The Fathom Adonia moved into Government Cut on Sunday and then steered south toward Cuba to inaugurate the first cruise service between the United States and the island in more than a half century.
Water canons saluted the ship as it steamed out of PortMiami on a cruise that had a Cuban feel — from the café Cubano served in the boarding area to the Cuban standards served up by Tomasito Cruz and the Havana Band.
To make history “is one of the greatest honors a company can have,” said Arnold Donald, chief executive of Carnival Corp. Fathom is Carnival’s social impact brand.
One boat with activists from the Democracy Movement greeted the cruise ship but pulled away before the Adonia set sail. The group was initially opposed to the trip because of the ban on Cuban-American travelers. The group’s leader, Ramón Saúl Sánchez, said they applaud the lift on the ban and have no objection about Carnival’s trip to Cuba. But they still oppose the Cuban government’s visa requirement for Cuban-born travelers.
The cruise left at 3:55 p.m. on a sunny spring day, but in recent weeks things have been choppy for Carnival and Fathom.
A decades-old Cuban policy that prohibited those born on the island from arriving or leaving the island by vessel threatened to scuttle the voyage. But a last-minute change in policy by the Cuban government meant the Adonia could sail into history.
And there will be passengers born on the island on the cruise — 10 to 25, according to cruise officials. “It’s going to be a beautiful mix,” said Tara Russell, the president of Fathom.
The first passenger to set foot on Cuban soil will be Arnie Perez, Carnival’s chief legal counsel. He was born in Cuba.
Mary Olive Reinhart came with 10 of her happy-hour friends from Philadelphia. The adventure was a draw for the retired parks service ranger.
"It's exciting to go places where we're forbidden. For me, I want to be at home in the world — the whole world.”
Plus she said she's excited to see the old buildings and hopes she can contribute to their preservation.
The 600 passengers on the Adonia are the first cruisers to travel from a U.S. port to Cuba since the rapprochement between the countries began on Dec. 17, 2014, and the first since U.S.-Cuba relations went into the deep freeze more than 50 years ago.
The Adonia is set to arrive in Havana on Monday morning. Passengers will begin a series of tours that are designed to help them get to know the Cuban people, and to let Cubans get to know them.
Officially the cruise is a people-to-people trip, one of the 12 categories of travel permitted with the embargo still in effect. Those on people-to-people trips are supposed to engage in purposeful travel that includes interactions with Cubans.
The passengers will visit many of the same places a typical tourist might — the Plaza de la Revolucion, the Colon Cemetery, and the National Fine Arts Museum — but to comply with people-to-people requirements, there will also be conversations with artists and visits to community projects.
To further the exchange, Cuban bands will perform on board the ship and goods made by Cuban entrepreneurs will be offered for sale on the Adonia, Russell said.
“Travel is really an incredible form of connection and transformation,” she said.
The idea is to immerse passengers in Cuban culture, she said, and how that is defined is “pretty diverse.”
On the days the ship is at sea, Fathom will offer programs on Cuban history, culture and customs. There will also be lessons in conversational Spanish and a featured book — Cristina García's Dreaming in Cuban — and Cuban-themed movies will be shown. Some meals also will feature el sabor de Cuba.
Cruisers can choose to skip the on-board activities and even substitute their own ashore activities for those offered by Fathom, but they still must follow people-to-people itineraries, said Roger Frizzell, Carnival’s chief spokesman.
Those travelers also must record their people-to-people exchanges and retain their records for five years. The cruise line keeps track of the record-keeping for those taking part in its programs.
The historic cruise almost didn’t happen on schedule.
Fathom at first abided by the Cuban vessel policy and declined to sell tickets to those born in Cuba, But after protests, two lawsuits against Fathom and Carnival that have since been withdrawn, and condemnations by politicians of all stripes, Carnival shifted gears and said it would delay the trip until Cuba allowed those born on the island to arrive on cruise ships.
The protestors claimed that the policy, first imposed to discourage hijacking of vessels and people smuggling, was discriminatory and relegated those born in Cuba to second-class status.
Cuba announced it was dropping the policy just over a week ago.
‘They knew in order to accommodate normalization of relations and accommodate our bringing guests to Cuba, it would be necessary to change,” said Donald, the CEO.
“We were working all along so everyone could sail with us,” he said. “Luckily we got it done and luckily we got it done for the first cruise.”
As emotions heated up in Miami, Donald said Carnival became concerned that it might upset the process already under way to get the vessel policy lifted. It’s never good to back someone into a corner, he said.
Other cruise lines also are negotiating to get into the Cuban market with ships home-ported in the United States.
The Cuban vessel policy would have been an obstacle for any other cruise line or ferry service that hopes to sail to Cuba.
"Pioneers always pay a price," said Pedro Freyre, a lawyer for Carnival and two other cruise lines.
With the vessel restriction now behind it, Donald said, the cruise industry might evolve to a point where Carnival might some day home-port a ship in Havana.
“It's such an event, such a great historic moment. This is a great time to open Cuba up. We do business with China. With North Vietnam. so why not with Cuba?” asked Fort Lauderdale attorney Jeff Levy, who is on board.
“I know Cuba has made many, many mistakes but I believe over time they will be corrected.”