This January, I’m going to embark on one of the most unique voyages I think you can probably take. It’s a cruise that, sadly, is off-limits for many of my friends to the south, but one that has so many unique features that it is impossible to pass up.

The Louis Cristal will spend the winter of 2013-2014 sailing around Cuba for Canadian-based Cuba Cruise. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise.

The Louis Cristal will spend the winter of 2013-2014 sailing around Cuba for Canadian-based Cuba Cruise. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise.

Calgary-based Cuba Cruise has chartered Louis Cruises’ sleek little Louis Cristal between now and March to operate weeklong Caribbean voyages that circumnavigate Cuba and offer embarkation options in both Havana and Montego Bay – and I’ll be onboard the January 10, 2014 sailing to share the experience with you.

Aside from the opportunity to cruise around Cuba (which comes up, well, never, and is fantastic in its own right), Cuba Cruise is also adding some very unique features to the ship’s onboard product.

The opportunity to visit Havana is one of the main attractions on this circumnavigation of Cuba. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

The opportunity to visit Havana is one of the main attractions on this circumnavigation of Cuba. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

Because provisioning in Cuba can be a tricky affair, the Louis Cristal will be provisioned with Canadian beef and fresh ingredients imported from Canada. The ship will even have a specialty restaurant called the Albert Steakhouse featuring dishes made with fresh Alberta Beef.

(An aside: this would be a good time to mention that I grew up in Calgary, Alberta – and the thought of having real Alberta beef on a cruise makes my mouth absolutely water!)

But there’s also heavy Cuban influence in the onboard product, from Cuban crewmembers (approximately 20 percent of the ship’s total crew complement) to authentic Cuban dishes and drinks. I’m told there will also be Canadian beer onboard, too.

Not to be confused with Trinidad & Tobago, Trinidad, Cuba is a UNESCO World Heritage site notable for its striking Spanish Colonial architecture. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

Not to be confused with Trinidad & Tobago, Trinidad, Cuba is a UNESCO World Heritage site notable for its striking Spanish Colonial architecture. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

So, to recap: a weeklong cruise to Cuba designed and marketed for Canadians but also offered to international passengers, sailing aboard a ship owned by a company based in Cyprus that normally sails the Greek Isles. Sounds mighty unique to me!

The full itinerary, both here and onboard:

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
Thursday, January 9, 2014Montego Bay, JamaicaPre-cruise stay in Montego Bay
Friday, January 10Montego Bay, JamaicaEmbark Louis Cristal5:30 PM
Saturday, January 11Cienfuegos / Trinidad, Cuba10:00 AM9:00 PM
Sunday, January 12Punta Frances / Isle of Youth, Cuba10:00 AM2:00 PM
Monday, January 13Havana, Cuba8:30 AM01:00 AM +1
Tuesday, January 14At Sea
Wednesday, January 15Holguin, Cuba7:30 AM6:30 PM
Thursday, January 16Santiago de Cuba, Cuba9:00 AM9:00 PM
Friday, January 17Montego Bay, Jamaica7:00 AMDisembark

As with our last few journeys, we’ll have coverage both here and on our new Live Voyage Reports website!

Historically, cruises to Cuba were immensely popular. In the 1930’s, for example, Cuba was the most popular destination for pleasure cruises and vacationers in the Caribbean, and the vast majority of those who came were Americans looking for a good time on the relaxed, laid-back island.

That changed with the advent of the Cold War and the rise of Fidel Castro to power in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 saw the United States impose the first travel restrictions in February of 1963, and those have largely remained in place to this day. In 2009, President Barack Obama eased the restrictions for Cuban-American citizens, but travel to the Caribbean island technically remains illegal for the vast majority of the citizens of the United States.

Canadians, however, have long enjoyed travel to Cuba, particularly to escape our downright cold winter months. Vacation packages are offered to hotspot beach destinations like Varadero, and flights leave for Havana from Toronto’s Pearson Airport and Montreal Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport.

The Vinales Valley is another UNESCO World Heritage site in Cuba, where coffee and tobacco are farmed and produced traditionally. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

The Vinales Valley is another UNESCO World Heritage site in Cuba, where coffee and tobacco are farmed and produced traditionally. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

Cruise around Cuba, however, are a different matter. Not only do they exist sparsely, many of the ships stopping in Cuban ports of call typically sail from England on longer Caribbean voyages.

