A few months back, I saw a posting in one of the many blogger Facebook groups about working with a brand that sought to combine responsible travel with a cruise in the Dominican Republic. I’ll admit that my first thought was suspicion, but I did some digging to find out more about it. What I found was Fathom, a company founded by a fellow traveler and owned in part by the Carnival corporation. Their motto is “impact + travel,” which supports responsible travel and local community impact.
I decided to go on one of their early cruises to see for myself if this was something I could support or not. Early concerns of mine involved the media relations, the first test run cruise that didn’t get to leave the port and the environmental issues that go along with cruising in general. I also had my doubts about the positive impact of “teaching English” to kids in often poor communities, which can quickly become Instagram opportunities bordering on slum tourism and poverty porn. And what about the employees who were working for the next few months without a day off? But I firmly believe that you shouldn’t judge something until you experience it for yourself, of course with a few exceptions. So with that, I hopped a cheap Frontier flight to Miami, spent a night in a hostel and boarded the Adonia, my home for the week.
Before You Sail and Embarkation
Because I was on one of the first embarkations, there was not much information online beforehand. I learned almost everything in the emails a few days before. The email I got about which port to go to was incorrect, but I saw the ship and directed my Lyft driver to the correct spot. I booked my impact activities with little background knowledge on what to expect or pack. But that will change as time goes on.
Thankfully, since the Adonia, a former P&O cruise ship, is only a 704 passenger ship, it took much less time to board than other cruises with the 2,000+ capacity of Carnival ships I’d previously taken. I couldn’t believe that there were no porters haggling you to tip them or long lines to have your papers checked. I simply walked up to the counter, got my on board card and I was good to go! I’ve never had such a seamless cruise check-in process.
On Board Experiences
I brought plenty of reading material, thinking that the at sea days would be boring, but I barely picked them up all week. Even when you’re not in port there are dozens of things going on at once. First, you’re assigned a cohort, which will be your group for the entire trip. Your leader will instruct you all on different aspects of Fathom cruising and answer any questions you might have. It’s good to know your leader’s name because they might end up on one of your day excursions. The leaders were chosen for their unique sets of skills, whether they’re former Peace Corps volunteers, camp counselors, professional athletes or television producers.
On board programming includes everything from Spanish classes to storytelling seminars to movie nights, scavenger hunts, dance parties, live music and movies. For example, I checked out the opening night party, the scavenger hunt, free morning yoga, the superhero party, a visual storytelling seminar and Casablanca movie night. Included were not just activities to keep you entertained, but to also better yourself and introduce you to other travelers. Speaking of which, I found it incredibly easy to meet other travelers, which was a concern as a solo traveler on a cruise. I sat with different people each night at dinner and chatted with folks during daily activities. We’d all come for the same reason: to give back.
In addition to the activities, the ship had its own amenities from its former life as a luxury small ship. There is a fitness center and spa as well as a small pool and hot tubs. The top deck featured a running track. Two stores sold globally inspired and fair trade items like bags from Krochet Kids. Perhaps my favorite place on board the entire ship was the library, which was stocked with classics, novels, and books related to Fathom’s destinations. They even hold a book club for the week!
I heard some complaints about the food while onboard, but I enjoyed it immensely. You have your choice of five eateries including the casual buffet, the poolside grill stocked with Caribbean burgers, and the sit-down Pacific Restaurant. There’s also the Ocean Grill, which has an added cost, but offers modern Dominican cuisine that is oh-so-delicious and the Glass House, a wine bar with great views. Each eatery offers different types of food, but many have Caribbean influences as well as Indian flavors, which is a carry-over from the British ship. Iced tea, lemonade, water, coffee and hot tea were free and available throughout the day. Alcohol was available at the bars in each of the lounges, at the restaurants and at the pool deck, but there are no drink packages like you might find on another cruise. Also note that you can buy cheap bottles of rum or other liquors in Puerto Plata or in port to bring on board with you.
The rooms were large in size, offering a window view of the ocean. I had a large bed and loveseat and the room also had a kettle, glasses, mini fridge, toiletries and plenty of storage space. I had a mid-tier room, as there were both interior rooms and ones with balconies.
While In Port
The first few and last few days are spent at sea, but for three days the ship is docked in Amber Cove, a port near Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic made for Carnival’s family of cruise ships. Cruises once existed here years ago, but all but stopped until this port opened. Here you’ll find a few restaurants and duty-free shops as well as the bus depot where the impact activities and shore excursions leave from. The Dominicans who work here have to get very specific security clearance and guests must show their cruise cards every time they come or go from the port. The businesses inside Amber Cove are also only open when a cruise is in port. There’s also a large pool with for-hire cabanas, ziplines, kayaks and water slides. I’ll admit that it became downright unpleasant when one of the larger Carnival ships was docked there at the same time as the Adonia. The port felt small when full of 2,000 people.
