Sunday, January 26, 2014

First Report of the Cuba Cruise

Fresh look at Cuba

Rare voyage makes resisting island's charm impossible



They say your first cruise is always your best, but my recent trip with Cuba Cruise ( made me feel like I've rediscovered cruising all over again.

The Calgary-based company is opening up a whole new world in the Caribbean this year by offering extremely rare voyages that circumnavigate Cuba - with a Canadian twist.

Over the course of a week, Cuba Cruise's Louis Cristal sails to Havana, Antilla (for Holguin), Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, and spends half a day at the beachside paradise that is Punta Frances on Cuba's Isla de la Juventud.

You also have your choice of embarkation ports: Mondays in Havana, or Montego Bay, Jamaica, where Louis Cristal calls each Friday.

I sailed aboard the Louis Cristal, a 1,200-passenger ship that normally cruises the Greek Islands for Cyprus based Louis Cruises. But everything on board is uniquely Cuba Cruise for these sailings, from the ship's colourful new hull artwork to bar menus, room key cards, and daily programs.

One thing I've always hated about cruising - and I love cruising - is how homogeneous the product can be. Not so here. The international staff is complemented by Cuban waiters, bar stewards and front-desk staff. Entertainment onboard features Cuban singers and dancers, and is helmed by Enrique Nunez, who served as director of the National Theatre in Havana for more than 25 years.

Canada's Cirque Fantastic, based in Montreal, is also featured onboard with a trio of French and Canadian performers whose acrobatic skills had them swinging gracefully across the two levels of the Metropolitan Show Lounge to standing ovations.

Cuba Cruise is also uniquely Canadian: The onboard currency is the Canadian dollar, and fresh provisions including Alberta beef and Canadian beer are flown to the ship every week.

It's also wonderfully international: On my sailing, there were guests from the United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Brazil.

The real star here, of course, is Cuba. It feels like an island off the coast of Spain instead of one off Key West, and it is impossible to resist its charms. Crumbling but romantic, ancient but modern, these ports of call are a refreshing change from the overrun locales normally visited on Caribbean voyages.

The shore excursions Cuba Cruise has put together use local Cuban guides and focus on the history and culture of this unique island.

Like the rest of the product, they are of an unusually high quality given the reasonable price, and six UNESCO World Heritage sites can be visited in a single week.

At every turn, the Cuban people welcomed us with open arms.

Cruise terminals have been upgraded; new roads have been paved.

The mayor of Holguin personally declared the first call of the Louis Cristal a civic holiday.

I've taken a lot of cruises to a lot of different countries, but I've never experienced anything like Cuba Cruise. Don't let this one pass you by. Cuba Cruise sails from Havana on Mondays and Montego Bay on Fridays until March 24.

Two-for-one pricing is available for voyages booked between now and Feb. 28. Prices start at $586 per person.

Visit to read our day-by-day Cuba Cruise Live Voyage Report.

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