A One-of-a-kind Cruise to a one-of-a-kind Country

Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal docked pierside in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

January 10, 2014

Just after noon today, my taxi from the Sea Garden Resort pulled up at the Montego Bay – Freeport Cruise Terminal to a welcome sight: Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal.

Sporting a fresh coat of white paint adorned with vibrant flowers – the signature emblem of Cuba Cruise – the Louis Cristal sparkled in port. Originally constructed in 1980 as a Baltic car ferry, she was completely rebuilt from the keel up in 1992 and enjoyed a stint in the mid-1990’s as Norwegian Cruise Line’s Leeward.

Louis Cristal has been repainted in the Cuba Cruise brand; a fun, whimsical display that differentiates this interesting ship from her Greek Islands itineraries for Cyprus-based Louis Cruises. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Now, she sails for Cyprus-based Louis Cruises. Her regular itineraries take her throughout the Mediterranean, but this winter she calls the Caribbean – and Cuba in particular – home.

Embarkation was a simple, if confusing affair. I’m so used to embarkations that feature snaking lineups that never seem to end that arriving at a deserted terminal – save for a handful of Jamaican security and customs personnel – really threw me for a loop.

But once through Jamaican customs and the cursory security check, I was walking up the gangway aboard the Louis Cristal, where I was personally escorted to the Reception Desk on Deck 5 to collect my keycard and establish my onboard account.

Everything onboard has been created exclusively by and for Cuba Cruise, from the deck plans to bar menus to daily programs. It’s a fabulous touch you don’t often see. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Being Canadian, I have simply come to accept that every time I cruise, I will need a foreign currency, be it US Dollars or Euros or Pounds Sterling. But everything aboard this Cuba Cruise is priced in Canadian Dollars – and all onboard information is delivered in both of Canada’s two official languages, English and French.

So this is a rarity for me – the first time in nearly 50 cruises that I have been able to pay for onboard purchases in my native currency! However, it is worth noting that both US Dollars and Euros are also accepted as cash payments on accounts.

Louis Cristal’s bright and inviting Reception Desk on Deck 5 handles check-in. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Since I was at the Reception Desk, I decided to purchase my Cuban Visa at a cost of $30 Canadian Dollars. Cuban Visas are normally issued to travellers once onboard their flights to Cuba and are typically included in the cost of the airfare. Here, they come at an additional cost, but it’s really negligible. I’ll gladly part with the cash to avoid the bureaucratic red tape that going through a local embassy might necessitate.

My Category XF Deluxe Oceanview stateroom on Deck 7. It may not have a balcony, but the sitting area is a fantastic feature. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

From Reception, I was personally escorted to my Category XF Deluxe Oceanview stateroom on Deck 7. There are only ten staterooms aboard Louis Cristal with balconies, so it’s hardly surprising that all the top-level staterooms and suites are sold out on this voyage.

The view from my stateroom, facing the door and bathroom. No shortage of storage space! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Still, I am impressed at how large my stateroom is. It has a comfortable sitting area with a fold-out couch and a chair, along with a small table and a large picture window. There’s also enough storage space onboard for two to comfortably mange for a week, though it might get tough with the room at maximum occupancy of three guests. I also wasn’t able to slide my empty suitcase under the bed, so keep that in mind if you’re planning to bring lots of luggage. Less is definitely more!

Suites and some categories feature Italian toiletries, while standard staterooms come with typical pump dispensers for soap and shampoo. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

My stateroom also features numerous lighting options, from two reading lamps to a wall sconce to a lamp over the desk to five overhead potlights. There are both European and North American-style power outlets, but for maximum efficiency you’ll want to bring a travel converter along with you.

In short, it’s the largest oceanview stateroom I’ve had in a long time.

It’s also extremely well-branded. Everything onboard has been custom-designed by Cuba Cruise, from the room service menus to the bar menus to the ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs. Even the logo on the funnel has changed. Bravo to them for that; ship charters often change nothing, resulting in a large amount of passenger confusion.

Refurbished last summer, the Louis Cristal is in excellent shape for a ship built (more or less) in 1992. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The Louis Cristal underwent a refurbishment last summer, and the results are apparent: new carpeting and soft furnishings are present throughout, and the ship generally sparkles. The ship is also impeccably clean, with constant painting, polishing and vacuum cleaning going on.

