Exploring Ashore: Luxury Maiden Calls in Cuba, Japan and Europe

It’s easy to think that oceangoing luxury vessels have sailed into every harbor across the globe. But that’s just not so. So where can luxury cruisers go next? What’s new for the major luxury oceangoing lines? Luxury Travel Advisor looked at 2019 to 2021 maiden port calls and here is just a small sampling of the maiden calls planned.

Cuba Rising

An “easy sail” from South Florida’s major cruise ports is the Cuban capital of Havana, celebrating its 500th anniversary in 2019 and now on the radar for upscale cruise lines. What’s nifty? Originally called “La Villa de San Cristobal de La Habana,” it simply became “La Habana” over time. 

Today, “Old Havana” and its fortification system is a UNESCO World Heritage site and dozens of monuments of significant architectural heritage remain. Cruisers need only look around to see ancient walls, colonial mansions, palaces, squares, cobblestone streets, churches and several castles or fortresses, including Castillo de la Real Fuerza and Tres Reyes Magos del Morro. 

For the first time, Silversea Cruises has plans for 17 voyages to Cuba with three ships — Silver Wind, Silver Spirit and Silver Whisper. Voyages will depart from either Port Everglades in South Florida or San Juan, Puerto Rico. Kicking off the 2019 program, Silver Wind will sail the series’ inaugural seven-night voyage on February 14 with calls at Havana and Santiago de Cuba and the Bahamian island of Bimini. Laid-back Bimini is just 60 miles from Miami, but in “feel,” a much quieter world away. 

On February 22, the recently lengthened Silver Spirit will depart San Juan on a 10-night voyage. 

Cuban highlights include an overnight in Santiago de Cuba and calls at Cienfuegos and Havana; this voyage also calls at George Town, Grand Cayman; Key West, FL and Bimini, Bahamas, before the cruise ends in Port Everglades.

In Havana, cruisers can opt for one of Silversea’s curated shore trips, among them a panoramic driving tour, a chance to explore the UNESCO Heritage site of Old Havana on a walking tour with rum tastings and cigar demonstrations or “cruising” on land along the waterfront in a vintage 1950s automobile. Not to be missed, time permitting, is a performance at the iconic Tropicana Cabaret with energetic dancers moving to Latin rhythms. Jazz lovers, alternatively, can head for La Zorra y El Cuervo, the city’s legendary jazz club.

For those who may have visited Havana already, one suggestion is to go beyond the city on a tour to the Vinales Valley for gorgeous scenery and fields of tobacco. 

Silver Wind also sails to Cuba on March 31 and April 10 departures, which are 10- and nine-night voyages, respectively. 

The longest 2019 Cuba voyage is a 14-night sailing on Silver Whisper round-trip from Port Everglades on November 22. The itinerary visits Cienfuegos, plus offers overnight stays in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, with calls in Grand Cayman, Cozumel, Belize City and Key West. In 2020, Silversea plans another 12 voyages that include Cuban ports. 

Havana isn’t the only draw. Santiago de Cuba is the island nation’s cultural capital with Colonial structures, churches, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed fortress, parks, gardens and French coffee plantations. This is a great spot to gain perspective about both the Spanish-American War and the 20th-century revolution in Cuba. 

And Cienfuegos, settled by the French in colonial times and called “The Pearl of the South,” is situated within a lovely natural bay. The Jagua Castle at the bay’s entrance was built in the mid-1700s to protect ships from pirates. Cruise guests can head out to explore the cobble-stoned Colonial Trinidad area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

SeaDream Yacht Club also has plans for new Cuba cruises that depart from either Havana or Cienfuegos in spring 2019. A series of week-long voyages on the 112-passenger SeaDream II will visit Cayo Largo, Maria la Gorda, Trinidad and Isla de Juventud. The March 11 departure has overnights at both Trinidad and Cienfuegos.

In Cienfuegos, SeaDream’s guests have several shoreside options, including an excursion to the Bay of Pigs. First, that tour heads to National Park Cienaga de Zapata, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an ecosystem comprised of mangrove forests, seagrass beds, coral reef barriers and deep reefs. Here, it’s possible to see marine life, reptiles and more than 175 species of birds. In fact, this is one of the nation’s top birding spots.  

