Havana “Walking” Tour

Havana, Cuba

Veendam in Havana from the fort across the channel

When cruising to Cuba it’s required to book an excursion through the ship for anyone who wants to get off the boat that didn’t book their cruise before June of 2017. That is if you are cruising from the USA, under which the ship and everyone on it has to follow USA rules regardless of where they are from. American restrictions don’t apply to people from other countries sailing to Cuba on ships belonging to other country’s cruise lines and not departing from the USA. Ships from non-American lines can even depart from Havana. Besides the cruise line people taking care of the mountain of required paperwork and obtaining the required Visa for passengers, Holland America Veendam’s excursions satisfied the USA’s people-to-people requirement for the visit. Anyone booking prior to June of 2017 and going out on their own had to take care of all those things for themselves.

Cuban fort

fort in Havana

We booked what was listed as a walking tour through old Havana. The ship docks in old Havana so walking there from the ship should not be an issue considering that’s where you are when you exit the port building. Speaking of the port building, Havana has 3 piers, one of which is in good condition where the ship docks and the other two unusable with their terminal buildings crumbling in decay. The Veendam docked at 2pm, having to wait for an MSC ship to first leave the one available pier. If your ship comes in early an 8-hour excursion is required, but with our late port arrival time the excursions from our ship only needed to last 4 hours to satisfy the USA’s rules and regulations. Despite warnings from the cruise director that we could be quite late in our arrival as we had to wait until the MSC ship cleared the channel before we went in and that it doesn’t always leave on time, we docked right on schedule.

walking park in the middle of a road in Havana

2 kilometer long walking park in the center strip of a busy road

Veendam was notoriously unorganized in getting their shore excursions going. Not just in Cuba, but at other port stops as well. While most ships would send someone from the crew along and keep each tour together from the start, this one just gave everyone a sticker with their tour number and sent them on their way when their excursion was called. For Cuba this means passing through customs, waiting in line at the money exchange, then going downstairs and finding your tour. They did not even seat people on the same tour together while they waited, leaving everyone to find their own seats at random. We were not near anyone else on tour number 7.

Havana neighborhood

Cubans on a street in Havana

Though they called each group one by one, some people move faster than others getting to the customs line, and some customs lines move faster than others so by the time people got to the money exchange line different tours had all mixed together. At the lower level in the bus area we finally found people waiting with numbered signs for the different tours. We found 1-6, and 8, but no 7. It was supposed to be a walking tour so we weren’t expecting a bus, just a guide to lead the tour. The person with the number 8 sign said 7 was on the next platform over. We went over there and saw 3 busses, but no guide for our tour. Then the driver stepped off the last bus in line from the exit, which was the closest bus to us. He stopped to write “this is 7” on the back of a piece of paper that had something else on the other side and hung it in the window. By then a couple other people from our tour had found their way to that platform.

fort at the harbor in Havana

lighthouse on the fort at the entrance to Havana harbor

We were wishing we had brought either Canadian money which it is easy to exchange for in local banks near our home, or euros which we had leftover from a previous trip. Either of those could have been used for tips meaning we could bypass the money exchange since we had no plans for shopping. We were told before leaving home that using American money in Cuba is a federal crime and that no shops in Cuba would take it anyway. Out on the tour we did see some other people leave American dollars for tips and I couldn’t find anything online verifying if that is indeed still a crime or not. Or perhaps tipping isn’t technically spending, which is what is or was a crime. A Canadian passenger said the shops in Havana would take Canadian money, but as we didn’t have any or try to spend any I can’t say as to whether or not that is true.

Revolutionary Square in Havana

building in Revolutionary Square

Wondering why we needed a bus, the four of us who had found it got on. A few more people trickled over from the other platform, and eventually the guide showed up with the majority of the group. By the time everyone got settled in the two busses ahead of ours had left. They waited a bit longer, but no more people came before they finally left. After a drive through town up a street with a wide walkway down the center that the guide called a walking park, which he said went for about 2K, we ended up at Revolutionary Square, which probably was farther from the port than most people would want to walk.

old American cars

1050’s American cars in Cuba

There was a parking lot next to it full of the brightly painted 1950’s American cars Havana is famous for. A rainbow of colors with little taxi signs in the window. On the outside they are all American, but under the hood is another story. Whatever they parts they can fit or modify to keep the cars running are in there. Before the guide would let anyone off the bus he stood at the front and yakked and yakked. Some of the cars started to drive away. People wanted out to take photos, but he droned on and on. All about the Cuban version of history and who their national heros are. About each building you could see from there, and what was inside that we’d never see since we were at some point just going to get out of the bus for a few minutes to take a few photos around the square.

old American cars in Havana

Havana taxi

More of the cars left. People started standing up and trying to get photos through the windows. Some different old cars pulled in, but not as many as there had been. Finally he let us out and people got some pictures of the cars and the buildings. We only had 5 or 10 minutes there and when we got back on the bus all the cars were gone so had he blabbed much longer nobody would have gotten any car photos.

Havana, Cuba

tour group walking to the little museum

Buildings throughout the old part of town are all ancient. Some are well kept up and at least from the outside look beautiful and appear to be in great condition while others look more like ruins. I wish I’d had my camera out when we passed by one where a whole corner section of the building had fallen down leaving a vacant lot littered with building debris, yet people still lived in the part of the building that remained on both sides of the fallen corner. Though it looked like a ruin, many of the balconies had laundry hanging out to dry.


Quisicuaba museum building

Next we went to a place called Quisicuaba, which was not on our schedule of places to go. Everyone has to do a people to people thing and it was listed on some of the other tours the ship offered, but we were supposed to go somewhere called Retazos Dance Company. The bus parked and after a short (for him) yak from the guide we got out, had another short yak and then walked about half a block to the Quisicuaba Museum.

Cuban house with open roof

open area of the roof in the Cuban house

The first door we entered went into what they said was a typical Cuban house, but they must have just meant the building structure because the inside of this one was quite fancy and had a very lot of things. Way more and nicer things than the average Cuban family could afford, or that would fit comfortably in that house if anyone were actually living there. All sorts of things from furniture to figurines to artwork, even pictures hanging on the wall where the whole picture frame bent around a corner. Once out of the main first two rooms a hallway ran down one side of the house that was open to the sky other than wire fencing. One of the people who worked there said that is typical of the row houses like that one that have no windows other than at the front and back of the house. All the rooms in between have buildings on both sides of them so there is nowhere to put a window. There were plants under the open space, but not enough to catch all the water that would come in if it rained so that hallway must get wet at times. The back of the house had a little kitchen and a dining room with all sorts of fancy dishes displayed on the wall. There were lots of things in there that would have made interesting photos, but taking pictures inside was not allowed.

rapping Cuban grannies

rapping grannies at the front of a crowd

Next we went a couple doors down and inside a similarly sized, but much plainer house. It had the same open hallway, and one side that was several rooms in the other one had been opened up into one room in this one. It was full of plastic chairs where everyone was directed to sit for a performance from 5 rapping grannies. After filing out past their tip bowl we went back to the bus. Even after dividing it up among the grannies and the rest of the museum workers, tips over a month probably add up to considerably more money for each of them than the average Cuban makes in that same month.

statue of Christ in Cuba

giant Christ statue in Havana

Next the bus took us through a tunnel under the harbor to see the giant Christ statue and a fort built in the 1500’s on the other side of the bay. The bus parked near the statue and we got to walk down and see it up close.

missile display in Cuba

missile display

Along the way to the fort we passed a roadside display of Russian and American military planes and missiles which prompted a brief stop for a history lesson from the Cuban point of view of the Cuban Missile Crisis. According to our tour guide the Soviets had snuck missiles into Cuba without Fidel Castro’s knowledge, and their national hero Castro stopped an invasion from the Americans and prevented a nuclear war by having Kruschev on one phone and Kennedy on the other and talking both of them out of blowing up the world. I suppose every country teaches their children the version of events they would like their people to believe. Once again we could only take photos through the bus windows because it was more important to our guide to give us his version of history than to let us get out and see anything.

