Cruising from Cuba on Star Flyer
As we relaxed in Virgin Atlantic's V room at Gatwick airport, there was a genuine sense of excitement about the day ahead. Not so much for the 9 and a half hour flight, but for what lay at the end of this first journey, the city frozen in time, Havana.
A few films and beverages later and we were waiting to clear immigration at Havana airport. You should expect an hours wait to clear customs and collect your luggage due to the visa restrictions in this country, but all of the staff appeared friendly and efficient to make the process as smooth as it can be.
Our minibus waited patiently for us, as we changed some sterling to the local currency at the airport. It's important to remember that you cannot obtain CUC in the UK so be prepared to do this once in Cuba. You can do this at various locations including the airport, the hotel receptions and any banks.
As we stepped across the car park to reach our vehicle, the adrenalin started to creep in. The warm night surrounded us, a comfortable 21 Celsius at 730pm swept around as one, then two, classic American cars glided past in an elegance that is reminiscent of the era they derive from. You really do feel as if you've been transported back in time and any stresses or worries of the present day start to slip away as you begin to indulge in this surreal new, yet old, world.
We were staying in downtown Havana in a hotel called the 'Capri'. One thing to mention about Cuba is that the 4* hotels are more like 3*, so l would recommend going for a 5* if the budget allows. The hotel Capri is clean and fairly modern with a desirable location being just a stones throw from the hotel National, Havanas most famous landmark hotel.
After a very quick change, we easily hailed down some local taxis to take us to the old town where we had pre booked a restaurant. You should negotiate the rate prior to taking the taxi, so we agreed on 10 CUC (about £7) per car and made our way along the seafront. The historic buildings lined the streets, clearly thousands of years old and steeped in their proud heritage, all adding to the 'authentica Cuba' experience!
Stepping on to the cobbles of cathedral square in the old town, our entire group stopped for a moment to take in the stunning surroundings. In the darkness, these outstanding works of architecture twinkled in the twilight, with the cathedral itself taking centre stage of course. Colourful locals gave a warm smile whilst smoking their oversized cigars whilst talented musicians played their instruments and sang to us. We took our seats at Dona Eutimia, one of the best and most well known palader's in Havana.
It is common for restaurants in Cuba to be converted from someone's house, in to a very local eatery for locals and tourists alike. This is what the term palader refers to and will offer a really authentic experience. Dona Eutimia is just off of cathedral square and if you are lucky enough to secure a table outside (like us) you can really soak up the view and the atmosphere. Table reservations here are a must.
After a delicious Cuban dinner of shredded lamb, grilled chicken, lobster, shrimps and black beans, oh and a few mojitos, we had all hit the wall of tiredness after such a long day, so wondered back through the square to our waiting taxis and retired for the evening at our hotel.
A big day ahead tomorrow as we make our way to Cienfugeos to meet the Star Flyer...
A good buffet breakfast behind us and we were ready to start the second day of our trip. The group split in two, with some going to a local market for a spot of souvenir shopping and the others (including me) choosing to take a look around the National Hotel, as we currently send a lot of our clients there pre and post cruise.
As we stepped in to the lobby, the original flooring dating back to the 1930's carried us in, whilst our necks stretched in awe taking in the colonial and original surroundings. This really was an authentic Cuban hotel, and one the locals are extremely proud of, with good reason. The elevators were still intact in their vintage glory, lined with gold and sliding gates, taking you to one of the many floors the hotel has.
The hotel National is a very large property and has been home to many famous faces over the years, including Frank Sinatra, Michael Douglas and even the Backstreet Boys! This really is the place to be seen in Havana, with it's own nightly cabaret show, many rum bars and elegant restaurants steeped in beautiful history it's easy to see why the rich & famous would choose here as their resting place.
We congregated again at midday ready for our 4 hour transfer down to Cienfuegos marina to board the Star Flyer. It's a long journey, but the motorway is excellent so the drive is comfortable with a mandatory roadside mojito stop along the way.
The masts stood proud and tall in the calm bay, as our mini bus finally pulled towards the Star Flyer, waiting for her next guests in her true tall ship glory looking as elegant as ever, the excitement was starting to kick in once again!
After a simple check in process we were welcomed in the tropical bar with a refreshing cocktail to the sounds of piano melodies and a light afternoon snack was available. The wonderful familiar feeling of being back on board overwhelms me for a moment as I take in the kind smiles of the crew and finally make a pit stop to my cabin before heading straight back out to explore Cienfuegos.
