If Cuba is on your cruise To Do list, your options have just opened up considerably.
Last month two of the world's biggest cruise companies were given approval to sail to Cuba by the Republic's government. Royal Caribbean International (which also owns Azamara Club Cruises) and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (which also owns Regent Seven Seas and Oceania) have wasted no time in whipping up itineraries that will visit the Caribbean island nation for the first time.
Unlike Americans, Australians and Europeans have been able to travel to Cuba for years and cruise lines that already operate there – or include it on their Caribbean itineraries – include Canadian-based Cuba Cruise, Italian-owned MSC Cruises, the UK's Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines and Thomson Cruises, Greek-owned Variety Cruises, Australian-British Noble Caledonia and Swedish-owned Star Clippers.
So what does this development mean for Aussie cruisers? As more ships cruise to Cuba we should see more competitive fares as well as a larger choice of ships, and itineraries that will range from round-island cruises to adding a couple of nights in Havana.
NCLH's first cruise to Cuba is on Oceania Marina, leaving Miami on March 7. Regent Seven Seas Mariner will visit Havana during two cruises in April and Norwegian Sky will offer a selection of four-day cruises that will overnight in Havana in May.
NCLH'S CEO Frank Del Rio, who was born in Cuba and emigrated in 1961 at age seven with his family to the US, said recently, "This is truly a dream come true for me and I cannot wait for our loyal guests to experience the sights and sounds of my hometown of Havana and get to know its rich culture and its warm and welcoming residents."
Royal Caribbean will start cruising to Cuba in April. The recently refurbished Empress of the Seas will offer its first five-night sailing to Cuba, departing from Miami, on April 19. The ship will offer two more itineraries with calls to Havana on April 30 and May 20.
Azamara Quest will sail to Cuba on a round-trip from Miami departing on March 21 and the line is looking at adding more ports in Cuba to its itineraries in due course.
How permanent these arrangements will be remains to be seen; incoming US president Donald Trump might change the picture again.
MEET THE CREW
NAME Roy Harley Kelly, from the UK
POSITION Food and beverage director, Princess Cruises' Emerald Princess
MY JOB I am in charge of the food and beverage operation with a team of F&B officers, the maitre d' and executive chef, who report to me. I am also responsible for ordering all food and beverage items in advance for guests and crew.
A TYPICAL DAY I start my walk-around in the early morning, visiting the F&B outlets and interacting with guests and crew to hear their comments. Then it's down to my office to follow up on the previous night's comments and the coming day's operation with the F&B team. I also check the storerooms to ensure our production areas are working to company standards. During lunchtime, there's another walk-around, checking galleys and open decks. In the evening, you'll find me food tasting in the main galley with the executive chef and his team for that night's culinary delights.
FAVOURITE CRUISE MOMENTS Sailing past world-famous landmarks such as the Opera House and the Statue of Liberty never fails to impress me.
FAVOURITE CRUISE PORT In Australia, it has to be Sydney for its beautiful sights, plus I have family there. I also enjoy Melbourne, as it has the Australian Open tennis and more family nearby.
INSIDER TIPS Focus on the enjoyment of getting to the ship, embarking and taking your first step aboard. Let us take care of the rest – as they say, don't sweat the small stuff!
When you're shopping around for your next cruise, make sure you're clear about what is and isn't included in the fare so there are no nasty bill shocks onboard.
Pathways of the Pharaohs
Starting this month, Viking River Cruises is offering specially tailored land and cruise packages that take in the ancient wonders of Egypt. The 12-day itinerary allows time to see the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx and more during a three-night stay in Cairo – among the many highlights is a hot-air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings and Queens. The four-night cruise on the Nile from Luxor to Aswan onboard MS Mayfair (pictured), explores Egyptian villages, historic temples and tombs. That's followed by a visit to the colossal temple of Abu Simbel and three nights' sailing on Lake Nasser onboard MS Omar El Khayam. "Pathways of the Pharaohs" includes guided tours with Egyptologists, traditional Nubian music and dance performances, a camel ride, and lectures on hieroglyphics and Egyptian papyrus. See www.vikingrivercruises.com.au
Gardeners' cruise world
Specialist garden and culture travel operator Botanica World Discoveries is setting the bar even higher in 2017/18 with a collection of new destinations and itineraries on small ships and river vessels. A return to botanically themed cruising on Portugal's Douro river, a first-time visit to the island of Madeira and a tour taking in Malaysia's Royal Floria Putrajaya Flower and Garden Festival are just a few of the highlights in Botanica's 2018 program. Itineraries feature more than 100 private gardens and 10 flower and garden shows, including the perennially popular Chelsea Flower Show. TV garden presenter Monty Don will return to lecture onboard an 11-day cruise of the British Isles in May 2018 – Tresco, in the Scilly Isles (pictured) is one of the attractions. See www.botanica.travel
Bottom of the world
Family-owned Patagonian cruise line Australis has released its 2018/19 season of voyages to Cape Horn and the glaciers and fiords of Tierra del Fuego. The program features the first full season of its new ship, Ventus Australis, and includes 90 four-night cruises between Ushuaia (Argentina) and Punta Arenas (Chile) from September 2018 to April 2019. Ventus Australis will be a twin sister to the popular 210-passenger Stella Australis, offering panoramic floor-to-ceiling cabin windows, a free open bar, complimentary guided excursions, nature lectures and gourmet cuisine that includes local dishes and Chilean and Argentine wines. Australis has indefinitely frozen fares at the same level as those for 2016/17 and 2017/18. See australis.com
DEAL OF THE WEEK
Sail on all three Cunard liners across two continents in 2018 with Cruise Express' new 37-night "Three Queens" fly/stay/cruise package. It features a trio of back-to-back cruises aboard Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2 in Northern Europe, the Norwegian Fiords, and a transatlantic crossing from Southampton to New York. Departing Australia May 7, 2018, fares start from $10,999 and include flights and eight nights' accommodation in London, Southampton and New York. Phone1300 764 509, see www.cruiseexpress.com.au
CELEBRITY CRUISES' annual sale is on for another couple of weeks. Book from a huge range of cruises worldwide departing between February 1, 2017 and April 30, 2018 and you can save up to $200 per person on suites, and receive a Classic Beverage Package for two people and $US300 onboard credit per stateroom (for oceanview and above). Offer ends on January 31; phone 1800 754 500, see www.celebritycruises.com.au
CRUISE TRAVELLER's 18-night fly/stay/cruise package with Voyages to Antiquity's Aegean Odyssey includes a 16-night cruise from Athens to Funchal, two nights in Athens, return flights from Australia and more. Departing April 15, fares start from $6795. Valid until February 28; phone 1800 507 777, see cruisetraveller.com.au