that’s a plus too. This particular trip to Cuba sort of evolved over the winter months as a fun idea. I have been to Havana previously on a research trip where I spent 10 days traveling/studying issues related to education, literacy, children and poverty. That trip, with 7 other colleagues, was completely overseen by a government guide who was with us all day, almost every day (save a some time in the evening for meals). It was a fascinating glimpse into the culture and a chance to really get some sense of the issues that Cuban nationals contend with and their sense of pride/identity surrounding the Revolution. Having had this fantastic experience, I was excited when it looked like there were opportunities to take my family back to see Cuba. Traditionally, my family (me, husband and two daughters 12 and 15 years old) typically arranges what we like to call an annual “epic adventure” that includes my parents (who are both 77 years old and finding mobility in unfamiliar places to be more of a challenge. They both use walkers which can make ventures on their own where they may not be able to anticipate the terrain to be somewhat difficult). However, they are adventurous and enjoy traveling as much as possible. As my oldest becomes more involved in high school sports and summer activities, it looked like a longer trip abroad wasn’t going to be in the cards this year. Thus, we were very excited when NCL started advertising Cuba—four nights, but to someplace really different seemed just the thing! As plans evolved, my brother and his teenage sons got pulled into the mix and eventually my aunt (who brought along a friend) joined in the fun as well. This meant we ultimately had 11 people in our party spanning three generations coming in from multiple home states/cities. Pre-Cruise: Whenever possible, we try to fly down at least a day in advance of a cruise departure date just in case there are any issues. In this instance, we found a better rate the Saturday before our Monday embarkation day and figured we’d get some pool time in at a favorite resort in Miami for a few days. Turns out we are glad we planned to go early. Our original Saturday morning, 7:30am direct flight into FLL on Jet Blue out of Pittsburgh was cancelled. Luckily we had planned to stay overnight at an airport hotel and received the text around 11:00 the night before notifying us. My husband called immediately and discovered they had scheduled us for a flight in the late afternoon on Sunday. After talking it out with the airline, they were able to put us on a Saturday, 6am flight to Boston and then on to FLL in late morning (getting us in and at our hotel at about 4pm Saturday). This meant we had to take the 4am airport shuttle (and got up at 3:30 am). If we had waited til cruise day to fly, we would have missed the ship. However, we made it just fine, called an Uber, were settled at the Miami Marriott Doral Villas in time for an evening of playing some of the games set up by the pool deck, chilling in our villa and ordering pizza. Not a very exciting first night of vacation, but we were tired. Note- I had a few groceries delivered to the resort which worked out (relatively) great meaning we had some snacks, drinks and fruit. The next day was dedicated mostly to the pool and resort activities (mini-golf, shuffle board, etc) and a quick Uber out for dinner. We touched based with my parents, brother and nephews who were flying in late that evening and staying at a different hotel near the airport. All had arrived safely and we made plans to meet at the port the next morning at 10am. My aunt would be driving in and knew we would look for her as well. Embarkation Day: On Embarkation day, we believe that the cruise starts the minute you board—so we always try to get the earliest boarding time possible. In this case, we had a 10am port arrival time and our Uber dropped us off as the last cruise was still picking up. This made check-in a breeze and we were up in the waiting area by 10:30 with boarding number 4. We received a text that my parents shuttle was delayed…but no problem, we had plenty of time. Eventually they arrived and we made our way down to where the crowds were beginning to gather. When my parents entered with their walkers, the staff shuffled us all to a different waiting area that was nearby and took my boarding number. I was a bit concerned about having given that prime number up, but he assured me we would need it. Eventually my aunt and her friend arrived and joined our group. They announced about an hour delay in embarkation due to a Coast Guard visit, but everyone just waited. There was juice/coffee cakes set up for those who wanted it. When embarkation finally began, they called elite guests (Haven, etc) first and then boarded those guest with disabilities and their travel groups. This meant we ended up being in the second group to board…and turns out it was very helpful as it took some extra time to push the walkers up the ramps and it was nice to have easy access to elevators before it got busy. Once we boarded, we went right up to the buffet for lunch. The teens ate quickly and went off to explore the ship (and figure out where to start ordering up those frozen, fruity drinks) while we lingered a bit. Eventually, we left to make room for others and found our way down to our staterooms which had just opened. Once we checked out the state room, we wandered about a bit finding ourselves in the Atrium for a drink and eventually headed to the muster drill before returning to the stateroom to unpack and go to dinner and eventually on to the opening night show. Overall Impression of the Sky: This was definitely an older ship and I can see why NCL has decided to use it for shorter, booze cruises. It was very clean, but definitely dated and there was some wear & tear that is just part of aging. For example, there was rust along the door in our bathroom—no big deal, but something you wouldn't see on a newer ship. Mostly, it just wasn’t as efficient as newer ships. Common areas were smaller (very small atrium) and it wasn’t easy to navigate from forward to aft on each level. Elevators moved somewhat slowly. I sort of imagined this is what the Love Boat must have been like- LOL. Also the staterooms were very small. We were in inside rooms, but even compared to other NCL ships, these were small and not very efficient. There weren’t many shelves to place things, very narrow drawers and a lot of wasted space in the bathrooms. There were only two plugs in the whole room (this after we unplugged the TV) making it hard to charge iPads/phones, etc. Also, this stateroom was booked for four people, yet there was only the double bed, one bunk and a half-couch that pulled out into a 3/4 length bed. This meant that one teen had to sleep with her feet hanging off the edge. A big deal? No…but considering we paid for 4 people (not 3 3/4) it was a bit odd. In many places we found the service to be subpar all the way around. Not horrible, but not great. We never saw our stateroom attendant (and not in that magical, he just knew what you needed and it happened magically kind of way). He never introduced himself, so we could not ask for an extension cord (for a CPAP machine) or ice. Also, my husband left an empty plate on his nightstand and it stayed there for all four nights..it was there when we left. The room was cleaned each day though…so not horrible, but it was clear we weren’t to ask for anything additional (even though there was an ice bucket in the room). Service: At dinner, the food was fine, but the service was mediocre at best. Every meal took 2.5/3 hours…each course had an extremely long wait between, orders were often incorrect, drinks were not refilled….by the time dessert rolled around, my dad’s Fitbit had alerted him to stand twice and the kids had abandoned us to go to to a game show. We picked the earliest dining times we could get (usually 6pm) and we missed the game show every night and usually just ended up heading to the theater directly from dinner. In the common areas, the staff seemed to be a bit oblivious to the guests. On the first day, we were all sitting in a lounge in the Atrium and a crew came up and started pushing all the tables aside asking everyone to please leave immediately as they needed the space. We assumed they must be doing something related to the muster drill, so we moved….but it turned out they were setting up a photo site for dinner later than evening. There was absolutely no reason that guests should be moved abruptly 3 hours before a space was needed (because we all stood there watching them set it up in about 20 minutes) and rudely at that. In many places, the staff would jump in elevators before guests, push large carts of art around blocking hallways, etc. None of it was horrible, but on other ships, it felt like guest needs were considered a bit more. Entertainment: I have to say, I’m one who is usually up for anything, but the entertainment on the SKY felt like it was probably the B-list production crew. I’ve seen better dancing and singing at my daughter’s high school. Not that it wasn’t pleasant to watch, but compared to the Escape, it was very old fashioned and simple (costumes, dance moves, music choices, etc). The theater was very nice with comfortable couches and tables for drinks, but there is no way it could hold the 2000 people aboard in their one show a night—so obviously they didn’t expect huge turn outs (and they didn’t get them). Drinks: The best part of this ship was the easy access to fun drinks. At home, I don’t drink much at all…but it was fun to have a pre-dinner drink or a fun mojito during a show. The kids loved the frozen drinks that they could grab just about anywhere. We stuck primarily to basic cruise drink options, but they were plentiful and the bar service was always working hard. It was only difficult to get drinks during prime times at the pool bar. Tuesday-Cuba Day 1 We got up early to watch as our ship came into port. To really see it, it’s best to be out there by about 7am or so. The skyline was a bit hazy from the distance, but came into focus and we came closer into port. We were able to get great views of the cityscape, which was helpful later on in determining where we were in relation to the port. The ship was scheduled to dock at 8am. After watching it come in, we had time to grab some breakfast at the buffet as our scheduled excursion meeting time wasn’t until 9:20 am in the theater. We decided to do a general overview tour first off so that we could get a sense of the history and key landmarks—also I knew it would be air conditioned and that would be a big plus for us! At 9:15 or so, we made our way to the theater and it was FILLED with people…..seats were filled, people