By John and Sandra Nowlan
Americans among tourists visiting communist country more than 50 years after embrago
Cuba is not your traditional Caribbean cruise destination. Because of the U.S. embargo, it’s an entirely different experience that, until this year, has not been possible
To meet the ship, we flew WestJet directly to Montego Bay, where the 1,000-passenger Louis Cristal picks up and disembarks passengers each Friday.
Since Cuba still doesn’t have the infrastructure to service cruise ships, Jamaica is also the ideal country for provisions and fuelling.
It’s also ideal as the base for Americans to visit Cuba because, as we discovered, Cuban authorities do not stamp passports, so Americans need only declare that they have come from Jamaica.
For Canadians and others (there were actually 20 nationalities aboard) the ship also picks up passengers during its stop in Havana.
As we boarded the Louis Cristal we found a surprising number of modern facilities for an older ship (it was launched in the 1980s and has had several name changes and major refits).
There were only a few suites with balconies, but the rooms were comfortable and well equipped with servicing by friendly room stewards twice a day.
Since, in recent years, we’ve found Cuban resorts to be lacking in really good food, a huge plus on the Louis Cristal was its culinary team and provisions that came primarily from Canada and Jamaica.
The executive chef was a Frenchman who supervised excellent meals in the buffet, the main dining room and in the Alberta Steakhouse. That specialty restaurant costs extra ($39 a head) and flies its beef in from Calgary.
Visiting a resort usually limits any interaction with the authentic Cuba, so this cruise was a unique way to experience many sides of the country that tourists rarely see.
After leaving Montego Bay, our first stop was the city of Cienfuegos. Called “The Pearl of the South,” its central core is a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with colonial architecture, street musicians, horse-drawn carriages and colourful American cars from the 1950s.
A century-old palace, the Palacio de Valle, was particularly fascinating, but like many structures we saw throughout the country, badly in need of money for restoration.
After a beach day on the Isle of Youth, we sailed through the narrows into Havana harbour.
Approaching by sea offered a unique perspective of the harbour fortifications, the long seawall and the impressive skyline, dominated by the National Capitol Building, very similar to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, but just slightly taller (for bragging rights).
Havana is big (more than 2 million residents) but it’s also vibrant with a colourful cacophony of sights and sounds throughout the Old City (also a UNESCO World Heritage site).
Live musicians were performing on almost every street with plenty of people cramming the bars or strolling amidst pedal cabs, horse carts and taxis that were from another era.
We took the Hemingway Tour that visited his home (from 1940-60) with its hunting trophies and 8,000 books, and favourite bars.
After a day at sea we stopped at a small port near Holguin to visit the spot where Columbus landed in 1492 and enjoyed a display of aboriginal dances.
We also visited a local farm to see the hard-working life and minimal luxuries of Cubans, particularly in rural areas.
Our final stop was in the country’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba. Like Havana, it’s a vibrant community filled with music and pedestrians and boasting handsome colonial structures that, sadly, are in dire need of repair dollars.
The UNESCO-protected fort at the narrow harbour entrance, El Morro Castle, offers a superb panorama of the ocean and countryside.
Back on the Louis Cristal, a Santiago folklore dance group entertained us in the evening. In fact, local performers came aboard two other times — the National Circus of Cuba in Havana and a Flamenco troupe in Cienfuegos.
The ship’s Cuban band and resident singers and dancers were also outstanding, as were the acrobats from the Cirque Fantastic of Montreal. In total, it was the best cruise entertainment we’ve ever experienced.
To really understand Cuba, a resort visit doesn’t count. This cruise finally opens up much of the country so visitors can learn about its troubled past, current economic problems and cultural richness.
As a San Francisco guest told us, “It’s a beautiful Caribbean island, but with a lot more character than any other. This cruise is the perfect way to see it.”
John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Halifax.