The horse drawn carriages replace traffic jams and the classic cars are as present here as they are in Havana. This maritime city is a maze of cobbled streets with local markets and colourful buildings. We wandered up and down one of these streets and made some purchases from the friendly locals, which pleased them greatly. Their craft work was beautiful and unique, and incredibly cheap, well worth spending some time 'shopping' here.
Five young men sat in the street on what looked like a wooden picnic table and chairs. In reality it was old boxes and crates making up their camp, as they sat happily playing dominos and drinking rum straight from the bottle. This sweet scene really moved me, a simple sight but a real insight in to the life of a local in Cienfuegos, Cuba, and they even offered to share their rum with us, I really did feel as if I was on a film set from a 1930's movie!
Continuing on, we found which I presume is the main square in this town, sat at a table and ordered 4 mojitos whilst enjoying the now dusky evening overlooking the incredibly well kept square and gardens. I totally fell in love with Cienfuegos and would highly recommend considering spending one, or even two nights here before or after your Star Clippers cruise.
Back on board I had a quick shower and unpacked my suitcase preparing myself for the night ahead. The lifeboat drill was at 7pm so we stayed on in the bar after this for pre dinner champagne. A delicious dinner awaited; escargot, creamy seafood soup, rack of lamb and chocolate mousse all featured on tonight's menu, amongst many other tasty dishes all washed down with house white wine, Sauvignon Blanc.
Up on deck for sailaway, the classical sounds of Vangelis began to fill the night sky as the captain expertly guides us out of the bay. We couldn't raise the sails until later on because the bay was too narrow, so we waited by the bridge until 11pm to watch the complete sail away, not feeling satisfied until the cream billowing sails were high above us adorned in twinkling lights.
Back down to the tropical bar for dancing and cocktails as we sailed out to sea heading for our next destination, Playa Ancon.
Today the Star Flyer anchored off Playa Ancon/Trinidad. We arrived at midday which meant we had the morning to take a leisurely breakfast and relax on deck by one of the two swimming pools.
We had a quick lunch before taking the first tender to the beach of Playa Ancon. As the tender drew closer, the talc white sands and calm, clear, coral waters became real. A few wicker umbrellas scattered this stunning beach with people relaxing, drinking mojitos or taking a leisurely stroll along the front filling the atmosphere.
Our plan was of course to return to this beach, but first, we wanted to explore Trinidad! Deciding to do this of our own accord rather than book the on board shore excursion, we followed the thorough advice of our cruise director to find ourselves some local cars. One convertible Chevrolet from the 40's and another classic car later, we were racing down the roads of Trinidad feeling very much like Thelma & Louise but fully expecting to look like Bridget Jones in her windswept state when the exciting journey came to an end!
Trinidad is only 12km from Playa Ancon and we paid 15 CUC each way (about £10) for the cars which was very reasonable. They waited for us in an agreed meeting place to bring us back again.
Trinidad is the city of music & cigars. Wherever you turn you can hear the sound of guitars and vocalists, lining the cobbled streets or even within their homes, the cool vibes that this island resonates is unmistakable. We wondered along one street, going in & out of the 'shops' along the way, again stopping to make the occasional purchase from the very grateful locals. Eventually stumbling across the main square, also known as 'music square' we took some seats centre stage and ordered the obligatory mojitos, sipping away in the gorgeous sunshine to traditional Cuban music and taking in the historical city.
The group split off after this, some choosing to meander through one of the many markets, myself and another choosing to hunt down the local cocktail! On our way we also managed to climb the 127 steep steps of the old bell tower, giving superb views out to sea over the mis matched rooftops, multicoloured houses, music bars and relaxed locals, a real treat for the eyes and ears!
We had earnt our drink by this point, finally finding the 'cin chin chara' bar selling the drink made of rum, water, honey & lime, it was delicious and much needed after our climb in the heat!
2 last hours back on the beach to finish the day was the perfect way to end my time in Trinidad. For any diving enthusiasts out there, this beach had a local diving school available so a good spot to indulge in this sport. For others, the friendly bar service came on to the beach offering piña coladas and mojitos as if they were going out of fashion, this might just be it, had we found paradise?
Pre dinner champagne had become our routine so we congregated once again in the Tropical Bar, discussing the day we'd had whilst sipping the chilled bubbles. Our 6 course a la carte silver service dinner awaited, never dissapointing and leaving us full and content ready for the Star Flyer fashion show.
Our entertainment is very light hearted and low key, but is sure to fill the bar with laughing and conversation after dinner with dancing in to the night, under the stars being the essence of each evening. We sailed away at 10pm tonight ready for our day at sea...
