2019 – Cuba and the Caribbean

Early in 2018, an advert in the ‘Daily Fascist’ caught my eye. A Caribbean cruise centred on Cuba. It ticked most of my ‘to do’ boxes – classic cars, places I’ve not visited before and all inclusive, including drinks.

Val and I had done cruises in the past, but this one appealed to me, and this was to be my first as a solo cruiser and my first on MSC.

I paid extra for a double cabin, with a window that looked out on more than a lifeboat, but I figured I’d rather not sleep in a glorified wardrobe – even if it had an en-suite bathroom.

The trip to Havana was tortuous, a two hour sector down to Madrid, a ninety minute connection and then ten and a half hours to Havana – on Air Europa, a Spanish low cost airline.

The flight down to Madrid was okay, if packed – the cabin crew were selling sandwiches through the trip.  we arrived on time.

Check in for the next sector was less well organised, with confusion over the Cuban visas that we had prepaid as part of the trip.

The flight to Havana was not quite full, I had an empty seat next to me, but I’d forgotten just how long transatlantic flights can be; I’ve travelled through the gulf for the last five or six years. I’d finished the new Jack Reacher book before we were half way across and settled down to watch movies on my iPad.

On the two flights I met several of the British group (there were seventeen of us on the flight from Gatwick, more from Madrid, I suspect) on this cruise, all bar two are older than me, but I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise.

We landed in Havana just after eight. Immigration, baggage and customs were manic, but I was on an MSC bus by nine thirty, at the ship by ten and in the open-air bar on the top deck by eleven, enjoying the first of, I suspect, many Pina Coladas.

I was back in my cabin at midnight, 5am London time; my suitcase had been delivered but I figured unpacking could wait until morning.

My cabin itself, 9004, was larger than I expected, with a window looking forward – I could see the pointy bit at the front

There was plenty of wardrobe space, and plenty of hangers; the bathroom is compact, but clean.

I woke early on Wednesday, so had time to unpack before breakfast, which was a buffet, pleasant enough, if nothing to write home about.

However, it would appear that my (new) camcorder must have fallen out of my bag on the flight. I turned my cabin over twice, but no sign of it.

I phoned Air Europa in Madrid (ouch) as the Havana office wasn’t answering their phone. They gave me an email address, but they failed to respond, so I tweeted them.

Then off the ship for a wander round old Havana, then back on deck for a couple of cocktails, working my way through the cocktail list.

Dinner was in the main dining room; this was a first for me as Val and I never had allocated seating on our NCL cruises. There was an interesting mix of people on our table of nine, and dinner was okay, although the portion sizes were on the small size. There are plenty of opportunities to load up with food elsewhere, but small dinner portions won’t do any harm.

I’d had two long days so, after one more cocktail, I turned in for an early night.

After breakfast on Thursday I sat on deck for an hour or so, reading, then wandered down to Sloppy Joes. Val and I had tried the two SJ’s at Key West, but at four ‘CUC’ (the Convertible Peso, about the same as a dollar) for a Mojito I figured that was a good deal.

The stroll back, along Calle Obispo, was most entertaining with several cafes and bars spilling music through the crowds.

I was back on the ‘sun’ deck for the sailaway, but the ‘Spinnaker’ bar was absolutely rammed. Service can be average at the best of times, so I headed below deck to the ‘Pub’ which was much quieter.

Friday was an ‘at sea’ day, as we headed from Cuba to Jamaica.

I tried one of the ‘fancy’ dining rooms for breakfast, rather than the buffet and enjoyed some very pleasant Eggs Benedict.

The weather was changeable as we crossed the Caribbean, and the sun deck was rammed. I spent some time reading my book in one of the ship’s bars and headed up on deck later when it was less crowded.

It was a ‘gala night’, so people dressed up for dinner and there were opportunities for photographs with the Captain, who speaks very little English. I passed.

After dinner I met up with a bunch of Brits in the ship’s ‘pub’, including a couple of ladies from Maldon, eight miles from home.

The sun rose over the hills of Jamaica as we approached Montego Bay. We docked at about eight and, after breakfast, I debarked and sought a taxi. My objectives were to find a camera shop and visit the Hard Rock. I was pointed to a mini bus which was loaded to the gunwales with loud Italians and Spanish.

The driver ‘Andrew’ – shaven headed and built like a wardrobe – tried to explain that he recommended a different beach than the cruise ship recommended. Several passengers were unconvinced and demanded to be put off at the first beach. From there another couple insisted on being dropped off ‘downtown’ – despite the driver saying that it was dangerous for Europeans and that they’d be on their own. From there we headed to a duty-free mall, but no camera shop.

Then back to his preferred beach where everyone else alighted; the driver then took me to the Hard Rock Café, two minutes from the ship!

It had taken over three chaotic hours and was most frustrating, but I’d seen quite a bit of Montego Bay, I won’t be hurrying back.

