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wldflr

To Cuba or not to Cuba in 2020?

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A question for those of you who have been to Cuba... DH and I are debating sailing on the Veendam next January 2020 to go on the 7-day cruise to Cuba with a group of friends. We've been through the Panama Canal twice, several Eastern/Western Caribbean, and the ABC islands...and feel like we're stuck on reruns of islands. And looking through next year's catalog it seems like there is very little variety when it comes to sailing in the Caribbean in January (when we can take a cruise).

 

In a few weeks we will be sailing on the Koningsdam for 11 nights and also wondering if sailing on the Veendam will be a letdown because we would be going from one of the newest HAL ships to its oldest one in the fleet.

 

Part of me wants to visit Cuba only because it has finally opened its doors to US tourists (in my lifetime) - sooooo to those of you who have been there, would you go back again? And those who haven't been there, is it on your bucket list? And is it worth sailing on the Veendam to see it?

 

P.S. I'm also disappointed that the Cuba itinerary does not include Half Moon Cay.

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Was on the first Veendam cruise to Cuba over a year ago - I would not hesitate to go to Cuba again, no matter which ship, especially Havana. You already  understand upfront it will be a different experience than a larger, more modern ship. That is a good place to start.  But the Veendam has plenty to like and you might be surprised that smaller and older, but with great itineraries is a worthy change to keep things interesting.

 

Lots to like about both this ship and this itinerary.  About the only "older" thing one notices are more built up layers of paint. less than pristine metal work and some bumps and dents in her lovely blue hull, well earned from her decades already on the high seas.  Food and staff will be very similar if not even better due to the smaller size which is more intimate.  You get the feel of the ship more quickly and they get to know you too. 

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1 hour ago, wldflr said:

Part of me wants to visit Cuba only because it has finally opened its doors to US tourists (in my lifetime) -

 

Actually, Cuba never closed its doors to the U.S.  It's the U.S. government who prevented U.S. citizens (or "persons") from visiting, or more specifically, spending any money in Cuba.

 

Go by doing a land tour.  You won't regret it.

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I loved our cruise to Cuba in October on the Veendam. Yes, the ship is a bit older but certainly not unkempt. In Havana we did a private walking followed by classic car tour. In the evening we went to the Tropicana. Personally I would skip the meal there but the show itself was outstanding. 

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1 hour ago, wldflr said:

... And those who haven't been there, is it on your bucket list?...

 

Going to Cuba is most definitely NOT on my bucket list, as I respect the views of my many Cuban-American friends who lost family members and friends to the Castro regime.

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4 hours ago, cruising cockroach said:

 

Actually, Cuba never closed its doors to the U.S. 

 

 

Nope. Cuba was always happy to welcome and provide shelter to American hijackers, leftwing revolutionaries and law breaking fugitives on the run from US.

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We went to Cuba on the Veendam (11 day cruise) two months ago, which included stops in Cienfuegos and Havana.  For our Cienfuegos stop, we took a ship excursion to Trinidad and found the bus trip more interesting than our destination.  The thing I remember most about Trinidad is the poverty.  In Havana we also took a ship excursion that involved visiting a neighborhood art center and touring around the city.  That evening we experienced the Tropicana show.  Our day in Havana was the highlight of our cruise.

 

We have some friends who went to Cuba on NCL the week prior to our cruise, visiting only Havana.  They had a totally negative reaction in contrast to ours.  I don’t know if NCL is different or our friends just ignored the people to people requirement (they seemed surprised when I explained it), but they simply walked off the ship and wandered around Havana.  Their reaction to their visit was “never again,” so it’s a little strange when we encourage others to go to Cuba and our friends say don’t bother.  IMHO, if you only like to visit nice resorts on vacation, consider a different cruise, but if you like to explore the world, go for it.

 

We found the Veendam was fine except for one thing.  The same two elevators (the ship has a total of eight) were out of commission for the entire cruise and other comments I’ve read on CC indicate this isn’t an isolated issue.  We had no problems with our balcony cabin and I thought the food was very good.  The ship is definitely smaller than the Koningsdam and doesn’t have the more contemporary feel about it like the K; however, we like that.

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I am Canadian and never chose to go to Cuba. The Cuba portrayed in the travel guides is a lot different than when you arrive in a cruise Port. We were on the first HAL cruise that was permitted to Cuba. We had a totally different itinerary before HAL changed it. We had two ports in Cuba-Havana and Cienfuegos. I did not like Cienfuegos at all. At that time it was really about trying to find something  to do in the port-maybe it's changed since Dec 2017... I don't know. We did a tour in Havana with a pre-booked company. We had a driver as well as a guide and it was just the four of us and it was outstanding. I would highly recommend.  

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We spent 10 days touring Cuba several years ago. We loved the country side, the old cars and buildings and talking to the local people to find out about their life and culture. It was a very eye opening experience to find out the other perspective and how they perceive us. I would go back in a minute.

