We’re onboard Fathom Adonia this week sailing the ship’s inaugural voyage under the Fathom Travel brand. The newest venture under parent company Carnival Corporation, Fathom is the world’s first cruise line designed specifically for people who want to sail to a community where they can volunteer their time working to make environmental, social and economic differences.
Cruises on Fathom visit the Dominican Republic for what the company is calling “social impact travel.” Future cruises will call on Cuba as well, where U.S. passengers visit as part of a people-to-people exchange, although due to political wrangling, Cuba cruises might be delayed past the planned May 1 start date. This week, we’re in the D.R. learning about the brand and working alongside residents performing activities like reforestation and recycling paper.
Worth noting about our trip is the fact that it’s clear the company and its employees are still tweaking things to find the right formula to create a perfect program. Many ideas have never been tested with passengers on an actual cruise ship, and everyone we meet with Fathom encourages us to provide feedback on the things that work — and those that don’t.
Here are our first impressions of a weeklong cruise experience on Fathom Adonia.
The Fun Factor
Fathom has dropped in fun all over the ship, and opportunities for joy will catch your eye. We love the magnetic world map, where passengers post Polaroids over their home states or countries. And the curiosity boxes, placed randomly all over the ship, are a blast. Finding one of these wooden boxes is a bit like a scavenger hunt. Opening them reveals fun notecards, random compliments (“you have nice earlobes”) or helpful Spanish phrases. We’ve seen passengers spend a lot of time flipping through the cards and giggling over the surprise contents.
The ship’s for-fee restaurant ($25) from Dominican chef Emil Vega is an incredible mix of high-end cuisine and rustic Dominican food that works brilliantly. We could have made a meal out of the mofongo and agauji appetizer, a playful take on a traditional Dominican recipe that combines pork and plantains in small, fried balls with a side of savory garlic consomme. The menu is eclectic and perfectly highlights the best ingredients from the D.R. — beans, rice, pork, yucca, chicken and red snapper. Try the sancocho, an upscale version of the pork, beef and chicken stew common to the area, or the Cuban bistec encebollado, the best steak on the ship.
No question, everyone involved with Fathom is passionate about doing good. A number of the impact guides — the 15 or so people who lead onboard enrichment — have ties to the Peace Corps, and all of them went through a rigorous vetting process to join the team. They are interested in the environment and in culture. And they want to get everyone who sails with Fathom excited as well. You can’t help but be moved by the stories of the people you meet onboard — and ashore. Their commitment is motivating.
In the Dominican Republic, passengers can select from a variety of activities — voluntourism or more traditional cruise excursions like snorkeling or zip-lining. We’ve found most passengers have worked in a few of each. A morning might be spent working at a recycled paper co-op, while the afternoon could involve a city tour and time at the pool in Amber Cove, the private port at which Fathom docks. At dinner, passengers discuss their days and whether they felt their activities had the desired impact. This is a theme that comes up again and again and clearly is important to people who book this cruise: They want to feel the difference they’re making is clear and long-lasting. We tried out reforestation, and at the end of our session, we were told we planted 351 trees that day. But guides said the number wasn’t the only important factor, adding that when residents see foreigners coming in to plant trees, they start to think that the environment might be important, and the locals might change their behaviors to be more eco-friendly. Fathom President Tara Russell has said she doesn’t want to just “put paint on a wall,” meaning she wants the impact to be meaningful and sustainable.
The Onboard Enrichment
We’re on a cruise ship, but it doesn’t really feel like a typical cruise. Perhaps that’s because our schedule is jam-packed with enrichment activities designed to help us get to know our fellow travelers, the company and the region we’re visiting. We’ve been assigned a “cohort group” with which we’ve met several times. This group comprises several passengers and an impact guide who walks us through the mission of Fathom, facts about the Dominican Republic and its people, and what we can expect in the D.R. Colin Dow, the company’s lead impact guide, says Fathom is still looking for the right way to assign groups; ours is random. The concept of cohorts is to try and create a bond among passengers so they can share their experiences while onboard and in the future. Participation in the sessions isn’t mandatory, but once you’re with the group, participation is. Fathom encourages passengers to get comfortable being outside their comfort zones, and with your cohorts, you’ll quickly find you’re sharing stories and jokes with strangers. With more practice, guides will probably have more luck getting passengers to open up, but for now, it’s a somewhat rough process. That said, we have loved getting to know new people and discover common ground.
Products and Amenities
We love the onboard shops, which feel very appropriate to Fathom’s mission, with understated, natural design and offering handmade and sustainable products. We also think it’s a brilliant move to have fair-trade bathroom amenities in all cabins, which aren’t necessarily replaced daily but rather by request. In fact, Russell says there is “purpose behind every product” onboard, including the coffee shop, Raffles, where you can buy excellent locally sourced coffee. Even the library, which is vast for a ship this size, offers an unusual and extensive selection of books, and all of them are based on recommendations from Fathom staff members who said the book touched them in some way. Where it’s not perfect is with the little things, like the fact that if you order a drink poolside, you will fill out a form — in triplicate — regardless of whether you’d require a receipt. Likewise, trash and recyclables in-cabin go in the same bin, though a note does explain the cabin steward will sort through your trash for recycling. It seems an unnecessary step — and one that could be easily eliminated.
The British Ship
Adonia sailed under the British P&O Cruises fleet before undergoing a refurbishment and emerging this month with the new Fathom logo painted on the hull and funnel. It still feels an awful lot like a British ship, right down to the tea kettles in every cabin. It leads to a bit of a disjointed feeling between the new and the old. Anderson’s, a lounge, is decidedly British, with lots of dark wood and plaques all over the walls commemorating various port stops the ship has made through the years. Programming on the TV is British and spellings on papers and dailies are British. We love Brits, but for a ship based in Miami, geared mostly toward North Americans and sailing under a new name, it just feels incongruous. We’re told more changes will be made to the ship to help smooth out some of these inconsistencies.
It’s clear that part of the fun of Fathom is encouraging curiosity from travelers, but we’ve been left scratching our heads a few times when directions or concepts were unclear. For example, on our first day onboard, we saw people writing sentences about life and love on the windows using wet-erase markers, and crew dropped messages in bottles into the pool. But we never received any explanation as to why or what the purpose of these activities were. A couple days later, the windows were clean, and we were still in the dark. To be fair, Russell and Carnival Corp. President Arnold Donald were onboard and speaking to the passengers during the sailaway celebration, so future sailings might see more instruction from the beginning.