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The International Writers Magazine: Ocean Travel

Cuba Meets Classic
Nick Constance
We sailed 1,800 miles and made 7 ports-of-call, in total. The real destination, of course, was (and always is) the ship itself. Especially when it’s a classy little boat like Sea Cloud II. 


Fear was my first emotion. This was quickly followed by waves of nausea and panic as, after a nine hour delay and a ten hour flight, I discovered, on arriving in Cuba, my shiny, new luggage was not even in the same hemisphere as me, let alone at the same airport. I won’t bore you with who the culprits were, but suffice to say my big adventure had started disastrously.  I was joining the ‘cruise of a lifetime’ and I hadn’t a toothbrush, let alone a change of clothing.

And there began the long, hot agony of queuing for over two hours to make my lost luggage declaration. I’d taken nothing stronger than a surge of caffeine, all day, but due to my exhaustive state, I must have turned up at the hotel looking drunk as a loon.

I finally reached the hotel, in downtown Havana, at 4am and to their credit and my surprise they let me stay. After a much-need shower I managed to snatch an hour’s ‘sleep’ before leaping up to catch a 7am to flight to Costa Rica. I couldn’t believe I’d actually made it as I stumbled onto the aircraft in a state of bleary-eyed psychosis. Lack of sleep may not kill you but it can certainly alter the way you function….or malfunction.

On landing at San Jose International, an hour later, I took a deep breath and summoned my 5th dimension of Zen-ness to stagger aboard a mini-bus that would take me the final, three-hour ride, east, to Puerto Limon. Not only was it the first time in about 30 hours that I could properly relax, but it was also the first time I’d had the pleasure of a smiley face - my girlfriend’s sister, Mercedes. Here was my first real contact and my first fellow adventurer. I now understand how a soldier feels when he finally reunites with a lost platoon.

“Good morning,” beamed my next smiley face, “welcome to Costa Rica. Shall I take your luggage?” The driver was a healthy-looking, tanned and toned Costa Rican who offered me a small bottle of iced water and a big apology, once he’d heard the no-luggage story.

Half way through this final leg of the journey, it occurred to me that a curious mixture of bananas, a bag of nuts, the hot sun and the cool wind had gently caressed the creases from my brow. At this point, I couldn’t have cared less that I hadn’t a stitch of clothing for the next 16 days? If truth were told, I was relishing the challenge. Of course, this feeling didn’t last.

Finally, we turned sharply left into the harbour and there she was, the legendary Sea Cloud II. This majestic vessel is truly beautiful and for once the glamour matched the myth – the reality matched the marketing babble. I simply stood there for a moment, staring up at the bright white sails, the ropes, the rigging and the mast… and smiled, smiled, smiled.

During the voyage I learned that Sea Cloud was used as a weather observation vessel during World War II. She was also the first ship in the U.S. Navy, under the command of Carlton Skinner, with a racially integrated crew. She’s had a chequered history of glory, decline, neglect and restoration. But, boy, is she flourishing now?

For a seasoned sailor, standing on the deck under 29,000 square ft of billowing sails is an incredible feeling.  For the novice, like me, it was appreciated with an almost childish glee. 

Once up the gangway, we were met with a warm smile and a cold eucalyptus-infused towel before being shown to our cabin. It’s funny, but in sharp contrast to the previous 24 hours, everybody’s face now seemed smiley, bright and friendly.

My fatigue had now given way to a kind of aesthetic stupor, as I toured the nooks and crannies of the ship. It was the strangest feeling, but just by being onboard all the flight delays, crappy food, ice and snow, surly stewardesses, lost luggage and whatever the hell else they’d thrown at me completely evaporated. I’d tapped a new reservoir of energy. That night I fell asleep to the sound of the sea and woke to the heat of the sun.

The first morning my girlfriend, Michaela and I breakfasted like Kings. Perhaps it was the sea air, but each morsel seemed super-fresh and hyper-tasty. The restaurant had grand, ornate windows, rather than portholes, so we enjoyed a view of the shining Caribbean while feasting on scrambled eggs and salmon. We couldn’t believe this ship and this view would be ours for the next 16 days. After the horrific and bloody battles of Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle, Sea Cloud II was proving to be a haven of peace and solitude.

“More wine”? became the familiar mantra from an army of helpful staff. The words ‘service’ and ‘staff’ didn’t even make sense as it felt like were being looked after by members of our own families, which in a way, I guess we were.

We soon found a rhythm to our days. One thing I hadn’t bargained for, when stoically taking on my monastic journey, was not having the books I’d packed.
I had two ‘crackers’ in the suitcase and I felt bereft during those endless, sun-baked siestas. On reflection it was probably a good thing. I turned those lazy afternoons into mini adventures - visiting the bridge, chatting to the Captain, (Evgeny Nemerzhitskij) calling on the engine room, using the fitness suite and generally getting up to mischief until the ting-ting of the dinner bell.

The 50, or so, passengers were an eclectic bunch of Austrian, German, Swiss, French, and lil’ ol’ English me. Some were friendly, some were moody, some were worldly and no doubt there were some without the faintest idea of what was happening in the rest of world. Actually, by the third day, I also hadn’t the foggiest notion of how the world was turning. I had no idea what day it was, there were no newspapers, or television and mobile phones were pretty useless, in the middle of the sea.

On any given day you might join two Germans and one bespectacled Frenchman discussing the intricacy of sailing into the wind – and the next day you’d find a hard-drinking Swiss couple showing everybody how to party, with style. Sea Cloud II had, at this point, become a hotspot of idle decadence. To counter this, Michaela and I made a pact - to go on every excursion offered. Neither of us buckled.

The next thing I discovered was the ship’s library. Ironically, the first book that leapt out was one by Dustin Curtis, called Dear American Airlines. Needless to say this poor chap had experienced a similar travel nightmare and I sensed a kindred spirit. This book, this hymn to habitual complainers, like me, kept me amused for three days solid.

There was more to this epic journey than sailing of course, and that was the route…the far-flung destinations and ports of call. It seems bizarre to admit but Costa Rica, Jamaica and even Cuba all played second fiddle to the rapturous joy of sailing, eating, sleeping and loving onboard Sea Cloud II. Throw into the mix listening to one of the world’s greatest living pianists and you get an idea of what we’re dealing with. Rudolf Buchbinder is one of world’s most celebrated musicians and Sea Cloud II was the blissful backdrop for three onboard piano concerts.

The lounge was suitably hushed, but more relaxed than a concert hall. The Steinway was primed and during those silent two seconds before the fingers leapt into action there was palpable electricity. This might sound corny but, with my girlfriend by my side, listening to Buchbinder’s brilliant rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, I stared out of the window at the Caribbean Sea and sensed the heartfelt buzz of true joy. An onboard concert with Maestro Buchbinder was the Classical music equivalent of having someone like Sting, or Thom ‘Radiohead’ Yorke giving an acoustic concert…. with free drinks. Even so, we had some extraordinary land adventures, too. The beaches in Jamaica were everything I imagined – turquoise water, powdery sand and a palm-fringed, one-hut bar called The Pink Turtle, or something equally ‘beachy.’

frenchmans There was also a special magic, about travelling two hours, down the Rio Grande, on a handmade bamboo raft. Or quietly swimming in the sublime Frenchman’s Cove, a tiny James Bond-style hideaway, that makes the average ‘undiscovered gem’ seem positively crowded.

Day 9. No sign of luggage. The novelty of my Zen-like existence had completely worn thin.  How long can you go, borrowing ill-fitting clothes, wearing the same T-shirt and foul-smelling trainers? How many times can you ‘wash’ dirty socks and underwear, in a sink, with shower gel as washing powder? Don’t get me wrong; I tried (valiantly) to replace some of the missing items, but Jamaican shops seem to be stocked only with ferociously patterned trainers. With my fat feet they would have looked preposterous.

The deal, when an airline loses luggage, is that they promise to deliver to an address of choice. So, at the most, we’re usually only inconvenienced a couple of days. Back in Havana I’d given them a full Itinerary of our journey and asked them to deliver to whichever port-of-call was easier. The only thing that seems to run smoothly with airlines, these days, is the money-taking system. This part of the operation never seems to crack up, does it?

We set sail from Costa Rica over a week ago and we’d all found our own routines. It’s amazing how easy it is for humans to adapt to lives of pure indolence and leisure. I’m convinced if we all worked half as hard, we’d live twice as long. Did I mention, by the way, that lying down, at night, gazing at a crescent moon and a billion stars you had no idea were visible to the naked eye, is one of life’s simplest, but most rewarding, pleasures? 

Santiago de Cuba was next and it was here that I had one of the most amazing haircuts ever. Not that my hair was particularly sharp, or smart, but the place was the coolest, old-school barbershop I’d ever seen. The moment I walked in I was enclosed in the warm and welcoming familiarity of my youth. I don’t know why, or when, I stopped going to a proper barbers but, after this, I promised myself I’d start again. The tragedy was that I was so caught up in the moment that I forgot to note down the name of it. In addition to this the camera battery was dead. Perhaps it’s better that it remains a poetic memory, anyway.

Suddenly it was the 31st, New Year’s Eve…Cienfuegos, Cuba! The evening was full of the usual raucous, drunken shenanigans and the chefs had really moved up a gear preparing an exquisite gala dinner. We were entertained - rather raucously, I recall - by the Sea Cloud Shanty Singers (the crew in ‘disguise’) and thereafter the professionals stepped in, with some live Cuban Salsa - a perfect end to a perfect journey.

We welcomed the New Year happy, relaxed and motivated.

It had been the most restorative two weeks, but my senses had been bombarded. My receptors and nerve cells had been joyously jiggled and it was now time to wind down. Having said that, with the final day in Havana, to look forward to, we still had to find one last shot of energy. This was surprisingly easy, once the Havana skyline loomed into view.

The peaceful excitement as we were slowly piloted into harbour, with Havana as a backdrop, was unbelievable. This memory will stay forever. As will the memory of Buchbinder’s Beethoven, whilst staring out to sea. And, oh yes, the steam train journey in Santiago was brilliant and the Jamaica rafting and the sunsets, the company, the food and… well, you get the picture. It’d all been impossibly romantic… breathtaking… dreamy, everything that Sea Cloud II is.

We’d sailed 1,800 miles and made 7 ports-of-call, in total. A voyage of discovery, in more ways than one.

*My luggage was returned to me, 3 hours before flying home.

Cuba Meets Classic was arranged through MS6 Travel & Music

Miesstaler Strasse 14
A-9020 Klagenfurt,  
Phone: ++43 (0) 463  57920
Fax: ++43/ (0) 463 57920  4

*A Sea & Music cruise is planned for July, 2010, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
In the Baltic Sea

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