Our most recent adventure, a Regent Seven Seas Cuba cruise, helped re-ignite my passion for travel. This visit to one of our longtime bucket list destinations offered delights for all five senses.
Embarkation Tips and Onboard Accommodations
My partner Brian and I managed to get a few hours of sleep on the red-eye flight from the West Coast to Miami. After a brief stay in South Beach, we couldn’t wait to board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner for our first trip to Havana, Cuba.
Thanks to the small size of the ship, plus one of my travel agent tricks, we boarded without any tedious waiting time. The vessel holds only 700 guests which helps smooth the embarkation process. My travel agent trick for boarding: waiting an hour rather than queuing up immediately lets you board at your leisure.
We stayed in a Category G Deluxe Veranda Suite on Deck 7. The good-sized,well-appointed suite provides a nice-sized bathroom, plus a balcony, and a refrigerator stocked with beer, water and soft drinks. Upon our arrival, we found a gift from Regent — a beautiful bottle of Veuve Clicquot as well as a fresh fruit bowl.
We enjoyed a welcome wine reception with our group and its leader Fred Brander, a winemaker and collector of Cuban art. Afterwards, we dined the Compass Rose, Mariner’s main dining room. We especially appreciated the complimentary free-flowing wines and champagne, one of the things I LOVE about Regent.
On day two, Brian and I woke to a knock at the door announcing our pre-ordered breakfast. The steward delivered our meal and set it up on our balcony — white tablecloth and all — as we entered the harbor in Havana. It felt luxuriously decadent to sit on our balcony in our plush robes watching Havana come into view.
As we arrived, we watched the sun come up over the imposing Fort Saint Charles, built in the 18th century on the elevated eastern side of the harbor entrance. At the time of its construction, it was the largest fortress complex in the Americas. The fort rises above the 200-foot hilltop beside Morro Castle.
Regent includes most shore excursions in the price of the cruise, making the experience truly one of the most all-inclusive afloat. Our first tour was “The Art of Cuba – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” We visited the two buildings of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, founded in 1913. Our knowledgeable, English-speaking guide’s insights greatly enhanced the experience of viewing the artworks here.
Cuban art, cars, and people
This museum boasts work by painters from the colonial days of the 17th century through today. We appreciated the guide providing background on the history and mood of its artists, a history often unexplored and misunderstood. We learned about the architecture of these wonderful buildings. and about the sculptures surrounding both palaces.
After the Palace of Fine Arts tour, we took the bus to an amazing community art project, “Muraleando”. During the poverty-stricken “Special Period” that Cuba endured after the Soviet Union collapsed, localized community projects were organized. Many of these helped teach children art and music, as well as uplifting people’s spirits.
Artists come to the community center to teach the children from their own good will in hopes of selling their art. Profits are split from their art work with the artist taking 50% and the rest going to the project. The artists teach approximately 230 children art, and music after school and on weekends. Our tour of the community center included song and dance performances as well artworks.
A night of Cuban music & cigars
As we returned to the ship, we saw several of the iconic pre-1959 American cars still plying the Cuban streets. The Cubans take justifiable pride in their ability to keep these decades-old cars running and in good shape. They enjoy posing with the cars and don’t expect a tip to do so.
The “Buena Vista Social Club” is a Havana institution and in my opinion not to be missed. Performances take place in the Habana Cafe in the Cohiba Melia Hotel. This “touristy” attraction earns its popularity by delivering a fantastic time. With the infectious music and dancing, we even got on stage and joined in!
We decided to do our own thing after the show and not return to the ship with the rest of the passengers. Instead, we took a taxi to the Hotel Nacional, which was built in 1930 and has hosted many leaders from around the world. Situated above the city, the hotel offers incredible views of the port and oceanfront. Bouncing around on the Malecón in an ancient taxi on Havana’s waterfront, we felt mixed emotions. There was the nostalgia of the car itself, the crumbling buildings. Yet driving past the newly reopened American Embassy provides a sign of a changing world. At the Hotel Nacional, we enjoyed Cuba Libres and smoked Chohiba cigars until 2:30am!
Museum of rum, Cuban food, and queer culture
Bleary-eyed the next morning, we enjoyed the Museo del Ron, home to the most famous Cuban rum, Havana Club. Located in the historic district of Habana Vieja (“Old Havana”), the museum is housed in a renovated 18th century “solar” (colonial townhouse).
Our guide Fred Brander took the group to a local artist’s studio. We walked through a nondescript neighborhood to knock on an inconspicuous door. The gracious artist greeted us inside, and gave us a private tour of his studio and art. What a unique experience that we would not otherwise have enjoyed.
We stuffed ourselves at an incredible Cuban lunch with authentic music played by the strolling musicians at “Paladar Los Mercaderes”. Immersing ourselves in both the sounds and tastes of Cuba made for an amazing afternoon.
We felt heartened while in Havana by seeing many LGBTQ people looking very comfortable. Cuba seems to have come a long way since the shameful treatment of gays during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
I recommend visiting Cuba now while the authenticity of the island and its people remains intact. The Cuban people welcome Americans to the island. We enjoyed friendly interactions with Cuban people. They have great pride in their culture and love sharing it with visitors. Now is the time to visit Cuba!