The last few days of the cruise were spent relaxing up on deck or on one of the two pristine beaches we visited. Firstly, the sea day gave everyone the opportunity to fully acquaint themselves with the ship, laying by the pool, enjoying a cocktail, climbing the masts (not in that order I might add) and generally getting to grips with life on a sailing ship, which was, as always, truly fantastic.
Our first Robinson Crusoe inspired day was in Punta Frances, a very small islet just off of the south coast of mainland Cuba, but is still classed as Cuba. Star Flyer anchored a 15 minute tender ride away from the shore and provided an idyllic wet landing for all of our guests. The watersports were available from the beach all day, and it was great to see passengers enjoying the paddle boards, the kayaks and the snorkelling, all complimentary of course. There were no shore excursions available today, so it was the perfect excuse to simply relax on the pure white sands whilst listening to the coral seas splashing on the shore. Happily, there was a small wooden shack on the beach serving cocktails & beers, simply to service Star Clippers, as there was not another soul on the beach. This stop really is the ideology we promote so often, smaller islands untouched by larger cruise ships, a real hidden gem.
After a long, lazy afternoon, we re-joined the ship for Captain's Night. The Lobster tail or the Chateaubriand? That is the question on everyone's lips as we step down in to the elegant dining room to enjoy a delicious meal prepared by the expert chefs. After raising a glass of champagne with the Captain, we all proceeded upstairs to the Tropical Bar for the Talent Show, which guests and crew participated in together, creating a fun, friendly and warm atmosphere in the al fresco bar, whilst we sailed the calm seas to our next destination, Cayo Largo.
Stepping off of the tender today was a real treat. We were greeted by a pool of dolphins swimming in the shallows of the bay. You could pay locally to swim with the dolphins if you wished to, a real once in a lifetime experience for a lot of people and I believe this was a popular choice in Cayo Largo. Sand is often described as 'talc' on Caribbean/Indian Ocean beaches, but the sand today was better than this even. The flour like texture was hot under our bare feet and the white colour of it almost blinding, I had certainly never seen a beach like this one, I had to stand for a moment to take it all in, and this was all before I'd reached the waters edge.
The light turquoise blue waves gently swept on to the flour like sand whilst the scorching sun shone down on us. The friendly barman came to our cluster of beach towels to take our order of mojitos and bottles of water, which he kindly then bought back to us, leaving us with no reason whatsoever to move all afternoon, other than to cool off in the sea from time to time. These two days went by in a haze of pleasure and relaxation. Two stunning beaches, offering excellent watersports and swimming opportunities in isolated locations, very unique to Star Clippers.
We arrived back in to Havana for our final two days of exploration. After the 4 hour coach journey back from Cienfuegos, we ventured in to the old town in Coco Taxi's which look like small shell like noddy cars, very good fun. After walking through the colourful town, we ended up in Bodegueita le Medio, which is a famous mojito stop, as Hemmingway used to drink here. We were peckish by this time too, so stayed for a delicious lunch of rice, black beans, shrimps, shredded beef and fried pork - real Cuban food. A few mojito's later and the obligatory writing of our names on the walls, we made our way back to our hotel to get showered and changed ready for our night at Club Tropicana.
After another lovely dinner in a local restaurant, we entered a tropical haven of showgirls and gymnasts that would put on a fantastic display for us from 10pm - 12pm. The show at Tropicana included singing, dancing, gymnastics and incredible outfits. The colours and the music were beautifully overwhelming, complimented perfectly with the half a bottle of rum per person that's included in the entrance fee. The atmosphere really was electric, with some of the audience getting up to dance on the stage towards the end of the show too. This is a real Havana must, whilst your in the city, and makes for a great night out!
The following morning we departed on a city tour of Havana, taking in the cigar factory, the rum factory and a lunch overlooking the bay. There was the chance to purchase cigars and rum of course, which we pretty much all did, perfect in December, just before Christmas! This tour is a great way of seeing the city, although it is easy to navigate on foot and in the fun coco taxi's as well. A combination of both, like we did, was perfect.
Our Virgin Atlantic flight departed that evening back to London, so after a bit of last minute duty free shopping, we boarded our flight and headed home.
In summary, the Cuba sailings on Star Flyer are outstanding. The perfect balance of culture, history and pristine beaches really won me over. The classic cars were exciting, the cigars were as big as they are in the pictures and the food really does just consist of rice and beans (not on the ship of course) Cuba delivers in every way you would expect it too and the perfect way to explore this country is on our tall ship, hopping from town to island in pampered comfort, with authentic stays in Havana available at each end. I would also highly recommend a stay in Cienfuegos either side of the cruise too, as this is a town rich in heritage and history with much to explore. Quite simply, this itinerary is a MUST.