Exploring Cuba on sailing ship Star Flyer
Cuba had long been a destination of interest to me with its fascinating history and vibrant culture and what better way to see this amazing country than with a 2-night stay in the country's capital Havana and a 5-night tall ship sailing cruise with Star Clippers.
The combination of both a stay in Havana and a cruise with Star Clippers meant I could spend time appreciating the county's culture, experience the local food and way of life and yet also join a sailing cruise seeing the less populated parts of the country, visiting small towns and idyllic beaches in luxury accommodation with magnificent cuisine.
This itinerary began with a direct flight from London Gatwick, taking around 9hrs and arriving in Havana in the early evening. A transfer was arranged as part of the package booked, along with a stay at The Capri Hotel, in downtown Havana. The hotel, which had been recently renovated, was relatively basic but offered a good standard of 3* accommodation with all the necessary amenities and proved a good base for exploring the city.
I spent my first morning in Cuba seeing what downtown Havana had to offer, marvelling at the beautiful 1960's old American classical cars and visiting Cuba's most prestigious hotel, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Built in the 1920's the hotel really is a tremendous relic, retaining many of its original features including rooms that were once occupied by the likes of Frank Sinatra and the Italian-American Mafia.
After a traditional Cuban lunch I took the 4 hour transfer to Cienfuegos where I embarked the Star Flyer for a 5-night cruise.
I have cruised with Star Clippers before in the Mediterranean and one of the things I love about these ships is their size and informality, carrying just 170 passengers the ships are small but with plenty of space and with 70 crew on board you are offered exceptional service.
After a very quick embarkation I was shown to my category 3 cabin on the clipper deck. The cabin was well designed making good use of the space with plenty of storage and had two porthole windows letting in lots of light. The marble bathroom was very nice and the inclusion of toiletries, beach towels and a hair dryer meant I didn't have to worry about bringing these things with me! As a repeat guest I was also greeted with a bottle of champagne and a tray of fruits and chocolates ' a nice touch!
Unpacking done, there was time to spend a couple of hours seeing the sights of Cienfuegos before dinner. It was only a short walk from the ship to the centre of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage listed site which showcased some fine examples of Spanish colonial architecture, a handcraft market and a magnificent fortress.
Dinner with Star Clippers was relatively informal, with guests wearing nice evening clothes (perhaps something similar to clothing worn when dining at a restaurant in the UK), no need for cocktail dresses or jackets and ties. Guests were also free to sit where and with whom they liked, with table sizes ranging between 4 and 8. The food however really was quite a lavish affair with an extensive and always varied menu, from which you chose 5 delicious courses!
After dinner the ship set sail from Cienfuegos and guests were invited on deck to join the sail away party. I don't think it's possible to explain the magic of that moment, as I stood with a glass of champagne in my hand and the crew raised the sails to the tune of Vangelis 1492 and Star Flyer gracefully left port making her way towards Playa Ancon.
After a night under full sail and a nice hearty breakfast from a well stocked buffet we arrived into Playa Ancon where a short tender from the ship took us to a beautiful beach. Although the draw of the beach was almost too much, I decided there was plenty of opportunity to relax later and instead took a taxi to explore the nearby town of Trinidad. The town was about 20 minutes away and cost just 30 Cuba CUC for a return trip (about '25) in one of the vintage American convertibles. The Plaza Major in the centre of Trinidad was home to the picturesque Sant'sima Trinidad Cathedral, as well as a small market and pretty square with a couple of nice bars, where I enjoyed an obligatory Mojito, or two, before it was time to go back to the ship.
Our second day on board the Star Flyer was spent at sea which was a fantastic opportunity to fully relax and really appreciate being on a sailing vessel, watching the crew operate and maintain the ship. Guests were also offered the chance to climb the rigging, something I still couldn't pluck up the courage to do... maybe next time! It was also nice to enjoy a long and leisurely lunch on board, which was served as a buffet with a selection of salads, meats, hot and cold mains and a superb choice of scrumptious deserts.
Early the next morning we anchored at Punta France on the Isla de la Juventad and took a 30 minute tender to the shore. The beach here was beautiful with white sands and turquoise waters. Apart from the beach bar vendor there was not a single other soul on this beach, it really was Star Clippers' very own paradise! The day here was spent soaking up the sun and taking part in some water sports (provided from the ship's water sports team)- including snorkelling, kayaking and middle boarding.
The final day on this magnificent cruise was spent at the idyllic island of Cayo Largo where, much like the previous day, there was little else to do other than relax on the white sandy beach, unwind and enjoy the sunshine before heading back to the ship to enjoy afternoon tea and a few farewell cocktails at the Tropical Bar.
The next morning I had to say a very sad farewell to Star Flyer and her crew, who even in the short 5-days had learnt my name and my favourite tipple at the bar. Fortunately this wasn't the end of the holiday though; there was still one more night back in Havana.
After the transfer from Cienfuegos and a quick change for dinner, I set out for an evening at Cuba's oldest and most famous cabaret show, Tropicana. An outdoor tropical setting made a beautiful stage for this extravagant spectacle dating back to 1939, with its fabulous music, mesmerising dancing and exuberant costumes! A truly fantastic evening that also included free flowing Havana rum!
An evening flight on the last day left plenty of time to sleep off the previous evenings rum before taking a tour of Havana with a visit to a Cuban cigar factory and the Havana Rum museum as well as time to explore Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There was also a chance to enjoy one last Mojito, and what better place to do so than at La Bodeguita del Medio, a place visited by Ernest Hemmingway back in 1942, which, apparently, makes the best Mojitos in Cuba.
In summary a truly memorable holiday combining a fantastic cruise, seeing some of the 'real' Cuba whilst still enjoying a relaxing beach holiday and getting some winter sun! Highly recommended.
Review by Jenny, Blue Water Holidays