With mainstream lines adding more and more Cuban voyages to their itineraries, the island nation is becoming a fast-growing destination for cruise travel. In this article, Popular Cruising’s Jason Leppert recounts his experiences of sailing to Cuba aboard NCL’s incredible Norwegian Sky.
Norwegian Cruise Line is one of the latest brands to head to Cuba conveniently round-trip from Miami, Florida. I had the pleasure of being onboard the Norwegian Sky for its inaugural run to the capital city of Havana, and it was quite the experience that you yourself will likely want to try.
All of the things you picture in your mind about the Caribbean island destination are really there: the classic American cars, eclectic architecture and music, friendly people, flavorful food and rum and cigars. It’s a place that has been delightfully frozen in time, unlike any other in the tropical region.
The 77,104-gross-tonne, 2,004-guest Sky is the biggest cruise ship to ever carry travellers to Havana, and it’s doing so in historical fashion. Cuban-born Frank Del Rio, President and CEO of parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., said on our cruise, “Norwegian is 50 years old this year, and it’s about a little over 50 years that […] a ship from America had sailed to Cuba, so it’s only fitting that Norwegian Sky [is]going back to Cuba this year on our 50th anniversary.”
When we arrived on the morning of May 02, 2017, Del Rio and a local representative ceremonially cut a ribbon marking the ship’s arrival prior to the captain and port officials exchanging dated traditional plaques, one from the port and one from the ship itself.
Now, guests aboard Norwegian have the opportunity to call on Havana, Cuba with an overnight two-day stay, affording maximum time in the port. Available experiences include interacting with all the aforementioned offerings of the Caribbean locale extending to historic Hemingway haunts, art from the past and present and various cultural exchanges.
Shore excursions available through the cruise line range from three to 11 hours in length. Varieties include anything from a city overview or a local farm-to-table dining experience to an 11-hour Vinales Valley, UNESCO World Heritage Site, visit. Evening options additionally extend to the famed Buena Vista Social Club and Tropicana cabaret.
Personally, I highly recommend anything that involves a classic American car ride to start. There’s nowhere else that you can take such a tour, and the vehicles are veritable time capsules. Needless to say, photo-ops are aplenty. Between my Norwegian trip and another cruise to Cuba, I’ve had the chance now to drive around in over half a dozen different cars, and each has been a blast because each has their very own unique personality and history.
One tour in particular that Norwegian offers called ‘The Art of Cuba – Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow’ is certainly interesting for anyone keen to explore the island’s flourishing art scene. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes primes visitors with a historical context before exposing them to the wild Muraleando and Fusterlandia. Muraleando is a converted neighbourhood slum now filled with eclectic art pieces, and Fusterlandia is the home and canvas of sculptural mosaic tile artist Jose Fuster.
By night, heading to the Tropicana is definitely a fun choice. The nightclub was established in 1939 and has been going strong ever since. Women and men in attendance each receive a gift upon entry, with a rose for the former and cigar for the latter. Once parties are seated at tables in the outdoor amphitheatre, everyone is poured a glass of champagne and given a can of cola. Plus, a bottle of Havana Club rum is provided for every four people to make Cuba Libres.
The production show itself is a lavish two-hour affair taking place across multiple stages and terraces surrounding the audience, as dozens of talented vocalists and dancers perform with non-stop energy.
Of course, no matter what you choose to do in Cuba, the experience is sure to be rewarding. Shopping opportunities even make bringing home some of that rum and those cigars a possibility. Altogether, it’s a special place with a very distinct culture that is just awaiting discovery by cruise travellers ready to embark.
Even onboard, there’s a degree of Cuban programming to supplement, but it’s nowhere near to the scale of what can be experienced ashore. The ‘A Taste of Cuba’ main dining room menu features one local appetizer, entree and dessert, plus two cocktails. Dishes may include the likes of Frituras de Malanga and Pescado de Habana. Musically, Cuba also comes alive some with a live band and DJ.
In 2017, Norwegian has a total of 30 Cuban departures scheduled on the Sky, and there are another 33 set for the ship in 2018. In fact, the line has recently announced that it will be sending the Norwegian Sun to the Caribbean island from Port Canaveral, Florida, also next year.
If you’re considering a voyage to Cuba aboard NCL yourself, be sure to check out our full range of Norwegian Cruise Line itineraries to find a cruise that’s right for you.