Sunday, October 28, 2018

Cruising Cuba

The Sirena

My paternal grandparents married in Havana, in 1921, after moving to Cuba from Spain the year before. They came to the U.S. a year later, when my grandmother got pregnant, and eventually moved the family to L.A. during WWII. My sister and I grew-up listening to our Gramma tell stories about Cuba, where she worked as a maid.

I always wanted to visit the island, but travel, of course, between here and there was restricted starting in the 1960s. When Cuban relations became friendlier under Obama, I watched and hoped as U.S. cruise lines began planning excursions to the island. Then one day, in early 2017, we received a brochure from UCLA, promoting a 7-day cruise to Cuba through the alumni association and Go Next. We signed-up immediately, even though the current White House closed many of the doors Obama had opened. Nonetheless, U.S. citizens can now travel in Cuba as long as they have a travel visa, go as part of a group and do not spend the night in a government-owned hotel. Go Next checked all those boxes.

Our ship was the Sirena, part of Oceania’s mid-sized fleet accommodating some 660 passengers. We traveled in and out of Miami, sailing around Cuba in a week and making three stops along the way: Havana on the north side of the island, Cienfuegos to the south, and Santiago de Cuba on the southeasterly tip. As a country, Cuba is a land of great contrasts: a fascinating history, but time has literally stood still since the Castro-led revolution of 1959. Many of the cars there are American-made Chevys and Fords from the 1950s, but horse-draw wagons were also evident in Cienfuegos. Motorized scooters (e.g. Vespas) are the vehicles of choice in Santiago.

Old cars in Havana

More old cars

The architecture was beautiful but eclectic: a 16th-century church situated right next to a streamline-moderne hotel. No zoning laws apparently in Cuba.  Many of the large, once majestic government buildings are now public housing. It was Saturday, so lots of laundry hanging from once-proud balconies. I became obsessed with interior courtyards that must have originally had some official purpose, but are now part of people’s living space. Many of them were painted in bright colors and filled with plants. Public art and gardens were everywhere, especially in Havana—really quite lovely.

Hanging laundry on Saturday

Tile mural in a garden

Contemporary sculpture in a 16th-century plaza

Colorful courtyard

We carried our own toilet paper and water into town and were warned not to eat street food, so didn’t. Though we were allowed to go ashore by ourselves, we pretty much took formal tours arranged through the ship. Lots of vendors tried to sell us handmade products on the street, but were far less obnoxious than, say, the hawkers on Hollywood Blvd. or the Venice beach boardwalk.  “No gracias” quickly became my mantra.

Cuban streets were clean, but most of the buildings were decrepit and over-crowded. Occasionally we’d see an ancient air conditioner sticking out of the window of what appeared to be someone’s home. Though blue skies dominated the entire week, the weather was extremely hot and humid. At times, I was sweating so much I felt like a human fountain! 

Magnificent sunrises at sea

The cruise itself was wonderful. Excellent food and enough on-board activity to keep us entertained. Most passengers were our age or older, so evening shows included a rat-pack musical review, a stand-up comedian, and music from the ‘60s. The 4PM teatime featured a string quartet. A 4-person band played a variety of musical genres in the upstairs lounge after 10:30PM. We quickly became known as “the dancers.” We took a zumba class, learned how to salsa dance, played “name that tune” (and won a pair of Oceania socks!), attended lectures about Cuba, and walked at least one mile every morning around the ship’s outdoor track. Except for the heat, a most perfect vacation . . .

Our veranda cabin

Early morning breakfast buffet. There were several meal 
options on board, but we chose buffet almost every time!

Dinner at the ship's upscale Red Ginger restaurant

Band playing in the ship lounge while sun sets on our last evening at sea

Full moon

More details follow in the posts below.


Full moon over Miami

Avoiding the red-eye the night before, we decided to fly into Miami a day early. How wonderful to be completely engulfed in Spanish as soon as we landed. I felt right at home. Gramma and Grampa were definitely with us in spirit. Tim and I gobbled down a couple of empanadas on our way to baggage claim.

