Celestyal Cruises: The Authentic Cuba

Feature photo provided by Celestyal Cruises. Other photos taken by Isabel Payne.

Celestyal’s onboard destination expert, Dr. Jorge Arocha, describes the Republic of Cuba as a pot of Ajico — a melting pot of many elements, peoples and cultures that formed the country into what it is today. While most refer to the country as an island, Cuba is an archipelago of more than 4,000 islands surrounding one main one. The Republic itself is made up of 15 provinces, along with one special island municipality. Each year more than one-million Canadians visit this beautiful country, and with good reason. Cuba is an affordable vacation destination that pairs history with a fun and exciting culture. While most hunker down at a resort or one of the country’s gorgeous beaches, there is a way to experience every side of Cuba without ever changing hotels.

The Celestyal Crystal, part of Celestyal Cruises, tours the island, stopping at various cities to provide a truly authentic Cuban experience. Built in 1975, the ship has a gorgeous vintage look which adds an extra charm to the trip, and the recently upgraded guest cabins ensure your stay is comfortable. With a maximum guest capacity of 960, (based on double occupancy) the Celestyal Crystal is perfect for a quieter getaway without the crowds, while also enjoying the luxuries that have come to be expected from the cruise lifestyle. The ship contains several dining locations for guests to choose from, as well as numerous bars that serve up a plethora of drinks to suit any preferences. The Sana Health Spa is tucked away in the back of the ship, far from the boisterous Cuban music, and is a great spot to reconnect with your mind and body with a relaxing massage from one of the ship’s talented massage therapists. Several large, open decks give plenty of space where cruisers can marvel at the views of the retreating land as the Crystal leaves port, or enjoy a romantic view of the colourful sunsets that fall over the ocean.

There are numerous fun and education activities planned for guests throughout the jounrey around Cuba, all of which focus on different aspects of Cuban culture and history. These activities are usually interactive and range from outrageously fun Cuban dance classes, to mouth-watering demonstrations on traditional Cuban cooking. Definite crowd favourites include the fruit carving demonstrations, as well as the outstanding performances done most nights by Celestyal’s all-Cuban dance and acrobatic team. This cruise line doesn’t stop at just providing Cuban-inspired onboard activities. The meals served in the Crystal’s various restaurants also feature Cuban flavours and inspiration. Food is prepared by a talented team of chefs who cook up delicious meals with impeccable presentation. If you’re ever on board, be sure to sample their ox tail stew flavoured with Cuban-inspired spices, or treat yourself to some delectable surf and turf.

While the food and activities are delightful, it is really the staff onboard and off that take this cruise to the next level. Due to the smaller size of the boat, it’s easier for staff to get to know the needs of their passengers. They truly work together as a strong team to keep the ship clean, and each of them knows just how to brighten a smile on the faces of those around them. Passengers can expect staff that genuinely care about them during their stay, as well as hilarious and friendly conversations from everyone on board. This becomes especially prevalent with Celestyal’s waiters, who all take the time to learn what your favourite drinks are, or even what your food preferences are. Often they’ll have your preferred drink ready for you the second you take a seat, or even meal suggestions tuned to your taste that might just help you discover a new favourite dish! Life is beautiful, and Celestyal Cruises and its staff certainly go out of their way to prove it.

The Celestyal Crystal has two embarking points, Montego Bay and Havana, and so where you go and the order in which cities are visited depends on where you get aboard. No matter where your cruise begins, the Crystal offers an exciting adventure both onboard and off. Guests aboard the Crystal can expect at least three stops around Cuba and these calls to port are the real highlight of the cruise for any travel junkie. Tours are available for guests to see the many aspects of each stop, or cruisers can simply opt to explore each city on their own.

Stop 1: Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba and has no shortage of important landmarks highlighting Cuban history. Visit the famous balcony where Fidel Castro proclaimed the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1951, and then spend an hour at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery where his ashes are entombed. History lovers can search for pirates along the walls of Castillo de Morro, a fortress built in the 1600’s to fend off attacks from the real pirates of the Caribbean, or explore the site of the only land battle of the Spanish-American war at Loma de San Juan. Santiago de Cuba offers a multitude of activities for its visitors to discover and marvel at.

Stop 2: Havana

Guests who boarded in Montego Bay can look forward to spending two days in the lively capital city of Havana. Explore the city on your own, or to learn more about everything the city has to offer, take one of Celestyal’s city tours. By far one of the best ways to get acquainted with the city is by taking a tour in one of the many brightly-coloured vintage American cars (lovingly known as Almendrones due to their almond-like shape). These taxis are very common around Cuba, and are especially fun when drivers greet each other by honking their vintage horns. Literary lovers can follow Ernest Hemmingway’s footsteps and scour the city for his favourite places to drink or visit Finca la Vigia, his former home in San Francisco de Paula, and a short drive from Havana. The home has been kept exactly the way he left it before his death in 1961 and contains his collection of more than 9,000 books, multiple hunting trophies and even his fishing boat, the Pilar.

Those looking for a fun night out will have no problems finding a lively bar anywhere in the city. Consider spending an evening at the Cabaret Tropicana and marvel at the impressive dancing skills of 200 dancers and their even more impressive outfits.

Stop 3: Cienfuegos/Trinidad

For those who started their trip in Montego Bay, the final stop is the beautiful city of Cienfuegos. Located along the southern coast, it is often referred to as La Perla del Sur (Pearl of the South), and rightly so. Marvelous natural sites are close by, such as the beautiful El Nicho Waterfall or Laguna Guanaroca, and the city itself is packed with beautiful 19th century buildings in the Urban Historic Centre, a protected UNESCO World Heritage site.

Guests also have the option of taking a tour from Cienfuegos to Trinidad, a town in Sancti Spíritus, and another UNESCO World Heritage site in Cuba since 1988. Founded in 1514, the city was well known for its success in the sugar trade, and is one of the best preserved cities from that era. There, you can get lost in the winding streets of a city frozen in time and admire its colonial architecture, including the mansions of families who found their wealth in the sugar trade. Be sure to stop by one of the most famous pottery workshops in Cuba – El Alfarero Casa Chichi – where ceramics have been made by the Santander family since the 19th century. Beautiful handmade ceramic souvenirs can be purchased here at a very affordable price.

Isabel Payne, Ottawa Life Magazine

August 18, 2017

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