Norwegian Sky offers time to experience Havana's delights

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The Norwegian Sky made its maiden call to Havana on May 2.
The Norwegian Sky made its maiden call to Havana on May 2.

HAVANA -- Norwegian Cruise Line became the sixth U.S.-based cruise line to sail to Cuba, bringing one of the largest ships ever to Havana, its 2,004-passenger Norwegian Sky.

The Sky made an attractive sight as it glided into Havana Harbor at sunrise, its flower-painted bow nosing into the berth provided for it at the city's single working cruise pier.

The Sky's four-day itinerary included two full days docked at the Sierra Maestra terminal in Old Havana, giving passengers ample time to explore the city. Tours included the chance to see art, visit the legendary Tropicana nightclub or motor through the streets of Havana in a classic American car.

It is the 1950s vehicles that, at first sight, differentiate Havana from every other destination in the world. It's one thing to see a few of them on display at a classic car show or museum and another to see scores of them on the move through the streets of a sizable city, in their turquoise, bright yellow and cherry-red finery.

A bartender makes mojitos at El Bodeguita del Medio, a bar that was once a favorite of Ernest Hemingway.
A bartender makes mojitos at El Bodeguita del Medio, a bar that was once a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

Cruise visitors step out from the confines of the terminal building built in 1914 onto a busy street in front of the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, created in the 16th century when Spanish galleons were the seafaring vessels of choice.

But the startling sight of a fleet of Skylarks and Impalas, not to mention a few DeSotos and Studebakers, is an answer to the question of why visit Cuba, or at least my first answer to any American tourist.

Fanning out through the narrow streets of Old Havana, there were many intriguing sights to take in. For example, we hadn't walked more than a few blocks before seeing a butcher just inside an old doorway, carving away at several sides of beef on a wooden table.

Walking was easy and, surprisingly, I had cellphone connectivity so I was able to use the map function on my phone to navigate. We made our way toward the Capitol building, modeled after the U.S. Capitol in Washington. It had been recently cleaned and is being restored.

Havana is full of grand structures. Next door to the Capitol is a Beaux Arts-style opera house, and there are plenty of other buildings to admire, built between the 17th to 20th centuries.

But just as prominent are the many decaying and decrepit buildings that haven't had much if any maintenance since the Cuban revolution in 1959. Depending on how you feel about ruins, this is either fascinating or depressing.

We broke for lunch at a shaded set of tables up a dead-end passage off Cathedral Square. I was ready to be unimpressed, but my grilled shrimp at the Rincon de Pancho was decent if not terrific. Service was slow, but the mojitos were strong, and the host could not have been more genial.

What made the stop memorable, however, were a couple of musicians playing guitar and percussion instruments and harmonizing on songs animated by the unmistakable rhythms of Cuba. It turns out just about every bar and restaurant features a combo, and all three I heard were excellent.

Our second music stop was at El Bodeguita del Medio, a tiny bar where Ernest Hemingway liked the mojitos. It doesn't have space for all the tourists who want to go there, so they spill out into the street. Hemingway's other drinking haunt, the El Floridita Bar some 10 blocks away, was also busy but not jammed.

Norwegian's overnight in Havana afforded us the chance for two magical experiences. The first was to travel at dusk in a convoy of 1950s-era cars to the Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel Castro used to give hourslong speeches during his presidency. A visit in the evening is cooler than during the day, and a giant, steel outline of the face of revolutionary Che Guevara on the side of one of the government buildings is softly backlit.

Our convoy next went to the Tropicana Cabaret, an outdoor, multilevel theater where up to 900 guests can enjoy two hours of feathers, sequins, flashy dancing and fine singing under an open sky.

A vintage car is one of the sights that differentiate a trip to Havana.
A vintage car is one of the sights that differentiate a trip to Havana. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

The following day, we took a tour of the outstanding Fine Arts museum in Havana and visited two grass-roots arts projects that were far more interesting than I had expected. At one of them, Muraleando, community activists in a blue-collar neighborhood took a giant, abandoned railroad water tank that had been used as a dump for decades and cleaned it up to become an arts center for children.

The restoration is financed by artists who sell their work in the restored concrete tank and donate 50% of their earnings to the community center.

Later that day as we sailed out the channel beneath the cannons of El Morro, sunbathers and snorkelers waved goodbye.

I couldn't help but hope that my first visit to Cuba would not be my last. But I was certain that my Old Havana meanderings and the people-to-people tours I took had given me a more nuanced view of life on this island just 90 miles from our shores.

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