Ship Review: Regent Seven Seas Explorer

We recently had the wonderful opportunity to sail on “the most luxurious ship ever built,” Regent Seven Seas Explorer. This was our first time on a five-star, luxury cruise line (but my 22nd cruise overall in seven years). With that bit of context to put the review in perspective, here is my ship review:

Nearly everything is included on Regent Seven Seas:

Beverages, from juices freshly blended each morning at the pool grill using an array of healthy vegetables and fruits, to espresso-based drinks prepared (with or without alcohol) in the elegant coffee bar, to premium spirits, to sodas, to specialty teas, to bottled water… all are included. The exceptions are bottles of wine and some ultra-premium liquors. In fact, refreshments like canned soda and freshly-baked cookies are constantly available at ship activities, especially those in the theater.

A bottle of chilled Champagne awaits guests in their suite on embarkation day, along with a platter of fresh fruit that is continuously refreshed and replenished throughout the voyage. The fruit includes items not normally seen on cruise ships, such as peaches and plums. The abundance of fruit choices carries over to the buffets, especially the one at the coffee bar on Deck 5, where fresh fruit including even rarer items like figs is served along with a huge variety of dried fruits and nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, pinenuts) and seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, etc). Truly an outstanding choice of healthy snacks. Of course, there are also unhealthy treats, like freshly-baked donuts, chocolate croissants, and the aforementioned cookies.

Specialty dining is included, with one reservation allowed per sailing per restaurant (Explorer has three specialty restaurants: Asian (Pacific Rim), French (Chartreuse), and a steakhouse (Prime 7)). These reservations can be made up to one week in advance of the sailing, and more reservations may be made on board on a space-available basis.

A fantastic 24-hour room service menu is also included, and comes with white-tablecloth service in the suite. Each suite is equipped with a doorbell, which is rung when the room service is delivered. I ordered room service at least five times on this ten-night sailing, and I’ve never before ordered more than oatmeal, a banana, and coffee, once per sailing (at most). This time, I took full advantage of the great choice and enjoyed a variety of items. One morning, we had a very early start, so I ordered oatmeal… but also blueberry pancakes, and a chocolate croissant to take on my excursion as a mid-day snack. I supplemented this with the great sliced strawberries and an iced latte from Deck 5.

Most days when returning from excursions, there was no food service in the buffet or restaurants. Room service filled this gap, with a fantastic mezze platter (hummus, grape leaves, baba ganoush, carrot sticks, and cucumber slices) that was so good I ordered it three times! Normally I can’t stand Middle Eastern food outside of the metro Detroit area (too spoiled by our amazing Lebanese restaurants!), but this was all incredibly delicious. There was also a great stir-fried noodle dish and a great vegetable panino. One time, I just ordered a chocolate dessert, and enjoyed it poolside at the infinity pool. It’s even possible to order from the main dining room menu during dinner hours, so I tried that one night.

The mini bar is included, and can be stocked according to your preferences. It is also replenished throughout the sailing. The standard items provided if no preferences are stated are cola, soda water, and beer. Even items that are not normally carried in the ship’s inventory might be possible to have in the mini bar if more than one week’s notice is given ahead of the sailing.

An array of excursions are included in each port, including pricey ones like submarine rides, ziplining, horseback riding on the beach, and more. A few excursions cost extra (like those involving flights to farther-flung touring sites), but the large majority are included in the cruise fare. Excursions, like dining reservations, are chosen and held online up to seven days prior to the voyage. All tickets for pre-reserved excursions are waiting in the suite upon embarkation. We needed to waitlist one of the excursions (the Atlantis submarine in Grand Cayman), but we fortunately cleared the waitlist the day before the excursion, and received the tickets outside the door to our suite.

Large umbrellas are provided for use on shore excursions.

All gratuities for the ship’s wonderful crew are included.

WiFi is included and works well, even without opting for the higher-speed streaming package that costs $10 per day. A well-appointed business center is available on Deck 5 if you do not wish to use your own devices (or need the use of a full desktop computer), and there are also several computers available in the library on Deck 11.

Even the use of the machines (and detergent!) in the self-service launderettes is included. The launderettes are on most stateroom decks (some decks have two: forward and aft), and include an iron and ironing board. There’s even a laundry basket provided for guests’ use. Of course, conventional laundry and dry cleaning services are offered, for a nominal fee.

Another great positive with all of these inclusions is the absence of the sales frenzy and up sell attempts. There are no ship’s photographers and no art auctions. No shopping lectures and no “gold by the inch.” The onboard shopping opportunities are limited to two small boutiques. In fact, until the final night, we were unaware the ship even had anywhere to buy sundries, toiletries, and logo items. These were tucked away in the back corner of one of the two boutiques.

There was a future cruise office that did a steady business, and a future cruise presentation. At “just” ten nights, we were actually on one of the shortest itineraries Regent operates, other than their Alaska sailings. At this presentation, I was the lucky winner of a $250 onboard spending credit!

The spa was closed for the first two days of our sailing in order to allow a re-branding from Canyon Ranch Spa Club to Serene Spa and Wellness. In recognition of this, all port day services were 20% off, with a 10% discount on the only sea day after the reopening. I used the spending credit for a 75-minute bamboo massage (and a Regent tote bag).

Spa services, of course, are not included in the fare. However, the full thermal suite, including a sauna, aromatherapy-infused steam room, cold room, rain shower, and heated tile loungers, is available at no charge to all guests, not just spa clients! This was a fantastic surprise. There’s even a fabulous infinity pool outside the thermal suite at the back of the ship. My only wish was that the tile loungers faced the ocean, rather than the tea service station. But I made do 🙂 Perhaps the best part is there was no sales pitch to buy products or get Botox, etc. Very relaxing and tranquil vs forced and pressuring.

There is a fairly large casino (relative to the size of the ship), and free play is not included (including slot tournaments). It was well-staffed but I rarely ever saw any guests in there. Very quiet.

In fact, overall the atmosphere is very quiet and low key. There were only two (extremely well-traveled) children on the sailing, and at most two dozen guests under age 50. 50-75 seemed to be the age range that the vast majority of the guests fit into.

There is one show nightly in the theater at 9:30pm. After that, there is a resident piano player, a “voice and keys duo,” and the orchestra that performs during the main show plays music for dancing in one of the lounges. There were two karaoke nights, and each night had an iPad “jukebox” available until the last bar closed. Our itinerary was so port-intensive that the only entertainment I took in after the nightly theater show was one karaoke session and a bit of the “voice and keys duo” set. They were fantastic; the karaoke… not so much! The chairs in the Explorer Lounge were very comfortable (almost as nice as my all-time favorite chairs on Celebrity Edge!) and the room seemed set up well for either a seated audience or dancing.

There are fewer scheduled activities on a ship of this size and atmosphere than you will find on a larger ship, but, especially with just two sea days, there were plenty of choices to keep busy while at sea. Trivia was much more difficult than I’m accustomed to (and I didn’t win any games: a first for me!). Even here there were nice touches: drink service throughout, and Regent-logoed pencils (with erasers on them)!

Regent offers a Culinary Arts Kitchen, with daily cooking classes taught by a guest chef. These classes are $89 per person and tend to sell out quickly. We ended up on a tour with the chef on our sailing and learned that he might be a distant relative (on my dad’s grandfather’s side of the family)! Pretty cool!

There is a very extensive library on Deck 11, as well as a well-stocked game room with loads of board games and nice chessboards. A variety of sports equipment is available on Deck 12, including bocce, pickleball, ping pong, shuffleboard, mini golf, and a golf driving net. The provided golf clubs and putters are very high-end equipment. There is also an extensive fitness facility available on Deck 6. In addition to the infinity pool on Deck 5, there is a large pool midship on Deck 11, flanked by two hot tubs. These areas were a wonderful place to relax after a long day of sightseeing. The pool area was always very well stocked with towels, and the crew did a fantastic job of clearing away used towels and plates and glasses to keep the area looking good. All of the lounge chairs and sun beds were covered each morning with a Regent Seven Seas terrycloth spread, and these items were removed each evening. Quite an undertaking!

The service in general was phenomenal. With just 670 guests on our sailing (the ship’s capacity is 750) being served by 557 crew members, service was never an issue. There was almost never a line (or even a momentary wait) for anything, from Reception [normally known as Guest Services], to re-boarding the ship in ports, to being seated in the dining room. (As a point of comparison, RSS Explorer’s passenger capacity is 750, with a public space area of 54,000 tons, vs Empress of the Seas that fits 1600 passengers into just 48,500 gross tons).

