NOTE: Fathom is no longer in operation though Carnival operated cruises that dock at Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic may still offer impact excursions like the ones we’ve described.
What do you get when you combine a Caribbean cruise with a desire for social impact? Seven days of immersive travel and an opportunity to connect with locals. That is the goal Fathom, a brand under Carnival Corporation, has set out for the cruise line when it started this Spring of 2016, with cruises heading to the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
We were fortunate to be able to cruise on one of the first handful of trips to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic and had an experience quite unlike other cruises, or trips, we’ve had in the past. With the cruises here, the idea was that travellers looking to do more for the destinations they visit can work alongside locals in the community in an attempt to improve the lives and living conditions of the people in the area. Their purpose is not voluntourism, it’s not to work for people, but instead to work with them to build something sustainable and lasting.
Fathom Cruises & Impact Travel
The concept of “impact travel” then, is not to simply volunteer time or donate money, but to leave as much of an impact on the people in the community as they leave on the travellers in return. It is about working with the locals to incrementally build on, improve and grow their resources – as each new set of passengers roll in, their efforts are added to the fold and each group builds on the last. Although it is a cruise, it is also supposed to be travel with a purpose.
A huge part of Fathom is focused on the growth of each individual traveller on board. Not only are there excursions available – or impact activities – in order to contribute to the community but there are also on board activities designed to facilitate personal growth, inspiration and community building with fellow passengers. The activities prepare passengers for their time on the ground with the people of the Dominican and often offer valuable take-home messages and skills.
Fathom Itinerary to Dominican
The Fathom journey starts at the port of Miami on a Sunday. For us, it continued on to Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. Setting sail in the afternoon after boarding, it sails until midday on Tuesday, docking at port in the Dominican where it stays until it departs again for Miami. From there, passengers have the rest of the afternoon, the following two whole days and the morning of the sixth day (Friday) docked and able to participate in shore excursions, enjoy the newly built Amber Cove – the port that was built for Carnival’s cruise lines – or venture out into Puerto Plata and discover the city, and island, on their own.
While At Sea on A Fathom Cruise
During those sea days, there are a variety of options for how to spend time on board the ship. The key to getting around and not missing any of the activities or workshops is making sure to check the daily ‘Soundings’. These itineraries for the day are great for finding out what is going on all day and where, whether docked or at sea.
First things first though. You’ll be assigned a cohort number when you board. This separates everyone into groups that you can meet with each morning at a designated time to discuss various topics related to Fathom: the Dominican Republic, reflecting on the Impact Activities completed and next steps for travellers looking to continue making an impact.
The rest of the activities are open, no matter your cohort number, and include free activities like latin dance classes, meditation, trivia and musical entertainment as well as activities with a fee like cocktail classes and wine and paint nights. The on board band has regular appearances providing entertainment throughout the cruise.
The best part for us was that everything is completely optional. Prefer to sunbathe by the pool? Looking to sleep in and make your way to eat when you please? Looking to focus on personal growth or, maybe, develop skills that will help you when you hit the ground with the impact activities? You can pretty much take a look at the itinerary and plan your day the way that suits you and your reasons for booking a Fathom Cruise.
While At Port on A Fathom Cruise
While at port, your schedule is very much still your own. It’s here however that impact activities and shore excursions come into play. Your experience while docked depends on what impact activities you’ve signed up for, what shore excursions you’ve purchased and what exactly you want to get out of your time in the Dominican.
Onboard activities still run throughout the day but passengers are able to leave the boat as they please. There are also a few activities that take place at the port. As long as you have your room key, you’re allowed access on and off the ship. In addition to the impact activities, there are a variety of shore excursions like tours of Puerto Plata, snorkeling, and ziplining.
The Fathom ship, Adonia, docks at Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic and this complex, built exclusively for Carnival’s passengers, is a destination in itself. Restaurant and bar, a coffee shop, clothing and jewelry shops as well as gift shops and many more still to come, the area is an open space for finding souvenirs and gifts and enjoying food and sun without ever leaving port. Perhaps the most popular part is the pool, a large area to sunbathe or swim, it also has ziplining, watersports and cabanas for a fee.
Here you’ll find a mini getaway, free WiFi, and the first stop in the Dominican before you get a real look into the country and culture.
What is the Fathom Adonia Like?
With a max capacity of around 700 people, Adonia is considered a small ship. This smaller passenger count allows for a more intimate experience where you will have the opportunity to get to know fellow passengers and join smaller groups in impact and onboard activities. The ship’s size also doesn’t lend itself to some of the amenities of the larger cruise ships but, with a focus on community involvement, extras like a casino, are typically not at the forefront of many passengers’ minds. It also allows for quick embarkment and disembarkment and little by way of lines or crowding while on the ship.
Fathom Adonia has four different types of staterooms or cabins: Inside cabins, outside cabins, balcony cabins and suites.
The inside cabins are, as the name suggests, on the inside of the ship and offer no window or porthole. The outside cabins are similar to the inside ones but all have a window or porthole.
