What went right and wrong on historic Miami-to-Cuba cruise

The Fathom Adonia returned to Miami shortly before 6:30 a.m. Sunday, finishing a voyage that circumnavigated Cuba and sailed into the history books as the first regular cruise to travel directly from the United States to Cuba in more than half a century.

The week-long cruise — the first trip in what will become twice-monthly service to the island — wasn’t perfect. There were programming glitches, logistics snafus, even an outbreak of 14 cases of gastrointestinal illness on the final days of the cruise.

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But it was one more step in a rapprochement process that began on Dec. 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the two countries were working toward restoring relations.

Cruisers said they would long remember the warm welcome they received from a large Cuban crowd in Old Havana as they disembarked, the cheers and waves from people watching from shore as they neared ports in Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, and their encounters with the Cuban people.

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Although foreign cruise lines have called on Cuba for years and other Americans have come on people-to-people visits, the symbolism of an American cruise ship towering above Havana’s Malecón and clearly visible along the waterfront in Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba wasn’t lost on Cubans. They went out of their way to welcome the American cruisers.

“All day yesterday, it was raining here and we were worried the ship couldn’t dock. And we have been expecting you for so long,” Haydee Vidal, a Havanatur guide, told a group of passengers assigned to her Friday in Santiago, the final port of call on the cruise. “It’s a huge step. We’re all very excited.”

Despite decades of hostile relations between the two governments, somehow a bond between the Cuban people and the American people has endured.

Like many passengers, Roger Frizzell, chief spokesman for Carnival Corp., the parent company of the Fathom line, was blown away by the crowd assembled in Havana.

“It was genuine; it was real. The Cuban people were crying; we were crying,” said Frizzell, who was one of the first off the Adonia to wade into the crowd assembled across the street from the cruise terminal.

Fathom is Carnival’s new social impact line. On the Adonia’s twice monthly sailings to the Dominican Republic, passengers volunteer for social projects that include teaching English, installing water filters, and planting seedlings. But the focus in Cuba is on “deep cultural immersion.”

Because the Cuban cruise is a people-to-to-people trip, one of 12 categories of travel allowed for Americans under U.S. regulations, it was supposed to be about personal encounters with the Cuban people.

There were a few walking tours, but most of the time, air-conditioned buses carried travelers to traditional tourism stops such as the Plaza de la Revolución and Colón Cemetery in Havana, the Palacio de Valle and statue of singer Benny Moré in Cienfuegos, and El Morro and the Moncada Barracks (now an elementary school) in Santiago de Cuba.

Some passengers complained there was scant time during their guided tours to actually connect with the Cuban people, and some of the Havanatur guides seemed more focused on keeping to schedule and showing points of interest rather than facilitating conversations.

One group of cruisers objected when their guide, short on time, decided they should visit Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, where Cuban Independence hero Jose Martí is buried, rather than Parque Céspedes, the crossroads of Santiago. In keeping with the people-to-people spirit, the group insisted it was more important to see living people. The group prevailed.

In Cienfuegos, where travelers were only on the ground for 3 ½ hours, some groups visited a combination beauty/barber shop cooperative and were able to chat with workers. Others only walked past the cooperative on their way to attend a choir performance.

The daily shipboard newsletter promised lunch at a paladar, a private restaurant, “where the chef and staff will answer questions about the rich and colorful history of their city and cuisine” in Santiago. But several groups were taken to state-run restaurants, and some cruisers said they were assigned to lunch at state-owned restaurants for all of their onshore programs.

Even though many travelers said they were thrilled to be making the inaugural visit by a U.S.-based cruise ship, some said they had plenty of suggestions for Fathom to improve future cruises.

Fathom officials acknowledged that their onshore tours were a work in progress.

“We have things we absolutely need to tweak and improve,” said Tara Russell, president of Fathom. “We don’t believe we are fully baked. There are pros and cons in being the first.”

Although Fathom officials have been in touch with their Cuban counterparts since last summer when they got U.S. approval for the cruise, they said they have only been able to go ahead with specific programs and arrangements since March 21 when the Cuban government gave its approval.

Like lots of new partnerships, “it takes time,” Russell said. “We have as much learning to do about the Cubans as they do about us.”

