Reading Time: 6 minutesI ticked off three items from my bucket list, all starting with ‘C’- Cruise, Caribbean and Cuba – when I recently voyaged the Caribbean Sea aboard luxury vessel MSC Opera.
MSC Cruises offers this 8-day schedule, which starts and ends at the Cuban capital Havana, providing ample opportunity to explore Cuba and its life, fall in love with the beauty of the Caribbean and get indulged by the on-board life on the sea.
This was my maiden venture on a luxury ship, and so stepping inside the 65,591 ton and 274.9m long MSC Opera was like a happy exploratory mission for me. Despite its advanced years, the liner strikes as pretty appealing and modern, reflecting Italian and Mediterranean touches in décor. While the lobby and the reception create the first impression of a luxury abode, the rest of the features and facilities assure guests a grand experience.
The medium-size ship has 13 deck levels, each named after a celebrated opera like La Traviata, Rigoletto and Otello, accommodating 2,679 guests in their 1,075 cabins. Amenities include minibar, a safe, wardrobe and satellite television. There are over 700 crew members to look after guests and make their odyssey as comfortable as possible.
Life on the ship is different to that on land, but MSC Opera has almost everything contained within its hull, so that nobody misses anything. The on-board facilities include shopping outlets, duty free goods, library, several bars and lounges for socialising to even a disco, casino and a cigar room where connoisseurs gather to sample the best Cuban and Dominican cigars with cognac. The ship also has dedicated play areas for the children to make this cruise suitable for a perfect family vacation.
Fine dining is always a highlight of any cruise and this ship is no exception. There are four restaurants which serve gastronomical delights of all kinds, though Italian cuisine gets a bit of upper hand, considering the Italian roots of the cruise line. While La Caravella and L’Approdo offer elegant fine dining, a huge international buffet is offered at the Le Vele venue for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The last one, Il Patio, is open for pizzas and burgers for almost 24 hours.
And to shed off the extra kilos gained from various culinary indulgences, the ship is well equipped with a modern gym, swimming pools, jogging track, spa, massage and sauna facilities.
There is no shortage of things to do on board, thanks to the wide variety of state of the art leisure and recreational facilities, the main drawcard being Broadway-style shows, such as Romeo and Juliet and Lipstick at the plush theatre Teatro dell’Opera which can seat over 700 guests.
One of the great appeals of a cruise holiday is that without a lot of unpacking or changing rooms and bed, it’s possible to explore a new destination every day, generating a great interaction between land and water.
After leaving Havana and one full day at sea to enjoy endless blue of the Caribbean Sea, the ship touches shores of Belize, Honduras and Mexico for some exiting excursions that showcase the culture, history and natural wonders of the region.
The moment the word Caribbean is uttered, images of turquoise blue sea surrounding sun-kissed islands come to mind. That’s exactly what I encountered while cruising the Caribbean Sea, quite similar to the panoramas seen on TV.
The first stop – Isla de Roatan – is the largest of the three Bay Islands of Honduras. Once ruled by Spanish conquistadors and British pirates, this small island, 50km long and barely 4 km wide, is surrounded by stunning coral ridge, said to be second best to the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the ideal place for those looking for a perfect tropical vacation with plenty of aqua-oriented things to do such as diving, snorkelling, swimming and kayaking and even rainforest walking and zip lining. Or you could simply relax at a beach with a book to read and rum-fueled cocktail to sip.
Next comes Belize City, where every day several cruise ships bring in over 15,000 visitors to give them a taste of Belize, the only country in Central America with a British colonial legacy and the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The Calypso Train Tour is the best way to explore within a short time the colourful sights, sounds and history of this settlement, once packed with white colonisers and their slaves. The landscape displays a delightful blend of old and new. The most touristy site is the St John’s Cathedral and the Swing Bridge, which is said to be the only manually operated bridge of its kind in the world still in operation. Many of the city’s businesses are owned by people of Indian origin who were brought by the British during colonial times.
Ruins of Maya Empire, which enjoyed its heyday between third and tenth centuries, are a great lure for any western Caribbean journey and this cruise schedule allows to sample some of them when stopping at the ports of Costa Maya and Cozumel in Mexico, before returning to Havana. Built in a stepped pyramid shape, the temples and palaces in Chacchoben and Kohunlich in Costa Maya and Tulum in Cozumel testify the extraordinary artistic talents of the Mayans.
Cuba for years has been like a forbidden fruit. So craving for the destination has always been enormous among savvy travellers. As a result, with doors now open for visitors, it has emerged as one the most sought-after destinations on the tourism circuit. Though famous for cigars, rum, Castro and the big and colourful American cars, the socialist nation has lot more to offer beyond these stereotyped Cuban images. Perhaps the most appealing feature is its cultural eclecticism which integrates centuries of colonial history, darkness of slavery, pomp and grandeur of the American influence and elements of the revolution. Capital Havana provides an amazing insight into all of these.
The 500-year-old city at present appears time worn and dilapidated, but the imposing buildings, hilltop citadels, grandiose squares and cobbled streets harken back to the glory days of old.
Most of these historic buildings, estimated to be around 900, are located around plazas in the old part of the city, called Habana Vieja. While the Cathedral de San Cristobal de la Habana is unquestionably the architectural showstopper, there are old palaces, mansions and churches in every corner. The ambiance is electrifying, filled with the aroma of cigars and beats of pulsating music that combine Spanish guitar and African drums.
No visit to Cuba is complete without an insight into its revolutionary chapter dominated by legacies of Jose Marti, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Havana is filled with statues and billboards of them, but the best place to know more about the revolution and the lives of these three revolutionaries is the Museo de la Revolution. This historical repository resides inside the earlier Presidential Palace, not far from the Capitolio Nacional, former seat of Cuban Congress, built during post WWI sugar boom, replicating Washington DC Capitol Building. Many ride an American Cadillac to go between the two iconic sites, just to tick off the ride in one of those cars which perhaps can now be found only in automobile museums.
Getting There: Fly Qantas (www.qantas.com) to Lima in Peru with change of aircraft at Santiago in Chile and then TACA Airlines (taca.alternativeairlines.com) to Havana.
Havana Stay: At the centrally located, 178 room, Mercure Sevilla La Habana (www.mercure.com), where many famous people have stayed since 1908.
Cuba Visa: Australian passport holders need a 30 day, single entry ‘tourist card’ which can be obtained from the tour operator or the airline flying to Cuba; alternatively from Cuban Embassy in Canberra
Money: The currency for outsiders in Cuba is Cuban Convertible Peso (CUP). Rate is 1 Euro = 1.13CUP