The S/C Panorama yacht will sail tourists around Cuba. (Courtesy: Group IST)
Cuba, that exotic yet forbidden Caribbean fruit, has long sat so close, yet so far from American travelers’ reach. Finally, in 2011, the U.S. government reinstated its “people-to-people” program, welcoming a wave of new (though often pricey) travel options for U.S. vacationers. They can now explore the island nation on eye-opening, education-based trips focused on cultural exchange.
Visitors can sign up for guided tours with licensed travel companies. The itineraries are jam-packed with cultural encounters with local community leaders, cigar-makers, musicians, merchants, and more. A handful of travel providers are also chartering vessels to navigate the tropical isle both by land and by sea, from its faded colonial cities to its far-flung coastal isles. Caribbean cruising has never sounded so rewarding.
Trinidad, Cuba (Courtesy: Group IST)
Specialty travel provider Group IST has just announced its seven-night, Havana-to-Cienfuegos voyage around Cuba. Travelers will sail aboard the 46-passenger S/C Panorama yacht (owned by Variety Cruises), which is equipped with billowing sails, a duo of bars, a sundeck, and a swimming platform. The Panorama will sail from historic Old Havana to the pretty city of Cienfuegos (aka the “Pearl of the South”), with stops at the Spanish colonial city Trinidad, Guanahacabibes National Park, and the limestone isle of Cayo Largo.
The itinerary is supported by interpreters and Cuba experts (historians, religious leaders, artists, etc.) who engage with guests at an array of museums, religious institutions, schools, community centers, and more. Excursions might include city walking tours, art gallery visits, and a sea turtle encounter at a local breeding center.
Group IST’s guided tours include chartered roundtrip flights from Miami to Cuba; all meals, activities, accommodations, and transportation; Cuban visas; and travel medical insurance. Book one of eight sailing dates between Dec. 6, 2014, and March 28, 2015; rates start from $4,490/person, plus port taxes of $375/person. groupist.com/cuba
The MV Louis Cristal. (Courtesy: Cuba Cruise)
Canadian cruise company Cuba Cruise garnered plenty of buzz when it launched its weeklong circumnavigation sailings around Cuba in early 2013, aboard the 1,200-passenger MV Louis Cristal (chartered from Greek-owned Louis Cruises). The Louis Cristal touts all of the big-ship trappings, including lounges, restaurants (serving Canadian and Cuban cuisine), a casino, a swimming pool, and Cuban-inspired music and dance performances (as well as a Cirque du Soleil-esque aerial show) in its two-level theater.
Boston-based nonprofit travel group Road Scholar was the first U.S. company to partner with the cruise line, in January 2014, to offer American-friendly tour packages aboard their cruises. The itineraries, naturally, follow the same ports of call, but they also feature customized in-port excursions to adhere to the people-to-people program requirements. Participants take in visits to museums, cemeteries, private homes, and more.
Related: The Tastiest Cruises for Foodies
Musician in Old Havana. (Courtesy: Jeremy Woodhouse, pixelchrome.com)
Road Scholar’s 12-night “Adventures Afloat: Cuba in Depth — A Grand Voyage Around the Island” program is limited to 24 participants. It kicks off with a preflight, overnight stay in Miami and a three-night hotel stay for in-depth immersion into the highlights of Havana. An overland journey for an overnight in the city of Santa Clara is followed by embarkation on the Louis Cristal in Cienfuegos, for a five-night sailing to the isolated Isle of Youth and the port of Holguín, before disembarking for a two-night tour of the lively Afro-Caribbean-infused Santiago de Cuba.
Trips include chartered round-trip flights from Miami to Cuba; all meals, activities, accommodations, and transportation; Cuban visas; travel insurance; and gratuities. Ten departure dates are available between Dec. 22, 2014, and March 16, 2015; rates start from $4,996/person. roadscholar.org/21305
Havana (Courtesy: Cuba Tourist Board)
Insight Cuba, a leading Cuba-specialized travel company based in New York, is launching 2015 cruise-tours to Cuba, also aboard the Louis Cristal. Its 11-night “Cuba by Land & Sea” tour (limited to 24 participants) pairs a six-day land tour with a six-day sailing. Tours kick off on land in Old Havana; continue on to Playa Girón, the site of the Bay of Pigs; take in UNESCO biodiversity reserve Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata; and hit up colonial Cienfuegos, before embarking for the trip’s cruise portion. Port calls include the Isle of Youth and the port town Antilla, before disembarking in Cuba’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba.
Excursions highlight plentiful meet-and-greets with local artists and musicians; a lively visit to a local community center for Cuban-style singing and dancing; and a presentation by Cuban mechanics who maintain the country’s signature vintage cars.
(Courtesy: Group IST)
Four tour departures are planned in 2015: January 6, February 24, March 3, and March 17. Rates include a one-night hotel stay in Miami and Playa Girón; two nights’ hotel in both Havana and Santiago de Cuba; chartered round-trip airfare to Havana (from Miami); a five-night cruise on the Louis Cristal; all excursions, transportation, and meals; and travel insurance, starting from $5,495/person (excluding airfare and visas). insightcuba.com/speciality-cuba-tours/cuba-by-land-sea
For a sneak peek around the bend, the folks at Friendly Planet are also whipping up a 10-night Cuban cruise-tour of their own. It is set to launch on the heels of the travel company’s well-received three-year run of land-based, people-to-people tours in the country. They’re likewise planning to partner with Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal, which they’ll use for accommodations, transport, and onboard activities, while designing their own excursions in port, helmed by Friendly Planet guides and tour leaders.
The company is just waiting for its “people-to-people” license for Cuba travel to be renewed. If all goes as planned, look for full tour details to be announced in October, with plans for the sailings to start in January. friendlyplanet.com/vacation-packages/caribbean/cuba.html