The crew was always close by, and especially did a great job with making drinks quickly (and well!) but were never overbearing, smothering, or obtrusive. It was great (but also odd) to be able to have any drinks, whenever I wanted, and never have to show my cruise card or sign for anything. I was disappointed to see “mojito” and “margarita” “juice boxes” being used to make mixed drinks, but with the addition of real mint, canned soda water, and not too much sweetener (and most importantly, proper technique), the drinks were surprisingly excellent. Normally the quality of the preparation, taste, and service all go downhill in all-inclusive environments, so this was a welcome outlier. There was also a refreshing lack of a “booze cruise” frenzy to drink as much as possible. The focus on this ship is quality over quantity.

The food service was (almost) uniformly excellent, with the service from the entire team at the Asian specialty restaurant Pacific Rim (from my main server, to the sommelier, to the cocktail waitress, to the restaurant manager) standing out and setting an even higher standard. Pacific Rim has a fantastic signature cocktail made with vodka and citrus that was light and refreshing and pairs perfectly with Asian food. My dinner at Pacific Rim was the dining highlight of the trip (apart from the exceptional room service), and getting to watch the full moon rise over the ocean while dining made the experience even more special.

Regent has recently introduced a large number of plant-based dishes to the offerings in each of their dining venues, which I greatly appreciated. The passion fruit mousse served on night 8 in the dining room was shockingly good! There were a wide variety of plant-based choices at breakfast and dinner, with the lunch offering being the only place that fell short (very little on the buffet, and just a veggie burger from the pool grill). The Compass Rose [main] dining room was gorgeous and not too large. The buffet has a large outdoor seating area with comfortable, cushioned chairs, and hand washing stations throughout.

Each afternoon, a full tea service is offered in the Meridian Lounge, accompanied by piano music. Every day has a different theme, from brownies to cheesecake, but scones and tea sandwiches are available at each tea, along with a nice assortment of teas.

Even the drinking water served on board has been specially treated, is available in large glass bottles in the dining venues and suites, and tastes great, which cuts down drastically on the amount of plastic water bottle waste.

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Every room on board is a suite, from a Category H mini suite at 219 square feet with an 88-square-foot balcony, to the 3,026 square-foot Regent Suite at the pinnacle of the ship, with its own in-suite spa (including a sauna, steam room, and jetted tub!) and two private balconies providing an extra 1,417 square feet of private outdoor living space. All suites come with a nice array of L’Occitane Mer & Mistral toiletries that are constantly restocked, plush robes for use on board, and Regent-branded slippers (yours to keep!). Concierge suites and higher receive a complimentary pre-cruise hotel stay, butler service, discounts on the few products and services that incur an additional cost, a complimentary tote bag and more.

We were in a Category F2 suite, a 332 square-foot suite. Our suite’s sofa was a pull-out sofa bed, which allowed a third guest to be accommodated. The bed is a European king-sized “Suite Slumber” bed, and was very comfortable, with both the mattress and the bedding being of much higher quality than on other ships (or resorts). The suite had a very large amount of storage space, with all of the drawers lined with Regent logoed liners that were switched out between sailings. There is a large walk-in closet with more shelving, as well as enough space to store luggage without having to put the suitcases under the bed. The bathroom is very large, with two sinks, a sizable glass-enclosed shower with a Grohe showerhead, and a separate soaking tub/shower combination that was great for rinsing out laundry and hanging it to dry on the built-in drying line.

Now, after nearly five pages of positives, in the interest of a totally comprehensive and honest review, I’ll point out the shortcomings we experienced. Even here, though, the “bad” isn’t all (or all that) bad.

The first issue began right after booking. (The booking process itself was smooth and efficient, and everyone we spoke with at Regent was helpful and well informed). However, the Regent website is very slow, which is frustrating when trying to book excursions and dining reservations and especially when filling out the Guest Information Form (their version of online check in). You must provide all of the required information in one session, or you need to start over again (and this is not disclosed), so if you are not in immediate possession of any details, like passport number or expiration date, you must wait until you are in order to fill out the form. The form’s completion, in turn, triggers the shipping of the documents that are required to board the ship. Yes, Regent still requires printed documents to board, as they do not have an app (I will get to that in a minute). Due to our last-minute booking (just 24 days before sailing) and the inability for me to check in until my passport arrived just 5 days before the sailing, we literally received the document package via FedEx on the morning we were leaving home for the airport. It would have been very awkward if it hadn’t arrived!

The embarkation experience was surprisingly bad. I’m not a fan of Terminal J at PortMiami – it’s in dire need of an upgrade to serve luxury clientele. The lack of an app to expedite the check-in process evidenced itself in a long, slow-moving, inefficient line that began and ended with showing paper documents (and filling out health questionnaires by hand). The industry has moved on, and Regent is behind on this. The only version of an app they have is to provide audio through your own phone or tablet of the guide’s narration on certain tours. Of our seven tours, only one featured this… and the guide basically refused to use it. So the app was definitely not worth downloading.

Regent requires passports for all guests on all sailings, but our passports were taken away at embarkation, with a quick mention that “announcements will be made on board” about how to get our passports back, but no direction was given until night 9 (of ten). The actual process – which involved three Customs and Border Patrol officers boarding the following morning (in Key West) and setting up a table in the Observation Lounge and quickly reviewing passports/”interviewing” each guest before anyone was allowed to go ashore – was smooth and quick. A bonus of clearing customs and immigration prior to the final port was we had no line or process to complete at all the following morning in Miami. But being without the passport through the journey was mildly disconcerting, and would have been problematic if we had needed to use a bank in port.

The lacking technology was evident in the survey, which was required to be completed “before you leave the ship” (thus taking away from precious vacation time), and yet was turned off, without notice, at 7am on the final morning. According to Reception, the survey requires the ship’s wifi in order to work, but they shut that off at seven o’clock (again, with no notice, which could have been problematic for international guests without data packages). Fortunately, we were assured that all of the comments we had compiled (and were waiting until the last morning to review and revise before final submission) were still captured. We had put in many favorable comments about crew members on board and tour operators on the excursions, so we wanted to make sure they were properly recognized for their great service.

During the long wait in line at embarkation, no water was provided, in cups or otherwise (even Carnival provides this!), even though bottles were set out on a table in view across the room. While I noticed this (with disappointment) in the moment, I did not think anything of the lack of refreshments (water, lemonade, chilled towels) at the gangway upon our daily return to the ship. It was only in retrospect that I realized Regent did not provide these basic amenities that you get when sailing other lines, like Celebrity. However, where Regent differs (and gets it right) at the gangway is they provide tables full of bottled water, fresh towels, and umbrellas to bring ashore, saving precious time that’s usually wasted going to the pool deck to get towels to bring on excursions. They also collect the used towels as soon as you get back on board.

While there is a great selection of food (and a good quantity of it: not too much and not too little), most of the food could have been better. On sea days, a movie was screened in the theater, with popcorn provided. While this sounded like a good idea, the popcorn was really bad (but I saved it to “donate” to the roosters and hens that roam freely in Grand Cayman!) One awful thing was the fruit skewers used as garnishes. One had a heavily-moldered grape, and all of the maraschino cherry garnishes smelled rotten (and got worse as the sailing wore on). I’m guessing these skewers were prepared way too far in advance and then not checked before serving.

Sea day breakfasts were quiet and enjoyable in the main dining room, with a huge menu selection, but it tended to be terribly loud in the dining room at dinner despite there being many empty tables and only soft background music. I can’t imagine the noise level at full capacity.

While service was almost exclusively excellent, our dinner service one of the nights in the main dining room was slow and required repeated reminders to finally receive our order. The oddest moment and worst service on the whole trip (again, nothing in the greater scheme of things, but a noteworthy outlier) came when I took a plate from the pool grill on Deck 11 into the Observation Lounge (also on Deck 11) in order to be able to see the sunset while finally having something to eat after a very long day in port. Much like on Celebrity Edge, there were no outdoor places on this ship for guests not staying in the highest-level suites to have an unobstructed view out the front of the ship, so the lounge was really my only choice. Almost immediately after I sat down, someone came up and said “no outside food,” (but they do not serve any food in the lounge?!) I got up to leave right away, and he tried to take my plate away. I said “no, that’s fine, I’m leaving,” and he kept insisting he had to throw the food away. Bizarre, but I walked out with the offending plate.

There were several disappointing and surprising design flaws, which were unexpected given the (young) age of the ship (which first sailed in 2016). Nearly all public doorways involved handles that had to be pulled manually, with no motion sensors or buttons, and the doors were heavy. This was not only not accessible; it was also unsanitary and made navigating between the buffet and the pool grill area very difficult if carrying a plate.

