Cruising to (and from) Cuba
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Cruising to (and from) Cuba

While Americans have not been able to cruise to Havana for forty-seven years, other nationalities are able to travel there freely, and ships from some of these countries have been making cruise calls in Cuba over that period. For example, four lines that are offering calls at Havana this winter include Compagnie du Ponant, Fred.
Olsen Cruise Lines, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Thomson Cruises, with the latter actually making Havana an embarkation port for some cruises.
Meanwhile, although the Obama administration has made it easier for some Americans to travel to Cuba, and charter flights have begun from US airports, there is no obvious sign that US-based cruise lines will be calling there soon. So let's have a look at who goes now to this tropical isle with more than 2,000 miles of coast line located just 90 miles from Florida.

Havana's Glory Days

One of the icons of early American television was a comedy couple called Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, who in a November 1957 program entitled "Luci Takes a Cruise to Havana," filmed partly in Cuba just a week before the Castro revolution, recounted how they had met when she took a cruise to Cuba in 1940. Although war had broken out in Europe by 1940, it had not yet stopped cruise ships from saling from New York and Miami.

Havana first developed as a popular cruise port in the 1920s with the Ward Line, whose ships sailed from New York and had names such as Havana, Orizaba, Siboney, Mexico, San Jacinto and Monterey. Soon, others joined them, and most particularly the Cunard Line, which at the end of1928 began advertising a departure from New York for Havana every Saturday with its Transatlantic liner Caronia.
Cunard used the tagline "A West Indies Cruise Is Either Cunard Or It Is Not Cunard" and soon other Cunard ships were also sailing to Havana. The Ward Line soon retaliated however with its celebrated 1930 duo of Oriente and Morro Castle, but the latter became an infamous fire loss off the New Jersey coast in September 1934.

Florida ports also saw regular sailings to Havana, from the American P&O (Peninsular & Occidental Steamship Co), with daily overnight sailings from Tampa and Key West, and later from both P&O and the Clyde Line, with nightly sailings from Miami. These were followed in the 1930s by regular 7-night cruises from Miami that called in both Havana and other Caribbean ports.

Although war put a stop to activities after 1940, by the 1950s the trade had returned, with reports indicating that somtimes two-thirds of cruise passengers sailing to Cuba were single working women from New York seeking adventure and romance. Cunard Line confirmed this observation. The centre of action was a Havana bar called Sloppy Joe's, a popular location frequented by tourists.

But while hit movies such as Guys and Dolls (1955) stressed Havana's bars, casinos and romance there was also an undertone of US mob-controlled crime, however, supported by a corrupt Cuban regime. All this ended in September 1962, when cruise ships stopped calling in Havana. The last ship to leave, the ferry City of Havana, took with her 287 passengers, 237 of whom were Cubans with US residency certificates and the balance employees of the US State Department. Since then, no cruise ship has sailed to Cuba from any US port.

Today: A Door Slowly Opens

Since President Obama came to power in the USA there has been a slight loosening of the reigns, at least for exiled Cubans wishing to return to visit relatives. Charter flights to Cuba now leave from New York, Miami and Los Angeles, and one Miami-based operator claims to have carried more than 10,000 passengers to Cuba this summer.

In September, Cuban exile Armando Ruiz, revealed that his company, Florida Ferry International, had applied to the US Treasury Department to operate a 600-cabin cruise ferry between Miami and Havana. And while cruise lines have been developing new ports in Haiti, Honduras and the Turks and Caicos, none has spoken publicly about sending ships to Cuban ports.

Eight years ago now, in March 2001, an American shipping company, Crowley Liner Services, was granted a licence to carry eligible commodities to Cuba in weekly service from Port Everglades and Jacksonville to Havana, which is, after all, a city of 3.7 million people.

Four weeks ago, on October 28, a vote at the United Nations saw 187 nations vote against the US embargo of Cuba as against to only 3 for - which included the United States, Israel and Palau, a tiny nation of 21,000 people. This almost unanimous vote is the first such vote to take place since President Obama came to office.

Meanwhile, opportunities do exist with European-owned lines to cruise to and from Cuba. This is despite the fact that Italy's Costa had to stop its ships calling on Cuba and give up on plans for a $62 million Havana cruise terminal after it became part of the Carnival Group, and Spain's Pullmantur had to drop its own Cuban cruises after Royal Caribbean acquired that company.

Le Levant To Spend Christmas in Cuba

Compagnie du Ponant's 90-guest megayacht Le Levant will visit Havana this winter, with a Christmas cruise leaving Fort de France, Martinique, and sailing by way of St Barthelemy, Virgin Gorda, and the Dominican Republic ports of La Samana, Cayo Levantado and Cayo Arena to Cuba's Santiago de Cuba (on Christmas Day), arriving December 27 at Cienfuegos, where passengers will disembark for a visit to Havana and dinner at the Tropicana cabaret.

