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Yes, my recent Holland America Line (HAL) sailing included stops in the Caribbean and Mexico, but the anticipation passengers felt for the last two days of the voyage — which would be spent in Havana, Cuba — was palpable. Unwrapping the package of rich history and culture that Cuba presents U.S. travelers is a fascinating, multisensory experience — and one that was demonstrated clearly during my seven-day Authentic Cuba sailing onboard HAL’s Veendam. The 22-hour, overnight port call in Cuba’s capital also proves why cruising may be the best way to visit the once-forbidden island — at least for the near future.
The 1,350-passenger Veendam, one of HAL’s older S-class vessels, is a practical match for the size constraints posed by Havana’s limited pier infrastructure. And although the line just launched Cuba itineraries late last year, the depth of destination experience offered by the onboard Explorations Central (EXC) program and entertainment staff is quite impressive. While the EXC Tours desk sells traditional shore excursions, EXC Guides provide the perfect counterbalance, with savvy insider tips for guests who wish to dig deeper and explore a destination independently.
Our first morning onboard was filled with presentations that detailed the alternately mundane and intriguing rules, regulations and practicalities of U.S. travel to Cuba. And these rules, by the way, are imposed on all guests on cruises sailing from a U.S. port, regardless of a passenger’s nationality. Although clients who booked travel prior to June 16, 2017, can engage in “self-guided” people-to-people tours, all others must participate in group people-to-people activities arranged by either the cruise line or a third-party U.S.-sponsoring organization.
Guests on my sailing particularly enjoyed the Old Havana Walking Tour and Tropicana Cabaret excursions. However, once passengers complete their required schedule of activities, they’re free to explore on their own, which is when the true experience — and the fascinating deep dive into the heart of Old Havana — really began for me.
Following the expert guidance of EXC guide Cisco, I took an easy evening walk along the seaside malecon (promenade) to all four of the city’s historic plazas, stopping along the way to have a drink in — or just loiter outside of — numerous clubs where the music was alluring and melodic. Music is everywhere in Havana, and it permeates the culture so heavily that it’s inescapable. Safe streets, warm people and the almost complete lack of consumerism (no Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut or advertising is found on the island — yet) combine to provide the perfect milieu for an authentic cultural experience.
Havana looks and feels like the land that time forgot, and that descriptor unfortunately includes infrastructure maintenance. The best Havana hotels are expensive, and most facets of their product don’t yet satisfy American travelers’ expectations. Meanwhile, the paladares (small, privately owned restaurants) are charming, but food quality varies widely. Therefore, it was a pleasure to come “home” to Veendam to eat, sleep and shower before returning to the city’s attractions, which include the ubiquitous and well-preserved classic American cars (functioning as pricey taxis) and stunning 17th- and 18th-century colonial architecture.
HAL’s Veendam Cuba itineraries range from seven to 14 days in length, with multiple departures taking place throughout 2018. Some sailings also call in Cienfuegos.