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I was on the Veendam over Christmas and visited Cienfuegos as part of the cruise.  Because Cienfuegos is a tender port, you really do not get much time there.  People who had booked a HAL tour were allowed off the Veendam at least hour before everyone else.  The last tender back was at 3:30 if you were not on a ship tour.  For these reasons, you may want to consider a ship tour in that port.  Several people have also posted on cruisecritic that HAL cancelled their visit to Cienfuegos entirely on other cruises.  I would not book another HAL cruise if the only stop was Cienfuegos and if my reason for the cruise is a visit to Cuba.  There's too much risk of being disappointed.  I thought the condition of the Veendam was fine.

Edited by ChinaShrek

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I never recommend Veendam.  

Cuba is fascinating but I would find a 10-11 day cruise on another line that has docking rights and spends four or five days there.  

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We’ve considered a few cruises that have Cuba as a stop.   Kind of a mixed bag of some interest and some reluctance for us.  That said because of my wife’s job with the government all her foreign travel has to be approved and that has been an issue for past potential cruises.  She hasn’t checked lately but a year or so ago she could not be on a cruise that stopped in Cuba whether she got off the ship or not.   Kind of a hassle so we’re more in the mode to pick itineraries with less potential issues.   

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8 hours ago, avian777 said:

 

Going to Cuba is most definitely NOT on my bucket list, as I respect the views of my many Cuban-American friends who lost family members and friends to the Castro regime.

Interestingly, many Cuban born-Americans showed overwhelming interest in sailing to Cuba as soon as (now defunct) Fathom started sailing there and even protested when initial restrictions prevented them from doing so. One of my best friends who is of Cuban descent is a travel agent in Miami and he has told me that one of the most popular destinations from his local clientele is indeed Cuba. I understand that it may feel wrong to visit a country where politics have caused so much suffering, but if we were to limit ourselves from visiting countries that have a shameful past (and present), we wouldn't go anywhere, including the country where we live in.

 

To the OP:

Cuba has been one of the most fascinating destinations that I have ever visited. I don't regret having taking this cruise whatsoever! I always tell people that I felt like Marty McFly (from Back to the Future) when he was transported to 1955 and he started walking around in awe. :classic_biggrin:   We spent the night in Havana and planned our own activities, from excursions and places to visit, to where to eat. It's one of those destinations where the destination is the main focus so I wouldn't place too much emphasis on the ship. We sailed on the Empress of the Seas (which is 28 years old and small), and we still had an absolutely fantastic time.

 

Currently, sailing on an older smaller ship is a necessary evil because that's what Cuba can handle, but cruise lines are gradually scheduling larger ships there. Although it will probably be a long time (if ever) before there's a cruise boom like what we've seen at other Caribbean destinations, I would recommend sailing to Cuba now when this destination is fairly in its infancy for American cruisers. That was a big part of Havana's charm and allure. 

 

Do read the restrictions from the US Department of State which outline what you can and can't do in an effort to minimize your contribution to the Cuban regime, and to ensure that your visit to Cuba benefits the people directly. Have a fantastic time! 

 

 

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I recently visited Havana on a cruise with another line, and found it to be very interesting. I'm not your typical Caribbean cruiser -- not really interested in beaches and tropical scenery. I enjoy history, architecture, and the arts. In that light, I loved Havana and would definitely go back on another cruise.  In fact, having Havana on the itinerary would be a major draw for me having done most of the Caribbean ports many times.  The rest of the island interests me less, but if other ports were included I'd be happy to see them at least once.

 

Larger ships can't effectively visit Cuba, so you will either have to go on an older, smaller ship that's part of a mass-market line (RCL, HAL, NCL etc.) or go with a more upscale line. I made the trip on Azamara Journey and really enjoyed the ship as well as Cuba.  The ship was in great shape after a recent refurb.  Cabins -- and particularly bathrooms -- are on the small side but nicely appointed. Food was good in both the MDR and the buffet. I especially liked the uncrowded feeling in the MDR, tables were not right up against each other, and waiters seemed to not be so overworked as I've noticed on mass market lines recently. 

 

Entertainment was limited but was fine for my taste (I am used to smaller ships!):  there were a couple of lectures on marine topics and an exceptionally good singer from Cuba who also shared stories from her childhood and education in Cuba.  She was onboard as part of an ongoing partnership between Azamara and the "54 Below" cabaret in NYC. All I can say is that if she is an example of the types of performers they feature, I am highly impressed.  (You can read more here:  https://www.azamaraclubcruises.com/life-onboard/entertainment-activities )

 

We were docked in Havana for 1 and 3/4 days. On Day 1 we used a ship tour in order to get an early start (ship tours were allowed off first) and also to see a lot of outlying areas of Havana that are more challenging to do on your own. It also satisfied the "full day of touring with approved tour provider" requirement.  That night we went to the Tropicana (in one of the old car taxis), having obtained tickets independently. The following day we took a free local walking tour (3 hours) of the historic city center.  We also enjoyed lunch at a paladar and visited a local craft market (skippable, IMO).

 

I would definitely recommend Cuba to anyone on the fence. 

