Sunday, August 21, 2016

I cruised with Fathom and you should, too!

A few months ago I was given the opportunity to experience a different type of vacation. Fathom, a new cruise line owned and operated by Carnival, only has one ship, the MV Adonia, which sails from Miami to two destinations - Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The Cuba trip is focused on immersive cultural exchange, while the Dominican Republic trip is focused on impact travel.
As a travel writer, I was invited to join Fathom on their fifth cruise to the Dominican Republic. Even though this was my tenth cruise overall and the 56th country I have visited, it was my first time to do any significant volunteer work outside of the U.S. I invited my longtime friend and travel companion, Adena Leal, to join me on this trip. She is a registered nurse and has done several volunteer medical missions with Operation Smile, so I thought it would be nice to get her perspective on this unique experience as well.
Once Adena & I were registered for the cruise, we were able to log in to the Journey Planner to select our impact activities. As the itinerary includes 1 1/2 days at sea at the beginning and end of the cruise, we decided to choose four activities spread out over our four days at port. Of course, this means we didn't have a lot of spare time to do anything else, but we were committed to experiencing as much of the Fathom ethos as possible.
We embarked on Sunday, June 5. As we checked in, we found out we had been upgraded to a balcony cabin which was an unexpected surprise. We boarded the ship just before 1 p.m. and our cabin (A070) was ready shortly afterward. While compact, the room was nicely furnished with twin beds, a large armchair, and a desk and stool, plus the aforementioned balcony. Everything was virtually spotless, including the tiny bathroom. There was plenty of storage, both under the beds and in the bedside tables, desk, and large armoire.
After unpacking, we went on an exploratory tour of the ship, which consists of eight passenger decks and staterooms accommodating up to 700 people. Adena & I both were pleasantly surprised by the Adonia’s upscale, classic d√©cor including dark woods, polished brass railings, new carpet, and many welcoming spaces within a much smaller footprint than a typical cruise ship. We were greeted by friendly, smiling faces everywhere we went. We also toured the spa area and the gym, which was equipped with all new machines and free weights.
After enjoying drinks on the Sun Deck while we sailed away from Miami, we returned indoors at 6 p.m. for a meet & greet with some fellow writers from all over the U.S. that I had organized via Facebook. It was nice to meet everyone in person and set the tone for many fun gatherings throughout the week.
For dinner, Adena & I chose to eat alone at a table for two in the Pacific Restaurant. This would be called the formal dining room on any other cruise ship, and it certainly was decorated as such, but on the Adonia there is no set dining time (just a window of several hours during which you can eat certain meals) and no specific attire required other than no swimsuits. We enjoyed our first leisurely and delicious three-course meal with excellent service by the Fathom wait staff.
The following morning, we had our first cohort meeting at 9:30 a.m. There we met our Impact Guide, Ricardo, along with fellow cohorts in our group, which consisted of about 16 people, including a Spanish-speaking couple from Costa Rica. Ricardo is a graphic designer from Bogot√°, Colombia, who changed careers and started working in the cruise industry a few years ago. He was very enthusiastic about working with Fathom. His hour-long presentation focused on what it’s like to be a Fathom traveler, including how to work outside our comfort zones, how to share ideas with the local people we encounter, and how to embrace the concept of eudaimonia or human flourishing.
After a brief break, we made our way up to the Glass House for a Spanish lesson. It was fun to get a basic refresher on Spanish vocabulary and to learn and practice a few helpful phrases, especially the Dominican slang ¿Que lo que? which means “What’s up?” It was also interesting to learn that our instructors (and Impact guides), Gabe and Michelle, met while working in the Peace Corps in Peru. We eventually discovered there were several other Peace Corps veterans among the ship's staff.
Later that afternoon, I attended an hour-long seminar entitled “Social Innovation in Action.” Created with content provided by Ashoka, the session aims to answer the question “What is a social entrepreneur?” After learning more about how Ashoka fellows are selected for their work and studying examples of some of the system-changing ideas they have put into action, we then tackled the complex issues of overfishing and land mines. This was a wonderful experience overall, as many of the attendees (my fellow passengers) spoke about their personal experiences in the areas of human empowerment, civic engagement, economic development, and youth development. I also learned about mine-sniffing rats!
