Fathom is a cruise to Cuba with a social purpose

The Fathom Adonia cruises past El Morro fort before it arrives in Santiago de Cuba.
The Fathom Adonia cruises past El Morro fort before it arrives in Santiago de Cuba. Fathom

After the Madrigalista Choir finished a performance for a group of American travelers in this Cuban city, they answered questions about their lives, then cajoled the Americans onto their feet to the syncopated beat of a conga Santiaguera.

The American travelers, who were circumnavigating Cuba on the Adonia, also chatted with the operators of El Fígaro, a private restaurant in Havana. They then climbed 52 marble steps to visit a private barbershop — an enterprise that has spurred neighbors all along the street to go into business for themselves.

Two weeks prior and some 335 miles to the east near Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, Adonia passenger Joy Steinberg of North Carolina planted seedlings in compost, learned to make paper from recycled materials and worked on hands-on with volunteer projects.

Two different countries, two different approaches to social-impact tourism. Both itineraries are being offered by Carnival Corp.’s Fathom line as it tries to provide an experience that brings cruisers closer to the people and places they are visiting. Fathom’s single ship, the 704-passenger Adonia, alternates between week-long cruises from Port Miami to Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

In Cuba, where the Adonia made its maiden voyage May 1, the emphasis is on deep cultural immersion and people-to-people connections. The ship calls in three cities: Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago, allowing passengers to see different regions of the country without unpacking their bags.

Most passengers on the Cuba cruise were in the 40-65 age group. Fathom officials said that those on the Dominican cruise were much younger, about half the age of the Cuba cruisers, and the majority of them had never cruised before.

The Dominican itinerary offers more hands-on activities, with cruisers working alongside Dominicans on sustainable projects that focus on education, the environment and economic development. Projects include installing home water filters, replacing dirt floors with more sanitary concrete, and helping a women’s cooperative mold and package chocolate bars.

Once the Adonia reaches the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, it remains anchored at Amber Cove. Passengers use it as their base as they fan out into the neighboring region to participate in projects from Tuesday to Friday when the ship is in port.

While the Dominicans welcome volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, the Cuban government isn’t interested in such hands-on involvement in its social institutions, so the programs on the island have been structured differently. “The Cuban government is not saying to the world ‘come and help us,’ ” said Arnold Donald, Carnival Corp.’s chief executive.

Tara Russell, president of Fathom, said she wants to make a difference in the world. While the Dominican projects may be small-scale, the hope is that month after month, working alongside Dominicans in the same projects, slowly lives will begin to improve, she said. With continued English lessons, for example, students may eventually be able to land jobs in the tourism industry, she said.

“Travel is a really incredible form of connection and transformation,” Russell said.

The tally of accomplishments for the first two weeks of Fathom sailings to the Dominican Republic: 100 water filters installed in homes, more than 4,700 seedlings planted, concrete floors installed in five homes, 10,300 chocolate bars wrapped and more than 1,530 sheets of recycled paper produced, putting more money in the pockets of the women who form an arts-and-crafts enterprise and ultimately allowing them to expand their business.

“We’re about a holistic experience; we’re not just a ship,” Russell said.

The experience extends to selling products aboard ship made by Cuban and Dominican artisans. Cabins are stocked with fair-trade toiletries such as Brazil nut oil body lotion and cane sugar shampoo and a special Cuban-Dominican menu at the Ocean Grill, the ship’s fine-dining restaurant.

It includes selections such as mofongo, fish in a coconut sauce, an upscale sancocho, and very good beans and rice for an upcharge of $25 per meal.

“We really wanted to source products for the cabins, the food and wines, and for the stores, from companies that had a sustainability story,” said Ted Howes, Fathom’s director of product/experience.

The ship, which was previously positioned for British cruises, has the feel of an English country manor rather than a cruise ship plying Caribbean waters. Think lots of dark wood, a paneled lending library, a faux fireplace in one of the lounges and electric teapots in the cabins.

The Adonia has a swimming pool, spa and gym. An added perk are the chimichurri burgers that are served poolside during afternoon barbecues. But there are no elaborate stage shows, a casino, or frills like ice-skating rinks or rock-climbing walls found on larger ships.

There’s a New Age feeling to the shipboard experience with social-innovation workshops, message boards outside each cabin that encourage passengers to list their super heroes and spirit animals, dawn meditation sessions, and early-morning yoga if you’re interested.

Workshops where passengers are encouraged to tell their own stories and learn the elements of great storytelling also are part of the experience.

On the Cuba cruise, salsa and Spanish lessons were offered. Two Cuban bands entertained. Activities even included a domino throw-down.

Working on a vacation might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Steinberg, a market researcher from Chapel Hill, N.C., is so enthusiastic about voluntourism that the Fathom cruise was her eighth international volunteer experience.

While cruisers are in port in the Dominican Republic, they can take part in as many or as few volunteer activities as they want. Steinberg signed on for a full schedule of four activities but also had time to snorkel and go on a catamaran excursion.

Unlike her previous vacations, she said, where she had to pick service or leisure, the Fathom cruise combined the two.

Her favorite activity was working at RePapel, a women’s recycling co-op where she not only learned the process of making recycled paper but also worked with women making jewelry from coffee beans and candles from recycled products. “The music was going, and we had an opportunity to really talk with the women about their vision for growing the business and helping their families,” she said.

The highpoint for Lynette Standley and her husband, Patrick, was a few hours in a classroom teaching a group of kids basic English phrases and greetings and working with them on flash cards. “They were so excited to see us. I could have stayed all day,” said Lynette Standley. “My husband is an engineer and kind of a black-and-white type of guy, so it was nice to see him interact with the kids and get outside his comfort zone.”

The couple, who are from Boise, Idaho, also volunteered at the chocolate factory and planted seedlings.

In the past, Standley said she and her husband have been to beautiful places but often felt the tourism experience was disconnected from the lives of the people in the destinations. “This program acts as bridge. You’re going out with the locals and really experiencing the Dominican Republic. There’s a much deeper connection,” she said.

Standley also liked being able to return to the comfort and amenities of the ship after a day of volunteer work. “It really is the best of both worlds,” she said.

While the Dominican program has been developed over several months in conjunction with two established Dominican development partners, Entrena and the Dominican Institute for Integral Development, Fathom’s Cuban program is still very much a work in progress. Its maiden voyage to Cuba on May 1 was the first cruise by a U.S.-home-ported ship directly to Cuba in more than 50 years.

Some of the passengers said the onshore programs in Cuba still felt too much like conventional tours and didn’t provide enough opportunities for exchanges with Cubans. “I felt like I could learn more about Cuba if I went on my own,” said Michael Rolfes, 25, of Newport Beach, Calif. “I would have liked to free-range more.”

To comply with U.S. regulations, Fathom must offer passengers a full-time schedule of activities that promote people-to-people engagements in Cuba.

Many of the Cuba passengers said they enjoyed the musical performances they experienced everywhere from concert halls and restaurants to street corners, but it left them hungering for more personal contacts.

Among the problems is trying to create intimate encounters for 700 people while juggling the logistics of ferrying them around ports of call.

“We’ve had a short amount of time since we got Cuban approval for the cruise [March 21],” Russell said. “We have a lot of work to do on the Cuba product.” Over time, she said, Fathom hopes to develop more customized tours with its Cuban partner, Havanatur, that might feature conversations with artists, a classic car experience, and visits to the shops and workshops of more private entrepreneurs.