To Cuba and Back

Cuba Cruise's Louis Cristal arrives back in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal arrives back in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

January 18, 2014

It may be that as the pages of history are turned, brighter futures and better times will come to Cuba.

–          Winston Churchill, 1895

Coming alongside in Montego Bay earlier this morning. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Coming alongside in Montego Bay earlier this morning. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Sadly, I’m back to where I started last week aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal , which means two things: I’m back in Montego Bay, Jamaica; and my circumnavigation of Cuba has come to a close.

Over the course of the past week, I not only got to sail aboard a ship I’d always wanted to visit, but I was also treated – along with the other guests aboard Louis Cristal – to an intimate look at the fascinating Caribbean island that is Cuba. Complex, mysterious and far from clear-cut, Cuba is the ultimate destination for those who tire of the commercialisation that runs rampant over many Caribbean islands.

Land-resort vacations to Cuba are nothing new. Cruising to Cuba, on the other hand, is an extraordinarily rare experience.

If you missed it, here’s a look back at our day-by-day Live Voyage Report aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal:

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

This is also an excellent time to answer some of the questions readers have sent me over the past two weeks:

Which is the better embarkation port – Montego Bay or Havana?

Classic American automobiles are still prevalent throughout Cuba - but their numbers are dwindling. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Classic American automobiles are still prevalent throughout Cuba – but their numbers are dwindling. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Personally, I don’t know that there’s a better embarkation port – mostly, I’d leave the decision up to which port of call offers the better flights. Coming from the West Coast, flights to Montego Bay seemed to be significantly more affordable than those to Havana. But, if you do fly into Havana, stay at least a few days before embarking the Louis Cristal; you don’t want to miss out on exploring this fascinating city.

Is it necessary to take the offered excursions, or can you do your own thing?

Exploring Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Shore excursions are very worthwhile for the first-time visitor to Cuba. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Exploring Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Shore excursions are very worthwhile for the first-time visitor to Cuba. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

If you’ve been to Cuba before, you could certainly arrange your own tours or do your own thing in Cienfuegos, Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Arranging private tours in Holguin would be difficult but not impossible, mainly due to the docking location in Antilla. If you’ve never been to Cuba before, I’d heartily recommend taking at least some of the offered shore excursions. They’re reasonably priced and include a lot more bang-for-your-buck than tours offered on other Caribbean islands.

My last cruise was on [insert megaship here]. Will I like the Louis Cristal?

The Rendezvous Lounge aboard the Louis Cristal is like the rest of the ship: extremely well-maintained. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
The Rendezvous Lounge aboard the Louis Cristal is like the rest of the ship: extremely well-maintained. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

If you can take Louis Cristal for what she is – a comfortable, mid-1990’s ship – you’ll have no problems adjusting. But if you absolutely have to have multi-story atriums, mini-golf courses and ice skating rinks, you may be disappointed. On the flip side of the coin, I’d recommend this cruise to those who normally pick small ship expedition and luxury voyages. Despite the fact Louis Cristal is a mainstream ship for the rest of the year, the Cuba Cruise product has a lot more in common with expedition cruising than mainstream cruising.

Are there kids onboard?

Kids are sure to love the day spent on the beach at Punta Frances. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Kids are sure to love the day spent on the beach at Punta Frances. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

There were a handful on my sailing, but not a lot. Considering I sailed during the second week of January, that’s not terribly surprising. Expect the number of kids and families to grow with the season.

How’s the coffee?

Everyone asked about the coffee, which was very good. But, if you don't like coffee, might I suggest Coconut and Havana Club? Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Everyone asked about the coffee, which was very good. But, if you don’t like coffee, might I suggest Coconut and Havana Club? Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The second-most frequently asked question! Quite honestly, I thought it was good. In another life, I used to be a barista at a Starbucks, so I like to think I know a little about coffee. But, one guest on my voyage stated she wasn’t a fan of it. So – to each their own.

Were there Americans onboard?

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The million-dollar question. In a word: yes. Did they get permission from their Government? I have no idea, and couldn’t speculate.

It would be irresponsible to suggest that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 no longer colours relations between Cuba and the United States. But history has marched on from the Cold War, bringing with it more change to Cuba; a culturally diverse country that has never known anything but.

It’s a country I would like to see more of – and Cuba Cruise has come a long way in making voyages here a reality.

Havana at night. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Havana at night. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I came onboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal expecting a good, decent cruise. I didn’t expect anything remarkable; instead, I thought of Cuba Cruise as an excellent way to see Cuba from the convenient vantage point of a cruise ship.

What I didn’t count on, however, was the time and effort the company put into their onboard product, from the food, service and entertainment right down to the stateroom keycards. No detail was overlooked; no expense was spared. They succeeded in turning something that could have been relatively ordinary into the extraordinary.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

It’s a real gem of an experience, and sets the bar pretty high for the rest of my cruising year. One thing is for certain, though: I’ll be the first in line to book again when they announce their Winter 2014-2015 dates.  This is the kind of experience that’s meant to be repeated.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
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