A surprising number of stairs were required. The gangway was a set of 33 steps in three of the seven ports, and the tendering process (in two other ports) required eight stairs. This was, again, oddly inaccessible, and therefore potentially problematic. There was also no tender schedule, which made planning more difficult than it should have been, especially with the long transit involved at Harvest Caye (the private island).

While this was my seventh visit to Cozumel, I was thrilled that I finally docked for the first time downtown, at Punta Langosta. While I loved the convenience of this docking location, the escalator to access the port terminal was broken (and barricaded, so it could not be used as a staircase), and required a lengthy detour. I honestly didn’t even see an elevator, so I’m not sure whether someone in a wheelchair could have even left the pier. The total walk from the sidewalk right at the terminal to getting on board was ten minutes (rushing) and 15 minutes (at a more leisurely pace).

Six of the seven included tours were really good (and I’m not a fan of guided tours). Fortunately, the worst tour was still somewhat worthwhile, and was in the port I’ve been to the most (Cozumel). I did enjoy the Mayan cacao demonstration and the visit to the ruggedly beautiful eastern shore of Cozumel.

The enrichment lecturer on this sailing did four lectures, of which I only attended the first. It was like listening to someone reading off the CIA World Factbook, without knowing how to pronounce place names. The lectures were recorded and replayed on one of the stateroom TV channels, and from briefly checking in, it seems the underwhelming presentations continued for the other lectures.

At night, one half of the buffet area is transformed into an Italian restaurant. The Italian restaurant is not considered one of the specialty dining places, so reservations are not taken. The other dinner choices are Compass Rose (main dining), or the pool grill. Fortunately, this restaurant makes use of the buffet’s outdoor seating area, because there was a persistent sewage smell near the entrance to the restaurant (fortunately only detectable at night, not during breakfast or lunch), and the air conditioning was terribly cold.

Temperature control was an issue in our suite as well, as the temperature control panel did not seem to work, so the temperature was the same (too cold), whether it was on the bluest or reddest setting (or anything in between). Fortunately, the warm temperatures outside allowed us to moderate the indoor temperature by keeping the balcony door open.

The balcony door was a separate problem. On windy nights (and most of them were), the door howled terribly, whether the door was open or closed. We even had a maintenance worker come try to fix it to no avail. The door was also very difficult to slide, which seemed odd for only being three years old. I’ve never had this kind of issue with a balcony in the other 16 cruises I’ve done with a balcony.

Another design issue seems linked to the lacking technology: while there are seven European sockets, and 4 USB outlets, there are only four U.S. outlets, three of which are very difficult to find (and access), and the only obvious, accessible one was the “shavers only” kind in the bathroom (that did not work for phones… I tried!)

I don’t know whether this would hold on all sailings, but most of the other guests were standoffish. The cruise line tried to have a “block party” where you’d open your door and greet your neighbors, and, in quickly going around decks during this, almost no one other than crew was participating. I even had someone open their door, see me walking down the hall, and slam the door. Bizarre. There was almost no interaction at all between passengers who didn’t already know each other at dinner, at trivia, etc. Even on excursions things were very quiet, except for some of the grumbling about living conditions (“depressing,” “there’s mildew”) in the ports, [unfair] criticism of the narration (“could cure my insomnia”), and (much more loudly-voiced) wishes/demands to return early to the ship that seem to be endemic to all tours (which is one reason I generally dislike them). Speaking of excursions, since all of ours were cruise line-sponsored this time (which we usually avoid, but used this time due to them being included in the fare), I’ve included a brief review of each excursion:

Grand Cayman: This was our waitlisted excursion, and we cleared the waitlist the day before the tour was set to depart. Our designated meeting point was ashore, near the Atlantis submarine office. We walked to the office as a group and waited for a previous tour group to return. The group then boards a boat to the submarine’s dive site. After about 15 minutes, you transfer over to the submarine and down a metal ladder into the viewing area. The seats are tiny and the tour was at a full capacity of 43 guests. The submarine descends 104 feet to hover above the reef. The underwater landscape is fascinating and reminded me of a desert oasis, but with fish!

Cozumel: My least favorite excursion of the trip. I chose this trip because it was supposed to visit the Mayan ruins on Cozumel. We did not go to the ruins, and no explanation was given. We began with a cacao production demonstration and a greeting in the Mayan language, both of which were interesting. We then drove to the rugged, undeveloped eastern shore of Cozumel and saw the crashing waves and spectacular natural arches formed out of the island’s coral/limestone base. From here, we went to a tequila facility, which was a site for an extended sales pitch for the very expensive tequila they sell on site (and yet, while they kept telling us we could only buy the tequila there and all other tequila sold elsewhere is poison, they also said the only real tequila was made in Jalisco (which they neglected to mention is on the opposite side of Mexico)). Our guide was really pushing the tequila buying, which made me think he gets a cut of the sales. Lastly, there was a lengthy “folkloric” dancing show, which was ok, but the sound kept cutting out, and it dragged on too long. Ultimately the tour took longer than the allotted four hours even though we entirely skipped the ruins portion.

Costa Maya: This was a great tour. We drove in a comfortable motorcoach about an hour and a half into the countryside to visit Chacchoben Mayan ruins. This was a well-preserved site, surrounded by jungle, which provided welcome shade, and housed a troop of adorable spider monkeys that we watched swinging through the trees. There was no “shopping opportunity” on this tour, and we got back to port in time to take a taxi into the nearby village to see the beach and malecón. The tour would have been improved if the guide had agreed to use the audio device, as it was hard to hear if you ventured too far away, but his information was very interesting. The guide drives four hours each way on days when ships are in port to do tours because the area is so rural and remote. The port area was much nicer than the mental picture I had from hearing reports from previous visitors. There’s a huge saltwater pool that I cooled off in before the LONG walk back down the pier to the ship.

Harvest Caye: Norwegian Cruise Line’s private island (Regent Seven Seas is owned by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and is their luxury brand). One ship can dock here, but the larger ship at the island the day of our visit was the Norwegian Dawn, so we had to tender, which involved anchoring well off the coast and a long ride in on local boats. We went in early to see the beaches and pools before they got too crowded. There’s a zipline on site and a lot of shops. There are also numerous restaurants and bars, but all of them are expensive, and nothing is included at any food or drink venue like you might be used to at private venues like Labadee, CocoCay, or Half Moon Cay. This is like a much larger, more expensive Amber Cove, but with a beach (and no waterslides). Beach and pool loungers are the only complimentary amenities. Clamshells, beach mats, and other things are available and can be charged to your ship’s account. We tendered back to the ship to get food rather than pay the inflated prices on the island and barely made it back in time to catch our tour. This one was operated by a local boat captain and a local guide and took us to the mainland of Belize and four miles up the Monkey River. Our captain was excellent at spotting wildlife along the shores: great and little blue herons, iguanas, crocodiles, turtles, pelicans, hawks, and more. The boat tied up along the riverbank and we climbed out to hike into the jungle and see medicinal plants and try to see monkeys. There were a few, but nothing like the previous day in Costa Maya, and there were a huge number of mosquitoes that swarmed every time we stopped walking. It was a relief to get back on the boat and moving! We tried to enjoy the beach at Harvest Caye (the pool was too cold), but even though the last tender was 5:30pm, they closed all of the services on the island at 4pm and forced me out of the warm, welcoming water at 4:30pm. We were the very last guests off the island, boarding the 5pm tender.

Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala: This was the port that attracted me to this itinerary, as I’ve never been to Guatemala (and didn’t think of it as a place on the Caribbean coast). I went in knowing nothing, so I was shocked by how stunningly beautiful the lush, mountainous countryside was. Our tour was of the Quirigua Mayan ruins, where you can see the best-preserved stelae (intricate stone carvings) of all of the Mayan sites. After we returned to port, we took a taxi to las Escobas waterfalls, which are very pretty, and the hike felt good after a long day in the bus. I could have filled another whole day with explorations in this gorgeous corner of Central America.

Roatan, Honduras: I’ve always said I’m not actually interested in ziplining, but if the chance came to do it for free, I would (so I did!). The first set of lines was face-down, “Superman” style. The remaining eleven lines were the traditional way. While it was ok enough, I did not really enjoy the experience (the face-down part was the best, so it was a letdown from there), so I won’t be seeking it out again. We then took a guided walk through the jungle canopy on suspension bridges that are below the ziplines. The guide pointed out a variety of medicinal plants. After the ziplining, (and despite the whining of the other passengers, who wanted to go “home” to the ship rather than “waste two hours of my life”), we went to West Bay Beach, where the water was calm and the perfect temperature, and a bunch of colorful fish were swimming in the knee-deep water. After walking the entire length of the beach through the water, it was already time to return to the ship. We were docked downtown in Coxen Hole, where a second pier is currently under construction.

