Cruising Cuba with Celestyal’s Crystal
by Olivia Balsinger
Cuba has resided at the top of my travel bucket list for as long as I can remember. Maybe it has something to do with my affinity with Dirty Dancing, in my opinion one of the most exquisite movies of all time. Or perhaps it has something to do with the fascinating contrast between how different our cultures are and yet how close our geography. Even more, it could be the the people, the history, the revolutionary spirit lingering in the air, the lack of advertisements saturating the cityscapes.
Whatever the reason was, two things were certain: First, I knew I needed to visit this lively yet mysterious island.
And second, when the opportunity arose for me to embark on Celestyal Cruises seven-day itinerary circumnavigating Cuba on the Crystal, I knew that any prior obligations would be put on the back burner.
Though I had never pictured my first venture to Cuba being on a cruise ship, in retrospect I believe it is one of the most comprehensive ways to see as many pockets of this multi-faceted country as possible.
The Celestyal Experience
In November Celestyal announced that Crystal would be sailing to Cuba year-round, after five years of seasonal journeys. While costs of cabin vary by size and season, all are inclusive of shore excursions, meals, onboard presentations, gratuities and port charges. Drink packages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are not included and must be purchased separately for a nominal fee.
Day One: Montego Bay, Jamaica
I began my journey on a Friday in Montego Bay, Jamaica, which is one of the two possible embarkations (the other being Havana on the subsequent Monday). I spent my morning exploring the colorful town known for its reggae music, hospitality and fishing villages, prior to arriving at the terminal (about a 15-minute drive from Sangster International Airport) mid afternoon.
After a swift boarding process, I attended a presentation on Cuban visual arts and culture, prepping us for the week to come.
We set sail for the island in the most Cuban way possible: with mojitos flowing and a groove in our step at the ship’s disco.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba, the former capital on the Eastern tip and Cuba’s second largest city, is an essential first stop for understanding Cuba’s intricate history. Santiago significantly pulsates its Afro-Cuban roots; accordingly, Celestyal’s itinerary focused on bringing this pivotal chapter in the country’s history book to the forefront: We listened to speakers discuss the city’s significance at the Afro-Cuban Cultural center, watched (and participated!) in a lively dance performance and wandered through The Revolutionary Square.
Santiago is also known as the birthplace of the Cuban Revolution, as it is here where Fidel Castro first attacked the country’s army barracks in 1963 and where he chose to rest after his recent death. Our tour group took a special detour to the graveyard and witness this moment of history, melding past and present.
Full Day at Sea
On the third day of our journey, we sailed from Santiago to Havana. Despite the Crystal having modest recreational facilities, I never once found myself twiddling thumbs in boredom. While there may not be an IMAX movie theater or miniature golf course onboard, I continued to learn about Cuba’s storied past– from stimulating lectures on topic ranging from Cuban musical instruments and religious history to cooking classes with Cuban chefs.
Our first day in the capital gave us “a real taste of Havana” beginning in the Old City Center, comprising of a stunning mix of Baroque monuments and colorful private residences. Our guide, a Havana native, was an exceptional spokeswoman, seamlessly weaving personal anecdotes into the nation’s intricate history book. She led us on a walking tour through Old Havana (Habana Vieja), where we saw Saint Francis of Assisi Square, Cathedral Square and the Royal Forces castle.
Our group then visited the outdoor mosaic instillations of legendary Cuban ceramicist and graphic artist, Jose Fuster, who famously turned around a somewhat depressed and grim neighborhood by way of his art. That evening we witnessed a spectacle of a performance at the Tropicana—one of the few nightclubs that survived (and thrived!) during the Revolution.
Following an evening at the legendary Tropicana club, I woke up in Havana, admittedly exhausted yet eager to continue exploring. I spent the morning visiting both The Fine Arts Museum and the neighboring Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolución). Both were stunning insights into how Cuba is portrayed to Cubans.
Afterwards I dined in a Cuban paladar—a restaurant run by self-employers, normally in private homes. The delicious spread consisted of rice, beans and tres leches cake, which I indulged surrounded by warmth and hospitality in a converted and charming Cuban living room.
I then took a quintessential ride around town in a 1958 hot pink Cadillac, blasting Cuban salsa music, the salty Atlantic Ocean breeze tickling my nostrils on El Malecon, Havana’s roadway parallel to the ocean.
We spent our sixth day on board sailing from Havana towards Cienfuegos, on the southern coast, with a plethora of activities to enjoy.
On the seventh day, we boarded a bus to Trinidad, so pristinely preserved, we may have been stepping into a page from a history book. All my senses were stimulated as I walked about town—I enjoyed simultaneously listening to the sultry tones of a Cuban street band (and, yes, I also participated by shaking maracas!), catching whiffs of dust from years past mixing with fried plantains from the local paladar and ogling at bright building pastels. Trinidad is where tourists from North America experience untouched Cuba.
The last day of our cruise brought us back to Montego Bay and although I knew I would very much miss Cuba, I disembarked with a bottle of Havana club rum, two cigars and, of course, memories that will last lifetimes.
Where You’ll Sleep
The Crystal boasts 476 staterooms (317 are outside cabins and 163 are inside cabins.) There are 15 cabin types to choose from aboard the ship, accommodating individual needs and budgets. Staterooms are equipped with air conditioning, telephones, televisions and hairdryers.
Passengers may pay for Wi-Fi to enjoy anywhere on board, which is certainly helpful as internet connections are unreliable and rare on land.
Where You’ll Eat & Drink
Though I’ve never been one to flock to buffets or especially enjoy those quintessential “cruise ship meals,” I was pleasantly surprised with Crystal’s dining.
For more casual dining, guests may opt for the 9th floor self-serve Leda Buffet for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The two more formal dining rooms on board, The Olympus Restaurant and The Amalthia Restaurant, are that perfect balance of sophistication and authenticity. I was delighted to have choice of multiple Cuban dishes during lunch and dinners.
After dinner, I would often find myself in the Eros Lounge, relaxing and unwinding among a crowd of fellow passengers. With a martini in hand and the onboard band’s melody in the air, I’d reflect on my day of adventures and wander what next is in store. Feeling restless? Check out the panoramic Horizons Bar on the top deck, which becomes a popular disco for young and young-at-heart alike and is open until the wee hours of the morning.
Vamos a Cuba!
The Celestyal journey to Cuba is perfect for seasoned travelers who hope to do more than lounging poolside and sipping a margarita. The program is for the intellectually curious, young and old. On my journey, I met fellow travelers from all walks of life. I would ask them why they were here and they each said something similar. They had a desire to learn and experience the intricacies of a country that for so long had suffered from civil war, invasion and political polarization.
Celestyal allows visitors the opportunity to witness the Cuba of today, a bright and colorful nation that acknowledges its history, but also boasts a sense of exuberant pride. It is hard to explore this island country with Celestyal Cruises and not become captivated by the history and the beauty of the Cuban people.