For years, I’ve been rejecting cruising – “Not for me, not the way I like to travel, not interested.” My impression of cruises were not great, in fact they reminded me of giant tour buses with large crowds and pre-programmed “excursions”. I was concerned that a cruise wouldn’t leave enough time to really explore and get the feel of a place. But then I received a phone call from my friend Keryn. “Cruise to Cuba, first ship to carry passengers in over 50 years. Interested?” While cruising has never been of interest, Cuba, on the other hand definitely was. I jumped at the chance and figured I’d finally learn if my opinion of cruising was well founded.
LET’S CRUISE TO CUBA!
The decision to cruise to Cuba was made just two weeks before our departure. I was buried in projects at work, dealing with toddler developmental shifts at home, and barely had time to book my flight. I normally conduct some research before a trip, but instead I packed my bag the night before, grabbed a “Cuban Culture” book and a Lonely Planet guide book just before leaving for the cruise terminal. After all, part of the terms of an American traveling to Cuba at the time of our trip included a required six hours of “Person-to-Person Cultural Exchange” or similar educational interaction each day on the ground – and the cruise was required to offer such activities. We were scheduled for tours in all three stops: Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
As we boarded our cruise to Cuba (aboard the Fathom Adonia, a short lived cruise company that no longer runs its own tours), I was very thankful that Keryn had already sailed before – coincidentally on the very same ship. Thankfully for both of us, Keryn had previous cruising experience and came prepared. She brought along a spare power strip to make up for the lack of outlets in the cabin, large bottles of still and sparkling water, and chocolates and almonds for late night munching and between-meal needs. We were also permitted to bring aboard one bottle of wine each without a corkage fee. We boarded the cruise around 2pm on Sunday and were scheduled to leave port at 4pm. We were to arrive at our first destination, Havana, by 11am the following morning.
We had booked a balcony cabin which turned out to be well worth the upgrade. The balcony space provided the opportunity to open the door for fresh air and enjoy a coffee at sunrise in privacy. We booked a two-bed cabin, but it turns out the beds just get pushed together if you request a one-bed cabin. This is something most cruise companies do. The beds, while very comfortable, feel quite small – a bit smaller than a twin – and took a little getting used to. The cabins themselves are well appointed, smallish hotel-sized rooms. As expected on a ship, there’s a small space for everything and when stowed away, the room is quite comfortable. Regardless, one doesn’t cruise to hang out in their room (unless you happen to have a suite!).
DIVING INTO CRUISE AMENITIES
Our particular ship was small, with only five floors of amenities, including three restaurants, a gym and spa, a library, a pool with hot tubs, and five bars – including a wine bar! As I walked down the grand staircase, I kept expecting Jack and Rose from the Titanic to join me for dinner. There was a little Titanic glamour reflected in the detailed railings, 18th and 19th century artwork and plush seating throughout. The meals were included in the price of the sail, except the one specialty restaurant, which charged an upgrade price. Cash is never exchanged on board; rather, a credit card is tied to each person’s boarding card (room key) and it’s billed throughout the cruise.
The gym offered complimentary yoga classes once a day and the spa’s services included massage, facials, acupuncture, wraps and beauty treatments. I didn’t indulge on any treatments while on board as the prices were about 2x what I pay on the ground in Chicago. However, the facilities and staff were wonderful and welcoming.
WELCOME TO HAVANA!
The ship docked right at the edge of Vieja HaVana, making it quite easy to come and go from the ship. Cuba requires passing through customs each time you leave or return to the ship, but the process was efficient and didn’t slow us down too much.
Read more about travel to Cuba as a U.S. Citizen
We had a relatively short time scheduled for Havana, barely 24 hours (one evening), so we dove right in. We planned to explore the old city by foot and via a vintage car for a malecon tour. We walked 12 miles the first day and another 8 miles the next morning.
By the time we sat down for our last lunch in Havana, we were tired, hot and a little grimy from the car’s diesel exhaust. We were sighing with relief at the thought of the comforts awaiting us- air conditioning, a swimming pool, and ice cold drinks! As we were walking back to the ship along the harbor’s edge, I overheard a trio of Havanese wondering what it must be like aboard such a luxurious, huge, new, CLEAN vessel. And therein lies one of my biggest dislikes about cruising.
A CRUISING PREDICAMENT
Most Caribbean cruises seem to be luxury floating hotels pulling in to cruise ports that are little more than customs with a shopping mall attached. There are an array of “excursions” that purport to reveal “the true ” but which in reality are selected for their ability to accommodate 20, 40, or 100 people all at once. The “artisanal crafts” available by the terminals are, for the most part, mass produced “made in china” tchozkies. Unless a country (or city) works directly with a cruise partner, the economic impact of a cruise seems to be extremely limited. From the outside, cruisers sweep through a destination in large confused packs, led by an umbrella or a banner, moving from place to place without much opportunity to learn the rhythm and life of a destination. Nonetheless, these are my opinions and part of my hesitation for not wanting to cruise in the first place.
DAYS AT SEA
Back on board after only 24 hours on the ground in Havana, we were preparing for 40 hours at sea to go approximately 300 miles to Cienfuegos. There was plenty of time to read up on the next destination, and, it turns out, plenty more. The sea day was full of activities including yoga, dance class, meditation, storytelling class, destination talks, and bookclub. In addition, special painting, gym and cocktail classes were available as well, for nominal fees. The band played poolside throughout the afternoon, and then a latin band played in the lounge later in the evening. Woven through with meals, cocktails and some library time, it was a full day, ripe for enrichment or relaxation.
THE REALITY OF LIMITED PORT TIMES
Overall, our time on the ground during our cruise to Cuba was extremely limited. This seemed to have been due to the Cuban Government’s restrictions which dictated our time at port or offshore. While we had flexibility to wander in Havana, the subsequent 2 stops were only 4 and 6 hours respectively and filled with tours most of that time. These restrictions inevitably limit the flexibility of discovery that a self-managed ground tour would offer. With set port times, you can’t dawdle to explore the intriguing jazz lounge or delay departure because you’ve met someone wonderful.
CRUISE = FORCED RELAXATION
On the flip side, forced days at sea offer a rare treat: forced relaxation. A book, conversation, games, karaoke or chance encounters on board could also lead to great friendships and discovery. Having a set itinerary limits any decision making and can be an incredible experience for someone who typically micromanages to the smallest detail. And as such, I have come away with a nuanced appreciation of cruising. It’s certainly not my preferred method of travel, but I can see the appeal given a few conditions. A careful understanding of the itinerary and the ships’ offerings, could make cruises excellent choices for multi-generational travel, family groups, and occasionally, forced relaxation.
As I’ve wrapped up one cruise to Cuba and have been invited on a few other cruises recently, I’ve decided that, for me, the ideal cruise involves a small sea going population, relative land adventure flexibility, and abundant on-board opportunities. You won’t find me on a 1000+ person ship any time soon, but I’m digging into European canal cruises and barefoot Caribbean sails.