When my youngest sister, Esperanza, who is based in Portland Oregon, told us, through our family’s Viber group, of her plans to celebrate her birthday in Cuba, simply because she hasn’t been there yet, all of us got excited. We haven’t been there either so, in a matter of a few days, 22 members of the family, from different parts of the US and the Philippines, signed up to join her celebration.
There have been quite a few of my US-based friends who have visited Cuba since 2016, when former US President Barack Obama made it easy for all Americans to visit the country. Some of them went by air, while the others opted for the leisurely cruise. I had mentioned to my sister months earlier that going on the cruise would be the best way to visit Cuba.
The friends who have been there were all raving about their trip and told everyone that now is the best time to visit that country while it still has its 1950s “charm,” and before the “modern world” makes the country look like any other tourist destination.
Since my sister had planned to make all the arrangements herself, on everybody’s behalf, but didn’t know who to deal with, as far as reservations and special arrangements were concerned, I volunteered to link her up with my friends at Arpan Air, which is the general sales agency for Royal Caribbean in the Philippines.
Because all of us who signed up for the Cuba cruise are based in different parts of the world, with different documentation requirements and separate payment procedures, I made sure she would deal with the team of my friend, Marilen “Len” Yaptangco, president and chief executive of Arpan Air, as I know that they would make it easy for us to prepare for the trip.
Sure enough, Len assigned her efficient assistant, Raquel “Rocky” Estrella, to handle our family’s travel. She and my sister attended to the million-and-one details seamlessly, even if both of them were on opposite sides of the Pacific. And I tell you, the requirements to enter Cuba is enough to discourage a first-time traveler. Good thing all of us in the group are seasoned travelers, and were unfazed by the amount of documents we had to prepare to get a Cuban visa.
After several months, and hundreds of Viber and email messages that crossed both lateral directions of the vast Pacific, we were sailing, across the Caribbean, to Cuba.
Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas has been in operation for the past 29 years, and has a capacity of 1,840 passengers and 668 crew members. It has a total of nine decks.
Passengers’ confusion in figuring out whether their staterooms (cabins) are in the bow or stern of the ship is further compounded when the ship has too many decks. Of course, after a day or two, passengers learn, and find their way with nary a problem.
Although it is the oldest and the smallest in Royal Caribbean’s fleet, the Empress of the Seas is also the most awarded among all the other vessels, for its culinary offerings, and we can validate this. We had the chance to have a meal in all of the ship’s food and beverage outlets, and wherever we were, the food was always outstanding, whether it was the buffet at Windjammer, or the a la carte menu at Starlight, or the fine dining at Chops Grille.
Every meal was a delight, especially because, for five straight days, the whole family celebrated my youngest sister’s birthday, with our little grandnieces presenting her with a gift after each dinner. Not only were the food and drinks excellent, so was the service, especially that by the Filipino crew.
The ship has also received many awards for its entertainment fare, and I must say we all enjoyed the nightly presentations at the Royal Theater, whether they be the colorful musical extravaganzas or the comedy acts that kept us in stitches throughout the night.
It was a lot of fun at the Bon Voyage party at the poolside, topmost Deck, when the ship left the Port of Miami. Almost all the passengers were there, enjoying the sea breeze, excited over embarking on a new adventure. There was dancing to the Latin beat, lots of drinks, photo ops, and, in our case, we had the family, 22-member strong, bonding with each other and enjoying every minute of it!
The following day, the ship continued to sail across the pristine waters of the Caribbean where the depths average 6,000 feet and the water temperature is a moderate 27 degrees Celsius. The whole day at sea was the perfect time for us to discover more of the ship.
There were two swimming pools and two Jacuzzis to choose from, whenever we wanted to soak in the Caribbean sun. We could also have gone to the Vitality Spa for some kneading of our knotted muscles but, instead, we decided to play bingo at the Royal Theater, because the jackpot prize was another cruise for two. Of course, we never win in those things.
The third day brought us to Key West, Florida, the details of which I already wrote about in last week’s column. That stopover was certainly an eye-opener for me as I never knew that such a small island-city would have so many interesting attractions. Its unique charm, which I would have wanted to enjoy more of, made our daytime shore excursion too short.
The fourth and fifth days of our cruise were spent in Havana, the city untouched by time. Its cobblestone streets, old architecture, classic vintage cars in the city streets, iconic music, and very hospitable people give the city its rustic, old world appeal. Of course, it deserves a full-column feature, which I will write soon.
I pride myself on having been on a cruise for so many times now, in different parts of the world, but this one across the Caribbean to Cuba is the most memorable. The interesting discoveries in Key West, Florida; walking around “old world” Havana, Cuba with its wealth of history, plus non-stop bonding with the family made this Caribbean sailing an event to remember. Now I know that not all treasures are gold and diamonds. This sailing across the Caribbean with the family is worth more than any of those precious metals and gems.
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