Key West: We’ve visited Key West before by car, which is a terribly long ride from Miami. Getting there by ship was much nicer. We were the only ship in town the day we visited, which helped to ease the crowds. Our selected tour was the glass-bottom boat ride to the reef six miles off shore. The ride was really rough, especially going out, even though we were visiting on a gloriously sunny day. After we returned to the dock, we had lunch and drinks on board before heading back out to visit the descendants of Hemingway’s cats at the Ernest Hemingway Home. I was the last guest back on board, at 4:27pm, and we set sail soon after, unfortunately missing the sunset festivities at Mallory Square. I watched the sun set from our balcony before heading to the infinity pool and then the hot tub for one last soak. I did not want the journey to end!

Passport renewal experience

Traveling soon? Passport renewal times have gone up substantially within the last year. If you have less than eight weeks before your next trip and live near a Passport Agency, it might be best to expedite in person within two weeks of travel. Read on for details of my recent experience!

Recent passport renewal experience: 5 weeks for standard processing, door to door, including mail. 23 business days (2 federal holidays).
Actual time from receipt at processing center to approval: 3 weeks (14 business days).

Details (many of them!) provided below for the obsessives (like me). I got a lengthy crash course in the complexities of the passport application process and this write up ends with a few tidbits that I wouldn’t have expected.

Prior to sending in my application, I checked online to see how long it was taking for people to actually get their passports (vs the State Department’s quoted 6-8 weeks). The general answer was three weeks, which matched what I’d heard from acquaintances (and how long it took last time). November is supposedly a less busy month, too, with the spring and summer being more popular times to apply.

A few weeks after sending in the application, I had a close-in travel opportunity come up that couldn’t be missed. I figured I’d be ok since I was already more than two weeks into the process, but started checking on what my options would be. A provision is made to contact the National Passport Information Center if you are traveling within the next two weeks. Extensive reading on online forums indicated the typical offer is to provide a credit card number over the phone, which expedites the passport from that point on, but the usual time from that point to delivery was 8 business days, which is cutting it dangerously close. I decided if I had to expedite, I’d much rather do it in person at the Detroit agency if it came down to that, so I could have the new one in hand on the same day.

Timeline:

October 29 (Tuesday) DS-82 renewal (no changes) mailed First-Class USPS from metro Detroit to Philadelphia, PA

November 2 (Saturday) application arrived in Philly (4 days to deliver)

November 4 (Monday) application received/”in process,” per status updated online as of November 6. Signed up to receive status update emails

November 5 (Tuesday) application fee check cleared

November 23 (Saturday) finally receive an email saying the application was received on November 4 and will take 6-8 weeks to process. New passport ultimately shows this date as the issue date, but I won’t know this for a few weeks to come.

November 25 (Monday) status unchanged on website. Called National Passport Information Center to inquire about expediting since travel is beginning in ten days. They informed me the application had moved to “final stages” of processing and I should receive an email with tracking info by Wednesday at the latest, with passport arriving by Friday. A few hours after the call, a completely blank email arrives from the State Dept (this will turn out to be the second and final email I receive, despite providing my email address on the application and signing up twice for updates). Website updated several hours later this same day to reflect application “approved,” but expected delivery date shown as Sunday December 1 (but Priority does not deliver on Sundays)

November 26 (Tuesday) new passport sent out via Priority Mail from Tucson, per tracking info obtained later

November 27 (Wednesday) Still no tracking number received. Called again and told the passport will arrive by Saturday November 30. I asked for and was given the tracking number and see the passport has purportedly left Tucson already. Per postmark, the old passport is sent out from Portsmouth, New Hampshire on this date as well.

November 30 (Saturday) new passport finally arrives at Detroit airport this morning. Tracking still shows it will be delivered by 8pm (impossible). On this same day, my old passport (that was sent out a day later than the new one) arrives via First-Class, 65-cent mail. After midnight, the 8pm expected delivery note is removed from the tracking site, with no new date given and no change of location.

December 2 (Monday) passport finally checked in at local metro Detroit post office after 1am and out for delivery at 7am. Expected delivery time 4:30-6:30, later revised to 6:30-7:30. At 7:35pm, no mail had arrived. Found carrier still delivering mail nearby and asked if he would make it to my street that night (we got skipped the previous Monday). He looks for my mail and can’t find the passport along with the regular mail. I tell him it’s Priority (in case it’s in another section of the bins). He says “is it UPS, not USPS?” and “is it Priority Express”? (No, and I already explained I was asking because it had taken a week). He says he doesn’t have it. I reiterate that the tracking shows it’s out for delivery and it’s critical that I get it. He finally turns around and looks through a random discard type pile and finds my passport in there. WHY. I thank him profusely and leave. The other mail arrives at 8pm. No telling when the passport would’ve been discovered in the random pile, but there was no way I’d have gotten it any sooner than Tuesday. 9-digit passport locator number, despite looking like a new passport number (9 digits starting with a 6) turns out to be completely different from the actual number.

December 5 (Thursday) travel commences!

Lessons learned:

Both reps I spoke with at the call center were informative and helpful. I made, rescheduled, and ultimately cancelled an appointment at the Detroit office; it was somewhat reassuring to have a backup plan, but I’m glad I didn’t need to go to all of that extra effort. Appointments were relatively easy to come by, even for the following day. The consistent theme I found when reading others’ experiences is the Texas office (that serves CA, NY, TX, FL, IL and MN) tends to be much faster than the Philly office (that serves everyone else). 10 days to three weeks vs three to five-and-a-half weeks, on average (with the processing times slightly longer in the summer months). The actual passports are printed and shipped from all over the country regardless of whether the application starts in Philly or Dallas, though. The old passports generally seem to come back from New Hampshire.

In light of the uncertainty interjected by the mail service (that effectively added two weeks to the overall process), expediting in person and leaving with a new passport same day seems like a great idea for next time. My experience of getting almost no updates without having to call was standard (and I actually had better luck than some people, who got no email updates at all). Problems with the passport application (usually with the picture) tend to take a full month to be disclosed to the applicant, which results in the total time being more like eight weeks. Going in person would avoid this issue as well.

Celebrity Edge: Ship Review

The Edge was overall a great experience and an interesting change from other cruises.

The full gallery of ship-related photos for this sailing can be viewed at: https://photos.app.goo.gl/pkTDmh2vB3ByGvKb9

General thoughts on the ship:

The new terminal is really well-designed for getting people on and off the ship quickly, but the gangway at Port Everglades seemed needlessly long. Having checked in with the app, you simply proceed on board after going through security and presenting the electronic boarding pass. You get to skip the desk. No forms and no photos needed. There is a biometric facial recognition system in place for disembarkation which has sped up disembarkation dramatically. No need to fill out forms, present a passport (passport is still required, but not checked in standard scenarios), and no speaking with Customs officers. Ultimately, there is no waiting at all at the beginning or end with the combination of the app check in and the biometric facial recognition at the end.

The boarding times listed pre-cruise were inaccurate/misleading. We actually left Ft Lauderdale early, which made sense given the distance to Puerto Rico, but the boarding times did not reflect the early nature of this departure. We were the very first ship out of port on Sunday afternoon (whereas Princess normally goes first). We got a much-appreciated added hour in San Juan (at the beginning) and St Maarten (at the end), the latter of which was crucial given the 26,000-passenger port load that day as well as the Heineken Regatta which resulted in traffic chaos. We (and many others) would’ve missed the earlier (scheduled) all aboard time due to the traffic.

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Our first glimpse of the Edge

The app is generally good and helpful, but it is buggy. The virtual key never worked despite being set up. I liked having the ability to control the TV and lights with the app (particularly the 50% light function). The app is identical to the Royal Caribbean app, with the addition of controls for stateroom temperature, lighting, blinds, and TV. The chat feature is complimentary, at least while it’s in its beta phase. It turned out that there is a substantially less expensive internet package available on board than the one advertised pre-cruise.

The built-in night light in the bathroom was a great feature. The size of the shower and the design (glass enclosure with hinged door) were great, but I missed having a drying line in there for wet clothes. Having a real hair dryer and a working plug in the bathroom was a huge improvement. I also liked having a push out door on the bathroom vs the usual (unsanitary) lever. Unfortunately, the sink is too high and the shallow rectangular design results in water spilling if you try to rinse anything out in the sink.

The third (sofa) bed was actually comfortable! I found out on the last day that our room was actually a quad, with a trundle bed under the sofa. This was a good, unobtrusive design!

