We chose this cruise solely for the itinerary that included 2 nights in Havana and flew Southwest, direct, Tampa to Havana. On arrival at the Southwest check-in counter, we received our visa. We were going as part of the "people to people" program which was arranged by Legendary Journey's in Sarasota, FL. Even though we cut our cruise short to get home to Florida to prepare for hurricane Irma, it was a vacation to remember!
Airport Arrival - The airport in Havana is small and requires that you walk outside to get to the terminal. Once inside, guests wait in long lines to proceed thru immigration. We waited about 40 minutes to be processed. When you pass thru the immigration turnstyle, you are in the luggage claim area which was very crowded. For those needing it, men with luggage carts were available to assist with bags. There are basic restrooms available (no paper products, bring your own tissue.) Leaving the terminal there was a huge throng of people waiting, welcoming visitors and friends. Many taxi drivers offered a ride however I was happy to see our pre-arranged classic car taxi was waiting to take us to the ship.
Embarkation - We arrived at the pier at 9:00 am where MSC had a luggage drop off area and were told that we would be able to board the ship between 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm. We spent the day wandering the streets of Old Havana and making arrangements to go to the Tropicana night club and show through a local travel agent. We went back to the pier and were allowed to board at 3:00 pm. It was a very easy boarding process. Many passengers were already aboard as they were midway thru a 14 day cruise. A cruise representative approached us while we in line and asked if we were Americans. It turns out that we were the only Americans aboard the ship and special paperwork was required due to our "people to people" status. It informed us that were not allowed to participate in any of the excursions provided by the cruise line while in Cuba as these were considered "tourist" activities. We were aware of this in advance and managed our own activities off of the ship.
Cuba - The Opera served as our hotel for 2 nights while we explored Cuba. We wandered the streets of Old Havana, and toured the city via the Hop On-Hop Off bus. We visited the Fine Arts museum with its very nice collection of art from around the world. The highlight of our Cuba visit was seeing the show at the famed Tropicana club. The outdoor venue is lovely and the show was so uniquely Cuba. It's a night I'll always remember. We purchased the maximum amount of cigars and Cuban rum that we could bring back home. (50 cigars and 1L rum max per person). We would have loved more time to explore outside of Havana...a reason to return!
The Ship - The passengers were mostly European. All announcements were translated in French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish and English. The Cruise Director was fluent in all of these languages and, to keep the show moving, could race through the translations at lightening speed. The entertainment was a bit more high brow than what we've experienced on ships like Carnival and NCL. Opera singers, etc. While docked in Cuba, a local music group (including a member of the Grammy award winning Buena Vista Social Club) performed in the theater. There was a fee for this show as it was arranged by the Excursion Desk. It was classic Cuban and absolutely worth every penny of the $35 US per person that we paid.
The food was standard, non-memorable, cruise food fare. I would rate the dining experience as "as expected." We only ate in the dining room once on the first "gala" night. There were only two things that we missed. A cup of coffee with dessert and iced tea. Coffee is considered a "bar" item and they couldn't bring it to us and I'm thinking iced tea might be an American thing. There are no optional restaurants on board. In both the dining rooms and in the buffet restaurant, you can purchase an upgraded dining choice of T Bone steaks and lobster tails. Expect to pay for any beverage you consume on the ship including water in the formal dining rooms. The only exception is free water by the glass and coffee, available 24 hours a day in the buffet restaurant. We purchased a water package, and received coupons for 14 liters of water. Fresh squeezed orange juice is available at breakfast for an additional charge.
Early departure - The itinerary of this cruise was to start and end in Havana. Mid way thru the cruise, it was announced that we could not return to Cuba due to hurricane Irma. The cruise would now end in Cozumel which was to be our last stop before going back to Cuba. The ship would stay there an extra night and bus all passengers to Cancun to make alternative flights home. We were concerned that busing 2,000 people to Cancun and finding alternative flights for everyone was a potential nightmare. We immediately began making our own plans to get home, in part, to avoid the crush of people trying to get out of Mexico, and also because we wanted to get home to Florida and prepare our home for the storm. Ultimately, at 12:00 noon we decided to get off the ship in Grand Cayman and fly home from there. The crew did an outstanding job making this happen for us. We had very little time and had to be processed by immigration before the ship left at 3:00 pm. They sent 2 people to our cabin to help get us to the last tender of the day and had a crew member escort us thru Cayman immigration. Without their enthusiastic assistance, we wouldn't have made it.
Overall - The Opera is clean, her staff is friendly, and the entertainment is interesting. We enjoyed visiting Havana and coming back to the ship for a break in the day and most meals. Very few passengers spoke English so I missed the social interaction you have on most cruises but given that seeing Cuba was our primary purpose, the cruise provided this in a convenient and interesting way.