Unfortunately, Celestyal Cruises has put its sailings on hold due to large U.S. Cruise Lines saturating the Cuba market. Celestyal will evaluate the situation and consider re-introducing sailings to Cuba in 2020. As an alternative, we recommend AZAMARA Cruise Line's "10-Night Circle Cuba Voyage" for a similar small ship experience.
I have to admit, I felt a little trepidation before our trip to Cuba. Questions swirled in my mind about safety and whether we would be warmly received by the Cuban people. I also wasn't sure if we'd come away with a genuine feel for the country since we'd be touring as part of an escorted "education experience" program. Cuba is still under the U.S. embargo, meaning Americans can’t just go to Cuba to drink mojitos and drive in cool cars (although we did do that one day). Americans must travel under one of the 12 categories of the the Cuba Travel Affidavit and most casual travelers visit as part of a guided “People-to-People" immersion program.*
Our booking with Celestyal Cruises included a "Discover the Authentic Cuban Experience" Program which met the criteria of the Cuba Travel Affidavit and would provide us with a broad introduction to Cuba's rich history and culture. We also liked the itinerary which called on three ports and docked for two full days in Havana. Celestyal handled all of the excursions, programs and tours so all we had to do was show up at the correct time to meet our local tour guide or catch our assigned bus. Our immersion experience wasn't limited to just our time on land. Onboard, we had the option to attend lectures by Destination Expert, Dr. Jorge Arocha, (Professor of Contemporary Philosophy of the University of Havana) on topics ranging from history, cuisine and art to music, cigars and rum tasting. I attended a few of Dr. Arocha's presentations and found him to be engaging, energetic and entertaining.
* It is possible to visit Cuba on a self-guided tour but there are strict requirements to document your trip.
Nov. 10, 2017 - Embarkation: Montego Bay, Jamaica
We spent a couple of nights at the Holiday Inn Montego Bay before the start of the cruise because it's never a good idea to fly to a destination on the same day as embarkation. We always recommend arriving a day or two before your cruise in case you encounter any travel delays. The Holiday Inn was perfect for our group - it was all-inclusive, near the airport and had the amenities we needed for two days - beach, pool, bar, restaurant and a place to rest our heads. If you prefer something in the luxury category, there are plenty of 5-star, luxury resorts including Half Moon, Round Hill and Secrets Wild Orchid to name a few.
Aboard the Celestyal Crystal
We scheduled a shuttle for our group of ten from the Holiday Inn to the port. The drive took about 45 minutes due to bumper-to-bumper, rush hour traffic but we boarded well before embarkation so we had no worries. The check-in process was a little confusing with multiple lines and some in our group were charged a departure tax (even though we would be returning to Jamaica).
Our ship, the Celestyal Crystal was easy to explore. At 162 meters long, it featured ten decks with accommodations for 1200 passengers and 406 crew and was the first ship to offer around-Cuba sailings. The Crystal had everything large cruise ships offer but on a more intimate scale. The public spaces, lounge and restaurants had touches of Art Deco design but other spaces like the Sports Bar/Card Room and tiny casino looked tired and in need of some updating.
Our cabin was decent-sized with two twin beds, sitting area, desk, ample closet and storage space and a large picture window. The furnishings were stylish but basic and the beds were very comfortable.
The dining room looked chic and contemporary and felt welcoming in soothing turquoise and tan tones. The cuisine in the dining room was okay with some hits and misses. Every fish entree I ordered was great, however the beef dishes always seemed to be overdone. There was a selection of entrees off the menu that were available for additional charge which included lobster tail, which was very good. Breakfast and lunch had a good variety of options served cafeteria/buffet style. The self-serve coffee machine always seemed to leave an oil slick on the top of my coffee so I opted to order a cappuccino from a bartender instead. I know a lot of ships have those automated coffee/espresso machines and some work great but others I question how often they are cleaned. The meals were fine, just don't set your expectations too high or you will be disappointed. If you are into 5-star fine dining then this ship would not be a great fit for you.
Thalassa, the terrace bar at the aft of the ship, was a popular spot. The seating arrangement can feel a little tight and one side of the deck is the smoking area but it was a great end-of-the-day gathering place for our group.
Nov. 11, 2017 - Port: Santiago de Cuba
Our first morning in port we met in the lounge to be assigned buses and guides. On this cruise it's important to attend these gatherings so you know what bus to get on. There are several buses each designated for specific groups and independent travelers and itineraries may vary depending on nationalities. Seating is limited and everyone must check in as they board their bus.
Our first order of business after we disembarked and cleared Passport Control was to exchange money. There was a kiosk and small trailer with teller windows on the dock where we exchanged money before boarding the buses. In Cuba there are two forms of currency - the CUP and the CUC. The CUP (Cuban Peso) is what Cubans receive with a government salary. The CUC (called the "kook") is the convertible peso you receive when you exchange foreign currency. You'll need cash for all of your purchases (you cannot use US credit cards in Cuba) so it's good to plan ahead on what you want to buy and exchange just enough money so you're not stuck with CUCs and the end of the trip.
