Seven Days in May: Cuba Tour Aboard the Celestyal Crystal
Ours was a week long voyage, beginning in Montego Bay, Jamaica, that would steam around the Cuban isle calling at ports Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and Cienfuegos, with a side trip to the village of Trinidad where Ernest Hemingway lived and worked
By Patrick Cooke
Perhaps the most surprising revelation since President Barak Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba in 2016 is how few travelers care. Airlines, initially hopeful for a Cuba windfall, have now cut back on flights or are using smaller planes to match an underwhelming demand. Not so the cruise ship business, however, or so it seemed the morning in May when our vessel, the Celestyal Crystal, jockeyed for a parking space with a gam of other mega-cruise ships in Havana Harbor. The competitors were there to disgorge their hundreds of eager passengers in search of cigars, rum and a final look at one of the world’s last fading socialist regimes.
Ours was a week long voyage, beginning in Montego Bay, Jamaica, that would steam around the Cuban isle calling at ports Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and Cienfuegos, with a side trip to the village of Trinidad where Ernest Hemingway lived, worked—the “Old Man and the Sea” was written there— and drank. It’s astonishing how many places in Cuba Hemingway is alleged to have gotten crocked. Papa remains good for business.
The 26,000 ton Crystal has roughly 450 cabins located on 9 passenger decks and carries a crew of more than 400, most of them unfailingly polite and helpful. During days at sea— three, in our case— there were thoughtful lectures on Cuban history and hands-on instruction in skills like Caribbean cooking and how to tell a genuine Cohiba cigar from the counterfeit banana leaf heaters some street hawkers pedal ashore. Evening on-board stage shows, some of the aerial variety, were kept from becoming a pile up of Afro-Cuban dancers by the ships stabilizers which keep the vessel from rolling.
For Americans of a certain age who remember, or were at least living, during the tense duck-and-cover days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, setting foot for the first time in this socialist “workers paradise” can arouse suspicions, or at least misgivings. What greets you is a half-ruined country, a place that manages to be heartbreaking and joyful at the same time, charming and wonderfully confounding.
In Santiago de Cuba, barefoot children begged for pesos only one dusty block from Fidel’s lavish gravesite with its brightly uniformed sentries changing guard. At the famed San Juan Hill battlefield (Loma de San Juan) was a derelict amusement park littered with abandoned junk. Nearby, a man rode an emaciated donkey in traffic under a blazing sun using a sofa cushion saddle. Cubans have become so skilled at adapting to shortages that the cars— the famed 1940s and 1950s American sedans— run on for years. Such longevity has given birth to a Cuban saying that the cars may be American, but when they open their mouths (open the hood) they speak Russian, Italian, Chez, so mismatched are the engine parts they repair them with. Brightly colored Olds, Chevys and Studebakers send forth every hue of exhaust smoke. When one driver was asked how many miles were on his odometer, he laughed out loud and replied, “about 185,000, but that is three times around. Maybe four.”
Technically, Americans are not allowed to visit Cuba strictly as “tourists,” and may enter only under certain conditions: for example, as part of an educational party, religious or journalistic group. In short, you’re not supposed to park your culo on the beach and drink mojitos for a week— as fun as that might be. As a result native guides do a thriving business, and because they’re nothing like the sleepy docents droning out rote spiels that most Americans are used to at home, there is a refreshing cheerfulness to their descriptions offered with energetic honesty. For example, one guide proudly spoke of “the triumphs of the revolution,” and in the next breath told us that ordinary Cubans can’t afford cigars tourists are buying or cooking oil for their homes, and that a motor scooter can cost as much as $7,000. But, not to worry, he added, Venezuela is an enthusiastic trading partner! Only a die hard optimist would pin their hopes on Venezuela.
“Do you feel that conditions are improving in Cuba,” one guide was asked. “Well, anything can happen,” he said brightly. “It’s just complicated.”
The main squares of the town’s we visited, with their cavernous churches and stunning Spanish architecture, are mostly where guides herd visitors, partly because that is where restoration, if any, is going on.
But it is in Havana that visitors experience Cuba’s sharpest contrasts. Walking along the tight cobble stone streets of the old city (Habana Veija) we passed beautiful homes with balconies and wrought-iron gates, beyond which, viewed through shadows and shafts of sunlight, were magnificent center courtyards bursting with flowers and birdsong. And yet directly next door it was typical to find a similar building with its windows and roof blown out looking as if it had undergone an aerial bombardment. Along the famed five-mile-long Malecon promenade (“the longest couch in the world”) where locals go to stroll, fish, dance and play dominos, there were once-elegant abandoned homes— confiscated (stolen) decades ago by the communists— next to new high-rises being constructed by European real estate investors.
On the seaside terrace of the grand Nacional Hotel — a 1950s mob and movie star hangout— you may recline in a soft wicker chair and enjoy a Cuban Buckanero beer and some local music— expect “Guantanamera”— but it is possible that a mangy dog, a three-legged cat and a one-eyed peacock may wander through the lobby to join your table. Not the sort of thing you see in Fort Lauderdale.
Some worry that with new freedoms Cuba may change for the worse, but it will be some time before Havana resembles anything like Fort Lauderdale, if that happens at all. Foreign investment is flowing. The cruise ship lines, for instance, are looking to expand their berths. Hopefully—si Dios lo permite— progress will be steady and one day will proceed without the meddling communist overlords. Some fellow American passengers on the Celestyal Crystal spoke of pitying the locals they’d met, but it could be that they felt sorrier for the Cubans than the Cubans feel for themselves. Cuban history has included colonialism, kleptocracy and socialism. At this point, anything is possible. It’s just complicated.
Patrick Cooke spent 15 years as executive editor of ForbesLife magazine (formerly Forbes FYI) Among the publications his journalism, satire and criticism has appeared in are The New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, Architectural Digest and Rolling Stone. He is a regular contributor to the Review section of The Wall Street Journal.