Last summer my mother-in-law excitedly called and let us know that she had found a great deal on a trip she had been dying to take. We have all traveled together in the past and it has made for some wonderful memories, so she asked if we wanted to go with her to CUBA on a 5 day cruise. How could we say no to that? She needed to know right away so she could secure the great price and so the next day we all committed to going to Cuba for Spring Break 2019. I have always wanted to go to Cuba (especially before it got too Americanized) and so this was a dream come true for me too! I have had so many people ask me about our trip and there are so many questions about Cuba that I thought I would write a little (big #sorrynotsorry) blog about our experience. Many of these photos are from our phones and they are a conglomeration of photos from everyone so I can’t claim credit for all of these.
We got to Florida a day early to make sure we didn’t miss the boat so we had some time in Florida to hit the beach and hang out together. It was wonderful.
Once we got onboard the ship, we acquainted ourselves with the most important things (best place for drinks, best place to sit by the pool, which hot tub was the warmest, where our nightly restaurant was) and settled in. We hit the buffet and set sail around 4:30.
My selfie game was strong on this trip.
The next day was a day at “sea”. We were probably going about 2 miles per hour as we were just going to Key West but it was fun to sit on the deck, drink fruity drinks and hang out. Chris and Paul also participated in the Sexiest Man in the World competition. They were robbed as they didn’t win, but let’s just say that a speedo was involved (there are pictures if you would like to see them but for the sake of posterity I thought it best not to include them on the internet).
Tanner is always up for a challenge and his aunt said she would pay him $10 if he would wear a tiny life jacket for 2 hours. Mission Accomplished.
Makai spent much of his time in the sun like this. He NEVER naps at home, but I am pretty sure he napped about 2 hours every day on the boat!
Jameson loves the ocean and the water and he spent so many hours doing this.
Wednesday morning we woke up in Key West. We got off the boat and hit Starbucks (so American) and made a plan for the day. Maureen and Stacey decided they wanted to do the trolley around the city so they set off to see those stops and they had a great time. Paul, Chris and I (along with the 5 kids) set out to find the beach. Let’s just say we walked a LOT that day. The kids were troopers and we finally found a great beach and hung out there. Some people broke off to ride bikes and shop, but Chris and the boys and I walked to the furthest point in the US. I am a really impatient person and the boys were DONE by this time so instead of waiting in the ridiculous line to take a picture, we hopped a nearby wall and did a quick selfie. It works, right?! For some reason we couldn’t get an uber so we walked all the way back to where we started (no food by the way which just about killed our “always hungry” kids). Thankfully CVS saved us and we got snacks and drinks and then hit a fun outdoor bar for a bit before going back on board. Take away…..we walked too much, we would totally go back as it was VERY cute and charming, and a lot of food was consumed when we got back on board. Hard to buy food when there is free food on board the ship (we are stingy parents).
Thursday morning we got up early so we could see the boat dock in Cuba. They were supposed to dock right as the sun was coming up, but they got clearance to dock early so it was still dark when we entered port (but it was still beautiful). My Mother-in-Law had done some research and instead of going with the Royal Caribbean excursions, we went with a private company for a tour (let me know if you want the name and I can get it for you). It was SO much cheaper than doing it through the cruise line. We were worried about it, but it ended up being fantastic. Later that night I talked to some folks who did do it through the cruise and they also enjoyed themselves and thought it was worth the price so I guess you can’t really lose! However, we really felt like we were supporting our guide and her business (instead of the cruise line and the Cuban government) so that was nice. We did a 4 hour walking tour with our guide Ida and had lunch at a cute little restaurant. Then we got into 3 vintage convertibles and did a driving tour of the city. It was AMAZING and everyone agreed it was their favorite part of the trip.
Ashlynn was pretty excited about her first Mojito as the drinking age in Cuba is 18. However, they stole her thunder when they served one to Makai too (didn’t even ask if he was of age). Pretty sure there was hardly any alcohol in them and they didn’t really like the taste (it was an interesting taste for sure…not like a typical mojito).
You can’t go to Cuba and not smoke a cigar, right?! Chris smoked them for me and even let Makai and Jameson have a puff (#dontjudge #greatparenting).