The tour continues on to Playa Giron, along the eastern end of the Bay of Pigs. In 1961, this spot was chosen as one of the landing sites for the mercenary invasion of the Bay of Pigs. Due to its history and natural beauty, it is one of the most visited locations in Cuba. Cruisers will tour the museum, view personal belongings of the participants and see weapons that were used. People who participated that day will also be on hand for questions. Then, it’s a transfer to Caleta Buena for a Cuban lunch, followed by free time and swimming in natural pools before returning to Cienfuegos.

Ultra-luxury Seabourn also has received approval to sail to Cuba from Miami and San Juan in 2019 and will operate five Cuba voyages with overnights in select ports. On November 4, 2019, Seabourn Sojourn will set sail on its first voyage to Cuba from Miami. Guests can choose from four separate itineraries. The 11-, 12- and 14-day sailings call at three or four ports on each itinerary. Every voyage will overnight in Havana.

Among the off-the-beaten-path ports that Seabourn Sojourn will call at is Antilla (Nipe Bay). The ship’s entry to the deep-cut Nipe Bay passes by the Cayo Saetia National Park. The Holguin province offers authentic Cuban communities like San Isidoro de Holguin with 18th-century churches and plazas. The Sierra del Cristal range is stunningly beautiful with lush pine forests, two national parks and the twin Guayabo waterfalls, Cuba’s highest.

In Cienfuegos, Seabourn’s guests can head out the colonial town of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On a visit to the idyllic island of Punta Francés, Isla de Juventud, Seabourn guests can go snorkeling or scuba diving; wreck diving particularly excites us. Also of interest are the Punta del Este Caves, best described as the “Sistine Chapel” of prehistoric Taino petroglyphs.

While off the ship, guests may join UNESCO Partner Tours exploring Cuba’s World Heritage cities, including Santa Clara and Trinidad, and the Biosphere Reserve at Las Terrazas. Or, they can take both daytime and nighttime tours that focus on Cuban culinary, musical and artistic heritage, which sometimes include people-to-people meetings with arts and community projects in Havana, Santiago and Cienfuegos. 

Seabourn also plans several complimentary Seabourn special events and experiences, such as its signature Caviar in the Surf beach barbecues in Isla Catalina and Carambola Beach, as well as Marina Day with complimentary watersports in Isla Catalina operating directly from the back of the ship, weather and conditions permitting.

Kumamoto Castle is a hilltop Japanese castle in Kyushu. The well-fortified castle, which has an imposing exterior and sloping ramparts, will be a top draw for Cunard guests in 2019. // Photography: Getty Images / kanonsky

Around Japan 

Japan has also become a hot ticket for upscale cruising in recent years. Cunard Line will make many maiden calls in Japan in the next two years, including Hakodate, Akita, Kanazawa, Sakaiminato, Yatsushiro (for Kumamoto) and Muroran (for Sapporo) in 2019.

Want to sail with the locals? Then Queen Elizabeth’s nine-night Japan circumnavigation on April 19, roundtrip from Tokyo (Yokohama) is one, as many Japanese travelers are sailing. It’s cherry blossom time, so availability is limited, but balcony cabins were still available at press time. 

In Kumamoto City, one of the most imposing structures in the city is the well-fortified, hilltop Kumamoto Castle, with a “keep” reconstructed in the 1960s but several outer original wooden buildings. It has an imposing exterior and sloping ramparts. The castle was particularly difficult to break into and was designed specifically to discourage ninjas from attacking. 

Cunard’s “Highlights of Kumamoto” tour will take cruisers to the castle. Unfortunately, not all areas are accessible as it was damaged in a 2016 earthquake. Still, it remains the city’s top tourism attraction with more than two million visitors a year. Cunard’s tour will give cruisers a look at the castle and educate them about reconstruction efforts now under way, before the tour heads to the Japanese Suizenji Garden for a visit. 

Another Kumamoto tour offered by Cunard is “Hitoyoshi & Shochu Brewery,” which visits the Hakutake Denshogura (Kuma Shochu Spirit Museum) so cruisers can learn about this traditional Japanese spirit, often made from rice. (It’s been brewed in this region since the 16th century.) Cruisers will learn about the fermenting and distilling process and enjoy a tasting. Then the tour continues on to the ‘Little Kyoto of Kyushu,” once a thriving castle town; cruise guests will have panoramic views of the Hitoyoshi castle ruins and then learn about the town’s past at Hitoyoshi History Museum.

