Cuba is a land of deep contrast. The effects of a 50 year US embargo are seen in the decay of the cities especially in Havana but the country lives on with a vibrant culture of amazingly strong people that thrive despite its own governments restrictions and the countries lack of employment opportunities. The main cities including Havana seem to be starting a revival of sorts with a modernization of older buildings, burgeoning art scene, opening of new restaurants, and all great things Cuban that never went away even during the last 50 years where time seems to have stood still.
Today, Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba via the People to People ALLOWED experiences for travel under 12 US government set categories and one I highly recommend for travel to CUBA before it really changes with proposed development is a Cuba Cruise. Cruising allows for a comfortable and affordable way to see this unique and VERY special island… Current US government allowances have approved travel programs to about 24 land and sea travel companies for US citizens to travel to Cuba. Currently, land tours average $800-$1000pp a day which is quite pricey for the quality of experiences offered! The quality of hotel offerings are few, quality is pretty low barring a couple of exceptions, and guests who participate in a land tour are hand held by a guided program most of their time ashore… A cruise offers a reliable way to see ports without long land distance coach tours from city to city traversing this large and beautiful island on unreliable roads and provides a comfortable home at sea to go to at the end of a day’s tour while visiting the various ports.
My cruise offered a 7-day Montego Bay itinerary and frankly the BEST of the cruise programs I have seen thus far. The ship sailed from Montego Bay to Santiago de Cuba (birthplace of Castro’s Revolution), a day at Sea, 2 full days and overnight in Havana (Capital and gem of Cuba), a beach day at unspoiled Maria La Gorda, and the artistic town of Cienfuegos with its amazing art galleries and Greek Revival architecture!
Going to Cuba and People To People Requirements
All American Citizens and US residents (regardless of nationality) must complete a People To People application and make a $95per person donation. The best way to do this is use the link and follow the simple instruction: http://form.jotform.us/form/51693819046160
Additionally, all travelers are required to purchase medical insurance that is valid in Cuba. The cost is affordable $4.50 per person a day for Special Insurance if under 70 and slightly more if you are over 70, there is a $3 per person a day supplement. The link to do purchase this is: https://cubagrouptour.com/information/cuba/insurance/booking/index.html
Many US insurance companies like MH Ross now sell insurance that covers travel to cub for trip cancellation, interruption, and medical. This is separate from the above medical insurance!
Cuban visas are provided at embarkation. Guests must carry this as well as their passport in all ports of call when going on tour or going on an independent visit.
Embarkation was smooth after a 2.5 hour flight from Houston. There are abundant flights to Montego Bay from many US gateways. The port is a short 15 minute ride from the airport and costs around $35 for a cab. The pier embarkation process takes just minutes and ones luggage arrives to the guests cabin simultaneously as the guest!
Disembarkation was smooth but Jamaican officials are slow in reviewing forms and this process takes more time. Do not plan a flight out before 1130am… Luggage is taken ashore and the process is completed from around 8:30-10:00am. The return cab costs the same.
The Celestyal Crystal by Cuba Cruise
This 3.5 Star ship has a storied career and was built originally in 1983 as a car ferry but was widely known in the 1990’s as NCL’s Leeward offering 3-4 day Bahamas cruises. She has been recently partially refurbished by her Greek owners and offers 7-day cruises from both Montego Bay for Americans and Havana for foreign nationals. Crystal is only 25,000 tons, carries on average 800 passengers, 9 decks, and is 532 feet long!
The ship is vintage 1990’s, intimate, comfortable, and immaculately clean. Her cabins are spacious in most categories and while a bit dated in style, they are kept clean by a delightful cabin crew. Cabin bathrooms vary based on the cabin type and the higher the cabin type, the larger the shower stall. Celestyal Cruises just rebuilt the ship in November of 2015 and added some 53 balcony cabins to the vessel increasing overall comfort. The public areas offer a large show lounge, main bar, some smaller meeting rooms, outdoor aft bar with Jacuzzi (very popular, 2 dining rooms, a buffet restaurant, a small pool with sliding glass dome and is air conditioned, a spa, hair salon, large gift shop for the size of the ship, and a tiny casino with slots and 3 gaming tables.
