Tyson Russell, 10, his younger sister Lucy, 8, and a gaggle of cousins were the first American kids to step off an American ship in Cuba in more than 50 years.
"Cool," Tyson said.
"No one I know has been here," added his cousin Jacob Russell, 12. "It's exciting!"
It's all the more exciting because hundreds of Cubans lined the shore cheering and waving as the 700-passenger Adonia sailed in to Havana harbor. The passengers waved back and then were greeted on shore with high-fives and hugs. "I didn't expect that,"Noah Russell, 15, said. "It made me feel really good."
That was true for all of the passengers aboard Adonia, the first ship in a new Carnival brand called Fathom, which is devoted to immersive and impactful travel. There were 16 Cuban-born Americans on board, some returning for the first time, some who work for Carnival Corporation, all hoping to see homes they left as young children. Cuba just last week agreed to permit Cuban-born Americans to travel here by boat. "This is the best thing we can do to break down barriers, to bring people together," said Carnival Corporationpresident and CEO Arnold Donald, who was onboard for the historic arrival.
For Tara Russell, Tyson and Lucy's mom, the fact that her children, mom, extended family, including her niece and nephews, can share this experience is the best Mother's Day gift of her life. "I'm living my dream this week," she said. Russell is the president of Fathom, who's spearheading a new cruise concept focusing on voluntourism in the Dominican Republic and also immersive experiences to Cuba. The hope is to encourage younger, non-cruisers -- especially families -- on board for a different kind of vacation experience.
I've learned firsthand that encouraging kids to be global citizens, to be comfortable outside their own comfort zones, helps them navigate unfamiliar and difficult turf in their lives as they grow up.
That Russell's kids and husband were able to join her on the inaugural Dominican and Cuban cruises and see how fully engaged they have been in the programming she has worked so hard to develop, not only underscores what she is trying to accomplish with Fathom, but personally "is such a gift," she said. "Crazy good!"
Certainly the Cuba programming is a work in progress. As required bythe United States, Americans traveling to Cuba must participate in eight hours of approved "people-to-people" experiences daily (that doesn't leave much time for Cuba's beautiful beaches). Some P-to-P programs are excellent, others need work.
The advantage of traveling on Fathom, passengers agree, is that all of the logistics are arranged for you, including the required P-to-P experiences, in a country still struggling with tourism infrastructure. There are few hotels, poor roads, difficulties renting a car, little Wi-Fi. "I'm really not a cruise person," said Sandeep Rao, a physician from Texas in his 30s traveling with his wife, Swathi. "But Cuba seemed daunting. I knew on a trip like this everything would be taken care of, he added, clutching a "Lonely Planet Cuba" guide.
One day in Havana, for example, the Raos were in my group as we met with the manager of a private -- as opposed to government-owned -- restaurant. He was very proud that Guy Fieri will feature his restaurant El Figaro in an upcoming segment of his TV show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" on the Food Network. "That Americans are coming is good for everyone," Johnny Blanco said, as he served up delicious lobster tail and beans and rice all for under $15 in the tiny restaurant.
Gilberto Valladares Reina, who everyone calls "Papito," has his own private hair salon (and museum, devoted to the history of barber shops and hairdressing) up a steep flight of steps a few doors away from El Figaro on what is known as "Barber's Alley." Reina was one of the first in Cuba to get a license for a private business in his home some 16 years ago and has been instrumental in forming Arte Corte, a community organization that has helped other businesses start along the street. They have also organized projects for schoolchildren, a free hairdressing and bartender school for young adults, a senior center that feeds 150 for 10 cents a day and a free playground themed to hairdressing (think a giant blow dryer climbing scape).
Today, Papito's shop is bustling. He's thrilled to see Americans coming, and for the opportunities this P-to-P program offers. "The most important tourism product we have is our people," he said through an interpreter. That Cuban and American children can meet is especially important, he believes.
It is a significant feat that Fathom can move 700 people through tours that fulfill the P-to-P requirements, visiting different community projects and historic sites like the historic Cathedral of San Cristobal of Havana (a kids' favorite because they can climb to the top of the bell tower), small restaurants and museums. The National Museum of Fine Arts was a spectacular representation of Cuban culture through art, but if we hadn't had a knowledgeable guide, I wouldn't have appreciated what we were privileged to see.
If you don't want to participate, even onboard, you can do the paperwork to complete the P-to-P requirements on your own, assuming you can arrange the interaction. Fathom's Rosamaria Caballero, a Cuban-American and the Fathom executive who helped develop the P-to-P programs, said that soon she hopes there will be workshops with dancers, musicians, perhaps a cooking class or one that focuses on Havana's Jewish history, as well as some programs better designed for families.
It isn't difficult, particularly if you speak Spanish, to interact with Cubans. They couldn't be friendlier. You should feel safe bringing the kids here.
The Adonia is not a big ship (the Havana dock can't accommodate anything bigger yet). It only has a very small pool, no waterslide or kids' club, no casino and Internet is spotty. That doesn't seem to faze anyone on board in the least, especially not the kids.
"I'm most excited that we're going to be the first Americans to sail in here in so many years," said Jack McHargue, 13. "My friends think it's cool that I'm here."
"We're having too much fun," added Tyson Russell.
"Children are the future," Papito said. "We want to see enterprise between the United States and Cuba. "We are very different cultures," he continued, as today's children get to know each other and focus on their similarities rather than their differences, "they can tighten the bonds between us."
Eileen Ogintz is the creator of the syndicated column and website Taking the Kids. She is also the author of the ten-book Kid’s Guide series to major American cities and the Great Smoky Mountains. The third-edition of the Kid’s Guide to NYC has just been released.