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!”).

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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!

First Day in Cuba: Cienfuegos

Review in process 🙂 Internet has been appallingly unreliable, but stay tuned!

Here is the review; enjoy!:

The approach into Cienfuegos harbor is elaborate. The city is located down a twisting channel in an inner harbor on Cuba’s southern coast. As the ship approached, local people were waiting to see the ship and wave to us. There is a giant sign painted on a concrete wall along the approach painted with the words “Bienvenidos a Cuba Socialista.”

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The immigration process was equally complicated to the twists and turns the ship must make. Even with just 707 passengers on board, it took 2 1/2 hours for the morning’s immigration check. Doctors took each and every passenger’s temperature before all of us passed through a line where our passports and tourist cards were reviewed and stamped. Two officers and an English Springer Spaniel were at the gangway.

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We had to go through another checkpoint with airport-style security and then a Customs declaration line on the way out. The line to exchange money was in the direct sun and was so long that I didn’t make it to the desk before my tour left, even after waiting 45 minutes.

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As we drove through the city there were murals featuring “Los Cinco” and a Fidel quote about Cienfuegeros. As we left town, extremely bony horses dotted the fields and the roads were traveled by many animal-powered carts.

Our first stop was the botanical garden in the countryside surrounding the city. A botanist guided us around and showed many species of trees: Copernicus fingers palm, ironwood, ebony, cashew apple, banyan, baobab and more. It was a very interesting and informative tour.

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Royal palm, Cuba’s national tree
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Ironwood tree. Wood from a tree like this was used to make brick pavers for the Plaza de Armas in Havana.

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Brazil nut tree

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Ebony
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Baobab

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Banyan

After the tour we drove to downtown Cienfuegos to do a walking tour. We began along the Prado and proceeded down to Plaza Jose Martí. The streets were crowded with Cuban families doing their Saturday shopping.

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I exchanged money at a bank downtown that had no line and was air conditioned! I brought both Canadian and U.S. currency so that I had the option to exchange at whichever was the more favorable rate. After passing a piece of paper back and forth with the teller to request different rates,  I determined that Canadian was a much better deal, getting me almost $10 (or 10%) more than the U.S. equivalent.

We passed a post office on the way back to the bus with a poster of Fidel and Raúl Castro displayed at the entrance.

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The tour included an additional, unlisted stop at Club Cienfuegos on the marina. We were served free cocktails and listened to a band playing salsa music. Our ship was visible across the harbor.

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If I return to Cienfuegos again, I would like to spend a day touring the colonial city of Trinidad located an hour and a half away.

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I sat in the front row during the night’s Latin show and the main singer tried to get me up to salsa dance in front of everyone. Not going to happen!

A Greek buffet with ouzo shots was hosted after the show to promote Louis/Celestyal cruises this summer in Greece.

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A Day of Surprises

Written on Friday night (3/20/15):

No matter how much preparation goes into planning a voyage, surprises are inevitable. Today was full of surprising twists.

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Approaching Montego Bay

Upon arriving at the airport in Montego Bay, I was stunned to find a massive line at Immigration. On my previous arrival at the same airport, the entire process took maybe 15 minutes. This time took an hour and a half of waiting in a slow-moving line in an un-airconditioned room with literally hundreds of tourists who would have rather been anywhere else at that moment. When two little girls in line started screaming and crying after more than an hour’s wait, everyone started to comment that we all felt the same way. It was, frankly, a terrible way to make a first impression on a visitor. After passing through Customs (another line, but much shorter), I was directed to a taxi that cost $35. Sharing the ride would’ve been more logical, but the dispatcher didn’t even seem aware that Montego Bay hosts cruise ships [she asked another employee if the ship was in Falmouth or Ocho Rios].

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A first glimpse of the ship

Traffic was so heavy on the way to the port that the driver commented on how unusual it was. In all, from the time the plane touched down until I arrived at the port, the process took 2 hours. With the ship running on Cuban time [Eastern Daylight Time] and thus an hour ahead of local time in Jamaica, the delays were more nerve-wracking than normal. This was a perfect example of why you should plan for several hours of extra time in case the unexpected happens.

Checking in was a different experience from normal because many passengers are traveling roundtrip from Havana and therefore were returning from excursions or private touring while others needed to get a sea pass, pass through immigration again, and have all their luggage scanned and transported.

The check-in process continues on board, where you again show your passport, establish an onboard spending account, have your security picture taken, and get your Cuban tourist card.

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Finally on board!

The most salient differences between this ship and the mainstream U.S. lines’ offerings is the plumbing situation. This will be familiar to anyone who’s traveled in Latin America or Europe. The shower was puzzling to figure out, and was barely warm even on the highest setting (nowhere near the 38 degrees noted on the dial).

The toilet initially refused to flush in spite of having no paper in it. The ship requests that all paper be placed in the bin provided in the lavatory rather than in the toilet. (This request generates substantial online concern and commentary).

The crew is international like always, but with many Cuban crew members. According to the cruise director, Louis Cruises has employed a sizable number of Cubans since 1995, and the crew members onboard represent 35 different nationalities. Tonight’s after-show was a surprisingly excellent talent show put on by crew members who are from departments other than entertainment (e.g. dining, sanitation). There was singing, break dancing, and even a Tom Jones-inspired male revue. This show yielded the most surreal moment of the day: the crowd singing and clapping along with a Filipino crew member performing “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” There are only 60 Americans onboard (that is to say, only 60 traveling legally).

We were required to meet at 6:30, which quite unfortunately prevented being able to enjoy the sailaway and sunset. The meeting could have easily been held a half hour later, right before dinner. We ate dinner tonight as a group but will dine with other English-speaking passengers from other countries from now on. Only one other person at my table of 6 works in the travel industry, but, quite improbably given that we self-selected our seats, 5 of us were from the Great Lakes region. Dinner was “surprisingly good” as my food/restaurant industry tablemate from New York City said.

I had an excellent mushroom vol au vent, salad, vegetable lasagna with bechamel sauce, and strawberry shortcake. The only weak spot was the “coffee”, which is some kind of hideous powdered/instant type that somehow manages to be even worse than the usual undrinkable sludge that is unfortunately common on ships. [Edit: I feel I should point out that for some reason, all of the coffee after the first night was from Douwe Egberts and was actually quite good. Not sure what caused the change, though.]

Tomorrow we enter Cuba! More unusual things are in store. All passengers must fill out a  Cuban visa to enter and everyone on board will have their temperature checked whether or not they’re disembarking in Cienfuegos. I will be touring the city and the botanical gardens. More on excursions later…

Signing off from the Caribbean Sea on Deck 5 of the Louis Cristal 🙂