As we pulled up to the Port of Miami, a bit frazzled from the drive across Alligator Alley, we apologized to our Norwegian Cruise Line porter for not having applied luggage tags to our bags. “No worries,” he told us with a smile, as he took the bags and attached the labels. “You’re going to have a stress-free week.”
That promise held true until we docked back in Miami four days later. A sunset departure party atop the pool deck put everyone in the right mood for a leisurely sail to our primary destination of Havana.
For years, of course, the island nation of Cuba was forbidden to most Americans. And, with the withdrawal of American embassy staffers last year following mysterious “sonic attacks,” increased travel restrictions are always a possibility. That makes cruising on a line like Norwegian one of the easiest ways to get to Havana, because when you purchase your fare you’re also purchasing your visa—cruise lines have already stockpiled them in advance, sparing passengers the trouble. (You will need to fill out a travel affidavit attesting that you are visiting for an educational “people to people” exchange, and bring your passport, too.)
The Norwegian Sky on which we sailed has eight restaurants (first night out offering a Taste of Cuba menu in the Crossings where we dined), a casino, several lounges and bars, theaters for live entertainment, a library, art galleries, gift shops, fitness center, hot tubs, a golf driving range, shuffleboard court and more, so there was plenty to keep us occupied as we headed toward Cuba.
The first sight of the port of Havana, at sunset the day after our departure, yielded glimpses of several of the city’s trademark attributes: the famed Malecon beachfront, dozens of those big, colorful 1950s American cars, carefully preserved for decades, and friendly people, in this case uniformed schoolchildren waving to the arriving passengers on deck.
A variety of shore excursions (arranged beforehand) awaited that first evening, from a Buena Vista Social Club evening at the Habana Café to the Legendary Tropicana Cabaret to the Parisien Cabaret at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. We chose the latter, which meant that before the show (a spectacular featuring everything from scantily clad showgirls to hand balancers to tango dancers, African drummers and beyond), we had the chance to stroll the lobby and grounds of this historic hotel, built in 1930 and host over the decades to Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, and—ahem—the American Mafia, as referenced in scenes from The Godfather II.
The choice of shore excursions the next day was also extensive, offerings tours in those vintage Chevys or Fords, visits to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano gallery, a stop at Ernest Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia, or a tour focused on rum, cigars and art. Our chosen tour, “Ultimate Highlights of Havana—Old & New,” introduced us to our enthusiastic tour leader, Barbara (“Call me Bobbie”), a teacher for whom sharing the sights of her city seems a passion as much as a way of earning more money.
On this tour, lasting approximately three hours, we saw the battlements of El Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro, built by the Spanish in 1589; the towering (65 feet tall) statue of El Cristo de La Habana, made of white Carrara marble; the American Embassy (no noise from our vantage point); and the house in which revolutionary Che Guevara lived. (As you might expect, the faces of Che and Fidel Castro turn up throughout the city in murals on official buildings and elsewhere. The “triumph of the revolution” is a phrase that turns up often, too.)
An intriguing stop on the tour: the sprawling Christopher Columbus Cemetery, third largest in the world (no, the explorer is not buried there, but thousands are), where our guide, Irma (“like the hurricane,” she smiled, and yes, there was still evidence of the storm’s devastation in parts of the city), shared stories of the notables resting there, including, allegedly, Hemingway’s favorite bartender.
Bobbie left us with suggestions on how to pass our free time in Havana before parting (such as a jaunt through the huge San Jose flea market, where vendors welcome you with “Hola, amiga,”), as well as this message: “Cuban people are good people…it’s a matter of governments” when there are tensions between the two countries.
Walking through the plazas of downtown after a lunch of ropa vieja at Dos Hermanos restaurant, it was easy to mingle with those people, and to find shops purveying two of the country’s most famous exports, rum and cigars. Both items are subject to the normal limits on duty and tax exemptions, for personal use only; and bring cash (there is an exchange bureau at the cruise line terminal), as while larger businesses in Cuba may accept credit cards, smaller ones will not.
Ours was a short stay in Havana, but one that at least introduced us to its people and culture, which have for too long seemed a mystery to most Americans.
Next stop on our cruise was Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas, a beautiful stretch of beach designed just for cruisers, and from there more excursions were available. Reef snorkeling in those oh-so-clear Caribbean waters was our choice, and a good one even for novices, as lifeguards are aboard the snorkeling boat and all equipment is provided. You can even float in a chair in the calm waters, thoughtfully provided with a beverage holder for your tropical drink.
But there’s no doubt the highlight of the cruise was Havana itself. Now that we know how easy it can be to set sail for Cuba, I think we’ll do it again.