The Ultimate Private Island Experience

So this is paradise! Cuba’s very own “Isle of Youth” in Punta Frances. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports January 12, 2014

Today is all about relaxation aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal . Just after 9am, we arrived at our anchorage off Punta Frances on Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud – or ‘Isle of Youth.’ The largest Cuban island, the Isle of Youth is situated on the southwestern edge of the Cuban mainland and is renowned for its breathtaking natural beauty.

The first tenders from Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal head ashore at Punta Frances. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

At the western tip of the island is Punta Frances National Park, which served as our very own private island oasis. Some Caribbean cruises include stops at the cruise line’s private Bahamian island, but I doubt most could hold a candle to the idyllic setting that guests aboard the Louis Cristal tendered ashore to today.

The striking Louis Cristal, as seen from the tenders. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Shaped like a half-moon and bordered by seas encompassing nearly every shade of blue in the spectrum, Punta Frances is the quintessential Caribbean postcard come to life. You know that shot in every cruise brochure with a swimsuit-clad couple strolling in the surf? Punta Frances makes that look like Winnipeg in the depths of winter.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The water here is so crystal-clear that I could see past the Plimsoll line and load markers on the Louis Cristal when I boarded the tender ashore, its propeller turning lazily in the water as passengers embarked. Once ashore, a long wooden walkway connects the sea with the ivory-coloured beach. I’ve seen fish tanks with more silt in them than there is in this water.

Looking back toward Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal from the pier. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Now, this is a good time to mention something: I’m not a beach person. My body was obviously built for climates that border on ‘arctic deep-freeze’, because the heat of the sun (31C today) generally turns my skin lobster-red regardless of how much sunblock I put on. You know those people who turn golden-bronze in the summer? That’s not me.

Conversely, I normally avoid the beach thing, even though I love to swim in the ocean. But, when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. So I went ashore, grabbed a beer, and spent two hours in a deck chair on the powdery sand basking in the sun that I hoped wouldn’t broil me alive.

Guests can relax in beach chairs or stroll along the surf for kilometres. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I should mention that Cuba Cruise had bar service running along the entire length of the beach, which was not unsubstantial. Just flash your cruise keycard, and drinks are brought forth as if by magic. It’s just one touch that has me comparing this cruise to the style offered by many luxury lines, despite the fact that this is most definitely not a luxury product. But that dedication to service is there in a way that simply doesn’t exist on many other ‘mainstream’ cruise products.

You can even participate in aquatics fun in the surf, outlined in the Cuba Cruise daily program. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

In fact, Cuba Cruise is difficult to categorize, because despite the fact that the Louis Cristal was and remains a mainstream cruise ship, I would not classify this as a mainstream cruise. This is a far more niche experience; a unique blend of river cruise culture, expedition adventure, luxury-style entertainment and excursions; and mainstream choice, all rolled into one. To be sure, it’s not an all-inclusive product, though there are special options like beverage packages that can make it appear moreso. But drink prices were very much in-line with what you’d expect from a mainstream cruise.

The only bone of contention I’ve heard so far, interestingly, comes from an item I  never use. In-stateroom safes carry a surcharge of CAD$24 for the week, which is rather unusual. It’s also something I think they should do away with. I have no idea what ratio of guests use the in-room safe, but $24 for the week seems like something that would unfairly antagonize guests.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I also took the opportunity to have a coconut with rum (what else?). But this is no kitschy drink you’d have in Cozumel; instead, a local Cuban went behind the hut, fetched a fresh coconut, and hacked it up with a massive machete. Top successfully decapitated, he passed it to the bartender who grabbed a bottle of Havana Club and held it vertical for several Cuban seconds. A straw was plopped in the opening, and I took my first sip of fresh, real coconut milk – Cuban-style.

As we tendered back to the Louis Cristal at 1:30pm – on the very last tender because, let’s face it, time flies when you are having fun – I marveled at the fact that Isla de la Juventud boasts a population of 100,000 inhabitants – yet we never saw a single soul who wasn’t from our ship.

