Walking through the streets of Havana and your feet will start tapping to the beat of bongo drums. You’ll follow your nose to a cafe where Cuban coffee beans are roasting and your eyes will delight in the cobbled plazas, pastel houses, 16th century Spanish-colonial architecture and 1950s cars of a bygone era.
This tropical island nation is a feast for the senses! It’s a tapestry of culture, music, dance, food and fun. The best time to visit is now.
We cruised on the nearly sold out Holland America 7-day Cuban Explorer Cruise with ms Veendam, one of the smaller ships in their fleet of 14. Our ship left on a round-trip cruise from Fort Lauderdale with Captain Colm Ryan at the helm, dedicated ship officers and an experienced crew on board.
pictured here: Captain Colm Ryan (left), Jerrol Golden (center – Deputy Director, International Public Relations for Holland America Line) & Hotel Director Frank Ulbricht (right)
For reasons listed at the end of this article, Holland America Line is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to visit Cuba. They arrange for the Cuban Visa Tarjeta de Turista (Visa Tourist Card) and help guests plan their time throughout the cruise.
Find out some of the highlights below from a week of adventures in the Caribbean, details about our experience, and how to book a cruise to Cuba.
Our itinerary included a few ports of call from Cuba’s capitol city Havana, to Cienfuegos on its southern coast, as well as a stop in the Cayman Islands. Sharing some of our favorite tours and things to do on land and sea days.
Havana: We had 18 hours to explore Havana and were greeted with smiles as we walked throughout the city. Our day started in Old Havana and we visited its four squares – Plaza Armas, Plaza Catedral, Plaza San Francisco and Plaza Vieja, then meandered through cobblestone streets lined with cafes, boutique shops and art galleries.
There were opportunities to engage with the Cuban people from artists, shopkeepers, and at the local market. Bands performed along the Obispo pedestrian street where we joined in some dancing and even played a little street soccer with the children.
A highlight was riding in an American Classic Car, a bubble gum pink Chevrolet convertible, along Havana’s ocean boulevard, the Malecon, where fishermen, musicians and lovers pass the time into the evening hours.
Other standout moments included visiting the old Partagas cigar factory and tasting a truffle at the Museum of Chocolate located at the corner of Amargura an Mercaderes streets in Old Havana.
Don’t Miss! Order a daiquiri at one of Hemingway’s favorite hangouts, the Floridita. And take time to shop at Clandestina (click here) for designer bags and tee-shirts with clever slogans – proceeds go towards the local artists who repurpose recycled materials.
Some other sights to see include Central Havana where you can visit Havana’s Central Park surrounded by historic buildings, or the Capitol Building located near the Gran Theater. For art lovers, there’s the Bella Artes Museum where you can view the art of Cuban artists.
Further out from Central Havana is Plaza de la Revolucion, the Almacenes San Jose Market and nearby the Colon Cemetery, one of the largest cemeteries in the Americas where 800,000 are buried.
Others on our ship chose excursions like the Fort de San Carlos de la Cabana Visit or the Hemingway Hangouts & Hideaways excursion where you can visit Hemingway’s former home, Finca Vigia in Cojimar. There’s also an option to visit Fusterlandia, a community art project of mosaic art and sculptures just outside Havana.
An off the beaten path tour is to the las Terrazas UNESCO Biosphere Reserve where visitors can learn about life outside the city in a local community.
In the evening, we were entertained by the Parisien Cabaret at the famed Hotel Nacional where a dazzling production tells the story of Cuba, inspired by Indo-American, Hispanic and African cultures.
Another option was the El Canonazo Evening to see the Havana skyline from the other side of the bay and visit El Cristo, the 55-foot tall statue of Christ sculpted from marble, as well as observe the nightly cannon ceremony at the 18th-century fortress. Another evening event was held at Cuba’s largest nightclub, the Tropicana, where a Vegas-style performance takes place with a live orchestra.
Cienfuegos: Founded in 1819, Cienfuegos is called the Pearl of the South and is located on the southern coast. French colonists inspired the architecture that still stands today surrounding the Parque central Jose Marti, and the 19th century Teatro Tomas Terry. Venture out on the Punta Gorda malecon to see the Moorish-style Palacio de Valle. This port town is a transit point for coffee, sugarcane and tobacco.
