Review: Cruising to Havana on Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas
As a general rule, I don’t take cruises. I have nothing against them, I promise. It’s just that, well, my husband, daughter, and I took one during Hurricane Ike out of Galveston back in 2008, and that was that. Sailing through the Gulf of Mexico during a hurricane makes for an unforgettable vacation. Like, really unforgettable…So unforgettable that we lost our car to the ocean. Fun times.
When my mother asked me to take a cruise with her to Havana this year, I didn’t hesitate in the least. True, hurricane season had just begun, but it was too early to worry about a storm. Besides, the two of us haven’t taken a mother/daughter trip since 1991, so I was not about to turn down an opportunity to make beautiful memories with my sweet momma.
Now, you must understand that my mother is an expert cruiser. (And, one day, I’m going to recruit her to write reviews for DustySoles.) She knows the ins-and-outs of maximizing her points, maneuvering through check-in, and the best times to shop onboard. I’m not a cruise expert in the least, so this review does not aim to tell you how to cruise. However, I have had many questions about taking a cruise to Havana, so herewith is my take on the experience. Don’t forget to leave your questions and comments at the end of the post!
Dates of Cruise: 16 June 2018—20 June 2018
Itinerary: Tampa—Key West—Havana—Tampa
Port: Tampa, Florida, at the time of sailing; currently sails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida; According to cruisemapper.com, the ship will begin sailing out of Port Canaveral in March 2019.
The Majesty of the Seas, with a passenger capacity just under 3,000, is no monolithic ship by any stretch, rather it’s a comfortable size with the usual array of restaurants, cafés, bars, a casino, a Johnny Rocket’s, and a Starbucks. Oh, and there’s an ice cream shop, too! You will not go hungry, nor will you get bored. There’s a little something for everyone on the ship.
We stayed in an interior room, and there was definitely enough space for two. I never heard any noise from the hallway, so that’s either a testament to the construction of the ship, or everyone on our deck was quiet. Either way, we had a comfortable room with outstanding service. Don’t forget to tip your steward, by the way. They work very hard to make your vacation enjoyable!
First Stop: Key West
Key West is hot and humid in June. Be prepared! Drink lots of water and take as many breaks as needed. Once the ship docks and passengers are allowed to leave, you will take a shuttle to town. The cruise line was adamant that we not take any photos until we exit the port property as it is associated with the government. Please heed all rules and regulations.
I first visited Key West about fifteen years ago, and, boy, has it changed! There seems to be a great deal more souvenir shops and touristy attractions than my last visit, but even the Conch Republic needs to make a buck. Key West still has its same rum flavored sensibility, so all is well. There are a number of trolley tours and stops that you can take around the city, and if you find yourself knocked out by the heat, then this is the way to go. (We took Old Town Trolley Tours.) It’s also a great way to get the lay of the land. Keep in mind, though, that the ship leaves around 6:30 PM (at least this one did), so choose your activities wisely.
We took a trolley to the southernmost point of the United States. Be prepared to wait in a very long line if you want to take a photo in front of the buoy. However, if you’re crafty like we were, you can take a photo with the buoy in the background without waiting in the long line. Don’t worry. We didn’t skip in front of anyone; we just chose not to stand right in front of the buoy. We do have manners, you know.
If you find yourself in need of both a trolley stop and saltwater taffy after that long line to get to the Southernmost Point, then you’re in luck. The Southernmost Trolley Stop (511 South St, Key West, FL 33040) is less than five minutes by foot from the point, and they sell cold water and all things key lime. It’s a little spendy, but that’s life in paradise. You can rest your weary bones whilst watching chickens crossing the road. Did I mention that the chickens and roosters are protected citizens of Key West? They are everywhere, so if you have a chicken phobia, you’ve been warned.
If you’re a fellow American lit nerd, then Key West is your place. Hemingway’s famous abode is a major attraction here, and I can’t recommend it enough. Bask in the glow of Papa and his polydactyl cats. Make no mistake, the cats rule the roost, so be respectful. The house is modest by today’s standards, but it is infused with the spirit of Hemingway.
If you love Tennessee Williams, then you’ll be happy to know that there is a museum just for him. My mom and I were not able to visit it extensively as they were about to close, but the employee kept the museum open a few extra minutes for us, and she was one of the nicest people I have ever met. The gift shop is out of this world, and you are sure to find a souvenir for your favorite literature nerd.
