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Year-Round Cruising to Both Sides Now

Straight talk here: I was leery of visiting Cuba by cruise ship. I worried that I’d have little or no opportunity to walk around without a guide. That I’d be eating “international” meals aboard the ship rather than Cuban food, let alone experiencing paladares or privately owned Cuban restaurants. And that I’d have few bona fide people-to-people interactions on this people-to-people trip. I packed these concerns along with my 6-outlet surge protector.

What intrigued me was that the Celestyal Crystal circumnavigates Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, so passengers get to experience Santiago, the former capital and the seat of the revolution, near the eastern tip of the island, as well as Trinidad and Havana, in the west of Cuba. That was a plus, because the overland trip between the two cities, Havana and Santiago, is so formidable—Cuba is 780 miles long—that few land-based tour operators manage it. Moreover, in November the Crystal, which has sailed this route for almost five years, decided to do it year-round, which no other ship is doing. Timely, because Fathom Cruise Line’s Adonia will terminate its Cuba cruises after April.

Cuban Cuisine, Demystified
Although many passengers meet the ship in Havana, I flew to Montego Bay and boarded there on a Friday, as most Americans do. Sailing from MoBay toward Cuba, Dr. Jorge Gonzalez-Arocha, the onboard lecturer, introduced himself to us: “Hello, I am your first Cuban!”

Gonzalez would not be our last, because the 400 crew members on this 480-cabin ship include 80 Cuban waiters, cooks, musicians, dancers, and acrobats who entertain the passengers, teach them to dance (no easy feat/feet), feed them well, and provide a Cuban cultural vibe at sea. Thus, cooking demonstrations that began with this axiom: “For Cuban cooking you need two things—garlic and a Cuban.” There was always at least one Cuban appetizer and entree at meals in the two restaurants, too. As explained by Nicholas Filippidis, director of product development in North America, the four pillars of Celestyal Cruises are “destination, entertainment, cultural experience, and cuisine.”

About 65 percent of the passengers were from the U.S., but although the Canadians and Europeans didn’t have to prove to their governments that they were on a people-to-people program, they chose to participate in the workshops and lectures, and they took virtually the same tours the Americans took. These were educated travelers—I met teachers, an architect, a physician, managers, and some very smart kids—eager for a cultural experience, not generic beaches.

Fidel’s Gravestone Stone
Santiago was the capital before Havana; it’s Cuba’s Kyoto. It’s also where, in 1953, a lawyer named Castro attacked the army barracks with a small force of volunteers. They botched the battle, but six years later, they won the war.

After visiting the barracks we went to an Afro-Cuban cultural center for a rousing dance performance, saw monuments to revolutionaries at Revolutionary Square, coveted heroically restored Buicks in the main plaza, and explored San Pedro, the imposing fortress (1638) at the mouth of the harbor. Some participants had asked the guide to abbreviate the stop at San Juan Hill (the Rough Riders, remember?) so we could see Castro’s gravestone. A shapeless boulder, it looks like a giant version of those faux rocks in suburban backyards that conceal speakers. By contrast, the sculpted shrine for 19th-century revolutionary Jose Marti towers over it. What does this mean?

It took all Sunday to get from Santiago to Havana, but we used the ship time well, with Cuba-focused lectures, workshops, dance classes, and for me, the first of several workouts in the ship’s small fitness center. I shared it with some of the Cuban entertainers, including a musician who told me how he’d managed to acquire a KORG keyboard (hint: it takes a village).

Poolside on board Celestyal Crystal.
Poolside on board Celestyal Crystal.

To Havana, with Love
In Havana we covered a lot of ground in two days, but between the excellent guide and the way sights and activities were juxtaposed, we didn’t feel rushed. Highlights for me: walking in grand plazas and on streets with shops specializing in spice, rum, and Victorinox knives. They looked privately owned; they weren’t. I was dazzled by 500 years of art in the National Museum of Fine Arts, paladar meals that gave me insights into Cuban-style enterprise, an optional evening at Tropicana (cast of 200!), a cigar smoking how-to in the courtyard of a colonial mansion, and a raucous ride in a vintage Pontiac. I also had time for solitary walks in untouristy neighborhoods.

Wednesday the Crystal sailed around the west tip of the island to Cienfuegos, on the south coast, from which we boarded a bus to Trinidad, a time capsule of traditional Cuba. After passing farmers riding in horse-drawn wagons, we entered a dusty old town with pastel colonial buildings, a Spanish Steps kind of scene where a superb band played for tips, and Chichi ceramic studio, where your normally shopaphobic correspondent actually bought a vase.

Not only did we explore a restored mega-mansion (the Museum of Colonial Architecture), but we dined in one, too—Restaurante Museum—at tables set with priceless glass and Chinaware.

Thursday night, while sailing back to Jamaica, the Cuban dancers invited volunteers to join them onstage, so I showed off my Judeo-Latino moves. One of the dancers with whom I’d shared the fitness center came over to give me a high five. That’s people-to-people.

Dollars and Sense
A lead inside cabin for cruises departing April 14 through Dec. 29 costs $1,495 pp dbl—15 percent EBD—if booked by April 30. That includes meals, entertainment, P2P shore excursions and onboard presentations, gratuities, port charges, meals, entertainment, and all beverages in the Blue Package (wine, beer, soft drinks, juices, spirits, and cocktails). Add the RT taxi from the airport ($100) and the mandatory health insurance for U.S. citizens ($48 pp), and the total is about $3,200 per couple for everything but the flight. To trade up to a lead oceanview stateroom only costs $450 more per couple. Commission is 12 percent minimum and as high as 15 percent, and extras such as the classic car tour and the Tropicana nightclub experience (about $100 pp) are commissionable.

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