From President Orlando Ashford: My Personal Story of Cruising to Cuba

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a deep passion for travel. That passion has not just taken me around the globe, but it has allowed me to live in places I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to call home, like Istanbul, Turkey.

I continue to be inspired by the destinations that still exist on my personal travel bucket list; although there are a few places I thought I might never see. One of those destinations was Cuba.

Until recently, going to Cuba wasn’t an option. But when it became a possibility, I began to dream. We knew Holland America Line would add Cuba to our itineraries — our guests are experience seekers, looking for ways to deepen their cultural understanding of the world. As such, Cuba would certainly appeal to their sense of wonder.

As president of Holland America Line, I felt it was important to be on our first cruise to Cuba aboard Veendam, to share the experience with our guests and to be able to speak about Cuba from a firsthand perspective. Cuba is a fascinating destination and to visit was really special. And I’m proud to say that we do an exceptional job of making it an immersive experience for our guests, truly allowing them to get connected with the culture, art and music of Cuba — both onboard and ashore.

Two things struck me when visiting:

  • First, the call greatly validated the images in my mind about Havana. Havana has a deep, vibrant history, and no words can adequately describe how it felt to actually see it and feel it in person. The music, culture, history, food and cars were captivating.
  • Second, the port of Cienfuegos taught me about the diversity of Cuba. The countryside, landscapes and rural communities all opened new possibilities in my mind about how our guests can experience this special destination.

Our call at Havana, Cuba’s capital and probably the most well-known destination, was where I saw the customs like food, community and music come to life – a true testament to a culture rooted in tradition, perseverance, warmth and pride. Some of my favorite experiences ashore were on our EXC Tours: touring the cigar factory, tasting the local rum and attending an evening performance at the famous Tropicana Cabaret.

Despite my incredible time in Havana, our call at Cienfuegos left the deepest impression. Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Cuba’s province of Sancti Spíritus, blew me away. I was surprised to see the beautiful foliage, rural topography and experience the art, music and people in such a personal way. It truly personified the people-to-people element of our Cuba cruises.

The most impactful moment of my visit to Trinidad was the Yudit Vidal Faife Gallery, located right in the artist’s home. I was touched not only by the beauty of her art, but by her warm hospitality and generosity. I saw her passion for mentoring women and listened to her heartfelt stories about the women she takes under her wing. She showed me what I knew all along: The Cuban people embody a vibrant spirit and unwavering dedication to their customs and culture.

With the artist, Yudit Vidal Faife, at her home gallery.

With the artist, Yudit Vidal Faife, at her home gallery.

My visit to Cuba left me changed — in the way I view the world, the way I view Cuba and the way I connect with people. Some say our oceans separate us, but I believe they connect us. I encourage everyone to cruise to Cuba with Holland America Line.

If you’re thinking about it and have questions about my experience, leave a comment.

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