standing in the aisles…. Apparently there was a delay in clearing customs resulting in all of the previous excursions being delayed in departing…so the tour groups were backing up. We had our ship cards, passports and visas that we had arranged through NCL (and given to us when we checked-in originally in Miami) and our Canadian money ready to exchange. Side note- There was a table in the theater where they were selling water bottles/packages. We decided it was probably smart to buy some water to take with us as I knew it would be hot and really didn’t know how easily we could buy bottled water in port. Turned out it was about 15 bucks for 6 big bottles….Not really a bad deal at all. My husband took two bottles back the stateroom and we each took one and gave two to my parents—now we were prepared to stay hydrated! Groups started to be dismissed a few at a time…so we waited. They were announcing that all of the tours would be backed up in returning, so if there was anyone with afternoon tours too—they should plan to meet those tours in the bus parking lot rather than coming back to the theater. They also noted that there would be no time for anyone to exchange money before the morning tours, so we should just do it later when we returned from the tour. I have to say this annoyed me some as I didn’t like the fact that there was a chance that I would be left with no access to money that I could spend should there have been an emergency (or something fun to buy). They said that they heard that “some places were taking US Dollars” so we would be fine. We had Canadian dollars—-and it did turn out fine, but still annoying. Turned out our excursion, a bus tour called “Ultimate Highlights of Havana” had at least five buses worth of people….we received stickers and made our way off the ship (presenting our ship card on Deck 5 to get off the ship). After leaving the ship, we came around the corner to a series of Cuban Custom booths. They were far friendlier than my experience at the airport a few years ago…no full-doors, so you could see people going through the booths—much more friendly. Custom agents directed each person individually into the both where a custom agent sat behind a counter. Note- this meant our teens each had to go through customs on their own (including my 12 year old). We could see her the whole time and there was no issue, but it did make me a little nervous so my husband went through first, then the kids, then me. That way at least one of us was on each side if there were issues. They took our passport and visa, stamped the passport and kept the visa (both sides). We were able to come and go for the two days we were in port based on the stamp in the visa. They also took our picture as we entered the first time—but just had us remove our glasses and compared the passport picture each additional time we passed through either way. Once we were through Customs, we still had to go through metal detectors and have our bags x-rayed…all in all, it was easier than TSA and not really a big deal. Once we finished all of this, we bypassed the money exchange (which was right there inside the port terminal easily accessible) and descended the stairs (elevators were also available) to either the port exit or the bus parking lot (which is where we went following the excursion crowd). We boarded the buses by number and off we went. Note- my mobility-limited parents were with us for this and their walkers were just placed in luggage storage under the bus. The only issue was stepping up on the high bus stair step for my 77 year old mother (hip-replacements)…but my brother helped her up and all was well. In retrospect, I might have taken a small folding stool as we ran into this issue a few times along the way—but it worked out ok. The excursion itself was on a modern coach bus and covered all the highlights…..a brief history of Cuba and Havana….overview of various landmarks as we drove past time (US Embassy, Malecon Sea Wall, Revolutionary Square (we were allowed to get out to take pictures here), Capitol, various University of Havana buildings, La Floridita, Hotel Nacionale, Christopher Columbus Cemetery (where we could get out and walk around a bit), a quick stop at a Rum and Cigar shop, and then on to the La Cabana Fort which had a great view (another place we could get out and take pictures). The Cigar and Rum shop did take US Dollars with the 10% penalty deducted and they took our Canadian dollars….so we were able to buy some rum. I didn’t get the impression that this was a widely practiced thing—but that the tour company had a standing agreement with this one store who was willing to take the US Dollars. We never saw any place else where this was possible. The whole thing was narrated by an English speaking guide. It ultimately dropped us back at the Port by about 1:30. It was an interesting tour and the guide was clearly a government guide (as they all are on organized tours) so we received a specific narrative about Cuban history (and some commentary about the U.S as well). We knew this going in, so it was interesting to understand what we were listening to and think about varying points of view on some very major political issues. Once back at the port, a few members of our family group went back upstairs to exchange our money and then we ventured across the street to the entrance of Old Havana with the intent of going in a few blocks to find a palador for lunch. There were several men standing around trying to encourage us to follow them to various restaurants that were “good deals”…. In the end, we picked one right on the square because it was easily accessible for my parents and their walkers. Old Havana was covered with a lot of cobble stones and I could see my mother looking a bit concerned. The restaurant we picked was just fine..it was open air (outside) seating and reasonable prices. The food turned out to be pretty tasty and it was a pleasant meal. Most of us had Cuban Sandwiches (which were actually better than some I’ve had elsewhere on the island)…I doubt the food would have been much better at most places we’d wander into further into Old Havana. Our meals for a family of four came to about 40 CUC (40 dollars plus tip). Sandwiches were 6.50, sodas 2.00 each, gazpacho was 3.50…..we didn’t order alcohol since we had all we wanted on the ship…but that would have raised the price. After lunch, my parents headed back to the ship and the rest of us chose to head down to the San Jose Arts/Craft market….some folks chose to walk through Old Havana to get there while others chose to grab classic cars (which we were originally told was a minimum of 10 CUC, but we found some further down the road for 6 CUC). It really wasn’t very far, but it was HOT! The market itself was ridiculously hot with very little air circulation….it made it hard to want to shop to much. However, I was in search of a new piece of art for our home and this was a great place to find authentic art sold by the artists for great prices. There are literally row and row of of booths, most selling trinkets like bracelets or wood sculpture, t-shirts, etc. We found some items in these booths, but at the back and end of the market at artists selling original paintings in all different genres, shapes, sizes, colors. We found one we really liked which is about 3ft by 2 ft—an abstract of Cuban homes in muted grays. We bought it for 60 CUC (originally asked 75 CUC. The artist rolled up the canvas and taped it up, and that’s how we will bring it home. Pretty simple..but very cool! By the time we found the painting and a few other items, the sweat was just dripping off of us. There was a both selling sodas, so we grabbed a few cans and then headed out to find taxis. My daughter wanted to try the CoCo taxis and the drivers were calling us over. We rode back to port for 10 CUC per taxi (two people per taxi). It was probably way overpriced, but so much fun and an “only in Cuba” experience—-so I still think it was worth it. Once back at the port, I stopped to talk some of the “guides” who seemed to be sitting at the port entrance and was eventually directed to a man named “Mendez” who spoke English and seemed to be in charge. I asked him if there were any transportation options for a larger group (9 including two walkers) to take us around to places we wanted to see on our own. He said he could arrange a mini-bus for 50 CUC per hour (minimum three hours). I told him it sounded great to us and he said to be there at 9:30 the next morning. I have to say, I wasn’t really sure this would work out….it wasn’t like I had a formal agreement or anything. Then my a few more folks from our extended family showed up and were interested in joining us…so I went back and said “how about 11 people” and he said “no problem” but then said “four hours, 200 CUC total”. I wasn’t clear is the increase in people meant he thought it might take four hours or if more people just raised the minimum number of hours—either way, I agreed to it figuring I hadn’t paid anything yet—so if it didn’t seem like it was going to work out, I could always back out later. We headed back to the ship to cool off and grab a drink (going back through the metal detectors/x-rays), back through Cuban Customs, back onto the ship with our key-cards, etc. After customs, NCL passed out cold wash cloths and cold water…both a pleasant relief. Back on the ship, it was all about getting cold drinks, getting a snack from the buffet and resting for a bit in our stateroom (my daughter took a quick nap…the rest of us just chilled). At around 6pm or so, we headed back out (the same routine as described above except this time Customs just looked for the stamp and looked at us rather than needing the visa)….our plan was to head back to the Fort we had visited on the tour earlier to see the 9:00pm Cannon Ceremony. This time we took two classic cars that somehow we crammed all nine of us into…and the cab drivers agreed to meet us back at the spot where they dropped us off at 9:15. It was 20 CUC each car, each way….but again, very easy…right in front of the port and off we went. There was a short walk into the Fort and it was pretty empty when we arrived at around 7 or so….but the teens enjoyed running up and down the various walls and since it was pretty empty, nobody seemed to much care. There were a few soldiers around, but they weren’t concerned about teens goofing around as long as they weren’t disrespectful to the exhibits. There was a small museum dedicated to Che Rivera that some of us walked through…and some tables set up selling the same kind of trinkets available at the market earlier. The views were incredible and made for great pictures…and it was finally starting to cool off, so it was very pleasant