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The third-passenger sofa bed has a trundle to accommodate a fourth passenger

The robes provided in the room were nice: soft and a good (substantial, but not too heavy) weight. I would’ve bought one if they were offered for sale as some lines do. Unfortunately, storage in the room is extremely limited. There are a lot of wasted chances to include usable space (for example, above the desk or beds). The room had a good number and assortment of outlets.

We had one of the new infinite verandas, where the entire stateroom goes into the former balcony area, which adds to the living space. This is somewhat similar in concept to a river cruise French balcony, but the window opens from the top down, allowing air flow without a strong breeze blowing through the room. Salt builds up quickly on the window and will gum up the track over time. Salt is also likely to corrode the nearby furniture quickly. A button to open the infinite veranda completely or close it completely (like there is for the blinds) would be greatly appreciated over having to hold the button down the whole time.

We did a cabin crawl that took us through various room categories, from oceanviews to the Iconic Suite.

The Celebrity Suite is a nice step up from the Sky Suites, which are the entry-level suite category. This is a Celebrity Suite:

The Iconic Suite is a total “wow!” experience, with its own private deck, hot tub, Peloton bike, full dining room, two bedrooms (including a giant master suite with an ocean-facing king bed), massive master bathroom, full walk-in closet and so forth. There’s even a private butler’s pantry for the crew to use in service of a party in the suite. The one room type I missed out on getting to fully explore is the two-level Edge Villas, but the Iconic Suite is the most expensive on board (and one step through the door and you can see why).

I did manage to sneak a glimpse at the Edge Villa, though:

The food overall was really good in both variety and quality. The hot cinnamon rolls at Eden were tremendous. There are four main dining rooms included in the cruise fare. Cyprus was my favorite dining room, with the hummus and assorted condiments that were fixtures in other Celebrity ships’ main dining rooms, the prettiest decor of the four, and a taverna salad being on the nightly menu. Main dining service generally takes too long for my preferences, so the buffet having a great variety at night was much appreciated. I love the hand washing stations at the buffet, but would have appreciated another, smaller station at the back side of the buffet (near the pizza area) for those who enter from the outside.

There was a sad amount of food waste. Too much quantity of each item, and the displays of whole fish just “for display only” were unfortunate. This seemed at odds with Celebrity’s push to make this ship more sustainable, with 25% greater fuel efficiency, metal water bottles to replace single-use plastics, etc. Like everywhere recently, this ship is using paper straws for drinks.

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Just a small fraction of the supplies

I missed having afternoon tea, which was a favorite on other Celebrity ships. They have aggressively downsized the gelato offering from a whole area near Café al Bacio to just two selections in the standard ice cream area at the buffet. This was surprising, and diminishes the value of it as a perk for Captains Club members. Some of the drink prices were insane (e.g. $17 for one drink in the Magic Carpet), but a “standard” bar drink or wine was a more reasonable $9.

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The service was generally very good throughout the ship. Guest Services seemed understaffed, but the crew were helpful when you could finally get to them. Some of the bars/offerings said they were closed 10 minutes before actual time (e.g. at the spa cafe “we close at 2” but it was 1:50).

Much of the design was fantastic. There are nice little touches like real orchids in the public restrooms that make the whole experience seem higher end. The Destination Gateway was a huge positive change over the usual embarkation area, and allowed that space to be repurposed during the sea days. Great idea!

The spa is gorgeous, and the fitness center is large with good variety. The martini glass-shaped hot tubs are cute, and I appreciated being able to use the towels without worrying about the hours of a check in/out desk (and the implicit assumption that you’re going to steal the towels).

The open design is very nice. I like the open layout of the future cruise office, and the open atrium from decks 3 to 5 is actually usable/functional in a way that other cruise lines miss. The extremely downsized photo supply (cameras, etc.) offering was disappointing as I’ve found Celebrity to have a great selection in the past.

The Club is much nicer and more versatile than the old mini theater (Celebrity Central). The theater is very well-designed, with very few obstructions/poles (and the ones there are have something velvety on them, good for those standing-room only shows).

​Some of the chairs (the swinging chairs in Eden, and some of the really soft velvety chairs in the atrium area) were super comfortable. So nice I want to order some for my own house! But most seating was odd and uncomfortable. There were many dozens of different chair designs on board.

Some of the design was a huge step back, though. I hated the lack of front access to the outside. The huge front deck on 14 was reserved only for spa pass holders, and there was no way out on any other deck. There doesn’t seem to be a truly unobstructed view from any stateroom, or even the pool deck. Parts of the ship show up in every picture unless you’re shooting something straight ahead. While taking pictures, I noticed a fair amount of rust and staining already for only three months in; seems like a bad sign for the ship’s future appearance. The pervasive gray color scheme, while attractive and very “now,” is bound to look dated in the not-too-distant future (i.e. “that looks so 2018/19!”).

Resort Deck
While Celebrity said the Edge would be all about getting closer to the water and being outward-facing, this pool deck design indicates otherwise

I miss the lawn from the Solstice class ships. The rooftop “garden” is good for movies, but not inviting otherwise. The Sunset Bar has been greatly reduced in size, and most of what remains is a smoking section, so I never went there after the initial (extremely overcrowded) sailaway. In general, there seems to be a huge reduction in/lack of relaxation areas for non-suite guests.

On the morning of disembarkation, despite daily walking of the outer decks, I discovered a hidden relaxation area on Deck 15 overlooking (but disconnected from) the Serenity area. I wish I had known about this area when I could use it. I imagine it’s very lightly used due to the hidden nature of it.

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The “winner” for the worst design is the tacky black-floored mirrored hall on Deck 5 with metallic pole/sculptures that looked like it belonged on an old Carnival ship. This seemed totally out of place.

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WHY????

With the elevators, the green and red indicator lights that show whether the elevator is headed up or down are a good addition. However, the touchscreen design of the panel inside is too sensitive and resulted in the elevator stopping on every deck if someone leaned on it. Carnival Horizon’s “smart elevators” are much more efficient.

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Going up

I really enjoyed the theater shows. Bandaoke, trivia, the “game shows” etc. were all fun. The casino was large and smelled nice (in addition to being smoke free, they seemed to be treating the air with something “clean” smelling) and I appreciated the free tournaments and free play that were occasionally offered. The watch-making seminar was interesting and not a sales pitch like most ship seminars turn into. I also enjoyed the Captains Club wine tasting event.

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Overall, the downsides were minimal, and we are looking forward to our next cruise on the Edge!

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Ship Review: Louis Cristal Cuba Cruise

This is very much a ship that is booked for its itinerary, rather than for the onboard experience. In light of that, and especially taking the ship’s age into account (the vessel was first built in 1980, and completely rebuilt 10 years later after a fire), the ship generally exceeds expectations. Many passengers were very well-traveled and have been to destinations all over the world. Passengers on my sailing came from 32 different countries, and, accordingly, announcements were made in four languages: English, French, German and Spanish. A lot of the people who were frequent cruisers with whom I spoke were partial to Celebrity in particular, followed by Royal Caribbean and Princess. There was one couple in their 30s (?) traveling with a son (approximately age 10) who were first time cruisers and loved everything about the experience. It’s important to note that children are welcome, but the “kids’ program” consists of kids being allowed to attend the usual activities that are available for anyone on board, including karaoke, Wii games, and Spanish lessons. There were even a few young couples traveling with infants.

The food onboard was mainly quite good (and occasionally excellent) at dinner in the dining room. A four-course menu was offered every night and there were generally two vegetarian main dishes to choose from in addition to the usual meat and seafood offerings. Dessert was ordered at the same time as the other courses. Lunch, offered as a buffet either in the main dining room or in the small buffet restaurant, was fine as well. On the beach day, a BBQ lunch is served with Caribbean items. Most days I was off the ship at lunch. Afternoon tea was disappointing, with substandard pastries. Breakfast was sorely lacking unless you like British items (black pudding, tomatoes, etc). I wound up having oatmeal and canned pears or pineapple every morning. Not good.

The coffee the first night in the dining room was an atrocious instant/powdered type, but the rest of the time and in the buffet, Douwe Egberts drip coffee was available and quite good.

There are two seatings in the dining room on Deck 8 every night, at approximately 6:15 and 8:30. Seating is first-come, first-served, and one night (the Captain’s reception night on Tuesday) the restaurant filled to capacity before I made it in for the second seating. Three of us from my group wound up having dinner with a crew member in the buffet on Deck 9. Fortunately I wasn’t too concerned about my formal night “gala” dinner!

There is an entire restaurant, Olympus, located on Deck 5 that is not in use on these Cuba Cruise sailings.