So, look, there is no way that you can go to Key West without trying key lime pie. It’s impossible to miss the pie offerings every 200 feet, so you’ll have your pick of coffee shops and restaurants. Mom and I stopped in for a quick slice of pie and cold water at the Southernmost Key Lime Shop. The pie is delicious, and the service is great! They also sell an assortment of key lime food, marinades, and mixes. Definitely put this coffee, gift, and pie shop on your itinerary!
Bottom Line: Key West is fun and filled with energy. There are sites and activities for everyone in your party, and all fitness levels are accommodated within the city with plenty walking tour options, trollies, bike rentals, taxis, and pedi-cabs. Keep in mind that you won’t get to see and do everything you’d like if you’re only in port for half the day. However, with some careful preplanning, you can hit the highlights.
Second Stop: Havana
Look, I can’t lie to you. I looked more forward to La Habana than Key West. No offense to the Conch Republic, but I had already visited the city before. I was positively giddy at the prospect of stepping foot onto Cuban land because, if I may be honest, I never thought that United States citizens would ever get to visit the country. Duh! Of course, I was excited. (And, if I get another chance, I’ll go again!)
Here’s What You Absolutely Need to Know About Going to Havana on This Particular Cruise:
1. When you check in at the cruise terminal, you are required to fill out the “Royal Caribbean International Guest Certification for Authorized U.S. Travel to Cuba” form. Do NOT make any errors on this form. If you do, you’ll be yelled at and will be required to fill it out again. Okay, so filling it out a second time isn’t so bad because the form is simple. Withstanding the chastising from the employee was uncomfortable. The current cost of the visa is $75, but as with anything, the cost is subject to change.
2. Remember that form you were required to fill out at the cruise terminal? Turns out, the Royal Caribbean employee was supposed to give it back to us to take on the ship. That didn’t happen, which leads me to my next point…
3. The cruise has a meeting the day before arriving in Havana. GO TO THE MEETING. I don’t care how well you’re doing at your shuffleboard game or how much the cute girl at the pool is flirting with you…GO TO THE HAVANA MEETING. This is where you’ll get all the details like finding out about how you actually needed that form from the terminal; how to LEGALLY get into and visit the country; going through Cuban customs; which Cuban currency to select (There are two, but you’re only supposed to exchange U.S. dollars into Cuban cucs.); and how the day is otherwise organized. There is so much useful information packed into this meeting that you’d be lost without attending it. Less than a third of the passengers attended our meeting, and I can guarantee you that they were confused on the day that we arrived. Go to the meeting. Period.
4. Laws regarding U.S. and Cuba relations, travel, etc. change on a dime. The meeting director was adamant that we understand this point. Like, I bet he said it twenty times. If the laws change overnight, don’t get angry with the cruise line. They are at the mercy of the whims of governments.
5. There are four travel categories, and you’ll most likely select the “Full Day Royal Caribbean Program” which is essentially an education exchange. This means that you will need to select one of the tours offered by the cruise line. If I were you, I would go ahead and book your tour as far in advance as possible in order to get a spot in your desired program. We chose the “Hemingway’s Havana” tour because my mother is infinitely patient with my obsession with the writer. (It’s the English teacher in me.)
6. I don’t really know if this is true, but the cruise line told us to hang on to all paperwork involving our visit to Cuba, like tickets for the excursion, receipts, etc. We were told that we should always carry this paperwork with us if we plan to travel internationally and want to re-enter the United States without problems. We were also told to hang on to the paperwork until our passports expire. Now, I traveled internationally and re-entered the U.S. two times after this trip. No one asked for this paperwork at customs, but, by golly, I had it, and it will accompany me on all international trips for the next nine years.
Hemingway’s Havana Excursion—The Deets
Look, I’m going to be straight-up honest with you: I don’t especially like organized tours. I’m kind of rebellious that way and even got in trouble for it during a high school trip to Montréal back in the olden days. However, if this is the only way that I get to see Havana, then you know what, I’m going to take the tour without so much as a grumble. Gratitude and carpe diem, my friends.
My sweet momma chose this tour because she knows how much I love Hemingway. She could have chosen any tour, but she chose this one. For that, I am both grateful and humbled. My mother is a generous lady! And, you know what? The tour was a ton of fun because I learned a great deal about Hemingway, met new friends, and finished off the day with a lovely walk around town. Not a bad way to spend a day in a city and country I never dreamed I would ever visit.