outside. A few of us found our way to a bench with a good view of the cannon while the kids went up on a wall above us (with many other spectators who were wandering including several tour groups). There were mosquitos biting, so we were glad to have tossed bug spray into our bag. Over the hour before the cannon blast, there were a number of ritual ceremonies that were kind of cool including drummers and a delivery of fire….as the sun set, lights came on around the fort and at precisely 9pm the cannon was fired. All and all, it was a fun thing to do for the evening for 8 CUC per person. We made our way back out in the semi-darkness with the crowds and our taxi drivers were waiting right where they said they would be. They took us back to the port and we were back on the ship (after going through customs again). We grabbed a few cold beverages and a snack up at the buffet before heading to bed. Day 2: Private Taxi “Tour”: On the second day in Havana, we weren’t so rushed since we were already in port. We had breakfast around 8 or so and then agreed to meet as a group on Deck 5 to exit the ship together so we could meet our taxi. Once more we went through Customs (again, no major issues—although this particular customs agent was a bit grumpier than the others making us stand there a bit longer). Once we arrived at the port entrance, Mendez was indeed there waiting and took us out to a mini-bus designed to hold 12 people (including the driver). It ended up that our group was back down to 9 as my aunt and her friend weren't able to cancel the excursion they had already booked. He reminded me that we had agreed to 4 hours for 200 CUC and verified that I had CUC (and not dollars) with me. I had a list of places we wanted to see and he gave it to the driver (who did not speak English) and reviewed the order in which we’d see them. The only issue we had was again a very high step which was though for my mom, but we solved it by backing the bus up to a curb to decrease the distance between the curb and the step. This became a hunt for curbs in parking areas all day…but not really a problem. The driver was very young, but very professional. He did not speak English, but would occasionally point out the name of a famous site when we passed it (most of which we recalled from our tour the day before or I was able to fill in the blanks from my previous trip). I have a very limited, working knowledge of Spanish—enough to communicate most general ideas—so I sat in the front and it seemed to work out ok. Once we had our group of 9 loaded up, off we went to our first destination. Note- I had identified several places I thought would be interesting places for my family to see in order to get a better sense of Cuban culture and they offered up a few they wanted to see—that’s how our list was developed. Capitol and Museo de la Revolucion: First stop was supposed to be the Museo de La Revolucion, but it wasn’t yet open when we arrived. So our driver took us over to the Capitol which we got out to see..we tried to get in for a tour, but the guard told us there were no public tours of the building. So we looked at it from the outside and took some pictures and were able to see some of the other random buildings nearby that gave a better sense of the realities of the infrastructure of the city (where its very hard to maintain/upkeep on buildings and many are literally crumbling, but still in full use as homes and businesses) and made our way back to the taxi. There were also rows of classic cars looking to pick up tourists at the nearby “Central Park” (which was a nice park, but only about a city block wide/long)—so we somewhat surreptitiously took some great “classic car” photos as we wandered by. By then the museum had opened and we went back. The Revolution Museum is housed in what was once the Presidential Palace (during the Batista years) and now contains exhibits (photos and artifacts) highlighting key events leading up to and following Castro’s (and other leaders) take over of the Cuban government. The entrance fee was 8 CUC per person. It is definitely a very nationalistic view of things (it IS the Revolution Museum), but you take it as you read it…..in the back is the Granma (the yacht used to bring Castro into Cuba for the attack) and a number of different pieces of military equipment used in various attacks. There was a guard who was very strict about this area….no bags (and I offered to hold my brother’s bag and stand outside of the exhibit so he wouldn’t have to go back to bag check again—but the soldier was pretty adamant that I couldn’t even stand near the exhibit holding bags—so we rechecked them) and they watched us more closely (not really suspiciously, but they seemed to be more diligent in their jobs than the folks inside) as we walked around… by the time we finished, an hour had gone by (making me glad that extra hour of our taxi had been sort of pushed upon us as we would clearly use it). One last comment about this museum…it was HOT….like miserable HOT…no air flow in a stuffy, old building, just sweat and sweat hot. I knew this (remembered how miserable it was from my last trip) and it was no different. So if you go, go with water and a handkerchief! Note- this building’s exhibit is on three floors and there is a creaky, old elevator for those who need it (I had checked on this in advance knowing that would be a necessity for my parents). It was hard to find and I had to ask several times pointing to my parents and their walkers. Eventually, one of the guards took them to the elevator—and it was fine—but my mother did say she was a bit nervous that they might get stuck as it shook and creaked along—but it worked out. Hotel Nacionale: Once we exited, we found our taxi and loaded back up. Our driver took us to the Hotel Nacionale next….this hotel is located up on a hill and is visible from shore as you come into port. It was one of several (but the one that has been maintained/restored) hotels that were hotbeds of glamour during the island’s “Hollywood Prime” during the 30’s/40’s. The Mob (U.S. Mafia) was entrenched in Cuban culture during this time. Think rum running, gambling, movie stars, besotted politicians….this hotel was the center of this world at the time. Now it is a lovely, restored hotel with tons of tile work and rattan furniture—with cafes overlooking the ocean— a great place to take a break and have a mojito or Cuba Libre (which is what we did). There are some shops downstairs too. A visit here gives one a sense of what “all the fuss” was about from the perspective of the powerful and wealthy during the Batista years. We were particularly interested because we had a great aunt/uncle with money who loved to travel who used to “pop over to Cuba” during this time and it gave us a sense of what they might have experienced….. Lunch- El Ajibe: When I was in Cuba previously, our guide too us to a government-owned restaurant in the northern part of the city that was known for it’s traditional Cuban cuisine featuring roasted chicken, rice/beans and this AMAZING secret sauce that goes over it. The story goes that this was once a family-run restaurant before the Revolution that was quite successful and well-known for its famed secret recipe. After the the Revolution, the State took control of it (along with all private businesses) and continued to try to run it—but without family’s secret recipe—the popularity of the restaurant failed. Ultimately a deal was struck with the family to return to run the restaurant themselves (as government employees) and to bring the recipe back with them. They acquiesced and the chicken continues to draw in customers today! Well my colleagues and I loved it so much when we were there originally that we went back a second time and when mentioned to one colleague that I was taking my family to Cuba, it’s the first thing he asked about. So it was a must-do for us! It did not disappoint! The restaurant is open-air under a thatched roof with ceiling fans that kept the tables reasonably cool and they easily accommodated our group of nine at a nice big table. The special was 12 CUC for family style chicken, rice, beans, salad (which turned out to be canned green beans and some cubed up cold vegetables) and plantain (fried as chips and thicker tostones). Drinks were extra (2 CUC for a cola or juice). The food was plentiful and they brought more of anything we asked for…the sauce was just as good as it was last time and there were roving guitarists/singers (who we did tip a few CUC) which gave it atmosphere. Also, there were cats wandering around under the table looking for chicken—-which the teens thought was incredibly funny…but it is Cuba and it’s an open-air restaurant. Nobody much seemed to mind or care. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and the waiter even gave me a copy of the menu to take with me when he saw me taking a picture of it. We took a few pictures outside and our taxi pulled up precisely at 1:00 as we had agreed upon. By this time, we were down to a half-hour left to make it back to port within our agreed upon 4 hours—so we skipped our last stop (Casa de Fuster) which would have been to a neighborhood that has been “renovated” by a local artist who have covered it with his mosaics and Gaudi style paintings….it’s very cool, but a drive-thru kind of situation and we just wouldn’t have the time. So back to port we went, pulling up right at 1:30 on the dot. Interestingly, our driver’s phone began ringing right at 1:30—so we weren’t sure if that was coincidence or if he was being summoned for the next assignment. At any rate, we piled out and Mendez was there waiting to hear how it went. We paid the driver 200 CUC and a 20 CUC tip. For us, this worked out great as we were able to get around to lots of places as a large group, my parents were able to easily participate despite mobility limitations and we only had to bargain our taxi fare once at the beginning and our driver was always where we expected him to be when we wanted him to be there. The three families that made up our group (parents/brother/me) split the cost making it only about 75 CUC per family total (or about 25 CUC per person) for the whole morning/early afternoon. Once back at Port, we took a few quick pictures in Old Havana (for the Christmas Card- LOL) and a few folks headed back down to the Art Market to see if a painting they had been thinking about was still there. I wandered back into port to see if there was any rum for sale in the port shops (and since they are all government run, the price and variety would be pretty similar). We found a few places to buy rum and I bought a bottle of the national label (light this time since I had bought dark the day before). I think my bottle was about 