Royal Caribbean International’s First Cruise to Cuba (and Mine, Too!)
Visiting Cuba this month was **AMAZING**. And cruising there on Royal Caribbean’s first time cruise to Cuba was extra special. Being on the inaugural Cuba cruise aboard Empress of the Seas was exciting. I shared a daily live blog with photos in one of our Facebook groups. Here is a re-post, in one article, of all five days’ Live Blog entries:
Royal Caribbean International
Empress of the Seas
April 19 – 24, 2017
RCCL’s Inaugural Cruise to Cuba
4:30am- Left home to start my adventure to Cuba!
6:05am- My flight took off from Philadelphia.
8:57am- Arrived in Miami and walked six miles plus a train ride to get from gate E33 to Baggage Claim belt 26. I’m exaggerating, but it really was easily over a mile. Soon after, I caught up with Vicki who arrived about a half hour later from D.C. Vicki is a good friend and was an agent in our office before retiring last year.
11:00am- Our bus, loaded with excited travelers and luggage, left for the 20-minute ride to the pier. Meanwhile, 7 of us learned that the lights and the siren that the luggage conveyor belt we were sitting on weren’t working when we suddenly all had our bottoms heading to the left. It resulted in a lot of laughter, but no lost dignity or injuries.
11:30- We started weaving through the port building, greeted by “Welcome to Cuba” signs and a live Cuban band. There was a table with complimentary coffee, tea, lemonade, water and cookies while waiting to check-in. Right around the area where the photographer takes your photo before boarding the ship, there was a station where you could get a complementary Cuban coffee. I love Cuban coffee, but we were anxious to get to board our ship.
12:05pm- Empress of the Seas welcomes Royal Caribbean’s first guests bound for Cuba with glasses of Cuba Libres, a Cuban band in the atrium and a steel band out by the pool.
We spent some of the afternoon exploring this beautiful, intimate ship, hanging out in the pool deck and each having a disappointing margarita.
We fit in a bit of “relaxing in our cabin since we were so sleep-deprived the prior night.
6:30pm- Massage appointment which started late and was for longer than I thought I’d booked (that’s not a bad thing!) So much for the nice 8:30 sit-down dinner! I got back at 8:25 with, what I call “massage oil hair.” If you get massages, you understand what I mean.
8:30pm- Fortunately, My friend and traveling companion prefers buffet dinners over the longer and more formal dinners. Out of time, we went back to Windjammer where we had a nice dinner. The dessert station was filled with colorful mini cupcakes and fruit.
During dinner, we looked at the “Cruise Compass” and decided that exhaustion was more overpowering then anything on the ship’s agenda. These two wild and crazy gals decided to go to bed. I did try to finish my day’s journal to post it, but I fell asleep doing one finger typing in my telephone.
Vicki was good. She was up and out early for a 7am stretch class at the Fitness Center and then treadmill time. I was enjoying room service coffee (better than I’ve had on some other lines) while writing my post about the prior day.
Breakfast at the buffet and then a sunny morning by the pool. Did some chatting, people watching, reading and then played Bananagrams while drinking a “Pineapple Express.”
What to do on a rainy, lazy afternoon on a cruise? Went to a “$1 Mimosas in Casino Royale” (bar seats were horrible). Apparently, this is a popular At Sea activity on RCCL ships. There was a great lecture on Cuba’s recent history, people and culture by a professor from University of Miami. The next lecture was “Cuba from the eyes of if an insider.” We left shortly after it started because it seemed like it was going to push excursions.
We had a late cheeseburger lunch and then I headed to the Viking Crown Lounge to use it as my “office” for a bit. I had been asked to give feedback on a draft of a cruise line’s new brochure on accessible cruising. I hadn’t had a chance to look at it before this trip. Today was a good opportunity. As we rounded the corner near the Adventure Ocean (kids & teen area, we were nearly mow down by three young ambitious teens. One politely yelling, “Excuse us. We’re in a scavenger hunt and it’s a deadly match between the teams!” I can remember how much fun one of my own kids had doing the scavenger hunt years ago!
