Monday, May 21, 2018


Since the travel ban had been lifted in 2016 between the U.S. and Cuba, we both wanted to plan a cruise to that beautiful yet mysterious country.  We checked out the cruises available and settled on the Norwegian Sky -- All Drinks Included!  Peggy definitely had her fair share of pina coladas, mojitos, old fashioneds, pinot grigio and Baileys with coffee.  Mary K loved the  mango and strawberry daiquiris.  Needless to say, we both got our money's worth on this particular cruise!

The Sky was a wonderful size ship -- easy to find our way around.  We were in the aft section, deck 10 next to an elevator.  We were able to step outside our door, hop on an elevator and step out into the Buffet area, the All American café and the formal dining room (You can see, we weren't just thinking "Drinks" on this ship...we were also thinking "Food".). Conveniently located, just outside the Buffet, is the main pool and deck area.  If you take a cruise on this ship, check out the cabins in the rear for easy access to almost everything.

Even though this was just a 4 day cruise with only l day and night in Havana, we met so many nice people -- Richard and Carol from the Atlanta area, Otto and Carol from South Africa, Fernando and
Candace from San Francisco,
Louie from Austria, Eddie and Vantrease from Chicago (minus any of Eddie's other family members....we'll look for your sister next time, Eddie.)  Everyone we spoke with on this cruise had one reason for being there -- the same reason as ours -- to see Cuba while it was still open to U.S. citizens.  It had been closed for so many years, so we "hopped on the bus, Gus"...oops...hopped on a cruise bridge to Cuba even though it's only 90 miles from Key West.

Day 1 - As soon as we board any cruise ship, we have a routine of first, checking out our cabin...which we found to be very comfortable and, even better, a great location!  Secondly, we scope the ship out and find our favorite places...the dining room, the buffet, the pool and the theater were all right above or below our closest elevator!  Lucky us!

After a pina colada on the pool deck, we decided to have our first night's dinner in the main dining room..Crossroads.  The food was delicious and the service was just right!
This is a free-style cruise...dining rooms are open longer hours (6:00 PM to 10:30 PM) and you can choose when you prefer to have your meals.  We found this to be much more pleasant than the normal assigned times and tables that most ships have.  Our Crossings Dining Room waiter was excellent and efficient.  Wine was served as soon as you are seated and refilled, if you choose, often throughout your meal.  This "all drinks included" is pretty great!

Naturally, we spent a little time (and a little money) in the casino before turning in.  We had a big second cruise day....Cuba....and we wanted to be ready for a full day and evening in Havana....a trip we had anticipated and looked forward to visiting for a long time!

We originally booked this cruise because Norwegian offered 2 full days in Havana but they changed their itinerary a couple of months ago so we only had 1 day and 1 night in Cuba and left the next morning at 6 AM.  Disappointing, but we booked the Tropicana online for 10 PM and that was the highlight of our trip.  There is only 1 berth for cruise ships in Havana and we learned another ship would be coming in on "what was supposed to have been" our second day.

Before we left on this cruise, we needed a Visa to enter Cuba and filled out a form which basically stated why we were visiting.  Out of the many categories, we chose "People to People" -- interacting with the Cuban people and learning more about their country.  The visa was waiting for us at the Norwegian check-in counter when we embarked in Miami.

Day 2 - Havana, Cuba

We rose early to have a light breakfast in the Buffet's Great Outdoor Cafe, 
while we watched our ship dock at Francisco Harbor.  What a beautiful sight!  

One of our very favorite reasons we love cruising is port entrance into a city.  Always amazing!

All cruise ships offer several excursions for each port, and we have taken these excursions occasionally.  But, we usually  prefer to visit a city on our own.  We have found the most fascinating places and interesting people when we research before our trip and simply explore!

As soon as we entered Immigration in Havana, we showed our passport and the visa and our purses went through an x-ray machine.  This was the first time our personal items went through x-ray when we arrived at a Caribbean port.  Then we figured out "why" -- many of our fellow passengers were Cuban Americans and were taking goods to their families and friends still living in Cuba.

We arrived at Port Francisco and the first thing we did was exchange our money for Cuban CUC's (1 CUC = $1.00 U.S. BUT we're taxed 10% and American credit cards aren't accepted in most places).  The best exchange rate was for the Euro and we had several left from our Barcelona trip last year so we exchanged our Euros for CUCs (pronounced "kooks").  We were worried that there would be a long line at the exchange booth in the port terminal but there are MANY booths and we immediately exchanged our worries.

