The 1,200-passenger Celestyal Crystal // © 2017 Celestyal Cruises
Feature image (above): A visit to Tropicana Cabaret in Havana is an evening add-on excursion. // © 2017 Celestyal Cruises
Advisors have many options when it comes to booking a cruise to Cuba, as many lines now call on Havana during Caribbean sailings. But I found Celestyal Cruises’ Cuba itinerary to be especially noteworthy, as it offers multiple calls in Cuba, along with a fully developed people-to-people program.
The 960-passenger Celestyal Crystal circum-navigates the island nation. In addition to two sea days, it calls on three Cuban ports during the weeklong itinerary: Santiago de Cuba, Havana and Cienfuegos, with passengers embarking from either Havana (Mondays) or Montego Bay, Jamaica (Fridays).
A cruise around Cuba is an attractive way to see several spots across the island, as buses can take more than 15 hours to get from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. Furthermore, local flights, transportation services and access to great restaurants and available accommodations can be challenging.
During my December sailing, I found Celestyal’s people-to-people program to be a rich experience, enhanced by meaningful conversations with tour guides and local people. Cuban history seminars were taught by professor Jorge Arocha, who stays onboard with passengers for the duration of the cruise.
During the trip, guests had the chance to explore Havana in a classic convertible car or savor the Spanish-influenced architecture of Old Havana.
The city features historic castles, lively Cuban entertainment and several museums, art galleries and open-air markets.
Once in Cienfuegos, we learned about Cuba’s sugar, tobacco and coffee trades, soaked in the city’s coastal views and explored the neoclassical-style buildings created by the city’s original French settlers.
And in Santiago de Cuba, passengers gained an understanding of Cuban revolutionary history by visiting the Moncada Barracks, Antonio Maceo Revolution Square and Santa Ifigenia Cemetery (the burial sight of Fidel Castro).
The itinerary also allows time for walking along the cobblestone streets of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While there, passengers can meet Cuban potters from El Alfarero Casa Chichi, which makes the beautiful ceramic vases on display in Trinidad’s Plaza Mayor and Havana’s Teatro Marti theater. There were also opportunities to enjoy meals at Cuban paladares (privately owned restaurants), such as Trinidad’s Restaurante Museo 1514.
Crystal’s 2015 refurbishment included the addition of 43 new balcony staterooms, bringing the total staterooms with balconies to 53. Wi-Fi reception has also been added to the staterooms.
Accommodations range from interior cabins to those with Jacuzzis on the balconies, and cabin sizes range from 108-square-foot interior staterooms to 468-square-foot imperial suites.
Dining options onboard feature local Cuban dishes such as ropa vieja (stewed beef and vegetables) at each meal. The venues include the elegant restaurant Amalthia and the more casual Olympus, in addition to Crystal’s self-serve buffet. The Pool Deck also has a cooking station for omelets, waffles, burgers and sandwiches.
A varying demographic sailed on my departure, including singles, couples and families. While the cruise seems to attract a wide range of travelers, a general theme unites them all: They are interested in an authentic experience and learning more deeply about Cuba and its people.