Is this the year you pack your bags and set sail for Cuba?
Perhaps. By spring, traveling by cruise ship to Cuba will become more common than it has been for the last five decades.
Pearl Seas Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International are set to begin sailing regularly to the island nation from the U.S., and more lines may soon join the flotilla.
Former President Obama further eased restrictions on travel to Cuba last year, making it less difficult for U.S. citizens to visit the island, which had been a largely forbidden fruit for American travelers.
Land tours are thriving, and Alaska Airlines has recently added nonstop service to Havana, Cuba’s capital, from Los Angeles. You also can take an 80-minute JetBlue hop from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Havana for less than $100. Previously air travel was by charter.
Cruise ships joined the rush to Cuban shores last year, when Carnival Corp.'s Fathom brand became the first U.S. line to legally land in Cuba in more than 40 years, offering weeklong sailings on the ship Adonia.
Fathom will continue to sail to Cuba through May, a spokesman said, adding that Carnival has asked Cuba for permission for other Carnival brands, which include Princess, Holland-America, P&O and Seabourn, to begin sailing in June.
Meanwhile, Pearl Seas Cruises launched its first Cuba sailing this month, offering a high-end, 10-day voyage that visited Havana and four other Cuban cities.
Sailings are scheduled through April. Prices start at $7,810 per person, double occupancy.
With other cruise lines offering trips for much less, will Pearl Seas be able to compete?
"We cost a bit more," said Charles Robertson, chief executive of American and Pearl Seas cruise lines, "but our ship is smaller, newer and more intimate. It has larger staterooms and bigger verandas.
The ship carries only about 200 passengers, he said. “That means we'll be able to do things bigger ships can't,” he said.
Norwegian's Sky, which holds more than 2,000 passengers, will begin Cuba visits May 1. The ship will arrive in Havana on Tuesday mornings and depart Wednesday evenings on four-day voyages that will include a visit to Great Stirrup Cay, NCL's private island. Prices start at $699 per person, double occupancy.
Royal Caribbean International, has scheduled Empress of the Seas, which just underwent a $50-million renovation, to visit Havana during a five-night sailing that departs April 19 from Miami. Rates begin at $1,025 per person, double occupancy.
The 1,062-passenger ship will reposition to Tampa, Fla., offering two itineraries with calls to Havana on April 30 (seven-night sailing) and May 20 (five-night sailing).
Regardless of the cruise line or tour company, visiting Cuba still has legal requirements: American travel must include educational, "people to people" elements. Your cruise ship will handle the paperwork and probably offer excursions that focus more on the cultural aspects of the country, rather than time sitting on a beach. To read more about travel, see the Treasury Department’s rules.
You can take a sightseeing tour of a UNESCO World Heritage site; discover the colonial architecture of old Havana; visit Cojímar, one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite retreats; or hop into a vintage American car and take a step back into the 1950s.
Jayne Beezley, an Amarillo, Texas, resident who visited in September on a Fathom cruise, enjoyed her experience.
"The people are wonderful, very open and hospitable,” she said. “And the old cars were amazing. We loved the cars."
Jayne and her husband, Michael, owners of a gold '69 Chevelle, gave shirts and hats with their car's logo and illustration to car-fancying Cubans.
"It was our version of a people-to-people experience."