6 CUC with the most expensive one being about 8 CUC. Rum in hand and all shopped out (and hot and sweaty), my husband traded in the rest of our CUC’s for U.S. Dollars. Note- we did this knowing we’d take the 10% hit, but it just seemed so much easier than the hassle of trading it back to Canadian and back to U.S. dollars when we returned home. I think we ultimately lost about 20 dollars or so in the process—-but it’s done! CUC- People have asked “How much CUC do I need?” We started with 800 USD which I converted to 1000 CAD. The 1000 CAD converted 717 CUC. For our family of four, we ended up with 277 CUC left that we traded back in for USD. This means we spent about 440 CUC in two days. All in all, we spent it on: Taxi rides (including the 4 hour taxi tour) Two meals Drinks Souvenirs (including t-shirts, trinkets, etc) A large piece of art (60 CUC) Final Thoughts on Cuba: This was a really fun-filled two days and I’m glad we did it as a family. The cruise made it very easy for multigenerational, multi-family activities to play out without much fuss. Before the trip, we read many different travel guides and other related books about Cuba. We also watched a Rick Steve’s video that is available for free on his website. This turned out to be a very useful thing to have watched as a family, particularly for the teens who weren’t sure what they were getting into (my daughter originally asked me if there were any water parks in Havana—LOL). Several times I heard them comment about seeing things that had been mentioned in the video. The ship really didn’t do anything in terms of cultural education ahead of time, so be aware that this is on you to review your history and context to make it meaningful. I had spent time previously in Havana for a different purpose which, I feel, gave me a bit more insight into the culture than a quickie trip offered. The cruise was much more of a look-around rather than a deep cultural interaction. In fact, my daughter commented that it looked and felt like most other islands they had visited on other cruises. I kept reminding them that what made Cuba particularly unique was the fact that it had once been a jewel city equivalent to many US cities and that the crumbling infrastructure was to be studied to understand the impact of the Embargo and/or the socialist government model. I would love to see some opportunities that really are more intensely “People to People” as we had when we were here for research and spent time in schools, talking with community groups, visiting teacher’s unions, etc. We really didn’t have any meaningful discussion with any Cubans on this trip….and that would have made it a richer experience. Safety: We were perfectly safe in tour groups and on our own. We obviously stuck to public buildings and tourist spots and carried cross-strap bags, but I never felt nervous. Right around the port there were definitely a number of opportunists trying to get you to hop in their cab or follow them to a restaurant, but while they were pushing for their cut of tourist dollars—I never felt in danger or that they were misrepresenting themselves in a dangerous way. Most stopped following after we said “we are all set, thank you”. We were also a bit nervous about how Americans might be viewed, particularly after the announcement just the previous Friday that the current presidential administration plans to roll back some of the policies enacted by the previous administration. It was very evident that Havana was actively embracing what was anticipated as a growing US tourist industry with the onset of construction for many new hotels—and our tour guide indicated they were tremendously disappointed with the change in policies. However, it was noted that it could have been worse and they were grateful that the US Embassy would remain open as would some pathways for travel (including cruises). We felt they were happy to see that US travelers were still interested and still coming….we will definitely go back! Back on Board: We were back on board by about 2:30pm…and I totally thought we’d be the last ones back on the ship. However, it was HOT…and we were tired of sweating and drinking lukewarm water. Those onboard frosty drinks were calling as was the air conditioning. After chilling in the room for a bit, we went to look for drinks near atrium on Deck 6 and bumped into my aunt returning from their excursion. We sat around chatting and catching each other up on our tours (they had been to the Tropicana Review the evening before while we were at the fort) for a bit and then headed back to change for dinner. After dinner, some of the teens headed Dazzles to see the Perfect Couple Game Show and then we all went on to the theater show and eventually back to our rooms. Great Stirrup Cay: The ship didn’t call at this port until about 11:00am…so we enjoyed sleeping in and a leisurely breakfast at the buffet. I went out to sit by the pool and read with a pre-breakfast Bloody Mary (because it was an open-bar and why not)? My husband had picked up disembarkation tickets so we would be ready to go when the time came. There was a rather scary video about tendering that we watched on the stateroom TV which scared my parents from even trying (and thus they looked forward to a quiet day on the ship). When they started calling numbers, we made our way down to discover a line backed up several flights on stairs….and it never seemed to get shorter. Turned out it was being back filled by folks getting off of elevators on lower decks. Needless to say, eventually we were loaded on to a tender and it was really no problem (although I could see anyone with mobility concerns would have been a bit weary, so I was glad my parents stayed behind). The tender rocked quite a bit as it made its way over, but in a fun way. Once we docked at the island, the path to the beaches was relatively short and they were quickly filling. We nabbed a row of chairs near a palm tree (shade was very hard to find and anything near a palm tree was filled quickly). There were no umbrellas. The teens decided to go paddle boarding and headed over to sign-up for that (with their father/uncle volunteering to oversee that adventure). My husband and I rented a floating mat and headed straight into the crystal blue water. However, we discovered that the entrance to the water was FULL OF ROCKS! I’m really not sure why they don’t dredge this out like they do on Disney’s private island….please remember to take water shoes as this was a rather unpleasant welcome to “paradise”. Luckily I was wearing flip flops that floated so I kept them on. Once we were beyond the rocks, the water was very clear and pleasant. The fun thing was that we positioned ourself between two bars. Drinking a fruity drink IN the water underneath the Caribbean sunshine was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Eventually the kids came back from paddle boarding pronouncing it a fun activity to do once (but that it was hard to balance on the boards among the waves). For 25 bucks a kid, it wasn’t a bad activity and it was something different. By then we had all been in the water for awhile and were getting hungry. We made our way to the nearest dining option which turned out to a buffet of typical picnic salads, burgers, hotdogs, jerk chicken, etc. Nothing stood out as particularly wonderful, but it wasn’t bad. We found seats at a covered picnic table in nearby pavilion and were glad for the shade. After lunch, we spent a bit more time in the water before making our way back to the tenders. As many folks were trying to return to the ship by now, it was a longer wait to board and then an even longer wait in the hot sun before the tender left the dock. My thoughts on Stirrup Cay: It was pretty similar to most other cruise ship “private islands” with the same kinds of activities. It was definitely cleaner than Royal’s “island” on Haiti where the water was brackish and a long hike in with dirty sand. CoCo Key (Royal’s other private island) was apparently the next island over (and there was a Royal Ship anchored with tenders running to that island). Our island had a lot of construction going on that was visible from the beach, so maybe more fun is in the works. I have to say it wasn’t as well-planned as Disney’s Castaway Cay in subtle ways (like not having enough shade, no paths to move about so we were always on the hot sand where it was a bit difficult to walk, etc). I also found it frustrating that we had to carry our towels onto the island and then the wet, sloppy ones back off and to the ship. There was a place on the ship (after reboarding and x-rays machines) that you could deposit them, but they were not giving out fresh replacements, so it was unclear how they would be accounted for. After hearing enough stories about being charged after the fact for missing towels, I chose not risk it and thus the stateroom attendant had to deal with the messy, wet pile we tossed in the shower upon return to our room. The rest of evening was typical of the previous time on board. We went to dinner (another almost 3 hour affair) and then rushed to the 9:30 show and back to our rooms to finish packing to get our suitcases out by 11:00pm. I did take some time to go to the ship’s gift shop where they had a good deal (2/20.00) on NCL’s Cuba t-shirts, so I picked some up for gifts). By then we weren’t really tired, but had given over most of our clothing and finally decided to call it a night. Disembarkation Day: We intentionally picked the last disembarkation time when we picked up our stickers (at guest services the day before) because we really had no place to get to quickly. This meant we had time to get up at a normal hour and have a leisurely breakfast in the buffet. In fact, we ended up sitting in the buffet area for over an hour waiting for our color to be called. Once it was, we made our way down only to wait in a very long line to get off the ship (cards scanned) and then into the terminal. I don’t remember it taking this long previously, but with no particular rush for us, it really didn’t matter. Eventually we followed the line into the baggage area where our tagged luggage was in the “orange” section where we grabbed it and got into the customs line (which moved slowly too). Customs was no issue….none….nada. We didn’t even need a declaration form. We had two bottles of rum with us, but nobody ever asked us about anything we might have had with us. When we got to the agent’s booth, he reviewed our passports and said “Welcome home!” Out we went, regrouped with the rest of our family to say our good-byes and then requested an Uber (which came immediately) to take us to our resort in FLL where we had arranged for an early check-in (as our flight wasn’t til the next night).

