After a decades-long hiatus, Miami-to-Cuba cruises resumed this month with a hefty price tag, a lot of political baggage and an enormous amount of publicity. But before Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, overnight sailings to Havana were an easy way for U.S. citizens to take a "trip abroad'' and visit "the Paris of the Americas.'' That's how a 1950 brochure of the Peninsula & Occidental Steamship Co. touted its thrice-weekly cruises from Miami to Havana aboard the 725-passenger S.S. Florida.
Found recently at a Tampa Bay flea market, the brochure hearkens back to the heady postwar era when the United States enjoyed unrivaled prosperity and Havana was a favorite playground of mobsters, celebrities, politicians (including a young John F. Kennedy) and thousands of ordinary tourists.
Passports for U.S. citizens were not required, the brochure notes, while Chinese needed "special permission'' to enter and "Gypsies, regardless of nationalities,'' were barred altogether.
For just $46 per person ($456 in today's dollars), Americans could book passage through offices in six U.S. cities including Tampa and St. Petersburg. That included a stateroom with "forced ventilation, electric fans and running water;'' a "delicious dinner'' followed by dancing to the ship's orchestra and a "hearty breakfast'' before docking at 8:30 a.m. in Havana.
There, myriad delights awaited. Pictured in the brochure are smiling Americans, men in suits and women in calf-length sleeveless sheaths "strolling down the wide, beautiful boulevards, past fine homes and clubs.''
"Visit Havana's cigar factories and distilleries,'' the brochure urges. "You'll love the many sidewalk cafes . . . and quiet patios and exotic tropical gardens. Of course, you won't miss historic Morro Castle, nor the lovely old cathedrals and convents. But for all your daytime sightseeing, you'll want to take in the gay Latin American nightlife with its native music and dancing.''
Then came the 1959 Cuban revolution and overthrow of the U.S.-supported Batista regime. Miami-to-Havana cruises ended, revived only briefly during the Carter administration, then ceased again for the next several decades. Only after a historic rapprochement between the two countries in 2014 did the Obama administration allow cruises to resume for the purposes of cultural and educational exchanges.
On May 2, Carnival's Adonia became the first U.S.-owned ship to dock in Havana since 1959. Carnival offers several more cruises from Miami this year, all for seven days and including stops in two other Cuban ports in addition to Havana. Minimum charge for an inside stateroom: $1,750 per person.
As U.S.-Cuban relations further ease, Tampa Bay ports hope to get in on what is estimated to quickly become a $100 million annual industry.
These days, passports are required for U.S. citizens cruising to Cuba. Chinese are welcome — they've invested billions of dollars in the country since President Kennedy imposed the U.S. embargo in 1962 (purportedly after placing one last order for Cuban cigars). Behemoth liners three times as long as a football field have replaced ships like S.S. Florida, which was scrapped in 1968.
Some things, though, haven't changed much since the Florida steamed toward Havana every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Back then, passengers could pay an extra $35 to $50 to take their cars with them and explore "700 miles of Cuban highways.''
Due to the embargo, Cubans are still driving thousands of cars of the same makes, models and vintage.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate