I was sitting in an exceptionally dull Monday Rotary meeting when an exciting text interrupted my boredom. It was an invitation from my Mom: “Would you like to go to Cuba this Thursday to Monday? It is a short cruise.”
We had been discussing the idea of visiting Cuba for a couple of years, since the U.S. eased travel restrictions slightly and images of pop culture icons like the Kardashians, Madonna, Jay Z and Beyonce riding around Old Havana in classic cars ignited our interests. I can remember on a trip to Manzanillo, Mexico when I was a young kid, my parents befriended a couple from Canada who had recently visited Cuba. My Dad was fascinated and often talked about going to Cuba from Canada to try to skirt the U.S. embargo, but we never did.
The U.S. government has limited travel to Cuba since 1960, after Fidel Castro came to power, and to this day, travel for tourist activities remains restricted. The American government has essentially limited sanctioned travel to journalists, academics, government officials, those with immediate family members living on the island and others licensed by the Treasury Department. In 2011, these rules were amended to allow all Americans to visit Cuba as long as they are taking part in a “people-to-people” cultural exchange tour.
The rules were amended again in 2015 and 2016 to effectively allow Americans to travel solo to Cuba for authorized reasons, without getting prior approval from the U.S. State Department. Travelers were still required to prove that they engaged in authorized activities if asked upon return, however.
On June 16, 2017, President Donald Trump announced a return to the strict policies surrounding American travel to Cuba that existed before former President Barack Obama softened the country’s stance in 2014. Americans will no longer be allowed to visit the country as individuals outside the confines of guided tours run by licensed providers as allowed by Obama, and visitors will be required to avoid financial transactions with military-controlled businesses within the country, including certain hotels and restaurants. These changes will go into effect once the Office of Foreign Assets Control issues new regulations, likely in coming months.
But Obama’s new Cuba travel rules opened up direct flights from the U.S. to Havana and other major Cuban cities beginning in the fall of 2016. Cruise ships also have once again started calling on Cuban ports. It was once illegal for any U.S. visitors to bring back any purchased goods from Cuba, such as cigars, and it was also illegal to contribute to the Cuban economy in any way, such as by paying for a hotel room.
However, travelers are now free to spend unlimited amounts of U.S. dollars in Cuba, and can bring home up to $500 in duty free goods (including up to $100 in Cuban rum and cigars). It’s still not easy to spend dollars in Cuba. U.S. credit and debit cards don’t work there (although change is coming), and exchanging dollars for convertible Cuban pesos (CUC) includes an extra fee that’s not charged to any other international currency. That’s why many savvy travelers take Euros, British pounds, or Canadian dollars to Cuba — just remember that you’ll need enough cash to last your whole trip, given the lack of credit cards. I ran out the first day and had to borrow from my Dad. Shocker.
I flew from Detroit to Tampa early Thursday morning, and my parents drove from Ft. Myers to pick me up. We drove to the cruise terminal and boarded the Carnival Paradise, but we were a little apprehensive about lowering our standards to Carnival. The majority of our cruise experiences have been with Princess, including the Mediterranean, Scandinavia and Russia, South America, and Asia.
However, Carnival Paradise was recently refurbished in 2017, and my cabin was clean and large. If you want a stateroom with a balcony, you must book early as there are only 98 available on the entire ship, which was occupied by 2,300 passengers during our cruise.
The final “fantasy class” cruise ship ever created, Carnival Paradise is proof that there’s plenty of fun to be found long before you reach your dream destination. The two-deck Normandie Showroom is done in an art-deco style, with stained-glass chandeliers and cherry wood trim. In the six-story atrium, glass elevators silently glide up and down as passengers relax at the u-shaped bar below, which features a stage with live musical performances.
While they have never stopped adding the latest and greatest features to the ship, this vessel remains classic Carnival — fun-packed from bow to stern. With so much of it indoors, outdoors and everywhere in between, Carnival Paradise features great times in and near the water courtesy of hot tubs, pools and a WaterWorks waterpark featuring a giant spiraling slide and dual racing slides. There’s also Serenity, an adults-only retreat with chaise lounges, hot tubs, sea breeze and, best of all, peace and quiet.
The ship also offers a plethora of entertainment options, including a casino, comedy club, disco, spa and theaters with live stage shows and movies. The Playlist Productions performers presented a memorable and impressive Latin-themed performance on Saturday night as well as an amplified “Epic Rock” show on the last night. The cast had impressive voices; the choreography was good; and the sets and costumes rivaled some of the better cruise lines. The Cruise Director, Jaime, was actually more enthusiastic than some of the cruise directors on other sailings I’ve taken.
On the food front, aboard this ship there’s two of the cruise line’s top casual spots: Guy’s Burger Joint, featuring the goods from Guy Fieri, and BlueIguana Cantina, with authentic south-of-the-border taco/burrito goodness. Refreshments — and good times — abound with RedFrog Rum Bar and BlueIguana Tequila Bar. Lucky for me, there was a coffee bar serving my up my favorite iced lattes. The burgers and fries and Mexican fare were all delicious, and my Dad got a kick out of the mechanics’ rags used for napkins at Guy’s Burger Joint. The Destiny and Elations dining rooms offered impressive selections for all courses from appetizers through dessert features. We enjoyed steaks, salmon, sword fish, sea bass, pork, duck and even rabbit. A favorite was the Carnival melting chocolate cake.
Prior to arriving in Cuba, my thoughts were limited to the stories of immigrants like Emilio and Gloria Estefan, which was so wonderfully portrayed in the Broadway musical, “On Your Feet!” Images filled my mind from the news media of people suffering from hunger under communist rule, along with the treacherous journeys of Cubans escaping their homeland and trying to make it to the Florida shores of the U.S. on tiny rafts. I also couldn’t get the Bette Miller song, “Only in Miami” out of my head, in which the singer laments the separation of so many families between America and Cuba:
Standing on the shoreline waiting,
I can hear the broken hearted say,
Only in Miami
Is Cuba so far away.
All of the previously conceived notions and misperceptions I had were replaced with the modern-day reality of Havana, Cuba on Friday morning when we debarked in the capital city, which is also the largest city, province, major port, and leading commercial center of Cuba. The technicolor capital of La Habana with its pastel buildings and bright colored classic cars is no match for the joyous spirit of the Cuban people.
Cuba is a large Caribbean island with a distinct culture, history, and diverse population. The official language of Cuba is Spanish, as is the case with most of Spain’s former colonies. The Spanish spoken in Cuba is unique in the way people speak, the vocabulary, and colloquial expressions that are used and is not exactly like the Spanish spoken in Spain, Mexico, or South America.
There are a few reasons for the unique language spoken on the island. Cuban Spanish has been influenced largely by west-African languages of the enslaved people the Spaniards brought when they colonized the island. It also contains elements of the indigenous languages of the island’s original inhabitants.
Havana has a population of 2.1 million inhabitants, and it spans a total of 281 square miles– making it the largest city by area, the most populous city, and the fourth largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean region. The city extends mostly westward and southward from the bay, which is entered through a narrow inlet and which divides into three main harbors: Marimelena, Guanabacoa and Atarés. The sluggish Almendares River traverses the city from south to north, entering the Straits of Florida a few miles west of the bay.
Havana was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and due to its strategic location it served as a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, becoming a stopping point for treasure-laden Spanish galleons returning to Spain. King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City in 1592. Walls as well as forts were built to protect the old city. The sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor in 1898 was the immediate cause of the Spanish–American War.
Contemporary Havana can essentially be described as three cities in one: Old Havana, Vedado and the newer suburban districts. The city is the center of the Cuban government, and home to various ministries, headquarters of businesses and over 90 diplomatic offices. The current mayor is Marta Hernández of the Communist Party of Cuba. The city attracts over a million tourists annually.
On our first afternoon in Cuba, we debarked and set out on the “Best of Havana and Local Community Project” tour. The tour includes the top things to do and see in Havana. We rode by air-conditioned, modern motor coach along the Malecon (sea wall) past the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (where Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin performed) and the US Embassy. The US embassy, a new addition under the Obama administration, was allegedly the target of a recent sonic attack. Consequently, now the building stands mostly empty. The locals don’t believe the sonic attack actually occurred.