Cuba. Postcard-perfect. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Back onboard the Louis Cristal, a poolside barbecue was waiting for us, with stations set up on the aft portion of Deck 9 in the shadow of the Stars Lounge. The food onboard has absolutely exceeded my expectations so far on this trip, both in terms of quality and variety. It’s easily above-average of what I’d expect of a ‘mainstream’ cruise, if perhaps not as elaborate.

Guests enjoy a delicious poolside barbecue back onboard the Louis Cristal. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I also want to mention how well the staff onboard treat my allergies to nuts. Every day at breakfast or dinner, La Scala Headwaiter Christos brings me the next day’s menus to select my meal options. He then has the galley prepare them separately to ensure there’s no chance there could even be traces of nuts in the meal. I truly appreciate the seriousness with which they treat my allergies, and those of the other guests onboard.

Louis Cristal’s Canadian, French and Cuban entertainment staff put on a show for guests near the Riviera Pool, Deck 9. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

A look at some of the things happening on our Cuba Cruise aboard Louis Cristaltoday:

  • 7:30am – Walkathon – Deck 5, Starboard
  • 8:00am – Wake Up & Stretch – Metropolitan Lounge, Deck 8
  • 11:00am – Ocean Aqua Fit – Ashore, on the Beach
  • 11:30am – Beach Sports – Ashore, on the Beach
  • 12:30pm – Aperitif Games and Dances – Ashore, on the Beach
  • 1:30pm – Lunchtime Melodies – Riviera Pool, Deck 9
  • 1:30pm – Sail Away Party – Riviera Bar, Deck 9
  • 3:00pm – Disembarkation Briefing for guests who embarked in Havana – Metropolitan Lounge, Deck 8
  • 3:30pm – Spanish Language Lesson – Rendezvous Bar, Deck 8
  • 4:00pm – Pictionary – Rendezvous Bar, Deck 8
  • 4:00pm – Musical Quiz – Riviera Bar, Deck 9
  • 4:00pm – Kids Activities – Kids Room, Deck 8
  • 4:30pm – Cruise Quiz – Rendezvous Bar, Deck 8
  • 4:30pm – Salsa Dance Lesson – Riviera Bar, Deck 9
  • 5:00pm – The Price is Right – Rendezvous Bar, Deck 8
  • 5:30pm – Bingo – Rendezvous Bar, Deck 8
  • 8:30pm – Dancing Melodies – Metropolitan Lounge, Deck 8
  • 9:00pm – Karaoke – Stars Lounge & Disco, Deck 10
  • 9:30pm – Cuba Cruises Show – Metropolitan Lounge, Deck 8
  • 11:00pm – Disco! Disco! – Stars Lounge & Disco, Deck 10

I also took part in a tour of the ship’s Navigation Bridge this afternoon. Available to book onboard for CAD$20 by signing up with reception, this gives guests an intimate look at how modern ships are operated. In the old days, cruise lines used to offer complimentary bridge tours like there was no tomorrow but today, it’s rare to be able to visit the bridge at all on many cruises.

Guests can book a guided tour of the Navigation Bridge for $20 per person. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Being originally built in 1980 – then almost totally rebuilt in 1992 – the bridge of the Louis Cristal is an interesting time capsule. It has all the bells-and-whistles you might expect of a modern cruise ship in terms of navigational technology, but it has some decidedly late 80’s throwbacks, too.

But it’s design was very forward-thinking for 1992: It has a main pilot house situated forward of the two bridge wings; a design that wouldn’t become popular aboard major cruise ships until Norwegian introduced Norwegian Star in 2001.

Louis Cristal’s starboard bridge wing. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Looking aft from the portside bridge wing along the length of the Louis Cristal in her Cuba Cruises livery. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Each bridge wing is also fully enclosed – another forward-thinking feature for 1992. It’s here, though, that the Louis Cristal belies her age: the control consoles have had to be retrofitted over the intervening two decades with a variety of gadgets like LCD monitors and digital readouts that have left the wing cabs with barely enough space for a single Officer to stand in place.

