Celestyal’s Cuba, Part Three

Knego’s new Cuba Cruise trek continues with a day at sea and an overnight in legendary Havana.

Celestyal Cruises

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All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2016.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

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After a nice sleep-in, I joined a large group for a 10:00 AM bridge tour, which, thanks to the narrative of guide/cruise director Danny, was well worth the $12.00 fee. Guests on the CELESTYAL CRYSTAL may sign up for the once-per-sailing visit to the wheelhouse at reception.

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CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Junior Balcony Suite 6208.

The fabulous Georgia, CELESTYAL CRYSTAL’s Head of Housekeeping (and basically all things), was kind enough to show me a couple of the ship’s other cabin categories, including the Junior Balcony Suites that were added this past November in Greece. Aside from the verandas, they share the same floor plan and interior dimensions as my Category XF Outside Stateroom.

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CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Junior Balcony Suite, inboard view.

New cherry-toned paneling was added along with new soft fittings and the large flatscreen televisions.

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CELESTYAL CRYSTAL Junior Balcony Suite 6208 balcony.

The balconies can accommodate two small chairs and a table.

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Modestly priced Interior Cabins have all the features of an Exterior, sans the view, of course.

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EUROPA encounter.

During lunch, we encountered the eastbound, deluxe German cruise ship EUROPA.

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Rum tasting with Professor Jorge Alrocha.

As the CELESTYAL CRYSTAL continued to navigate the waters off Cuba’s northern coast, I spent the greater part of the day in the Muses Lounge where our two young University Of Havana professors, Jorge Arocha and Julio Rodriguez shared the history of Cuba through 1898, enlightened us on its visual arts, music, national culture, day-to-day life, cigar-making, rum, and so much more.

Monday, April 11, 2016

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Manning the masts.

When I parted the curtains, my first view of Havana was the roof of the cruise terminal and the masts of a visiting barquentine, its young crew members precariously saluting from its highest reaches.

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Mexican training ship at ease.

I was able to complete the picture as we disembarked for our morning tour. Long lines soon formed to visit the splendid-looking Mexican training ship which was offering an “open house” to Cuban citizens.

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Inadvertent self portrait in Cuban Chevy Grill.

My particular transport for most of the day was a hot pink 1951 Chevy while other members of our group would ride in equally splendid machines, including a 1914 Model A Ford. Three of us climbed in with the guide and driver for the relatively short ride to the center of Old Havana. The city of two million residents, is, of course, the largest in Cuba and has the world class vibe of, say, Barcelona or Buenos Aires.

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Ready to rumble.

Despite the beautifully preserved (and long since re-engined) classic cars, most of which are privately owned and have stayed in the same family since they were first acquired, there is a sad backstory to Havana and most of Cuba. Largely impoverished and struggling in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, it was once a vital enclave with a huge middle class and wealthy population that prospered, especially in the years between 1902 and 1959. That’s not to say things were ever perfect as Havana and Cuba have a long history of crooked and oppressive regimes.

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Central Park.

Our classic cavalcade came to its first stop at Central Park, where we had some free time to explore.

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Central Havana street scene.

Havana was founded on August 25, 1515 by Conquistador Diego Velazquez de Cuellar on the banks of the Mayabeue River. Its sheltered harbor made it a popular trading port and also a target for attacks by pirates and buccaneers, which soon led to its fortification. By the middle of the 18th century, it had become the third-largest city in the Americas and boasted the New World’s largest shipyard. It was captured from Spain by the British in 1762 and then traded back to Spain in exchange for Florida. After the Spanish American War, the US occupied Cuba until 1902, when it restored sovereignty in exchange for a permanent base in Guantanamo Bay. From the early Twentieth Century until the revolution in 1959, the city became a major cultural center, tourist attraction and a haven for organized crime.

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Capital of vintage cars.

With the revolution and the rise of Castro’s Communism, homes, estates and private businesses were seized by the government. Those who protested or tried to escape were imprisoned or worse and as its ties to the Soviet Union grew stronger, Cuba became increasingly isolated from the Western World. With no new cars coming in from the US, the Cubans had no choice but to keep them running as Soviet cars didn’t quite cut it.

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Opera House fenders.

I crossed the street to the baroque Great Theater of Havana, which was built in 1837 and is now home to Cuba’s National Ballet. I got only as far as the lobby before I was turned away but its auditorium has seen some splendid performances by everyone from Caruso to Pavlova and even Sarah Bernhardt. President Obama made an important speech there on his recent visit to reestablish diplomatic relations with the U.S.

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Passing the Capitol.

We headed onward past El Capitolo, which was completed in 1929 and is based on that of the U.S. It is currently undergoing a massive restoration.

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Time warp traffic.

Our guide and driver did not try to shield us from the less glamorous parts of Havana, where the average citizen earns the equivalent of $20 per month. Of course, many things like education and (less-than-ideal) healthcare are covered but the Cuban people are still in an economic struggle.

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Revolution Obelisk.

In Revolution Square, we stopped to admire the massive obelisk, which at nearly 500 feet, was once the tallest structure in Havana.  Its four wings point in each of the four key directions.

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Symmetrical approach.

We baked in the midday sun as our convertible drove onwards, its creaky seats and leaking gas fumes adding to the experience. We entered the waterfront Vedada District for a visit to the legendary Hotel Nacional. Designed by New York architects McKim, Mead and White, it opened in 1930 and hosted worldly glitterati until 1959.

