Review: MV Louis Cristal
Cruise - Expedition Cruise
Is this the best way to see Cuba?
41 people found this review helpful
Cuba has been a preferred destination for us for many years but 7 nights at a beach resort plus 3 nights in Havana, the usual travellers fare, was not our ideal. I came across this new enterprise and felt that this might be the ideal way to get around this large island. Run by a Canadian company Cuba Cruise have a 2 year contract to operate a cruise circumnavigating Cuba. 2013/2014 was their first operative period – from November to March. It is marketed worldwide, in the UK by The Holiday Place. Not marketed too well as the ship carried far less than its full passenger component of 1290. During our cruise we had approximately 550 passengers which then dropped to aprox 350 as passengers disembarked at various ports.
M/V Louis Cristal was formerly a Norwegian Cruise Line ship – the Leeward , well appointed and with most of the accompaniments one would expect on a modern cruise ship although lacking the 4 to 5 star finesse of some of the upmarket cruise lines that operate currently. Not all the dining options were open due to the lack of passengers but those that were were adequate and food was quite acceptable. Service was good mainly I think due to the low passenger to crew ratio. The crew were the usual mixed nationalities you find on all cruise lines bolstered by a complement of energetic enthusiastic Cubans who are employed as part of the cruise agreement with Cuba.
Entertainment on the ship was quite good. In the compact theatre Cuban folkoric shows were mixed with variety shows and Latin nights. Around the ship were the usual live bands and singing groups. There were dance and karaoke nights and also a Disco! However I doubt that was utilised too much as although the ship did not really have an ageing population there were relatively few spring chickens about! The entertainment crew mostly Cuban, were lively,entertaining and very friendly and helpful.
The passengers were a very cosmopolitan bunch. We shared a dining table with 6 Swedes, and there were numerous other nationalities. In fact there seemed to be very few British on board, probably becuase the trip had not been marketed well in the United Kingdom.
The Itinerary was very good – Departing Havana late on the first day the usual day at sea followed. Then things became interesting. We sailed clockwise around the island calling at the following ports on each day.
Holguin Santiago de Cuba Montego Bay – Jamaica was a nice inclusion and was also a boarding point for passengers. It is only 90 km from the Cuban coast and as such was a natural diversion. Cienfuegos/Trinidad Punta Frances – Isle of Youth.
Then returning to Havana.
The shore excursion team were very good as were the tours which were operated by the state owned coach company. The guides were very informative and excellent . There is little scope for individual excursions outside of Havana as independent taxis seemed few and far between. We tend to do our own thing but in this case we were happy to be entertained and educated by our Cuban tour guides.
I can only comment on tours we took but listening to other passengers most seemed satisfied with their choices.
Biran and Holguin was our first tour which took us to Castro's birthplace and Holguin City. Very interesting and we had time to wander in Holguin after a typical Cuban lunch. We ventured into local supermarkets and shops – all sparsely stocked. Also don't be put off by the visit to a Cuban Cigar Factory – it was fascinating! Price paid CAD88 pp included lunch.
Santiago de Cuba Special – a packed day exploring Santiago and its environs, the inevitable rum tasting but especially interesting was the visit to El Morro Castle – a World Heritage site. A visit to Santa Ifigenia Cemetry for the changing of the guard was also included and was very interesting. Price paid CAD99.00 pp including lunch (this was taken after a boat ride to a small island – the sea food was very good).
Montego Bay – we have visited before. Those who haven't should try and climb Dunn's River Falls but we opted for a trip to historical Falmouth. Jamaica was actually the least interesting part of the cruise. Price CAD65.00 – poor value.
Just one word of warning – because you will be leaving Cuban waters for Jamaica, you will be required to purchase another entry visa for Cuba as your original visa is for one entry only. This cost CAD30 per person and was added to your onboard ships account. Even if you choose not to disembark at Montego Bay all original entry visas are retained by Immigration formalities so those who do stay on board will still have to pay!!!
Cienfuegos and Trinidad – I would highly recommend a trip to Trinidad. A beautiful city and another World Heritage Site. The historic buildings were well preserved and stunning. The ambience of the place was indescribable. For me the highlight of the trip. Price pp CAD150 including lunch.
