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Sailing Around Cuba on Star Clipper Cruises
BY STEVEN STERN WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 23, 2015 9:43:30 PM  
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SAILING AROUND CUBA ON STARCLIPPER CRUISES

Like so many Americans, I was most anxious to visit Cuba as soon as such a trip became possible.  As a journalist I was able to obtain a visa , and as an author of cruise guides my first choice was to see Cuba while cruising. One of the first major cruise line to offer a Cuban cruise was Star Clippers featuring a seven day itinerary from Cienfuegos to several Cuban islands off the mainland.

 Havana Air offered a one-hour flight from Miami to Havana twice daily. Prior to meeting my cruise ship, I spent two days in Havana. The city appeared to be in total disrepair, a far cry from its pre-Castro glory days.  All sidewalks were broken and full of mud; the buildings for the most part looked like they were falling apart;  in place of grass there was dirt and mud;  items we are used to purchasing in supermarkets and department stores  were not available anywhere; and a good meal in a restaurant was difficult to find.

My educated young guide typified the young Cubans.  He extolled the Casto brothers, and was proud of his city. He proclaimed  its virtues  such as free education, free medical care, and the fact that the government provided  him with a job, even if it was not the one he wanted. He did not miss such wordly luxuries as McDonalds, Burger King, Colonel Sanders,  coca cola, pepsi,  and most of the non-prescription drugs, cosmetics and sundries we  find in our drug stores.

On a positive note, the section known as the Old City did have some well-preserved colonial buildings, and the Cuban variety show, La  Parisian appearing  at the Hotel  National, was the most elaborate musical/dance performance  I had ever seen.  It was nostalgic to see all of the Cuban cars, mostly vintage 1940 and 1950 Chevys, Fords and Buicks.

From Havana, I took a three hour taxi ride to Cienfuegos where the Star Flyer sailing vessel of Star Clipper Cruises was docked.  I had sailed with this cruise line numerous times since its inception in 1991. Although the Star Flyer was twenty-four years old, various renovations have rendered the ship even more beautiful today then when it originally set sail. The nautical décor, abundance of dark woods and brass along with its giant sails flapping in the wind afford an environment not to be found on the usual cruise ship. When the ship hoists its sails and plays Conquest of Paradise ( by Vanglies), the feeling is magical, especially at night when the stars light up the sky.

 

           The Star Flyer  entered the cruise market in 1991 followed by its sister   ship Star Clipper in  1992, as the tallest sailing ships afloat, with 36,000 square feet of Dacron sail flying from four towering masts, the highest rising to 226 feet.

 

          Eighty-five air-conditioned cabins accommodate 170 passengers. Six are inside cabins with upper and lower berths.. The remainder measure from 118 to 129 square feet and are outside with a small porthole, two twin beds that convert to a double bed,  TVs that play in-house DVDs,  radios, lighted dressing tables with a mirror and stool, small closets with shelving and a built-in personal safe, cellular satellite telephones with direct dialing, and small bathrooms with a shower, toilet, hair dryer and mirror. The eight more expensive cabins are located on Main and Sun Decks, are a wee bit larger. They include refrigerators, full windows, and larger bathrooms with Jacuzzi tubs and shower attachments.

 

          Public areas, entertainment, and  onboard activities are limited.  However,  the officers permit passengers to participate in hoisting and lowering the sails and steering the vessel. The captains and other senior staff give nautical and port talks on deck daily. Other classes are offered, such as knot tying, imaginative napkin and towel folding, and dance lessons. In the evening  there are audience participation events and a talented musician provides music for listening and dancing.

 

           Atop ship on the Sun Deck, surrounded by the sails are two small swimming pools and lounge chairs.  The Main Deck, below is the location of six of the larger cabins, the piano bar lounge, the library, and the sheltered outdoor tropical bar---the hub of activity on the ship. The dining room and half of the remaining cabins are on Clipper Deck, the other cabins are located on Commodore Deck.

 

          The attractive dining room seats all passengers at an open sitting. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style, and a five-course dinner features a choice of four entrees, including a vegetarian offering. There is a  diverse selection of ethnic and continental cuisines; and  service throughout the ship is warm, friendly and efficient. The atmosphere is casual, and jackets are never required. At midnight, the chef prepares a special snack that is served in the piano bar.