Cuba Cruise is attracting plenty of media attention in the United States, including a recent article published in the Miami Herald that discusses the Cristal’s first season circumnavigating Cuba for the company – and that sort of discussion is good for the industry as a whole. Cuba Cruise is one of the first companies to actively offer this kind of voyage, and the possibilities for cruise tourism in Cuba should the US embargo ever be lifted is likely enough to make the most jaded cruise executive giddy with excitement.

Aside from visiting Cuba for the very first time, I have to be honest: I’m also taking this trip for the ship.

The multi-tier Show Lounge aboard Louis Cristal. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

The multi-tier Show Lounge aboard Louis Cristal. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

Ever since she was Norwegian Cruise Line’s Leeward way back when, I’ve always wanted to sail aboard the Louis Cristal. She has one of the most colourful histories in the industry, to be sure, having started life as a Baltic ferry before being rebuilt from the ground up once, and refitted twice. Her actual hull dates back to 1980, but everything above the waterline was added during her 1990-1992 conversion into the ship she is today.

As such, Louis Cristal has a very 1990’s feel to both her styling and public areas – but that’s far from being a bad thing. Louis has taken great care of this intimate little ship, which is 521 feet long and 82.8 feet wide and can carry roughly 1,200 guests.

Located high atop the ship, the Stars Lounge wraps around the base of the funnel aboard Louis Cristal. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

Located high atop the ship, the Stars Lounge wraps around the base of the funnel aboard Louis Cristal. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

Louis Cristal has a main midships pool and an aft-facing hot tub located at the stern. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

Louis Cristal has a main midships pool and an aft-facing hot tub located at the stern. Photo courtesy of Cuba Cruise

She has all the normal things you’d expect from a cruise ship, along with some very unique and welcome features. A teak-lined promenade deck is connected to every upper deck by a series of switchback staircases at the stern, which features a hot tub and bar overlooking the ship’s wake. She has a glass-walled lounge wrapped around her funnel, and even boasts glass elevators.

Personally, I’m excited about this entire journey, sailing aboard a ship I’ve always been curious about to a country I’ve always wanted to see.

I hope you’ll all join me, virtually, on my journey to Cuba – Canadian-style!

Come sail with us - virtually - as we discover Cuba this January aboard Louis Cristal with Cuba Cruise! Photo courtesy of Louis Cruises.

Come sail with us – virtually – as we discover Cuba this January aboard Louis Cristal with Cuba Cruise! Photo courtesy of Louis Cruises.

Our Live Voyage Report aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal will begin January 10, 2014! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

From the Deck Chair will return Friday, December 27, 2013!

 

6 Responses to Live Voyage Preview: Circumnavigating Cuba

  1. Kalle Id says:

    Absolutely fantastic, I’m very much looking forward to this! I’ve sailed once on the ship, back when it was the Silja Opera for Baltic Sea cruising, and that still ranks as one of my favourite cruises of all time. And Cuba Cruise offer an absolutely fantastic itinerary I’d love to try out but won’t have the time… so reading your report about it is the next best thing! :D

    I do have to correct you on one thing however: The ship was rebuilt “from the ground up” only once, in 1990-1992. She had previously had a radical conversion in 1988 and went on to have another one before becoming the Leeward, but especially the latter was not as extensive as many people seem to presume; a lot of the current interiors date from the 1992 refit.

    But nitpicking aside, it will be fantastic to read your report from the cruise!

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      Really glad you’re excited about the report, Kalle! I’m glad that you enjoyed your time aboard her back when she was Silja Opera. For me, this one is a real ‘win-win': a cool place I’ve always wanted to see, coupled with a cool ship I’ve always wanted to sail on.

      And thanks for the tip regarding the refit; I’ve re-worded the post. You’re right – she was only totally rebuilt once between 1990 and 1992. A vessel with one of the most interesting histories afloat, that’s for sure!

  2. Paul says:

    Looking forward to hear of your experiences. We are heading to Havana first for a few days then pick up the cruise on Monday 20th February and so looking forward to it. As many hints as you can please especially re: food, drink and excursions.Have a great time!

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      Will do, Paul! If you have any specific questions while I am onboard, just fire off a comment and I’ll do my best to answer!

  3. Betty Laliberte says:

    We board this cruise Jan 27 in HAVANA. So looking forward to your posts.

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