Exploring Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal At Sea

Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal, seen here at anchor off Punta Frances, Cuba, earlier this week. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

January 14, 2014

Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal is sailing the Caribbean Sea for Antilla, Bahia de Nipe today. At a distance of 443 nautical miles from Havana, Antilla will be our gateway to the inland city of Holguin, which was originally founded in 1545 as San Isidoro de Holguin.

But that’s for tomorrow. Today, guests can relax and settle into their shipboard routines as the Louis Cristal thunders through the water at an easy 18 knots.  For me, a sea day is a great excuse to focus completely on the ship, and Louis Cristal is quite the ship.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

If cats have nine lives, Louis Cristal is the purring pet of the cruising world. Onboard information has the ship’s construction date pegged as 1980, but that’s really a bit unfair – except for a few hull plates and propeller shafts, very little of the original 1980 ship known as Viking Saga still exists.

Following a fire aboard the ship – then called Sally Albatross ­– she was extensively rebuilt from the keel-up in 1992, and underwent further changes in 1995 following a grounding. The Baltics had not been kind to Sally Albatross, and she was leased to Norwegian Cruise Line in 1995 as their Leeward.

The gorgeous Promenade on Deck 5 is one of my favorite spaces aboard the Louis Cristal. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Operating almost exclusively in the Caribbean, Leeward was a huge success for Norwegian, but didn’t fit in with their changing fleet structure, which by the late part of the 1990’s was trending towards larger vessels. Leeward then became SuperStar Taurus for Asia-based Star Cruises before ending up back in the Baltics as Silja Opera for Silja Line in 2002.

Once again, the Baltics treated Silja Opera unfairly. Silja was having difficulty making money off of the vessel’s short voyages from Stockholm to Tallinn, and a series of embarrassing navigational mishaps in Russia weren’t helping matters. Silja was eager to offload Silja Opera, and her saviour swooped down in the form of Cyprus-based Louis Cruises, who placed her into service in 2007 in the Mediterranean.

The Internet Cafe, Deck 5. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Reception Lobby, Deck 5. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

In the intervening years, Louis has taken superb care of the Louis Cristal. Public rooms sparkle with new carpeting and soft furnishings, and the ship has some decidedly unique features that really make her a pleasure to sail aboard.

For Cuba Cruise, this is the ideal ship: sleek and intimate, but still offering all the amenities you’d expect from a proper cruise ship, like multiple dining venues, lounges and entertainment hubs. So let’s take a virtual walk around the decks of the gorgeous little Louis Cristal!

Staterooms

A Category XC Outside Stateroom on Deck 3. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal has 480 staterooms onboard, spread across 17 different categories. The two highest categories – SI and SB – are full suites that feature balconies. But there are also six additional suites that feature picture-windows, while the rest of the accommodations are made up of inside and outside staterooms of varying sizes and deck locations.

Category XBO Staterooms on Deck 6 are slightly smaller and feature obstructed views due to the lifeboats positioned outside the window. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Don’t let the lack of balconies aboard Louis Cristal put you off. Unlike many newer ships that treat oceanview and interior staterooms as an afterthought, staterooms here are surprisingly well designed. What’s even more interesting is that they’re also very different from one another in terms of décor and styling.

I had the opportunity to tour some of the staterooms here onboard Louis Cristal, and I liked what I saw. Perhaps not surprisingly, all the suites were booked, so I wasn’t able to photograph any of those.

A Category ID Inside Stateroom on Deck 6. The drapes on the wall are a nice touch. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

It’s worth noting that Room Service aboard Cuba Cruise carries a per-item surcharge. I’ve never been a big room service person, so this wasn’t an enormous deal to me, but it’s something to be aware of. Room service prices were reasonable (approximately $7 for a hamburger), and are priced like everything else onboard in Canadian Dollars.

Category XE Deluxe Staterooms on Deck 6 are identical to XF rooms on Deck 7 with the exception of the bedspreads. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders The bathroom of my Category XF Stateroom is indicative of most – but not all – stateroom bathrooms. Those in lower categories lack the proper shower doors, favoring the ‘dreaded shower curtain’ instead. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Elevators and Corridors

It’s an odd thing to take photos of, but one that I always like to pay attention to. Getting around Louis Cristal is a snap, thanks to an aft elevator and stairwell bank that features dual staircases and dual glass elevators – a rare feature aboard ships of this size. The forward staircase is more simplistic in its design, with dual staircases and an unassuming bank of elevators.

The Forward Staircase aboard Louis Cristal. Elevators are to the right, out of the shot. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders The Aft Stairwell, as seen from Deck 5. This stairwell is larger and more elaborate, flanked by glass elevators and multi-coloured LED lighting. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Corridor design is pleasant and colourful, and stateroom doors are nicely accented with easy-to-read signage. Guests staying on Decks 6 and 7 will find doorways all the way aft on the corridor that open to the outdoor decks.

