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Trips to Cuba are culturally fascinating but not without certain inconveniences. At least, that’s what I had heard before my visit. There were stories of having to deliver a speech to a group of Cubans during a tightly controlled itinerary, “luxury” hotels running out of shampoo and air charters from Miami to Havana being delayed for a half-day.
While such stories have turned off some from traveling to Cuba, the lure to visit our estranged neighbor has been so strong that self-selecting groups of sophisticated travelers and history buffs have brushed off such snags as part of the experience.
But, as I learned on Fathom’s historic first cruise from Miami to Havana, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Fathom handled everything, from securing pre-trip visas to ensuring that my days in port followed the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control guidelines for people-to-people travel in Cuba. The cost of the cruise includes approved guided sightseeing tours in groups of 25 to 28 people, as well as onboard cultural programming.
In one week, Fathom’s Adonia is able to circumnavigate the country, stopping for two days in Havana, one half-day in Cienfuegos and one day in Santiago de Cuba. While some land tours hit Havana and Cienfuegos, I haven’t come across a weeklong itinerary that is able to incorporate both Havana and Santiago de Cuba — and for good reason. According to Rosamaria Caballero, senior director of Cuba product for Fathom, the drive from Havana to Santiago would probably take about 18 hours, and road conditions leave much to be desired.
The itinerary’s geographical range is just one way cruisers get a varied experience in Cuba. Onboard educational and cultural sessions range from an Intro to Santeria class and informal drinks with the ship’s Cuban band to a Cuba Fiesta night.
The two sea days we had were great for learning more about Cuba, and also for unwinding. Since port days were packed — per U.S. law, which requires a full day of cultural immersion — sea days allowed me to rest and work out so that I would be ready for our next stops. Even better, they allowed me to reflect on my experience — as well as on myself. In the comfort of an outdoor Jacuzzi and a sunset (as well as in an onboard storytelling session), I swapped tales with other passengers about my favorite moments. These included listening to the Cienfuegos Choir sing traditional Cuban music and a lively cover of a Beatles song; watching fellow cruisers dance with Cubans to a live band in Santiago de Cuba; and exploring Havana’s Fusterlandia, a colorful, Parc Guell-like wonderland by Cuban artist Jose Fuster.
But just because Adonia is a premium ship — with niceties such as a penthouse suite, a spa and live music — it’s not a typical cruise product.
For starters, there’s no casino. The ship’s gift shop is stocked with artisanal, purpose-driven brands such as Shinola, Alternative Apparel and Theo Chocolate, as well as Clandestino, a privately-run Havana design collective with whom President Obama chatted during his historic visit.
Like other cruises, there is a buffet and a formal dining area, both serving a rotating selection of international dishes. But my favorite eateries — which provided a nice respite from the rather limited and basic food we ate in port — included the poolside Lido Cafe, which serves Cuban and Dominican-inspired burgers and sandwiches, and Ocean Grill, the specialty restaurant. Headed by Dominican chef Emil Vega, the latter requires a $25 charge and serves Dominican and Cuban gourmet cuisine, from Vegetarian Pastelon (ripe plantains, queso fresco and sauteed spinach) to Bistec Encebollado (a seasoned beef filet with caramelized onions, yucca fritters, sweet plantains and chimchurri salsa). Be sure to tell clients to book a reservation — or three — soon after boarding.
In addition to cultural programming, there are onboard self-improvement sessions that give a glimpse of the mission and experience of Fathom’s social-impact itinerary in the Dominican Republic, which focuses on self-betterment and volunteering.
During one class called “Travelers of Fathom,” paired-up strangers — ranging from kids to seniors — moved beyond small talk through interviews requiring confidentiality, self-reflection and openness. In another session, I learned about nonprofits that were making a difference around the world before brainstorming solutions to pressing world problems.
According to Lindsay Pearlman, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group, clients should be interested in both cruising to Cuba and participating in onboard programming to get the most out of their Fathom experience.
Whether or not clients pick pool time over cultural or impact sessions, all cruisers will enjoy what is perhaps the best part of traveling to Cuba by ship: the sheer novelty of it — and its significance in the greater story of Cuba and the U.S. Pulling up to gorgeous Havana Harbor on the first U.S. ship to ever do so in more than 50 years, I felt a little like an astronaut planting the American flag on the moon. I couldn’t help but tear up as we sailed into Havana and I estimated the distance of the malecon (boardwalk) by the number of Cubanos waving us into their beautiful, complicated city.
“Many people told us, Americans have been coming by plane, but this is different — there is something profound about having this visible ship,” said Tara Russell, CEO and founder of Fathom and social impact lead for Carnival Corporation & Plc. “It’s a powerful reminder that you’re here and coming back.”