Sailing on Crystal with Celestyal Cruises is a great way to visit Cuba, especially if you are a U.S. citizen and eager; even more if you’d like to explore beyond Havana. The “Authentic Cuba” program ensures you will meet conditions for U.S. cultural exchange. Celestyal is not the only way or necessarily the best way but it is a relatively easy way to explore the largest Caribbean island and archipelago country.
Most Americans seem surprised to hear that “travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited, and U.S. federal regulations restrict travel to Cuba to licensed travelers engaged in certain specified activities.” I.e. It’s illegal for Americans to beach bum in Cuba! Who knew Old Uncle Sam imposed barriers? I do know Americans who have struck out on their own and more power to them. If you choose to do so, be sure to educate yourself on criteria for the 12 categories under which U.S. citizens may legally travel. You may (or may not) be called to account for your time in Cuba and if so, it’s easy enough to do if sailing with Celestyal.
There are many upsides to sailing with Celestyal, including ease in obtaining Cuban visa and navigating customs and immigration, documentation to satisfy the U.S. government, simplicity in logistics, consistency in accommodations, the assurance of a culturally-rich experience, and a nice variety of Cuban entertainment, food and drink on board.
Evening shows exceeded our expectations, performed by an entirely Cuban staff (in Spanish). They truly put the “singers and dancers” on the big brands to shame! The itinerary was especially good, circumnavigating Cuba with an overnight in Havana and two additional cities, both of which we enjoyed at least as much as Havana. We truly have few complaints.
Celestyal staff told us that 150 to 200 Americans sail weekly with the Authentic Cuba program; in our case that was about half of the guests on board a ship sailing well under capacity. It was a wonderfully diverse international mix. Although this was a small, old ship, it seldom felt too small because it was undersold.
Most of our disappointments in this trip were attributed to restrictions on U.S. citizens imposed by Uncle Sam. For example, we had very little flexibility on shore — literally, just a few hours in Havana. In addition to highly structured excursions, there were expectations to participate in educational programming at least once daily on ship. We enjoyed the seminars with Professor Arocha and friends on a wide range of topics — from history and politics to musicology, cigars and rum. These were supplemented by non-program options such as cooking demonstrations with Cuban chefs or mixology. All were terrific. But always, there was at least one more thing we felt obligated to do every day of vacation.
There was no beach time. This is a tough break on a Caribbean vacation! The Isle of Youth was inexplicably removed from the itinerary months after we booked in exchange for $50 on board credit (each). This was reportedly a Cuban government decision, so I guess Uncle Sam is off that hook.
However, I am sincere when I say this was a good trip and we have few substantive complaints. Still, there are a few things you should know before you go.
1. Celestyal sails with an elderly clientele. The average age when we embarked in Montego Bay seemed to be more than 65 years. We felt like spring chickens! New passengers boarded in Havana a few days later and the average dropped by another 5 years or more. Don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely no problem with a gray-haired sailing. It’s just a different experience than we are used to or had anticipated in this instance. There were only two children on board and no evidence of youth programming or accommodations. In truth, I don’t think the U.S. program would work well with children under 10 or 12 as it is so highly structured and intense.
2. Crystal is an aging ship, well-maintained and clean but still a clunker by modern standards. We knew it would be “old school cruising” going in and were not surprised. It is what it is, recently refurbished to add balcony staterooms. (Quite limited, you must book early.) Unfortunately, there is only so much you can do with a 1990s deck plan. One pool, very small; one tiny hot tub, poorly placed. Social space and entertainment venues are limited.
Our suite on the bow of the ship was comfortable. It had a massive balcony and ample shade. You could only see the ocean while standing at the railing, the walls were so high! Ours was one of two such suites on the ship. The interior did not feel particularly luxurious. The floor plan was rather odd. But it worked. The private “whirlpool” on the deck was a disappointment, a 1980s throwback jacuzzi tub that we filled ourselves … with from a spigot, water tinted brown. Oh, and just so you know, suite guests receive no perks — beyond a few toiletries. Odd and disappointing.
3. Our sailing offered only one dinner seating (contrary to website info) with identical menus in both dining rooms. The quality of the food was acceptable (because we didn’t cook it or clean up after it) but not remarkable. The menu included Cuban fare yet seemed to target the European market, particularly Germans. Both restaurants had open dining (i.e. random, shared table assignments daily). We were not enthused but managed to land a table for two (a rarity) on our first night. Accommodating staff made this “our table” thereafter, which was hugely appreciated.
4. The staff were friendly and mostly competent (a few exceptions) but not highly service-oriented. Service was spotty in general. None were particularly interested in engaging on a personal level. We always try hard to make personal connections with cruise staff but it was strangely difficult on this trip. Most seemed disinterested, distanced. It seems likely that Celestyal also overstates opportunities to interact with Cuban staff as we had to make extra effort to seek those out and they were few and far between in our encounters — beyond the daily seminars. They said 60 Cuban staff were on board but I’m not sure where.
5. In our experience, cruise companies are eager for opportunities to help you feel celebrated; with Celestyal it seemed just the opposite. Between the missing suite perks and weeklong failure to acknowledge our anniversary, I have to admit we were disappointed with Celeystal. It felt oddly discordant for a celebratory sailing. Our general take-away from the service culture and available amenities was that Celestyal has no interest in building brand loyalty. Not a deal breaker but good to know.
6. Celestyal runs like a mom-and-pop shop, which has its charm when you’re not completely frustrated! The website is clunky and incomplete. We felt unsettled from the beginning about what we were getting into, Cuba travel still being quite novel in the U.S. Call center staff were only vaguely reassuring. Phone lines often went unanswered, no matter the day or time, as did several emails. Positive Cruise Critic reviews encouraged us to trust it would be okay — and it was. It truly was. Yet I spoke with numerous cruisers, many first-timers, on board who had similar perceptions, discomfort, unease. I really don’t know if I would cruise again if this had been our first experience. Fortunately, it’s a blip on our radar.
I made numerous calls to customer support in the months and weeks leading up to our trip and received so many varied responses that it became almost comical. We packed a pile of supplies for Cuban school children based on shopping lists I found online, assured by Celeystal staff that there were plenty of opportunities to donate locally and Havana would be the easiest. Once on board, however, we learned we would not be allowed to disembark with supplies in any quantity. The guest relations staff were incredulous about our experience before boarding. A Cuban employee was dispatched to distribute on our behalf. A disappointing but a acceptable solution.
7. We returned much less refreshed than typical for spring break. “Authentic Cuba” is an intense experience from beginning to end. Still, I must reinforce, we have no regrets! But as our brains were continually grappling with new information and the juxtaposition of communism in the Caribbean, there was no way around this strain. The tours were long, sometimes too long, and there was not enough free time to wander or explore on our own. Tour groups were generally slow, given the average age on board. It’s an adjustment, no matter where you are coming from.
In the grand scheme, our disappointments and frustrations were truly minor given the itinerary. No regrets! Celestyal’s Cuba cruise was an experience we’re happy to recommend. We returned better educated and interested in returning when U.S. restrictions lift. You’ll find many more reviews on Cruise Critic. Do your homework, adjust your expectations, approach the trip as an adventure and sail safely!
~ René Morley
Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba