sailing with celestyal

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

cienfuegos

Our final port of call was Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South. We entered port Punta Gorda through yet another a long channel opening up into a massive bay. The day was dawning as we approached, too dark to appreciate the small communities and tidy properties scattered along the flat shoreline.

Our itinerary included two projects: Trazos Libres, a neighborhood collective developed by artist Hermes Santiago, and the Graphics Society of Cienfuegos, a group of printmaking artists who work with children with special needs. This was followed by a walking tour of the historical Cienfuegos city center. But first we had to get there.

We boarded our tour bus at the pier in Punta Gorda. Group 5, independents. Saralie was easily our favorite tour guide of the week. She was warm, friendly, and spoke flawless English, providing just the right amount of information at the right time. She was extremely patient with a group that only seemed to slow by the day.

Our bus made a brief stop at Jagua Hotel in Punta Gorda before getting down to city business. This stop must have been a bid for return visitors. Several group members inquired about the rate and seemed hooked, so in that sense it was a success. Indeed, the Jagua seemed lovely at first glance — but buyer beware.

Adjacent to the hotel is a much more interesting property, unfortunately now closed. Saralie recounted how many years ago, an entrepreneurial housekeeper there opened the restrooms for public use. She collected fees and constructed a small restaurant across the street. Her food was so good that Fidel went out of his way to eat there on his triumphal cross-country tour, post-Revolution, headed to Havana. Yet another irony…

Our first stop was at Trazos Libres. The entire street was transformed to a stage and the whole neighborhood seemed to have turned out for the occasion of our visit. We were greeted by artists in character as the band played and small girls danced and a grandmother kept close watch. This gift of sunflower and smile made my day.

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The neighborhood was beautiful and warm and welcoming. I just couldn’t stop smiling; I loved this place! I met the artist, Hermes Santiago, and brought home some pottery for my friend, Ana, who was born in Cuba. I interacted briefly with a mama holding a beautiful brown baby; neither of us spoke the other’s language but I knew she understood.

Our next stop was the Graphics Society of Cienfuegos. This is a collective that specializes in various types of printmaking. Their are a number of artists in residence. On any given day, they are working with local children with special needs. I was especially impressed with the many modifications Cubans have made to create art with readily available supplies. For example, sone etch on X-ray film!

The walking tour was pleasant enough if not remarkable. We passed several private restaurants and others clearly state-run. We knew that Cuban media is completely controlled by the government and were interested to pass a newspaper office along the way. We passed by a store that sold imported goods on the CUC (convertible peso) market and another that sold only Cuban-produced goods for CUPs (local pesos; green awning in photo below). Cubans and foreigners can shop in either location with requisite currency but I must admit that neither seemed compelling on a quick scan of display windows. Our tour guide noted that Cubans shop at the local store to make ends meet. For example, a bar of local soap sells at a small small fraction of imported soap.  Cienfuegos was clean and tidy, as every Cuban city we’ve visited has been, despite the occasional rubble.

Our walking tour concluded in the historic city center which was lovely. Public buildings included the Teatro Tomas Terry opera house. As typical in Cuba, we could have paid 5 CUCs for the privilege to take photos inside but we did not. The interior was original, from rows of hard wooden seats to hand-carved Cuban hardwoods and Italian Carrara marble. Saralie noted noted that all big acts touring Cuba play here, even though this is a small venue and Cienfuegos is out of the way. Local Cubans can attend for a nominal fee: power to the people!

We had some time to shop the large craft market and local stores, purchasing coffee and Santiago de Cuba brand rum, a few straw hats, and some small leather purses for the grandgirls. We wished for more time on our own; alas, Group 5 was waiting to return to the pier at Punta Gorda. I had one last opportunity at the pier to spend out my Cuban CUCs. I was pleased to find a set of wooden dominos in a handsome box. We brought home just a few coins and a single paper peso for posterity.

We had great views through our departure sailing of all that we had missed in the dim light of dawn. A few locals here and there waved farewell. As we neared open sea, a large colorful structure came into view. It was impossible to discern its purpose. University? Hospital? Research? Through online maps I determined it to be the Islazul Hotel Pasacaballo, remote but conveniently located for diving. Again I say, buyer beware!

We thoroughly enjoyed Cienfuegos and could have spent a lot more time there. When we return, it will be on the short list!

~ 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

 

costumes, cathedrals, and old cars

Throughout our tour of Cuba, the U.S. government-approved program required participation in prearranged tours. We’ve no complaints; we understood the deal going in. However, it was important and refreshing to have some free time, too. We only wished there were more of it!

We had flexibility to explore on our own only in Havana. On Monday, we wandered around Old Havana and enjoyed a lovely lunch at la Moneda Cabana. On Monday evening, we enjoyed the Tropicana Cabaret. On Tuesday afternoon we enjoyed another meander around the old city, some shopping, and an old car tour. Each brief experience further endeared this place and these people.

