Leave it to Viking Cruises to do things differently in Cuba.
With Viking’s first-ever season of Cultural Cuba cruises wrapped up (and another short season scheduled to run in November of 2018, and January-February of 2019), Viking has already crafted a robust journey, both onboard and ashore.
During my Cultural Cuba cruise in early December aboard Viking Sun, guests were invited to enjoy the line’s own inimitable Scandinavian comfort while sailing through the warm waters of the Caribbean. And, in keeping with Viking’s philosophy on the oceans, Viking crafted an itinerary to Cuba that just simply does what the other lines aren’t.
With more and more lines offering cruises to Cuba, here’s a look at what Viking does differently:
Most (but not all) cruise lines that visit Cuba right now call solely on the country’s capital, Havana. And Havana is a definite must-see on any visit to Cuba.
Viking, though, has crafted its itineraries differently. Beginning in 2018, Viking’s Cultural Cuba cruises will spend two and a half days anchored off Cienfuegos, Cuba, before spending an entire day docked in Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s eastern shores.
While tours are offered to Havana (more on that below), docking in these two unique cities allows cruisers to see another side of Cuba. Cienfuegos is a quiet seaside town that has more than a touch of Moorish influence, while Santiago de Cuba is a bustling port city that is, perhaps, most famous for its breathtaking seaside fortress, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca.
This Cuban-centric itinerary gives guests a full week to explore and enjoy Cuba, rather than peeling off to visit other Caribbean locales that, while nice, can be seen on virtually any Caribbean cruise.
With two-and-a-half full days docked in Cienfuegos, Cuba, Viking provides true overnight stays, both on-ship and on-shore. An included shore excursion to Havana even features an overnight stay in a five-star hotel property.
Other cruise lines have overnight excursions in Havana, but in many cases, these ships docking in the heart of Havana leave very early the next morning, limiting daytime tour options to just a single day.
The first thing you’ll notice about Viking’s itineraries in Cuba is that they don’t call on Havana directly. Instead, a variety of shore excursions – both full-day and 1.5-day overnight tours – are offered departing from the ship’s anchorage in Cienfuegos.
To be sure, the bus ride – about 3.5 hours each direction – is a long one. You’ll really feel the weight of the day when you return to the ship after having been ashore for over 12 hours on the full-day trip to Havana.
There are some advantages to this arrangement, however. Immigration formalities are far easier in Cienfuegos, and the drive to and from Havana gives guests the chance to see the countryside of Cuba as you travel from the southern side of the island to the North. The landscape is fascinating and ever-changing, and time flies by as you watch classic American cars compete with poorly-built Soviet ones and modern Asian imports.
While Viking always provides one or two excursions at no additional charge in each port of call, every Viking excursion in Cuba is complimentary – even the 1.5-day overnight stay in Havana. With current U.S. regulations mandating at least eight hours of guided, People-to-People excursions, touring can become quite an expensive proposition on other lines visiting Cuba.
Remember: you can’t just waltz off on your own here, due to the rules set forth by the U.S. This applies if you’re not from the United States. As a Canadian, even though I can visit Cuba freely, I have to abide by the U.S. rules since I set sail from a U.S. port of call.
Having an entire roster of complimentary tours, from kayaking adventures to walking tours to visits to Cienfuegos, Havana and Trinidad, is a huge win for Viking and its Cuba cruises.
Onboard Viking Sun, guest lecturers provided insights and lessons on Cuban culture and history that went far beyond the Cold War and its lasting repercussions. Often packed to standing-room only, these entertaining and informative lectures were held throughout the cruise, and repeated on the ship’s in-cabin entertainment system.
Viking also ran Cuban-themed movies, like Havana and Our Man in Havana, poolside and in the Star Theatre. Of course, a selection of locally-relevant movies (plus many others) was available on-demand in each stateroom.
The highlight, though, was a first-class performance put on in the Star Theatre by members of the famed Buena Vista Social Club. Far from being some trite cruise ship song-and-dance, this was the real deal, and brought a touch of Cuba’s rich musical history to guests aboard the Viking Sun.
For those looking to cruise to Cuba, Viking’s new Cultural Cuba itineraries are a great addition to the growing ranks of cruise lines sailing to this fascinating island destination.