Looking forward from the navigation bridge as we sail to Havana. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

But the bridge of Louis Cristal is more spacious overall than many other vessels her size. There’s space for a six-person dining room table, two comfortable lounge chairs, and an Espresso machine – a must for any European officer.

Charting our course to Havana! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

When I visited just before 5pm, we were making an easy 18 knots over the water – top speed for the Louis Cristal, which will need every last knot to make it all the way to Havana for an on-time arrival tomorrow morning.

If you’re not a maritime buff like myself, Cuba Cruise also offers a unique package onboard that allows you to experience two of Cuba’s most-recognizable exports: cigars and rum. Available at the Caruso Cigar Bar on Deck 5, two different packages pair Cuba’s famous cigars with a rum tasting. Guests can purchase the CAD$49.95 package that includes a selection of five rums and a single Cuban cigar; or opt for the more comprehensive, Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea experience, which includes 11 rums and two cigars for CAD$89.95.

Strolling along Louis Cristal’s Promenade Deck on Deck 5. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I don’t smoke – at all – but there’s something that sounds very appealing about enjoying a fine Cohiba and some Cuban rums while the ship is at sea. I’m officially moving it from the ‘curiosity’ list onto the ‘must-do’ list before this voyage is over.

Since we had the afternoon at sea, I had time to simply enjoy the Louis Cristal – and that gives me a fantastic excuse to talk about this wonderful ship. There may not be any Swarovski crystal chandeliers onboard; or multi-story ziplines and waterslides, but this cozy ship has something that is becoming elusive on newer vessels: personality.

Taking in the sunset from the aft portion of Deck 7, overlooking the ship’s stern and the Caruso Cigar Bar on Deck 5. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

She’s a bit of an oddball ship, too: her promenade deck on Deck 5 is wonderfully open, but her sun deck on Deck 10 is disjointed and truncated, yet filled with often-missed spots like the lookout forward of the ship’s radar masts. But that’s the only disjointed spot on the ship; the rest of the Louis Cristal has a very modern ebb and flow to her general arrangement, with public rooms that cascade attractively into one another.

It also has some unique features for a ship her size, including the two-story Metropolitan Show Lounge on Deck 8 and five separate dining areas that are designed to break up the passenger complement onboard into manageable chunks.

Louis Cristal may be small, but she certainly isn’t lacking in the Spa department, with an unusually-large complex located all the way forward on Deck 9. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The Louis Cristal  also has a surprisingly comprehensive Spa all the way forward on Deck 9, filled with multiple treatment rooms and even a massive Jacuzzi that can be booked as part of a spa package. Most ships of this size and age often have Spas that are all but a passing thought, and it’s great to see that this one – while not sprawling or overly extravagant – is quite modern in terms of design and amenities.

Sailing into the sunset. Note the retractable glass “Magrodome” over the Riviera Pool on Deck 9. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders The setting sun is reflected on the exterior of Star’s Disco & Lounge on Deck 10. Note that the Louis Cruises logo on the funnel has been replaced with Cuba Cruise’s very own insignia. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

There’s not a lot of information on the internet about this interesting ship, and I hope I can help fill that void. I have many favorite ships that I love to sail on time and time again, and Louis Cristal has definitely made my list of ships to repeat. If it’s in Cuba – all the better!

My Category XF Stateroom on Deck 7, as seen at dusk. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, we’re bound for Havana. Some guests will disembark tomorrow, having reached the end of their Cuba Cruise. My Cuba Cruise, however, is still well underway – and I look forward to seeing what the Cuban capital of Havana has to offer. I’ll be doing a city tour in the morning, a guided walking tour and dinner in Havana at night.

It’s going to be another exciting day.

Sailing into the sunset aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal. 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