After the tour we headed back to the ship to eat (free food remember) and freshen up. Our boat stayed docked overnight so we could come and go all day, night and the next day which is very unusual for a cruise. Usually you are in and out of port in one day. We were thankful to be able to go into town at night and catch a little bit of the night life. We had drinks at a cafe on one of the squares and listened to an amazing band. We walked around for a bit before getting tired and heading back to the ship for more drinks (and food….pizza is open until 3 am).
Friday was cloudy and we headed into Havana early so we could do more exploring and some shopping. It rained on us a bit but thankfully the rain stopped and we were able to enjoy walking around. Because we had walked much of the city the day before we had good bearings about where things were which was super helpful. We found an indoor market with little stalls of handmade goods and we did some shopping. It is so interesting to walk around the city. Right next to a beautifully restored building is a crumbling mess. The government owns all of the outsides of the buildings and you are NOT allowed to do anything to the exterior of the building. So they really have no control about how the outside of their house/business looks. It is very interesting. I will tell you more about Cuba later.
We boarded the ship in time for lunch (catching a theme here) and then set sail for home. When we pulled into port at Fort Lauderdale on Saturday morning we awoke to emails and texts that our flight for Sunday morning had been cancelled. From then on it was a mad dash to the airport to try to change flights and figure out what to do. Let’s just say that over the next 3 days we spent hours and hours on the computer and phone trying to get home. So while it was nice(ish) to have 2 extra days of vacation…..most of it was spent in hotel lobbies on the phone or internet. We had to take 4 different flights home (between the 10 of us) including sending the 2 oldest kids on a flight ALONE but we all got home safely and had a wonderful trip.
Congratulations if you have made it this far. Read on if you want to learn more about what we learned about Cuba and about cruising in general.
Things I learned about Cuba:
- It is still a Communist country. They are all about the good of ALL of the people and the fact that they all are equal. Interestingly enough, we didn’t see any statues or tributes to Fidel Castro or his brother while we were there. Our guide made it out to sound quite good (although she definitely mentioned downsides to Communism as well).
- There is no debt (or credit cards) in Cuba. Everything is CASH only. Which can be tricky if you are traveling there as you have to have a lot of cash to pay for your hotels and food. This is why I would highly suggest going on a cruise ship to Cuba.
- Tourism only started in the late 1990’s and it has revolutionized their country. We saw a billboard of what one of the old squares looked like. It was an old looking photo and it looked like a war zone with crumbing buildings everywhere. That photo was taken in 1998. And here is what it looks like now. So they have come a REALLY long way in a really short time.
- Stray animals? There are animals wandering the streets but they are pets. They all had laminated triangles hanging from their necks with their names written on it. Our guide said it was mostly for the tourists so that they don’t think they are stray animals. Isn’t that funny!
- Cars. There are so many beautiful OLD American cars in Havana. This is because up until 2 years ago there was not a single car dealership on the island of Cuba. They have had to just maintain these old cars and they have jerryrigged them and restored them to perfection. The only other kind of car you see is the old Russian cars. But for the most part, people either walk or take public transportation.
- Phones. Just in the last few years they have gotten cell phones. However, these phones are very expensive and have no internet or wifi capabilities. They are mostly used for emergencies and only for those that can afford them (remember no debt or credit). It was refreshing to see people reading, listening to music and interacting with each other at the bus stops and restaurants because they aren’t glued to screens.
- Upsides and downsides. Our guide had recently come off of a year paid maternity leave. How awesome is that? Also, if there is a natural disaster, the government will move you to a safer place until your place is fixed up. College is paid for, you get a monthly food stipend (although it isn’t really enough to live off of) and buses are free. However, if you want to purchase a house, you have to pay in cash and that is really difficult to save up for. So most people live in very small, multigenerational homes.
- Business. In the last few years the government has loosened up on having your own business. People are now allowed to open up SMALL shops and businesses (although they are heavily taxed) but that has only been in the last few years. This is kind of nice (as a tourist) if you are buying something (like cigars or food) because every shop is the same price and they aren’t trying to get you into their store or bother you on the street (as they all work for the government). If you want handmade goods or touristy stuff, these small businesses can now cater to that and I think it is doing a wonder for the people. Our guide took a risk and is now doing “private” (meaning non-government) guides and is able to make more money and she gets the tips. It has made a huge difference for her family.
