Classic Car in Trinidad, Cuba

What to Expect From a Cuba Cruise: An Interview with IE’s April Springer

Classic Car in Trinidad, Cuba

The floodgates of travel to Cuba are opening quickly, with commercial airlines and tour operators lining up to feed America’s insatiable appetite for the previously off-limits country. International Expeditions is one of the very few companies who offer a small-ship Cuba cruise that allow visitors to get off-the-beaten-path and see a side of the island relatively untouched by the mainstream tourist hordes.

We spoke with IE’s Destination Manager April Springer about her numerous visits to find out why a small-ship cruise is her preferred way to explore the island.
I know you've been to Cuba several times now. Could you tell me about your very first visit and the initial impressions you had of the country?

Arriving into Camaguey was an experience I will never forget. As we approached the landing strip, there sat a one-story, dilapidated airport. When the steward opened the door and I laid eyes on the stairs used to descend the plane I thought to myself, “What year is it? Where am I?” We made our way across the tarmac and into the airport, where the uniforms were very 1960s – blouses are too tight, fishnets and heels are the norm, and the men are all so mundane in their uniforms. Everything was worn and tired, but you immediately feel the calm. The people are all so relaxed, no one is in a hurry, there are no cell phones ringing, no one has ear buds in. This really set the pace for my first visit. No one is ever in a hurry: You move at the people’s pace, they don’t move at yours.

You've been to country 3-4 times now, right? Do you have a favorite memory or two of your time there that you can share?

In April of this year I had the pleasure of visiting Holguin. Not many American tourists make it this far down the island. While there, we visited Marian da Vita and raced in Cuban-style speed boats with a group of Norwegians, which was so much fun! Then in June of this year I rode in a 1960s helicopter to the island of Cayo Largo to check out the activities we will be doing on our Cuba Voyage program, and that was terrifyingly fun!

How has the island changed in the years since your first visit? 

Internet is making its way there slowly but surely. There’s a flourishing private enterprise, with new restaurants, bars, nightclubs, artists’ shops, etc. There’s property for sale, which is creating new casas – rooms or apartments for rent in someone’s home – all over the island. All of these things are steadily improving the lives of the Cuban people.
I think most Americans already know about the beauty and culture of Havana. But what lesser-known cities/towns in Cuba would you recommend people should visit?

My favorite town in Cuba, without a doubt, is Guardalavaca, but it’s a long drive from Havana. I think our Cuba Voyage program gives people a great chance to see more of the less-traveled parts of the island. You still get your time in Havana, but you’re not stuck in a bus for 10 hours trying to get there. Maria La Gorda is beautiful, and Cayo Largo is a very interesting island.

IE is one of the few companies in the world offering small-ship cruises of Cuba. How does that experience differ from land-based Cuba tours?

As you might imagine, the infrastructure of Cuba is not up to most American’s standards. The hotels quite often fall short of expectations. But with a ship, you know what you’re getting, day in and day out. I personally love that IE offers one night in a Cuban hotel prior to boarding the ship so that you can still get the experience of the authentic Cuban hotel stay. But then you board your ship and settle in for the next seven nights. Also, with the mix of meals offered, you get to sample the local offerings and experience Cuban dining. But for those nights when you’re just exhausted, you have dinner onboard and then it’s off to bed.
Can you talk about some of the more memorable natural attractions people can see during IE's Cuba cruise?

One very unique stop we make is at the Guanahacabibes National Park, which is at the westernmost point of the island and is one of the largest parks on the island. The park is home to 40 bird species and several local jutia and iguanas. I even saw my very first white-tailed deer in this park. We also have a visit to the turtle nesting and hatchery center in Cayo Largo, which is something you couldn’t do without the boat (or, alternatively, the terrifying helicopter ride).
Other than your job, what is it that keeps you coming back to Cuba over and over again? What makes it unique from other Latin American and Caribbean destinations?

I love the people, the lifestyle, everything! I would go even more often if it was possible. Cuba is not your typical tourist destination. It’s not overrun with tourists yet, and it’s very safe. I can recall walking down the street at 2 am after a musical performance and feeling totally safe. We think Las Vegas never sleeps, but the whole country of Cuba never sleeps! There is always something going on, whether it’s old men playing dominos on the street corner at 2 am or farmers up at 3 to beat the sun. I just love Cuba. 

Read April's interview with Travel + Leisure on what Americans can expect when traveling to Cuba.

Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website
Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.