We stopped in front of the fort and listened to another long yakking session before the guide let us out of the bus near a small booth where locals hand cranked sugarcane into juice on a small mill. Only one person wanted stay there long enough to wait and taste the juice so he stayed behind while everyone else walked up to the fort, anxious to finally get inside. We could see one small section of an outdoor area that had a couple shops, but had to wait there for the guide to return with the last person. After walking up through the outer fort area he stopped us in front of an archway into the main part of that section of the fort so he could talk some more. Why can’t we ever get a guide who can manage to walk and talk at the same time? Instead of standing there seeing nothing while he yakked on and on we could have gone inside where he could have told us about the different areas of the fort we could have seen if we’d gone in while we still had time to see them.

fort in Havana

Archway into the fort

Instead we had a good long look at the entry arch while wishing we could go in while he yakked endlessly. Mostly it all went in one ear and out the other. Basically bla bla bla, Fidel Castro is our hero, bla, bla, bla, Fidel saved us from this or that, bla, bla, bla, what a great guy Fidel was. You would think he was required to say all that except that he seemed to truly believe in what he said and seemed intent on convincing everyone else as well. I don’t suppose anyone who doesn’t support the government gets a job as a tour guide even on tours Americans are allowed to take, which can’t be government sponsored. He also said they have free health care for everyone and that schooling is required to the point that parents could go to jail if their children don’t attend. Even attending the University is free, but not required, though up through Community College is. Three years of military service is required for males, but voluntary for females.

vendors at Cuban fort

on the other side of the arch vendors sell their wares

He didn’t say much about their actual living conditions, but did say that material things aren’t important, just people. He also said getting a heart transplant is easy, but finding a bar of soap is hard. After at least 20 minutes of yakking we finally got 10 minutes to see the fort, most of which he spent in a room full of pictures of Cuba’s heros yakking some more to whoever stayed in the room while everyone else went outside to a nearby viewpoint to take photos of the sun setting over Havana and the ship across the channel.

Cuban tour guide

talkative guide

When he came out and had everyone follow him it looked for a minute like we might actually tour the fort then, but no. We just went to the nearest stairway and back to the entrance. So we saw a very small portion of one section of the fort. A semi-distant lighthouse marked the end of the fort nearest the sea and we got nowhere near that part of the fort. Back at the area that was within the fort, but beyond that archway into the main interior he led everyone to a gift shop to buy rum and cigars – something they could have got in giftshops right at the port after the tour was over.

catapult in Cuban fort

catapult display at the fort

He said 20 minutes there and I had no desire to go into a smelly cigar shop so I went back through the arch intending to walk up a ramp I’d seen when we were by some cannons before we went down the stairs. I got to the ramp, but since it had a barricade nearly all the way across I thought it might not be wise to go up there. There were Cuban military people all around the fort including at the top of that ramp and it wouldn’t be a good thing to go somewhere tourists didn’t belong all alone with the rest of the group nowhere nearby. So I went down to the plateau where we hadn’t gone before and found several rooms with different displays, all far more interesting than anything the guide showed us – which was basically nothing. Most just had small stuff in glass cases, but one room had a catapult and another was set up like a chapel.

chapel in Cuban fort

fort room that looked like a chapel

Even with my extra loop around the fort I didn’t get in a whole lot of walking during our tour, though probably double what anyone else did. The sun went down before we left the fort and headed into town to walk through 3 plazas in the dark. All were quite close to each other so the total distance we walked through town was not very far at all. So much for the 4-hour walking tour. They really should have called it a bus tour with a bit of walking. Or maybe a Cuban history lesson on a bus since that’s where most of the time went.

cathedral in Havana

church at Cathedral Square

Once in town the guide offered for anyone who didn’t want to walk around to take the bus back to the port. A couple people had been whining about needing to get back because they had another excursion, but one of them got off the bus to take the walk when the guide said it would take about half an hour.

Havana, Cuba

restaurant at Cathedral Square

We only walked a few blocks before stopping at the first plaza for another 15 minute yak session. The guy who needed to get back should have known better by the way things had gone so far that day. A few blocks to the next plaza with a stop along the way to talk about a castle had him well over the half hour without even reaching the second plaza – even though it was right next to the castle.

Cuban cat

cat in a garden at a Cuban plaza

The first plaza had a church in it and an open–air restaurant under a roofed area boarderd by Roman style columns. The second one had somewhat of a parklike area with fenced in plantings. One of the planting areas seemed to be a favorite hangout of neighborhood cats. Whether they were strays or people’s pets heading for the only greenery around I have no clue. While the guide yakked about the statue at the center of that square a black and white spotted dog ran through and scared all the cats up a tree. When we left there the dog followed along for awhile, marking his territory on nearly everything we passed.

Cuban plaza

Plaza across the street from the cruise ship terminal

The final square was just across the street from the cruise ship terminal. It had a pink building as well as the usual stone colored assortment. The street in between was quite busy, where we saw very little traffic walking from square to square. Although the total amount of walking we did was small we gave the guide a tip anyway. They depend on that money and we did get to see some stuff in Havana.

sunset in Havana

sunset over Havana

There was a crossing guard in a crosswalk between the square and the terminal, stopping traffic so people could cross. It did have the sort of striping that means pedestrians have the right of way in the states, but whether it doesn’t have that meaning in Cuba or the drivers just don’t care I can’t say. At least the crossing guard was there. Once the excursion concludes people have the option of wandering around on their own rather than going straight back to the ship if they want to for the rest of that day, but if they spend another day in Cuba whether at the same port or a different one they again have to fulfill the excursion requirement in order to get off the ship.

Back in the terminal the line at the money exchange was quite long. Cuba takes a 10% tax when you use American money to change for their money, but other currencies just get the 3% exchange fee. They change it back for just the 3% fee, no tax, but that still means losing money on both ends of the exchange. On the way out the line moved fairly quickly, but by evening it went quite slow. Though it had a lot of stations, all but one person had gone home for the night so just one guy had to take care of the whole line on his own.


Havana from the ship on the way into port

Some people skipped the long line by visiting the gift shops and souvenir booths along the sides of the long hallway and buying stuff just to use up their money and wait in the shorter gift shop lines. The rest waited in the barely moving exchange line. And waited. John checked out the shops while I held our place in the line, but didn’t find anything worth buying. After moving about 15 feet in 45 minutes and having more than 3 times that distance left to go it occurred to me that we could tip our cabin steward in Cuban money. He wouldn’t be disembarking when we got back to Florida and the ship goes to Cuba every week so he’d have a use for it. Might even save him from waiting in that line. Great solution, just wished I’d thought of it 45 minutes earlier. We saw him in the hallway on the way back to our cabin and he said he was planning on going out later that night so John just gave him the Cuban money as an extra tip right there and we left him a tip in American money at disembarkation.

