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

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.


Join the Discussion


  1. Patricia B February 12, 2018 at 7:40 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Mr Ashford, for an exciting post about your HAL adventure to Cuba. Great reading and certainly a nudge in the right direction for those thinking about taking this cruise.

  2. Bonnie Greenacre February 16, 2018 at 11:26 am - Reply

    This is on our list… after 14 exciting cruise with Holland America we look forward to the Cuba experience soon…. thank you this interesting and confirming article.

  3. Dale Evans February 16, 2018 at 12:20 pm - Reply

    Happy that HAL gives me the opportunity to visit Cuba. Sailing there on St. Patrick’s Day????

  4. Anita Wydra February 16, 2018 at 4:44 pm - Reply

    Mr. Ashford, as a Cuban-American that just returned from visiting family, my thoughts are that it should be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba than what it currently is. Each province is a gem of basically unspoiled natural beauty. Would love to be able to visit Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santiago. Was thrilled to be able to go to Viñales on Monday (Pinar del Rio province) and saw the tobacco fields, the thatched roofed buildings where the leaves are cured and walked through “La Cueva de los Indios” (a cave with subeterranean river). Look forward to future visits so I may get to experience the island where I was born.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. Arlene Myers February 16, 2018 at 6:49 pm - Reply

    My friends and I are scheduled to sail to Cuba on February 28, 2018. Cuba has been on my “Bucket List” since I was 10 years old! So excited to finally crossing Cuba off that list! Can’t wait for this experience to begin!

  6. Beth Johnston February 16, 2018 at 6:52 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the wonderful comments about Cuba! We are booked on the March 17th cruise on the Veendam and so looking forward to this great adventure and learning about the history of Cuba, the beautiful old buildings and especially our journey in the Classic Cars!

  7. Jacqueline L Murray February 19, 2018 at 7:00 am - Reply

    I already booked a trip to Havana in April.
    Your article gave me more insight on what to expect.

  8. Yudit Vidal Faife February 25, 2018 at 12:09 am - Reply

    I am really glad!!! For me was an incredible moment. To share my Art with this amazing man and his family was the best blessing in the end of 2017, I think , it was an announce of a great 2018!!!! I really appreciate that beautiful moment and I will have that very deep in my heart forever!!!!

  9. Josephine Cervera February 26, 2018 at 5:20 pm - Reply

    You must visit Yudit and her amazing works. Her home is her studio/gallery and one more beautiful piece of art more than the other displayed so colorful..
    I had the great pleasure of visiting her gallery and enjoyed the marvels of her work.
    Great 2018 Yudit!

  10. Felipe y Patricia February 26, 2018 at 6:14 pm - Reply

    Yes, a visit to talk with artist Yudit in Trinidad and see her latest creations is always very special. We look forward to seeing her every chance we get. Always very welcoming!

  11. Lee LaFollette August 27, 2018 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    Our trip to Cuba was nothing short of fantastic. Went from one end of Cuba to the other side and back. It is interesting to see how the Cubans break away from the everyday struggle to survive. Many very well educated Cubans find ways to profit from getting out there and making changes in their lives. Taxi drivers in the vintage American cars is one of the best ways to discover Cuba. Many of these taxi owners hold degrees in Medicine, IT, Law, etc. I probably shook hands with 50 plus Cuban Police Officers and thanked them for their service. Coming from an American, they were unsure of my intentions, but they finally accepted my hand and smiled. I did not want to be seen as that “ugly American”. Yes, drinking great Cuban rum and smoking fine Cuban cigars in Cuba is what life is all about. Take time to live…cheers!!

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