Rosanna's Cuban Honeymoon
7th April 2016
I had dreamed of visiting Cuba ever since I was very small. The vibrant colours and contagious energy I had heard so often about needed to be seen to be believed; I never imagined that one day I would get to experience this in all its glory from the beauty of the Star Flyer.
Last year 3.5 million tourists paid a visit to Cuba, compared to 1 million in 1996- a true reflection of the public’s desire to step out of their comfort zone and into a time capsule of colonial magnificence. It is said that when Columbus discovered Cuba he described it as ‘the most beautiful land that eyes ever saw’. More eyes than ever are seeing this, and the fact that the visitors are ever increasing spurred me on to realise that the time is now.
We arrived into Havana airport the night before Star Flyer was due to set sail from Cienfuegos for her 7-night sailing. Eager to experience the true city from the get-go, I arranged for myself and my husband to stay in a Casa Particular, or ‘Private House’ in the heart of Old Havana. These are either houses or apartments that effectively serve as a Bed & Breakfast throughout your stay. Our apartment was owned by a lovely lady called Mirella, who showed us our spacious and clean room and the dining room where breakfast would be in the morning. A standard local breakfast mainly consists of eggs and fruit; papaya, pineapple, guava, and banana. A healthy start to our day! After admiring the view of the Museum de la Revolucion from the apartment’s balcony, we took to street level to spend the morning exploring before our transfer was due to take us to the ship.
Realising there was a lot to see before our transfer- and in our attempts to get to grips with the city before our 4-night stay after the cruise- we decided to take a cycle rickshaw tour around Old Havana in the morning with a lovely man called Giovanni. These cost about 10 CUC an hour (about £7) and in terms of experience (and adrenaline rush!), it is well worth the money. There is no doubt that it can be called a chaotic experience, but after 2 hours we felt like we had ‘blitzed’ the city and knew where we would like to visit on our return after the cruise. We stopped at Ernest Hemingway’s favourite haunt, ‘Floridita’, as well as local cigar shops, plazas, bars and through the buzzing backstreets where locals washed their clothes, sold fruit and generally watched the world go buzzing by.
After a smooth 3-hour transfer by air-conditioned coach to Cienfuegos, and a stop along the way for a refreshing mojito, we arrived at the port to board Star Flyer. She looked majestic and grand moored alongside the port, her masts towering above any building we had just passed. After a stress-free check-in process, we made our way up the gangway, greeted by smiles from the crew. Stepping foot on board was like going back to your favourite relative’s house- homely, welcoming and always with an offer of some food and drink straight away!
After dropping our hand luggage off into our spacious and comfortable cabin, we were back up on deck exploring the intricate details the ship has to offer. The sails were down, prepped and ready for their dramatic unveiling later on in the evening. The Captain let us know that the weather forecast was looking fabulous for our sailing, which immediately got everyone in the mood to visit some beautiful beaches and soak in the sunshine. Ports of call on our sailing were known for having idyllic beaches, and being untouched by larger cruise lines. This is a fact Star Clippers prides itself on.
Our first stop, Cayo Rico, stirred up excitement as soon as we approached late-morning on our first full day. I have never seen such bright blue water in my life! As we slowed down it was clear to see we had arrived in paradise. We had a short journey to go on the tender, followed by a local boat (complete with reggae background music!) that transferred us to the beach. There was little else on the beach apart from some sunbeds and a large hut with a straw roof where they served drinks and some snacks. People enjoyed cocktails and lunch in the blazing sunshine - perfection!
We had borrowed snorkel sets from the ship for the week, which were ideal for the conditions for snorkelling were perfect. You did have to swim out quite far, as this was one of those beaches where the water didn’t seem to get deep for ages. Due to this the sense of calm throughout the shoreline, everyone was relaxed and arrived back onto the ship stress-free and without a care in the world. This is the charm that Star Clippers has- stepping out of the hustle and bustle of everyday life, rinsing you of any hassles and cares that may have burdened you before.
After a beautiful sunset sail-away serenaded on deck by the enchanting ‘Conquest of Paradise’, the sails were filled with warm Caribbean air and safely whisking us away to our next stop- Punta Francis in the Cuban island of La Isla de la Juventud. This has been voted the best beach on the island and it is clear to see why. The water echoing the image we had seen the day before, except this time we had the added bonus of our exclusive beach barbeque being prepared as we lazily snoozed in the sun. All 130 passengers made their way along the beach to a wooden hut, hidden away in the trees and signposted only by a blue Star Clippers towel that had embroidered onto it ‘BBQ’ and an arrow. Discovering the shade and an abundance of delicious food and drinks resulted in a sense of excitement and anticipation, especially when everyone found the specially prepared tree trunk stools and wooden trestle tables to eat from. During this time, passengers mingled and shared stories from trips gone by. There were a vast number of different nationalities on board, however, everyone came together as one with a shared love of sailing and travel.