Initially, I’d wavered on purchasing tickets to the Tropicana. The show didn’t start until quite late. It was yet another bus ride. We were running low on energy reserves. But the Hubs urged me on, “You’ll regret it.” He knows me so well. He was right. It was worth it!

This world-renown celebration of Cuban culture did not disappoint. Elaborate costuming, intricate choreography, powerful vocals and Cuban rhythms in a lush tropical venue under the palms and the stars. In a word, fantastic. Loud and proud seventy-five years in the running, this cabaret knows its business. It was conducted completely in Spanish. We hardly noticed.

Our tickets came with prime seating and beverages — much more than we would care to consume. We gifted excess Havana Club Special to a couple of Russian tourists at an adjacent table. They were very appreciative, their rudimentary English much better than my (non-existant) Russian! It was cool to make another international connection.

We were fortunate the weather cleared enough after Tuesday’s programmed tour for an old car excursion late that afternoon. Initially, we’d booked this tour through the ship. It was relatively expensive and, as it turned out, completely unnecessary. Old cars tours are widely available in Havana for 40-50 CUCs per hour. We were relieved the ship canceled our tour and refunded our money due to lack of interest in their extended version. We negotiated independently on the fly for less than one-quarter of the cruise ship price. Granted, it was a shorter but still quite sufficient.

There is no shortage of old cars but we took our time selecting both car and driver. The Hubs was determined for a convertible and we hoped to find a driver who spoke English. Most drivers use a predictable route unless you request otherwise. We didn’t mind as this was an entirely different vantage point from the open back seat of a 1954 Dodge.

The car was in great shape — inside and out — and original except the battery, he claimed. We had no reason to doubt him. Glossy vinyl upholstery in cream with contrast trim was meticulously maintained, covered with clear plastic protector. It was clearly an old car; every time we cleared a corner, the driver’s door swung opened. He nonchalantly reached out to haul it back in as he hand-signaled the turns. There was the distinct smell of exhaust trailing our progress around and about the city. It was never clear if this was from our vehicle or the many others we encountered emanating black smoke. Probably both.

Our driver welcomed questions and supplied frank responses, his perspectives notably different from state-employed guides we’d encountered on programmed excursions. Yes, Cubans are free to travel. But who can afford to? Yes, Cubans receive monthly rations and government paycheck, free childcare, education and healthcare. But it is not nearly enough to live well or thrive. Yes, Cubans may be approved to pursue private enterprise. But taxes and licenses are formidable hurdles.

His wife is a doctor; he is a private businessmen. He is also an expert mechanic, required to keep his car running. (Cubans are the best mechanics, we heard time and again.) They struggle with two children and aging parents. His father worked forty years for the state and receives a measly pension, half the meager current wage.

I asked about leisure activities; for example, how would he spend a day off with his family, just for fun? He seemed confused by the concept of fun, or day off, perhaps both. Did they go to the beach? Perhaps picnic? He hesitated. “It’s expensive.” I was reminded of the privilege of leisure, lost on much of the world.

He supplied ample commentary on the sights we passed. One building he pointed out was an incredibly ugly Russian concrete housing structure with twin towers rising 17 stories. His uncle lived there, he noted. No elevators, by design. Yikes.

One of the most interesting components to our conversation was religion. We drove past the cathedral from which Pope Francis celebrated mass just a few months prior. An enlarged image of the leader of the faith still adorns one side of the structure. It struck me as odd and hopeful at the same time. Nearly every image we saw in public was of a limited selection of national heroes; a few of artists and many of revolutionaries. On the Venezuelan embassy we saw a large poster Hugo Chávez. Comadante, the sign read.

Pope Francis spent several days in Cuba and gave personal audience to Fidel Castro — or vice versa? I’m not sure. Oh, to be a fly on the wall. How powerful to hear the Pope proclaim the gospel to the multitude at Revolution Square, if also an ironic setting.

Our cabbie confirmed that Cubans enjoy freedom of religion and remarked that he is among a minority practicing Catholicism (Christianity) in Cuba. We heard several times how, in deference to their masters, slaves made pretense of worshipping the Christian God while using church time to worship African gods. Most Cubans continue with African traditions.

I’d become somewhat familiar with Santería via Celia Cruz series on Netflix  in advance of our trip; one of her contemporaries became deeply involved. We were exposed to several “saints” up close and personal at the African Cultural Center in Santiago de Cuba. These encounters left me feeling unsettled, uneasy. It seemed dark, foreboding,

In our Caribbean experiences, it’s easy to find hand crafted religious artifacts. Despite several market inquiries, I was disappointed not to locate a Cuban Christian cross. I’ve a small hole on my world of crosses wall, waiting for Cuban completion.