Obviously if you’re expecting the Oasis of the Seas, you’re going to be disappointed. This is a mid-1990’s vessel, through-and-through. But there’s this beautiful nostalgic quality to the Louis Cristal that I really enjoy; it reminds me of the very first cruise ship I ever sailed aboard, the 1993-built Norwegian Wind.

Lots to Love: the terraced open decks at the aft end of Louis Cristal are immensely popular with guests, most notably the Caruso Bar visible on Deck 5. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

If you can get behind that, you’ll find there’s lots to love about this little ship. The open deck space – from the Promenade on Deck 5 to the tapered aft open decks on Decks 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 and the Sun Deck on Deck 10 – is simply unmatched on many newer, larger cruise ships. To be fully honest, the Sun Deck is a bit of a disappointment – the faded blue decking could really use a repaint – but I wonder who aside from myself will really care when the rest of the ship has been so well maintained.

She may be small, but Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal has some unique features, like glass elevators and attractively designed staircases. Pictured here is the Aft Stairwell, looking down from Deck 8. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Fully loaded, Louis Cristal can carry 1,200 guests. But today, there are less than 200 onboard – meaning this sleek little ship just turned into my own private yacht. Don’t expect things to stay that way, though: this is the post-Christmas lull, and more guests will be embarking on Monday in Havana. While still far short of maximum capacity, it’s a great sign – and a welcome change of pace from megaships that are filled to third-and-fourth-berth capacity on each sailing.

One of my favorite spots onboard is the Rendezvous Lounge on Deck 8, a part of which is shown here (facing aft). Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Because I’m a huge ship guy, I want to talk quickly about two of my favorite public rooms so far: the Rendezvous Lounge on Deck 8, and Stars Lounge and Disco on Deck 10. Both are beautifully-decorated spaces to while away your time with a good book or simply enjoying the passing sea outside, but kudos have to go to the Viking Crown Lounge-esque Stars Lounge on Deck 10 for its 180-degree wraparound views overlooking the ship’s port, starboard and aft sides. By night, it becomes a disco, faithfully maintained by the crew despite the lack of night-owls on my sailing.

The two-level Metropolitan Show Lounge on Deck 8 will be your nightly source of entertainment while onboard Cuba Cruise. And from what I’ve seen tonight, it promises to be very unique indeed. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Following an embarkation briefing in the two-story Metropolitan Show Lounge at 4:30pm, Louis Cristal soon cast her lines off and slipped away from Montego Bay, rolling ever so slightly as she left the relative shelter of the harbour. She’s amazingly vibration-and-rattle-free; something not every cruise ship built in the early 1990’s can hold claim to.

To rewind slightly, I had one of the more enjoyable embarkation lunches I’ve ever had in the open-seating La Scala Restaurant aft on Deck 8 this afternoon. I dined with two couples from Ontario and a couple from Denmark. The couple from Denmark and one of the couples from Ontario have been onboard since the Louis Cristal docked in Havana on Monday, and both absolutely raved about the experience so far. Both are experienced cruisers too, with numerous voyages on other lines under their belts.

Having that kind of testimonial on embarkation day from experienced cruisers really made me sit up and pay attention. Another unique first.

The Alberta Steakhouse on Deck 9 is one of Cuba Cruise’s Canadian innovations, and a nod to the line’s Alberta-based headquarters. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Which brings me to the food: it’s delicious. Not just good, but delicious. Most of the ingredients are imported straight from Canada, but the fish I had for lunch was so fresh I almost through the head chef had his line cast from the stern of the ship all morning. It’s not Relais & Chateaux, but it’s damn good, and there’s something that should please every palette.

Before I moved to Vancouver, I grew up in the prairie city of Calgary, Alberta – home to the famous Calgary Stampede and the equally-famous Alberta Beef. So tonight, I dined in the Alberta Prime Steakhouse on the starboard side of Deck 9.

Decisions, decisions! Choices abound at the Alberta Steakhouse aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Available at an extra charge of $39 (that’s Canadian, remember!) per person, this was one of the most surprising steakhouse experiences I’ve had onboard a ship.