Public Rooms

The Rendezvous Bar on Deck 8 is a major social hub aboard the Louis Cristal. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Here’s where the Louis Cristal really excels: her public areas are more modern, spacious and inviting than you might expect, and passenger flow is excellent, with no bottleneck corridors or spaces. She even boasts a small, out-of-the-way Casino and a dedicated Sports Bar that’s one of the most attractive, if under-utilised, spaces onboard.

The attractive but under-utilised Sports Bar. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders The attractive La Scala Dining Room on Deck 8 features breakfast, lunch and dinner on my sailing. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

For me, though, it doesn’t get much better than Stars Lounge and Disco high atop Deck 10. Wrapping around the ship’s funnel casing, the port side of Stars is a true Disco through-and-through, with thudding music, crimson lighting and a variety of seating options and dance areas.

Stars Disco and Lounge is located on Deck 10. The starboard side, shown here, is quieter and more subdued than its nightclub counterpart on the port side. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The starboard side, however, is warm, elegant and inviting, with semi-circular booths situated along the inner walls that face outward to the sea. At the aft end of the Lounge is the actual Bar, with tables suited for standing at in clear view of the ship’s wake.

Stars Lounge & Disco can be seen in the upper left corner of this photograph. Louis Cristal’s open deck spaces are one of her greatest features. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

But to be perfectly honest, unless you’re a ship geek like myself, this is not a trip you make for the Louis Cristal alone. If you absolutely cannot live without your balcony stateroom, multi-story atriums, waterfalls, glass-blowing demonstrations, ziplines and the like, you’ll come away disappointed.

But if you want to visit Cuba, however, it’s tough to beat the Louis Cristal. Cuba Cruise doesn’t own her; Louis Cruises does. I’m always leery of seasonal ship charters because quality often tends to fall by the wayside. Guests can become confused easily about what ship they’re actually on, and crews can be unsure about who their bosses are. River cruise lines face this problem quite frequently in Russia, where they typically charter ships that are named one thing in English, but are painted and labeled differently in Russian. Crews are trained by the river cruise line but are beholden to the operating line. It can be a real mess.

Distinctive Cuba Cruise branding is everywhere onboard – and it’s a thoughtful touch you should care about. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Cuba Cruise, on the other hand, went to the expense to have Louis Cristal painted in their own livery, complete with colourful flowers running along her port and starboard sides. The Louis Cruises logo has been removed from the funnel and replaced with Cuba Cruise’s very own. Branding onboard – from the bar menus right down to the stateroom keycards – is entirely Cuba Cruise. In fact, the only Louis Cruises branding I saw onboard were the printed coasters placed under drinks in the lounges.

The Riviera Pool is located amidships on Deck 9. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

It’s an important detail to me, and it should be an important detail to you as well. It’s a sign that Cuba Cruise has put great thought, time, and expense into ensuring the onboard product is as tailor-made for Cuba as possible, and also for the Canadian and international guests that will be sailing onboard. It’s neither cheap nor easy to ship Alberta Beef and Canadian beer to Jamaica for provisioning, but they do it. Bunkering (or fueling) also takes place in Jamaica, and the crew seem very adept at handling two turnaround days per week.

The modestly-sized gymnasium on Deck 9 forward. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

In short, Cuba Cruise and Louis Cruises are in this together for the long-haul. At the conclusion of the Cuba Cruise season in late March, Louis Cristal will sail for Piraeus, where the Cuba Cruise branding will be removed and replaced for the ship’s Mediterranean season. But in the fall, she’ll go back into drydock. The flowers will be added. The funnel logos will be swapped out. And Louis Cristal will sail across the Atlantic once more.

The Alberta Prime Steakhouse; Deck 9, starboard. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I like Cuba Cruise because it’s an entirely unique experience, aimed at a totally different brand of cruise passenger. No other line in the world is doing this. No other line caters to Canadians like this. The international passenger mix is refreshing. The excursions are guided by local Cuban guides who love their country and are passionate about sharing it with you. The crew of the Louis Cristal are excited because they’re in a region of the world they normally never get to see. The guests are excited because they’re in a part of the Caribbean they’ve either never seen or cruised to.

That atmosphere onboard, to me, is worth more than the bells and whistles on larger ships. Sure, I like my large ships. They’re fun. But I don’t need to sail aboard one with ten waterslides or a bumper-car arena or even one with hundreds of balcony staterooms in order to have a good time.

Louis Cristal Captain Stathis Goumas toasts guests in the Metropolitan Lounge this evening. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Perhaps that is what impresses me most about Cuba Cruise: the focus is on the destination. And when the spotlight isn’t on Cuba, it shines on the unique onboard atmosphere here on the Louis Cristal. It’s a great ship to simply enjoy being at sea on.

When did that become such a bad thing?

Sailing off into the night 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