Travel: Around the island of Cuba on a cruise ship with Canadian spirit

We arrived in Havana, and it really is everything you’ve ever imagined: the vibrant, multicoloured architecture, the tropical climate, and of course, the hundreds of old American cars. As we drove into the historic centre, my travel companion could barely contain his glee: “Look, a 1952 Chev! … a ’37 Oldsmobile!,” he exclaimed, pointing out the window, with a huge grin on his face. This was like a kid in a candy store, except he wasn’t a kid at all — my 60-year-old father leaned toward the window and continued to point out each and every vintage car as we drove on.

What actually brought my dad and me to the capital city of Cuba was to celebrate his upcoming milestone birthday by circumnavigating the island via a 1,200-passenger ship. I’m not a cruiser, but my pops is an avid one. So, truth be told, what really won me over was its Canadian connection, as well as Cuba Cruise’s commitment to showcasing the entire island of Cuba, including hard-to-access cruise ports like Antilla, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Punta Frances.

There’s also a stop in Montego Bay, Jamaica, which serves as an alternative location to embark for Canadians, international travellers, as well as Americans. Yes, by boarding the ship in Jamaica, our neighbours to the south are able to explore the country that has been off limits to them for more than 50 years. However, now that Obama has announced intentions to remove the embargo entirely, more Americans may be flocking to Cuba in the near future. More than one million Canadians travel to Cuba each year, yet experts forecast that even more will this year, before the U.S. travel ban is lifted, and travelling to Cuba becomes more expensive and crowded.

Regardless of how many Americans travel to Cuba in the future, Canadians will still find some red and white spirit in the Caribbean when travelling on board Canadian-owned company Cuba Cruise’s ship, the Louis Cristal. In addition to Cuban culture, people and cuisine, you’ll find reminders of home everywhere on board: charges are in Canadian dollars and select produce, meat and beer are imported from our home and native land.

Enjoy one of your best meals on board at the Alberta Steakhouse specialty restaurant. On-board programming and announcements are in English and French (as well as a few other languages). The on-board entertainment team puts on a very impressive performance of Montreal’s Cirque Fantastic. The contortionists and acrobats are world class and the company produces shows all over the world — from Montreal to Hong Kong to Cuba Cruise.

Circumnavigating Cuba is a great way to see and experience the entire country — very different from staying in one location for seven days at an all-inclusive resort. The excursions available in each port are fantastic: from enjoying a tour of Havana by old American car to snorkeling in Antilla to exploring waterfalls and natural wonders in Cienfeugos.

My dad and I enjoyed our dynamic excursion in Santiago de Cuba where we climbed 450 steps to the panoramic lookout of La Gran Piedra, visited a botanical garden and stopped at La Granjita Siboney National Monument (a piece of Cuban Revolution history). We also explored Valle de la Prehistoria — Cuba’s Jurassic Park — home to over 200 prehistoric animal replicas in their original sizes and shapes, as well as the Museum of Transport, where — surprise, surprise — my dad snapped photos of its collection of old American cars.

I have been on the two other cruises (the 5,000-passenger kind), and my dad, over 20. It was both humbling and satisfying to be on a smaller ship, like we were supporting a local independent shop, as opposed to a superstore chain. Sure, the Louis Cristal, while wonderful, doesn’t have all the amenities of a 5,000 passenger vessel: ice rinks, ziplines, indoor forests. Yet, that’s not what I was looking for. What I did find: an opportunity to discover areas of Cuba that are unique and relatively untouched by tourism, a little piece of home — and a place where my dad could talk to me (and anyone else who would listen) about old American cars for seven days straight.

By Jennifer Foden Wilson, Montreal Gazette

January 14, 2015

Cuba Cruise departs every Monday from Havana and every Friday from Montego Bay until March 30, 2015. Prices start at $652 CAD per person.

The writer was a guest on Cuba Cruise, which did not review or approve the story.

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