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Are you considering a visit to Cuba? I’m a fan of author Ernest Hemingway and I’ve been fascinated with Cuba’s love affair with our classic American cars. I have wanted to cruise to Cuba with Royal Caribbean Cruises as it seemed liked the easiest, safest and most affordable way to travel to Havana and Cienfuegos, Cuba. If you are thinking about a cruise to Cuba, read on for my recommendations on where to stay in Miami, how to tour Havana and Cienfuegos like a local, what to expect during sea days and how to save money in Cuba.

Where to stay

Once you’ve booked your cruise to Cuba, you’ll want to reserve your airfare and hotel accommodations. I highly recommend that you arrive to Miami, Florida or your point of departure, the day prior to your sail date. There’ s nothing worse than having a delayed flight and watching your cruise ship sail away without you. I stayed at the Miami Airport Marriott because it offered a free shuttle, affordable price and I’m a member of Marriott Rewards.

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Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas Ocean View Stateroom. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Ocean view state room

Room categories on Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas include interior rooms, ocean view state rooms and suites. If you are not claustrophobic, interior rooms are the least expensive on a cruise to Cuba. If you can afford it, upgrade to an ocean view stateroom, preferably mid-ship on decks 3-5, as this location on the ship typically offer smooth sailing. We sailed on deck 3, stateroom #3140 on the port side of the ship. Our state room had a third Pullman bunk bed available, but I think it would be a tight squeeze to add more than two adults to this room.

I was traveling with a girlfriend, so the room was configured with two twin beds. You may have the steward configure your state room differently. See the above video for a complete room tour, including shower, bathroom and closet with in room safe.

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Swimming pool and movie screen on Deck 10. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Sea day activities

There were several sea days on board our Caribbean cruise. Fortunately for me, there were no formal nights on this cruise to Cuba. There was a small swimming pool, with a separate hot tub on deck 10, in addition to the rock climbing wall and Windjammer Cafe. There were plenty of places to lounge in the sun or sit and read a book on deck, in addition to the library. There was an 8 room spa on board, however I didn’t experience the spa. If you are watching your dollars, select any day other than a sea day for your treatment, as that is a busy time for the spa.

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RCCL Empress of the Seas crew photo © Nancy D. Brown

In addition to the ports of call, one of the highlights of the cruise was the on board entertainment. We enjoyed musicians, comedians and dancers. For such a small ship, Empress of the Seas is the smallest within Royal Caribbean’s fleet, the in-house band and dancers were very professional and kept us entertained nightly in the Royal Theater. There were plenty of group-based activities such as karaoke, stretching classes and foreign language learning lessons, in addition to Casino Royale.

Hemingway’s Havana

One of the highlights of our trip to Havana was driving in a 1956 Buick Special; one of the 7 things to do in Havana, Cuba. I highly recommend booking a private tour for your day and night in Havana, unless you enjoying sitting on a tour bus with many of your fellow cruise ship passengers. Read my insider’s tips on how to exchange money for Cuban dollars if you like to save money.

Cienfuegos – Pearl of the South

Our second port of call was Cienfuegos, Cuba. In sharp contrast to big city Havana, Cienfuegos was a smaller, cleaner city. As our tour guide noted, “we have another rhythm of life” in Cienfuegos. Where one could easily disappear in Havana, Cienfuegos has a population of approximately 2,000 residents. Tourism plays an important role in the city’s economy.

Grand Cayman Island

Our third port of call was George Town, the capital of Grand Cayman Island. On our shore excursion we opted to take a taxi to Seven Mile Beach and hang out in the sunshine. Truthfully, this was also my opportunity to find wifi and catch up on e-mail.

I should note that no ports of call are guaranteed on cruise destinations. The latest cruise to Cuba with Royal Caribbean Cruises shows a port call to Santiago, Cuba. You have to go with the flow when you cruise and be open to itinerary changes.

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Musicians perform by the pier in Labadee, Haiti. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Labadee, Haiti

Our fourth and final port of call was Labadee, Haiti. I wouldn’t really say that I experienced Haiti, as we only ventured on to the Royal Caribbean owned part of the island. My friend enjoyed the floating bar at Adrenaline Beach and we also visited Nellie’s Beach. There were plenty of beach chairs and hammocks to be had, and we were well fed at the barbecue buffet, but it felt very awkward to interact with the locals. Clearly, they appreciated that we purchased local arts and crafts from their stalls, but it was a very superficial experience.

My favorite memory of our trip to Haiti was my Tom’s Shoes Canvas Classic purchase. This was my little way of showing my support for the local Haitian artists.

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Chops Grille specialty restaurant photo © Nancy D. Brown

Empress of the Seas dining

Dining is a key component of cruising; at least it is in my book. We signed up for My Time dining, which is a program where you can select the time period you would like to eat in the main dining room. This option worked really well for us as we opted to eat every night and then walk directly into the Royal Theater for the first evening show. For me, My Time dining was like having a fast pass in Disneyland. We were able to go to the head of the line every evening and we sat at the same table each night.

We opted to dine at Chops Grille, the new American Steakhouse specialty restaurant on the Empress of the Seas, during our first night on board. We enjoyed the five course menu, priced at $39.99 during our cruise. My filet Mignon was excellent, as was my decadent chocolate dessert.

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Filet Mignon at Chops Grille new American Steakhouse. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Insider tips

If keeping connected at sea is important to you, purchase your wifi package before you set sail. As I travel carry-on only, I limit myself when it comes to purchases. Cuba is the place to purchase Cuban cigars, as well as Cuban rum. The ship will hold your alcohol purchases for you and return them to you the last day of the cruise. As of our sailing, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line was the easiest way to obtain the visa required for entrance to Cuba. Onboard gratuities will be added to your final statement, as well as the Visa Entry Fee. Always check your final statement before leaving the ship in case of discrepancies. Refer to RCCL’s website for pre-cruise details. For additional insider tips follow luxury travel writer @Nancydbrown on Twitter or Instagram @Nancydbrown and @Royal Caribbean International.

If You Go:

Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas

Cruise to Cuba with Royal Caribbean Cruises review, YouTube video and all photography by travel writer Nancy D. Brown. No compensation was received in return for this review.