Sailing Back in Time in Havana

There’s nothing like sailing into Havana at dawn. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Havana, Cuba; Friday, February 16, 2018

In the twenty years that I’ve been cruising, I’ve sailed into too many harbours to count. The most memorable ones, though, stick out in my mind – and sail-in to Havana, Cuba is definitely one of those.

It’s spine-tingling, watching the sun crest on the horizon as you approach the hazy outline of the Cuban capital, just over 100 miles south of Key West.

In the Distance: approaching Havana. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Suddenly, you’re sailing right past the Malecon on one side, and Havana’s El Morro Fortress on the other. Old American cars zip past and honk their horns, while men sit fishing along the edge of the seaside Malecon, hoping for an early-morning catch. You’re watching them, and they’re watching you. You wave. They wave back.

And no wonder. Holland America Line’s Veendam must make for a beautiful and imposing site, with her glistening navy blue hull and white superstructure towering over even Havana’s highest buildings. Dress lights ablaze and radars turning, she sailed slowly into the heart of the city, barely managing to turn her 719-foot length in the narrow turning basin before easing bow-first into Havana’s Terminal Sierra Maestra San Francisco cruise terminal.

I’ve done this sail-in three times now, and I wouldn’t think of missing it. You’ll need to be up and out on deck around 6:30am in most cases (check your ship’s arrival and departure times), but the early wake-up call is well worth it.

Evidence of Havana’s changing skyline is on full display. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Ahead: the Sierra Maestra Cruise Terminal. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Havana is also special for another reason: legions of American cruisers crowd the rails as they enter a city and a country that was previously off-limits to them. Some are tourists seeking new lands; others are coming back to the Island that holds familial roots. Lining the decks of the Veendam, more than a few shed tears. It’s a scene I’ve seen repeated on other ships sailing into Havana, but one that is rarely duplicated in other parts of the world. Make no mistake about it: this is an emotional and highly personal journey for many.

Finally, Veendam arrives in Havana…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

…and slips slowly into her berth. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

This is one sail-in you want to be awake early for! Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Because of U.S. regulations, guests disembarking from ships sailing from the United States to Cuba are required to participate in so-called “People to People” tours. These culturally-themed tours are absolutely fantastic, but they are seven to eight hours in duration and come with a hefty price tag that you should be prepared for in advance. The waters are murky on whether folks (like myself) from other nationalities have to follow these rules, but I chose to, even though as a Canadian I can fly freely down to Cuba from any number of Canadian cities. While these full-day tours of Havana aren’t cheap, I believe they are an excellent value, delivering a number of cultural experiences that you would be hard-pressed to secure on your own.

Navigating Cuba’s Disembarkation Procedure

Guests disembark Veendam in Havana later in the evening. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Holland America Line offers nine full-day tours in Havana that are compliant with the People-to-People regulations, and four evening tours in Havana that are non-compliant, but which can be enjoyed after fulfilling a full-day tour requirement set forth by the U.S. Government.

Today, I chose to take part in two tours: the Culinary Traditions of Cuba (6 to 8 hours, daytime, $119.95 per person) and a visit to the Tropicana Cabaret: Rhythms of the Night (4 hours, evening, $159.95). The Culinary Traditions tour was scheduled to arrive back at the ship around 5pm, leaving three hours before my Tropicana Cabaret tour departed at 8:30pm. Just enough time for a shower and some dinner before heading ashore again.

Of course, in Cuba, things operate on their own time schedule. Don’t plan excursions too close together; I did this in August aboard Carnival Paradise and wound up missing my second tour.

Kudos, though, to Holland America on its organized and efficient disembarkation in Havana. It’s the best I’ve experienced in Havana so far, and involved the least amount of stress and wait times thanks to the fact that the line staggered the departures of its shore excursions.

Exercise patience as you disembark in Havana, and you’ll be on your way in no time. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

When you go ashore in Havana, you first pass through Passport and Immigration controls. Here, you passport is checked; photograph taken; and visa stamped.

Then, you move on to an airport-style security screening, so be prepared to run bags and backpacks through a scanner and empty your pockets.

Finally, you’re invited to exchange currency into Cuba’s official tourism currency: the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC (pronounced “kook.”). ATM’s and Credit cards aren’t widely accessible in Cuba, so cash is a necessity. Only the most touristic places will take U.S. Dollars, so be prepared to convert cash into CUC’s at the pier. Also, don’t tip your guides in U.S. Dollars. It forces them to go through money-changers that will skim some off the top, or worse, to use a back-alley money changer to convert USD into something useable for day to day life in Cuba.

