February 16, 2019

Calling on Cuba

Norwegian Cruise Line itineraries include an overnight stay in Havana,
all the better for enjoying this island capital

By Jennifer Davoren

Vacations Magazine: Calling on Cuba
Kevin Garrett/Norwegian Cruise Line
They're rolling bits of history in rainbow hues.

Cuba, closed off from U.S. visitation and exports for more than 50 years, created its unique car culture out of necessity. Today, those cars are Caribbean icons that seem to call to approaching cruise ship passengers -- those meticulously maintained paint jobs spotted first, followed by the rowdy growl of engines making their way down the Malecon to greet you at the pier.

On a recent cruise to Cuba with Norwegian Cruise Line, our vessel docked overnight in Havana, and I now am convinced that this is the only way to catch up on the last five decades of local culture. I was further convinced that my introduction to the island came from the perfect ambassador: a blindingly orange 1957 Chevy convertible, its sides stamped with the image of the Cuban flag.

From ship to Chevy
The Norwegian Sky approached Havana just as we were finishing breakfast. Already by the pool at the top of the ship -- the nearer the buffet, the better -- I joined my fellow passengers at the rail lining Deck 12 for my first look at the city.

There's plenty to draw the eye, especially for history buffs. Fortresses built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Monuments to Cuba's 1890s war for independence and the revolution of the 1950s. And, of course, the cars.

Bubble-gum pink. Tropical green. Blues in every possible sea shade. A purple convertible rumbled by, fins and fenders gleaming in the morning sun.

On Oct. 19, 1960, in the hopes of weakening Fidel Castro's fledgling regime, the U.S. placed an embargo on nearly all exports to Cuba. Combined with a hefty "luxury tax" and other restrictions introduced by Castro, new car ownership became nearly impossible.

But Cuba made do with what they had. Vintage Studebakers, Pontiacs, even Soviet brands like Lada still navigate Havana's streets, and most are available as taxis or for longer tours of the city. Embargoes have lifted, regimes have changed hands and foreign imports are available again, but Cuba clings to its classics. An estimated 60,000 of them are found on the island.

I met a fleet of a dozen through "Modern Havana in an American Classic," a shore excursion arranged by Norwegian. My tour guide cautioned that I should slather on another layer of Banana Boat before hopping in the back of my assigned convertible, as this excursion often doubles as "Havana Barbecue in an American Classic" under the fierce Caribbean sun.

We soon set out for a 3.5-hour ride through the capital. It was a whirlwind of historic highlights, including Revolution Square and its towering memorials to Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Jose Marti. We roared up La Rampa, a hilly section of Avenida 23, and along the seaside promenade known as the Malecon, both streets so popular for evening walks and catching up on the latest neighborly gossip that they're known as "Havana's sofa." We paraded through a city forest where the rumble of our engines seemed muted by so much greenery, and my driver pointed out the curious shapes formed by the trees -- one branch, twisted and swooping low over the road, definitely resembled the elefante he claimed to see.

Afterward, we wound down our excursion with a stop at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a former haunt of mobsters and movie stars that even played host to a defensive team and accompanying anti-aircraft guns during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. After spending the day surrounded by so much history, we finished by toasting with one more classic: the mojito, a cocktail invented right here on the island, that makes good use of the "Cuban vitamin" that is the local rum.

From day to night
The U.S. has relaxed its Cuba tourism policy to allow for visits by approved cruise or escorted tour programs. I wasn't aware how relaxed the rules were until the Norwegian Sky had docked for our scheduled overnight visit in Havana.

My passport and the visa Norwegian had helped me secure before embarkation ensured on-off privileges for the entirety of our 20-hour port call. After finishing my classic car excursion in the morning, I returned to the ship to grab a bite and freshen up, deciding to head out to shore again at sunset. And I discovered another benefit of coming and going as you please: As the U.S. still doesn't allow most banking transactions on Cuban soil, including ATM and credit and debit card transactions, you can return to the ship for additional spending cash and convert it to Cuban currency in the Havana cruise terminal.

This capital shines by night. The cruise terminal opens up on Plaza de San Francisco, a former market square dating to the 16th century. It's a fitting entrance to Old Havana, the neighborhood that should be able to catch you up on the last few decades of Cuban history.

I started my evening at Hotel Ambos Mundos, adorned in photos of its favorite past guest, author Ernest Hemingway. Its rooftop bar is a panoramic spot for a cocktail (surely Hemingway's favorite form of sightseeing), and I watched the lights of the city twinkle as darkness fell. I could make out the telltale circle of vintage headlights, as well as the ambient glow of the Norwegian Sky's pool deck in the distance.

