The 1,200-passenger Celestyal Crystal now features a completely Cuban focused cruise itinerary year-round.
With the twin announcements from Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) that their brands have been authorized by the Cuban government to begin cruises to the island, Cuba continues to be the new focal point of Caribbean cruising. But another line, Celestyal Cruises, has already begun offering year-round sailings in Cuba, after being in the Cuba market for the past three years.
The Cypriot-owned line formerly known as Louis Cruises is now in its fourth season in Cuba using the 1,200-passenger Celestyal Crystal. The ship began sailing seven-day Cuba itineraries year-round on a people-to-people cruise and land itinerary out of Montego Bay and Havana on Nov. 18. Celestyal Crystal previously featured Cuban itineraries in the winter and Greece-Turkey itineraries in the summer.
Celestyal sailings feature interactions with Cuba’s people, culture and customs; visits to UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites; and Cuban cuisine and music onboard. For U.S. travelers, Celestyal says its people-to-people itinerary meets current U.S. legal requirements for a full-time program of educational and cultural exchange activities. Special shore excursions have been designed to comply with OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) regulations.
Celestyal provides an all-inclusive sailing including all meals on board, drinks, entertainment (including a Cuban entertainment staff), gratuities, internet, and selected excursions. American travelers are automatically registered for the People to People program.
The cruise embarks every Monday from Havana and every Friday from Montego Bay, Jamaica. Ports of call include Havana (two nights), Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Punta Frances. Guests also can embark from Havana, an option sold by Celestyal’s tour operator partners that can include pre- or post-stay options in the Cuban capital.
Celestyal Crystal departs Montego Bay Fridays at 8 pm, arriving in Santiago de Cuba at 7 a.m. on Saturday, before departing at 3 p.m. It spends a day at sea on Sunday, before arriving in Havana at 8 a.m. on Monday. It departs Havana at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, so guests get to spend two nights in the city. The ship arrives in Punta Frances at 1 pm on Wednesday, departing the same day at 6 p.m. On Thursday, the ship arrives in Cienfuegos at 7 a.m., departing at 3 p.m. the same day. It returns to Montego Bay at 8 a.m. on Friday.
Celestyal Crystal was originally built as the cruiseferry MS Viking Saga in 1980 in Finland for Rederi Ab Sally. In 1986 she was renamed MS Sally Albatross, and rebuilt into a cruise ship the following year. The ship was destroyed by a fire in 1990, and completely rebuilt in Finland. She was re-delivered in 1992, still named Sally Albatross, then rebuilt again in 1994 as the MS Leeward for Norwegian Cruise Line. She also sailed as MS SuperStar Taurus for Star Cruises, MS Silja Opera for Silja Line and spent a year laid up as MS Opera.
The ship entered service with her current owner in 2007, rebranded as MS Cristal sailing under the Louis Hellenic Cruise Lines brand. As part of Louis Cruise Lines’ rebranding as Celestyal Cruises, announced in November 2014, the ship was renamed Celestyal Cristal and received a new livery. Starting in November 2015 new balconies were added to cabins on decks 6 and 7. The ship now has 44 balcony junior suites, eight balcony suites and two Imperial balcony suites; in total 54 suites have balconies.
So far Celestyal Crystal is the only ship sailing on a completely Cuban itinerary except for the Adonia, now part of Carnival’s Fathom brand, which alternatives its Cuban itineraries with cruises to the Dominican Republic. Carnival Corp. earlier this month announced Adonia will be returned to its P&O brand and replaced by a ship or multiple ships from other Carnival brands, but the Cuban government has yet to approve port calls by any other Carnival ships.
Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean most likely will include Cuban ports as part of a longer Caribbean cruise itinerary, instead of sailing full-time to multiple Cuban ports like Celestyal Crystal. NCLH brands Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas have all received approval from the Cuban government to operate cruises to Cuba.
Oceania Marina is set to debut its first sailing to Havana out of Miami on March 7; Regent’s Seven Seas Mariner will call on Havana during two cruises in April 2017; and Norwegian Sky will offer a selection of four-day voyages that overnight in Havana in May 2017.
RCCL said both its Royal Caribbean International and Azamara Club Cruises brands have been approved to sail to Cuban ports from Florida by the Cuban government, but the company has yet to announce any itineraries. MSC Cruises also offers Cuban ports of call as part of Caribbean itineraries.