There is one specialty restaurant available, the Alberta Prime Steakhouse, at $35 Canadian per person. This “restaurant” is the other half of the Deck 9 buffet rather than being an enclosed dining room.

Bar service was highly variable but tended toward the slow side. One drinks server in the dining room was very rude; fortunately, she was the only crew member all week who did not provide an acceptable (or better) level of service. Frozen drinks tended to be served already completely melted and alcoholic drinks were incredibly weak, at least those from the package we were given in our group (2 alcoholic or non-alcoholic cocktails, 2 coffee drinks, 2 sodas or juices and 2 small bottles of water per day). This package is not available for sale, but would be a great option that would serve a lot of people well. The per-drink menu prices would add up quickly, so choosing one of the all-inclusive packages might make the most financial sense for many cruisers.

Smoking is allowed on port side open decks and cigars are available for purchase at the aft bar on Deck 5. Smoking is also permitted in the casino/sports bar on Deck 8. Because the casino is fairly isolated, the smoke never seemed to present the usual issue with smells that occur when the casino is located in the middle of the ship (as on e.g. Carnival and Norwegian). The casino (strangely) operates in Euros rather than Canadian dollars like the rest of the ship. There is a nightly lotto for which the tickets cost 1 Euro, 1 Cuban convertible peso, or (a very poor deal) $2 Canadian.

Entertainment was excellent, with many Cirque du Soleil style elements and a lot of Latin-inspired music. After the show a disco was available in the lounge on Deck 10, but things were normally very quiet in there. It was the only bar open until 2am most nights.

The pool and hot tub were closed very early every day, at approximately 6 or 7. They claim it’s for safety so that no one is swimming alone late at night, but the pools closed well before sunset and frequently just as people were getting back on board from the day’s excursions. The roof over the pool deck is retractable and was closed most of the time in spite of the fabulous weather. The late night buffets were held on the pool deck and the roof was opened during those times to allow the cooking smoke to escape.

Spa treatments, a steam room and beauty salon are available. The exercise room is fairly small and doesn’t have an ocean view. Occasionally Deck 5 was open to allow walking all the way around the ship, but usually the bow section was off-limits to passengers. This meant the only reliable place to see out the front of the ship was from Deck 11, accessible only by stairs up from Deck 10. I watched the ship enter and leave many of the ports from a perch in one of the two small areas up there. The helicopter landing pad was occasionally used as a spot for loungers.

The rear portion of the ship was loud and had a lot of vibration from the engine. I normally prefer an aft location, but would recommend being midship or forward on this particular vessel. I was located near the front because I booked so late that nothing else was available, but I ended up happy with the location, and motion was never an issue. This is a smooth-riding ship. Deck 6 is a nice quiet deck in the forward portion of the ship and is well positioned between Deck 2, where you enter from the gangway, and Decks 8, 9 and 10 with the entertainment and dining. The multipurpose Deck 5 is just a quick flight of stairs away. It is no surprise, therefore, that the top two (Imperial) suites on the ship are forward on Deck 6.

Rooms need to be updated. Beds cannot be fully pushed together and one of the two beds needed a new mattress.

The water temperature in the shower was too cold and the toilet could not tolerate paper being placed inside. Some showers had curtains rather than sliding doors. Face cloths are only available by request. The inside bathrooms need more storage beyond one narrow shelf below the mirror.

The in-room TV was ancient and tiny with a very fuzzy picture and limited channel choices. No refrigerators are available in inside rooms. The hair dryer was weak, as usual for a ship. Only two outlets are available in the room (one 110 and one 220). No paper or pens were provided for making notes.

There are a few odd “security” issues: The in-room safe costs $24 for the week, so I did not use it. The sea pass/room key had the stateroom number printed on it, which might be an issue if the card was lost. The room door does not have a deadbolt, chain or other extra locking measure. Pull up on the handle to latch the door securely.

Laundry service was relatively inexpensive.

No clocks are visible in common areas. Only 3 of 8 computer stations were operational. Internet was very slow on the computers that charged by the minute (30 cents per minute). The computers do not permit you to access any free sites or any files you may have on an external drive, so anyone used to being able to compose messages before logging in will be disappointed. Wifi was almost useless. The only thing I could get it to do was sync the email app on the phone which took a minimum of 5 minutes each time. Gmail and other basic sites will not load over wifi. If you wanted to use wifi at all, the minimum purchase amount was $12 for an hour. I was very glad I only bought an hour’s worth.

The photos were much more reasonably priced than the major line’s, at $14 for 3 photos. A nice touchscreen interface helped make locating photos easier than searching the gallery walls.

A duty-free store is available with the usual items.

The shore excursions staff were friendly. Tickets that were preordered confusingly did not get delivered to the room, but rather had to be picked up from the desk. No notice was given to that effect so some people arrived at the buses without tickets. For Montego Bay departures, only the first few days’ excursions tickets were available and you had to return to the desk to pick up the second batch on Tuesday after the new Havana sailing had departed.

Excursions were, in keeping with my usual experience with ship-sponsored tours, too large and overpriced. Some tours had 42 passengers per bus, which made getting around the sites more difficult. Spending 2 1/2 hours stopping for lunch is not my idea of a good use of limited sightseeing time. Four options are offered by the ship in each city. It is possible for independent-minded travelers to explore these ports separately.

ATMs and credit card machines are rare, so my usual methods of getting foreign currency did not come into play. Change cash at a bank on your first day in Cuba. U.S. currency is penalized 10% more than the 3% exchange fee levied on other currencies, so bring Canadian dollars or Euros if you have them. Currency exchange booths charge an additional 5% beyond what the bank takes, so skip the lines for those in each port. Only change enough for what you plan to buy, because the fees will be assessed again if you want to change money back at the end of the trip.

Port impressions and suggestions:

Cienfuegos: The third-largest city in Cuba, situated on an inner harbor along the southern shore. The nearby botanical gardens are worth a visit for their excellent collection of trees from Cuba and numerous imported species from the Southern Hemisphere. On my next visit, I’ll likely want to go to Trinidad, a 500-year-old colonial town that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Trinidad is a 90-minute drive each way from Cienfuegos.

Punta Frances, Isla de la Juventud: a beautiful beach with soft white sand and crystal clear warm water. Next year’s itinerary is bypassing this stop in favor of a beach in Maria la Gorda in Pinar del Rio province.

Havana: Fantastic architecture, wonderful cafes, a picturesque setting in a harbor along Cuba’s northern shore, and tons of history. Very walkable, or you might opt to tour in a vintage American car from the 1950s or earlier. A beautiful place to experience, day or night. Watch a sunset from the malecón.

Antilla: A small village in the northeast of Cuba in a heavily agricultural area (ox carts even ply the streets in town). Located a two-hour bus ride away from Birán, the birthplace of Fidel Castro. This port has been removed from next year’s itinerary in favor of an additional day in Havana.

Santiago de Cuba: Cuba’s second-largest city. Home to several important historical landmarks including the oldest house in Cuba (built in 1515), the Moncada Barracks, national hero Jose Martí’s tomb, San Juan Hill, and El Morro Fortress. The city itself is far less inviting than the other ports. Located near the Sierra Maestra Mountains, where Cuba’s revolution began in the 1950s.

Herding cats

This trip is not a standard cruise experience. And Cuba is not a “standard” country. This Cuba Cruise trip is perfect for people who are adventurous and like seeing unique things and having experiences that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Independent-minded travelers will love the chance to wander through Cuba’s enchanting cities. [One of our tour guides said that someone had just recently taught her the expression “herding cats” and that dealing with our group “was like herding cats.” She was quite right ;)] The people who enjoyed things the most were those who were flexible and open to doing things differently as well as those who were interested in experiencing the culture, history, vintage cars, architecture and people of Cuba. Those who were traveling for reasons related more to convenience or pricing seemed more disappointed.

[Edit: Though I *must* add, this trip is an absolutely incomparable deal for U.S. travelers. The price I paid for this voyage [~$1,100 per person (double occupancy), including ALL expenses (except air): cruise fare, meals, entertainment, guided tours, tourist card/visa, people-to-people license, gratuities, souvenirs, ground transportation, internet] is anywhere from three to four (or more) times less costly than less-comprehensive land tours of the same duration offered by other operators].

Several Canadians have told me the food on this cruise is drastically better than what’s served in the all-inclusive resorts in Varadero. I’m told the food at the resorts is incredibly bland (not spiced, and condiments are either unavailable or poorly homemade versions). This ship, for all its limitations, seems to be the best choice for people who want to see and experience Cuba.