View from our hotel room

Sunset over the bay

In Miami, we had just enough time to ride the free Metromover monorail to touristy Bayside Marketplace (don't waste your time) before hitting the hay. Breakfast at 7AM the next morning, followed by a 2-hour lecture about Cuba. We then boarded a Go Next tour bus to see the local sights en route to the ship.

Mango daiquiri at Bayside Marketplace

The highlight was Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Little Havana—very lively and colorful. Would love to spend an entire day there. We grabbed a snack—amazing homemade key lime ice cream for me, a Cubano sandwich for Tim—and watched retired ex-pat Cubans play dominos. We also made a quick stop at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity (Ermita de la Caridad) sanctuary, an American Cuban landmark on Biscayne Bay. From there we headed to the port of Miami, where we boarded our ship.

Freedom Tower, former Miami News HQ that, in the 1960s,
became the processing center for Cubans fleeing Castro's regime.
Today it's an art museum.

Calle Ocho: rooster is Cuba's national bird

Coca Cola museum was closed,
so we peaked in through the window

Domino Park: the sign warns that players
must wear shirts and are not allowed to throw
trash on the ground, yell, or spit 

Beatles as street art--note the dominos under foot

National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity mural, 
depicting several historical figures including
Columbus and various Cuban heroes

Ready for Cuba!

Havana, Oo-La-La

We docked in Havana the next day at 7AM. After going through customs and exchanging our U.S. dollars for CUCs (one of Cuban's two forms of currency), we took a 3-hour walking tour of historic Havana. The following day, we took a "highlights" bus tour of all the city's cultural landmarks, plus enjoyed a mildly burlesque cabaret show at the Hotel Nacional's Parisien club the night before. I'll let our photos tell the rest of the story . . .

Going through customs before being released
into Havana

Our first sight as we exited customs: 
La Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, built in the 16th century

Colorful building on the plaza, directly across from
the church: living quarters above tourist shop.
Note the small drawing of revolutionary and
cultural icon Che Guevara above the shop door.

Venturing down a side street 

Cobblestone streets and beautiful balconies

Plaza Vieja (Old Plaza), featuring a rather
modern sculpture

Colorful colonnades surrounding the plaza

And, of course, beautiful hidden courtyards

Repurposing some of the older buildings: 
a bright yellow microbrewery

Catedral de San Cristobal, where Christopher
Columbus's remains were kept from 1796-1898

Church (L) and house (now a hotel) (R) at La Plaza de Armas 
(Arms Square), Havana's oldest plaza, ca. 1520s. Note the 
pineapple atop the center urn.

Caddy-corner to the church is Havana's oldest fort, Castillo 
de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Fort) (late 16th century).
View from inside toward the city.

View from the fort across the harbor to another fort, Castillo
de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro (Castle of the Three
Sainted Kings) (1589-1630), Havana's first line of defense against
sea invaders

And speaking of invaders, these gorgeously restored--and gaudily 
painted--cars are now taxis that cart tourists around town

Tim fits right in!

No tour of Havana is complete without shopping for Cuban
rum, cigars and coffee. We didn't buy, but we did join the crowds
as this was the only air-conditioned building on the tour! See Tim 
make his way towards the AC on the other side of the room.

Our first and only night in Havana spent at the Parisien cabaret,
where performers presented a mildly risque show about the
history of Cuba. Excellent dancers, even if we couldn't
understand a word they were singing.

Day #2 in Havana: Revolution Square, with Che Guevara's
image on the side of a building

More old cars and tourists. The yellow vehicle is a taxi,
called a coco because it looks like a coconut and holds only 
2 riders.

Across the harbor at yet another fort, La Forteleza de San
Carlos de la Cabaña. Havana on other side of the harbor.

From a different angle.

Lots of museums in Havana, including this one about the
Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Unfortunately, the tour bus didn't stop here.

El Cristo de la Habana, 66-ft. tall statue of Christ
that overlooks Havana harbor. The world's largest 
statute carved by a woman, Jilma Madera.

Looking back at Havana from the statue

Trying to stay cool!

Hundreds of people along Havana's famous seawall, 
the Malecón, as we leave Havana

The capitol city at sunset, as we leave Havana