There were a variety of these enrichment activities available on board the ship at various times every day throughout the cruise. All were free and were never mandatory, although attending the cohort meetings is strongly encouraged as they will help you prepare for your impact activities. There were also fun activities like dance lessons, scavenger hunts, fitness seminars, and lots of live music. Only a few options, like the very popular Wine & Paint Night, had a nominal cover fee.
We arrived in steamy Amber Cove just after noon on Tuesday, June 7. Adena & I were anxious to head out to our first impact activity, Recycled Paper and Crafts Entrepreneurship. We traveled in modern mini-buses from the port toward Puerto Plata, and soon turned off the main road into a small run-down neighborhood called El Javillar. There we met the fun & fabulous ladies of RePapel. After introductions by the staff, we were divided into groups of 5-6 people and immediately went to work. Adena & I started with candle-making, then moved on to assembling cardboard coasters, followed by weaving and leather goods, then making jewelry with coffee beans. After a short break, we moved out of the sweltering building to work through all of the steps of making recycled paper. When we ran out of things to do other than watch the paper dry, we danced with our new friends!
We returned to Amber Cove just in time for a beautiful sunset. Then, even though we didn't have to, we dressed up for another great dinner in the Pacific Restaurant.
Our third day required an early start in order to have time to eat breakfast and be ready to disembark for our impact activity just after 7 a.m. This time we drove about 30 minutes from the port, to an area up in the mountains called Altamira. There we spent the first couple of hours planting almost 500 cacao seedlings. Then we walked up the road to the Women’s Chocolate Cooperative, called Chocal, where we spent another hour or so working through the various stages of processing cacao beans and making chocolate including bean sorting, nib sorting, molding and wrapping. Of course, we got to taste some of it, too! Yum!
We were back in Amber Cove by around 1 p.m., so we boarded the ship for lunch. This time we ate at the buffet, which is called The Conservatory. There was a wide variety of freshly prepared food including many regional dishes that were fun to try. But we didn't linger long, as this was the only day we'd have time to explore the city of Puerto Plata.
While Fathom offered a guided city tour for a fee (like a traditional shore excursion), as experienced travelers we opted to just wing it and hire a car & driver. We rounded up two more passengers to join us and negotiated with the licensed taxi service that was operating at the port. We agreed to a minimum of three hours of sightseeing for a total of $60 U.S., so it only cost each of us $15. Our driver, Guillermo, chauffeured us around in his air-conditioned minivan and made sure to hit all the highlights, including the touristy hotel zone along the waterfront, the fancy homes of Torre Alta, Brugal rum factory, Long and Kite beaches, the main square and cathedral, Fortaleza San Felipe, the Amber Museum, the local market, and the aerial tram. It was a great introduction to the city and I think we saw far more than we would have on a guided tour.
We returned to the ship for another beautiful sunset, ate dinner, and settled in for the evening to do laundry (free, just bring detergent pods).
We had another early morning wake-up on Thursday for a full day impact activity. We were on the road by 8 a.m. this time heading south toward Santiago. The drive took over an hour and we made one pit stop about 1/3 of the way there. It was interesting to see part of what is referred to as the tabletop economy - fields of sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco stretching for miles in either direction. We eventually turned off for the village of Higuerito which consists of about 5,000 people. At the end of a narrow but paved road, we finally reached the Wine To Water facility where we spent the next few hours making water filtration systems. It was a very hands-on, laborious process, and we managed to get very sweaty and dirty, but we were having fun and making a difference at the same time.
After a break for a delicious homemade lunch of chicken stew, rice, beans, sweet plantains and avocado salad, and an opportunity to learn more about Wine To Water's efforts to provide clean water to those in need, we set out on foot to deliver a few of the filters to local families. This was perhaps the most rewarding of all the impact activities I experienced, because we actually went to someone's home to show them how to use and take care of the filters.
We returned to Amber Cove around 4 p.m. which left us plenty of time to rest and clean up for dinner. After turning in early the past few nights, we decided to be more social and stayed up until midnight dancing with our new shipboard friends.
By Friday morning, June 10, the laryngitis I had developed after going back and forth all week between an outdoor "feels like" temperature of 105°F to the air-conditioned confines of our stateroom, had pretty much obliterated my voice. So instead of heading out into the heat for our fourth and potentially most physical impact activity, Reforestation and Tree Nursery, I decided to take the morning off to rest. Of course, I couldn't sit still for long, so I went out for a more thorough exploration of the newly built port area of Amber Cove.