More Blogs About Cuba

Cruising to Cuba

Havana Cruise Ship Port

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Behind the Scenes Tour on Explorer of the Seas

view from cruise ship bridge

view from the bridge

A lot of the big cruise ships offer a behind the scenes tour on a sea day through their shore excursions department. Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas is no exception. This tour was available for booking online pre-cruise or through shore excursions on the ship. Every line runs things a little differently. Royal Caribbean required a waiver signed for participation, and to show up with long pants, closed toed shoes, photo ID and ship cards. They collected the waivers first thing, but never asked to see the ID or cards. Cameras were allowed, but no flash photography or video or audio recording.

cruise ship galley

there are lots of sections in the galley for preparing different things

We started out with a tour of the deck 5 dining room galley. The dining room spans 3 levels and has a galley on each one. The main galley for the whole ship with giant soup vats and things is at the deck 3 dining room, but all the other dining venues each have a galley of their own.

preparing room service

setting up trays for room service

In the deck 5 galley they had an area where they prepare things for room service, a room where people were preparing fruits and veggies for the upcoming lunch service in the buffet, dish and pot washing areas, and other prep stations. Our guide said the bakery was in the deck 4 galley.

galley crew

galley crew in colored neck scarves designating their positions

Some of the galley crew wear colored neck scarves that designate their rank among the galley workers.

galley on a cruise ship

each galley worker has specific tasks to do

Galley staff is a large percentage of the ship’s crew and includes those who serve and clean up for meals as well as the people who prepare the food. Between all the passengers and crew they serve around 15,000 meals daily. Besides food varying from one dining venue to another, there is also a separate menu for the crew who have food options available with the sorts of foods they find in the countries they come from – which means things from a variety of regions since it’s an international crew.

cruise ship crew area

I-95 is a long corridor for the crew on deck 1

Passenger areas on the Explorer end at deck 2 other than medical and disembarkation areas on deck 1. Our tour brought us further into deck 1 down their long central corridor called I-95, the same name as on ships of other lines we have toured in the past. This corridor gives crew easy access from one end of the ship to the other.

crew info

one of the more colorful of many displays for the crew along the walls of I-95

A variety of crew information was posted all along the walls of I-95. Everything from safety info to upcoming events, and all sorts of other information for the crew. Cruise ships usually have several decks below the waterline, accessible to crew only except for the behind the scenes tours which usually include some spaces on one or two of the lower decks.

security check for behind the scenes tour

security officer checking one of the women on the tour

After a thorough security check which included signing the list they had of tour participants next to our names and scanning each person with a wand we went into the engine control room. Women formed one line and men another for the security check. A female security officer scanned the women while a male scanned the men.

engine control room

engine control room

In the engine control room they had screens to view what the cameras monitoring the ship’s engines and propellers had to show at the time. The ship has 6 engines and needs 5 to run at top speed. The ship can go sideways as well as forward or backward, which aids in docking as well as in holding position at anchor.

engine camera monitors

monitors showing what the engine cameras see

That leaves the 6th for a spare unless it is time for routine maintenance, which is done at sea and takes a month for each of the diesel electric engines. Besides powering the ship’s propulsion, they also generate electricity for the ship. Heat generated as a by-product is used to make steam for water desalinization.

deck plans

deck plans to the lowest decks on Explorer of the Seas

A table in the engine control room showed deck plans for all areas of the ship including the decks below the passenger areas and the crew area portions of decks that are blank on deck plans posted in passenger areas. It showed deck 0 plus 3 more decks below that.

cruise ship storage

storage area on a lower deck

Down a couple steep sets of stairs we saw a storage area. Supplies come in through large doors just above the waterline where things are loaded by forklift in port. Different types of foods each have their own freezer. Poultry has its own separate freezer, as does ice cream. Refrigerators too are segregated, with one just for booze.

booze cooler

a whole giant refrigerator just for alcohol

Cruise ships do what they can to become greener as technology becomes available allowing them to do so. One of the next upgrades scheduled for Explorer is to add scrubbers for the exhaust that will remove the black smoke and leave nothing but steam. Currently they have incinerators to take care of the non-recyclable garbage, though burning it does not generate any power for the ship at this time. They did say they have solar panels to get some clean energy though. They also have a sewage treatment plant that results in only clean water being discharged from the ship. Food waste is processed into pellets that are sent out to feed fish.


recycling area

The money made from the recyclables is used at 80% for things that benefit the whole crew such as funding crew parties or video games for their recreation areas. The other 20% goes to the 6 people who work in the recycling area.

towel folder

towel folding machine

Our next stop brought us to the clean room of the laundry, on one of the decks below the waterline. There they press or steam uniforms and passenger laundry. They also have large machines that fold sheets, towels, and other linens. The people who operate them were out to lunch so we did not get to see them feed a sheet into one end that pops out the other end pressed and folded.

cruise ship laundry

when you wash a lot of clothes you need a big machine

They said dirty laundry was down another deck so no dirty and clean things would ever get mixed up. We did not go down there to see the massive washers and dryers used for ship’s laundry like sheets, towels , and tablecloths on this ship, though we have seen them on other ships. We did see some machines used for clothing.

docking station

docking station on the bridge

Our tour ended with a stop on the bridge. Before entering we went through the same security procedure as before. We were allowed to wander the portion of the bridge not roped off, which included one docking station, a view out the front windows, and a seating area. Some of the rest of the bridge could be seen and photographed over the ropes. From there we could see that the bridge viewing windows on the deck above only show a peek at a small area of the bridge. This ship did not have the floor windows in the docking station used for aligning the ship at the dock that we have seen on some other cruise ships, but since we were told not to ask the bridge crew any questions I couldn’t find out what they use instead to line themselves up. There is a docking station at each end of the bridge in the part where the bridge windows stick out beyond the main area of the ship. When docking they use whichever one is on the side next to the dock at that port.

cruise ship bridge

bridge area with windows where passengers can look in from the deck above

It’s always fun to take a behind the scenes tour and see some of the areas where passengers aren’t normally allowed to go.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
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Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Carnival Magic in San Juan

Magic in Puerto Rico – taken from Pigeon Park

When visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico, we almost always end up at one of the historical forts there. Partly because it’s cheap to get in and there are 2 forts within walking distance of the ship, but also because we always seem to be there with someone different who hasn’t seen them yet. The forts are so big that no matter how many times we go back we always find something in the fort that we hadn’t seen on a previous visit.

feral cat in San Juan

one of San Juan’s feral cats

Although Castillo San Cristobol is closer to the ship, when Carnival Magic stopped in San Juan we chose to go to El Morro because our little grandson adores cats and we knew we could find some along the seaside pathway on the way there. It’s kind of the long way to get there, but well worth the trek. Usually there’s a free shuttle people can take around old town San Juan and to the forts if they don’t want to walk. We had thought we might try and catch it to go from fort to fort, but it wasn’t running that day. Perhaps due to the roads being stuffed up with a huge amount of unmoving traffic due to some big upcoming event  all the locals seemed to be setting up for.

hidden places inside El Morro

ramp to the original tower

We did find a few undiscovered areas inside the fort where we hadn’t gone before. This time it was on a lower level. It had mostly empty rooms that were once living quarters and a kitchen area. It also had a ramp leading down to the fort’s original tower, which is now incorporated into a larger building. The original fort built in 1539 held just a few men and 4 cannons.

cannon at old Spanish fort

cannon at El Morro

During the next few hundred years as the threats to Spain’s rule of Puerto Rico grew, so did the forts and walls protecting San Juan from pirates and invasions from other countries. Nobody managed to take over for centuries until walls could no longer keep up with technology. During the Spanish American war the USA gained control in 1898.  There’s a sign at the fort saying when walls lost their effectiveness as a means of protection to the technology of the times – which was before airplanes were even invented. That’s why walled cities are all ancient.