The main reason why I went with Fathom and not just some other company is their impact activities. This gives you the opportunity to give back to local communities. While not compulsory, they are an important part of the experience. If you don’t end up booking an impact activity, or you travel with another Carnival cruise to Amber Cove, you can learn more about it at the Impact Center. My doubts about different impact activities were eased when I learned that they were assessed based on the local community partners IDDI and Entrena, not what Fathom wanted to give back to the people. This is what they call “alongsidedness.” They’re regularly checked to see the needs and activities might change for the day, depending on what’s going on on the ground.
Among the activities offered while I was there were English teaching in schools and the community, pouring concrete floors in local homes, and making chocolate with local women entrepreneurs. I chose to plant trees in the reforestation project (more on that soon), make water filters with Wine to Water, and making recycled paper products with RePapel. You can’t deny that these activities benefit from having extra hands. For example, we created 26 water filters in three hours, where it would have taken much longer with their staff.
I carefully chose my activities based on how I best felt I could give back, not what would look the best on social media. I recommend travelers do the same, especially if you’re able to do the manual labor or speak Spanish. Keep in mind that not everything will involve direct gratification and actual work is required. There were a few people that I think didn’t know what they had gotten themselves into. Others were surprised that we weren’t distributing the water filters into villages that day, but instead were doing the work actually needed by the organizations. You also might not get the activity you signed up for. The biggest thing to remember when doing the impact activities is, “It’s not about you.”
Apart from the impact activities, you can book tours to fill the rest of your time and see the Puerto Plata area, a 20-minute drive away. Since it was difficult to get from the port to town, which I’ll discuss more of in the next section, I booked a half day sightseeing tour in Puerto Plata that cost about $40 USD. Other options included a sightseeing tour, a beach excursion, a catamaran trip, and deep sea fishing. They differ from what is available on other Carnival cruises docked here. You might want to consider booking an outside excursion since the cruise doesn’t leave at night and it will give you more flexibility. It would give you more time to take the cable car in Puerto Plata or go to the 27 Waterfalls.
What I Wish I’d Known
Reflecting on the journey. I snapped this photo with my self timer when I checked into my cabin aboard the @fathomtravel Adonia, my home for the last week. It really was unlike any other trip I’ve taken. I have never connected with my fellow passengers on a cruise or learned so much. I can honestly say I’m sad to leave the ship and new friends today but know I’ll be back. Thanks to Fathom for making this happen. I’ll be compiling my thoughts into posts soon but in the meantime follow #traveldeep for more snaps from my trip and even more from the history-making cruise to Cuba this week!
There are, however, a few things I wish I’d known before going on this cruise with Fathom. The first one is the difficulty of getting from port to other parts of the Dominican Republic. As an independent traveler, I was a bit annoyed at the taxi monopoly coming from Amber Cove (charging $35 for 20 minutes!) and the issues facing a solo traveler when it comes to catching a taxi outside the port and getting to Puerto Plata on my own. I don’t speak much Spanish, so I had to rely on the tours. But I kept telling myself that this was not the trip for solo adventures. I did meet people who ventured off, though.
Other suggestions came down to information. There was little information on the impact activities before I went, which has now changed, so I didn’t know what to expect or what to pack. I knew I’d be getting dirty, but I would have brought a few extra outfits to leave behind. And since the activities are different every day, I didn’t know that the drive times from port to our job sites would be between 20 minutes and an hour and a half. Thankfully, the schedule tells you how long the impact activity should last. Keep in mind that everything tends to run late so it can be tricky to put excursions back to back.
My only other recommendation would be refillable water stations! I travel with a water bottle regularly and like to fill it up, especially in countries where the drinking water isn’t clean, but I had to fill it using a cup in the buffet restaurant.
Experience Fathom for Yourself
Overall, I would certainly travel with Fathom again, whether it’s bringing back my friends and family or going on their Cuba trip. It was Fathom that made cruises to Cuba a possibility again so the company has truly made history. For more on the Cuba cruises, see this post from my friend Angie Away. It would be a great trip for church and school groups, as well as for millennials like myself. And despite not being a “family” cruise, so to speak, there were plenty of activities that children 10 or older would appreciate. You’re never too young to begin making a difference in the world.
Rates start at $499 for an interior cabin and go up from there. This includes all onboard meals apart from those in the Glass House and Ocean Grill as well as three impact activities, use of facilities and onboard programming and events for seven days, from Sunday to Sunday.
My stories on Fathom experiences
- From Cacao to Chocolate
- Making Water Filters with Wine to Water
- The Importance of Responsible Travel
Other bloggers’ stories on the Fathom experience
- Fathom Travel: Cruising for a Change, Turtles Travel
- Fathom’s Impact Activities: Concrete Results, Turtles Travel
- The Truth Behind Fathom Cruises Social Impact Travel, Don’t Forget to Move
- A DIY Volunteer Cruise to the Dominican Republic, Whiskey Tango Globetrot
- Fathom Adonia Cruise Travel Hacks/Tips, Word Traveling
I was hosted by Fathom Travel while on board but all experiences are my own. I covered my own transportation, pre and post trip accommodations, additional excursions and drinks.