Speaking of kids, there are a fair number of them on the ship. Well behaved and seem to be busy with the Adventure Ocean Club. Along with the various kids’ activities, there are a couple of family-oriented events. Vicki and I are still trying to figure out what “Family Muffalo Potato” listed on the Cruise Compass” is about.
Sound travels between cabins on this ship. Or it’s just that our New Yorker next-door-neighbor mom’s voice carries well. When I went back to our cabin to nap and regroup, I could hear her going over multiplication with her daughter. I struggled with math class in school. I may have a math-related nightmare tonight!
We made it to the formal dining room tonight! We’re at a table for 10. Our tablemates are a couple from Orlando, a couple from NYC and the four gorgeous young dancers from Miami. RCCL is apparently testing the guest interest in having a Latin dance team on the Cuba cruise to lead more dance classes and to create added excitement late night in Boleros. They are really amping up the Latin theme and it’s proving popular. Sitting next to a young woman who is half my weight eating three rolls, fried chicken, rice and dessert made me wonder when the “skinny gene” abandoned my family. Guess I should take up salsa dancing!
Empress of the Seas’ main show is at 8:30pm for those on early dining and 10:30 PM for guests who are on late dining. We haven’t made it to the main show yet.
Struggling with staying up for a while or going to bed (with a happy stomach filled with salmon and peach-blueberry cobbler), we opted for the piano music which was scheduled in the nautical-themed Schooner Bar. About 10 minutes after it was supposed to start, the piano was still abandoned and we decided to head to the cabin.
I kept falling asleep while doing my one finger typing of this post. Time for “lights out” and I’ll finish in the morning…..
Morning / Afternoon:
After doing necessary some office work (the VOOM Internet is very good) and Vicki finishing her Stretch Class and running the track (4 times around is a mile), it was the buffet breakfast. I love having smoked salmon which I never get at home.
Afterward, we went into Casa Maya. It’s a bit of a walk up the pier to the port area. Vicki and I have each been there in the past so we opted to stay at the port which has a lot to offer. It was VERY hot.
In about the same area in which you meet up with shore excursion groups, there are Mayans in full warrior-appearing dress. It’s an opportunity to get a fun photo after which you should drop a tip into the gourd bowl. Throughout the area there are many opportunities to listen to bands and singers, and watch see other street shows. I take a lot of $1 and choose to tip if I interact or take photos. There are many stores, photo opportunities and things to do. We opted to sit by the pool which is flanked by two restaurant bars. Vicki swam a bit and then we had a drink and split ceviche.
Later we watched our dance team dinner companions teach a salsa class before relaxing in one of the many small sitting areas in the center of each deck to listen to a Latin music quartet perform in the Centrum. When Echos took a break, we hopped to another location offering music. Boleros is Royal Caribbean’s most popular club. Clave Band offered some more beautiful mellow Latin music. It was beautiful to listen to and a lot of people were on the dance floor. Staying there, we missed the Mariachi music that was in another spot.
Between the dinner conversation and the “tricks” that our waiter shows us, there was a lot of chatter and laughter coming from our table. Everyone ordered The lobster, steak or tortellini. After people were goggling each other’s steaks and lobsters, most of us requested one or the other when the waiter asked us if we would like anything else. <LOL> Out came a few plates with steaks and one plate with a mound of lobsters. We suffered through some more food, but I can vouch that there wasn’t much dessert eaten at our table!
We kept hearing about the performer, Tony Tillman. He worked for five years in Las Vegas as Sammy Davis Jr. in a Rat Pack tribute show. This guy was incredible! Funny, dances, mimics performers, sings all sorts of music styles.
After our early morning routine (Vicki – exercising, need – work), we went to Brunch in the Starlight Restaurant. It’s only offered one at sea days and everyone we’ve spoken to that did it on Thursday highly recommended it. We were not disappointed. One of the best meals we had, a lot of variety on the buffet, creative and fun use of cut out vegetables and fruits, and bread decorations. Along with one complementary Mimosa or Bloody Mary.