From Cienfuegos, Le Levant will make her way to Cancun by way of Cuba's Cayo Largo, then Belize City, Half Moon Caye and Calabash Caye, all in Belize, meaning a full turnaround at Cuba's south coast port of Cienfuegos, but these will be the only Cuban calls this winter.

Braemar To Call at Havana and Santiago

This winter, Fred. Olsen's Braemar is offering a series of 14-night "Caribbean and Cuba" Friday departures from Barbados that include an overnight stay in Havana from Sunday to Monday in the middle of each cruise. The first departure has recently left (November 12) and subsequent departures will be made on December 10 and February 18. These cruises also call at Curacao, Aruba, Ocho Rios, Costa Maya and Cozumel before Havana and then proceed to Grand Cayman and Montego Bay before returning to Barbados.

Two more cruises, leaving on March 5 and April 2, will make a daytime call at Santiago de Cuba, calling at St Lucia, St Martin and Grand Turk before Santiago and then Bonaire and Grenada before returning to Barbados.

Two Hapag-Lloyd Ships Call on Cuba

Hapag-Lloyd's top-rated 408-berth flagship Europa has called many times at Havana and other Cuban ports and this year will be no different. The Europa will make four calls in Cuba this year, at Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, Isla de la Juventud and Havana during her December 5 cruise from La Guaira to Progreso, Mexico.
Before arriving in Cuba, calls will also be made at Antigua, St Barthelemy and Jost van Dyke and she will then finish her cruise in Mexico after a full week spent cruising in Cuban waters, with an overnight stay in Santiago de Cuba and two nights spent in Havana.

Hapag-Lloyd's other main line cruise ship, the 420-passenger Columbus, whose charter has just been renewed until 2011, will be making a turnaround in Havana. The Columbus will turn at Havana after her Christmas cruise, that starts on December 21 in Progreso, Mexico, and arrives in Havana on January 5 for an overnight stay.

Calls will also include Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos in Cuba, after cruising by way of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Virgin Gorda, Antigua, St Barthelemy and Santo Domingo. The Columbus will leave Havana, after another overnight stay, on January 7, 2111, bound for Callao via Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Belize City, Puerto Cortes, Roatan, Puerto Limon, San Blas and Esmeraldas in Ecuador.

Thomson Dream to Sail from Havana in 2011

Ironically, although Costa had to give up its Cuban dreams when it became part of Carnival Group, it is a former Costa ship, the 1,500-berth Costa Europa, to become Thomson Dream in April, that will not only be offering regular opportunities to visit Havana on overnight calls but will also be boarding some of her passengers in Havana. This will be a first for Thomson, part of the TUI Travel Group.

During the winter of 2010/11, the Thomson Dream will operate three 14-night itineraries - the Cuban Adventure, the Caribbean Experience and the Classic Caribbean cruise, with two or three days in Havana on each itinerary. The Cuban Adventure sails from Montego Bay to Barbados, with a two-night call in Havana. The Caribbean Experience sails from Barbados to Havana, with an overnight stay. And the Classic Caribbean cruise sails from Havana to Montego Bay. The ship will actually be sailing on a repeating 21-day itinerary that will be divided into 14-night segments.

So for some of the more fortunate on three dates in 2011, Havana will be serving as a turnaround port for the Thomson Dream, offering chances to stay or visit other parts of the island such as Varadero or the Isle of Juventud, once know as the Isle of June. Direct flights will be operated from the UK to Havana, Barbados and Jamaica by Thomson Airways.

There will be four sailings from each of Barbados and Montego Bay and three from Havana, the first time Havana departures have ever been offered by such a large ship. Over the years Thomson has also been improving its product it now has a reputation as a more traditional style cruise operator. The only exception to this in its fleet of five ships (three of which served with Holland America not so long ago) is its "ultra-casual" Island Escape, which has been taken over from First Choice and is operated as a sub-brand..

Whither Cuban Cruising?

By no means are these the only cruise ships to have called at Cuba. Over the years, ships such as the Deutschland, Spirit of Adventure, Hebridean Spirit, Vistamar, AidBlu and others have called as well. In fact, one ship, Airtours' Sunbird (now sailing as the Thomson Destiny) set a record on New Year's Day 2003 when she brought 1,414 passengers to Havana.

In 2005, Cuba saw 102,440 passengers visit on 122 calls at its ports. But this dropped to just 11,000 in 23 port calls in 2007 after Pullmantur had to withdraw its Holiday Dream in October 2006 after being bought by Royal Caribbean. And ships that do call in Cuba cannot then call on a US port for the following six months because of the Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.

Nevertheless, an island country with 289 named beaches and the potential to take 3 million American tourists when the trade is re-opened also stands to be very good cruising ground. If a small island like Cozumel can attract 2.5 million cruisers, then there is a huge future for cruising in Cuba when that day finally does arrive. And it won't be just large ships, but small ships and sailing ships too will want to be able to take advantage of Cuba's huge coastline. One interesting question is whether the Cuban register might be able to add some opportunities in future.

(Source: By Mark Tré -

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