The balcony cabins, which is the style we stayed in, also have full-length sliding glass doors opening to a balcony with chairs and a table. In addition, there is a sofa and table that make a seating area as well as a refrigerator – all of which are not present in the inside or outside cabins.
The suites come with all the amenities of the balcony cabins but also have a whirlpool bath in the bathrooms, a separate lounge area with a mini-stereo, magazine and newspaper service, a fruit bowl, mineral water, flowers and daily canapes.
We found our balcony room to be very spacious and comfortable and enjoyed our time relaxing in the room. Having the balcony was great for watching sunrises and sunsets, stepping out for some fresh air and just resting in between activities.
There are several dining options on board. The conservatory is open breakfast, lunch and dinner and also has late-night snacks for those who are feeling a little hungry after a night of enjoying the onboard entertainment. It is buffet style with indoor and outdoor seating.
The Pacific Restaurant, on the other hand, offers a sit-down meal served to your table for all meals (note that some meals are not served here while docked). We found that although there was crossover in the type of food served at the Conservatory and the Pacific Restaurant, the plating at Pacific was so well done we didn’t want to miss eating with our eyes first! It was also a great place to meet new people or meet up with friends you’ve made along the way.
The Lido Grill is located on the pool deck and offers BBQ-style fare like Cuban sandwiches, Dominican-style burgers and jerk chicken. It’s great for an alternative lunch or dinner by the pool.
The last option is the Ocean Grill which had an additional cost and serves Caribbean fare.
Though different then what is offered on larger cruise ships, there is a good amount of onboard entertainment and variety starting with the launch party on the first day. There are activities throughout the day like a lunchtime BBQ and music by the onboard band, scavenger hunts, poolside games and dance classes. Nighttime brings additional dance classes, musical entertainment at a number of the bars and lounges on board, trivia, movies under the stars, a karaoke night and a gameshow with passengers as contestants.
We found something to entertain us whether it was simply sitting and chatting with fellow passengers while listening to live music or joining in on one of the other activities.
Ship & Amenities
Though not as diverse and numerous as larger ships, the Fathom Adonia still has some amenities on board that add to the experience including a fitness room and outdoor track, a spa with massages, facials and acupuncture, a library with board games and computers, a swimming pool, shops and a variety of bars. Unique to Fathom, there are added components that work into the concept of growth, community involvement and travel with an impact like quotes throughout the ship, curiosity boxes spread out in various areas with different finds each day and a photogallery where you can look at pictures taken throughout the journey.
Fathom Impact Activities
There are several options for impact activities to participate in and it looks like they are actively assessing these during this first season to perhaps improve on the existing ones or include additional opportunities.
At the writing of this article, there are the following activities:
- Student English – Assisting in teaching English to young students
- Community English – Assisting in English learning for adults in the community
- Creative Arts, Music & Sports (CAMS) – an interactive program for students attending a summer program
- Water Filtration Production – For an extra fee, this project allows you to create water filtration systems and help deliver them to members of the community in need of clean water
- Reforestation & Nursery – Assisting in local reforestation efforts (note that some days are more physically demanding than others and you should confirm which you’d prefer before booking)
- Cacao & Women’s Chocolate Cooperative – Working side-by-side with women in the community at a Cacao facility as well as assisting in the nursery, planting seeds
- Recycled Paper & Crafts – Working side-by-side with locals in the community to create arts & crafts from locally recycled paper which will later be sold
- Concrete Floors – For an extra fee, this project allows you to aid in the effort to improve the living conditions of members of the community by pouring concrete floors in their homes. (note that there are tasks at various activity and fitness levels and participants will be assigned accordingly)
We were able to participate in two impact activities while docked in the Dominican Republic (It seemed that 2-3 was the average for most passengers).
The Cacao & Women’s Chocolate Cooperative
This activity was an interesting look into an effort by local women to create productive and sustainable employment for women in the local communities. Here, cacao beans are sorted, cleaned, and chocolate bars and goods are moulded and made. Working with local cacao farmers, they are able to create products to be sold across the country and some of their products are also exported though they are looking to the future when more of their goods can be sold internationally.
During the first part of our visit, we worked in small groups switching between workstations to work in the different aspects involved cacao processing – we sorted the cacao beans looking for bad ones to remove, we sorted cacao nibs from shells, we helped pour chocolate moulds and package chocolate bars. We worked with each other and the ladies of the cacao cooperative and learned a lot about the business of cacao processing and chocolate production.
The second part of our visit involved working in the nursery. Here we helped mix soil, create plastic bag potters for the seeds and put them in the nursery where seeds were added. It was a bit more physically demanding for those that really wanted to get in there and help but it was a rewarding experience.
CAMS – Creative Arts, Music & Sports
Perhaps our favourite part of the cruise was the CAMS impact activity. Here we went to a summer program for students and participated with one of the classrooms. We gave a mini-english lesson, sang songs, made crafts and played baseball. We were split into smaller groups which allowed us to bond with the kids and really interact on an individual level. Though our group of children didn’t speak much english, it was incredibly moving to connect to them through communication other than the English or Spanish languages – smiles, high fives, nods and laughter – though they did seem eager to learn English as we spoke with them.