If you have access to other forms of currency, you’ll find a more favorable exchange rate. U.S. Dollars are hit with a 10 percent surcharge, whereas those using Euros or Canadian Dollars won’t pay that tax.

After that, you make your way down to the coaches, and your Cuban adventure begins!

Havana By Day: Culinary Cuba

Make your way through the colourful streets of Cuba! Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

My Culinary Cuba tour took us to Havana’s Gran Teatro de la Habana (the Grand Theatre of Havana), where we learned about the maridaje – the Cuban Marriage – which often refers to Cuba’s three most famous products: rum, coffee and cigars.

In the basement wine bar of the Gran Teatro, we learned how to mix a proper mojito; appreciate Cuban rum (always sip!); drink Cuban coffee (delicious!); and finally, how to properly smoke a Cuban cigar. I don’t smoke at all, but even I participated in this last bit of fun. Why not? When in Havana…

At the Grand Theatre of Havana…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

…guests learned about the “Cuban Marriage”: Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Coffee…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

…cigars and rum. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Lunch was served in a fantastic setting…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

…with some equally-inspiring music. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

This was followed by a spectacular lunch set to some of the most enthusiastic Cuban music I’ve ever heard played. The ringleader of this band was a guy that was too cool for school, and he played the crowd like a violin. The ladies at my table swooned over our Crooning Cuban, who belted out Guantanamara and Oye Como Va at the top of his lungs. You’ve got to hand it to the guy; he’s nothing if not charismatic.

Following lunch, we went for an enjoyable walk through Havana’s Old Town. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Old Havana reflects the city’s forgotten status as a capital of culture and a powerhouse of trade and commerce. Within walking distance is the Terminal Sierra Maestra Cruise Terminal, which made it easy to stroll back to Veendam in preparation for the evening’s festivities.

The derelict finger piers nearby, however, hint at a more glorious oceangoing past in Havana – one that may hopefully someday be resurrected.

The streets of Havana are like nothing else on earth. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

You’ll take more photos of cars than you ever have before. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

No matter how many times you see one! Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Havana is also noteworthy for its impressive architecture…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

…presented in a number of different styles. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Our guide takes us on a stroll…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

…through the heart of Old Havana. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

The Sierra Maestra Cruise Terminal…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

…and Veendam at her berth in Havana, by day. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Havana By Night: The Tropicana Cabaret

I returned onboard and was able to have a shower and a casual dinner in the Lido Marketplace Buffet. By 8pm, I was stepping off the Veendam once again to experience my first evening in Havana.

The Tropicana Cabaret is one of Havana’s most legendary nighttime revues. Founded in 1939, it caters primarily to tourists looking to see its spectacular dancers and production shows, which ran non-stop for two hours.

Havana at night, as seen from the deck of the Veendam before the Tropicana Cabaret excursion. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Each table of four is given a bottle of Havana Club rum and one Cola apiece to mix-in, and extra drinks can be purchased at cost. You have to pay to take photos and videos as well (5 CUC’s), and I elected to just sit back and enjoy the show. While I don’t think I’d repeat this on future visits to Cuba due to the high cost of the excursion ($159 per person), I definitely enjoyed myself and highly recommend the show. If you look up “spectacle” in the dictionary, there would be a picture of the Tropicana, filled with 180-degrees of stage elements and dancers that go all-out for two straight hours.

When the show finally ends at midnight, coaches whisk guests back to the ship. Most of us nodded on and off for the 30 minute bus ride back to the Veendam, and I marveled at how dark Havana is at night. Sparsely lit with only the harshest of lights, it would be deemed “dangerously unlit” by North American standards. Yet, as we whizzed past the Malecon it was packed with locals sitting by the seawall, talking, strolling, kissing.

Finally, Veendam came into view. I stepped back onboard just before one o’clock in the morning, and was drifting off to sleep as the stern thrusters came on and Veendam eased away from Havana, bound for Cuba’s southernmost shores.

Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Our Voyage Report onboard Holland America Line’s Veendam in Cuba continues tomorrow with a restful day at sea. Follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.

Veendam's Cuban-Caribbean Cruise

February 14, 2018Fort Lauderdale, FLEmbark5:00pm
February 15At Sea
February 16Havana, Cuba8:00am2:00am Feb 17
February 17At Sea
February 18Cienfuegos, Cuba8:00am5:00 pm
February 19Georgetown, Grand Cayman8:00am5:00pm
February 20At Sea
February 21, 2018Fort Lauderdale, FL7:00amDisembark

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