Adonia stops in Cienfuegos as cruisers seek adventure and make history

Some people gather at the Muelle Real at the port in Cienfuegos where the Adonia cruise ship docked Thursday.
Some people gather at the Muelle Real at the port in Cienfuegos where the Adonia cruise ship docked Thursday. Courtesy

The Adonia arrived at this waterfront city on Cuba’s southern coast early on a rain-swept Thursday but passengers had only around 3 ½ hours at the port of call. The city has scant cruise ship infrastructure — there’s no cruise terminal, just a small building to check in — and passengers disembarked down a short gangway to a parking lot.

After a quick tour of some of the highlights of the city known as Perla del Sur (Pearl of the South) — the exotic Palacio del Valle that was influenced by the Alhambra, the Yacht Club, the statue of native son Benny Moré, El Prado, Parque José Martí and the neoclassical architecture — passengers attended a concert by the Choir of Cienfuegos. The choir sang a mix of Cuban, American and classical songs and the travelers rewarded them with a standing ovation.

Passengers boarded the Fathom Adonia Sunday to inaugurate the first cruise service between the United States and the island in more than half a century.

The program said passengers were supposed to visit a pharmacy and ration store to learn about Cuba’s dual currency system, but time was so short for some groups that they were only able to see Cienfuegos’ main shopping street to get an idea of what is for sale on the island and visit a crafts fair as they walked to and from the Teatro Tomás Terry where the choir performed.

Some of the Adonia passengers came for the adventure or the cachet of being part of history; others booked Fathom’s first cruise to Cuba because they were the kind of folks who hung posters of Che Guevara on their walls during college.

Still others said they were aboard the week-long trip on Carnival Corp.’s Fathom Adonia — the first cruise from Miami directly to Cuba in more than 50 years — because they wanted to see Cuba before it becomes just another Caribbean island with too many chain restaurants.

But for Irma Martínez Krollpfeiffer, of Fort Lauderdale, it was simply nostalgia for a place she visited just once in the mid-1950s when she was 7 years old.

Krollpfeiffer — who grew up in Ybor City, the daughter of Cuban parents — has hazy memories of that trip but a few things stand out.

She remembers they went on a car ferry called TNT that left from Key West.

“Then I remember El Capitolio, and seeing this huge diamond that was on display. I was surprised when I got off the boat, everyone was speaking Spanish,” said the retiree. “I saw the island through the eyes of a child. Now as an adult, I’m really looking forward to seeing what I think of the place.”

I saw the island through the eyes of a child. Now as an adult, I’m really looking forward to seeing what I think of the place.

Irma Martínez Krollpfeiffer, retiree from Fort Lauderdale

When Carol Neumann, 72, and her sister Margie Rissler were growing up, their family liked to take family vacations, and they were planning a big one in 1959 — a trip to Cuba.

With the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on Jan. 1, 1959, the trip never happened.

“We always thought it was unfinished business,” said Rissler, who lives in Rochester, N.Y. As soon as they heard about the cruise, they booked it. “I have been so excited, I could hardly stand it,” Rissler said.

Maritza Guerra, of Pembroke Pines, was 8 when her family left Cuba in 1963. She had been back just once — in 2001. She said she found a Cuba of crumbling buildings, one that was “totally destroyed.”

Still, when her sister Terry, a Carnival employee, asked her to accompany her on the cruise, she wavered a bit and then said yes. “I came back for the experience,” she said. “I wanted to make history with my sister.”

And slowly, she said, Cuba seems to be climbing out of the stagnation of the past with new paint on some of the buildings and repairs underway.

“It’s a big change,” Guerra said after spending two days in Havana on the first leg of the trip.

Norman Wilson, an Orlando pastor, also was enticed by the historical significance of being part of the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States. “When I heard this was the first cruise in 50 years, I said that’s for me. I just love to be a part of history and Cuba is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. The thing about being part of history is they can never take that away from you.”

One of the big attractions for Wilson is the many vintage American cars chugging along Cuban streets.