There are a few excursions offered from Cienfuegos including a tour of Trinidad, the historic city of Santa Clara founded in 1689, or a visit to the Botanical Gardens with 200 acres filled with 2,000 species of plants, while others visited Club Cienfugos for a salsa dance lesson from local Cubans.
Trinidad: We choose the tour to visit Trinidad, a panoramic UNESCO town about a 1.5 hour drive from Cienfuegos. After a walking tour of the historic center, we stopped at the popular La Canchanchara Bar for a refreshing drink, then visited the studio of a potter and an art gallery.
Georgetown, Grand Cayman: While visiting Grand Cayman, the largest of the three Cayman Islands, we went on a tour to see the Cayman Highlights including a panoramic drive along the West Bay Peninsula to view landmarks and the 100-yr old Old Homestead house, then stopped to visit Hell! Hell, Grand Cayman that is, where you can view unique limestone rock formations.
We spent a few hours relaxing at the beach at Royal Palms and enjoyed strolling part of the 7-mile beach of Grand Cayman Island. Other excursions offer snorkeling, diving or a Taste of Cayman where you can visit the Cayman Islands Brewery, Rum Cake Center and have a local lunch.
Fort Lauderdale: When arriving or departing Fort Lauderdale, the “Venice of America”, take advantage of the half-day excursions and explore the Everglades swampland and wildlife in an air-boat ride.
Or take the Land & Sea Excursion to see the highlights of the city – the Riverwalk “Florida’s Most Beautiful Mile”, Las Olas Boulevard with its boutiques, cafes and galleries, and then boat down the intracoastal waterways where you’ll see mega-yachts and sailboats.
Good to note there are a variety of award-winning shore excursions offered by Holland America customized to your desired level of activity and interests.
DAYS AT SEA
There are plenty of activities to choose from when the ship is at sea and a full-service crew ready to please you.
Here’s an overview of some of the things guests can do…
Workshops & Lectures: Attend a workshop or lecture! One of my favorites was the America’s Test Kitchen presentation where you can learn some Cuban recipes like Picadillo, a hearty Cuban stew with a side of fried sweet plantains and find out how to mix up a pitcher of minty mojitos. There’s also Microsoft Digital Workshops, BBC Earth Experiences that test your knowledge about our natural history and earth, Trivia Games, and even an Art of Flower Arranging Class. There are plenty of board games, puzzles and library of books to read at the Explorations Café.
The EXC Explorations Team provide lectures on the next port-of-call so guests have a good understanding of what excursions are available.
Shopping: Shop at the Cuban Marketplace on board where you can find souvenirs made by a Cuban shop called Clandestina based in Havana. Proceeds go to the local community and the shop recycles materials to create bags, tshirts and more.
Entertainment: Daily Movies, Piano Bar Sing-a-Longs, Dance Lessons, Line Dancing, Magic Shows, Art Auctions, Fashion Shows, jackpot bingo at the Casino and lots of games – bridge, dominoes.
Spa: Greenhouse Spa & Salon offers a variety of spa experiences to harmonize your body, mind and soul – Bamboo Massage, Frangipani Body Wrap to a Collagen Quartz Lift Facial, Fire & Ice Manicure & Pedicure and more. Look for specials where you can get a hot stone massage, facial and salt scrub for 1 hour at $99. Find more relaxation at the thermal suites and hydropools. There’s even a complimentary footprint & posture analysis.
Or relax in your cabin suite…
Pooltime: Relax in a lounge chair pool side.
Fitness Center: The ship has a large fitness center where you can sign up for indoor cycling, pilates, yoga, stretch and abs classes, as well as The Oprah Magazine “Just Breathe” class where you can start your day with meditation, daily intentions inspired by Oprah. There are health and weight loss classes, and a 5k Walk for a Cause to support worldwide cancer research.
If you prefer fresh air, step outside onto the deck and every 4 laps, you’ve walked a mile.
Dining Options: From casual dining at the Lido Market, New York Pizza, and In-Room Dining to fine dining options at Pinnacle Grill (Pacific Northwest Cuisine), The Rotterdam Dining Room, Canaletto (Italian cuisine), guests have a variety of dishes to choose from. There’s also Afternoon Tea or Happy Hour events.
Rudi’s Sel de Mer is a must where you can enjoy an evening at the intimate seafood brasserie serving French classics with a contemporary twist inspired by Master Chef Rudi Sodamin.