          On our cruise half of the passengers were German and the other half from Great Britain. I was the lone American. This, of course will change as restrictions on United States travel are relaxed.  The age range of the passengers was between 50 and 75. On my prior cruises with Star Clippers the  demographics was younger and mostly Americans.

 

          This was a great cruise for active and fit travelers who enjoy beaches, snorkeling, water sports and sailing.  It is not for the physically challenged or anyone not sure of foot.  Negotiating the many steps on the ship and on the shaky ladder down to the tenders, as well as avoiding the  many obstacles on the sun deck and elsewhere on the ship are challenges in themselves.

 

          Our first stop was Cayo Largo Del Sur, a small island off the south coast of the northwestern part of the mainland, part of the Canarreos Archipelago. Only two miles wide with a 16-mile strand of  soft white sand lapped by crystal clear, warm waters with no pebbles or sea life,  this is one of the most pristine and beautiful  beaches in the world.  Thatched umbrellas and beach chairs were available gratis There was a bar, facilities and a dolphin pool at the marina where we tendered from the ship. A snorkeling excursion by motor boat was also offered.

          The next day we anchored off of Punta Frances, part of a national marine park on Isla De La Juventud.  Here we were treated to another long white sand beach and an elaborate barbeque provided by the ship.  The setting was enhanced by lush tropical foliage. Unlike on Cays Lago, the waters contained sea grass, sea weed and various sea life fine for snorkeling but not for swimming. 

          Our third visit was to Maria La Gorda in Pinar Del Rio Provence. Maria  La Gorda is a national  marine park with a small resort and such visitor facilities as restaurants,  bars, a dive shop and heliport.  It is a favorite diving site with coral walls, canyons, tunnels and underwater caves; however it is not ideal for swimming or for walking on the beach since the sand is covered with seashells, and other sea debris, and large jagged rocks line the entrance to the waters.  The ship offered three alternative excursions: snorkeling, biking and a visit to a tobacco farm.

           In route to Grand Cayman, we enjoyed a relaxing day at sea. Passengers were given the opportunity to hoist the sales, climb up to the crows nest and take photos of the ship from off the tenders. A buffet lunch was served at the sheltered outdoor  bar area.

          We arrived in Georgetown, Grand Cayman in the early morning and remained until 3 p.m. This popular cruise port’s famous Seven Mile Beach is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. Numerous luxury hotels are located on its sandy shores; however they are not bunched together, and the beach is still ideal for long leisurely walks, swimming and snorkeling.  The islands capital, Georgetown offers one of the best duty-free shopping in the Caribbean with a vast assortment of imported merchandise.

          Several excursions were offered  including:

--a bicycle tour around the island terminating at Tiki Beach for an hour and a half of swimming and snorkeling;

--a motor boat ride to Stingray City, a sandbar on Cayman’s north shore where passengers can interact with dozens of gentle stingrays;

--a bus and walking tour around the island with visits to Mission House, a traditional two-story Caymanian home, and to the island’s luxuriant Botanical Garden.

--a submarine dive down to the depths of 100 feet to explore the islands’ underwater marine park.

          Our last stop was to Cayo Rico. This small islet is also part of the Canarreos Archipelago.  We tendered to a clear area of white sand beach, lounge chairs and umbrellas and a small restaurant and bar with facilities. For 20 euros or Cuban dollars you could purchase a large grilled lobster tail. For one euro  more , you could get a beer. Unlike on Cayo Largo there was only a limited area clear enough to enter the water which also was too shallow for any real swimming.  Most of the beach was  not desirable  for walking.

          The cruise line intends to continue this itinerary through March of 2016. I would have preferred the cruise to have included an additional Cuban city in lieu of one of the islands so as to be exposed to some of the culture of the country.  Apart from taking a cruise on a Star Clipper sailing ship, many of the passengers were attracted to the cruise in order to visit Cuba. Although most did spend a few days in Havana, there is more to the country than its capital.

          The  sailing vessels of Star Clipper Cruise Line offer a unique and enjoyable alternative for travelers who seek  a true sailing experience as compared with cruising on motorized cruise ships.

 

by Steven Stern

author of--- Stern's Guide to the Cruise Vacation, Stern's Guide to E uropean Riverboats and Hotel Barges, and Stern's Guide to the Greatest Resorts of the World

         

         

 

 

 

 
 
     
 
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