The changes to next year’s itinerary (adding an extra day in Havana) will make this an even better trip, with more ample time to savor all that Havana has to offer. Traveling overland from Havana to Santiago involves a 12-hour bus ride or a 16-hour train trip. On a ship, you can bypass all of the inconveniences of the road journey and get right to the heart of the cities of Cuba.

You need to be prepared to encounter some differences and difficulties. This is not a luxurious or “relaxing” cruise. It is, however, interesting and exhilarating. You will become fully immersed in your surroundings in a way you likely have not experienced since the spread of mobile phones and internet access revolutionized the way we communicate and experience our daily lives. Even though the Internet is nominally much cheaper on this cruise than a regular cruise, the complete inefficacy results in probably the same ultimate cost. Very surprising to me, the Canadians and Jamaicans could not get any kind of cell signal. I seemed to be the only one with any connectivity apart from the two people I heard of having Cuban SIM cards (both from my group). Everyone all week kept asking me if my phone was working. Prepare to disconnect from the outside world!

I found in my wanderings through Havana that people are genuinely friendly and interested in talking to you without trying to sell anything. Very refreshing. One guy knew that Michigan was “the one with the lake” (and motioned around in an arc like the shape of the lakes) and mentioned Detroit. He said he had heard Detroit was very dangerous and that rent was very cheap. I told him that was true, and that it was even possible to buy a house for just one dollar. He asked if things were getting better and I said yes, that just like in Havana, many of the buildings are being renovated. Another guy seemed intrigued that I was able to visit Cuba because he had heard it was very difficult for Americans to be allowed to come there.

Everyone seemed excited to have visitors from los Estados Unidos. In visits to 27 different countries, this was the most genuine welcome I’ve ever experienced. Over and over, people said there was no problem between the people of our countries, it was a problem between governments. According to Cuba Cruise, 2.8 million tourists visited Cuba last year, and 1.1 million of them were Canadian. In spite of these very low visitor numbers to a nation with more than 11 million people, tourism represents 30% of Cuba’s GDP and is their second-largest source of income, behind providing medical services (doctors and nurses) to other nations in Latin America and Africa.

There is a palpable sense of imminent change in the air, and almost everyone I spoke with seems to think that a full normalization of the relations between our two countries is just around the corner. I hope for the sake of everyone involved that change is carried out in a way that leads to positive experiences for the people of both countries. Many Cubans expressed eager anticipation at the idea that if the embargo is lifted, they will be able to buy products from the U.S. and not have to import things from China anymore (clearly the news of the decline of U.S. manufacturing since 1960 hasn’t hit Cuba yet). My wish is for Cuba to get some of the things we take for granted (reliable phone and internet service and improved plumbing features) without losing all of the things that make it so unique and fantastic (the architecture, vintage cars, music, and warm, welcoming people).

I am so glad I got to experience this enchanting land that has been off-limits to U.S. travelers for the past fifty years. I hope that those who follow will have the same wonderful interactions that I was lucky enough to experience. If anyone is interested, I will quite likely be arranging a trip in early 2016, and I’d love to have you join me!

Photos to come… [Edit: Photos have now been added to the posts written while I was traveling. Enjoy!]

Coming home

The final morning of the voyage began in a more leisurely manner than the usual departure morning. The ship did not arrive in port until approximately 8am (7am local time), the same time as we were requested to be out of our rooms. Because the room stewards only had to flip half of the rooms (and, in fact, had no new passengers boarding later in the day as we were on the final Montego Bay sailing of the season), things were more relaxed. I said goodbye to my cabin steward Lazaro and he hugged me goodbye. He will be sailing with the ship over to Greece and working a new contract through the end of November along with quite a number of the ship’s crew members. I wished him a wonderful time in Greece. Breakfast was served until 9:30am (8:30 local), so it was possible to have a leisurely breakfast while we waited for the ship to clear customs.

Things managed to downgrade to the usual last-morning chaos once we disembarked. You might think that disembarking 3 and a half hours before your flight departs from an airport ten minutes away from the port would give you ample time. You would be very wrong. The disembarkation was completely disorderly. Passengers going ashore for the day were given priority, and the several hundred getting off in Montego Bay were all released at the same time. Apparently they were either impatient or knew something that my 3 traveling companions and I didn’t know, because nearly everyone rushed for the exits when it was announced that disembarking was allowed around 8:15 am. Several of us in the group stayed behind and chatted at the bar because two of the ladies had the unlimited drinks package. I took my survey form down to Guest Relations and got an updated/final onboard account statement. We were delayed saying goodbyes and waiting through 3 elevator cycles. By the time we got to the terminal it was approximately 8:45. The barely-moving line for Immigration took more than 75 minutes in an unairconditioned room. We got in a cab at 10:08 after the one guy tried to put me in a cab that had the two ladies I had lunch with in Santiago to whom I had suggested taking a cab to the Hip Strip. I knew immediately that we weren’t going to the airport and had to have my suitcase given back to me.

When we arrived at the airport, it was unclear as to where US Airways’ check in was located. The kiosk didn’t recognize my name, so the agent I asked had me walk through the terminal and ask someone else who told me to wait at the side of the line. Other people arrived, also for my flight, and were also waiting. Periodically someone had us move again, but never ahead in line. After waiting until 10:50, I started to realize I’d never get to check in for my flight, and furthermore that the non-moving line I was placed in was the bag drop line. I was not checking any bags. I asked someone what I could do since I had carry-on only and just needed a boarding pass. He sent me to the front of the line and said they’d help. The woman at the front rudely told me to go to the back of the line and wait and “someone will be helping you.” I went back to the guy and he wouldn’t help. Another employee slowly typed my name in again at a different kiosk that mercifully printed my passes. Then I chose the slowest moving security line. They are now requiring shoes to be removed as at the U.S. airports, which further complicated things. My umbrella was broken by the security people shoving everything along. Once at the gate, I wound up being required to check my bag after all since the flight was full. The people I was in line with at the bag drop never made it. Jamaica makes Miami look efficient. Complete nightmare scenario. I would strongly recommend carry-on only, with boarding passes pre-printed and/or downloaded, or, if you need to bring checked luggage, buying a Club Mobay pass that allows you to skip the line. I honestly have no idea how anyone would have ever made it through the bag drop line.

Upon arrival in Charlotte, I experienced the new automated Customs and Immigration kisoks for the first time. There was a long line, but it moved quickly and continuously. The Homeland Security officer who asked me where I was traveling from lit up at the mention of Cuba and asked in a somewhat-conspiratorial tone “is it true what they say about all of the old cars in Cuba?” I told him about all of the really old American cars and the somewhat newer Eastern European cars and the new vehicles from China. He seemed excited at the idea and I told him “Havana is awesome!” Words I NEVER imagined I’d be saying to a CBP/Homeland Security official 🙂

It is necessary to re-check bags and go upstairs and back through the usual TSA security checkpoint. By the time I did that, and stopped for a quick restroom break and Starbucks purchase, my flight was already boarding Zone 3. This was with a 95-minute connection time. Please make sure you allow ample time (a minimum of 2 hours) for your international connections!

My flight home was uneventful and the middle seat was unoccupied. We arrived early in spite of having left late.

Coming up next, I’ll be posting my thoughts on the trip as a whole. This has been such an incomparable experience!

Santiago de Cuba

The daily newsletter on the ship said Santiago is the most Caribbean of Cuba’s cities. I suppose that’s one way to put it. Unfortunately what I found is beggars and people trying to pull scams. Unlike in Havana and Cienfuegos, I did not see a conveniently-located post office. There was no reliable place to post a card near the port facility, so after asking around and trying to walk up the road toward the main square (I made it two blocks before I felt too unsafe/preyed upon to continue) I ended up leaving the card with some guy selling cards at the port who claims he works with the postal service. Totally unsettling, but I went ahead and gave it a try. I also was overcharged twice. The city is the most industrial (and dilapidated) of all of them as well.

As with some other tropical cities, the photos look nicer than the real place!

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Our Santiago Special tour guide was informative and spoke English well. He was also the most overtly political guide on the tour and was prone to going off-topic about a few things, including a lengthy and explicit description of how they are trying to discourage burials in favor of cremations in Santiago, and his mention during a discourse about abortion and birth control that “30 is too old to have a child” certainly got a reaction out of some of the group. The tour itself, at $108 Canadian per person, was a very poor deal. Much of the time (2 and a half hours) was spent going to/in a restaurant where no menu was available and I wound up having plain rice and questionable mashed plantains. The setting was beautiful (on the waterfront on a small island in the bay), but it was a total waste of time.

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Much of the rest of the day was spent just driving by sights of historical importance, including the Moncada Barracks and San Juan Hill.