We boarded our bus and began a tour of the old colonial city of Santiago, the 2nd largest city in Cuba and a major center for banking and commerce. There is also a lot of political history to be found in Santiago, including bullet-riddled buildings, monuments on former battle sites, statues celebrating revolutionaries and museums full of imagery and artifacts of the country's tumultuous beginning of the Cuban Revolution. One of our stops was at the Moncada Barracks, the site of the of the failed attack by revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro on July 26, 1953. Although this attack failed and led to dozens of injuries and some deaths, it is widely accepted as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. Other stops included Plaza de la Revolucion, the El Morro, San Juan Hill and the African Cultural Center to watch a traditional dance performance.
Before heading back to the ship our guide took us into one of the island's government-run stores where cigars, cigarettes and liquor are sold. We had planned to buy some cigars in Havana but since we were carrying quite a bit of cash we decided to buy in Santiago and reduce the amount of money we were carrying around. It turned out to be a good decision because when we checked the state-run stores in Havana some of the cigars that were on our list to buy were sold out and some of the prices were slightly higher. In these stores the prices marked are what you pay. There is no negotiating in the state-run stores.
Nov. 12, 2017 - Day at Sea
Our day at sea included many activities of a typical cruise - tour of the bridge, fruit carving demos, dance classes, towel folding, cooking lessons and Bingo. There was also a presentation by Dr. Jorge Arocha about "Cuban Cigars and The Story behind the Smoke." According to one of our local guides the top three Cuban cigars are 1. Cohiba, 2. Monte Christo and 3. Romeo & Juliet.
Nov. 13, 2017 - Port: Havana, Cuba - Day 1
One of the reasons we selected Celestyal was because its itinerary gave us two full days in Havana. Some other cruise lines only have one stop on the island and some don't stop in Havana at all but dock in another city and bus passengers to the capital city for day trips or over-night trips which means you have to pack a bag and stay in a hotel. Our ship was docked right at the foot of Havana's old town and a just a short walk to San Francisco Plaza, one of the four major plazas in Old Havana where our walking tour began that morning. The tour took us through the "cobblestone core" of the colonial district with stops at some notable sites including some of Ernest Hemingway's haunts as well as the three other plazas - San Viejo (New Square), Arms Square and Cathedral Square. Many of the buildings being restored in this area used to be homes of wealthy aristocrats in 18th century Cuba. The parks and squares were clean and well tended but it was here we could see the impact tourism was having on the city. Dozens of tour groups stood huddled around guides holding umbrellas or placards reminiscent of so many tours in European cities. After our walking tour we had the option of returning to the ship for lunch or staying in town for lunch. We had lunch at one of the seafood restaurants recommended by our guide. The service was good and the fresh fish plate lunch we had was great. In the afternoon we boarded buses for a driving tour of the city. We cruised along the malecon past the new hotels, the American Embassy, and into the central district where many residents live. This area is "rent free" and is a little run down. Our final stop was at Revolution Plaza.
After dinner on the ship we boarded a bus to the world-renown Tropicana to see its famous cabaret show. Touristy? Sure, but it was definitely worth visiting this open-air nightclub to watch the dancers dressed in their over-the-top costumes. If you go, don't expect much in the way of comfort or service. We were seated at long tables arranged very tightly with the rest of the audience and then provided with a bottle of rum and a couple cans of mixer (cola or soda) to share. If you want something else, good luck. It's not likely you'll see your server again. We didn't. The show (weather permitting) is still performed outside under a gorgeous canopy of trees like it was during the casino's heyday in the 1950's.
Nov. 14, 2017 - Port: Havana, Cuba - Day 2
We began our second morning with a bus ride to the outskirts of western Havana to the mosaic wonderland of Fusterlandia. What started as a DIY project of Jose Rodriquez Fuster to liven up the facade of his house with mosaic embellishment has blossomed into a full-blown community project of converting almost every flat surface in the neighborhood into a canvas for shiny decorative shards. The whimsical and quirky designs stretch for blocks and can be found on walls, houses, flats, office buildings, schools and even the medical center. It all exemplifies the Cuban spirit through art and resourcefulness. On our way back to the ship the buses stopped at the Museo de la Revolucion which is a very well done museum full of photos and memorabilia from Cuba's revolution. Here, you will find all kinds of things on display including Che Guevara's beret, women's skirts lined with hidden pockets that were used to transport hidden guns and ammo and Granma, the small speedboat in which the Castro brothers traveled to Cuba from their exile in Mexico in 1956.
