Maria Pena's eyes welled with tears as she stood on the deck of the Adonia watching the Havana skyline come into view.

"Coming on this ship was a difficult decision for me -- my family spent a lifetime fighting the regime," said the Miami attorney whose family fled Cuba nearly 60 years ago. "I'm very conflicted right now. But I believe this is the first step to change."

Pena is among nearly a dozen Cuban Americans who are taking part in the historic journey of Fathom's Adonia this week, the first cruise ship in nearly 40 years to sail from the U.S. to Cuba.

The ship, part of Carnival's new Fathom volunteer tourism cruise brand, arrived in Havana Monday morning to throngs of cheering Cubans, who waved, honked their car horns and ran along the water's edge to keep up with the Adonia as it pulled into port.

The cruise from Miami to Cuba is the latest step forward in the warming of relations between the United States and the Caribbean nation, perhaps marking the start of an entirely new chapter for the two countries that were once on the brink of nuclear war.

About 700 passengers are taking part in the seven-day cruise, which in addition to Havana, will stop in Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, before returning to Miami on May 8.

The ship's arrival in Havana yesterday kicked off an emotionally charged day for both Cubans and Americans, one filled with much good will on both sides.

As the ship sailed into Havana, Americans waved to the crowds onshore and chanted "Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!"

Meanwhile, hundreds of Cubans lined up outside the front door of the port building to greet Adonia's disembarking passengers. As each passenger stepped out of the building and crossed the street, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause, crushing closer to shake hands and say hello.

The ship was also greeted with a full court of Cuban media, as well as government dignitaries and VIPs.
The media attention was reciprocated. Onboard Adonia were members of the press from around the world.

Amid all of the flashbulbs and onlookers, Arnie Perez had the honor of being the first visitor to step off of the Adonia and into the port of Havana, a particularly poignant moment for the Cuban-born American whose family left the country when he was just nine months old.

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"I'm home," said the 56-year-old, as he clutched his deceased father's license, a small tribute to the parent who decided to bring his family to America nearly 60 years ago in search of a better life and freedom to pursue their dreams.

"I admire what my parents did -- I don't know if I would have had the guts to do that," continued Perez, who plans to visit his last remaining relative in Cuba, an aunt in Cartagena.

"One of the tragedies of all of this is that I was never able to meet either set of my grandparents," Perez said. "That pains me."

Adonia's headline-making journey is paving the way for what some estimate could be thousands of ships a year crossing the Florida Straits, a passage long closed to most U.S.-Cuba traffic.

 Several other cruise companies have already publicly discussed their intentions to begin bringing ships to the island nation.

Still, as the Fathom cruise ship prepared to depart Miami on Sunday, it met with some protests. A tiny boat, painted with the word "Democracia" motored back and forth beside the Adonia displaying a sign that read, "Castro, why do you ask Cubans for a visa to visit their own country?"

Cuban-born Americans onboard Adonia were required to apply for visas in order to visit the country.
It is the first time since Fidel Castro launched the revolution that brought him to power in 1959, that Cubans have been able to come back to their homeland aboard a ship.

While Cuban-born individuals have been able to visit Cuba by air, they had been prohibited from arriving by sea up until recently.

Adonia's voyage almost didn't take place because of the ban regarding Cuban-born people arriving by sea.

Carnival and Fathom executives worked with the Cuban government to resolve the issue, pressing for cruise ships to be able to operate in the same manner as air charter operations, which transport Cuban-born individuals to the country.

The sticking point was resolved little more than one week before the cruise was to depart.

"We are contributing to a positive future," said Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corporation. "This is a positive outcome and we are extremely pleased. We want to extend our sincere appreciation to Cuba and to our team who worked so hard to help make this happen." 

But even amid all of the excitement and goodwill, some Cubans expressed skepticism, or perhaps cautious optimism, regarding the impact of the newly arriving American tourists.

Eric Mena, a 48-year-old taxi driver with two children and another baby on the way, said the average Cubans have yet to see any of the economic benefit of the renewed relations with the U.S.

"All of the money is taken by the commander," he said in reference to the Castro regime. "All of the money the Americans are bringing in just stays with the government."

Mena pointed out that American tourists thus far do not appear to have very much freedom to move around the country at will, but instead are shuttled around on tours and then right back to the airport.

At the same time, day-to-day living in Cuba remains a struggle, and the cost of buying many household items remains out of reach, Mena continued. Buying a television, he said is like trying to purchase a car, the cost is so exorbitant. And a refrigerator can cost as much as $8,000.

Mena offered a parting analogy to express his frustrations.

"Why to I care if my house is surrounded by flowers, if I cannot pick them and put them in a vase," said the taxi driver.

Still others believe engagement, rather than isolation is the right path forward.

"We've been trying to change things by not coming here and by an embargo for 50 years now, and it hasn't worked," said Pena, the Miami attorney.

Tickets for Fathom cruises to Cuba start at around $1,800 per person, excluding Cuban visas, taxes, fees and port expenses. The cruises are scheduled to run every other week.