Knego’s latest Cuba Cruise trek begins with a look at Celestyal Cruises hard-working, intimate CELESTYAL CRYSTAL, which has just completed three consecutive seasons in Cuba cruises and will be sailing to Cuba year-round from Montego Bay, Jamaica in late 2016.
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All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2016.
Friday, April 8, 2016
As my plane dipped over the rugged ridges and teal waters of Montego Bay, Jamaica, it buzzed past Celestyal Cruises’ dapper little CELESTYAL CRYSTAL. The 25,000 gt, 960-guest, Cypriot-owned and Maltese-registered vessel was about to embark on the last departure of her third consecutive Cuba cruise season.
First glance: MV CELESTYAL CRYSTAL at Montego Bay, Jamaica.
After navigating the surprisingly friendly Jamaican immigration process, I was off in a shuttle, camera lens pressed to the window, for the short ride to the cruise terminal.
Celestyal livery — Greek windmill and the Phaestos Disc.
From just outside, the multifaceted funnel of the CELESTYAL CRYSTAL enticingly hovered over the bougainvillea, scorched stucco and mossy tiles of Montego Bay’s weathered terminal. Built in 1980 as the ferry VIKING SAGA and extensively rebuilt over the years, the sparkling ship beyond its gates might be best known to American cruisers as the former NCL LEEWARD. Since her purchase in 2007, she had become a familiar fixture in Greek waters under the Louis Cruises banner as the CRISTAL (and later LOUIS CRYSTAL) before her latest transformation for Louis’ new Celestyal division. In a few short weeks, she will return to the Aegean for one more season before taking up year-round Cuba sailings in late 2016.
Through Celestyal’s “People to People” cultural exchange program, American citizens can now book these Cuba sailings without going through the diplomatic hurdles of yore. In exchange for access to Cuba, Americans agree (but are not compelled) to participate in the program, which includes numerous shore excursions and a daily regimen of enrichment lectures (which are fascinating, by the way). There is no “test” at the end but why miss on the opportunity to learn about Cuba and interact with her fabulous people?
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL at Montego Bay, Jamaica.
As part of its immersive Cuban experience, of CELESTYAL CRYSTAL’s 408 full time crew members, 90 are Cuban citizens. The ship also provides a comprehensive lecture program helmed by Cuban professors, as well as dance classes, Cuban-style entertainment and even Cuban-themed food in its restaurants. And, at 521-by-82 feet, the ship is the ideal size to call not only at Havana but three other historic and/or scenic Cuban ports (Santiago, Maria La Gorda and Cienfuegos) that most of today’s mega ships cannot access.
Outside stateroom 7213, facing starboard.
After signing all the necessary documents, passing through security and obtaining my Cuban visa (one is included in the fare but replacement copies cost $30), I dropped my luggage off at my comfy and sensibly laid out, 160-square-foot Category XF Outside Cabin 7213 on starboard Apollo Deck (7). It featured twin beds, a sofa bed, flat screen television, refrigerator, phone, individually controlled air conditioning, a writing desk and plenty of storage space.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Totally Random Carpet Shot #1.
Since my last sailing on this ship in 2014, her nine decks and all public spaces have been given Greek names. She has also been fitted with 44 new balconies and a good portion of her interiors have been refreshed.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Aft staircase, facing down.
My late morning arrival provided ample time to explore and take photos before most of the other guests arrived. There are four lifts and two stairtowers providing vertical access. The aft stairs are formed in a double helix suspended around an atrium with a soaring, stained glass fixture.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Pool Area from Zeus Deck.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL starboard Deck 10, facing forward.
The uppermost Zeus Deck (10) begins at the base of the radio mast. Curiously on our voyage, the forward observation platform and a large sunning deck aft of the mast were roped off. However, there was still ample sunning and observation space on either side of the sliding glass dome over the pool. There is also a large teak lined platform on aft Hera Deck (9) overlooking the stern and three partially sheltered sunning terraces leading down to the teak lined fantail where there is a wonderful outdoor bar called Thalassa (to be featured in an upcoming post).
Hey, CRYSTAL Face!
The ship also has a large forward observation platform on the Dionysos Deck (5) fo’c’sle that is sheltered by the ship’s unique clamshell superstructure. It continues aft via teak lined promenades that converge at the Thalassa Bar. Yes, in other words, she has a full wraparound promenade deck!