As soon as we exited the terminal, we got our first glimpse of the beautiful classic cars in Havana  Citizens can only own cars no newer than 1959 and they have been passed down through families....this is the family livelihood and they make a decent living even having to give about 60% to the government.  The driver must keep scrupulous records for the government but we'll guess the drivers are able to keep their tips and those tips add up to a good living in Cuba

You'll see newer cars in Cuba since an import ban was gradually lifted beginning in 2011 but those newer cars are owned either by the government or by high government officials.  Yes, this is definitely a Communist country.

The ordinary citizen in Cuba earns about $25-$30 per month and also receives a monthly ration book  for food and basic items.  They receive subsidized or free housing and utilities, health care and education but these are still basically poor people.

Every child in Cuba between the ages of 6 and 15 are required to attend school and every child must wear a uniform.  The color of the uniform depicts their grade level.

English is not taught in most of the schools so we found people who worked in the markets, shops, restaurants (i.e. those who deal with tourists) speak minimal English and were mainly self-taught.

Broadcast media in Cuba is owned and controlled by the government and the news is, of course, regulated, Cuba being a Communist country.  TV is shut off at an early house....remember the old circular picture we saw on our TV screen late at night 60+ years ago when our networks closed for the day?  That's the picture they get when their TV shuts down.  Wealthy citizens -- i.e., government employees of high status -- can pay extra and receive more television.

Access to the internet is very limited and much too expensive for the average citizen.  Internet time is purchased on a prepaid card for about 2 CUCs ($2.00) per minute.  There are long lines to purchase these cards and the government-owned shops usually run out of the cards on a daily basis.  Some people purchase "black market" cards on the street for about 5 or 6 CUCs but we're sure this must be illegal in Cuba.  These prepaid cards can only be used in government designated "hot spots".  Don't even think about finding a café with Wi-Fi.

Until 2008, Cubans weren't allowed to own cell phones and the price is out-of-reach for the average citizen earning $25-$30 per month.

Before we entered Cuba, we were warned not to take pictures of military personnel, police officers or airport/cruise port personnel -- this is illegal.

The interesting thing about the military/police in Cuba is that we saw very few of either kind.  In every Caribbean country we've visited, there's always a law enforcement presence -- some with AK47's, especially at the cruise ports.  We were told by one of our fellow passengers who had spent time in Cuba and stayed with the Cuban people,  that police are plain clothes and carrying concealed weapons.  They're keeping track of us but also monitoring their own citizens and making sure the Cuban people are helpful and friendly towards the tourists....which has become a big business for the government.

He also said we wouldn't be bothered by people begging for money in the tourist areas (we weren't) but occasionally you'd see a woman with her baby in a stroller in one the city squares or parks, accepting money.  This was usually someone who knew a government official who gave permission for her and the baby to be in the square for a certain amount of time.

As soon as we crossed the street at the Terminal, we entered a lovely square (one of four in Old Havana) ... Francisco.  A beautiful, serene small park next to an  impressive old church, with sculptures and a center fountain.

We were keeping track of the weather in Cuba and expected a rainy day and night, but were pleasantly surprised with a sunny day ... only an hour of rain while we were in a sheltered market!

After a long walk, with interesting sights along the way,

Mary K. stopped at a small market along the way to buy this handmade cigar box for her son, Tom.

Just as the day's hour long rain began, we entered the giant flea market...Mercado de Artesania!  Four old steam locomotives mark the front of this building full of wonderful art and souvenirs.

Some of the art and souvenirs we purchased at this market.  

These beautiful necklaces are made from silverware!  The photo on the right shows the back of one of the necklaces with the fork tines.  Lovely.

We had a great time at this market...loved the art, souvenirs and people!  There were few tourists there (it is quite a ways from the ship's port terminal) so we shopped with ease.  After seeing it all, we headed to Plaza Vieja looking for Perfumeria Habana 1791 ... a "must see" on our Havana list of things to do.  On our way, we were tempted to take one of Havana's bike taxis.  When we stopped to inquire, the driver was so kind, friendly and accommodating that we hopped on!  

Our driver gave us a short tour before we arrived at Plaza Viejo.

One of the places we stopped before arriving at the perfume shop was a small food market where we wanted to buy honey and coffee.  No honey available but we loaded up on the Cuban coffee.

