La Habana, The Viking Way

A Day in Havana, with Viking Cruises. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Havana represented the most difficult choice I would make during my entire Cultural Cuba cruise from Miami aboard Viking Cruises’ Viking Sun.

Anchored off Cienfuegos for two and a half days, all of Viking’s shore excursion offerings in Cuba are included in the cost of the cruise. By removing the financial element from the equation, guests can indulge their own interests without being limited by budgetary considerations.

In addition to multiple different tours of Cienfuegos and nearby Trinidad, Viking also offers two distinct options to tour Havana: a full-day, 12-hour long visit to the Cuban capital, or an overnight stay in the city, complete with accommodations at a five-star hotel and entry into the famous Tropicana Cabaret.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Havana is the capital of Cuba and is home to over 2 million inhabitants. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Having been to Havana before – but eager to go again – I chose the 12-hour full day tour. Why not the overnight? As goofy as it sounds, I just didn’t want to be away from the gorgeous (and soothing) Viking Sun for even a night. With only seven days onboard, my goal was to enjoy every aspect of this relaxing ship as much as possible, and an evening in Havana would have detracted from that.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: it’s a long drive into Havana. About three hours each direction, almost all of which is on a road paved like the waves of the ocean. Some guests thought our bus had broken suspension thanks to the undulating, and frankly disconcerting, swaying motion that made me feel like I was back at sea. I was not: this is just how the highways are.

To start our day off, we visited Ernest Hemingway’s house in Havana…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…before heading for lunch…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and refreshments. Try the Cuban beer: it’s quite good! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

The drive itself, though, was fascinating. After all, what other opportunities do you have to take a drive clear across the Cuban countryside, from the southern shores of the island nation to its northernmost reaches? A quick stop at a rest station about halfway through the drive allowed guests to use the washrooms and purchase a cup of coffee or do a bit of souvenir shopping, followed by a brief but fascinating visit to Ernest Hemingway’s former home in Cuba.

After arrival in Havana, lunch was served at a local paladar, or restaurant. Nestled into the suburbs, away from the bustle of the city’s more touristic historic center, our relaxing meal was served family-style and consisted of chicken, beef, rice and beans, and a dessert. One drink was provided complimentary, and included bottled water, wine, beer, or soft drinks. My advice: grab a bottle of water from the coach as you disembark and use your free drink for a soft drink or alcoholic beverage.

Following lunch, guests were treated to a panoramic city tour – but we wouldn’t be needing the coaches. Instead, guests piled into several parked 1950’s-era American cars, lovingly restored, for an open-air cruise through the city.

The highlight of the day: a cruise through Havana…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…in a convoy of classic American cars! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I’ve never done this before on my past two trips to Havana, so it was a real treat. But the bigger treat was seeing all of the guests (most of whom were older than I am) fall in love with these cars again. Suddenly, every guest – even the women – became a car expert. “We had one of these when I was a kid!”, shouted one lady as she ran up to a turquoise Chevrolet. “I drove one of these when I had kids!”, said another.

We probably could have turned around and left right then, and the reviews would have been spectacular. But we ended up cruising through the streets of Havana in style for nearly 45 minutes – a worthy trip back in time in more ways than one, passing important sites like Plaza de la Revolucion and the Malecon as we did so.

Our Man in Havana. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Even on the road, our Viking guides lead the way. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our ride ended near the waterfront and Havana’s cruise terminal, at Parque Luz Caballero. From here, we embarked on a guided walking tour of Havana’s old town, a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As much fun as our car ride through the city was, there is nothing equal to walking through Havana. To really see it and understand it, you have to take to the streets, where the old mingles with the new. One building might be crumbling. One might be under repair, while another still has been restored to its former glory. This is how things are here in Havana. The number of restored buildings, however, has jumped greatly since my first visit here in January of 2014. Cuba – and Havana – are changing, and the experience for travellers will be one that constantly evolves as they do.

Havana’s La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana, completed in 1777. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

After an hour on the ground, time was made for a quick, 30-minute stop at the Almacenes San Jose, or the San Jose Artisan’s Market. I’ll be honest: I’m not a shopper. I could have skipped this stop for another 30 minutes in Old Havana, especially considering that there’s really nothing terribly artisanal about this market, which features rows of dimly-lit stalls all selling the same wares on loop. Worse, the market is one of the few places in Cuba that has adopted the same high-pressure, aggressive sales tactics found in other parts of the Caribbean. There’s nothing dangerous about it (the Cubans are friendly, but persistent), yet I just didn’t enjoy it.

To get to know Havana, you have to take to its streets. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I may be alone in that assertion. Some members of our tour were bored by historical Havana, and just wanted to shop, shop, shop. I did buy a litre of Havana Club rum in the Old Town to take home, but other than that, I didn’t really indulge.

After passing Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky tied up at the cruise terminal, I did briefly lament the long drive back to the Viking Sun. However, Viking’s docking position in Cienfuegos allows the line to offer a immersive experience in Cuba. The ships that dock in Havana are primarily just calling on the city before returning to the United States, or other parts of the Caribbean. With Viking, you get the opportunity to explore more of Cuba.

Norwegian Sky at her berth in Havana. Unlike our weeklong cruise with Viking, guests on the Norwegian Sky would spend just one day in Cuba. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

If I did this itinerary again, I’d do the overnight excursion to Havana. I heard it was a pretty intense tour (expect to stay up late at the Tropicana and get up early the next morning), but that’s okay. After all –  a relaxing day at sea awaits before your ship returns to Miami.

Back onboard Viking Sun, sailing for Miami. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our Voyage Series onboard Viking Cruises’ Viking Sun in Cuba has come to a close. Follow along with our latest cruise adventures on Twitter: @deckchairblog.

Viking Cruises' Cuba

PARTDESCRIPTION
Part 1Why Viking Sun Embraces the Art of Hygge
Part 2Cienfuegos & Trinidad, Cuba
Part 3A Day (Or More) In Havana
 

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