Firstly, all the dishes are presented to you in person before ordering. Mouthwatering might be a good descriptor for this simple but effective gesture. Appetizers consisted of a mind-boggling array of seafood, Canadian cheeses, meats, fuits and vegetables. You can ask for what you’d like or, as I did, ask for a little of everything – which proved to be a meal in itself.

Believe it or not, this is my “appetizer”! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Then, there’s your choice of soup or salad. This is followed by the main event: multiple cuts of succulent Alberta Beef, cooked-to-order and accompanied by your choice of sides and sauces. Not a beef fan? Don’t worry: indulge your tastebuds with roasted chicken, baby-back ribs, fish, and more. You won’t go hungry here.

When my steak came, I was so excited that I forgot to snap a photo!

Dessert. Wow! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

This, of course, is accompanied by dessert – in my case, a massive fruit bowl topped with blue curacao liquor. A magnificent meal – and truly, the kind I only experience on luxury or expedition lines these days.

So 9:30pm rolls around. Dinner slowly draws to a close after an enjoyable two-and-a-half hours. And the small press group I am fortunate to be a part of suggests we all see the evening show in the Metropolitan Lounge on Deck 8 forward.

Stunning acrobatic performances are coupled with Cuban entertainers and traditional entertainment to create shows like nothing I’ve ever seen before on a ship. The quality and caliber of the work is remarkable. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Now, I have to be honest: after 40-some cruises, I rarely attend the production shows anymore. I used to love them, but there’s only so many times I can see “A Tribute to Motown!” or “FABBA-licious!” or “60’s Mania” before I want to pull my eyeballs out.

But Cuba Cruise has enlisted respected Cuban director, producer and composer Enrique Nunez – Director of the National Theatre in Havana for over 25 years – to provide the Cuban-themed entertainment onboard. They’ve also partnered with Montreal-based Cirque Fantastic, which was founded by former Cirque du Soleil performer Marie-Josee Levesque.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The result was an hour-long show that combined acrobatics with classical operatic performances, Cuban songs, magic shows, and even audience participation to create one of the more engaging shows I’ve seen in a long time.

When that was over, the cast invited everyone up to dance. I always seem to get roped into this stuff despite not being able to dance to save my life, but this evening something clicked – maybe it was the French wine or the Canadian beer – and I was actually able to keep up with the steps.

It was just a fun, original evening here onboard the Louis Cristal.

If tonight’s show is any indication, entertainment here onboard is going to be of a very high standard. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Now, I know I’m waxing enthusiastic about this – but that’s because I’m truly excited about this cruise. It’s absolutely pushing all the right buttons for me, and I’m deadly serious when I say that the onboard product here is more akin to river cruising or expedition cruising than mainstream cruising. So forget that the Louis Cristal is owned and operated by Louis Cruises – a very successful mainstream line from Cyprus. When she is in Cuba, Louis Cristal is far from a mainstream ship.

The attractive dining room on Deck 8 features floor-to-ceiling windows for perfect views of the Caribbean. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

It’s only my first day onboard, but there’s something truly special about this voyage. Cuba Cruise may have selected a small, mainstream ship to operate this itinerary, but there’s absolutely nothing mainstream about this cruise. This is the cruise for those who want a unique experience. Original entertainment. Authentic experiences ashore.

This is Cuba Cruise, and it’s as original a cruise product as I’ve seen in a long time.

Departing Montego Bay and heading off into the Caribbean Sea, where the island of Cuba awaits us. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Circumnavigating Cuba with a Canadian Twist

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
Thursday, January 8, 2014PreviewFlying to Jamaica.
Thursday, January 9, 2014Montego Bay, JamaicaArrival in Jamaica; overnight stay.
Friday, January 10Montego Bay, JamaicaEmbark5:30 PM
Saturday, January 11Cienfuegos / Trinidad, Cuba10:00 AM9:00 PM
Sunday, January 12Punta Frances / Isle of Youth, Cuba10:00 AM2:00 PM
Monday, January 13Havana, Cuba8:30 AM01:00 AM +1
Tuesday, January 14At Sea
Wednesday, January 15Holguin, Cuba7:30 AM6:30 PM
Thursday, January 16Santiago de Cuba, Cuba9:00 AM9:00 PM
Friday, January 17Montego Bay, Jamaica7:00 AMDisembark