The Slow Cruise to Cuba

Le Ponant / Fathom

Despite the ease in travel restrictions to the country, cruises are still mostly on hold. But there are options.

While JetBlue made the first U.S.-to-Cuba flight in more than 50 years on August 31, with American Airlines and Silver Airways following days later, the Cuban government has been slow to grant approvals for cruise lines to sail there. But that hasn’t stopped several lines from announcing and, in some cases, preselling itineraries to the country without an official go-ahead. Last May, Royal Caribbean International announced it was ready to offer Cuba trips on Empress of the Seas—fresh off its $50 million refurbishment—starting as early as July, only to have to stall sailings until late fall. (At press time, it still didn’t have approval.)

Small luxury ships have, in fact, been docking in Havana and other Cuban ports for years—but only for international travelers. For Americans, right now the only option is to sail with international cruise companies that offer “people-to-people” trip licenses, meaning they provide cultural exchanges and humanitarian relief. And they are few. The line with the most frequent sailings is Carnival’s Cuba-only brand, Fathom, which caters to the budget-conscious. The only luxury lines guaranteed to cruise from the U.S. to Cuba are Ponant and Lindblad Expeditions. Ponant’s sold-out seven-night circumnavigation (rooms from $8,190; 888-400-1082; starts March 25 aboard the 64-passenger yacht Le Ponant, while Lindblad will host 11-day land and sea programs (rooms from $9,500; 800-397-3348; four times in 2017 aboard the 44-passenger Panorama II.

Meanwhile, Viking Ocean Cruises, Royal Caribbean, and others are ready and waiting to shuttle Americans to the country. Norwegian Cruise Line, the parent company of Oceania Cruises, started seeking the green light in 2015. For the line’s Cuban-born CEO, Frank Del Rio, who left with his parents and brother when he was six, it’s personal. “To be able to sail our flagship Regatta into Havana Harbor with my wife, children, and grandchildren onboard will be the seminal moment of my professional life,” he says.