Day 1: Havana
Today was a travel day that also included embarkation onto the ship and excursions while we were docked in Old Havana.
The Cuba Cruise charters an Air Transat plane for the Toronto-Havana connection. Cruisers have the option of getting to Havana (or the other point of boarding, Montego Bay Jamaica, on Fridays) on their own, however, flying into Havana is not the easiest airline ticket to find. Using the Cuba Cruise charter seems to be both more convenient and less expensive. It should be noted that flight check-in begins at 6:00 AM for the 9:00 AM departure and that the check-in counter closes at 8:00 AM. This is important to take into consideration if you are coming in from other cities that may require you staying overnight in Toronto in order to get the early flight. (I suggest the Alt Hotel Pearson. It is connected to the airport terminal by the free Link train.)
After a pleasant flight and a time-consuming customs and immigration process at the Havana airport, a Cuba Cruise representative met us in the airport lobby to direct us to the bus (the thirty-minute bus transfer was included). The on-board guide gave us an informative introduction to Cuba and pointed out the main Havana landmarks along the way.
At the cruise terminal we conducted the embarkation process that included filling in some forms, providing our passports and registration of our credit card for all onboard expenses (Cuba Cruise takes Canadian dollars and credit cards as well as many other currencies) before checking into our cabins. I was pleasantly surprised with mine, which was spacious and had an outside window. Then we were free to explore Havana until midnight. With only nine hours to visit one of the world’s most interesting cities, it was time to get busy!
Some of my fellow cruisers had signed up for one of the city tour excursions in old American cars. This was a hit as some were 50-60 year old convertibles while others looked like they just driven off a movie set. A city tour on an air-conditioned bus was also available and popular.
Having been to Havana a number of times previously, I set out to meet a friend for a mojitos and an early dinner at the legendary Bodegita del Medio (one of the local bars that Ernest Hemingway made famous) right in the heart of Old Havana and within walking distance of where the cruise ship is moored. We ate on the second floor of the Bodegita, which I had never been to before, and were treated to an excellent live band along some impromptu salsa dancing. Fun!
Next, I had to boot it back to the boat for my scheduled departure for the Cabaret Tropicana at 8 PM. Others were headed to the Buena Vista Social Club tribute and came back with rave reviews.
The Tropicana is a must see! Arriving there one has a real sensation of traveling back in time to the 1950s. The club’s look and feel has been impeccably retained form the era of its glory days when the likes of Nat King Cole and Josephine Baker used to perform in the open-air nightclub under the stars. (Note to self: I must return one day and begin the evening with a romantic dinner in the stunning restaurant that is part of the Tropicana complex).
At the nightclub, we were seated at long tables with excellent views of the stage and treated to sparkling wine to start followed by copious quantities of good quality rum and cola to follow during the show.
The entertainment itself was spectacular including elaborate Vegas showgirl costumes, at least seventy-five performers, a live orchestra and a seamless two-hour performance. Photography is allowed if you pay a CUC$5 photography fee at the entrance. All in all, it was a visual and audio feast.
Following the show we had to board our bus immediately as the ship was set to sail by midnight. Starting at the Toronto airport at 6:00 AM and ending in the port at Old Havana at midnight, it was a long but entirely exhilarating day. Now we set sail….
Cuba Cruise travel tip: Exchange some (Canadian) cash into Convertible Cuban Pesos (known as CUCs) at the money changing booth at the cruise terminal. The rate was very good there (approx. 1.18 CAD to 1 CUC – January 2015).
Change enough for the entire trip since it is difficult to find other money changers along the way. 200 CUCs should do the trick to help you with local tips, buying souvenirs and buying some meals and drinks while on Cuban shore. Try to get smaller bills (1s, 3s and 5s) since finding change can be a challenge. In Cuba other currencies are not generally accepted and your credit card will not usually work nor will the ATMs.
Words and photos by AJ Twist – firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow A.J. Twist as he he continues his cruise reports tomorrow.