Onboard Service & Crew
The ship has a multi-national crew with 20% Cuban staffing for the Cuba Cruises. The staff are quite friendly and work incredibly hard. The bar and dining service seem to be slower than most ships and this creates longer than usual waits for guests. Peak hours at dinner time 7-8pm create longer waits and the ship offers only open seating in the two main dining rooms along with a buffet up by the pool nightly to help offset waiting time but dinners usually lasted 2 hours or more due to lengthy waits between courses. Bar staff were taxed as the company now offers all-inclusive beverage programs and guests tend to drink more than on other ships!
The front office staff were always helpful and friendly but questions abounded frequently due to the newness of the ship (my sailing was only the third). Cabin staff were most helpful and kept cabins quite clean with two daily cabin and bathroom cleanings. One had to request hand towels which was odd. Bathrobes are provided for higher grade cabins. The gift shop staff were very friendly and always very helpful.
The ships officers were aloof and not nearly as friendly as I have experienced on other Greek ships. This was a bit of a disappointment but did not ruin the experience.
The affable Cruise Director Danny was one of the nicest I have encountered, her attended to a long list of activities including one-of-kind nightly 1 hour review shows (some featuring Cuban history like a show called Revolution). The singers were very good and the amount of offerings was more than most lines provide during a week. The ship also offered extensive Cuban dance, cooking lessons and activities around the People To People Immersion program, and a fantastic Cuban lecture series during the week which was quite detailed and interesting. There were usual vegetable carving classes by the cooking staff, and other normal shipboard activities during the time at sea.
Breakfast and lunch were mostly buffet style in the restaurant with some special order items and the offerings were fairly extensive but the quality was mostly average at best. All dining is open seating onboard so you most arrive with your party if you are traveling as a group of family. The food ranged from good to poor based on what you ordered and this was the downfall. I had some delicious and poor offerings all in the same meal selection so quality of preparation and delivery varied. The fish offerings were the best (not the Shrimp though). The deck BBQ was also quite good. I ended up ordering excellent Asian noodles with chicken several times which came on a steaming hot grill… Menu choices were the same as most ships but quality did vary. I heard the steaks were very thin and tough. The ship did offer a paid for upgrade for better quality steaks, shrimp, and lobster for a fee from $14.95 to $25.95 per person depending on the upgrade. Room service also came with a charge that was $6.95pp for continental breakfast and then a full varied menu that ranged from $4.45pp for sweet to$7.45pp for Pizza’s. The dining experience was pretty basic as I find on most mass market 3-4 star rated ships, but I certainly did not starve.
Excursions and People To People Tours
All tours for the P2P program are offered daily and guests can actually upgrade tours in some ports and include nighttime show like the famous and historic Tropicana nightclub show in Havana… The offerings were mostly interesting and executed in a fairly timely manner in each port of call . The coaches were very comfortable fairly new, and had excellent A/C under the government owned Transtur. The guides are also provided by the government and varied in quality. I had very good Cuban guides except for the first day in Cuba wherein the guide barely spoke English and had a hard time communicating. When ashore, groups were 50 plus in size and it was nearly impossible to hear the guide speak in any noisy outdoor environment. The cruise line needs to invest is the whisper system for these type of tours to allow guests to get more out of their experience. All-in-all, I enjoyed the tours and learned quite a bit about Cuba and its people.
My Last Impression
Celestyal Cruises offers the most affordable way currently to see Cuba. Other cruise lines charge significantly more and offer less time in ports as they sail from Miami or offer fewer port visits. Celestyal Cruises does not demand participation in the People To People program which allows guests to go ashore on their own if they like and not have to attend all lectures and Cuban based programming if they are not wanting to do so. I felt this made the overall program open to guests desire to learn as they wished and participate in the amazing destination that Cuba offers with its lack of US restaurants, shops, business, and influence. The Cuban people are kind, warm, willing to talk to you and have a strength that is amazing given their strict communist government implications. The restaurants are becoming abundant and some are downright amazing and incredibly affordable, there are exceptional art & ceramic galleries with superb unheard of prices. One can procure masterful paintings at a fraction of the price than nearly anywhere else in the world. There are incredible museums, well-kept antique American cars fill the streets, and beautiful song and dance are abundant everywhere. American’s can bring home Cuban Cigars and Rum now but all purchases for art works, gifts, and the aforementioned must be made in cash. Some vendors took US cash but most took only the Convertible CUC (Cuban Peso). There were change kiosk’s in every port allowing guest to convert the currency of their choice. I loved my Cuba experience, enjoyed going now before things radically change, and encourage anyone who wants to experience a vacation that is like stepping back some 50 years to do it now before things really do change!