Between Plaza Vieja and Plaza des Armas, we found our perfume shop!  Perfumeria Habana 1791.  In the heart of Old Havana, this exquisite shop and museum is housed in an 18th century mansion.  Offering 12 major scents, they are combined to create an assortment of wonderful fragrances.  After you've made your scent choice, the perfume is carefully preserved in handcrafted bottles and then corked and waxed.  The sachets are marvelous too!

The helpful clerk at Habana 1791 pointed us in the direction of the cruise port and said it was only a few blocks away so we began our trek back to the ship.  About a block away, in the square, we heard wonderful Cuban music coming from one of the restaurants -- Santo Angel Restaurante -- and of course we decided to stop and enjoy.

Mary K being serenaded

                                                             even some salsa dancing!

We decided to level out the ship's pina coladas with just plain coke while enjoying the music but were told that Coca Cola can't be sold in Cuba.  They have their own brand in many different flavors.....

After a delightful time enjoying the music and dancing, we headed out to the Plaza on our way back to the ship, taking in the beautiful buildings and sculptures in Plaza Vieja.

At this point, we both agreed that it felt like we were on a movie set.  Cuba has gone to great lengths to restore buildings in the squares to their original magnificence yet just behind these renovated buildings are neighborhoods in decay and ruin.  They're putting on a show for the tourists and I guess they're hoping we don't venture very far beyond the square.

Here's an example of the restoration we noticed when our ship docked in the morning...

The building on the left is in terrible condition and yet the one on the right has been restored.

One of the most interesting parks in Havana was the John Lennon Park with a beautiful statue of John Lennon sitting on a bench.  It was erected by Fidel Castro in 2000 after Castro declared John Lennon to be a "music revolutionary".  Lennon's glasses were stolen so many times that there's a guard who holds the glasses and places then on the statue when tourists want to take pictures.  (We're guessing that's how the guard earns his $25-$30/month.)

On May 18, 2018 CNN listed some fast facts about Cuba (yes, we googled).  Here are a few we found interesting:

1)  Area - slightly smaller than Pennsylvania

2)  Population - 11 million+ in 2017

3)  Median Age - 41.5 years (surprising to us)

4)  In March, 2016 President Obama visited Cuba and the U.S. Treasury announced a loosening of
travel restrictions and resumed postal service between the 2 countries.

5)  On May 1, 2016 the first U.S. cruise ship set sail for Cuba and in August, 2016 there was the first U.S. flight to Cuba.

Now, on to some other interesting facts we found.....

There are still some fairly "rich" people in Cuba.  They generally have family who send them money.  These people live in very nice houses and use the extra funds to open a "casa particular" or "palador" (i.e., bread and breakfast).  These generally rent for $20 to $40/day but a traveler can't book in advance due to the lack of internet service.  So, you take your chances.  We are
"planning-oriented" travelers so this probably wouldn't work for us.  Let us know if any of you have stayed in a casa particular.

There is still an embargo on Cuba resulting in a shortage of basic goods for the Cuban people to buy including materials to fix homes, clothing, etc. -- that's why we saw Cuban Americans from our ship bringing bags of clothes and other necessities for friends and relatives.

Prior to traveling on this cruise, we read that we should think about taking small tubes of toothpast, toothbrushes, soap, children's small toys, candies, etc. and offering them to the people.  We felt torn about doing this....we are so lucky in this country to have easy accessibility to these items (cheers for Dollar Tree) but we didn't want to insult the proud people of Cuba.  At the large San Jose Market in Havana,, one woman asked if we had brought any candies for her children.....if we go to Cuba again, we'll probably have some zip lock bags of goodies just in case we're approached again.  It's a difficult situation.  There was no begging in the streets and every Cuban we met was friendly and as helpful as possible, considering the language barrier.

A leisurely stroll back to the ship, anticipating the excitement of our evening at The Tropicana!

A quick stop at The Havana Club for rum and gift cigars....
We arrived back at Port Francisco stopping first at the money exchange to change CUCS to dollars, keeping in mind we'd need some CUCs for the taxi to and from the Tropicana that night.

Back on board, we had a leisurely early evening dinner and, of course, drinks on the Outdoor Cafe deck, with plenty of time to get ready for the 9:30 PM show!

A little Tropicana history before we hail our vintage car taxi.....

The Havana Tropicana Cabaret opened it door, for the first time, on December 30, 1939, after two local casino owners and Eden Concert nightclub owner joined forces and rented the lavish estate of Guillermina Perez Chaumont (known as Mina).  The lush estate gardens were perfect for the outdoor extravaganza show and the large dining room with exquisite chandeliers would house the casino.  Needless to say, the Tropicana was a success, especially among the very wealthy.  The show was (and still is) spectacular!  Some of the regulars were Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, Nat King Cole....even J.F.K.