Cunard will have more Japanese maiden calls in 2020 at Miyazaki (tours from Aburutsu), Shimizu, Fukuoka, Maizuru and Otaru.

Crystal Cruises will have several Asian maiden calls, including one in Japan this coming year. The 848-passenger Crystal Symphony will operate the 17-day “Accents on the Orient” sailing from Hong Kong to Tokyo on May 9, 2019 with overnight stays in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Osaka and Tokyo, plus maiden calls to scenic Hualien, Taiwan and the unspoiled beaches of Ishigaki, Japan. 

In Ishigaki, in the southernmost region of Japan, Crystal’s guests who love putting their toes in the sand can certainly do so. This destination has white sands, coral reefs and clear, blue waters; we’d suggest heading to Kabira Bay on the island’s northwestern coast. Divers often spot large manta rays. Sunset Beach is also popular for beach enthusiasts and stand-up paddleboarders, and, not surprisingly, it’s a great place to watch the sun go down. 

Sailing to Japan in 2019 is Azamara Club Cruises, currently introducing more country-intensive voyages across the globe, all offering many late nights and overnight stays. For example, a 15-night “Circle Japan Intensive Voyage” is operated by Azamara Quest on April 27; that voyage has eight maiden Japanese calls, including Hakodate and Akita. 

In the latest scheduling news, Azamara just announced that it will return to Japan in 2021 with these intensive voyages. Those new 15- and 16-night itineraries will visit up to 13 ports across the country — including Tokyo, Aomori, Hakodate and Kobe — while offering a range of excursions to showcase the local culture of each region (excursion details will be available in 2019).

Siracusa, Sicily is known for its Greek ruins, including one of the world’s largest Greek theaters. // Photography: Getty Images / Sergdid

Italy & Greece

Italy’s Marina di Carrara is a maiden call in 2020 for Oceania Cruises. What’s special? Sailing into this Tuscan seaside destination, guests can look up to see what appears to be snow cascading down the mountains to green forests below. But the reality is that the cruise will be visiting in summer and then cruisers will realize it’s not snow but the exposed veins of the famed Carrara white marble.

Among Oceania’s cruises heading to Marina di Carrara is Sirena’s April 25, 2020, voyage from Barcelona to Venice. This port is a good jumping off point for exploring Tuscany or heading to the region’s beaches. 

Also serving up an enticing array of maiden calls across the globe in 2020 is Regent Seven Seas Cruises. What’s nifty for frequent cruisers is that the line has many, less-well-traveled spots for maiden calls in Italy. Seven Seas Voyager will call at Lecce (Otranto), Crotone (Calabria), Siracusa (Sicily), Porto Empedocle (Sicily) and Porto Torres (Sardinia). 

Siracusa on Sicily is a lively town on the island’s southeastern coast, and best known for its Greek ruins, including one of the world’s largest Greek theaters, plus the legendary “Ear of Dionysius,” an artificial cave located in a stone quarry under the theater. If time permits, cruisers can also check out Ortygia Market and perhaps buy chili peppers or almond cakes. 

Speaking of Greece, Viking planned a new 11-day ocean cruise itinerary, “Greek Odyssey,” sailing roundtrip from Athens on the 930-passenger Viking Sea. Slated for January 2021, guests will explore the ancient sites around the Aegean Sea during the region’s “quiet season.” The new itinerary features three maiden ports of call for Viking, including Volos, Thessaloníki and Nafplio in Greece, as well as a stop in Kusadasi, Turkey (for ancient Ephesus). That also marks Viking’s return to Turkey.  

The Ear of Dionysius, an artificial cave located in a stone quarry under the theater. Photography: Getty Images / kruwt

On this voyage’s one sea day, guests will have scenic views of Mt. Athos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the spiritual capital of Orthodox Christianity; it’s home to more than 20 monasteries and is affectionately called the “Holy Mountain.” 

The maiden calls mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. For example, Regent Seven Seas also sails maiden calls in 2020 to Aalborg, Denmark; Phu My (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam; Cabo Frio, Brazil and La Rochelle, France, among others. Other luxury lines also have maiden calls throughout the world this coming year and beyond.

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