Cruising to Cuba

dsc_0334Thanks to President Obama US citizens can visit Cuba on cruises offering a people-to-people educational itinerary.  Hopefully as President Trump works down the list, attempting apparently to undo everything Obama accomplished, he will see the wisdom and economic potential, for the Trump brand and everyone else, of expanding our relations with our nearest neighbors and lift the Embargo completely.

Pearl Cruises little 210 passenger ship PEARL MIST was the second US cruise ship to go to Cuba and I was privileged to be the Destination Lecturer on the third and fourth voyages.

Little PEARL MIST is the ideal ship with which to visit Cuba.  All the big boys, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, are busy making plans to overwhelm the limited port facilities of Havana, but are too large to visit some of the really fantastic ports that we visited.  We enjoyed Havana, but also beautiful Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

dsc_0349MSC, a European line with mostly non-North American passengers, was already overwhelming Havana dumping hordes of passengers into the tiny terminal, a grim foretaste of cruise lines turning Havana into just another Nassau, St Thomas, or St Martin.  Fortunately Pearl’s small ship was able to get into Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba and experience more of Cuba than just the big, yet fascinating, capital city of Havana.

My advice is GO NOW!  See Cuba before it is overrun with mega ships disgorging thousands of passengersdsc_0291.  Yes, there are some hassles.  Is Cuba ready for prime time?  No.  But if you want to experience Cuba, now is the time to go.  There is one tour operator in Cuba: run by the government.  The guides work for the government, so some are great and some of them must have a relative with “connections.”  The tour buses are all made in China, brand new, spotless, with working rest rooms, probably the best tour buses anywhere in the Caribbean and Central America.

But working with the government is a challenge.  You quickly realize that your are not in Kansas anymore.  There are last minute changes and adjustments. Long lines in Havana, mostly   because of the huge MSC ship dumping its guests, to get to rather grim and sometimes surly immigration folks.  Sometimes in the other ports there weren’t even immigration and custom officials on duty, and those who were seemed to enjoy their jobs.  Maybe it’s just a big-city boredom thing.  But poor Pearl Seas Cruises had to seemingly constantly adjust because you go where, and when, the government permits.

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The crew on Pearl Mist is incredible. And this crew, unlike on the big ships, is a team that has worked together for years, seems to really love their jobs and enjoy the guests and taking care of them.  On big ships crew members are constantly coming and going, so it’s harder to create and maintain a team.  The food is very good, open seating, dine with whomever you wish.  The staterooms are good-sized and all with private balconies.  The stateroom rest rooms are the best I’ve encountered.  No nickle and diming here.  Drinks are all included.  Wine, beer, premium spirits, shore excursions.  No paying $3.50 plus gratuity every time you want a bottle of water. No casino, art auctions, Botox, shops, junk sales, teeth-whitening, bumper cars, water slides, climbing walls, ice skating rinks, Broadway wantabe shows, kids or lines!

At cse fares starting at $700 per person per day guests are more affluent, mostly well-educated, well-traveled, mature people who have had fascinating lives and are interesting to get to know.

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The Cuban people seem very positive about the new relationships with the US.  A hot clothing item seemed to be stars and stripes outfits.  Cubans have endured great hardships many of which have been as a direct result of the US Embargo, but there is no anti-US attitude.  Yes, some folks saw an old revolutionary sign, flaking paint on a wall with a fist marked “revolution” smashing into the US … frankly the same type of thing you might find on the wall of any run-down, impoverished US inner city where people feel forgotten by their government.  Sure, if you look hard enough and are predisposed to find something, you’ll find it.  There was discussion of a girl with a US flag as a shawl.  Some saw it as a way of “cuddling” and embracing a new US/Cuba relationship, while a few saw it offensive because it violated the official US flag display protocol which I’m sure this gal neglected to read or access on the mostly non-existent Internet since she didn’t have an iPad.

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There were those who were offended by trash and decaying buildings. “Can’t they afford paint?” ignoring the fact that folks are struggling to live on meager salaries.  The average Cuban doctor or teacher makes the equivalent of thirty US dollars a month.  Unfortunately those folks ignored all of the renovation projects underway in a country with great fiscal challenges that struggles to get rebar and cement.  I continue to struggle to accept the North American/European fixation with trash.  Take a group to the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids and what do they come back to the ship and talk about?  Trash.

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But go to Cuba now.  It’s a work in progress, but now is the time to experience it before it is forever changed, maybe for the better and maybe not.

 

 

Exploring America

DSC_0060I’ve traveled, mostly by cruise ships, over much of the world and I thought maybe this year was a good year to stick around home and see some of North America.  Originally I had thought this summer would have been a good time to redo the Black Sea, the Bosphorus and Istanbul, one of my favorite cities. But this turned out not to be the best time to visit Turkey or the Black Sea.

Many years ago we had taken a river cruise on the lower Mississippi out of New Orleans and loved it.

When I was in seminary in Holland, Michigan I had an apartment in a home on the shores of Lake Macatawa and I would see the huge Great Lakes bulk carriers sail by the dock and I would think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to cruise the Great Lakes.  Why don’t they have cruises on the Lakes?”