In 1956, the Tropicana premiered it's first promotional flight from Miami to Havana, billed as The Cabaret in the Sky.  Aptly named, this first class ride for the rich and famous boasted plenty of drinks,  a live floor show with dancers, a band ... pianist, bongo player, drummer and trumpet player.  The front seats of the plane were removed to accommodate this amazing glimpse of what to expect at their destination... The Tropicana!

On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro took total power over Cuba.  He immediately closed The Tropicana along with most other Cuban clubs, shops, businesses.  Like almost everything in communist-led Cuba, The Tropicana became government property.  The marvels of Cuba were over.

American travel to Cuba restrictions were imposed in 1963.  Almost five decades later, the doors to Americans (with restrictions) were opened to legal travel, with the goal of enhancing cross-cultural relations between Americans and Cubans.

We have looked forward to visiting Cuba and are delighted we had this opportunity.

Back to our trip.......

A side note....Norwegian Cruise offered a Tropicana excursion, which included bus transportation to and from for $199.00 per person.  As we often do when traveling, we decided to plan this special event on our own.  We also wanted to experience a vintage car taxi instead of a bus.  We bought our Tropicana tickets online for $75.00 each, which included entrance, a flower for the ladies and a cigar for the gentlemen.   Upon being seated (great seats!), we were served champagne.  Our very long ride (40 minutes) to the Tropicana in a 1957 Chevy (yes!!) was amazing!  Our driver picked us up after the show for the ride back and collected his 50 cuc fare at that time.  He gave us a very interesting evening tour of Havana after the show, so the 50 cuc fare was fine.  In the end, we saved $100.00 each by booking this ourselves!

So glad I'm getting my hair cut in the ship's salon!  Only wish I would have booked it for the first day on board!

After our 40 minute cool ride, we're at The Tropicana!

Wow!  What a beautiful outdoor tropical paradise!  We had wonderful seats, right on an aisle where the dancers perform!

As soon as we were seated, we were served champagne!  Mid-show, we were served a bottle of Havana Club rum, coke and nut snacks.

 And the spectacular show begins!!

Los Clasicos...a Cuban favorite...singing beautifully.

Magnificent!!  What a marvelous show!  One we will never forget!

We had to buy these ceramic trivets as a souvenir!  What a terrific evening of entertainment!

As promised, our 1957 turquoise and white chevy and driver were waiting for us at the entrance to transport us back to the ship, after a brief evening tour.  

Day 3 - At Sea -

This is our day of rest and relaxation, after our full day and evening in Havana (we got back to the ship at 1:00 AM).

Lunch at our favorite spot on the Outdoor Cafe deck.  Resting and reading by the pool, some ship shopping....we always get a mug from all of our travels.

Another excellent dinner in the Crossings Dining Room.

And off to the Stardust Theater for the evening Variety Show.  The talent was great.....but the costumes (?), scenery and particularly the theme were not. Called Showdown, it pits each performer against each other ... American Idol style... the audience decides who to keep and who to reject with their applause.  Not nice...nor entertaining.  

However, the adult comedy show was very entertaining and funny, with comedian Kevin Jordan.

Day 4 - Great Stirrup Cay -
We opted to stay on board today.  We had visited the ship's private island a few times before....and it is, finally, our haircut and style day!  The Great Stirrup Cay is definitely worth the in the sun, luncheon spread, beach and music...especially for first-timers!  But, I'm looking forward to "bye bye frizz"! 
Also, bye bye $59.00....but so worth it! Actually, we each were credited with $50.00 on board spending ($25.00 from Norwegian and $25.00 from our travel agent), so it was a real bargain at $9.00! 

Our final dinner in Crossing Dining Room was delicious and again, excellent service!  

Our last evening on Norwegian Sky is already planned....A terrific entertainer in Captain Cook's Lounge performing many of James Taylor songs!  Beautiful!  
A friend we had met earlier on the ship, Eddie, will be singing karaoke tonight so we shuffle off to the Plantation.  So much fun!!  And, our favorite bartender, Beco!

Karaoke with Eddie, Vantrease, Bianca, Ronald, Damon and Michelle...

Time to turn in ... our bags are packed and we're ready to go.  It was a great cruise, especially Cuba!  See you on our next trip!