Don’t Miss! The Chefs have brought a taste of Cuba on board and added Cuban inspired dishes on the menus so guests can enjoy the local flavors.
WHY A HOLLAND AMERICA CRUISE?
Here are 7 reasons why we think a cruise with Holland America Line is the easiest and most affordable way to get to Cuba.
- Holland America works with you on the paperwork and arranges for a Cuba-issued Visa.
- 7-day Cuban cruises start at $759* (*click here for pricing details) Considering the costs and time to figure out how to travel to Cuba on your own, you’d most likely pay more than $759* for 7 days of flights, hotels, meals, guides, etc.
- Holland America sets up one-of-a-kind excursions where visitors can engage with the local people and visit community projects. These are called Exploration Central Tours (EXC Shore Excursions) so you can tour Cuban ports with local guides, or for guests who prefer independent self-guided activities, can choose People-to-People Experiences that will create educational interactions with Cuban people.
- You can stop at one to two ports in Cuba and explore the surrounding area without having to drive long distances on challenging roads that can take hours.
- You can move into a cabin suite on the cruise ship and unpack once for an entire week and not have to carry your luggage from place to place.
- All meals are included and the Chefs prepare local Cuban dishes offered throughout the cruise. Plus there’s plenty of entertainment, lectures and workshops for the days at sea.
- There are a variety of cruise itineraries that Holland America offers for cruises to Cuba that add a stop on a sugar-white sandy beach in the Caribbean – the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, Jamaica, or the Bahamas.
How to Book a Cruise to Cuba?
Visit Holland America click here and book a cruise to Cuba. The Holland America Line will sail to Cuba Fall 2018 and Fall 2019. In Spring 2019 the ms Veendam will sail a Carnival Cruise to Rio de Janeiro.
There are some great value deals in April 2018 sailings for a 7-day Authentic Cuba cruise starting from $759.00* (*click here for pricing details and updates)
Check the schedule for roundtrip sailings from Fort Lauderdale, Boston and Montreal.
Holland America started offering cruises to Cuba in December 2017, and the first few cruises to Cuba have nearly sold out.
Note – the above information was provided by Holland America Line as of February 14, 2018.
Local Currency in Cuba: You will have the opportunity to exchange to Cuban Currency inside the cruise terminal. Be sure to have Euros, GBP, or Canadian dollars on hand since U.S. dollars aren’t accepted.
There are 2 types of currencies in Cuba:
- CUC (Cuban Coinvertible Peso): Used by tourists – these have monuments on the paper bills and coins.
- CUP (Cuban Peso): Used by the locals only – these have pictures of people on the currency.
Cubans appreciate gratuities since this helps supplement their income. Here are some guidelines per person:
- Meals: 3-4 CUC’s (or 10% of the bill)
- Tour Guide: 5-7 CUCs
- Bus Driver: 3-5 CUC’s
- Street Performers/Musicians: 1-2 CUC’s
- Bathroom Attendants: .50-1 CUC
Water: Be sure to bring bottled water when going ashore.
Who is Eligible to Travel to Cuba? U.S. (including Cuban-born) and international guests are eligible to travel to Cuba from the U.S. if they are either a0 meet at least one of the 12 categories of authorized travel; or b) obtain a specific license issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
How will guests certify that they are traveling to Cuba under one of the 12 categories of authorized travel? All Holland America guests will be required by the U.S. Government to complete a travel affidavit identifying their approved category of travel. This must be completed prior to boarding the vessel.
How do the people-to-people programs work? People-to-people programs are a permitted category for U.S. guests to visit Cuba. These programs must include a full-time schedule of activities that will create educational interactions between guests/visitors and the Cuban people. Activities can include shore excursions offered by Holland America Line. As of November 9, 2017, U.S. regulations were changed and guests may not participate in a “self-guided” program, unless that guest booked their cruise to Cuba before June 16, 2017. Such self-guided guests must still have a full-time schedule of authorized activities and must maintain their own records demonstrating a full-time schedule.
How much free time is there? Can I go ashore without a tour? After completion of a full-time schedule of people-to-people activities, guests are free to explore as they wish. Please keep in mind that the revised U.S. Cuba Regulation includes a prohibition from engaging in direct financial transactions with businesses.
Information above provided by Holland America Line – for more details click here
Global Adventuress was hosted by Holland America on this 7-day cruise. All opinions above are our own. Information on the cruise to Cuba provided by Holland America.