PHOTO: Variety Cruises' Voyager. (photo by David Cogswell)
At Havana Harbor, I was introduced to The Voyager, which was to be my home for the next week. It looked huge to me, though it is tiny on the scale of cruise ships.
Not far away, I could see the top of the colossal MSC Opera, towering over everything in sight on land or sea. The Opera carries 2,150 passengers—30 times more than the Voyager, which has a capacity of 72. Next to the Opera, the Voyager was like a tiny sports car.
These are two different worlds.
The mega cruiser Opera is part of the culture in which the attention of the passengers is directed inward, toward the climbing walls, the bars, the off-Broadway shows, etc. Shore excursions are presented as an occasional interlude between periods of onboard reveling.
The Voyager, on the other hand, is a yacht, a small ship carrying an intimate group on a trip that is exploratory, focused on the destination, able to travel to many areas that would be off-limits to a mega ship. And it is much less intrusive of the environments where it does travel.
Voyager is one of a fleet of 12 ships owned and operated by Athens-based Variety Cruises. With 36 cabins and a capacity of 72 passengers, the Voyager is at the large end of the Variety fleet, carrying more people than its sister ships the 24-cabin Panorama, 21-cabin Pegasus, 17-cabin Callisto and the 25-cabin Harmony.
Some of the other ships in the Variety fleet are motor sailors, with tall masts and sails, but the Voyager has no masts. And it has no superfluous ornamentation inside or out.
It is a clean, elegant design—functional and never gaudy.
The onboard décor is tasteful and spare. A series of three metal sculptures in lighted window boxes and a large print on the wall in the hallway to the cabins are about all the art in the ship’s interior.
The rooms are large—like actual rooms, not tiny sleeping compartments —which is part of why the ship looks large for one carrying only 72 passengers. My room was category A and was approximately 12 feet square not counting the bathroom or the entry vestibule and closet area.,
My room had beige, fabric-textured wallpaper on three sides and pleated vinyl on the wall behind twin beds pushed together to make a double bed. Small gooseneck reading spotlights were mounted on the wall behind the two respective sleeping areas. It had two vertically rectangular windows side by side, each about two feet by four feet square in area. Together they formed a picture window to the outside, letting light pour into the room.
A discreet flat-screen TV mounted over a small desk-counter area was the only thing breaking up the clean surfaces of the walls. The cabin had a clean, elegant, no-frills design, which suits the mentality of the small ship customer: More exploration-minded than one looking for excessive luxury amenities, gaudy ornamentation and distraction. There was plenty of closet and shelf space.
READ MORE: What Travel Got Wrong About Cuba
The Voyager is run like clockwork by an experienced Greek cruise operation that dates back to 1958; Everything is as it should be, operating as it should do. The staff is international, with Greek management and administration, including the captain, hotel manager and maitre d’. Staff members are from Ukraine, Indonesia, Mauritius, Croatia and Serbia. They were all chipper and friendly, eager to make sure you were having a good time.
By the end of the week, they were like old friends to the passengers.
Diners had a choice of two entrees and two appetizers. The food was excellent: Good, substantial meals and combinations, tastefully presented. There were not gimmicky dishes, but solid, substantial, sure winners.
The ship offers satellite wifi on board for an extra charge, but like all satellite Internet on ships, it was sporadic in accessibility.
The People to People activities and explorations of the Cuban landscape are operated by Group IST, a tour operator that started in 1981 operating cultural tours for major alumni associations, nonprofits and tour operators such as Elderhostel, which has since rebranded as Road Scholar.
The partnership works perfectly. Both sides of the operation were solidly based in their respective areas of strength.
The quality of the passengers was a highlight in itself. Cuba attracts a sophisticated, well-traveled customer—one more interested in culture and history than the average traveler to most vacation destinations. It’s a select demographic, and this trip attracted a fascinating variety of people.
There were two from Austria, two from France, two from Australia, two from Sweden; some from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New Jersey, Colorado, Oregon and Wyoming. There were about 50 guests total on a ship with a capacity of 72.
The fact that there were only 50 guests instead of 2,000 or more meant that you were not constantly confronting crowds of strangers for the whole trip. You kept seeing the same people again, going on tours and activities with them. It was natural that people would get to know each other.
It was a harmonious meshing. Those who found themselves together on this departure discovered that they were of like mind in a surprising number of ways. The group melded quickly and morphed from a group of strangers into a family unit after about two days.
As the week progressed, I found myself feeling increasing affection for my temporary home and the people both on staff and among the passengers who were my traveling compatriots.
On Saturday, I walked into a new environment surrounded by strangers. A week later I had to tear myself away from what felt like a home and an extended family.
Catch up on the rest of "My Cuban Journey" here:
Part 1: Catching the Winds of Change in Cuba
Part 2: My Cuban Journey Begins