Jane Archer checks out why cruisers are heading to the revolutionary island before the Americans return
It’s a far cry from the salsa and rumba we tend to associate with Cuba, but as the stirring national anthem blares out of the loudspeakers, all our eyes turn to three soldiers high-stepping at funereal speed past a sea of onlookers to the grand mausoleum.
A ceremonial changing of the guard is not unusual, but what makes this one different is that the soldiers are guarding not a palace, as is the norm in other countries, but ashes. They belong to Cuban national hero José Martí, and are housed in a huge cemetery in the island’s second-biggest city, Santiago de Cuba.
Everyone has heard of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, but Cubans have long memories, and Martí, who founded the first revolutionary party in Cuba and was killed in battle in 1895, is just as important.
Considering the island’s anti-US stance – officially, at least – it may come as a surprise to some visitors to find that Ernest Hemingway is another one of Cuba’s heroes.
The American author lived there for many years, and now it looks as if his compatriots may be on their way back to the Caribbean’s largest island.
A 50-year US embargo that has precluded most citizens from visiting Cuba, despite its proximity to Florida, is starting to loosen. The island looks set to resume diplomatic relations with its giant neighbour, opening the door for Americans to visit once again.
The thought that the Americans are coming, and the effect that their arrival will have on the island (think McDonald’s and a tipping culture), was the reason many passengers were on my seven-night voyage with Canadian company Cuba Cruise.
The company has just completed a second season cruising around the island on the Louis Cristal, a vessel chartered from Celestyal Cruises (the new name for Louis Cruises).
It will spend this summer cruising the Greek islands under its new name Celestyal Cristal before hosting a third season of Cuba cruises between December 18, 2015, and March 21, 2016.
The ship can accommodate 1,200 passengers, but in Cuba, the number is restricted to about 700. Thank goodness, because with all the red tape that you have to cut through to get ashore – passengers must have their temperature taken at all ports, and show passports and visas in Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos – it took long enough to disembark the ship.
Seven hundred was also about all the ship could handle comfortably. Seats were at a premium in the Eros Lounge when a Filipino duo sang before dinner, and in the Muses show lounge, which was full of columns that reduced sight-lines, you had to be early to secure a good seat for the evening performance.
Louis Cristal is an elderly ship, starting life in 1980 as a ferry and rebuilt as a cruise ship in 1990, but most people were happy to overlook its faults (the poorly designed Muses Lounge, the smell of smoke drifting from the casino to the Eros Lounge, the rather over-hasty service at dinner) in return for the wonderful crew, the above-average entertainment and the chance to visit Cuba.
Most of my fellow passengers – predominantly Canadians with a smattering of other nationalities including Britons, Germans, Finns and Japanese – had plumped for Cuba Cruise because they also realised a sailing around the island was a more comfortable way to see the country than hours of driving on pot-holed roads and staying in hotels of questionable standards, or guesthouses.
But because of the embargo, there is not much choice when it comes to cruises. American-owned ships cannot visit the island (so P&O Cruises is also banned), although many are eyeing the landscape in the wake of the new relations between the US and Cuba, while the handful of British vessels that visit mostly call only at Havana.
The only other alternatives are Greek-owned Variety Cruises, which offers one-week itineraries around the western tip of Cuba, and Star Clippers, which operates seven-night beach-inspired round-trips from Cienfuegos.
From Havana, we visited the little town of Antilla for tours into the countryside. I took one to Birán, to see where Fidel Castro lived as a child. I found the opportunity to see the way people live away from the capital – horse and cart transport, oxen ploughing the fields – of greater interest than the museum itself, which was a little dull.
For winter 2015-16, Cuba Cruise is swapping Antilla for a day in Havana at the start of the itinerary, which makes sense as currently those booking the voyage alone see little of the capital. It would be a shame to miss this exciting city with its beautiful colonial architecture, grand squares and those historic American cars.
In Santiago de Cuba, city tours visit the cemetery and Castillo del Morro, at the mouth of the bay guarding the city, and include a drive past the bullet-marked barracks where Castro led a failed uprising. It now houses an interesting museum that tells the story of the revolution.
Tours visit Cienfuegos, which was founded by the French, and Trinidad, a beautiful spot with colourful colonial houses, known as the museum capital of Cuba. The museums are good, but it’s better to walk around, talk to the locals (speaking Spanish helps) and see the shops and restaurants set up after free enterprise was allowed in 2008.
The cruise also visits Montego Bay, in Jamaica. This alternative embarkation port also provides passengers with the opportunity to spend the morning at a deserted beach – a much-needed breather in between tales of the revolution and national heroes.
Book it: Cuba Cruise will be offering a seven-night cruise anti-clockwise around Cuba in winter 2015-16. The cruises start with an overnight in Havana and visit the beach at María La Gorda, Cienfuegos, Montego Bay and Santiago de Cuba. Prices start at £353 on a cruise-only basis.
Other Cuba Cruises
Variety Cruises: Offers seven-night cruises between Havana and Cienfuegos on the 54-passenger sailing yacht Panorama.
The itinerary, sold in the UK by Seafarer Cruises, includes a day and a half in Havana, a visit to Trinidad and a day in Cienfuegos, with an excursion to the Bay of Pigs. Cruise-only prices start at £1,658 on departures between December 2015 and March 2016.
Star Clippers: Offers seven-night round-trip cruises from Cienfuegos on the 170-passenger sailing yacht Star Flyer between December 2015 and March 2016.
The cruise visits Casilda for tours to Trinidad, and the Cuban cays south of the city, and includes two days in the Cayman Islands. Cruise-only prices start at £1,150 for departures on January 3, 2016.
Swan Hellenic: Minerva stays overnight in Havana on a 12-day cruise from Cozumel in Mexico to Bermuda, departing March 19. Prices start at £1,699 including flights, transfers, shore excursions and gratuities.
Voyages of Discovery: Offers a 15-day cruise from Montego Bay to Cozumel onboard Voyager. The cruise features an overnight stay in Havana and a day in Antilla. Prices start at £1,819, including flights, transfers and gratuities, for departures on January 3, 2016.
Fred Olsen Cruise Lines: Braemar will overnight in Havana on a 43-night voyage from Tenerife to Barbados departing December 23, 2015, and a 14-night cruise from Barbados to Montego Bay departing January 7, 2016. Cruise-only prices start at £3,249 and £1,099 respectively.
Thomson Cruises: Thomson Dream will stay overnight in Havana on six round-trip cruises sailing from Montego Bay between December 2015 and March 2016. Prices start at £1,196, including flights, gratuities and transfers, departing December 29.
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