Punta Frances – the Isle of Youth – definitely for the beach enthusiasts. However it was lovely to swim in the crystal clear waters and enjoy the Caribbean Sea! A relaxing day for all after the exertions of the previous days sightseeing.
Then back to Havana overnight arriving in the port of Havana early morning.
Our tour didn't end there, as part of the package we purchased from The Holiday Place was 3 nights Bed and Breakfast in Havana. The stay was based on accommodation at the Parque Central Hotel, a modern hotel in the centre of Havana. It looked very adequate. However we chose to upgrade to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba – the renowned historic hotel. I must point out that this is situated away from Havana's town centre but overall I think it was well worth doing. Full of style and atmosphere. Rooms were old fashioned but comfortable. I would highly recommend guests to take the free tour of the hotel offered twice a day – this not only takes you around the important parts of the hotel but also into the tunnels in the gardens built during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A fascinating piece of history. My husband and I were the only ones on our tour and we were guided by an 80 year old lady who gave us an incredible insight into Cuban History. There are also nightly cabaret shows – The Buena Vista Social Club and Parisien Cabaret being the famous ones. The bar – Hall of Fame – is well worth having a drink in – it's walls are surrounded with pictures of the famous people who have stayed in the hotel over the years.
Havana itself is a city that needs a lot of exploring. There is an open top Double Decker Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour Cost 5CUC (Cuban Pesos) – approx 3.20 sterling. Very good value . We rode the whole length – there are 2 routes, before starting to get on and off. There are many stops and really so much to see. We took the bus for 2 days as it also provided us with transport in and out of Havana to the hotel.
However your main mode of transport will be your feet. Walking is really the only way to see the true Havana. Cobbled and uneven streets can be hazardous – and beware, as soon as you sit down some wandering troubadours will emerge out of nowhere to play you a short selection of Cuban music for CUC's of course before disappearing to their next unsuspecting tourists! You must of course drink a Mojito in Hemingway's famous watering hole!
There are tours of course which can be booked from your hotel but really to get the best out of the city walking is a must.
We did however make an exception to the rule and took a taxi booked by our hotel to visit Ernest Hemingway's home on Cuba – now called Museo Hemingway at Finca La Vigía. His house is as he left it – a time capsule of the 1950's. He left reluctantly after the missile crisis. Situated in the hills outside of Havana it offers beautiful views and is well worth a visit. The taxi also took us to the little port nearby where he kept his boat and of course to his local "watering hole"!
Havana is a wonderful city and the cars alone are well worth seeing, pink cadillacs abound and of course are for rent wherever you go. Do not get excited about the cuisine – food is not a highlight of your stay!
Just some important tips:
Everyone needs an Entry Visa into Cuba and this can be arranged with your travel agent.
Travel Insurance is compulsary and you may be required to produce evidence of cover on entry into Cuba. If like us you are part of a Bank Insurance scheme you will have to ask the insurance partner to provide evidence that they will cover you.
All currency paid within Cuba is in Cuban CUC's. To obtain these you must change your money on shore as the ship cannot deal in this currency. It is recommended you take pounds sterling as American dollars are not accepted by the banks and money changing centres. There is a facility to change back CUC's at the airport on departure or alternatively they can be used at the Duty Free shops at the airport.
There is a departure tax to be paid on departure 25 CUC's per person so be sure to set aside this amount for when you leave. Be warned you cannot pay this before you have checked in for your flight. The check in queues at Havana airport are long, slow and disorganised so prepare for a long wait.
We flew Virgin Atlantic as part of this package and they were adequate.
All in all a great adventure and we would highly recommend going. Cuba is changing rapidly and we would advise visiting sooner rather than later before it all changes. We came across quite a few Americans who are being admitted on various programmes and one gets the impression that soon retrictions on admissions will be relaxed. The 1950's ambience will probably soon disappear.
The Cuba Cruise company have one year left of their contract – whether with their low passenger numbers they will find it worthwhile to continue remains to be seen – so perhaps you should look at going in the 2014/2015 season!
41 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.