I went to my first Wine Tasting Class. It started off with an optional half hour galley tour which was more about technical aspects and sanitation another galley tour I once attended. We sat with a terrific couple from Mississippi with whom we enjoyed learning about and tasting some wines, cheese and fruit. Seemed reasonable for $15.
Until today, the show for the late 8:30 PM Dining was at 10:30 PM. Today, the show is at 7:30 PM before our dinner. It was a song dance and costume show. Lots of energy and I would say good quality, just not what I prefer. But those who enjoy that type of show seem very happy with that.
After dinner, this evening we ran up to Boleros again. The Latin dance team we’ve been dining with was performing. One dance was the two guys from the team and someone from the cruise director staff. The second dance were the two couples from the team. It was very good. Followed by “The Desperados,” a combination of a visiting Cuban band brought on just for this inaugural Cuba cruise combined with the ship orchestra. They were terrific, but we only stayed for a little bit. We’re getting up early to watch as the ship sails in the Cuba!
Morning / Afternoon:
We docked an hour late. I think it was because of scheduling by the Cuban pilot boat. Incredible excitement onboard all week over being on Royal Caribbean’s first ever cruise to Cuba.
Grabbed breakfast and coffee from Windjammer which we took out to a table on the pool deck about 6:30am to watch as soon as we got to the narrow harbor. You can see the city from the starboard side and fort (Morro Castle) from the port side. Both offer great views.
RCCL excursion guests got to disembark first. After we disembarked, immigrations, restroom (take tissues into Cuba! The government may supply restrooms, but most don’t even have TP dispensers, let alone TP) we went to the meeting spot for our guide across the street in San Francisco Square.
Thankfully it was cooler in Havana than it had been in Costa Maya two days earlier. We had a seven-hour private tour that was primarily walking (emphasis was architecture) along with classic cars and lunch. Fortunately, the expected all-day T-storms never happened.
I don’t know anything about architecture. I know that I like what I like and am fascinated by some things and wowed by others. Havana has building in nearly any style that have occurred in the past 400+ years. Most buildings we saw from the outside, but we also got into the entrance and courtyards of a couple of buildings, inside Hotel Raquel and through the famous Hotel National de Cuba.
We had lunch at the government owned La Torre, a restaurant at the top of a building converted to apartments. La Torre is on the 33rd floor with an incredible view of the city. Lunches ranged from $10 – $30 CUC.
The order of our tour was walking, classic car touring along the Malecón and beyond, lunch, walking, classic car touring leading back into central Havana and drop at Artisans Market with a mile of our ship. From there, it was easy to haggle a $10 cab ride down to $5 which, I’m sure, is still more than a local would pay.
We didn’t get as much time among locals as I would have liked (that will be my next trip to Cuba)! But I got the beginnings of a good sense of the layout, a special appreciation for the buildings— their styles and how the Cubans repurpose them between government buildings, apartments, offices and museums and restaurants. Visiting three beautiful outdoor squares (plazas) and their early history and the ingenuity of the people of Cuba.
We were exhausted.
We packed light and opted to “walk off” with our luggage the next morning so we had no deadline to get luggage out. An early morning, long day in the sun and all of that walking meant that I gave up my most favorite cruise ship dinner if escargot. I felt too cheap to spend the $7.95 that RCCL now charges for cabin service (except for free continental breakfast) and opted for Windjammer. I was probably asleep before our Starlight dinner mates finished their salads.
Off the ship early the next morning!
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This cruise was everything I hoped it would be and more. I feel like our seven hours in Cuba was a great start and I look forward to going again to see more. Call us to arrange your cruise or tour so we can share all of the tips and hints to ensure a special trip of your own!
Are you on Facebook? Additional photos and conversation about our Cuba cruise can be found in our women’s travel group, Savvy Travel Chicks.
P.S. We look forward to sharing our “insider tips” with you when working for you to plan your trip to Cuba. Give us a call today! 610-532-0989