- Their tourism used to be mostly in the winter as much of their tourism comes from Canada and Europe and they want to escape the cold winters. Just in the last few years (since Americans are able to come) have they had more of a year round tourism and it is helping their economy greatly. One of their biggest tourist stops is the “Jesus” statue. The wife of the leader before the Communist revolution had this statue of Jesus commissioned. It was pointed at her balcony so that every morning she could wake up to Jesus blessing her. Less than a week after the statue was unveiled, the revolution happened. They left the statue even though Communism doesn’t really allow for religion. It has become a bit of a joke as the way Jesus’ hands are looks like he is holding a cigar and drinking a Mojito which are the two things that Cuba is most well known for. Funny, right?!
- The food. We ate one meal in Cuba and it was pretty good. Our guide made sure to tell us several times that she would point out the “safe” places to eat. Which leads me to believe there are some not so great places to eat. As it was….the 3 people who ate the beef dish at lunch were all up in the middle of the night with some diarrhea. You can, however, go to the bar where they invented the Mojito. It was crazy crowded and therefore we didn’t go in, but it was fun to see. They have people sign the walls there because our guide said long ago they couldn’t afford to paint it so they asked people to sign the walls to “decorate” it.
Things I learned about Cruising:
- Do it. It is awesome. You get to see several ports without having to unpack.
- Food. Having all of your food included is SO wonderful especially if you have growing boys. Our oldest son ordered TWO fancy dinners every night. One night he had 2 lobster tails and a giant piece of salmon (not to mention shrimp cocktail and other sides/desserts). He also broke his record for ice cream cones. Previously he had 51 ice cream cones (and that was on a 7 day cruise) so 52 in 5 days was quite the accomplishment. I am so proud.
- Bring chip clips to secure your towel (thus saving your pool chair). Thanks Stacey for packing these!
- Lanyards. In order to access your room, drinks and other things on board you have to have your key card (like a hotel key). Each person has their own key. If you have children (or are partial to losing things) you should bring a lanyard. Go to guest services and they will put a hole punch in your card and you can wear it around your neck. It is a life saver. Of course you can buy a lanyard on board for $20 each….or you can bring one from your hoard at home for FREE!
- If you can….get a balcony. Our previous 2 cruises we were able to have a balcony and we didn’t with this cruise. We had a porthole (which is also key…don’t ever get an inside room) which helped but the balcony makes your room feel so much bigger and it is glorious to sit out there at night or morning and watch the ocean go by. This particular cruise was a smaller cruise ship (although the largest that Cuba will accept as they have lots of rules about tourism) so they didn’t have many balconies at all.
- Getting your sea legs is easy……getting your land legs back is REALLY hard. It has been over a week since we have been on the boat and I still have moments of Vertigo and feel like I am swaying. So if you are apt to sea sickness, you need to keep taking that Dramamine after the cruise is over.
- Make sure to fly in the day before your cruise. You don’t want to miss getting on the boat because your flight was delayed or cancelled. Better to play it safe than to miss getting on your cruise.
- Be prepared to get your steps in!!! Most days I was over 14,000 steps and one day my husband got over 24,000 steps. At least that is helpful when you are eating (and perhaps drinking) like a king!!!
- It is great when you need/want to be unplugged. We had no outside communication for several days which was awesome (except when they cancelled our flight home and we didn’t know about it for several days and couldn’t make other arrangements). Our kids (and let’s be honest….the adults) were not on screens at all. No one could work. No one could instagram and it was glorious. We got great face to face time with our family and extended family.
- This is now our 3rd cruise as a family. Our first cruise was a Disney cruise and it kind of ruined all other cruise lines for us. If you can afford to go on a Disney Cruise DO IT!!!! Your money is well spent. However, they are double the price of (most of the time) most other cruises so I can understand why it might not be an option. The staff can’t be beat, the amazing things they have for the kids is unbelievable and they include a lot of things that other cruises don’t (like soda is included and unlimited instead of having to pay for it like with other cruise lines). They also had 2 phones in each room that you can call and text onboard. Which is SUPER helpful when you are on a giant ship and you can’t use your cell phone. Our boat had NO form of communication and we ended up walking a lot more and chasing each other around the ship.
Phew. That was long. Sorry about that. I feel like I barely scratched the surface but I have been writing this blog for about 4 hours today. And for those of you who made it to the end of this…..here is your reward. I think this might be my favorite picture of the trip. Thank you Mimi for the trip of a lifetime!!!
Want to hear more about our family shenanigans? Check out this post about our trip to Costa Rica a few years ago.