Edited by cruisemom42

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2 hours ago, ChinaShrek said:

I was on the Veendam over Christmas and visited Cienfuegos as part of the cruise.  Because Cienfuegos is a tender port, you really do not get much time there.  People who had booked a HAL tour were allowed off the Veendam at least hour before everyone else.  The last tender back was at 3:30 if you were not on a ship tour.  For these reasons, you may want to consider a ship tour in that port.  Several people have also posted on cruisecritic that HAL cancelled their visit to Cienfuegos entirely on other cruises.  I would not book another HAL cruise if the only stop was Cienfuegos and if my reason for the cruise is a visit to Cuba.  There's too much risk of being disappointed.  I thought the condition of the Veendam was fine.

 

Cienfeugos will always be a problematic port due to wind, weather, daylight hours, tides and lack of local facilities. Much like other ports that occasionally need to be canceled for safety and security reasons such as Easter Island and Cook Islands. It is a built in risk on this itinerary, and good to know upfront so there is no unrealistic expectation that it is a 100% guaranteed port.

 

However, I suspect it is far more likely one will make this port stop than not.  Agree, the excursion to Trinidad across the countryside was a huge highlight of this Cuban port stop. The horse drawn "busses" remains a vivid memory as we passed villages along the way.

 

One of those Cuban make-do solutions to their isolation and ingenuity. No petroleum imports to rely one and  thehorses recycle fertilizer for the land while serving the local transportation needs, even in the 21st Century. The contrast of the old cars in pristine condition and the horse drawn "busses" -- that is the Cuba one sees, along with plenty of late model Japanese sedans too.

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1 hour ago, OlsSalt said:

 

The contrast of the old cars in pristine condition

 

They're not pristine.   Lots of paint, Bondo and rust if you look closely.  No running classic car has its original engine (nothing sounds like a V-8 or L-6).  The Cubans have been very good with refitting the "classic" cars with Nissan and Hyundai diesels among other things.  Saw many cars that I've never seen before, and I am not that young.

 

Rides include a '52 split window Dodge.

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19 minutes ago, cruising cockroach said:

 

They're not pristine.   Lots of paint, Bondo and rust if you look closely.  No running classic car has its original engine (nothing sounds like a V-8 or L-6).  The Cubans have been very good with refitting the "classic" cars with Nissan and Hyundai diesels among other things.  Saw many cars that I've never seen before, and I am not that young.

 

Rides include a '52 split window Dodge.

 

The old cars look buffed and gorgeous - that is my version of "pristine".

 

The drivers all joke there is the UN under the hood. Saw the same thing in Egypt in the late 1960's after the Americans were kicked out and the Russians took over. It was a time warp for old American cars too during that time when they could no longer trade or get replacement parts - they were held together with chewing gum and bailing wires and all had faded paint.

 

Cuba may also be holding them together the same way, but they are very, very buff in wonderful Caribbean colors and boss interiors. 

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Pristine to me is immaculate original condition, like vintage cars at shows or museums.  Some Cubans certainly keep them polished and beautiful so they look like they are in mint original condition, which is what I (and my car buff B-i-L) thought before  I went there and looked closely.  Doing the best they can with what they have.

 

If you visit, bring basic car body repair stuff and instant gasket, or gasket material to give away.

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22 minutes ago, cruising cockroach said:

Pristine to me is immaculate original condition, like vintage cars at shows or museums.  Some Cubans certainly keep them polished and beautiful so they look like they are in mint original condition, which is what I (and my car buff B-i-L) thought before  I went there and looked closely.  Doing the best they can with what they have.

 

If you visit, bring basic car body repair stuff and instant gasket, or gasket material to give away.

 

Sorry for the confusion.  Glad we got this sorted out. Agree, bring toiletries and/or car parts in lieu of tips.

 

They showed a wonderful movie on our cruise about a Havana drag racing club and it went into a lot of the "informal" parts they would use to get better performance out of these old beauties, -and some newer ones too - apparently drag racing  was a big part of pre-Revolution Cuba and this group wanted to officially bring it back. Very heart warming and yes, one can use vacuum cleaner hoses welded to the hood for more air intake to just maybe  get that extra winning boost.

 

Havana Motor Club: https://yakkinback.com/havana-motor-club-drag-racing-oldies/

Screen Shot 2019-01-09 at 10.38.11 AM.png

Edited by OlsSalt

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Thanks for the input everyone! Next step will be to see the Future Cruises Director while we are on the Koningsdam in 2 weeks to see what deals are offered for the Cuba cruises.

 

My mom and I visited St. Petersburg, Russia in '95 and it also was eye-opening since capitalism was just starting to become more common there - just as it is happening in Cuba now.

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Add me to those who would go back! We were on the 11 day last March The Veendam is a lovely ship.  We booked the Amazon Explorer (still on the Prinsendam) for November partly because it included Cuba.  That, sadly ended when the Prinsendam was sold. 

 

I agree with Ols Salt, it is a must (my Cuban friends were excited that I was going) and that Cienfuegos is a tricky port.  We loved Trinidad, and found the bus ride to get there fascinating!  After our all day Havana tour we skipped the Tropicana Show and instead walked back to the old city and enjoyed the atmosphere.

Definitely GO!

Karen

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