El Morro fort

courtyard full of nooks

The fort was used as an outpost in both world wars before retiring into the National Park Service in 1949 along with Castillo San Cristobol, who had protected the city from attacks by land for centuries while El Morro guarded from attacks by sea.

hidden stairway at El Morro

spiral stairs in a low-traffic area of the fort

Near an old kitchen area we found for the first time this visit we discovered a circular stairway leading back up to the open area of the main lower level. In the main upper level it’s always interesting to look at the hall of maps progressing through the years from room to room. In the first one Spain claims to own pretty much everything in the Caribbean as well as a good portion of Mexico and the USA. By the last one Spain owns nothing.

fort in San Juan

sea view from El Morro – with a garita (lookout tower)

From the fort we had a great view of another cruise ship coming into port. Framing the ship with one of the fort’s arched viewports would have made a great picture, but the viewports all had people in them so that shot never happened for me. We briefly covered all the major areas of the fort during our visit, but it would take a long time to look into every nook and cranny. Which is why we always manage to find something different each visit.

old San Juan

colorful buildings and blue brick roads in old San Juan

Though a few raindrops fell at the start of our walk, the skies soon cleared and the sun grew hot. The bit of a breeze couldn’t manage to keep anyone cool. By the time we got through exploring El Morro people felt sweaty enough that nobody wanted to walk the mile to Castillo San Cristobal in the heat to explore another fort. We walked back to the ship through town instead. The colorful buildings with grand old Spanish style architecture always make nice scenery to walk by.

Pigeon Park

Pigeon Park – living up to its name

We stopped by the aptly named pigeon park in our meanderings through town. Our older grandson Justin wondered why we didn’t go to Castillo San Cristobal instead of El Morro when he saw how much closer to the ship it is, but the paseo doesn’t lead there and we’d promised Daniel he’d get to see the cats.

view from the fort

view from El Morro

Every time we come to San Juan it seems that more of its historical blue brick roads have gotten paved over. This time we noticed quite a few streets re-done in brick rather then just straight pavement, but they didn’t bother to dye the bricks blue and since San Juan is famous for blue brick roads, not gray ones it’s a bit disappointing they don’t save that part of their history. I’d imagine it would take a lot more work to dig up the old bricks, re-level the road, and then lay them back down than it does to replace them or pave over them, but doing so would save that unique part of their heritage.

old Spanish fort

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

More blogs about Puerto Rico:

In Search of Cats in Old San Juan

The Cats of Old San Juan

Staying in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico

Bicycling in Old San Juan

Paseo de la Princesa and Diving Pelicans

copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
Posted in Caribbean, Carnival, Magic, Port Cities, Ports of Call | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Houston, Texas

statue of Sam Houston

statue of Sam Houston in a Houston park

When cruising from Galveston, anyone not from the area will most likely fly in and out of Houston, which is just under an hour away. For anyone with a bit of time before or after their cruise, Houston has a lot to see.


geode at Houston’s science museum

Like most cities, Houston is ever expanding. It currently has 3 freeways ringing the city in loops getting farther from the center with each new addition. Some of these are toll roads. Houston has a lot of parks. In the suburbs surrounding the city trails are often found along the bayous that drain rainwater away from people’s homes. Or at least they are supposed to. When a massive hurricane dumps record amounts of water the houses closest to the bayous are likely the first to flood, though that hasn’t stopped new construction in those areas. So pretty much if you’re there for a visit the parks and trails are great, but if you’re looking to buy find high ground.


wildflowers near Houston

I was just recently near Houston for a visit with my son, who luckily bought a house on high enough ground not to flood, though the other side of his neighborhood near the bayou did. Each of the neighborhoods throughout the suburbs there seemed to have their own park and trails, some of which were close enough to walk from one to another. One of those parks had some flood damage all around a lake. Right next to it on ground downhill from the park at a lower level than the lake developers busily cut down trees and leveled ground in preparation to build new homes in what was flooded woods during the last hurricane. Apparently they take their money and run, leaving the new homeowner to deal with it when the floods come. Houston is still working on recovering. All the previously flooded areas we visited had some restoration work done and some yet to go, including that neighborhood park.


iris growing in a bog in the woodsy part of the botanical garden

We went to a free botanical park one day called Mercer Botanical Gardens that had been underwater during the hurricane. Some of the gardens had been fully restored, others were fairly sparse or empty with signs telling what new exhibit would be there when it was finished. One trail that had led to some other gardens and a turtle pond was closed due to hurricane damage. The botanical garden had a forested area with trails through tall trees that had all survived the storm making it hard to tell in that particular area that they had all been flooded not so long ago. It was a nice park with several swing chairs and lots of benches in the garden area. Quite a popular place for the locals to take photos as we saw several who seemed to be taking either pre-wedding, prom, or graduation shots.

blue bonnets

blue bonnet flowers

While Houston has plenty of tourist attractions people pay to see, there’s always something people can do for free. We were there during Blue Bonnet season, where anyone with a car can drive out to the country in search of fields full of blue flowers. Of course most of those fields are behind somebody’s fence, but we did find a bunch out in the open in what looked like a recently built industrial park that for the time had more open fields than buildings.

historical building in Texas

historical building where the Texas declaration of independence was signed

We also found a few small patches of blue bonnets among other wildflowers in a historical park called Washington on the Brazos. It was once a town at a river crossing, and played an important part in Texas history being the place where their declaration of independence from Mexico was signed during the same time period that the battle of the Alamo took place in San Antonio (1836). Mexico had recently gained independence from Spain and Texas broke away from Mexico, existing as its own country called the Republic of Texas for about a decade before joining the USA.

Texas wildflower

wildflower at Washington on the Brazos

One of the trails there crossed a bridge with a sign saying not to feed the alligators. Which you could either read as don’t throw food into the water for the alligators to eat, or don’t go into the water because you could become alligator food. The creek under that bridge was dry at that time and there were no alligators in the vicinity unless they were hiding in a swampy area on the far side of a big mud flat.

Fabergé eggs

Fabergé eggs at the museum

In Houston there are a lot of museums. We went to the Museum of Natural Science one day. It has a large rock collection with all sorts of different geodes and crystals. There’s even a Fabergé exhibit among the rocks that has some of the original eggs made for Russian imperials as well as many other things from the donor’s Faberge collection.

rock crystals

rock crystals at the museum

The museum also had exhibits on sea life, dinosaurs, chemistry and random curiosities. It even had a temporary exhibit on messages in bottles which displayed bottles and their messages found in a river cleanup. There was also a list of how many things like refrigerators, washing machines, cars, and such were pulled out of the river. People just have no respect for the planet we all share. We did see considerably less litter along the roadsides in Texas than in some places, but whether that is due to everyone cleaning up after the hurricane or if the people there aren’t quite such slobs as in some other places I can’t say. The museum is a good place to go on a day when the weather isn’t so nice. The gift shop stays open about an hour after the museum closes, and has some things that are just as interesting as the museum displays.

rabbit at Texas park

rabbits like the gardens at the park near the museum

There’s a park and garden near the museum, which is a nice place to take a stroll if the museum closes too early and you want something else to do.

space shuttle

space shuttle on 747 at Johnson Space Center

Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center. While all the launches are done in Florida at Cape Canaveral at the Kennedy Space Center, mission control is at Houston. Even without the moon rockets and space shuttles of the past, Florida still has occasional launches for satellites or probes. Mission control in Houston is currently involved with projects at the international space station. Right out in front of the Houston visitor’s center sits a 747 with a space shuttle on top. Entry into both is one of the exhibits there, and it is the only place in the world that has that set-up. We have seen other space shuttles in various places, but none with the 747 attached.

