More cruises to Cuba are setting sail from ports on Florida’s coast this year as the market for American tourism settles down after Obama eased travel restrictions in 2015. My family just returned from a week-long cruise with stops at Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and, yes, Havana.

Caution: These cruises aren’t Love Boats. They are regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which means travelers must participate in educational activities, often called people-to-people exchanges. An educational visa is required.

We loved the educational vibe on our cruise. The cultural activities were fun and interesting: lessons on Cuban history, santoria, salsa dancing classes, African-Cuban history, performances by Cuban dance and music groups, rum-tasting, and more.

For us, the on-ship highlight was an improvised talk by four Cuban exiles who were returning “home” for the first time. They described their ambivalence and the downright hostility of some of their older relatives whose grudge against the Castro brothers remains strong. In the end, all said they were compelled to go back to Cuba to see what had changed and to see relatives left behind five decades ago. One was Elena, a retired teacher who couldn’t resist the opportunity to return to Havana after 55 years to meet a half-sister for the first time. We later saw them walking down the street holding hands.

As part of the people-to-people requirement, we were encouraged to engage with Cubans on shore. We were schooled in basic Spanish phrases, currency tips and cultural do’s and don’ts. Once on shore, we chatted with shopkeepers, artists, vendors, people who have opened cafes in their homes (paladeres) and yes, the drivers of the vintage 1950s cars that are the staple of the taxi fleet. We roamed the streets of Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Havana. Cuban people were friendly and curious. Love of baseball was a common denominator.

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We’d been pondering how to visit Cuba for several years and knew lodging is scarce (and likely without AC). The cruise ship helped resolve that issue – it gave us comfortable rooms and amenities, we only had to unpack once and transportation between cities was taken care of. The downside to cruising is we had less time on shore. We had to rush some of our “must see” sites.

We’re big Teddy Roosevelt fans so we were thrilled to see San Juan Hill, the site of the military victory in 1898 that propelled his political career. Note that the locals call the conflict the Spanish-Cuban-American War, because while freed from Spanish rule they were then occupied by Americans for decades.

Another highlight was the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. The museum is filled with relics and photos depicting Castro’s takeover and the subsequent 50-year standoff with the U.S. (from his vantagepoint of course). In front of the museum sits a tank commanded by Castro at the Bay of Pigs, when exiles disastrously failed to invade. An area adjacent contains the “Granma,” the boat Castro commanded on his ultimately successful invasion in 1959.

The island really is stuck in a time warp. Castro time, that is. Half a century of U.S. embargo and then the loss of their patrons in the USSR has left a crumbling — but proud — country.

We have only two regrets. One, baseball season was over, so we didn’t catch a few innings of Cubano ball. Two, we didn’t get out into the countryside. We heard the Vinales Valley in western Cuba is incredible. We would have liked to tour a sugar cane or tobacco plantation, since they are staples (rum and cigars) of the Cuban economy. Or do some hiking in the Sierra Maestra or Escambray mountains, where Castro’s guerrillas plotted their revolution.

It’ll start our to-do list for next time. We couldn’t get enough of this colorful culture and people, blended like a fine mojito.

Addendum: Here’s a 2-minute video about travel to Cuba.

Sandy K. Johnson is a journalist who writes real news and is a fierce protector of the First Amendment. 

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