~ Renê 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

one day in havana


There is much to love and celebrate about Havana. Granted, we were only there for two days — hardly time to develop an informed opinion. And yet. Havana strikes me as a study in contrasts symbolic of Cuba, at least as much as we experienced in our whirlwind circumnavigation of the archipelago.

On one hand, grand old buildings beautifully restored. On the other, crumbling architecture and abject poverty. Tourists careening around corners in neon-bright old cars; dingy and crowded public transportation. Large plazas and ample social space, often with militaristic theming; crowded and humble personal dwellings. Miles of Malecón, the seawall “sofa of the city” where waves roll and crash; dusty and rusty recreational spaces, sunburned dry and brown where fountains lie empty. Security and safety, night and day; blackouts, isolation, poverty, and conditions ripe for crime in any other country. Government laborers toeing the party line; private entrepreneurs creating a new social class. Those were my first impressions.

We entered port early, the sun rising over military vessels as the moon set over the old city. I’d been up for hours, watching the shoreline appear through the moonlight. To get to the pier we navigated another long channel into a perfectly sheltered harbor (map); Cuba seems particularly blessed that way. Cristo de La Habana greeted us from the hillside opposite the Malecón as we sailed slowly on. San Francisco pier alone of the piers in port was nicely restored; the others in decay, almost ruins.

We became acquainted the best way: an Old Havana historical walking tour. This included visits to several city plazas: San Francisco Square (on the backside of the pier), Saint Francis of Assisi Square, Cathedral Square, Old Square, Arms Square. I must admit I wasn’t paying much attention to the tour guide’s descriptions of these sites, taken up in the sights, sounds and smells of Habana Vieja — a veritable feast!

Most cruisers returned to the ship for lunch but we were determined not to miss a Habana moment. We meandered through a fascinating book sellers market tucked away on a narrow side street. Old books and books in many languages were on display, most were subjects of the Revolucion. I found an English trade copy of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and purchased for 5 CUC. It was published in the U.S., a delightful irony, don’t you think? On our tour guide’s advice we returned to the paladare la Moneda Cubana for a lovely celebration (recounted here).

We returned to the pier in time to join the afternoon tour required by our people-to-people program. We boarded the bus with Group 5, the independents. Every bus used throughout our travels was first-rate coach in like-new condition, which is quite a feat in our Caribbean experiences. The explanation is simple: state-owned transportation.

We spent the next few hours in a panoramic tour which means mostly driving by sites of interest in a scramble to fit them all in. We were weary from miles on our feet in the heat, so it was not a huge disappointment. However, iPhone images snapped from the bus leave something to the imagination. We drove through Central Havana and other neighborhoods less accessible by foot. We had some time on the ground at Revolution Square, the largest of public plazas in the city, blacktop steaming in the midday sun. Here the old car taxis line up for tourists, adding a fun element to an otherwise stark stop.

We drove past the Old Capitol Building under renovation (remarkably similar to the U.S. Capitol), the University of Havana, up and down La Rampa, as our guide pointed out the Yara theater and Copelia ice cream parlor, the former a social icon and hub and the latter renown for affordability and modernist architecture, a la Revolucion. She made a big deal out of the Habana Libre, formerly a Hilton, quickly nationalized after the Revolution.

The Habana Libre was only the first of several “excellent” hotels cited by our tour guide which looked to us like 1950s throwbacks in desperate need of renovation. In fact, there were very few Havana hotels that warranted a second look if we were to consider a longer stay. One exception was the Saratoga, sporting a U.S. flag and favored by celebrities. We were quite surprised to see U.S. flags flying in numerous public locations — and not surprisingly at the recently opened U.S. Embassy.

There were multiple references to Ernest Hemingway, morning and afternoon. He seems to be Cuba’s favorite import. The Hotel Ambos Mundos was his residence for a time, we’d passed by on our walking tour as a band played and drinks flowed early in the day. He was also fond of the Floridita. I came to appreciate both the Floridita (lemon) and Hemingway’s Favorite (grapefruit) daiquiris for the crisp and refreshing citrus in the Caribbean heat.

popsOur excursion concluded with a brief stop at an indoor craft market, where selection was poor and prices high. Nonetheless, I purchased children’s baseballs with the Cuban flag for the grands at an exhorbitant price (8 CUC each), uncertain of shopping opportunities ahead. The Hubs was not enthused, considering these just one more in a pile they undoubtedly own. It seemed unique to me but in fact, we found plenty more before we were through at half that price. None with the Cuban flag, so I wasn’t unhappy with my decision. Besides, he was suckered into purchasing a horrible caricature of himself — drawn in sharpie on cheap cardboard — five minutes off the pier. Worse, when the price suddenly doubled to 10 CUC to “support the arts”   he still shelled it out. How can he complain about my baseballs? Ha!

~ 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