Johnson Space Center

lunar lander display at the space center

The rest of the visitor’s center has quite a variety of displays of former, current, and future space projects. Their current project involves an updated version of the old Saturn moon rockets intended to eventually go to Mars. There is a theater where astronauts give talks, and for a price you can book lunch with the astronaut of the day. Pretty much everything else is included in the price of admission. There are shuttles offering half hour or 90-minute tours. The half hour one goes around the grounds and out to the building housing an unused Saturn moon rocket.

moon rocket

Saturn rocket

The 90-minute one goes to mission control and to a viewspace into an actual working area before dropping people at the Saturn rocket display. The working area had robots and mars projects in the works. The 90-minute tour is definitely the more popular choice as it had a considerably longer line.

orion project

looking down into a work area for the Orion project at the Johnson Space Center

The Johnson Space Center is not a good choice in bad weather since the tram ride between buildings is in an open-sided tram, and both the shuttle/747 display and tram tours sometimes shut down in inclement weather – particularly if there’s lightning. It’s kind of expensive to get in so it would be a real disappointment to miss those things.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
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Food on Holland America Oosterdam

eggs Benedict station

Eggs Benedict station at the buffet

Holland America‘s ships offer mostly the same food venues without a lot of variance from ship to ship. Though the main dining room has different names on different ships, they all have one. They all also have a buffet on the Lido deck. These two things are standard on most all ships from any major cruise line. The Oosterdam also included Holland America’s standard pay extra eateries – the upscale Pinnacle Grill and Canaletto, a sort of pop-up Italian place set up in a section of the Lido buffet each evening at dinnertime. Other food onboard includes the Dive-In poolside grill and Explorations Café which serves specialty coffee and tea and sweets at an internet café next to the forward-viewing Crows Nest bar on deck 10.

serving afternoon tea

afternoon tea includes a variety of goodies as well as pots of tea

The dining room and buffet are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The dining room also serves afternoon tea. Other food venues each have their own hours. Open times for all food venues are posted in the daily newsletter left in cabins each night when the steward does the evening cleaning.

berry tart

triple berry tart

After having had some of the best cruise food ever on my last Holland America cruise out of Boston on the Veendam, the Oosterdam’s food – while generally good –  was kind of a letdown because it just didn’t measure up to what the Veendam had served. Cruise ship food is kind of that way. Even within the same line quality will vary from ship to ship or even on the same ship on different cruises. We took another cruise on the Veendam after the one on the Oosterdam and while good, the food didn’t often hit the exceptional mark it had on the cruise out of Boston. Perhaps it was the menu with the northeast itinerary or maybe the chef and galley staff that particular cruise were more outstanding than most.

test kitchen

America’s Test Kitchen salmon demonstration

Holland America had something new this cruise since the last time I sailed with them. They had cooking demonstrations before, but they were done by either galley or entertainment staff. On this cruise the cooking demonstrator was a dedicated person just for that job, not from the crew, but from a show called America’s Test Kitchen, which I had never heard of, but apparently it’s a PBS show that has been around for some time. The onboard demonstrator makes recipes from the show. The recipes they use might be for common things like brownies, but a recipe that they’ve tested and altered to come up with what they say is a better version.

surf and turf

formal night lobster came with steak

The things they made in the test kitchen demos looked good, but they did not hand out samples at the demonstration so I guess we are just supposed to take their word for it that it tastes better than the average recipe for that item. They did give out free recipes of the items they made at each demonstration and a free sample of their magazine, which had a bunch more recipes so if someone really wanted to know how things tasted they could make it for themselves when they got home. I think it’s nicer when the food demonstrations include a taste of what they cooked though.

cruise ship desserts

this molten chocolate cake was tasty

The dining room food was kind of hit or miss. Some items were excellent and others disappointing. Not always the entire meal one or the other, but parts of it. For example one night I had turkey scaloppini which had the taste and texture of a pressed meat patty, but it came with delicious side dishes. Another day I had a tasty pork chop that came with less than impressive sides. As for desserts, if given the choice of molten chocolate cake or baked Alaska, the cake is better. Their lemon pie and soufflé were good, the crème brulee so-so, and the cheesecake could have been better, at least on this particular cruise.

fancy cruise ship soup

fancy soups start with bits of food in the bottom of a bowl, over which soup gets poured at the table

Their soups were generally good, and often of the fancy sort that come with a few bits of things at the bottom of an otherwise empty bowl, over which they pour a creamy soup at the table.

chicken coconut curry

chicken coconut curry from the dining room

I tried a chicken coconut curry one day when nothing on the menu sounded especially enticing, not expecting much since I’m not much of a fan of Indian food or spicy things. It was surprisingly good and not too spicy.

crepes made fresh

making fresh crepes at the buffet

Breakfast had some good options with freshly made crepes and waffles at the buffet. Their eggs Benedict are tasty and available both at the buffet and in the dining room. Unlike most ships where eggs Benedict at the buffet are pre-made, Holland America has a station at the buffet that makes them fresh to order. Not only is the food from the Eggs Benedict station quite good, but there’s rarely a line. One of our friends tried the dining room’s crab Benedict and said it was too shy on crab for his liking.

halibut and chips

halibut and chips

We tried lunch in the dining room once or twice. The halibut & chips were quite good, and the halibut was really halibut. We have in the past had a cruise ship serve rockfish while insisting it was halibut. Not that the rockfish wasn’t good, they just shouldn’t call it halibut when it’s not. Most of the guests probably assume the fish is whatever the menu says, but my husband is an Alaskan fishing guide. He’s caught enough halibut and rockfish to know the difference so there’s no fooling him.

fancy cruise ship soup

soup at the Pinnacle Grill

Pinnacle grill was worth the extra cost. We enjoyed it and our friends gave raving reviews on the steak. The mushroom ravioli & veggies were good and the volcano cake quite tasty. Particularly mine, which was cooked to perfection while others that night were a bit overdone. The chocolate truffles there are always good. I didn’t like the snail pre-appetizer thing, but the others did. Our friends liked the Pinnacle Grill so much they went back a couple more nights.

Pinnacle Grill ravioli

ravioli at the Pinnacle Grill

At lunchtime the Lido Market buffet had a stand making big salads that we liked quite a lot. It never had much of a line to get them either. Lines always figure into where I’ll go in a buffet, as in if there’s a long one I pick a different station. I suppose they might have had those salads at dinner as well, but we never ate dinner at the buffet so I can’t say for sure.

ice cream sundae

even the sundaes are fancy on the Oosterdam

Outside by the pool grill they had a taco bar at lunchtime. It was a good place to go when everywhere else had lines. The food was pretty good, but poorly arranged with the plates next to the toppings and the main food at the other end. That made it a little awkward because people would grab a plate, skip over the toppings to get the main food, then go back for toppings. Meanwhile if someone else came along and went straight to the toppings without getting food first you had people from both directions trying to get into the same spot. Luckily it wasn’t normally very crowded so with only one or two people to work around it was doable.

fruit appetizer

at dinnertime in the dining room there are all sorts of appetizer options, including fruit

Overall the food was pretty good. It’s pretty hard to starve on a cruise ship. Even special diets can be catered to on most ships these days, though some types of special diets need to give the cruise line advance notice to insure whatever special things they need will be available for them.  There’s no grocery stores anywhere in the middle of the sea so if it’s not on board when the ship leaves port you aren’t getting it.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018




