Cuba: get out of town
Cruising to Cuba has increased by leaps and bounds since the Caribbean island nation eased restrictions for US cruise lines in 2016. According to one report, 328,000 cruise passengers visited the capital, Havana, in 2017, a 156 per cent increase over the previous year, and numbers for 2018 are expected to reach 500,000. Next year Cuba is on even more itineraries – is it possible that Havana will be the next popular port city to be loved to death?
Looking at ship visits scheduled for Havana in January 2019, MSC Cruises' MSC Opera will call four times and MSC Armonia three times; Royal Caribbean's Empress of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas three times each; Marella Discovery twice; Azamara Journey three times; NCL's Norwegian Sky twice; Oceania Cruises' Sirena twice and Insignia once; and Regent Seven Seas Voyager once. There may be more calls from smaller ships as well but that's 24 separate calls in one month from ships carrying up to 2700 passengers (Majesty of the Seas) each, which adds up to a lot of people in town when two big ships are docked on the same day.
Havana has a wealth of attractions for tourists – the streets and plazas in its atmospheric Old Town, tours of cigar and rum factories, rides in classic '50s cars, strolling along the Malecon seafront promenade, Hemingway haunts and an exciting nightlife – but if you're looking for more than one day in Cuba's busy capital, small-ship cruises are the way to go.
At Carnival Corporation's recent World's Leading Cruise Lines conference, Seabourn's president Rick Meadows talked about his line's partnership with UNESCO and the importance of its work with local ground operators to support tourism sustainability. The luxury line is sending the 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn to Cuba for the first time next year, to sail 11-, 12-, and 25-day itineraries that will call at five ports around the main island – three of which are home to five UNESCO World Heritage sites, Havana's Old City being one of them.
Staying overnight in Havana, which celebrates its 500th anniversary in 2019, offers the chance to check out the country's legendary after-dark live-music clubs and bars, as well as exploring the city by day. Seabourn Sojourn spends a day and night in Cienfuegos, UNESCO World Heritage-listed for its 19th-century architecture; the nearby Spanish colonial town of Trinidad is another must-visit UNESCO site. Other Cuban ports on Seabourn Sojourn's cruises are Santiago de Cuba, Antilla and Punta Frances, on the idyllic Isla de la Juventud. See seabourn.com.
THE PORT Stockholm, Sweden
WHO GOES THERE Azamara, Celebrity, Costa, CMV, Crystal, Cunard, Fred.Olsen, Hapag-Lloyd, HAL, MSC, NCL, Oceania, P&O UK, Princess, RSSC, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Silversea, Viking, Voyages to Antiquity, Windstar.
WHY WE LOVE IT Sailing into Sweden's capital city through a spectacular waterway dotted with innumerable islands is a major highlight for avid cruisers. Stockholm, founded in 1252, is set over 14 islands that are linked by bridges and ferries and its Old Town, Gamla Stan, is one of the biggest medieval districts in Europe. It's a tech hub second only to Silicon Valley with intriguing modern architecture and a multi-cultural population; nature-lovers don't have to go far out of the city to find parks and waterfront walkways and cycle paths.
TAKE A TOUR OR GO IT ALONE? Larger ships dock at Frihamnen, about 15 minutes' drive from the heart of the city and smaller ships dock at picturesque Skeppsbron in Gamla Stan. You can take city tours by boat, on the hop-on hop-off bus or one organised by your ship that takes in the best-known attractions: the Royal Palace, Vasa Museum, City Hall, Gamla Stan and the Ice Bar. If time permits, you can quite easily get around on foot and by local ferries. There's a variety of locally operated specialist excursions, such as a day-long Viking History tour that visits Sigtuna, the oldest town in Sweden or a subway art tour (see triple.co/Stockholm).
MUST SEE The ABBA Museum; Skansen open-air museum on the island of Royal Djurgarden (the first in the world); Fotografiska, a world-class photography museum set in a refurbished Customs building; Grona Lund Tivoli, Sweden's oldest amusement park.
MUST EAT Eating out is expensive but excellent quality, from bistros and cafes to fine-dining Michelin-starred restaurants and there are lots of international cuisines on offer. Traditional Swedish dishes include meatballs, dill-cured salmon, toast Skagen (prawns on toast topped with caviar), reindeer steak, raggmunk (potato pancakes) and desserts and cakes made with lingonberries.
NEED TO KNOW The cruise season runs from spring to autumn (April to October), with summer officially being June to August. July is usually the hottest, wettest month, when temperatures are about 22 degrees.
Carnival Cruise Line was launched in 1972 with one second-hand ship; today, it has 25 ships in its fleet with the 26th, Carnival Panorama, due in December 2019.
Tahitian cargo cruise line Aranui Cruises is adding a new destination to its 2020 program, taking its Tahiti line-up to 17 islands across all five French Polynesian archipelagos. Makatea is an untouched atoll in the Tuamotus, about 200 kilometres north-east of Tahiti, and featured in the 1990s movie Six Days, Seven Nights. Guests who join Aranui 5's 14-day cruise departing Papeete on December, 17, 2020, will receive a bonus day at no extra cost, with the cruise line throwing in a call to Makatea as a special Christmas treat. The cruise includes calls to Bora Bora in the Society Islands; Hiva Oa, Nuka Hiva, Ua Pou, Ua Huka, Tahuata, and Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas; and the regular Tuamotu ports of Rangiroa and Fakarava. See aranuicruises.com.au
Princess Cruises has launched its Local Connections program in Australia to coincide with the start of the cruise line's 2018/19 summer season. A global initiative, the Australian-based program will see the development of up to 20 new shore excursions in six ports: Broome, Perth, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide and Brisbane. Each excursion features local experts from each port who have been selected for their intimate knowledge of their region to offer guests enriching, immersive tours. Highlights include a Narlijia Heritage and cultural tour in Broome with local expert Bart Pigram, the Historic Fremantle and America's Cup tour with expert John Longley in Fremantle and In The Wild! Kangaroos and Koalas Tour from Melbourne with wildlife expert Roger Smith. See princess.com