This week, Norwegian Sky became the first ship in the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet to visit Cuba. With 2,004 passengers, it also became the largest cruise ship targeted to American passengers to visit Havana since travel restrictions to Cuba eased. Onboard for the historic visit, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings President and CEO Frank Del Rio, a Cuba native who left with his family 55 years ago to move to the United States, called the journey “emotional,” while many passengers celebrated stepping foot for the first time in Havana.
Cruise Critic is onboard Norwegian Sky on its inaugural visit to Cuba, which began Monday from Miami and returns Friday. Check out our first impressions.
More and more cruise ships are visiting Cuba; in fact, as Sky pulled in, we saw two smaller ships already in port — virtually unheard of even six months ago. But what sets Norwegian Sky apart from the others is its itinerary: The ship sails four-night cruises from Miami, and it overnights in Havana. The ship spends nearly two full days in Cuba’s capital, and passengers can experience the culture during the day before dipping into the vibrant nightlife.
On our cruise, it meant a visit to the famous Tropicana Club, a nearly 80-year-old cabaret venue that A-list celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart flocked in the decades before the Cuban revolution. During the day, we had time to take an excursion to learn about the county’s art and cooperative artists, and we still were able to explore the city on our own on foot — and by classic car taxi cab — and to try out Havana Club mojitos.
Norwegian pairs its Cuba itinerary with a visit to Great Stirrup Cay, the cruise line’s private island. It’s a solid combination that has passengers packing in activities for two days before enjoying a relaxing beach day.
Sky is the only Norwegian ship that includes a drinks package in its cruise fare. It’s not just a deal that runs on a limited basis. On our trip, passengers seemed to appreciate the more inclusive nature of the sailing, as evidenced on the first day, which included one of the more spirited sailaway parties we’ve seen onboard a ship. The package is decent, covering drinks up to $15 each. Drinks over $15, which use more premium spirits, are reasonably priced, mostly under $5. One complaint: Bottled water is not included in the package, and on sailings to the Caribbean, it’s a necessity. (For the caffeine fiends, specialty coffees and Red Bull also aren’t included.)
One touch we love: The ship offers a huge variety of mojitos, playing off the traditional mint cocktail from Cuba. Bartenders also make a mean shaken daiquiri, and menus include suggestions for other Cuban cocktails (pretty much all of them made with rum).
At 2,004 passengers, Norwegian Sky is big, but not too big. Our sailing, which was primarily American couples (and virtually no kids), felt right-sized. The ship is easy to navigate, with the right number of bars and restaurants. Not surprisingly, passengers congregate on the pool deck, which is more quiet during the day while the ship was docked in Havana. The ship is comfortable and the staff is uber-friendly.
Still, this is not a new ship. It debuted in 1999, then became Pride of Aloha. Yet it still very much has a Hawaiian theme when it comes to decor and art, which is a bit out of step with the current destination. The ship also is showing wear, especially in hallways and cabins, which are dated. We love many of the things that come with a ship built in this era — especially the gorgeous teak decks, oversized outdoor aft spaces and large balconies — but it feels a bit worn. Del Rio has pledged to refurbish all the ships in Norwegian’s fleet as part of $400 million project dubbed Norwegian Edge, and Sky has a dry dock in its future, though a schedule hasn’t been released.
As with most Norwegian ships, dining in the ship’s buffet and main dining room restaurants is included, but you’ll pay extra if you want to eat at any of the ship’s specialty restaurants. Passengers onboard our journey recommended purchasing a dining package ahead of sailing as a way to save money and try out the various specialty venues.
For the Cuban sailing, dinner menus at the main dining restaurants included a taste of Cuba, with fritters made from malanga (a fried root vegetable) and spiced red snapper, served with plantains. Traditional Cuban cocktails were served. Many people at our table tried the Cuban options and were happy with the choices; it was excellent. We wish the ship offered more Cuban dining options in other restaurants and at other mealtimes. We were craving the Cuban culinary experience (and Norwegian Sky nails it with drink offerings) and hope the menu continues to evolve as Sky makes future visits to Havana.
Hit the pool deck, and you’ll hear almost nothing but Latin beats, including perhaps the most famous Cuban song, Guantanamera. It’s the perfect vibe, and it’s virtually nonstop, with a mix of DJ and live music. The music theme extends to many of the other lounges onboard, though not to the extent you’ll find it poolside.
What’s missing, at least for now, are pieces that fall under more toward the “enrichment” side: Latin dance lessons, Cuban lecturers or cooking or cocktail-making demonstrations. Sadly, this is a side-effect of the brilliant itinerary, which has passengers hitting the ground running in Havana immediately. Still, we’d love to learn the merengue or the bachata, especially after seeing the entertainers at the Tropicana.