Viva la Cuba! Mojitos, Classic Cars and Sweat!

Norwegian Sky Cruise Review by woocruiser3

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Trip Details
  • Sail Date: June 2017
  • Destination: Cuba
  • Cabin Type: Family Inside
Background:

My family loves to cruise and have been on many cruises on many cruise lines. We find it is a great way for multigenerational trips with far-flung family as it allows everyone to go at their own pace and gives some breathing room. We can spend all the time we want together and find places to do our own thing as well. Food/drink/entertainment are provided….and it’s all prepaid, so that’s a plus too.

This particular trip to Cuba sort of evolved over the winter months as a fun idea. I have been to Havana previously on a research trip where I spent 10 days traveling/studying issues related to education, literacy, children and poverty. That trip, with 7 other colleagues, was completely overseen by a government guide who was with us all day, almost every day (save a some time in the evening for meals). It was a fascinating glimpse into the culture and a chance to really get some sense of the issues that Cuban nationals contend with and their sense of pride/identity surrounding the Revolution. Having had this fantastic experience, I was excited when it looked like there were opportunities to take my family back to see Cuba.

Traditionally, my family (me, husband and two daughters 12 and 15 years old) typically arranges what we like to call an annual “epic adventure” that includes my parents (who are both 77 years old and finding mobility in unfamiliar places to be more of a challenge. They both use walkers which can make ventures on their own where they may not be able to anticipate the terrain to be somewhat difficult). However, they are adventurous and enjoy traveling as much as possible. As my oldest becomes more involved in high school sports and summer activities, it looked like a longer trip abroad wasn’t going to be in the cards this year. Thus, we were very excited when NCL started advertising Cuba—four nights, but to someplace really different seemed just the thing! As plans evolved, my brother and his teenage sons got pulled into the mix and eventually my aunt (who brought along a friend) joined in the fun as well. This meant we ultimately had 11 people in our party spanning three generations coming in from multiple home states/cities.

Pre-Cruise:

Whenever possible, we try to fly down at least a day in advance of a cruise departure date just in case there are any issues. In this instance, we found a better rate the Saturday before our Monday embarkation day and figured we’d get some pool time in at a favorite resort in Miami for a few days. Turns out we are glad we planned to go early. Our original Saturday morning, 7:30am direct flight into FLL on Jet Blue out of Pittsburgh was cancelled. Luckily we had planned to stay overnight at an airport hotel and received the text around 11:00 the night before notifying us. My husband called immediately and discovered they had scheduled us for a flight in the late afternoon on Sunday. After talking it out with the airline, they were able to put us on a Saturday, 6am flight to Boston and then on to FLL in late morning (getting us in and at our hotel at about 4pm Saturday). This meant we had to take the 4am airport shuttle (and got up at 3:30 am). If we had waited til cruise day to fly, we would have missed the ship.

However, we made it just fine, called an Uber, were settled at the Miami Marriott Doral Villas in time for an evening of playing some of the games set up by the pool deck, chilling in our villa and ordering pizza. Not a very exciting first night of vacation, but we were tired. Note- I had a few groceries delivered to the resort which worked out (relatively) great meaning we had some snacks, drinks and fruit.

The next day was dedicated mostly to the pool and resort activities (mini-golf, shuffle board, etc) and a quick Uber out for dinner. We touched based with my parents, brother and nephews who were flying in late that evening and staying at a different hotel near the airport. All had arrived safely and we made plans to meet at the port the next morning at 10am. My aunt would be driving in and knew we would look for her as well.

Embarkation Day:

On Embarkation day, we believe that the cruise starts the minute you board—so we always try to get the earliest boarding time possible. In this case, we had a 10am port arrival time and our Uber dropped us off as the last cruise was still picking up. This made check-in a breeze and we were up in the waiting area by 10:30 with boarding number 4. We received a text that my parents shuttle was delayed…but no problem, we had plenty of time. Eventually they arrived and we made our way down to where the crowds were beginning to gather. When my parents entered with their walkers, the staff shuffled us all to a different waiting area that was nearby and took my boarding number. I was a bit concerned about having given that prime number up, but he assured me we would need it. Eventually my aunt and her friend arrived and joined our group. They announced about an hour delay in embarkation due to a Coast Guard visit, but everyone just waited. There was juice/coffee cakes set up for those who wanted it.

When embarkation finally began, they called elite guests (Haven, etc) first and then boarded those guest with disabilities and their travel groups. This meant we ended up being in the second group to board…and turns out it was very helpful as it took some extra time to push the walkers up the ramps and it was nice to have easy access to elevators before it got busy.

Once we boarded, we went right up to the buffet for lunch. The teens ate quickly and went off to explore the ship (and figure out where to start ordering up those frozen, fruity drinks) while we lingered a bit. Eventually, we left to make room for others and found our way down to our staterooms which had just opened.

Once we checked out the state room, we wandered about a bit finding ourselves in the Atrium for a drink and eventually headed to the muster drill before returning to the stateroom to unpack and go to dinner and eventually on to the opening night show.

Overall Impression of the Sky:

This was definitely an older ship and I can see why NCL has decided to use it for shorter, booze cruises. It was very clean, but definitely dated and there was some wear & tear that is just part of aging. For example, there was rust along the door in our bathroom—no big deal, but something you wouldn't see on a newer ship.

Mostly, it just wasn’t as efficient as newer ships. Common areas were smaller (very small atrium) and it wasn’t easy to navigate from forward to aft on each level. Elevators moved somewhat slowly. I sort of imagined this is what the Love Boat must have been like- LOL.

Also the staterooms were very small. We were in inside rooms, but even compared to other NCL ships, these were small and not very efficient. There weren’t many shelves to place things, very narrow drawers and a lot of wasted space in the bathrooms. There were only two plugs in the whole room (this after we unplugged the TV) making it hard to charge iPads/phones, etc. Also, this stateroom was booked for four people, yet there was only the double bed, one bunk and a half-couch that pulled out into a 3/4 length bed. This meant that one teen had to sleep with her feet hanging off the edge. A big deal? No…but considering we paid for 4 people (not 3 3/4) it was a bit odd.

In many places we found the service to be subpar all the way around. Not horrible, but not great. We never saw our stateroom attendant (and not in that magical, he just knew what you needed and it happened magically kind of way). He never introduced himself, so we could not ask for an extension cord (for a CPAP machine) or ice. Also, my husband left an empty plate on his nightstand and it stayed there for all four nights..it was there when we left. The room was cleaned each day though…so not horrible, but it was clear we weren’t to ask for anything additional (even though there was an ice bucket in the room).

Service:

At dinner, the food was fine, but the service was mediocre at best. Every meal took 2.5/3 hours…each course had an extremely long wait between, orders were often incorrect, drinks were not refilled….by the time dessert rolled around, my dad’s Fitbit had alerted him to stand twice and the kids had abandoned us to go to to a game show. We picked the earliest dining times we could get (usually 6pm) and we missed the game show every night and usually just ended up heading to the theater directly from dinner.

In the common areas, the staff seemed to be a bit oblivious to the guests. On the first day, we were all sitting in a lounge in the Atrium and a crew came up and started pushing all the tables aside asking everyone to please leave immediately as they needed the space. We assumed they must be doing something related to the muster drill, so we moved….but it turned out they were setting up a photo site for dinner later than evening. There was absolutely no reason that guests should be moved abruptly 3 hours before a space was needed (because we all stood there watching them set it up in about 20 minutes) and rudely at that. In many places, the staff would jump in elevators before guests, push large carts of art around blocking hallways, etc. None of it was horrible, but on other ships, it felt like guest needs were considered a bit more.

Entertainment:

I have to say, I’m one who is usually up for anything, but the entertainment on the SKY felt like it was probably the B-list production crew. I’ve seen better dancing and singing at my daughter’s high school. Not that it wasn’t pleasant to watch, but compared to the Escape, it was very old fashioned and simple (costumes, dance moves, music choices, etc). The theater was very nice with comfortable couches and tables for drinks, but there is no way it could hold the 2000 people aboard in their one show a night—so obviously they didn’t expect huge turn outs (and they didn’t get them).

Drinks:

The best part of this ship was the easy access to fun drinks. At home, I don’t drink much at all…but it was fun to have a pre-dinner drink or a fun mojito during a show. The kids loved the frozen drinks that they could grab just about anywhere. We stuck primarily to basic cruise drink options, but they were plentiful and the bar service was always working hard. It was only difficult to get drinks during prime times at the pool bar.

Tuesday-Cuba Day 1

We got up early to watch as our ship came into port. To really see it, it’s best to be out there by about 7am or so. The skyline was a bit hazy from the distance, but came into focus and we came closer into port. We were able to get great views of the cityscape, which was helpful later on in determining where we were in relation to the port. The ship was scheduled to dock at 8am. After watching it come in, we had time to grab some breakfast at the buffet as our scheduled excursion meeting time wasn’t until 9:20 am in the theater.

We decided to do a general overview tour first off so that we could get a sense of the history and key landmarks—also I knew it would be air conditioned and that would be a big plus for us! At 9:15 or so, we made our way to the theater and it was FILLED with people…..seats were filled, people standing in the aisles…. Apparently there was a delay in clearing customs resulting in all of the previous excursions being delayed in departing…so the tour groups were backing up. We had our ship cards, passports and visas that we had arranged through NCL (and given to us when we checked-in originally in Miami) and our Canadian money ready to exchange.