Some passengers ditched the official tours to make contacts of their own. Fathom executives were fine with that. Under a recent U.S. change, American travelers to Cuba can self-certify that they are on a people-to-people trip, meaning if they keep records of their contacts for five years, they are free to strike out on their own and seek meaningful exchanges with Cubans.

For Mari Peña, a West Kendall family lawyer, and her cousin, Nick Peña, who runs a Doral travel agency, that meant seeking out the people and places that shaped the lives of their parents and grandparents.

She was born in Miami to Cuban parents; he was born in Venezuela to parents who fled Cuba. Neither had visited Cuba before.

They not only met relatives they had never known in person but they paid a touching call at the home of Mari Peña’s maternal grandmother. Within a few months of her relatives’ departure into exile in October 1960, another family — who remain there to this day — moved in.

The current residents made coffee for the Peña cousins, offered to let them stay with them and told them they had been saving a box they had found in the house for nearly 56 years. In it were photo albums, including what may be her parents’ wedding album.

“They said they thought it was something valuable and they shouldn’t throw it away,” she said. Another relative will retrieve the box on an upcoming trip to Cuba.

Both Peñas said they were criticized for taking the cruise and some clients threatened to stop doing business with them.

“It was a very difficult decision for us,” Nick Peña said. “But it was absolutely worthwhile, and I’m getting positive comments from people back home now on the pictures I posted on Facebook.”

Mari said she is the youngest family member of her generation and she was getting older and older without ever visiting her ancestors’ homeland. She wouldn’t have made the trip without the blessing of her 90-year-old mother, she said. “She told me she had mixed feelings, but she knew I really wanted to go, so she supported me.”

“It’s very difficult to judge when you’ve been longing to see your family for so long,” she said. “Each person has their own story.”

Peña said she’s no supporter of the Castro regime but she thinks engagement is the correct policy.

“Cubans from Miami who refuse to come to Cuba are like ostriches with their heads in the sand,” she said. “We need more Cubans coming here; not less. This is our first opportunity for change in nearly 60 years.”

Darin Klahr, a freelance writer from Tampa, and his dad Michael also were on a personal mission in Cuba. His mother, Lina, who was born in Cuba and left when she was 16 years old, didn’t accompany them on the trip. But they brought a piece of her history back to Tampa with them.

Before the trip, Klahr said they mapped out the locations of his mother’s first home, her school and other sites important to her. Using old photos that his father stored on his cellphone, Klahr and his dad tracked down four of the places and took plenty of pictures for her.

Even Carolyn Paul, an Ohio retiree and experienced cruiser, tried her best to engage with her self-admitted “terrible Spanish.” In the cruise terminal, she enjoyed meeting a cigar roller and at a restaurant stop, she met a Cuban man who she said desperately wanted to communicate with her.

She said she wished the cruise line had planned more true people-to-people activities. Still, she said, “I think it was a wonderful experience.”

Fathom also made an effort to do some people-to-people outreach of its own. T-shirts silk-screened by the Havana design studio Clandestina were on sale at the ship’s store and two Cuban bands performed — one on the Havana-Cienfuegos leg of the trip, the other from Cienfuegos to Santiago.

Even that was a learning experience, said RosaMaria Caballero, the senior director for Fathom’s Cuba product. In Havana, the musicians had to wait two hours to board the ship while Cuban officials tried to figure out the paperwork that was required. Finally, they let them board as tecnicos (technicians), she said.

And when mojitos proved more popular on the ship than anticipated, Chef Emil Vega and Terry Merewood, the bar manager, headed out into Havana to find the mint needed to prepare the drinks. They asked around and found a small agro-market. But it didn’t have enough mint and cilantro, which also was in short supply, to satisfy the needs of the Adonia. The market women found a large supply for them at another market across town and mission mojito was completed.

“The guests had their mojitos made with fresh, organic Cuban mint,” Merewood said — “and I suppose that’s progress.”

Who went on Fathom trip to Cuba

  • Nationalities: 18 nationalities
  • Cuban-born Americans: 16
  • Gender: 60% female, 40% male
  • Age range: Largest age group, 50 to 70 years; two-thirds of passengers more than 50 years of age.

Source: Fathom

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