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Horizon Bar, facing aft from port.
Key interior spaces begin at the top with the 360-degree Horizon Bar observation lounge. Not unlike the early Royal Caribbean Viking Crown Lounges, it is encircled by angled, full length glass windows and features a dance floor and DJ booth on the port side, a long bar overlooking the stern and a terraced observation lounge on the starboard side.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Helios Bar, facing forward.
The pool-adjacent Helios Bar on Hera Deck (9) is the center of many activities, day and night. It was also the best spot for a morning cappuccino or espresso before embarking on long excursion outings.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Muses Lounge, facing starboard.
The double deck Muses Lounge begins a full deck of public rooms from its lower Ouranos Deck (8) level. It was the place for enrichment lectures, dance classes, cooking demos, Cuban music demonstrations and nightly live entertainment.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Eros Lounge, facing aft/starboard.
Directly aft of the Muses Lounge, the Eros Lounge is a handsome room that was rebuilt from the vast casino space installed in the ship’s LEEWARD era. Now, only a small portion of the casino remains, along with several of its Ertré-inspired glass art panels.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Eros Lounge, facing forward.
The Eros Lounge is a comfortable space offering nice views from its panoramic windows and a surprisingly good wifi signal throughout the cruise. By day, it was used for everything from language lessons to BINGO and at night, it was a wonderful pre- and post-dinner haunt with live Cuban musicians.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Sports Bar, facing forward.
For Cuba service, the Sports Bar morphed into a large meeting room, which was handy for group gatherings (in addition to “People to People”, there were several large groups on board).
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Leda Buffet, facing aft.
With much of the ship covered, I headed off to the Leda Buffet on port Hera Deck for a quick snack. The Leda is open for breakfast, lunch dinner and afternoon tea. A smaller, similarly appointed buffet restaurant, the Aura, is on the port side.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL poolside stir fry.
Had I not indulged to full content in the Leda, I would have gladly sampled the poolside stir fry only steps away.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Gym, facing starboard.
After unpacking, I had time to squeeze in a quick workout at the Gym on starboard Hera Deck. For a smaller, mass market ship, the gym is actually quite good, with three treadmills, two ellipticals, a stair climber and various weight machines and barbells. The only thing missing is floor space for stretching and aerobics.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Men’s Sauna.
Adjacent to the gym are the Sana Spa (more on that later) and separate men’s and women’s wet areas, each with its own changing room, sauna and steam room.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Boat Drill.
Our boat drill was held in the Olympus Restaurant, admittedly one of the most comfortable and elegant spaces I have mustered in, with its tables fully set with blue chargers, linens and all.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Olympus Restaurant, facing aft.
Here is the earth-toned Olympus Restaurant under more “normal” circumstances. Located aft on port Dionysos Deck, we would enjoy lunch there on a few occasions but our nightly dining venue was the larger Amathalia Restaurant on Ouranos Deck.
Amathalia Restaurant, facing aft.
The L-shaped Amathalia has a similar footprint to the Olympus but its aft portion spans the width of the ship and its color tones are more influenced by the sea and sky.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Amathalia Restaurant table setting.
When in Greek islands service, the menu (identical in both restaurants) features delicious Greek specialties and in Cuba Cruises service, it, of course, features Cuban-inspired courses.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Dinner starter.
Service from our Cuban waiter Alfredo and his team was friendly, intuitive and efficient. Throughout the week we would choose from both Cuban and Continental specialties. On the first night, I particularly enjoyed the insalata caprese appetizer.
CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Showtime.
After dinner, there was always a show or event in the Muses Lounge. On the first night, it was Cirque Fantastic, featuring Cuban-inspired song selections, Cuban acrobats, singers, dancers and the ship’s orchestra.
Throughout the week, in addition to the mainstage show, there were smaller-scale musical performances in the Eros Lounge, occasional Samba gatherings in the Helios Bar, disco music in the Horizon Lounge and time spent at the Thalassa Bar overlooking the ship’s wake. For me, however, it was off to bed with an early morning arrival in Santiago de Cuba, where my sneakers would touch Cuban soil for the first time.
End Of Celestyal’s Cuba, Part One
Click Here For Part Two
Very Special Thanks: Marlene Oliver
Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea. With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications. Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India. He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
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