Side note- There was a table in the theater where they were selling water bottles/packages. We decided it was probably smart to buy some water to take with us as I knew it would be hot and really didn’t know how easily we could buy bottled water in port. Turned out it was about 15 bucks for 6 big bottles….Not really a bad deal at all. My husband took two bottles back the stateroom and we each took one and gave two to my parents—now we were prepared to stay hydrated!

Groups started to be dismissed a few at a time…so we waited. They were announcing that all of the tours would be backed up in returning, so if there was anyone with afternoon tours too—they should plan to meet those tours in the bus parking lot rather than coming back to the theater. They also noted that there would be no time for anyone to exchange money before the morning tours, so we should just do it later when we returned from the tour. I have to say this annoyed me some as I didn’t like the fact that there was a chance that I would be left with no access to money that I could spend should there have been an emergency (or something fun to buy). They said that they heard that “some places were taking US Dollars” so we would be fine. We had Canadian dollars—-and it did turn out fine, but still annoying.

Turned out our excursion, a bus tour called “Ultimate Highlights of Havana” had at least five buses worth of people….we received stickers and made our way off the ship (presenting our ship card on Deck 5 to get off the ship).

After leaving the ship, we came around the corner to a series of Cuban Custom booths. They were far friendlier than my experience at the airport a few years ago…no full-doors, so you could see people going through the booths—much more friendly. Custom agents directed each person individually into the both where a custom agent sat behind a counter. Note- this meant our teens each had to go through customs on their own (including my 12 year old). We could see her the whole time and there was no issue, but it did make me a little nervous so my husband went through first, then the kids, then me. That way at least one of us was on each side if there were issues.

They took our passport and visa, stamped the passport and kept the visa (both sides). We were able to come and go for the two days we were in port based on the stamp in the visa. They also took our picture as we entered the first time—but just had us remove our glasses and compared the passport picture each additional time we passed through either way.

Once we were through Customs, we still had to go through metal detectors and have our bags x-rayed…all in all, it was easier than TSA and not really a big deal. Once we finished all of this, we bypassed the money exchange (which was right there inside the port terminal easily accessible) and descended the stairs (elevators were also available) to either the port exit or the bus parking lot (which is where we went following the excursion crowd).

We boarded the buses by number and off we went. Note- my mobility-limited parents were with us for this and their walkers were just placed in luggage storage under the bus. The only issue was stepping up on the high bus stair step for my 77 year old mother (hip-replacements)…but my brother helped her up and all was well. In retrospect, I might have taken a small folding stool as we ran into this issue a few times along the way—but it worked out ok.

The excursion itself was on a modern coach bus and covered all the highlights…..a brief history of Cuba and Havana….overview of various landmarks as we drove past time (US Embassy, Malecon Sea Wall, Revolutionary Square (we were allowed to get out to take pictures here), Capitol, various University of Havana buildings, La Floridita, Hotel Nacionale, Christopher Columbus Cemetery (where we could get out and walk around a bit), a quick stop at a Rum and Cigar shop, and then on to the La Cabana Fort which had a great view (another place we could get out and take pictures). The Cigar and Rum shop did take US Dollars with the 10% penalty deducted and they took our Canadian dollars….so we were able to buy some rum. I didn’t get the impression that this was a widely practiced thing—but that the tour company had a standing agreement with this one store who was willing to take the US Dollars. We never saw any place else where this was possible.

The whole thing was narrated by an English speaking guide. It ultimately dropped us back at the Port by about 1:30. It was an interesting tour and the guide was clearly a government guide (as they all are on organized tours) so we received a specific narrative about Cuban history (and some commentary about the U.S as well). We knew this going in, so it was interesting to understand what we were listening to and think about varying points of view on some very major political issues.

Once back at the port, a few members of our family group went back upstairs to exchange our money and then we ventured across the street to the entrance of Old Havana with the intent of going in a few blocks to find a palador for lunch. There were several men standing around trying to encourage us to follow them to various restaurants that were “good deals”…. In the end, we picked one right on the square because it was easily accessible for my parents and their walkers. Old Havana was covered with a lot of cobble stones and I could see my mother looking a bit concerned. The restaurant we picked was just fine..it was open air (outside) seating and reasonable prices. The food turned out to be pretty tasty and it was a pleasant meal. Most of us had Cuban Sandwiches (which were actually better than some I’ve had elsewhere on the island)…I doubt the food would have been much better at most places we’d wander into further into Old Havana. Our meals for a family of four came to about 40 CUC (40 dollars plus tip). Sandwiches were 6.50, sodas 2.00 each, gazpacho was 3.50…..we didn’t order alcohol since we had all we wanted on the ship…but that would have raised the price.

After lunch, my parents headed back to the ship and the rest of us chose to head down to the San Jose Arts/Craft market….some folks chose to walk through Old Havana to get there while others chose to grab classic cars (which we were originally told was a minimum of 10 CUC, but we found some further down the road for 6 CUC). It really wasn’t very far, but it was HOT! The market itself was ridiculously hot with very little air circulation….it made it hard to want to shop to much. However, I was in search of a new piece of art for our home and this was a great place to find authentic art sold by the artists for great prices. There are literally row and row of of booths, most selling trinkets like bracelets or wood sculpture, t-shirts, etc. We found some items in these booths, but at the back and end of the market at artists selling original paintings in all different genres, shapes, sizes, colors. We found one we really liked which is about 3ft by 2 ft—an abstract of Cuban homes in muted grays. We bought it for 60 CUC (originally asked 75 CUC. The artist rolled up the canvas and taped it up, and that’s how we will bring it home. Pretty simple..but very cool!

By the time we found the painting and a few other items, the sweat was just dripping off of us. There was a both selling sodas, so we grabbed a few cans and then headed out to find taxis. My daughter wanted to try the CoCo taxis and the drivers were calling us over. We rode back to port for 10 CUC per taxi (two people per taxi). It was probably way overpriced, but so much fun and an “only in Cuba” experience—-so I still think it was worth it.

Once back at the port, I stopped to talk some of the “guides” who seemed to be sitting at the port entrance and was eventually directed to a man named “Mendez” who spoke English and seemed to be in charge. I asked him if there were any transportation options for a larger group (9 including two walkers) to take us around to places we wanted to see on our own. He said he could arrange a mini-bus for 50 CUC per hour (minimum three hours). I told him it sounded great to us and he said to be there at 9:30 the next morning. I have to say, I wasn’t really sure this would work out….it wasn’t like I had a formal agreement or anything. Then my a few more folks from our extended family showed up and were interested in joining us…so I went back and said “how about 11 people” and he said “no problem” but then said “four hours, 200 CUC total”. I wasn’t clear is the increase in people meant he thought it might take four hours or if more people just raised the minimum number of hours—either way, I agreed to it figuring I hadn’t paid anything yet—so if it didn’t seem like it was going to work out, I could always back out later.

We headed back to the ship to cool off and grab a drink (going back through the metal detectors/x-rays), back through Cuban Customs, back onto the ship with our key-cards, etc. After customs, NCL passed out cold wash cloths and cold water…both a pleasant relief. Back on the ship, it was all about getting cold drinks, getting a snack from the buffet and resting for a bit in our stateroom (my daughter took a quick nap…the rest of us just chilled).

At around 6pm or so, we headed back out (the same routine as described above except this time Customs just looked for the stamp and looked at us rather than needing the visa)….our plan was to head back to the Fort we had visited on the tour earlier to see the 9:00pm Cannon Ceremony. This time we took two classic cars that somehow we crammed all nine of us into…and the cab drivers agreed to meet us back at the spot where they dropped us off at 9:15. It was 20 CUC each car, each way….but again, very easy…right in front of the port and off we went. There was a short walk into the Fort and it was pretty empty when we arrived at around 7 or so….but the teens enjoyed running up and down the various walls and since it was pretty empty, nobody seemed to much care. There were a few soldiers around, but they weren’t concerned about teens goofing around as long as they weren’t disrespectful to the exhibits. There was a small museum dedicated to Che Rivera that some of us walked through…and some tables set up selling the same kind of trinkets available at the market earlier. The views were incredible and made for great pictures…and it was finally starting to cool off, so it was very pleasant outside. A few of us found our way to a bench with a good view of the cannon while the kids went up on a wall above us (with many other spectators who were wandering including several tour groups). There were mosquitos biting, so we were glad to have tossed bug spray into our bag. Over the hour before the cannon blast, there were a number of ritual ceremonies that were kind of cool including drummers and a delivery of fire….as the sun set, lights came on around the fort and at precisely 9pm the cannon was fired. All and all, it was a fun thing to do for the evening for 8 CUC per person. We made our way back out in the semi-darkness with the crowds and our taxi drivers were waiting right where they said they would be. They took us back to the port and we were back on the ship (after going through customs again). We grabbed a few cold beverages and a snack up at the buffet before heading to bed.