The Sky and a sister ship, the Norwegian Sun, are gracious hosts for Cuban cruising. In addition to destination-appropriate entertainment, including mambo musical acts and salsa dancing instruction, the Sky supplied all that I've come to expect from leisurely cruising: ample eateries, comedians and concerts, a casino, a spa and a well-stocked fitness center.

An extra thrown in for Norwegian's Cuba-bound ships, however, is an all-inclusive program that covers alcohol. I quickly became familiar with the best bars on the ship, as a spot on Deck 7 mixed up specialty mojitos and a top-deck station spun up a particularly tasty pina colada made for afternoons by the pool.

Norwegian hosts a few nighttime shore excursions, including "An Evening Stroll in Colonial Havana," focusing on historic architecture. As my time in the city drew to a close, I took my own walk through Old Havana on my way back to the ship, winding through cobblestone streets and trying to remember what I'd read about the neighborhood's construction style. Generous balconies, all the better for people watching, check. Elaborately paned windows, some seemingly inspired by stained glass works, check.

And, though the Norwegian Sky had me covered as far as dining and entertainment go, I let myself be distracted by the sights, sounds and -- as I passed a couple on a small patio, digging into what seemed to be a spicy shrimp and rice dish -- smells of the restaurants I passed, many with live bands at the ready to lure customers. The walk back to the cruise terminal is an easy one from most Old Havana attractions, but you'd be surprised how long it takes when you have all night to make the journey.

Information
Norwegian Cruise Line visits Cuba via two ships, the 1,936-passenger Norwegian Sun and the 2,004-passenger Norwegian Sky. Both will offer four-night and a handful of five-night itineraries in 2019, with the Sun sailing round trip from Port Canaveral, FL, and the Sky doing the same from its home port of Miami. All cruises overnight in Havana, though some add stops in the Bahamian capital, Nassau; Norwegian's private island, Great Stirrup Cay; or even Key West, FL. Prices start at $469 for spring and summer departures.

Explore dates and the latest booking discounts with the cruise experts at Vacations To Go.


Vacations Magazine: Calling on Cuba

Before Your Cruise, Sample South Beach Style
I'm handed the keys to what I'm told is "the best room in the house." Catching an elevator to the 10th floor of the Hyatt Centric South Beach Miami, I assume it's something every guest hears -- a soothing bit of customer service to start your stay on the right foot.

But no, I was greeted with honesty. Windows make up two of the four walls of my corner suite, and bench seating beckons me over to enjoy the view. The hotel sits on a coveted thoroughfare: Collins Avenue, named for one of the pioneering developers who, in the early 1900s, paved the way for a new neighborhood that would become a booming tourist attraction.

Collins connects some of South Beach's best shopping and dining. The Miami Beach Architectural District, just a short walk from the Hyatt Centric, collects art deco icons. And there's the shore, of course -- while I can see the sea (and Caribbean-bound cruise ships) from my top-floor accommodations, a stretch of sand reserved for guests of the Hyatt Centric and the neighboring Loews Miami Beach Hotel awaits on the other side of the street.

Still, with all that on offer, the Hyatt Centric does what it can to keep you from wandering off property. The hotel is proud of its pool deck, perched three floors above Collins' traffic and generous with lounges and sunbeds. This space serves as an extension of the hotel restaurant, Deck Sixteen, with sumptuous brunches, lunches and dinners inspired by South Beach's multicultural flair: Moroccan lamb tacos, grilled octopus and ravioli stuffed with chorizo and goat cheese. Turn out for happy hour, when cocktails and pool-friendly fare like sliders topped with smoked gouda and bacon marmalade are discounted to $8.

The Hyatt Centric's pet-friendly policies include another perk not far from the pool: Wooftop Park, Miami's first rooftop dog park. Watch the pooches romp while you sip your happy hour selection.

The dogs aren't the only guests invited to exercise. Borrow a bike to pedal art deco avenues or head to the Loews resort to visit a fitness center that is complimentary for Hyatt Centric vacationers. This venue, Exhale, even hosts poolside Saturday morning yoga back at the Hyatt.

But one of the most unexpected advantages of a stay here might be DryBar, a ground-floor salon specializing in humidity-battling blowouts. Make an appointment with a specialist or put your in-room hair dryer to use: After marveling at my Collins Avenue view, I noticed my TV was tuned to a DryBar stylist's instructional video, ready to coach me as I tamed the frizz that had plagued me since my plane landed in Florida.

This property had given me plenty of avenues for relaxation, but considering the stylishness of the neighborhood, I started with calming my hair.

To price rooms at the Hyatt Centric South Beach Miami -- an ideal spot for a pre-cruise stay -- contact the resort discounters at Vacations To Go.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Winter 2019. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.


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