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What’s Inside the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

Pisa's leaning tower

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Probably the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Pisa is the iconic leaning tower. At Carnival Vista’s port stop in Liverno, Italy we decided to go to nearby Pisa to see it. Florence and Pisa are both accessible by train from Liverno, and the shuttle from the port drops people at the train station. Of course excursions are another option whether booked through the ship or privately.

baptistry in Pisa

the tower is not the only thing leaning in Pisa (baptistery in the foreground, then church)

One advantage excursions have over do-it-yourself travel is if you book through the ship it has to wait if your excursion returns late. Another advantage of excursions is pickpocket-free transportation. Watch out for them when taking busses or trains. Once off the tour bus you may run into them along the streets though so even on excursions make sure your valuables are safely stowed where pickpockets don’t have easy access. One more advantage of excursions is the option to leave bulky items on the bus. You can’t take backpacks or bags up the tower stairs should you choose to climb it so don’t bring anything large with you. Cameras, phones, and small camera cases are allowed.

tower door

doorway into the leaning tower of Pisa

You can’t just randomly walk into the tower and climb the stairs. You have to buy a ticket for that in advance and go at your assigned time so it doesn’t get too crowded, again something taken care of by the excursion people when taking one that includes tower entry.

leaning tower of Pisa

details at the top of the leaning tower

We hadn’t made prior plans to visit Pisa before our cruise. Taking the shuttle (which isn’t free) from the ship into Liverno and then a ride on the canal boats there sounded good, but once on the ship we decided to go to Pisa instead. We booked the ship’s excursion that included tower entry. On excursion day we went to the meeting point on the ship with what we thought was time to spare, but by the time we got through the very long line to the table where they handed out bus numbers it was a bit past the time we were supposed to be there. We got the last bus for our excursion along with the rest of the stragglers. It was only about half full so at least we had a smaller group.

cathedral door

intricately carved doorway into the cathedral

The bus parking area in Pisa is a bit of a walk from the tower. Initially we walked past it with just a bit of a stop for quick outside photos before moving on to a café/gift shop at the end of the street that had free bathrooms for cruise ship passengers – no doubt in hopes that they buy something. There are restrooms near the tower, but they aren’t free.


old school at the square a few blocks away from the tower

Once everyone got through the line we took a scenic detour back to the tower through some other streets rather than going straight back. On the way we stopped in a square with an old school and church. Pretty much all the buildings were old.

church in Pisa

inside the cathedral

Back at the tower we first went into the cathedral and then the baptistery. One of our friends said when she visited there on her own a few weeks earlier a guard came in and sang the entire Halleluiah chorus, with the echos filling in all the parts not currently actually being sung, which she said was pretty awesome to listen to.

baptistery at Pisa

inside the dome at the baptistery

During our visit the baptistery singer just sang a few notes, which was not enough to get an echo going. That was a bit of a disappointment after our friend’s description of her visit there. The baptistery exists because back when the cathedral was built nobody could enter it unless they had been baptized first. The round shape and domed roof provides perfect acoustics, which is why they have the singing there.

in the leaning tower

the stairway goes round and round inside the tower

Just after the singing our time came for climbing the tower. We were told it had 290 stairs. Before we went there I walked from deck 0 to deck 15 on the ship and counted 238, after which I thought the tower would be quite the climb since it had even more stairs than the ship. The tower stairs are wider and flatter than what the ship has though, and are actually pretty easy to walk up. Much easier than the cruise ship’s stairs.

alcove in the leaning tower

view from one of the alcoves

The tower also has lots of alcoves along the way where people can step aside to rest and enjoy the view or take photos through the openings at those places. The stairs are just wide enough for two people going the opposite way to pass by one another.

getting to the top of the tower of Pisa

tiny stairway to the highest level where the bells are

In spite of being made from stone, the center of each stair has a dip from centuries of feet walking there. The main stairway ends at a platform circling around the tower with great views and an obvious slope due to the lean of the tower. A small semi-hidden alcove opens into another stairway up to a higher level.

bell tower

one of many bells at the top of the leaning tower

This level is open at the top and has large bells built into the walls. So apparently the purpose of the leaning tower is a bell tower. You can look down the inside of the tower from the top and up the inside of the tower from the bottom. There’s nothing inside, the entire thing is hollow. Climbing the tower was the highlight of this excursion. If you go to Pisa, try and make the arrangements for the tower climb. It’s well worth seeing.

inside the leaning tower of Pisa

looking up from the bottom inside the leaning tower

We were given a time to meet back at the restaurant at the end of the street. The meeting time came and went and one couple never showed up. After waiting quite some time the guide called her boss and then we left. On the walk back to the bus she loudly called out a warning that there were pickpockets on that street, which besides making everyone hyper aware of protecting their valuables probably also let the pickpockets know they would have no luck as everyone had been alerted to their presence. She did say at the start of the tour that she knew how to spot them. They tend to work in pairs or groups. These particular ones were a pair of women, but they can be men, couples, mothers with children, or anyone else who can sneak, corner, con, or distract people into parting with their belongings. Unfortunately a lot of touristy areas of Europe are full of them. Someone else on the ship who had ventured out on their own said they thought they were safe with one of the purses with cut proof straps, but that did not stop thieves from taking the entire purse.

tower walkway

walkway around the tower at the top of the main stairway up the tower of Pisa

Back on the bus the guide said the lost couple had been found and would return to the ship on a different bus. Quite a few tours went to the tower so luckily for them we were not the last to leave. She turned the things they left on the bus over to people from the ship so they could have them back once they got onboard. We finally got a good guide on this tour, quite a relief after the ones we had in Herculaneum and Rome.

tower view

view of the church from the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
Posted in Carnival, Europe, Shore Excursions, Vista | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hits and Misses on P&O Arcadia

P&O Arcadia

Arcadia in Auckland, New Zealand

Cruise ships have a lot of things in common with one another, but they have differences as well. Depending on what any individual person looks for in a cruise they are bound to find some ships more appealing than others – though it won’t always be the same ship since one person’s ideal ship is different from another’s. On the P&O Arcadia, we found a lot to like and not much to dislike.


It’s always a bonus when a ship has a self-serve guest laundry. Usually it costs something to use, but you can wash more clothes for less money than sending them out for the crew to wash for you. The Arcadia not only had guest laundries, but they were free to use, so twice as nice. It could get crowded with people waiting when all the machines are full, but the trick is to do your laundry at times not popular with other guests.

free laundry on a cruise

Arcadia launderette

Being a British ship, the Arcadia had a very different menu than what we find on American ships. We quite enjoyed trying a variety of different foods – some of which we had never heard of like Bubble and Squeak or Syllabub. The English couple at our dinner table sometimes had to explain to us and the Australian couple what some menu items were. Dinners also included little extras like the plate of sweet tidbits set out after the regular dessert. I kept hoping to see Harry Potter’s favorite treacle tart on the menu so I could give that a try, but it never showed up. Can’t have everything I guess.

cruise ship afternoon tea

crumpet and sweets tray at afternoon tea in the P&O Arcadia dining room

Dinners weren’t the only time food had a starring role on the Arcadia. The British love their tea. Tea time wasn’t just a few tables in the dining room for whomever might attend. Tea time on the Arcadia expanded to the Lido deck as well. People could either go to the dining room and have afternoon tea served to them, or chose the Lido buffet for self-service tea. The Lido’s tea included almost everything served in the dining room plus some other afternoon snacks. The dining room did have crumpets though, which the Lido did not. In both places they served tea cakes, delightful treats I had never seen or even heard of before. They weren’t really cakes, closer to a roll, yet not exactly one of those either. A light and airy bread delicious with cream and jam. Of course the Arcadia always has a good selection of tea flavors as well.

full tea service in every cabin

The cabins have an electric teapot and a wooden box with tea bags, instant coffee, milk and biscuits (which in the USA would be called cookies)

Tea was not confined just to public decks on the Arcadia. Each passenger cabin came equipped with an electric tea pot, and a little wooden box with tea, coffee, biscuits (cookies), and milk – which they use in their tea. Rooms other than suites weren’t stocked with flavored teas, but a trip to the Lido easily cured that – and late in the evening packets of hot chocolate were available there as well, which could be taken to the room for future use just as easily as your favorite flavored teas.