In the afternoon, we had a period of free time until our ship left at 9pm. This was really the only extended period of time we had to see Cuba unescorted. We hired three drivers in American vintage "taxis" to guide our group of ten around the city. The cars are referred to by the locals as almendrones (translation - almonds) because they think the cars resemble the shape of a giant almond. Most drivers pay a fee to rent cars from owners so they need to make enough money to clear a profit after covering the day's fee. Be sure to negotiate up front where you want to go and for how long you want to have the driver. Our first request was to stop at the Hotel Nacional, famed for its ties to the mafia and as a gathering place for Hollywood's elite in the 1930's, 40's and 50's. As it turned out, our drivers were also excellent guides who knew all about the history of the hotel and showed us all around the property. We gained entrance into the Hall of Fame bar after one of our drivers knocked on the locked glass door and made eye contact with one of the bartenders who let us in. We enjoyed a couple of "mafia mojitos" while we looked around at all of memorabilia, movie posters and photos of politicians, sports legends and celebrities who had been there. After leaving the hotel, our drivers suggested a trip to see the imposing sculpture of Christ of Havana on a hilltop overlooking the Bay of the Havana with fantastic views of the city. It provided great photo opps. Our last request before heading back to the ship was to stop at an authentic paladar - a restaurant/bar operated by a private citizen. Many of these privately-owned restaurants are quietly tucked into backyards, courtyards and spare rooms behind unassuming facades of private homes in modest neighborhoods and others look and operate openly on main streets. These are legal Our drivers parked on a normal-looking residential street and we followed them up the driveway and through a gate into the backyard of one of the small, single-story houses. Once inside, the entire place looked just like any tiki bar hangout with wooden tables, chairs and bar with a palm frond roof. There were some musical instruments in a alcove, a large Coca-Cola sign hung on a wall and a fountain in the center gurgling water. There were even a few ducks wandering around. We ordered a round of beers and some potato chips and enjoyed our last outing in Havana before sailing to Cienfuegos.
Nov. 15, 2017 - Day at Sea
Our last day at sea featured lots of activities including a bridge tournament, dance classes, cooking demos and a few quiz contests. Our Destination, Expert, Dr. Jorge Arocha also gave two presentations, one in the morning on "Cuban Culture" and another in the afternoon on "The Cuban Landscape in the 20th Century."
Nov. 16, 2017 - Port: Cienfuegos, Cuba
Our final port of call was Cienfuegos, a beautiful city in the south-central region of Cuba about 122 nautical miles from Havana. Upon entering Cienfuegos Bay we sailed past the impressive fortress of Nuestra Senora de los Angeles before docking at the pier. Known as the "Pearl of the South," Cienfuegos was originally settled by Taino indigenous people and later settled by French immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana so a French and European influence can been seen in the elegant architecture of many of the city's buildings. The views looking out to the bay were breathtaking as we drove in buses through the beautiful neighborhood of Punta Gorda on our way to tour some of these historic buildings. The most beautiful structure we saw in Cienfuegos was the Palacio de Valle, a spectacular example of Spanish-Moorish architecture with touches of Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque styles.
We also visited art galleries and were treated to a live street performance featuring dancers, artists, musicians and actors. Art was very prevalent in all the cities we visited, perhaps because it gives Cubans a way to somewhat express themselves in a country that still has many restrictions on free expression. Art collectives and cultural groups are sprouting up across the country to help new artists find their footing. The cost associated with having a studio make it nearly impossible for a new artist to get started so art collectives have been setting up spaces that provide multiple workspaces and art supplies. Tubes of paint, brushes and canvases can be very expensive and hard to find so these collectives offer a place where artists can share resources.
Our last day touring Cienfuegos embodied everything I had observed about the Cuban people during my time visiting their island. Despite the oppression they are under, I found Cubans to be optimistic, resourceful and proud. They seem to find happiness by expressing themselves through music, dance, art and conversing deeply with each other. I never once felt threatened or insecure; on the contrary, all the people we met seemed generally friendly. I have a feeling we will be visiting Cuba again in the future.
Nov. 17, 2017 - Disembarkation: Montego Bay, Jamaica
After disembarkation, we headed straight to the airport for our flight home.
If you're interested in booking a own cruise to Cuba we recommend AZAMARA Cruise Line's "10-Night Circle Cuba Voyage." We'd love to help with your travel plans. Contact us.
Disclaimer: As a travel agent, Larry received a reduced rate for this cruise but there was no compensation provided in exchange for editorial coverage. All opinions are our own and all content on Putnam Travels Blog is for informational purposes only. We are not liable for any errors or omissions in this information and accept no responsibility for any damages or losses arising in connection with the use of this website. Links directing to third-party websites are for informational purposes only and serve as a resource to the reader. We do not accept responsibility for the content of these sites or liability from use of them.