The lights of the Malecón shone in the darkness like a string of pearls, outlining Havana's waterfront. As our ship, the Carnival Paradise, entered Havana Harbor, dawn's gauzy haze revealed crumbling buildings in stages of restoration. On our cruise to Cuba, we sailed past remnants of 16th-century Castillo de la Real Fuerza, one of four Spanish forts that guarded the harbor in colonial times, and I made out El Capitolio, whose outline echoes that of Washington, D.C.'s Capitol building.
"What a privilege to finally see this," I said aloud to myself as I stood at the ship's railing. The catch in my voice startled me. I'm not Cuban-American; I don't have relatives there. But Cuba has fascinated me ever since my Indianapolis high school Spanish club met to learn about the country, and our teacher, Mr. Turner, shared with us a Hoosier version of arroz con pollo, a traditional Cuban dish.
For more than 50 years, because of the embargo the United States instituted in 1962, U.S.-based cruise lines had to circumvent the Caribbean's largest island, while their passengers gazed from afar, curious about this mysterious, forbidden place. Today, due to an easing of Cuba travel restrictions (rules on traveling to Cuba continue to evolve; see "Navigating the Cuba Restrictions" below), those lines' vessels once again offer cruises to Cuba. As Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Paradise pulled into Havana's newly refurbished terminal, I felt I was part of history.
Excitement permeated the onboard atmosphere as we departed from Tampa, Florida, on our five-night voyage to Cuba. Huge American and Cuban flags hung in the ship's seven-deck-high, neon-lit atrium, and passengers greeted each other with what seemed like heightened anticipation.
"We go on a cruise every year," said Brian Banks, a firefighter from Rancho Cucamonga, California, traveling with his daughters Brittany, a theater student at California State University, Sacramento, and Briel, a recent graduate in filmmaking from Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles. "My daughters wanted to go to Cuba."
En route, the Paradise provided activities to whet passengers' appetites. An expert in Latin America relations lectured about Cuban history and culture; performers presented Amor Cubano, a stage production featuring Latin music and dance; and the cruise staff hosted a Havana Nights Deck Party.
When the ship called at Key West, Florida, I learned that during the 1800s, Cubans were among the city's early settlers.
"In 1892, [Cuban poet and essayist] José Martí came to Key West to raise money and support for the Cuban War of Independence against Spain," said Alejandro Pascual of the Instituto San Carlos, a Key West museum, art gallery, and educational facility. The 1898 Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War finally gave Cuba its independence.
Fortified with tales of Cuba's past, I was now ready to experience its present. The island was about 100 miles away.
"If you come to Havana and don't walk along the Malecón, you haven't been to Havana," said our guide, Milton Sotomayor, as our motorcoach proceeded past the 5-mile-long waterside walkway that has long served as a city promenade and gathering place. On the street, highly polished, '50s-era Cadillacs, Fords, and Chevrolets whisked past us. We drove down a tree-lined avenue with a grassy central mall and through Habana Vieja (Old Havana), founded by the Spanish in 1519. Reflecting the city's historical influences, buildings around the central plaza have colonnades and wrought-iron balconies reminiscent of New Orleans' French Quarter. We stopped at Plaza de la Revolución, large enough to hold a million people.
"Fidel [Castro] used to make four- to six-hour speeches here," said Sotomayor, a former pilot for the Cuban Air Force and commercial airline Aerogaviota. The José Martí Memorial, an obelisk some 370 feet high with a marble statue of Martí in front, overlooks the square.
"Many of our practices, such as free education and free health care for everyone, came from Martí," said Sotomayor, who addressed some of the unasked questions on all our minds. "Problems between the U.S. and Cuba have been only between the governments, never between the peoples."
We were to discover much about the Cuban people's resourcefulness at lunch.
Tastes of Cuba
In recent years, chefs have opened paladares (private restaurants) in their homes.
At Restaurant Elite, a yellow stucco house with a red-tiled roof in the city's Miramar section, we sat at tables in the living room and enjoyed a meal that would have been the envy of many a top chef.
Waiters brought an assortment of appetizers that included fried cheese with balsamic vinegar, and lamb and lentils in what the menu called "deconstructed lasagna." My main course was delicately grilled fish that resembled a work of art on a mélange of roasted eggplant and carrots. After lunch, we encountered more forms of art, as our motorcoach climbed into the hills to a quiet neighborhood.
In front of a round structure at community arts center Muraleando, volunteer Victor Rodriguez told us it was once a water tower, built in 1911. "Sixteen years ago, it was full of trash," he said. "We asked the local government for the tank. They thought we were crazy. We are."
Today, murals portraying everything from people to iguanas to doves cover the walls at and around Muraleando, and visitors pose for selfies beside a violin-playing clown statue on a tile bench. Teachers conduct classes for children and adults in painting, dancing, theater, textiles, and music. "That's what happens when you are creative," said Rodriguez. In a circular room, we browsed the stalls of painters and sculptors offering works for sale. When we heard a woman singing to salsa music, we made our way to the dance floor atop the refurbished tank, where a small band played. Six-year-old Larena, a Muraleando pupil, entranced us with her dance moves, and a few of us couldn't resist getting up to join the fun. I noticed a sign reading, Donde los sueños se hacen realidad. "Where dreams come true," if I remembered Mr. Turner's teaching correctly.
As we headed back to the cruise ship terminal, I asked the Bankses about their impressions.
"I was interested in understanding how resilient the people are," said Brian.
"I got a sense of the Cubans' spiritual life and humility," said Brittany. The inclusion of Cuba on the itinerary had deepened the Caribbean cruise experience for all of us.
Eager to see a little more, I heeded Sotomayor's suggestion and walked along the Malecón, where couples and families strolled, and some people sat and stared at the water. I basked for a few moments in the walkway's vibrant sense of community before returning to the ship.
That evening, I joined a shore excursion to the Cabaret Tropicana nightclub. I sat with other passengers at long tables in an outdoor theater, apprehensive that I'd signed up for some dreadful tourist event. As the lights came up, all skepticism evaporated. While an orchestra played and singers serenaded, some 50 Latin dancers electrified the stage, moving as though their bodies were "rhythmi-cized" rubber. Their prowess shouldn't have surprised me: Mambo, cha-cha, rumba, and bolero all originated in Cuba, and ballet and modern dance are revered.
Despite the late night, I awoke at 6 a.m. to see us leave Havana. I stood at the ship's stern as dawn came and we sailed past the roughly 65-foot-tall statue of El Cristo de La Habana and out of Havana Harbor. Meeting the Cuban people—so welcoming, passionate, and resilient—had humbled me. I stood on the deck until the island's silhouette vanished.
Navigating the Cuba Restrictions
Although U.S. citizens and residents no longer need prior written permission to travel to Cuba, they must qualify to travel under one of 12 categories. The “education” category allows travelers to participate in people-to-people exchanges designed to promote meaningful interaction with Cubans. These exchanges may involve visiting with Cuban artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs. Cruise lines may sponsor these exchanges, provided they comply with various rules.
Top photo by Elizabeth Harryman / ACE Travel Editor