The Fathom ship Adonia has launched a schedule of biweekly cruises from Miami to Cuba, the first to the island by a U.S.-based passenger ship in nearly four decades.
With the 704-passenger ship set to leave PortMiami every other Sunday for a week-long voyage to Havana, Cienfugos and Santiago de Cuba, here’s what we learned on the inaugural cruise on May 1:
Q: Is traveling to Cuba by ship a good way to see the country?
A: In a seven-day trip around the island, passengers spend two-thirds of their time at sea, and only about 50 hours on the ground in Cuba.
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A more time-efficient way to explore is to take a charter flight directly to Havana, Santiago de Cuba or one of several other Cuban cities and begin exploring from there. There are several ways to get around once in Cuba: Cuba’s domestic airline, state-run train or bus systems, or rental cars.
The journey from Havana to Cienfuegos by train, bus or car takes about four hours or less. On the Adonia, the trip from Havana to the city on the south coast takes a full day and a half at sea as the ship sails around the western end of the island. During that time you could be reading about Cuba, or practicing your salsa moves to live music onboard, but you won’t be seeing Cuba.
For those making their first trip to Cuba, the cruise can be a good introduction for future exploration.
If you decide a cruise isn’t for you, travel agents and charter companies in the U.S. can make reservations for travel within Cuba before you go.
Q. What are the advantages of traveling by ship?
A. After a day of exploring a city on foot, many passengers appreciated being able to return to a floating hotel at the dock where they could find a hot shower, a good bed in a comfortable cabin and a cafeteria that is almost always open. Although there are fine restaurants in Cuba’s major cities, finding light fare while on-the-go touring is not always easy. There are no Starbucks, no fast-food franchises. So the availability of consistent and plentiful food on board can be attractive.
The cruise line also will schedule optional onboard programs related to Cuba.
For those not comfortable wandering the streets of Cuba on their own, Fathom offers walking and coach tours to places such as national historic sites, organic farms and artist studios, and outside of Santiago de Cuba, the shrine to Cuba’s patron saint in the town of El Cobre. The cost of the tours is included in the price of the voyage which start at about $2,700 per person for an interior cabin, and rise to about $4,000 for an outside cabin with a balcony. Suites start at about $8,000.
Q. What is the ship like?
A. It is smaller than many cruise ships, enabling it to get into ports such as Havana, too shallow for bigger vessels. Many of the senior officers are British, and the crew includes men and women from more than 20 nations, including India and the Philippines.
The Adonia does not have a casino, and there are no Broadway-style shows. In addition to cruise ship basics such as a swimming pool, workout room and restaurants it offers classes such as Spanish, yoga, Cuban history and storytelling.
Q. What is the difference between Adonia’s three stops, Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba?
A. Passengers spend two full days in the Cuban capital of Havana, a sprawling city of more than 2 million. The historic attractions are many, the restaurants and privately run “paladares” catering to tourists first-rate, and there are plenty of taxis, tour guides and shows to see. In a visit that lasts 36 hours, passengers can get only a taste of the largest city in the Caribbean, a cultural mecca founded in 1514.
Cienfuegos, the Adonia’s second stop, is a city of 150,000 residents, filled with charm and French-influenced neoclassical architecture. The stop here is just six hours.
Cuba’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s eastern end, is the home of rum and revolution. This is where Fidel Castro launched the revolution in the early 1950s, and is a city with distinctive Afro-Cuban cultural influences. There is much to see – the old Bacardi factory, and the tomb of Jose Marti, for example – but Adonia passengers are on the ground for only about eight hours.
Q. Can I plan my own trip to Cuba?
A. Yes. You can book a flight to Cuba through a charter service. The flight from Miami to Havana takes about 45 minutes. The average round-trip fare: $400. The U.S. and Cuba have agreed to license 20 daily flights to Havana and 10 each to nine other Cuban cities. American Airlines, JetBlue and several other airlines are applying for those routes, but they have not been assigned. So you cannot yet call up an airline and book a flight.
Q. Are hotel rooms available and what are they like?
A. Hotel rooms can be in short supply, especially during the winter season, from November through April. A room at Havana’s famed Hotel Nacional, for example, goes for about $300 U.S. a night. But there are many rooms for rent in private homes for as little as $30 a night, often with breakfast. Airbnb, a U.S. website that lists rental lodging, also now operates in Cuba.
For a more intimate look at Cuba, many travelers prefer to stay in private homes, known as “casas particulares,” which are licensed by the government.
Q. What about car rentals and driving around Cuba?
A. Rental cars are available, but driving even Cuba’s major highways can be a challenge, because of potholes, roadside vendors and free-ranging animals, not to mention trucks that frequently stop to pick up Cubans in need of a ride. Signage is inconsistent, and finding your way around can be frustrating.
To explore a city or local region – especially for those without good Spanish or experience on the island – hiring a car and driver might be a better option. Negotiate the rate.
Q. Will I need a visa?
A. Yes. When you book a trip to the island, Fathom and other tour operators provide the visas at an average cost of about $80. Cuban-born travelers who came to the U.S. after 1970 are required by the Cuban government to have a Cuban passport in addition to their U.S. passport. The cost of the visa and passport for those travelers is about $430.
Q. Who can go to Cuba?
A. Americans can go as a member of a tour group or as an individual traveling under one of the 12 categories authorized by the U.S. government, including family visits, religious, educational or humanitarian activities, journalism and professional research.
Q. Is not being able to speak Spanish a problem?
A. The state-run tourist agencies have guides trained in English, French, Italian and other languages spoken by visitors from various countries. Off the beaten tracks, especially in the countryside, most Cubans do not speak English.
Q. Will my cellphone work in Cuba? How are Internet connections?
A. Some U.S. carriers have or are beginning to make agreements with ETECSA, the Cuban national telecommunications company, to provide roaming services in Cuba. Sprint and Verizon, for example, offer roaming services in Cuba.
Specialized mobile phone companies such as Cellular Abroad, Cello Mobile or Mobal rent phones for use in Cuba. Fees average $3 per minute of call time and up to $1.50 per outgoing text message. You can also rent a Cuban cellphone from Cubacel, ETECSA’s mobile phone arm. Many larger hotels offer WiFi as do scattered Internet cafes. Access costs about $2 an hour.
Q. Can I spend U.S. currency and use my credit cards in Cuba?
A. Cash is king. Cuba has two forms of currency, the convertible peso, called CUC and used by tourists, and the Cuban peso, used by Cubans in the markets and ration stores. Money can be changed at the airport, Havana’s seaport and at exchange houses in every city in Cuba.
Although the exchange rate is about 1 U.S. dollar to one CUC, Cuba imposes a penalty on changing U.S. dollars. Result: $1 U.S. equals about 87 cents in CUC. (Some advise changing U.S. dollars to British pounds or Canadian dollars before leaving for a better exchange rate.)
With few exceptions, U.S. credit cards are not accepted.