Amber Cove is not a typical cruise port in that it is completely private. Meaning the only people that can gain access to the area are cruise passengers and staff as well as employees of the various shops and businesses. This means there is no one bombarding you with offerings of cheap trinkets, discount shore excursions or to take you to the bar with the lowest drink prices. The businesses are a mix of functional (a pharmacy, coffee shop, and duty-free store) and the typical shops (clothing, souvenirs, and even a market selling locally-made items). Most passengers would cluster around the Fathom office or any of the shops that had free WiFi. Everyone else headed for the expansive water park with multiple pools, a swim-up bar, two water slides, zip line, and paddleboards, kayaks, and boat cycles for rent. While other Carnival ships do call on the port occasionally, the Adonia was the only occupant for the entire time we were there.
We set sail around 12:45 p.m. that afternoon, shortly after Adena returned from her impact activity. She immediately said that it was her least favorite of the four, primarily because there wasn't enough work to do and they ended up standing around in the heat breathing the exhaust from the transport buses which were inexplicably left running the entire time. As you can imagine, I was very relieved to have stayed behind!
We spent the afternoon hanging out in the shade by the pool and chatting with friends. Later, a bunch of us ate dinner together in the Pacific Restaurant. The featured entertainment that evening was bandioke, in which passengers sing karaoke accompanied by the house band. It was so much fun that Charlotte, Rossana & I ended up closing the night out with an enthusiastic rendition of Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way." Sadly, the video was accidentally deleted.
Our final day at sea began with a cohort meeting to recap the week's accomplishments. Ricardo presented us with the tallies of our week of impact activities including:
  • Chocal: 1,366 lbs of cacao nibs cleaned and 21,258 chocolate bars wrapped
  • RePapel: 3,251 sheets of paper produced
  • Concrete floors: 11 homes
  • Wine To Water: 259 water filters produced
  • Community English: 728 community members & students; 11 hours direct native-English interaction
  • Reforestation & Nursery: 7329 seedlings planted over the first five trips
Note the alternate impact activities, concrete floors and teaching English, that Adena & I did not choose, simply because we didn't have time and gave preference to the other activities. Many of our fellow passengers said these were their favorite activities, primarily because of the direct interaction with the locals. If I have an opportunity to do this trip again, I will certainly give both of them a try!
We spent the remainder of our day at sea relaxing and spending time with our new friends. That evening, the writers group gathered for one last time to share our experiences and brainstorm ways to continue to make an impact near and far after the trip was over. After another lovely meal in the Pacific Restaurant, we headed up to the Crow's Nest for the Super Power Party, which involved making masks and being "evaluated" and assigned "powers" that best represented us (mine included words like adventurous and analytical). Then we danced the night away!
When we reached Miami early Sunday morning, we were all sad for the trip to be over so soon. Not only did we get to experience all the perks of cruising and being on vacation in general, we also felt that we really made a difference in the local community.
As of this writing, here are the cumulative numbers after nine sailings and the impact they have on the local community*:
  • Chocal: 2,502 lbs of cacao nibs cleaned and 73,842 chocolate bars wrapped (helps increase sales and provide income opportunities in the region)
  • RePapel: 6,616 sheets of paper (women can work closer to home so increased ability to take care of family & kids plus increased production & sales which impacts overall well-being for employees)
  • Concrete floors: 28 homes (safer living environment and improved quality of life)
  • Wine To Water: 496 water filters produced (clean water access for 2480+ people with a significant reduction in waterborne illness)
  • Community English: 19.5 average hours of English interaction (English proficiency is one of the largest drivers of employment success in the Dominican Republic economy.)
  • Reforestation & Nursery: 17,039 trees planted (will lead to more nutrient-rich soil, reduction in soil loss, and improved air & water quality)

I highly recommend that you book this cruise immediately! It is perfect for couples, families (note that children must be age 8 or older), groups of friends, college students looking for a Spring Break alternative, church retreats, and just about anyone who is willing to try something new. Yes, you could take this trip and simply hang out by the pool all day every day, but why not take advantage of all the immersive experiences on offer not to mention the personal satisfaction you will gain by helping others. If I lived on the east coast I would have already secured another spot on an upcoming sailing. Inaugural season fares are still available for the two September 2016 sailings. You can also use my Insider Code to get an additional discount off the already low price of your cruise!

If you'd like to see more of the highlights of my trip, here are links to my photo albums on Facebook: