Fathom's Adonia was the final iteration of Renaissance Cruises' R-class ships, having entered service in 2001. Following Renaissance's bankruptcy, it sailed for Swan Hellenic as the Minerva II, then Princess Cruises as the Royal Princess before joining P&O as the Adonia.
My wife, Sherrie, and I had the pleasure of sailing on two other R-class ships with Oceania 10 years ago and were interested to see what modifications had been made and how the ship had been maintained. We were delighted to find it was basically the same great class of ships we had known.
Changes included eliminating the casino and adding a lounge called Anderson's. The Italian alternative dining restaurant, Toscana, has become the Glass House, an organic wine bar with a comprehensive offering of various varietals and vintages served with complimentary tapas. Generally, the ship is in great shape, and made for a pleasant voyage.
The Ocean Grill, a specialty restaurant with a service charge, focuses on Cuban and Dominican food. I was genuinely excited to try the fare but came away disappointed.
The dining-room menus were different from my prior ocean cruises. Appetizers, soups and salads were bundled into one area, with a limited number of main dishes bundled into a second. The cuisine was also strongly Cuban- and Dominican-influenced, which I liked. Desserts were in a third category and generally offered several chef-specialty items.
Overall, the crew was friendly, courteous and helpful. I found it interesting that the cruise staff who were called "experience guides," with whom passengers most often interacted, included a large number who had been in the Peace Corps. Given the nature and purpose of the cruises, it makes sense to enlist such talent. (Read "Finally experiencing Cuba via the Adonia.")
Our first port of call, Havana, was a treat. As the ship was positioned into its berth, I looked out our balcony window to see dozens of 1940s and 1950s vintage U.S. cars. The thought crossed my mind that the concentration of these vehicles near the dock had been arranged for the viewing pleasure of tourists. But nothing could have been further from the truth.
Everywhere we went in Havana, at least a third, maybe more, of all vehicles we saw fit this category. For a dyed-in-the-wool car nut like me, it was sensory overload.
Some of the cars were in as good as, maybe better, condition as when they left the showroom floor all those years ago. Others were loosely organized, somewhat in the shape of the original car but altered by mounds of body filler.
I am in awe of the ingenuity and creativity of the owners. Spare parts have not generally been available through normal channels for these cars since 1960 or so. As a result, the number of them converted from drum brakes to disc brakes to keep them on the street was remarkable. Others had an assemblage of parts (taillights, trim parts, etc.) from Russian Lada automobiles that had been adapted to the U.S. car.
Two autos were especially creative. On one, the vehicle from the windshield back was a 1955 Plymouth. From the windshield forward, it was a '55 Dodge. Sitting right in front of it was a hybrid creation with a '56 Plymouth rear attached to a '56 Dodge front.
Also, Cubans consider Ernest Hemingway to be as much a Cuban as we consider him to be an American, and they take pride in all things Hemingway. We had the opportunity to spend the day visiting his home and several of his haunts in the city.
We visited a seaside area where Hemingway had the inspiration for "The Old Man and the Sea." It included lunch at a restaurant he frequented that had dozens of photos of Hemingway alone and with dignitaries from all over the world. The food was great, but if you're expecting a quick nosh and then getting back on the road, this won't happen. This was our first opportunity for people-to-people exchange, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. We quickly realized that Cubans take food seriously.
After dining for 90 minutes, we were on our way to Hemingway's home. Close by was a bar serving Hemingway cocktails. Of course, we had to have one before we made our way to the next stop.
That was Floridita, a bar that Hemingway patronized enough to earn a statue at the end of the bar. We had a complimentary daiquiri. Some who chose not to imbibe graciously shared theirs with others.
Then it was off to Bodeguita del Medio, another Hemingway haunt. It was a hot, humid day, so some chose not to visit this bar that also featured Hemingway prominently and served an included mojito.
After an overnight in Havana, we had a second full day of exploring, including lunch at El Aljibe, a well-known restaurant also frequented by Hemingway. The food was great, and the entertainment was fantastic. A visit to a temple of the second largest religion in Cuba, Santeria, and a stop to shop at an artisan's market topped off the day.
After a much-needed day at sea to rest and relax, we called in Cienfuegos, a resort town on the south side of the island. While there are several resorts in the area, we were not allowed to visit them for some reason. Instead, we visited a large cemetery, then went to a concert by an a cappella choir from a nearby university. The concert was a treat, but the building was not air-conditioned, and I had patches of skin exuding moisture for the first time ever.
We sailed that afternoon, arriving in Santiago the next morning.
Our full-day excursion included a stop at El Morro, a fortress guarding the narrow inlet we had passed through that morning. We went next to San Juan Hill, site of the defining final battle that freed Cuba from Spain, after which we visited a small bar with live band and dancers on our way to a paladar, a restaurant operated in part of a private home. Lunch was great, with more than generous portion sizes.
A drive through parts of Santiago revealed a pleasant city, generally in better condition than Havana. A short walking tour in Santiago finished off the day and it was back to the ship.
There are three distinct generations of citizens on the island:
- Pre-revolution (born before 1959). Those we met seemed pleasant, but as a group they are aging out.
- Post-revolution but pre-Special Period (1959 to 1989). This age group included people who, while not unfriendly, were not all accepting of visitors from the U.S.
- Post-Special Period (1990 to the present). Most of our guides were in this generation. They generally seemed happy and optimistic about the future, even given the challenges they face in everyday life. My sense is that this may be because they have never known any other life, so have no reference point to prior times.
Events that led to the Special Period, beginning in 1989, had a profound effect on the island and its population. Cuba was heavily dependent on the Soviet Union for financial support and saw a 34% drop in gross domestic product when it dissolved. The result was crushing shortages of petroleum products that led to energy shortages and electricity outages of up to 16 hours a day. Food shortages led to nutrition falling by 20% due to, among other factors, crop failures and lack of sugar sales to Russia.
I first thought the onset of the Special Period would have been a perfect opportunity for the U.S. to reach out to Cuba on humanitarian grounds. I now believe the Cuban government would have rejected any such overtures.
We weren't allowed to visit traditional Catholic churches or a grocery store. I think the grocery store restriction stems from the strict rationing still in effect. I suspect that the authorities did not want us to see only partially stocked shelves or the absence for the most part of protein. Beef and chicken, according to a person I spoke with, are rarely seen in groceries and are quickly scooped up.
It is widely believed there will be a new president in Cuba in the next 18 to 24 months, and for the first time in the memory of a majority of Cubans, there will be no Castro in a high government post. The expectation is that the new president will be more open to improving relations with the U.S. and further expanding tourism.
U.S. tourists are poised to enjoy a coming new openness with travel to Cuba.