British cruise ship games

people playing deck quoits

We found a new game we’d never heard of on the Arcadia. Every day they held deck quoits competitions. Deck quoits involves throwing little rope donuts at a target on the deck. In the daily tournaments partners were assigned randomly so there were never any specific pairs of people who could win every time. I went from having no clue how to play or score the game at the start of the cruise to actually winning a match near the end. I got lucky on that one both with a skilled partner and an unusual streak of precision in my own throws. We also enjoyed the wii bowling held in a pub each afternoon. Ships always provide some sort of fun and games, but these were things we hadn’t seen on other vessels.

thermal suite

heated ceramic chairs in the spa

I definitely enjoyed being able to wander freely about the inside of the ship without ever running into any smoky areas because the ship had no indoor smoking. We also had a muster station that was uniquely the best of both worlds in a lounge with doors exiting directly to the deck under the lifeboats. Muster drills may have been more miserable back in the days of always being held at the lifeboat stations, but in the event of an actual emergency going to a meeting place in the bowels of the ship where some ships have their muster stations now seems contrary to executing a timely evacuation. So having a comfortable lounge with doors that open directly to the lifeboat stations is the ultimate in good choices for a muster station. In case anyone reading this doesn’t cruise, muster stations are where passengers go in the event of an emergency and every cruise starts with a muster drill so people know how to find their assigned muster station should an emergency situation ever arise.

hydro therapy pool

pool in the thermal suite

We quite enjoyed the thermal suite on the Arcadia. It does cost extra, but we splurged for the full cruise pass – which did not cost anywhere near as much as what some of the other lines charge for it. The ship had no spa cabins so the thermal area was rarely ever crowded and often we had it to ourselves. (Some ships have spa cabins that come with use of the thermal suite.) Originally destined for Holland America, the Arcadia has the same hydro pool and ceramic chairs as Holland America’s directionally named ships (Westerdam, Noordam, etc.)

cruise ship info

P&O Fleet from wall poster on Arcadia

The Arcadia had tasteful decor throughout, and one especially fun to read and interesting bit – a mural depicting the history of P&O and its ships. Lots of ships have movies, but the Arcadia had a dedicated area for a little movie theater with several rows of comfortable chairs of the sort you might find in a fancy home theater of a house with a room dedicated for just that purpose. It didn’t hold a lot of people at the same time, but many showtimes throughout the day meant that a lot of people could get in to see that day’s movie. People could sign up for in advance for a reserved seat. Each day had a different movie with no repeats.


Really the only major miss I found on the Arcadia is the same miss on almost every cruise ship with an outside promenade deck, particularly one that goes all the way around. That miss is having a smoking area on one side of the promenade deck. A lot of people walk and jog around the promenade deck. It’s a great place to go for exercise. There’s shade, shelter, a continuous pathway, and a great view. If just one person comes out to use the smoking area, then every single person out walking or jogging has to pass through that smoke on each and every lap – not very conducive to good health. Placing the smoking section somewhere in an area where nobody needs to pass through would be a much better idea.

P&O Arcadia

promenade deck on the Arcadia

The only other miss I can think of for the Arcadia is a lack of good breakfast options, but we always managed to find something to eat. The Lido buffet had a lot of stations all serving a full English breakfast. Anything else was pretty scarce, but it is a British ship so maybe that is what they all want. They did have oatmeal, but no fresh fruit or berries or anything to put on it. The waffle station rarely ever had anyone working there. If you did find someone they tried to pull an old cold waffle out from under a counter rather than making a fresh new one – which in itself explains why the waffle station was not very popular. The dining room had a bit more choice, but a revolving menu meant some common breakfast items were only available once a week. At lunchtime where there’s usually a good salad bar at the buffet on American ships the Arcadia had a selection of cold cuts instead, but they did have a lot of other lunchtime options including bowls of salad somewhere in the buffet.

Overall we really enjoyed the Arcadia. If P&O was based somewhere more convenient for us than England we would definitely sail with them again. Perhaps we’ll find another opportunity sometime. A bonus of sailing with P&O is that time spent there counts as loyalty points with Princess.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
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Havana Cruise Ship Port

cruise ship in Cuba

Holland America Veendam in Havana, Cuba

Sailing into Havana, ships negotiate a narrow channel with the guidance of a local pilot. Local pilots board the ship prior to entrance of most any port so that part is standard procedure.

Havana Harbor

Harbor entrance in Havana from inside the Harbor

Coming into port is quite scenic with a historic fort on the port side and the historic buildings of old Havana on the starboard.

cruise ship port in Cuba

Cuba cruise terminal with derelict terminals in the background

Looking at a map of Havana, it shows 3 piers at the cruise terminal. Arriving there you see that while the one where the ship docks is in good condition, the other two derelict terminals are partly roofless and rotting.

Havana cruise port

Havana cruise ship terminal

At most ports it’s recommended to take ID with you, but often you won’t have to show it to anyone to get back onto the ship. In Cuba you have to bring your passport. First thing you do when you get into the terminal when you get off the ship and last thing you do leaving the terminal to get back on is go through customs. You need your passport and visa to get off the ship. They take a photo of you in which you are not allowed to smile and stamp the passport at that time. They need to see it again when you go back. Their photos are the only ones taken inside the port building. Passengers are not allowed to take any there.

Havana, Cuba

old Havana near the cruise dock

You’re not supposed to use American money in Cuba and Cubans don’t take credit or debit cards from American owned banks so even if all you are going to do is tip people it’s best to go to the money exchange after you get through customs. Or bring along cash from somewhere else like Canada that you can use to tip people with – though they then have the hassle of exchanging that money. The ship recommended exchanging money in $50 increments to make it easier and quicker getting through the line. They keep a 10% tax on US dollars on the way into Cuba as well as the 3% exchange rate. When converting leftover CUC’s back to dollars on the way back to the ship you again pay the 3% exchange rate, but not the tax. You do not have to pay the 10% exchange tax on anything other than US dollars, just the 3% exchange rate, another good reason to bring Canadian dollars, euros, or if you happen to have some left over from a previous port stop, Mexican pesos.


plaza across the street from Havana cruise terminal

The exchange booths are only fully staffed until 8pm so if you return to the ship later than that the line can be quite long and slow assuming the exchange is still open. We came on a ship that goes to Cuba every week so we just gave our leftover Cuban money to our cabin steward as a bonus tip rather than wait through that long line because he could make good use of it. Some people got rid of their Cuban money by shopping at the gift shops in the port building because they had shorter lines than the exchange did. Another option would be to spend it all before returning to the port building and avoid the lines altogether.

Cuba church

church at the plaza across the street from the cruise terminal

Cuban citizens use Cuban pesos (CUP), but foreigners use the CUC or Cuban Convertible Peso. It takes 24 CUP to make one CUC. The CUC is supposed to be equivalent to the American dollar, but since they take both a tax and an exchange rate you lose money in the exchange process.