The ship filled up through the afternoon before we set sail just after six thirty. I bumped into the two, ‘Maldon’ sisters, Andrea and Theresa and we enjoyed a couple of hours chatting on deck; I completed the cocktail list – time to start again.

After dinner an ever-increasing group of Brits congregated in the ‘Pub’ before checking in for an early night, it had been a busy day for all.

We dropped anchor outside Georgetown, Grand Cayman at about six on Sunday morning, I was woken by the rattling of the anchor chain.

I’d exchanged messages with Des, my former school friend who now lives in Grand Cayman and, after a bit of confusion, he picked me up in a shiny new, white, Range Rover. He took me on a brief tour of the island – including visiting ‘Hell’ – before dropping me back in town.

I mooched the Town while Des took his family to church and we then met up again – with his (second) wife and two of his children – at the Hard Rock Café.

Unfortunately, I had to rush off to get the tender back to the ship, the last tender was at two, and we set sail at three. Somewhat bizarrely, the entertainment team held a ‘snow’ party as we pulled out of the harbour – the ‘snow’ was actually foam, but the dancers seemed to enjoy it.,

Dinner was a ‘Mediterranean Evening’, the best food so far but, to be fair, the food had been okay, but not exceptional

Monday’s destination was Cozumel, one of two scheduled visits and a place where many guests join and leave the ship. For this visit I was focused on the Hard Rock Café and Señor Frogs.

Val and I had visited Señor Frog’s in Cancun and Puerto Vallarta and had a good time.

It transpired that the Hard Rock Café had relocated a few miles (and ten dollar taxi ride) along the coast to where two ‘whale tails’ – the Carnival Valor and Fantasy lay offshore by a larger cruise terminal – money talks.

They were later joined by the Carnival Breeze. The Valor set sail shortly before we did.

No matter, the guys in the Hard Rock Café were good fun, we swapped a few pins and one of the waiters gave me a free pint.

From there, I took a taxi back to Señor Frogs, as I wandered in a waiter asked me if I was a ‘real man’? I said that I thought I was, so he sat me down with a litre of beer and a dog’s bowl filled with popcorn. I ordered a dozen oysters to accompany the beer, total bill less than twenty-five bucks.

Then back on the ship and a few drinks with Brits before we set sail at about six thirty.

I wandered up to the sun deck after dinner and hooked up with some Brits before crashing out at about eleven. The crew were starting to tie down loose objects, so they were expecting a bumpy night.

It wasn’t as bumpy as perhaps they’d anticipated, and the sun rose into an almost cloudless sky on Tuesday morning.

I wandered up on deck with a book and just baked, I was joined by Andrea, Theresa and a few others and we chilled. At lunchtime I enjoyed the hot tub.

I realised that I might need to upgrade my hand baggage on the way home – we’re allowed 10Kg hand baggage. I’ll weigh my case before we get to Cozumel next week. I don’t anticipate much shopping this week, no more Hard Rock Cafés.

On Wednesday I explored Havana, I left the ship at nine thirty and caught a ‘Hop on – Hop off’ double decker tour, great value at just ten CUC.

The tour took a couple of hours and, just before midday I jumped off at Parque Central and tried to get in to El Floridita – which claims to be the place where the Daiquiri was invented. It was rammed with tourists (before midday) and, frankly, not worth the effort.

Instead I wandered down Calle Obispo and found a couple of other bars that I’d found in the little ‘Time Out’ guide I’d brought with me. One bar proudly proclaims that ‘Hemingway Never Drank Here’ – well  I did –  while I enjoyed some really impressive ribs in another – ‘El Dandy’.

It was in ‘El Dandy’ at Parque Christo that I experienced a spooky moment.

It’s worth mentioning how ubiquitous salsa music is in Havana; it permeates the City and exudes from every bar and car radio.

Well, I was sitting in ‘El Dandy’, thinking how it would have been nice to have been able to share the experience with Val, when – out of nowhere – “All My Loving” came on the bar’s sound system.

It’s the only Beatles track I heard during my several days in Havana and while I have never claimed to be particularly spiritual, it was spooky, I guess it was heightened awareness.

On the way back to the ship I called into ‘Don Hernando’ – another bar that claims a Hemingway connection – and enjoyed a couple of ‘authentic’ Mojitos. Those left me spent up, and ready for a doze back on ship.

Strange that four drinks ashore affected me more than a dozen on ship.

We had a ‘sailaway’ party on the pool deck on Wednesday night, it was very rowdy but – partly as a result of my afternoon doze – I stayed until we set sail just after midnight.

Thursday was a ‘sea day’ and while we’d expected the ship to be quieter, I suspect they filled it with cheap offers across South America. I spent much of the day on deck and some down in the bar, reading my book.

It was ‘formal’ night in the restaurant, so I was suited and booted (well, wearing a ‘proper’ shirt and jacket) although fellow diners bemoaned that it was less formal than other shipping lines.