The delicious barbeque cooked fresh on the beach reflected the amazing food that is offered on Star Flyer. Breakfasts to suit all tastes and nations, themed lunches on board and a 6 course a la carte dinner menu- as well as afternoon tea and a midnight snack- mean you won’t go hungry on board. Dinner is open-sitting; guests can dine at the restaurant any time that suits them between 7:30-10pm and the dress code is casual elegance. This suited us as our suitcases were heavy enough without the addition of formal wear!
As honeymooners, we were treated to a cake at dinner time on our penultimate night on board, serenaded by the lovely waiters. In addition to this, we were given a certificate and some treats in our cabin, as well as onboard credit to spend. My husband used this to buy a linen shirt from the Sloop Shop, the shop on board which offers high-quality clothes and accessories branded with the Star Clippers logo. We were thoroughly spoilt and will remember this sailing for many, many years to come.
After 7 days of bliss and relaxation, we were fortunate enough to have a tour around Trinidad booked before returning to Havana for another 5 days. This tour took the pain off having to leave the beautiful Star Flyer, and of course, the excitement of returning to Havana was also due to kick in. If you get the chance, I highly recommend taking the Star Clippers transfer to Trinidad for the day before the post-cruise arrangements. It is a beautiful city, full of fresh crisp coloured buildings and alive with culture. All around the streets, performers play music and invite you into their buzzing bars. As a contrast to this, there was a Sunday morning mass taking place in the cathedral in the square- the Spanish singers from within haunting the street with their beautiful song.
We returned to Havana that evening, excited for another 4 days exploring the beautiful city. We arrived at our next Casa Particular, owned by Aurora and Julio. After climbing some steps to the first floor, the first thing they said upon our arrival was ‘mi casa es su casa’- ‘our house is your house’. That should be the motto of the whole of Havana. It was conveniently located on the waterfront in Old Havana, within walking distance to the Plaza de la Catedral. This is a beautiful old square, one of five in Old Havana and takes its name from the Cathedral situated in the middle. Plaza de la San Francisco is also a stone’s throw away and is equally as magnificent. I would highly recommend Plaza Vieja for morning coffee, on the first floor of one of the bars overlooking the hustle and bustle of the day. Many local schools bring the children here to play when it gets too hot in the classrooms- you can see they love to be active and running around outside.
If I could recommend two ‘must-dos’ whilst in Havana, this would be the classic car ride and a trip to the cigar factory in Central Havana. The classic cars leave from Old Havana, close to the centrally located Iberostar Parque Central. It costs about £20 for one hour, but it has to be done. Our car was a red Mercury from 1969- I felt like a movie star with the wind blowing in my hair as we darted around Havana, taking in all the sites and of course lots of photos! The driver had lived in the city his whole life, so was very knowledgeable and obviously had such passion for the city. During the tour, we drove past the cigar factory, which we later got tickets for and went back to. You can buy tickets for this from the Saratoga hotel in Central Havana, and I would then recommend taking a taxi or bike to it as it is about 10 minutes away by car.
It was fascinating seeing the workers rolling the cigars and learning how the process hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. I was amazed to learn that is takes 10 months to train to make the cigars, and out of 60 new recruits, it is likely that only 10 will make the cut. You aren’t allowed to take pictures there, however, I will forever remember this experience and the things I learnt that day. For example, there was loud music blaring out for the hour we were there, anything from traditional Spanish songs to American rappers! The schedule for the sound system hasn’t changed since the factory first opened – 2pm is story time, which for a while in the 1920s was Romeo and Juliet. We brought home a box of Romeo and Juliet cigars for my brother, a real Shakespeare fan!
With the curtains on our Cuban adventure drawing to a close, I couldn’t help but imagine how a Cuban would view life in the UK. Wifi, new cars, and the latest technological gadgets would make them believe they were living in the year 2,500AD. Once home, even I felt I needed to adjust to having the internet in the palm of my hand, and quite frankly I realised I don’t need to spend half the time I do browse online shops and Facebook! I was reminded to ‘look up’ and see the world, and I think everyone else should too.