“I’m a car guy and this is car heaven,” he said. “I am going to be taking so many old car pictures, it will just be ridiculous. If they let me, I would buy one.”

Sandep Rao, 37, a doctor from El Paso, and his wife Swathi, 31, are seasoned travelers but he said they are not really cruisers.

“I like to explore on my own, and I don’t like prepackaged things,” he said. “Cuba is one of the few places I haven’t visited.”

But at the same time, Rao said, he was a bit daunted by the U.S. travel regulations, reports he had heard that hotels are fully booked, and concerns that he and his wife — both vegetarians — wouldn’t be able to find the food they wanted in Cuba.

For their first trip to the island, a cruise seemed the best compromise.

“We wanted someone to navigate this for us. I also felt like this would be a different type of cruise with more interactions with people,” he said.

We wanted someone to navigate this for us. I also felt like this would be a different type of cruise with more interactions with people.

Sandep Rao, a doctor from El Paso

They said they were disappointed with their first walking tour of Old Havana because there was no time to pause and talk to anyone, but they liked the second day when they talked with a worker at a private restaurant and neighbors who had transformed a block near the seaside into a string of small private businesses.

Rao also said a jazz club they had discovered on their own in Havana was “awesome” and they were having no difficulties with their vegetarian diet aboard ship. They’ve been taking advantage of shipboard activities like salsa lessons and the screening of Cuban-themed movies.

Rissler also wasn’t a fan of the first day’s programming.

“That walking tour damn near killed me,” she said. Guides, Rissler said, seemed more intent on keeping to a schedule than letting travelers pause and talk to people.

“The first two days we didn’t get to talk to anyone except when we wanted to buy something,” said Neumann, her sister.

Both hoped that armed with some shipboard Spanish lessons and some key phrases, they would do better with people-to-people contacts in Cienfuegos and Santiago, the last two stops on the cruise.

Tara Russell, president of Fathom, Carnival’s social impact line, said that the Cuban programming was still a work in progress. For its cruises to the Dominican Republic, she said, Fathom has had many months to work out social impact programming with its Dominican partners and Carnival also has a long history in the country.

Because it only got final approval for the Cuba cruise in March, she said, it has only had a few weeks to work on programming with its Cuban partner, Havanatur. Fathom is already in “heavy development of more customized tours” for Cuba, she said.

Frances Zeigler, a travel agent from the Washington D.C. area, said she decided to check out the cruise after she heard travel guru Peter Greenberg say at a convention that cruising was currently one of the best travel options for Cuba.

“I think people are more comfortable knowing what their travel and food will be like,” she said. “And I like being able to see multiple destinations without having to pack up.”

But she said she’ll tell customers this is quite different from other Caribbean cruises where there are shipboard casinos, beach excursions, shows and lot of free time.

“This is a fact-finding mission for me more than anything,” she said. But if Fathom irons out some of the glitches in its maiden voyage to Cuba, Zeigler said she’s thinking of putting together a group to travel to Cuba in October 2017.

Rick and Susan Meares, business owners from Jupiter, were intent on some people-to-people contact so they struck out on their own after being disappointed with their guided tours.

“I envisioned it to be much more hands on; that we would go to visit homes,” she said.

I envisioned it to be much more hands on; that we would go to visit homes.

Susan Meares, business owner from Jupiter

They even brought a stock of small toys to distribute to the kids they expected to meet. They ended up playing with kids in a park and to the children’s delight, leaving the toys with them. The couple also had a good conversation with a doorman at a private restaurant and took a ride in a 1939 Ford convertible and stopped for a drink with the car’s owner and learned about his life.

“It did turn out to be people-to-people, but if you just chose not to engage them, then it wasn’t,” he said.

“We wanted to be here before things changed,” Susan Meares said. “The people have been the most fantastic part about it.”

Her husband, a seasoned traveler who has been down the Amazon River twice, said he was looking for a “somewhat adventurous” destination.

“Clearly this was an opportunity to be on an historic ship," he said, "and I was really interested to hear how the people made out during the Communist experiment.”