We visited the Fortress de San Carlos de la Cabana, El Cristo (Jesus Christ statue), and Colon Cemetery—one of the Caribbean’s largest burial sites (over 100 acres), which conducts an average of 40 burials a day. It’s one of the largest displays of funerary art in the world, including one mausoleum with doors and windows designed by French crystal artisan, Rene Lalique. We also took a respite at the Plaza de la Revolucion and viewed some of Havana’s most iconic architecture, including the Capitolio, Presidential Palace and Gran Teatro.
We visited a community project that fulfills the requirements of the “people to people” cultural exchange for American tourists. Asociacion Quisicuaba is a social service agency that fights discrimination against seniors, LGBT, persons living with HIV and other vulnerable populations. We were treated to a performance by the senior rap group whose enthusiasm was contagious. The association operates a community museum in a Cuban colonial style house that we also toured.
We had just enough time to return to the ship for dinner and to change clothes before heading into the Havana night. The dining room featured one of my favorites, Ropa Vieja (Spanish for “old clothes”), which is one of the national dishes of Cuba. It consists of shredded stewed beef with vegetables and olives served with rice, beans and fried plantains.
After dinner, we attended the Parisien Cabaret at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Cubans come out of the womb dancing. They have rhythm in their DNA. The Parisien Cabaret tells the story of Cuba in traditional cabaret fashion showcasing the soul of Cuba. The show was a sensational production featuring a combination of colorful and flamboyant costumes, dancing and music that was almost sensory overload.
After only a few hours of rest, I awakened early Saturday morning to explore modern Havana in an American classic—a 1953 Chevy. Cuba is known for its extensive and impressive collection of classic American cars, mostly from the 1950’s, because Fidel Castro forbade the import of newer vehicles for decades, forcing the Cubans to maintain the older ones. Today, the majority of Cuba’s taxis are old American automobiles.
The classic cars look good from the outside with bright colors and big chrome smiles. However, the insides are held together by scotch tape and bubble gum. Much like the rest of Cuba, pretty pastel facades hide crumbling interiors that are reflective of the people, themselves. As one of our guides explained, you can’t even get a credit card in Cuba. They simply don’t exist. You can’t even order from Amazon in Cuba. When Cubans try to order online, the company tells them their country doesn’t exist. It’s a blow to the spirit. However, resilience seems to be a necessity of survival and is readily apparent here. Resilience combined with the Cuban sense of humor makes for a winning combination. Our guide implored us to go back to America as good ambassadors of Cuba and thanked us profusely for our visit.
After cruising through Cuba in a classic car, I engaged in another “people to people”cultural exchange. I had the very special opportunity to experience one of the most admired dance companies in Latin America, Retazos at the Danza Teatro Retazos, learning about their contribution to contemporary dance through a performance entitled, “Moments.” Following the dance presentation in the heart of Old Havana, I explored the charming cobblestone streets featuring beautiful old buildings with wrought iron balconies before boarding the ship to set sail back to Tampa. Old Havana is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Once a thriving international destination, Old Havana is now reflective of a complex history that has, like most of our lives, seen its periods of both triumph and suffering and seems to be on the rebound. Today, the convertible Cuban pesos used in Cuba virtually have the same value as Monopoly money throughout the rest of the world, which is indicative of a country controlled by the government instead of by the people. In Cuba, it’s almost as if time has stood still for over half a century. The Cuban people have been held hostage by their own government and punished by the United States’ policies for decades. Yet they remain a hopeful people, which is a reminder to all of us to be more grateful for how good we have it and to believe that the best is yet to come.
As leaders of the free world, we Americans have an obligation to bring Cuba into modern times instead of continuing to punish the people of this beautiful island for its history, which is mostly attributable to one political leader and one political party. It is said there are no problems in Cuba—only situations. To improve the current situation, perhaps it’s time to harken the old revolutionary cries of “Viva Cuba Libre!” Long Live Free Cuba!
I look forward to hopefully witnessing Cuba’s comeback over the next few decades. In the meantime, hurry and book a trip before the American classic cars are replaced by modern vehicles and the authentic Cuban coffee at the al fresco cafes is replaced by Starbucks.