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We did visit the oldest residence in Cuba, built in 1515

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located on the main square (Parque Cespedes) in Santiago

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and we attended the noon changing of the guard at national hero Jose Marti’s tomb at Santa Ifigenia cemetery.

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The Bacardi family also have a family plot at Santa Ifigenia.

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There was also a brief stop at the former Bacardi warehouse, with a chance to buy rum, cigars, coffee and t-shirts from a government-run store.

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We had very little time at El Morro fortress at the entrance of the Bay of Santiago de Cuba.

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Much of my time was spent using up my remaining Cuban currency by grabbing and overpaying for postcards. The tour was extremely overpriced and reconfirmed all of my biases against traveling in a large group.

I reboarded the ship at 6pm and quickly showered in order to be ready for a 6:30pm cocktail reception. I ended up missing the first 10 minutes of the reception, and going in and out of the room to take pictures so that I didn’t completely miss our final sailaway and sunset of the trip.

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The reception didn’t end until 8pm by which time it was dark and almost time for dinner. I had dinner with people from my group and someone from my Santiago Special tour.

After the show, I made sure to use my remaining wifi minutes and enjoy a drink at my favorite spot on Deck 5 aft. The luggage is not due outside the room until 7am on the final morning, which seems to be another nice benefit to having two points of embarkation.

The Cuban Countryside

Today we arrived in the village of Antilla, located in the Bay of Nipe on Cuba’s northern shore.

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We tendered in to shore and took a two-hour long bumpy bus ride to the village of Birán, birthplace of Fidel Castro.

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Fidel’s father Ángel was a Spanish immigrant who came to Cuba to fulfill a national service requirement and ended up building and owning a town along the Camino Real with a school, post office, telephone/telegraph service, and a bar and hotel. Fidel’s mother Lina Ruz continued living at the homestead after Ángel died.

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Ángel Castro’s safe. No one knew the combination, so the family had to find other means to open the safe after Ángel died. Inside they found paperwork and one dollar!

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Lina’s modified 1918 Ford Model T

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From Birán we made our way to Alcalá where we watched a coffee making demonstration and saw a typical Cuban home.

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An adorable little boy demonstrated how to grind coffee beans with a mortar and pestle. I gave him one of the baseballs I brought along as a gift and his eyes lit up with excitement. He never put the ball down the rest of the time and spent time tracing the English words on the ball when he wasn’t tossing the ball in the air or playing catch with one of the young women from our tour group.

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Fresh tropical fruits and homemade rum and honey were served with fresh coconut water in the shade.

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We then visited a ranch where we had an outdoor buffet lunch with chicken, beans and rice, potatoes and salad. A drink was included in the price.

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After lunch we were given the choice of horseback riding or swimming in a stream behind the ranch. Many of us opted to remain in the shade of the building.

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Another bumpy ride brought us back to the port 20 minutes past the time the final tender was due to have departed. Another bus came after us.

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By the time I got back to the room it was 6pm, meaning we missed our 5pm lecture. After a shower, I headed to Deck 5 and watched a spectacular sunset.

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Fruit carvings at the Caribbean night buffet
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Tomorrow is a full day’s tour of Santiago de Cuba.  Stay tuned 🙂

Havana!

The ship sailed into Havana’s harbor at 7:30, as the sun rose above El Morro fortress.

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Traffic was remarkably light for a Monday morning.

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The ship docks in the heart of Old Havana

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Our tour began at 9:30. We took a bus to the Regla section of Havana where we watched a fantastic Afro-Cuban traditional religious dance troupe.

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Classic cars in Regla
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Classic cars in Regla

We also toured a church with two altars, Catholic and Santeria.

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The church is across the bay from Havana.

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We returned to the dock at Old Havana and were given one hour for lunch. I decided to walk around by myself rather than eat and I was so enchanted by the city that I missed our 2:15 meeting time in Plaza de San Francisco and our 3pm meeting at Plaza de Armas.

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Farmacia

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Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway was a frequent and long-term guest
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Plaza de Armas
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Street made of ironwood

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I ended up taking a classic Chevrolet taxi to Hotel Nacional to rejoin the group for a hotel inspection.

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They have pictures up of all of the famous guests that have stayed there since 1930, from Mafiosi to entertainers to world leaders. Peacocks roam the grounds.

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From there, we traveled by bus to an hourlong meeting about tour options. Since we were so far behind schedule, the hotel inspection at the Melia Cohiba was cancelled. Dinner was at the teaching restaurant for the culinary academy in Cuba. We watched a mojito-making demonstration and had the first “real” drinks of the trip.

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I had vegetables and rice instead of the group menu item, ropa vieja. While we waited for the food, I walked down the block and explored the Melia Cohiba. After dinner I walked up the block to the malecón to watch the sunset.

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Fortunately, the timing was perfect to get back to the bus just in time for our 7:45 departure to go to a performance of Opera de la Calle, a singing and dancing troupe of more than 30 people who perform in an abandoned movie theater in the Vedado neighborhood.

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By 10 o’clock we had arrived back at the ship. I took advantage of our midnight all aboard time and spent an hour walking around Habana Vieja at night. The city has a very romantic aspect at night, with low lighting on the brick streets, historic facades and beautiful parks and plazas. The city seems very safe at night and many people were out strolling or enjoying cafes, many with live music that attracted sizable crowds.

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There were also an exceptionally large number of dogs and cats (including one that dove into a trash can).

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Several of the dogs wear name tags with a photo around their necks, so not all of them are homeless.

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I even saw a Siamese cat wearing a frilly dress!

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One noticeable difference from most cities is the lack of homeless people. I only saw one homeless person on my walk despite the landscape being exactly the type of area where homeless people gather in most cities.

At 11pm, I reboarded the ship and enjoyed a cafe mocha and the drink of the day. We sailed at close to 1am, after the people who had taken the ship’s tour to the Tropicana cabaret were back on board.

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Today I attended a meeting about next year’s sailings hosted by Caroline from the Cuba Cruise staff, and I have signed up for a tour of the ship’s navigational bridge at 4pm. Tonight is our only “elegant” night in the dining room.

Tomorrow’s excursion departs for Birán at 8am.  We will tour the Castro family’s homestead and then go horseback riding in the mountains.

Signing off from the bow of the Louis Cristal!

Punta Frances and Cuba Cruise Activities

The ship anchored this morning off the coast of Isla de la Juventud, the largest of Cuba’s offshore islands. Being in an inside room, the only way I had to know that the ship had arrived was the sound and the vibration of the anchors being lowered. I switched on the tiny stateroom TV just in time to see the sun rising above the island’s hills.

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Some of the ship’s lifeboats are used as tenders to ferry passengers ashore.

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There are very few facilities at Punta Frances. Two small bars, a visitor’s center with placards about the pirates who used the island as a base for their operations and two small tables of local woodcarvings are the only things on site.

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The main attraction is a fabulous beach with soft white sand and crystal clear warm water. There are some sea grape trees for shade, but no umbrellas, cabanas or palapas.

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A camp for scientists on the island

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Bring your own umbrella!

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People found a starfish and a sea urchin in the water and many people were taking home coral and shells that had washed in to the shallow areas.

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I was onboard the last tender from the island at 1:45pm. The ship served a BBQ lunch buffet on board.

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At 3 o’clock I was able to tour the various cabin categories available on board, with the exception of the suites. The lack of consistency in the room’s decor and features was very unusual.

At 4pm a professor from the University of Havana gave a presentation about Havana. At 5:30 the group met with the Cuban musicians onboard and discussed the relationship between our countries, the Cuban community in Miami, healthcare systems, and internet access. Overall it was very interesting.

Dinner tonight was excellent: pineapple with mint sauce, minestrone soup, a very generous portion of vegetable jambalaya. The kahlua trifle was disappointing, and the attitude I got when I tried to order a cappuccino was very surprising. After asking the waiter (twice, once halfway through the entree, and again as dessert was served), the drinks waitress finally arrived at the table to take my order as I was finishing dessert. When I told her I wasn’t interested anymore since I had wanted it with my dessert, she got a major attitude and questioned why I didn’t want anything. When I said it had taken 15 minutes, she disgustedly replied “There’s no way it took 15 minutes, no… is not possible.” I just said “ok” and she tried again to get me to order. The woman across from me at the table looked shocked and said “I can’t believe she’s arguing with you. You don’t do that with a customer.”

As many passengers are disembarking tomorrow in Havana, tonight’s show had a farewell theme.

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Entertainers waiting to greet the cruise guests

Tomorrow is a 12-hour tour of Havana with FFRD. The ship does not depart until 12:30am!