Heretofore are the highlights of the tour:
1. The group had around, I don’t know, twenty people. That is a perfect size if you ask me. We met in the theater on the ship and were escorted to Cuban customs by a crew member. It’s a very organized system, if you ask me.
2. Getting through Cuban customs is easy. Not much different than U.S. customs except that your photo is taken upon entry and when you leave. No big. You can’t smile in the photo, and that was very hard for this very excited lady.
3. Our tour guide was from Havana, and he was a walking, talking encyclopedia of all things Havana and mojito recipes. TIP YOUR TOUR GUIDE AND BUS DRIVER!!! THIS IS HOW THEY MAKE A LIVING, AND IF YOU CAN AFFORD TO TAKE A CRUISE, THEN YOU CAN AFFORD TO TIP THEM.
4. Our tour bus was air conditioned. Folks, this is a very good thing to have in Havana during June. I’m a born and bred southerner, but the humidity of Cuba was difficult even for me. And don’t even think you’re going to look cute at the end of the tour because the heat and humidity don’t care about your cute outfit, coiffed hair, and makeup.
5. The bus took us from the cruise terminal to the outskirts of Havana to our first stop, la Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s house. You are not allowed to enter the home, but there are tons of windows and doors through which you can look. Be a courteous traveler and remember that others would like a glimpse, too. Highlights of the stop are Hemingway’s boat Pilar, peeking into his study/writing room, and a spectacular panoramic view of Havana.
6. The next stop was Cojímar, a small seaside town outside Havana, said to be the inspiration for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
We stopped at La Terraza, Hemingway’s favorite lunching spot. The restaurant has roped off his table by a window with a view of the water. Part of this stop included a daquiri, a lively performance by a local band, and a quick jaunt to a statue of Hemingway cast in bronze from fishermen’s boat anchors.
7. The final stop took us back for a walk around La Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Our guide took us to El Floridita, one of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes and supposedly where the daquiri was invented. Another highlight included walking through the lobby of the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway briefly lived and began writing his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, and we ended our time with our guide by drinking a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio. Now, legend has it that the mojito originated here. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that my mojito was one of the best drinks I have ever had.
8. Once our time with our guide came to an end, we were free to walk around Havana for a couple of hours. My mother and I befriended the sweetest family with whom we ate lunch and walked around. (And, we still keep in touch!) After a quick glance inside La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepcíon Inmaculada de La Habana, we ate lunch at La Moneda Cubana, a paladar offering homemade Cuban fare, and it was delicious! (Ask to sit on the upstairs terrace for a great view of the city!)
After lunch, we went in search of locally made arts and crafts. Though we were unable to shop at Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market near the port (It was closed.), Mom and I purchased jewelry, paintings, and other handmade art from a very small market on Avenue San Pedro. Finding this very small market was quite by accident as there were no signs, and one of the artists flagged us down. It turns out that the market was the creation of an attorney who wants to give back to her community by training its members in traditional Cuban art and jewelry making. Between the attorney’s limited English and my broken Spanish, we were able to talk about the importance of the program and the importance of Cubans and United States citizens getting to know each other. Though limited in our abilities to speak each other’s languages, this conversation was by far the best experience of the day.
So, if you find yourself walking down Avenue San Pedro and you are invited to shop at a small, shaded market, DO IT! You won’t regret it. Oh, and please use your best etiquette. There was a group of folks presumably from our ship who were very rude to the artists and tried to haggle prices down way low. It was insulting to the artists and embarrassing to me. The artists are learning a trade in order to make a living and to share their art and culture with visitors. Don’t be a rude representative of the United States.
Royal Caribbean did a mighty fine job on this itinerary. They were organized and kept us well-informed about what to expect in Cuba. The Majesty of the Seas is very well maintained and clean. Though I have only been on three other cruises, I must say that this was the cleanest ship of all. The crew are helpful and friendly, and we were treated well. It was a fantastic way to make memories with my mother, and if you’re looking to head to Havana on a cruise, I highly recommend Royal Caribbean. Give Havana a try! You won’t regret it! I’ll be going back there one day, for sure! And, to answer your question…Yes, I LEGALLY brought cigars back into the United States. As of the date of my cruise, we were allowed to bring back 100 cigars. So, now, get thee to Havana!