by Liz Fleming

If you loved your childhood fairy tales, you’ll appreciate the magic that the MSC Opera has waiting for you in Havana, Cuba.

CubaNikada/iStock

Now and then, fairy tale plotlines have a way of playing out in real life. Take Cuba for example. Like Sleeping Beauty, the once-gracious colonial city of Havana has taken several decades to awaken from the long sleep of communism on the island but today, with governmental restrictions relaxing, and relations with the United States improving, Cuba is experiencing a big tourism boost. For the first time, a major cruise line – the Italian-owned MSC – has chosen to homeport a ship in Havana.

In December 2015, the MSC Opera began her new life in Havana and since then has spent several days each week docked in the port, offering unprecedented access to the fascinating old city. Her sister ship, the MSC Armonia, will soon join her.

MSC OperaCourtesy of MSC Cruises

Cuba is awakening.

It was more than fifty years ago - New Year’s Eve, 1959 - that the city last blazed with glittering lights of full-on capitalism. Though a popular holiday destination for sun-lovers from around the world, Cuba was mired in a web of dirty dealings with American mobsters who owned the island’s casinos, hotels and nightclubs. On January 1, 1959 President Battista was overthrown by the liberation forces of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the tourists fled and Cuba became a very different place.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the rebirth of tourism began on the island. As the Cuban sugar cane economy dwindled, guests with money in hand became an attractive prospect for a mellower government. Gradually, resorts opened and visitors began to arrive. Today, Cuba is again a great favorite with Canadians, Brits, many western Europeans and even Americans who are now able to visit under certain conditions. Today, the hot spots are the sugary white sand beaches north of Holguin and of course, those in Varadero and Cayo Coco.

While the beach destinations offer sun and fun, a day in the Sleeping Beauty city of Havana is a must-do and can quite literally be a trip into the past – particularly if you do your touring in one of the meticulously maintained 1950s cars for which the city is so famous. Trade embargos largely stopped the importation of new cars more than fifty years ago so necessity has made a fanatical virtue of automobile maintenance. You’ll never travel in a shinier or better-loved vintage taxi anywhere in the world. Let your driver/guide take you to see the most important sights – the fort, the Cathedral of Saint Christopher of Havana, and of course, Plaza de la Revolución, where the facades of the offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Communications are dominated by matching steel memorials to the most beloved heroes of the RevolutionChe Guevara, with the quotation "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always) and Camilo Cienfuegos, with the quotation "Vas bien, Fidel" (You're doing fine, Fidel). The great irony of the place is that its original name was Civic Square and it was intended to glorify President Battista. Instead, Castro used the square for political rallies following the revolution.

When you’ve seen the sights in your vintage cab, sipped a Mojito, heard ‘Via Con Dios’ and ‘La Bamba’ sung a few times and had your photo taken with the colorful cigar smoking ladies cruising the main squares, you’ll have had a real taste of the newly cruise-friendly Havana – but your adventure with MSC will just be beginning. Much of your trip’s fun will still lie ahead. Our itinerary included stops in such sun-drenched tourist faves as Montego Bay, Cozumel and Grand Cayman.

Though there was a huge array of shore excursion choices in Mo Bay, ranging from zip lining to tubing, we decided to go with a fan favorite and picked a rafting excursion on the Martha Brae River. Though perhaps a Jamaican tourism cliché, the rafting didn’t disappoint. Our driver was a veteran of the river who’d built his own raft from the giant bamboo trees that towered above us. When he learned we were Canadian, he professed a seemingly genuine passion for Celine Dion and even sang us a snatch or two of her best-known songs. Not content to sit, my husband Jamie offered to lend a hand with the poling and soon learned why our guide had such well-developed back, arm and shoulder muscles. As we meandered along the river, our guide shared his views on Jamaica (best country in the world), women (the bigger the better, according to Jamaican male tastes) and men (Jamaican women like them small and cute, so he watches his weight). We finished up by buying one of his hand-carved gourds to serve as a constant reminder of why I should eat, but my husband should not.

In Grand Cayman, we couldn’t resist the lure of Seven-Mile Beach and spent a glorious time wandering, wading in the ocean and soaking up the sunshine. Is there any better way to spend a day? The weather didn’t cooperate in Cozumel, but we immersed ourselves in touristy kitsch, and ate a ton of tacos – never a bad thing.

MSC_Cirque du SoleilCourtesy of MSC Cruises

Back on board the Opera, we were impressed by the quality of the nightly shows. In addition to the usual pretty-cast-members-in-colorful-swirling-costumes-and-loads-of-show-tunes format, there were stunning performances by contortionists and acrobats of topnotch quality. We’re guessing they were a forerunner of the new deal MSC has struck with Cirque de Soleil and if so, that deal was a very good idea!

Though it’s hard to please all the people, all the time, we marveled at MSC’s commitment to communicating well with all guests. Every announcement, no matter how trivial, was made in as many as seven different languages – Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch and more…with English usually coming up last.

Perhaps best of all was our final return to Havana, for disembarkation. With just a few hours before our ride to the Veradaro airport, we did another quick wander through the old, cobblestone streets, soaking up the atmosphere and wondering what the coming of U.S. tourism in the near future would mean for the city and for Cuba herself.

We tried our best to capture final, lasting memories with our cameras, but more importantly with our hearts.

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Spring/Summer 2016 issue. 

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