Havana Malecon

Malecon in Havana

The ship docks right in old Havana so there’s lots of historic buildings within walking distance and great views right from the ship. Walk carefully though because the surface is often uneven whether due to being paved in old cobblestones or through wear and tear or lack of maintenance. The Malecón waterfront walkway is not far from the cruise ship dock.

Havana sunset

sunset over Havana

If you are American or cruising to Cuba on a ship sailing out of an American port you have to fit into the criteria in which Americans are allowed to visit Cuba. Cruise ships use the people to people category, and set up excursions which fulfill the requirement. Anyone who booked their cruise after June of 2017 has to do an excursion through the ship which lasts at least 8 hours on a full day visit or 4 hours on a half day visit if they want to get off the ship. Once the required excursion is complete people can then explore on their own. If the ship stays overnight or visits a second Cuban port you have to fulfill the excursion requirement again to leave the ship on a different day. The good news is that the ship takes care of your visa and mountain of paperwork when you book their excursion – at least Holland America did.

Cuba cruise port

Cuba cruise ship terminal building from a plaza across the street with some strange statues

If you are not American and sailing on a ship that did not go to Cuba from an American port then you have a lot more freedom just to be a tourist because other countries do not have all the restrictions on traveling to Cuba that the USA does. If you are American these non-American cruise lines are not likely to let you book their Cuban cruise.

More Info About Requirements for Visiting Cuba

Cruising to Cuba

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
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Maui Cruise Ship Port – Lahaina

Lahaina Cruise Ship Port

cruise ship and tenders

Explorer of the Seas and its tenders in Maui

When cruise ships stop in Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii the ship anchors a short distance from shore and drops its tenders to bring passengers to shore. The ship’s tenders are the lifeboats that are a bit taller than the others. They have double hulls and 2 propellers instead of a v-shaped bottom with just one propeller like rest of the lifeboats.

watching the tender load from our deck 2 window

Royal Caribbean‘s Explorer of the Seas has tender docks that open out of the side of the ship. The tenders tie up to these docks for passengers to board. One of them was located just under our window. It was about half an hour after the time listed before people with excursions started to board from that dock, but if they boarded on time from the one closer to the stern we wouldn’t have seen them. The announcement that tenders were open for the rest of the passengers came an hour ahead of the approximate expected time.

Trilogy sailboat in Hawaii

Trilogy returning to Maui at sunset

We had a sail and snorkel excursion with Trilogy that took most of our time in port, but after the early tender announcement we went right to the tenders in hopes of beating any possible line that might build up. We got right on a waiting tender and made it to shore with a bit of time to look around. The tenders come in on the same dock as ferries to the island of Lanai, and the Trilogy catamaran left from the same dock as well.

Maui cruise ship port

view from the tender pier

People can always book excursions through the ship or set things up in advance on their own as we did with Trilogy – who also had excursions available through the ship that lasted about a couple hours rather than all day like ours. The booth to get tickets for the Expeditions ferry to Lanai sits right next to the tender pier. If you take the ferry to Lanai, the Expeditions ferry people can arrange tour packages for golf, horseback riding, ATV tours, archery or clay skeet shooting, or a jeep rental. If you go to Lanai without prior plans there’s just a small store and some restrooms at the ferry landing, but it’s a short walk to a nice beach.

choose your excursion here

booths offering last minute excursions line the shore

You don’t need to take the ferry to Lanai to find something to do though. There’s more options if you stay in Lahaina. There’s a variety of things available right near the pier for anyone who did not pre-arrange an excursion. Along Lahaina’s waterfront by the tender pier all sorts of booths offer everything from parasailing to fishing. Other booths offer things like semi-sub or submarine rides, snorkel trips, or when in season whale watching. Some also offered things like helicopter rides or biking down a mountain. All at reasonable prices so anyone wandering down the waterfront looking for something to do has plenty of choices.

tourist shops

shops in Lahaina

About a block from shore there’s lots of shops. Most are geared toward tourists with things like souvenirs or food.

things to do in Lahaina

things to do sign near the stores

We saw a few signs near the stores offering lots of things to do.

all one tree

this is all one banyan tree

Just off the waterfront there’s a park that looks like a small forest with lots of trees. It is actually all one banyan tree with many trunks and interconnecting branches.

banyan tree

the main trunk branches off in many directions

banyan tree

large horizontal branches connect to many smaller trunks

You can walk under the tree between its many trunks.

old fort

these ruins have a sign saying they were part of an old fort

We found a small bit of ruins of an old fort near the banyan tree.

park by Maui docks

small park near the docks

There’s another small park-like area across the pathway from all the little booths. It has a restroom, some old cannons, and a picnic area. Whether or not you plan ahead for a port stop in Lahaina it’s not hard to find something to do.

Maui Shore Excursions

Excursions offered through our ship in Maui included sightseeing tours to places like plantations or a volcanic crater. Things to do included golfing, a waterfall hike, Atlantis submarine, snorkeling or sailing while spotting for dolphins, and a helicopter tour.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
Posted in Explorer of the Seas, Pacific Ocean & Islands, Port Cities, Ports of Call, Royal Caribbean, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Fold a Towel Iguana

towel iguana

Towel Iguana


Supplies Needed to Make a Towel Iguana

1 bath towel

2 hand towels

eyes and any other desired decorations

Towel Iguana Folding Instructions

How to Make a Towel Iguana Body

how to fold a towel iguana

tightly roll both ends to the center from the short side

The towel Iguana uses the standard towel animal body, same as the majority of other towel animals. Lay bath towel out flat. From short sides tightly roll each end to the center.

how to fold towel animals

Fold rolled towel in half, rolled side out. Pull the tips out from the center of each roll.

Fold rolled towel in half with rolls to the outside. Pull the tips out from the center of each roll.

how to make a towel animal body

take the tips of both ends of one roll in one hand and the other roll in the other hand and pull – this one is partly done

Take the tips from both ends of one roll in one hand and both ends of the other roll in the other hand and pull until you have pulled the rolls into legs. Set body aside.

towel animal body

towel animal body

How to Make an easy Towel Iguana Tail

making a towel animal tail

from one corner roll hand towel diagonally

Lay 1 hand towel out flat. Start rolling diagonally from one corner.

making a tail for towel animals

roll until entire towel is one roll

Tightly roll towel until the entire towel is rolled. Set tail aside.

How to Make a Towel Iguana Head

making a towel iguana head

fold both sides to the middle from the short ends

Fold both ends of the towel from the short end so that they meet in the middle and both sides are even.

making a towel iguana head

fold towel at the center with the edges of the prior folds to the inside

Fold towel in half with the ends that you just folded in to the inside.

how to fold towel animals

fold both sides down into triangles from the open end

From the open end, fold both corners into triangles with space between them.

how to fold a towel into an animal

fold long edge under

Fold the long edge of the towel under.

making a towel iguana head

fold in half with open space between triangles to the outside and fold on long edge to the inside

Fold in half with the opening between triangles to the outside and the folded under long edge to the inside.

Finishing the Towel Iguana

towel iguana

finished towel iguana

Place the tail in the opening between the legs of the towel body so the pointed end hangs out from one end of the body. Place the head between the legs at the other end of the body and flip it over. Shape the head and mouth as desired.

towel iguana

finished towel iguana with claws added

Add eyes or sunglasses and any other desired decorations like a tongue or claws.

For more towel animal folding instructions visit My Cruise Stories Towel Animal Page.

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