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A fellow journalist who visited the Hotel Nacional back in the 1970s at the height of the U.S. embargo shared that the hotel was surrounded by gates and guards and was completely off-limits to all but its foreign guests and Havana’s most enticing young ladies.

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Cafe Nacional.

We were led from the lobby to the cafe, whose walls were adorned with photos of its rich, famous and infamous visitors over the years…

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Bashar Al Assad sipped here.

…from Charlie Rose and Matt Dillon to Bashar Al Assad.

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Mojitos in the making.

As some of our group sampled mojitos and Cuban coffee, I ventured out to the grounds for a view of the Malecon.

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Malecon overview.

The arc of its great stone sea wall stretched for some five miles back to Old Town and the harbor entrance.

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Esplanading down the Malecon.

Shortly thereafter, we were experiencing the Malecon first hand on the final segment of our ride.

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A Romeo and Juliet, Rum and Cuban Coffee.

The exhaust fumes had steeled me for what came next, a chance to sample the “good life” with a genuine Cuban cigar, rum and Cuban coffee.

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How to light a cigar and not set yourself on fire.

Our host provided us Romeo and Juliet cigars (which were Churchill’s favorites) and showed us how to properly light them with a sliver of cedar. Needless to say, after the rum and coffee, I didn’t fare so well, managing only a puff or two before it (and I) fizzled out.

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Havana street scene.

We had the option of walking back to the ship or lingering in town for lunch. Just around the corner, there was a friendly restaurant where the atmosphere and hospitality were just right.

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Chef camaraderie.

And the young chefs were genuinely delighted that we came to visit.

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Tropicana portal.

The day was far from over. After early dinner on the ship, we headed off to one of Havana’s most revered attractions, the famed Tropicana. Opened in the Villa Mina, a converted mansion with lush tropical grounds in 1939, it originally featured a casino and a massive amphitheater with a live orchestra and huge cast of ornately costumed singers and dancers.

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Tropicana table setting.

At each of our four top tables was a quart of 7-year-aged Havana Club Rum, cigars and champagne for all. It promised to be quite an evening!

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“Paradise Under The Stars”.

The Tropicana probably still is best known for its legendary headliners, from Xavier Cugat and Carmen Miranda to Yma Sumac and even Nat King Cole. To actually be in the place and to witness one of its traditional extravaganzas was nothing short of surreal.

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Arcos de Cristal.

The Tropicana’s glory days began in the 1950s with the addition of the Arcos de Cristal, a building comprised of parabolic concrete arches with seating designed by Charles Eames. This was also when the mobs infiltrated Havana and notorious figures like Santo Traficante and Meyer Lansky took control of its casinos.

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Jellyfish feathers.

The Tropicana’s showgirls or “Las Diosas de Carne” (“The Flesh Goddesses”), have been emulated in places like Paris, New York and Las Vegas

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Chandeliered and toned, too.

Our balmy night at the Tropicana carried on with increasingly impossible yet fantastic costumes, swirling smoke, a 40 piece orchestra playing and the moon rising into the Cuban sky.

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Encore in the Horizon Bar.

Back at the CELESTYAL CRYSTAL, the party was far from over in the Horizon Bar.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

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The Old Square.

There was so much more of Havana to see and experience. Our walking tour mercifully began in the late morning with a short bus ride that delivered us to the historical center where we visited the Arms Square, the Saint Fransis of Assisi Square and the Old Square, which dates to the 16th Century.

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Buena Vista Social Club cafe.

One cafe claimed to be the famed Buena Vista Social club immortalized in the
documentary film.

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Cariacatures and coconuts.

As tourists meandered, local artists rendered instant cariacatures and vendors offered up everything from homemade ice cream to chilled coconut water in the shell.

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Ambos Mundo.

Our walk continued into the Plaza de Armas where the fully renovated Ambos Mundo Hotel, Ernest Hemingway’s residence from the 1930s until 1960, stands. In Room 511, he wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls.

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Daiquiris in Floridita.

Across the street, we made a quick pit stop at the Floride, birthplace of the daiquiri and one of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes.

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Streets of wood.

More walking, more squares and much more history awaited.

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Cathedral Of Havana San Cristobal.

One of our last stops was The Plaza de la Catedral and its baroque Roman Catholic La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana with its unique coral facade and asymmetric bell towers.

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Lunch at La Casa.

We finished the tour with an excellent lunch across town at La Casa, a Midcentury home that was converted into a family-run restaurant. Time was running short, so we skipped the coffee and returned to the ship with only a few minutes to spare. My intended jog along the Malecon would have to wait until the next time.

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Sailing towards the Malecon.

All hands were on deck as CELESTYAL CRYSTAL made her way into the Gulf of Mexico. It was so hard to believe we were only a few dozen miles away from the U.S. and yet an entire world apart, both culturally and historically.

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Palatial Havana.

From the ship, the vastness of the city unfolded before us. We did our best to see all we could in our two days there but there was still so much more of Havana to experience.  Hopefully on a future visit.

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Havana wake.

CELESTYAL CRYSTAL continued on her Cuban circumnavigation, towards one of the most remote and naturally beautiful parts of Cuba.

End of Part Three

Click Here For Part Four

Special Thanks: Marlene Oliver

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

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."
Peter Knego

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