It was to be a starter cruise. A quickie cruise. A get-your-feet-wet cruise for my 10-year-old niece, departing out of Tampa and meandering in a desultory fashion to Cozumel, Mexico, a no-there-there destination I'd already visited a couple of times. (Okay, there's Señor Frog's, but I'm a grownup, so it doesn't count.) A few weeks after booking, Carnival sent us an update.
The itinerary had changed. We were going to Cuba.
There was much rejoicing and a flurry of cigar orders from friends. And then on June 16, President Donald Trump's administration lowered the boom, vowing to undo President Barack Obama's lifted restrictions.
What would this mean for our Carnival cruise?
Would we still go? And would we be able to fulfill our growing number of Cohiba orders?
Yes and yes.
Here's what you need to know.
The Carnival Paradise, which added Havana as a destination port on June 29, has cruises scheduled until September 2018, so Carnival is bullish about the destination. (Royal Caribbean's Empress of the Seas also cruises from Tampa to Havana.)
Until revised regulations are official, U.S. (including Cuban-born) and international guests are eligible to travel to Cuba from the United States if they meet one of 12 categories of authorized travel — the salient one: "Educational activities, including People-to-People exchange programs." All cruisers, including kids, have to fill out a travel affidavit before boarding. You're going to check the one of the boxes on the "Educational Activities and P2P Travel" section, called the "Self-Guided People-to-People Exchange" box (515.565b), which means you intend to spend eight hours having meaningful interaction with Cuban folks.
In my case, the meaningful interaction involved rum, beans and rice, cigars, some live music and visiting historic sites and an arts colony on a bus excursion. You must bring a passport (a driver's license or birth certificate is not a substitute), and you are required to have a visa to enter Cuba. This "Tarjeta Turistica" visa, $75 per person, is provided by the cruise line, but guests must physically present the filled-out visas (they are two-sided) to the Cuban authorities. Guests who were born in Cuba or are traveling for specific reasons (journalists, etc.) need to obtain nontourist card visas. Call the Cuban Embassy at (202) 797-8518 for details.
The Carnival Paradise docked overnight, which meant we technically could have done a full-day people-to-people activity the first day, then gone back into town that night to the Buena Vista Social Club (music, cocktails, dinner) or Tropicana Club (cabaret, fancy headdresses), and then back into town the next morning. For Carnival cruises, evening shore excursions do not comply with the people-to-people guidelines (meaning you have to do a daytime one), and on the second day you must participate in two to three hours of people-to-people activities to be in compliance. Other cruise lines have slightly different definitions of what activities are compliant.
Our shore excursion was about $100. But then things start to get pricey. There are two types of currency in Cuba, the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuban Peso). The CUC is the currency used by tourists, and the CUP is used by locals. The exchange rate is one to one, dollar to CUC. To exchange money, there is a 10 percent tax from the Cuban government, plus a 3 percent exchange fee (and then another 3 percent if you need to change money back to American dollars at the end of your visit). You can exchange money at the cruise terminal in Havana, as well as at hotels and banks. Make sure you exchange enough, because while technically some U.S. credit cards and debit cards are accepted now, most places don't accept credit cards at all.
Even if you're on a cruise-organized excursion, the cruise line does not include gratuities for ground tour guides, drivers or waiters. So, you've got to do it: Tip a national guide 4 to 6 CUCs per person, a site-specific guide 1 or 2, a driver 2 CUCs, waitstaff 10 percent of the total bill and bathroom attendants .50 CUCs per person. (Oh, and bring toilet paper, because it's not always available. You also may find a toilet seat missing from time to time.)
We didn't find a whole lot to buy. Rum, cigars and those hipster straw hats (3 CUCs!). You're allowed to bring 100 Cuban cigars and 1 liter of alcohol back into the United States before you start paying a customs duty tax. That tax ends up being about 30 U.S. cents per cigar and $3 per bottle of alcohol.
Things to bear in mind
• Obviously, leave valuables on the ship, but bring your passport and visa, your stateroom key and a copy of the onboard daily bulletin that will have emergency phone numbers for cruise line officials, just in case you run into trouble. Also, grab bottled water on board, bring a hat and sunglasses and wear comfy shoes. Cellphone function depends upon your carrier and plan.
• You do not need any inoculations before visiting Cuba. Cuba requires guests to pay a Cuba Health Insurance fee, but you pay this to the cruise line along with taxes, fees and port expenses.
• Snacks: You can bring snacks with you, but they must be in sealed bags when you depart the ship. No agricultural products (fruits, etc.) are allowed to hop off the ship.
• Accessibility: I'm not going to sugarcoat it. If you're not super ambulatory, this could be a tough place for a shore excursion. Lots of rough pavement and very few elevators to upper floors.
• Cuba is a poor country. Two CUCs as a tip here and there can make a significant difference in locals' day-to-day lives. Many of the people on my cruise brought toys, markers, calculators, flashlights and other trinkets to give as gifts to kids they encountered. I'm not sure if the Cuban government is enthusiastic about this development, but the kids sure seemed to enjoy it.
In the end
What we intended as a starter cruise for a 10-year-old ended up as a starter of another sort: our maiden foray onto Cuban soil.
The benefit of doing it as part of a cruise is twofold. You're paying someone else to make sure the paperwork is done effectively and your activities are in compliance. And, it's super brief. With a scant 24 hours in port, it's an opportunity to see if this heretofore inaccessible destination is your cup of tea.
My three-generation posse might not have been so bold as to book a quick Havana trip in advance of more stringent regulation changes — Carnival did the heavy lifting for us, streamlining the details of this little piece of Paradise.
Laura Reiley is the Times' food critic. Contact her at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.