After dinner I returned to my cabin; I discovered, to my cost, that my drinks in Havana (or, I suspect, the ice cubes) have come back to haunt me. Thankfully I’d packed Imodium, but I took it easy on Friday.

On Friday the ship visited Belize, anchoring several miles offshore. I wasn’t expecting much and was neither disappointed nor impressed.

I found a suitable – cabin baggage acceptable – bag for my return trip.

A (fake) Mont Blanc cabin bag.

I’d thought that my days of buying more luggage while away were past, but the logistics of leaving ones cabin before lunchtime but not leaving the ship until nearly six requires some careful thought. And yes, I’ve bought a few T Shirts, summer’s coming.

Then back to the ship and up on deck to catch some sunshine, I ordered a Tequila Sunrise – which is what I was drinking when first met Val – and another Beatles track came on the sound system.

Roatan really looked like a classic ‘tropical island’ as we approached. After the various recommendations from my friend Jason, there were five of us heading over to the Argentine Bar on West Bay, Roatan.

We’d agreed to leave the ship at about ten and get a cab there; the cab agreed to $100 dollars return, and access to the (private) beach – with WiFi, sun beds, parasols and showers was a further ten bucks.

Lunch was, frankly, awesome – an 8oz Argentine Fillet Steak and half a lobster, for about twenty quid.

My friend Jason had described that particular beach as his favourite place on the planet.

I’d perhaps moderate that as my new favourite place in the Western Hemisphere. I can think of (or remember) places in Thailand that come close.

It had been one of the best days I’ve experienced for a very king time.

The Captain played ‘Nessun Dorma’ over the ship’s speakers as we left Roatan, then three long blasts on the ship’s horn.

I crashed out early.

Sunday’s port of call was ‘Costa Maya’ – about seventy miles south of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula; described by MSC as ‘the gateway to the Mayan ruins’.

Various excursions were offered to Chichen Itza, Tulum and other, less well known, ruins.

Val and I had visited Chichen Itza back in 1998, and a look at Google maps didn’t reveal anything worth leaving the ship for, so I’d decided to stay aboard.

The view from deck reassured me that I’d probably made the right decision. It looked grim. I seem to recall that Cozumel was built around a cruise ship terminal, so maybe, in twenty years, this might be worth visiting, but not now.

It actually took over half an hour to bring the ship alongside the jetty and we’d heard that two weeks earlier they’d missed the stop, but I guess the potential loss of excursion revenues swayed the captain’s decision.

I spent the day on deck, in the pool, hot tub and bar, life’s a bitch, sometimes,

Dinner on Sunday night was ‘Mediterranean Evening’, the food was okay, but my fellow diners insisted on partaking of the ‘Souvenir Limoncello’ – served in an MSC branded shot glass. It was only afterwards we realised there was a €7.50 cost (plus 15% service charge), ah well.

It was very windy on deck, so I joined some Brits in the bar for a pleasant couple of hours, then a sound sleep until I was woken at six by the ship manoeuvring into Cozumel. We docked at six thirty, then an hour later the ‘Disney Fantasy’ moored alongside. She towers over the ‘Opera’, several decks higher and with transparent water flumes that seem to pass through the ‘funnels ‘.

The Celebrity Infinity, Glory of the Seas and Carnival of the Seas were docked at the other terminal. There was at least one ‘Whale Tail’ down the strip.

I wandered off, mid-morning, bought a few bits and found myself in the ‘old’ Hard Rock Cafe. I bought a T shirt and magnet and was awarded a ‘free’ beer, then bought a couple more beers and then a couple of shot glasses – whoops, again.

I was back on-board mid-afternoon and enjoyed a few drinks with several Brits that I’d met over the past couple of weeks.

We set sail at five thirty, to the strains of ‘Volare’. My case was duly put out and clothes laid out to go into my new bag to allow me to change before departure.

Tuesday dawned to a millpond smooth sea with no trace of wind. We docked in Havana mid-morning.

The afternoon was spent on deck, enjoying the last of the sun before I changed into my travelling togs. We left the ship just before six and despite the best attempts by the Cuban authorities to thwart us, were through to the departure hall by seven.

That left us three hours to kill, but thankfully I had the twenty CUCs from earlier. I bought a bottle of rum in the duty-free shop (eight CUCs) and an ever increasing group of Brits ensconced themselves in the bar drinking local beer at two CUCs a can until the money ran out.

Our flight left slightly late, but the captain advised that we should make good time back to Madrid. It was a bumpy ride, but I got a few hours sleep and as predicted, we landed at Madrid half an hour ahead of schedule, negotiated the security checks and five Brits found ourselves in the VIP lounge.

Unfortunately, Madrid Barajas was hit by a torrential storm that delayed our departure by over two hours.

The delayed takeoff meant we didn’t get into Gatwick until six, but thanks to Jeremy’s diligence I was home on the stroke of eight… not bad going.

All un all a pleasant enough trip, some new countries visited, sights seen, and interesting people met.