Day 2:

Private Taxi “Tour”:

On the second day in Havana, we weren’t so rushed since we were already in port. We had breakfast around 8 or so and then agreed to meet as a group on Deck 5 to exit the ship together so we could meet our taxi. Once more we went through Customs (again, no major issues—although this particular customs agent was a bit grumpier than the others making us stand there a bit longer).

Once we arrived at the port entrance, Mendez was indeed there waiting and took us out to a mini-bus designed to hold 12 people (including the driver). It ended up that our group was back down to 9 as my aunt and her friend weren't able to cancel the excursion they had already booked. He reminded me that we had agreed to 4 hours for 200 CUC and verified that I had CUC (and not dollars) with me. I had a list of places we wanted to see and he gave it to the driver (who did not speak English) and reviewed the order in which we’d see them. The only issue we had was again a very high step which was though for my mom, but we solved it by backing the bus up to a curb to decrease the distance between the curb and the step. This became a hunt for curbs in parking areas all day…but not really a problem. The driver was very young, but very professional. He did not speak English, but would occasionally point out the name of a famous site when we passed it (most of which we recalled from our tour the day before or I was able to fill in the blanks from my previous trip). I have a very limited, working knowledge of Spanish—enough to communicate most general ideas—so I sat in the front and it seemed to work out ok.

Once we had our group of 9 loaded up, off we went to our first destination. Note- I had identified several places I thought would be interesting places for my family to see in order to get a better sense of Cuban culture and they offered up a few they wanted to see—that’s how our list was developed.

Capitol and Museo de la Revolucion:

First stop was supposed to be the Museo de La Revolucion, but it wasn’t yet open when we arrived. So our driver took us over to the Capitol which we got out to see..we tried to get in for a tour, but the guard told us there were no public tours of the building. So we looked at it from the outside and took some pictures and were able to see some of the other random buildings nearby that gave a better sense of the realities of the infrastructure of the city (where its very hard to maintain/upkeep on buildings and many are literally crumbling, but still in full use as homes and businesses) and made our way back to the taxi. There were also rows of classic cars looking to pick up tourists at the nearby “Central Park” (which was a nice park, but only about a city block wide/long)—so we somewhat surreptitiously took some great “classic car” photos as we wandered by.

By then the museum had opened and we went back. The Revolution Museum is housed in what was once the Presidential Palace (during the Batista years) and now contains exhibits (photos and artifacts) highlighting key events leading up to and following Castro’s (and other leaders) take over of the Cuban government. The entrance fee was 8 CUC per person.

It is definitely a very nationalistic view of things (it IS the Revolution Museum), but you take it as you read it…..in the back is the Granma (the yacht used to bring Castro into Cuba for the attack) and a number of different pieces of military equipment used in various attacks. There was a guard who was very strict about this area….no bags (and I offered to hold my brother’s bag and stand outside of the exhibit so he wouldn’t have to go back to bag check again—but the soldier was pretty adamant that I couldn’t even stand near the exhibit holding bags—so we rechecked them) and they watched us more closely (not really suspiciously, but they seemed to be more diligent in their jobs than the folks inside) as we walked around… by the time we finished, an hour had gone by (making me glad that extra hour of our taxi had been sort of pushed upon us as we would clearly use it). One last comment about this museum…it was HOT….like miserable HOT…no air flow in a stuffy, old building, just sweat and sweat hot. I knew this (remembered how miserable it was from my last trip) and it was no different. So if you go, go with water and a handkerchief! Note- this building’s exhibit is on three floors and there is a creaky, old elevator for those who need it (I had checked on this in advance knowing that would be a necessity for my parents). It was hard to find and I had to ask several times pointing to my parents and their walkers. Eventually, one of the guards took them to the elevator—and it was fine—but my mother did say she was a bit nervous that they might get stuck as it shook and creaked along—but it worked out.

Hotel Nacionale:

Once we exited, we found our taxi and loaded back up. Our driver took us to the Hotel Nacionale next….this hotel is located up on a hill and is visible from shore as you come into port. It was one of several (but the one that has been maintained/restored) hotels that were hotbeds of glamour during the island’s “Hollywood Prime” during the 30’s/40’s. The Mob (U.S. Mafia) was entrenched in Cuban culture during this time. Think rum running, gambling, movie stars, besotted politicians….this hotel was the center of this world at the time. Now it is a lovely, restored hotel with tons of tile work and rattan furniture—with cafes overlooking the ocean— a great place to take a break and have a mojito or Cuba Libre (which is what we did). There are some shops downstairs too. A visit here gives one a sense of what “all the fuss” was about from the perspective of the powerful and wealthy during the Batista years. We were particularly interested because we had a great aunt/uncle with money who loved to travel who used to “pop over to Cuba” during this time and it gave us a sense of what they might have experienced…..

Lunch- El Ajibe:

When I was in Cuba previously, our guide too us to a government-owned restaurant in the northern part of the city that was known for it’s traditional Cuban cuisine featuring roasted chicken, rice/beans and this AMAZING secret sauce that goes over it. The story goes that this was once a family-run restaurant before the Revolution that was quite successful and well-known for its famed secret recipe. After the the Revolution, the State took control of it (along with all private businesses) and continued to try to run it—but without family’s secret recipe—the popularity of the restaurant failed. Ultimately a deal was struck with the family to return to run the restaurant themselves (as government employees) and to bring the recipe back with them. They acquiesced and the chicken continues to draw in customers today!

Well my colleagues and I loved it so much when we were there originally that we went back a second time and when mentioned to one colleague that I was taking my family to Cuba, it’s the first thing he asked about. So it was a must-do for us! It did not disappoint!

The restaurant is open-air under a thatched roof with ceiling fans that kept the tables reasonably cool and they easily accommodated our group of nine at a nice big table. The special was 12 CUC for family style chicken, rice, beans, salad (which turned out to be canned green beans and some cubed up cold vegetables) and plantain (fried as chips and thicker tostones). Drinks were extra (2 CUC for a cola or juice). The food was plentiful and they brought more of anything we asked for…the sauce was just as good as it was last time and there were roving guitarists/singers (who we did tip a few CUC) which gave it atmosphere. Also, there were cats wandering around under the table looking for chicken—-which the teens thought was incredibly funny…but it is Cuba and it’s an open-air restaurant. Nobody much seemed to mind or care. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and the waiter even gave me a copy of the menu to take with me when he saw me taking a picture of it. We took a few pictures outside and our taxi pulled up precisely at 1:00 as we had agreed upon.

By this time, we were down to a half-hour left to make it back to port within our agreed upon 4 hours—so we skipped our last stop (Casa de Fuster) which would have been to a neighborhood that has been “renovated” by a local artist who have covered it with his mosaics and Gaudi style paintings….it’s very cool, but a drive-thru kind of situation and we just wouldn’t have the time. So back to port we went, pulling up right at 1:30 on the dot. Interestingly, our driver’s phone began ringing right at 1:30—so we weren’t sure if that was coincidence or if he was being summoned for the next assignment. At any rate, we piled out and Mendez was there waiting to hear how it went. We paid the driver 200 CUC and a 20 CUC tip. For us, this worked out great as we were able to get around to lots of places as a large group, my parents were able to easily participate despite mobility limitations and we only had to bargain our taxi fare once at the beginning and our driver was always where we expected him to be when we wanted him to be there. The three families that made up our group (parents/brother/me) split the cost making it only about 75 CUC per family total (or about 25 CUC per person) for the whole morning/early afternoon.

Once back at Port, we took a few quick pictures in Old Havana (for the Christmas Card- LOL) and a few folks headed back down to the Art Market to see if a painting they had been thinking about was still there. I wandered back into port to see if there was any rum for sale in the port shops (and since they are all government run, the price and variety would be pretty similar). We found a few places to buy rum and I bought a bottle of the national label (light this time since I had bought dark the day before). I think my bottle was about 6 CUC with the most expensive one being about 8 CUC. Rum in hand and all shopped out (and hot and sweaty), my husband traded in the rest of our CUC’s for U.S. Dollars. Note- we did this knowing we’d take the 10% hit, but it just seemed so much easier than the hassle of trading it back to Canadian and back to U.S. dollars when we returned home. I think we ultimately lost about 20 dollars or so in the process—-but it’s done!

CUC- People have asked “How much CUC do I need?”