It was a wonderful day and when one of the kids in our group kept asking us a question in Spanish that we couldn’t understand, we finally called over one of the facilitators and asked her to translate. The question? “When are you coming back?” It was heartbreaking and heartwarming at once especially when her little face fell as the organizer explained that we wouldn’t be coming back again.
We left feeling like we had made a connection to the Dominican Republic that was deeper than beaches and cuisine but feeling like we needed to do more.
Does Fathom Actually Help People?
This is the big question and what has made Fathom a bit of a controversial endeavour. It is one of the reasons we wanted to go on a Fathom cruise – to see if we could really make a difference. Our answer? We believe so. It’s not so black and white but then, what volunteer activity is? There is always a fine line between helping and hurting, aiding and injuring, but what we found with Fathom is that it seems like their every intention is to be a leading force in making a difference in the lives of the locals in the Dominican Republic.
Their partnership with local organizations like Entrena and IDDI allows them a deeper understanding of what is needed on the ground and the many ways they can provide assistance through their passengers. They work closely with both groups to maximize impact for locals and passengers alike. They also employ a team on the ground to be present at the activities and assess their effectiveness. It seems as though they are committed to improving, not only the lives of locals, but also the impact activities themselves as it is only the first season of cruises.
The partnership with IDDI and Entrena also ensure that they are integrating Fathom activities into an already established system. They are not trying to determine needs based on what they believe should be done, but instead are making available resources to many programs or projects already established.
Our Response To Criticisms
It is with this in mind that we assessed two of the main criticisms that we’ve heard about Fathom while we were on board.
Criticism 1: It is too short a time to actually make any impact. In fact, you are only hurting some individuals, like the children, when you leave. This is a criticism we heard before we went but what we realized is that the effect is additive. Each day a new group of travellers build on what was established the day before. The children learning English may only learn a word a day, or a week, but over time it develops into a larger vocabulary. All of the activities are actually contributing to improving the English of locals as they are regularly interacting with travellers. Perhaps this is the most important role those on a Fathom cruise play. We didn’t realize the import of English to the people of the Dominican Republic. During our CAMS activity, the facilitator, a local, shared with us how learning English changed her life and prospects. Since tourism is such a large industry on the island, the highest paying jobs are given to those who can speak English and thus interact with tourists. Without English, options are limited.
Criticism 2: With activities where you’re helping with production of an item, travellers will only be slowing down and hindering the process. We’ll be honest, there were times where we felt we were doing exactly this. With the cacao cooperative, it wasn’t until we were planting seeds that we felt we were actually contributing. The rest of the time it felt like we were making limited progress. What we realized though, is that part of the process was for us to learn about their efforts. Though we weren’t contributing as fast as the ladies would be able to themselves, we were working in a separate area from the main workspace and our contribution, though small, was still something. Again, it is an additive effect.
Our Own Criticisms
We should first reiterate that Fathom is in its infancy. Having just started in Spring of 2016, there is much room for growth and improvement and it seems as though they are active in adjusting and bettering each aspect of the cruise and the impact activities as they go. With that in mind, we did have a few thoughts of our own about our experience.
For one, it did seem odd to head back to the comforts of the ship after interacting with locals in less than luxurious conditions. We boarded the ship again and headed to our balcony room before we went on to dinner with our waiters serving us a three-course meal before we enjoyed entertainment and dancing at night, It was quite a contrast… but perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps it’s good to be smacked in the face with the disparity that exists between the countries and classes. It may just make us a little more aware of just how lucky we are and motivate us to make more of an impact in the lives of others.
The second thing we took note of is the fact that, although we were on a small ship, we were contributing to the negative environmental impact on the area. Cruise ships, and Carnival in particular, aren’t known for positive contributions to the environment by way of the waste produced and dumped. It becomes a trade-off. A movement to help the locals and to change the thoughts and lives of travellers in exchange for that detrimental impact.
Lastly, we realized that for this to be a positive thing for the Dominican Republic and the people of Puerto Plata it needs to be lasting and sustainable. Fathom needs to be in it for the long haul and committed to seeing this through. Jobs have been created, hopes have been lifted and changes on the ground are being made – all of which depend on the sustainability of the projects and a continuation of Fathom itself. We felt positive about this happening when we read that the President (and person who came up with the idea) of Fathom, Tara Russell, has an extensive portfolio working with global brands and companies and taking on international initiatives and social enterprises. A look at her past and present projects is comforting and we hope it translates into a lasting and beneficial change in the Dominican Republic.
Final Thoughts on Fathom
What we noticed the most was the change in the passengers themselves. After the first day of impact activities there seemed to be a widespread warmth that was created. People seemed more relaxed and at ease with each other, there was a sense of camaraderie and a willingness to connect. That in essence seems to be what Fathom is all about: connection and collaboration. It’s about building something with others, connecting to those on the ship and in the Dominican, making an impact – however large or small – and opening yourself up to being impacted as well. Impacted by every smile from a local as you work beside them, every new connection made with a fellow traveller and every moment of realization that a difference can be made when people work together.
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