Story by Chris Ryall
The stakes were high — hockey supremacy and bragging rights on the high seas. This historic battle between Canada and Cuba was going to be fierce. Injuries were not out of the question — possible twisted ankles, bruised shins and egos, groin pulls and yes even sunburn. The weapons of choice — hockey sticks. Welcome to Hockey Night in Cuba on board the Cuba Cruise.
Five former NHL players formed the Canada team. Their rivals were Cuban crew members. Now Cubans are known to excel in baseball, boxing, and track and field. But hockey? Just like capitalism this is totally new territory for the Cubans. Yet, they were game to try.
Hockey, Cuban Style
This hockey match required some improvisation since Cuba doesn’t have the inhospitable winter and hockey-playing weather of Canada. Instead of an ice rink, the flat-cushioned surface of Deck 11 on the Cuba Cruise ship would do. The boards were only about 18 inches high and the teams used a typical ball hockey hard orange ball instead of a puck. Any high shots went overboard and became play toys for fish in the Caribbean Sea.
Making Canada proud were ex-NHLers Bernie Nicholls, Gary Leeman, Jack Valiquette, Ric Natress and Dave Hutchinson. These guys might no longer play in the big leagues, but they still have those competitive juices flowing. After demonstrating some hockey skills for the cruise passengers
they showed their charitable Canadian personality and strategically let the Cubans make it a close game. Pride took over, though and Canada scored the winning goal. Not quite the excitement of the Stanley Cup but, hey this hockey game was fun to watch. And so much more civilized — chugging a cold beer, being bathed in a wide ray of sunshine and surrounded by passengers in swimsuits. This is hockey maybe not at its best but at least at its sunniest and warmest.
Cuba and Canada have had a love affair for many decades, with more than a million Canadians visiting the island each year. Americans not so much. The times are changing and after more than 60 years of isolation American tourists long banned from visiting Cuba will be once again descending on this island nation. Cuba as we know it will go through another revolution in coming years — this time an American-generated invasion. Not of troops but of American fast food, coffee, clothing and a variety of consumer goods. Oh yes American tourists too.
Before this happens make a point to visit Cuba while its culture and customs are still intact. One way to experience more of the real Cuba and to visit beyond just the resort compounds is Cuba Cruise, which started in December 2013. It is the only cruise ship that circumnavigates Cuba, visiting six ports of call on its seven-night/eight-day cruise: Havana, Holguin (Antilla), Santiago de Cuba, Montego Bay (Jamaica), Cienfuegos and Punta Frances.
Passengers have the option of boarding the ship either in Havana or Montego Bay, Jamaica — no surprise this is where the Americans board and get off the cruise and don’t get the Cuban authorities to stamp their passport.
Cruising Around Cuba in Style
Cuba Cruises charters the Louis Cristal vessel from December through March. The rest of the time the ship returns to Greece and cruises along the Greek Islands. Canadian Dugald Wells is the brainchild and CEO of Cuba Cruises. The 1,200-passenger ship doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of some of the larger luxury cruise lines with multiple pools, driving ranges, numerous restaurants but passengers won’t be suffering. It has a few restaurants, small casino, pool, whirlpool, spa, fitness centre, library, sports bar, cocktail and entertainment lounges, and a karaoke bar where you can belt out the tunes to see if you have what it takes to be the next Celine Dion. Getting into the spirit (both literally and figuratively) I belted out my rendition of “My Way” to about a dozen passengers. By their reaction to my singing I’m keeping my day job.
Cuba Cruises shines with its extensive shore excursions into areas that a lot of tourists never venture especially if they are on the typical all-inclusive packages to Varadero and Cayo Coco. There are plenty to choose from or you can just do your own thing and explore. You may want to hire a local guide — they are waiting for you.
One tour not to miss is the one to Biran, where Fidel Castro, his parents and siblings grew up. The Castros were actually well off compared to most Cubans. They owned the whole town of Biran and some of the Castros are buried there. You can stroll through the one-room school, the modest Castro home and even a now-closed cock-fighting ring. Many pictures of Fidel, his brother Raul and Cuba’s revolutionary hero, Che Guevara, adorn the walls of the school, Castro home and other buildings in the town. Be aware in Cuba it’s a bit of a money grab. You can figure on paying a camera fee if you take pictures in some museums and historic buildings. It can be from $5 to $10 (Canadian).
Many tours go beyond the city and pass through local villages and both private and state-run farms. See how coffee and cigars are made or discover the island’s potent moonshine, a concoction based on sugar cane. Surprisingly you see many billboards of Che Guevara and various revolutionary-style messages but very few of Fidel Castro. When I asked many locals where is Fidel, they shied away from the question. The average Cuban doesn’t seem to know — no one has seen him in public for over a year.
A Taste of Canada in Cuba
Another great tour is to step back into the 1950s — where’s James Dean when you need him? — and tour Havana and Old Havana in a 1954 Chevy Bel Air convertible or other classic car. Havana is a mix of impoverished and dilapidated buildings in some areas while Old Havana and other locales feature ornate buildings, restaurants, galleries, cigar shops and bars. Old Havana was a favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway.
Cuba Cruise with its distinct Canadian connections — Alberta Steakhouse, Canadian beer (but you can also get Cuban and other beers), beef and other food shipped from Canada — will make Canadians feel at home. And the price is right. Former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Gary Leeman was impressed.
“I’ve never been on a cruise but wow, what a great way to see Cuba. The chance to get off the ship in places that were all definitely different and have time to experience the culture was special,” he said, adding it was the first time he had ever scored a goal on a ship.
MORE ABOUT CUBA CRUISE
Cuba Tourist Board in Canada: www.gocuba.ca
Louis Cristal includes:
- Nine passenger decks, 1,200 passengers in 480 staterooms (10 with balcony) — shower, WC, wash basin, telephone, hairdryer and TV
- Three restaurants, four bars/lounges and a disco
- Casino, Internet corner, conference rooms, photo shop, Metropolitan Show Room, Emporium Duty Free and Travel Value Shop, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, fitness centre, beauty salon, spa and massage.
- Fully air-conditioned, stabilizers, telephone, fax, satellite telephone, physician on board.