We started with 800 USD which I converted to 1000 CAD. The 1000 CAD converted 717 CUC. For our family of four, we ended up with 277 CUC left that we traded back in for USD. This means we spent about 440 CUC in two days. All in all, we spent it on:

Taxi rides (including the 4 hour taxi tour)

Two meals

Drinks

Souvenirs (including t-shirts, trinkets, etc)

A large piece of art (60 CUC)

Final Thoughts on Cuba:

This was a really fun-filled two days and I’m glad we did it as a family. The cruise made it very easy for multigenerational, multi-family activities to play out without much fuss.

Before the trip, we read many different travel guides and other related books about Cuba. We also watched a Rick Steve’s video that is available for free on his website. This turned out to be a very useful thing to have watched as a family, particularly for the teens who weren’t sure what they were getting into (my daughter originally asked me if there were any water parks in Havana—LOL). Several times I heard them comment about seeing things that had been mentioned in the video. The ship really didn’t do anything in terms of cultural education ahead of time, so be aware that this is on you to review your history and context to make it meaningful.

I had spent time previously in Havana for a different purpose which, I feel, gave me a bit more insight into the culture than a quickie trip offered. The cruise was much more of a look-around rather than a deep cultural interaction. In fact, my daughter commented that it looked and felt like most other islands they had visited on other cruises. I kept reminding them that what made Cuba particularly unique was the fact that it had once been a jewel city equivalent to many US cities and that the crumbling infrastructure was to be studied to understand the impact of the Embargo and/or the socialist government model.

I would love to see some opportunities that really are more intensely “People to People” as we had when we were here for research and spent time in schools, talking with community groups, visiting teacher’s unions, etc. We really didn’t have any meaningful discussion with any Cubans on this trip….and that would have made it a richer experience.

Safety:

We were perfectly safe in tour groups and on our own. We obviously stuck to public buildings and tourist spots and carried cross-strap bags, but I never felt nervous. Right around the port there were definitely a number of opportunists trying to get you to hop in their cab or follow them to a restaurant, but while they were pushing for their cut of tourist dollars—I never felt in danger or that they were misrepresenting themselves in a dangerous way. Most stopped following after we said “we are all set, thank you”.

We were also a bit nervous about how Americans might be viewed, particularly after the announcement just the previous Friday that the current presidential administration plans to roll back some of the policies enacted by the previous administration. It was very evident that Havana was actively embracing what was anticipated as a growing US tourist industry with the onset of construction for many new hotels—and our tour guide indicated they were tremendously disappointed with the change in policies. However, it was noted that it could have been worse and they were grateful that the US Embassy would remain open as would some pathways for travel (including cruises). We felt they were happy to see that US travelers were still interested and still coming….we will definitely go back!

Back on Board:

We were back on board by about 2:30pm…and I totally thought we’d be the last ones back on the ship. However, it was HOT…and we were tired of sweating and drinking lukewarm water. Those onboard frosty drinks were calling as was the air conditioning. After chilling in the room for a bit, we went to look for drinks near atrium on Deck 6 and bumped into my aunt returning from their excursion. We sat around chatting and catching each other up on our tours (they had been to the Tropicana Review the evening before while we were at the fort) for a bit and then headed back to change for dinner.

After dinner, some of the teens headed Dazzles to see the Perfect Couple Game Show and then we all went on to the theater show and eventually back to our rooms.

Great Stirrup Cay:

The ship didn’t call at this port until about 11:00am…so we enjoyed sleeping in and a leisurely breakfast at the buffet. I went out to sit by the pool and read with a pre-breakfast Bloody Mary (because it was an open-bar and why not)? My husband had picked up disembarkation tickets so we would be ready to go when the time came. There was a rather scary video about tendering that we watched on the stateroom TV which scared my parents from even trying (and thus they looked forward to a quiet day on the ship). When they started calling numbers, we made our way down to discover a line backed up several flights on stairs….and it never seemed to get shorter. Turned out it was being back filled by folks getting off of elevators on lower decks. Needless to say, eventually we were loaded on to a tender and it was really no problem (although I could see anyone with mobility concerns would have been a bit weary, so I was glad my parents stayed behind). The tender rocked quite a bit as it made its way over, but in a fun way. Once we docked at the island, the path to the beaches was relatively short and they were quickly filling. We nabbed a row of chairs near a palm tree (shade was very hard to find and anything near a palm tree was filled quickly). There were no umbrellas. The teens decided to go paddle boarding and headed over to sign-up for that (with their father/uncle volunteering to oversee that adventure). My husband and I rented a floating mat and headed straight into the crystal blue water. However, we discovered that the entrance to the water was FULL OF ROCKS! I’m really not sure why they don’t dredge this out like they do on Disney’s private island….please remember to take water shoes as this was a rather unpleasant welcome to “paradise”. Luckily I was wearing flip flops that floated so I kept them on. Once we were beyond the rocks, the water was very clear and pleasant. The fun thing was that we positioned ourself between two bars. Drinking a fruity drink IN the water underneath the Caribbean sunshine was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Eventually the kids came back from paddle boarding pronouncing it a fun activity to do once (but that it was hard to balance on the boards among the waves). For 25 bucks a kid, it wasn’t a bad activity and it was something different. By then we had all been in the water for awhile and were getting hungry. We made our way to the nearest dining option which turned out to a buffet of typical picnic salads, burgers, hotdogs, jerk chicken, etc. Nothing stood out as particularly wonderful, but it wasn’t bad. We found seats at a covered picnic table in nearby pavilion and were glad for the shade. After lunch, we spent a bit more time in the water before making our way back to the tenders.

As many folks were trying to return to the ship by now, it was a longer wait to board and then an even longer wait in the hot sun before the tender left the dock.

My thoughts on Stirrup Cay: It was pretty similar to most other cruise ship “private islands” with the same kinds of activities. It was definitely cleaner than Royal’s “island” on Haiti where the water was brackish and a long hike in with dirty sand. CoCo Key (Royal’s other private island) was apparently the next island over (and there was a Royal Ship anchored with tenders running to that island). Our island had a lot of construction going on that was visible from the beach, so maybe more fun is in the works. I have to say it wasn’t as well-planned as Disney’s Castaway Cay in subtle ways (like not having enough shade, no paths to move about so we were always on the hot sand where it was a bit difficult to walk, etc). I also found it frustrating that we had to carry our towels onto the island and then the wet, sloppy ones back off and to the ship. There was a place on the ship (after reboarding and x-rays machines) that you could deposit them, but they were not giving out fresh replacements, so it was unclear how they would be accounted for. After hearing enough stories about being charged after the fact for missing towels, I chose not risk it and thus the stateroom attendant had to deal with the messy, wet pile we tossed in the shower upon return to our room.

The rest of evening was typical of the previous time on board. We went to dinner (another almost 3 hour affair) and then rushed to the 9:30 show and back to our rooms to finish packing to get our suitcases out by 11:00pm. I did take some time to go to the ship’s gift shop where they had a good deal (2/20.00) on NCL’s Cuba t-shirts, so I picked some up for gifts). By then we weren’t really tired, but had given over most of our clothing and finally decided to call it a night.

Disembarkation Day:

We intentionally picked the last disembarkation time when we picked up our stickers (at guest services the day before) because we really had no place to get to quickly. This meant we had time to get up at a normal hour and have a leisurely breakfast in the buffet. In fact, we ended up sitting in the buffet area for over an hour waiting for our color to be called. Once it was, we made our way down only to wait in a very long line to get off the ship (cards scanned) and then into the terminal. I don’t remember it taking this long previously, but with no particular rush for us, it really didn’t matter. Eventually we followed the line into the baggage area where our tagged luggage was in the “orange” section where we grabbed it and got into the customs line (which moved slowly too). Customs was no issue….none….nada. We didn’t even need a declaration form. We had two bottles of rum with us, but nobody ever asked us about anything we might have had with us. When we got to the agent’s booth, he reviewed our passports and said “Welcome home!” Out we went, regrouped with the rest of our family to say our good-byes and then requested an Uber (which came immediately) to take us to our resort in FLL where we had arranged for an early check-in (as our flight wasn’t til the next night).
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Cabin Review

Family Inside
Cabin I1 659
We were in inside rooms, but even compared to other NCL ships, these were small and not very efficient. There weren’t many shelves to place things, very narrow drawers and a lot of wasted space in the bathrooms. There were only two plugs in the whole room (this after we unplugged the TV) making it hard to charge iPads/phones, etc. Also, this stateroom was booked for four people, yet there was only the double bed, one bunk and a half-couch that pulled out into a 3/4 length bed. This meant that one teen had to sleep with her feet hanging off the edge. A big deal? No…but considering we paid for 4 people (not 3 3/4) it was a bit odd.
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