We got to visit the SS KEEWATIN, one of the last passenger steamships on the Great Lakes
We got to visit the SS KEEWATIN, one of the last passenger steamships on the Great Lakes

There was a time before the railroads when cruising the Great Lakes was the way to the Midwest.  Most of the immigrants who came from Europe to burgeoning cities like Detroit and Chicago came by the Lake steamers.  Thankfully in recent years people have discovered the joys of river cruising not just in Europe, where it is booming, but also in the US.  American Cruise Lines has eight ships and offers cruises of American rivers and coastal areas.   Their sister company, Pearl Seas Cruises, is a relatively new entry that offers coastal cruises and starting later this year will also offer cruises to Cuba.

So PEARL MIST captured my attention and I jumped on the opportunity to work a cruise on the Great Lakes & Georgian Bay.

DSC_0442PEARL MIST is my kind of ship.  Only 100 or so staterooms, MUCH larger than on most ships and most with balconies.  Of all the ships I’ve been on over many years this is the first ship where I wasn’t forced into a daily intimate relationship with my shower curtain, and if I dropped the soap I didn’t have to step out of the shower or risk being impaled by the shower handle if I stooped over to pick up the soap.  Quick review: fantastic service by room steward and dining room staff.  Interesting, well for the US & Canada, ports with shore excursions that were frequently complimentary or offered at about half what you’d pay on most cruise lines.  Open seating dining and I chose to eat with a different group of folks every meal.  The food was excellent.  I guess cooking for 200 people enables you to create better food than cooking for 2,000 or more.

What PEARL MIST didn’t have: art auctions, gift shops, people hawking water at $3 a bottle … bottled water, along with beer, wine, and mixed drinks at the daily free cocktail party are included … no one hawking Botox treatments, teeth whitening, Jackie Kennedy jewelry, no wannabe Vegas shows, no pool games … well, no pool … no long lines.  Oh yes, no wine at $9 a half glass or drinks with paper umbrellas for $12.

Getting on board with only 200 is a breeze and getting on and off the ship is quick and easy.  And halfway through the cruise the crew knows your name and preferences.

A fun feature … in both lounges there is a counter with a dynamite coffee machine that will make whatever you want, espresso, cappuccino, tea, hot chocolate, double shot … you name it … and it was good coffee.  There are also piles of sodas … just help yourself, no $3 for a can of Coke plus 15% tip … piles of bottle water and stacks of bags of chips, pretzels, food bars, snacks.  Help yourself!  And … lest your starve … there are breakfast pastries, fresh-baked cookies, and afternoon cakes and sandwiches, followed by a daily free cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres.

What’s to do besides eat?  These tend to be port intensive cruises.  Almost a port every day.  In eleven days we had one “sea” day, or more accurately lake day, and I only managed to get time for three lectures.  The afternoon cocktail party goes on in both lounges and is a big deal.  These people like to visit and share. Most of the guests were retired or nearing retirement, rather well off, well-educated and well-traveled.  They were interesting folks!  One guy had been in the US Air Force, the White House wing, and had flown the Reagans around on Air Force One.  Two had captained US Navy ships.  One owned most of the funeral homes in the southeastern states.  Another gal was a mucky muck in the world of US swimming and since the Olympics were on was in her glory at the US victories.  She also had written two books on women US Navy pilots. A retired shrimper, surgeons and doctors … interesting folks.  Intelligent people and guess what … they were all smart enough to leave their US political disagreements on the dock!

OK, no Vegas wannabe shows, or kids graduated from Disney World hoping for Broadway careers.  With full days in port folks tended to turn in early.  No late night disco here.  Evening entertainment was usually an onboard duo, supplemented by local talent onboard for the night.  There were a few fun games of bingo and trivia.  As requested I came on board with six lectures, and DSC_0167bridge commentary about the Welland Canal and Mackinac Bridge as well as Mackinac Island, but only had time for three talks.  I think this group would have appreciated more lecture time and more information about the places we were visiting.

DSC_0169Highlights were cruising the St Lawrence Seaway and the Welland Canal, which unfortunately we transited the first night out so folks really didn’t have a grasp on the importance of the eight Welland Locks that get you around Niagara Falls.  Visiting the Canadian side of the Falls and cruising into Horseshoe Falls was definitely a highlight, as, surprisingly for me DSC_0360was the visit to the restored Jesuit mission complex of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons.

We had to endure the hassle of crossing the border from Windsor, Canada to Detroit to visit the Henry Ford Museum and Deerfield Village, which were definitely a highlight. Deerfield Village was as I remembered it, but the Henry Ford Museum which I had remembered as a hodgepodge collection of interesting “stuff” is now a marvelously curated and logical display of US history.

Detroit Deerfield Village 13 Detroit Deerfield Village JFK

Although I lived in Michigan and went to school there, I had never been to Mackinac Island, so for me it was definitely a highlight of the cruise.  I skipped the famous fudge, but I thoroughly enjoyed riding around the island and sitting on the porch of the Grand Hotel.

Mackinac Island 31 Mackinac Island 68

Call me strange, but if I want a climbing wall I’ll go shop at REI.  If I want bumper cars or roller coasters I’ll go to Six Flags.  If I want water slides I’ll go to a water park.  If I want a Broadway show I’ll go to New York.  I cruise for the ports and the adventure of exploring and making new and interesting friends.  And you can find that here at home without flying half way around the world.