Editor’s Note: After press time, Fathom Travel and the Carnival Corporation announced that the Fathom brand would be ending Summer 2017. Fathom’s impact travel experiences in the Dominican Republic will continue to be offered as shore excursions and Carnival is seeking approval from the Cuban government to continue sailings with their other lines. Tour operator Islands in the Sun will continue to operate as normal.
“Alongsidedness” means taking part in volunteer activities that are chosen by the local communities to create a lasting impact; it’s helping people in a way they need to create lasting results. I was introduced to this unusual concept when my husband, Graham, and I were invited on a seven-day trip to Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic with Fathom Cruises and Islands in the Sun Cruises and Tours.
I was one of the first voyagers to experience Fathom, a new travel concept conceived by company founder Tara Russell and Carnival Corporation. The brand is focused on “impact travel.” Cruisers who sail aboard the 704-passenger Adonia will take part in people-to-people experiences and service projects in places such as Cuba and the province of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic.
Little Havana’s Cuban Cool
Our first morning, we met up with the rest of the Islands in the Sun group to explore Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood before boarding Adonia later in the day. We started out with a treat none of us were expecting: El Palacio de los Jugos, a small ethnic market on the outskirts of Little Havana. The tantalizing smell of roasting pork belly and Cuban rice cooking for lunch wafted toward us as we walked through the market to the juice bar. Many in our group tried something new and sipped on mamey juice, a cross between peach and sweet potato in flavor that was creamy but not too sweet.
After getting off to a great start we explored many of the iconic spots around the Cuban neighborhood: Ramon Puig’s for guayabara shirts; the original cigar shop, Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company; and, of course, Domino Park.
We walked along Calle Ocho, a street where the sidewalks and buildings are decorated with colorful street art, as is the whole neighborhood. Everywhere we looked buzzed with life: the clacking of dominoes and chess games in Domino Park, locals talking and laughing together or vendors along the streets hawking their wares “Cocos! Manies tostados!” or “Coconuts! Roasted peanuts!”
My favorite Miami experience was trying authentic Cuban coffee. We stopped at a stand on Calle Ocho where we were given a tiny cardboard cup, smaller than a shot glass. At first I was a little doubtful of this tiny brew, but I soon realized that just that small amount packs a punch. I loved it so much that I was tempted to drink a grande-size serving.
Breaking Out of the Box
We boarded the Adonia around lunchtime and headed to our suite before enjoying our lunch with views of the Miami skyline as the backdrop. Immediately, we noticed a difference from other cruise ships: It’s clear Fathom focuses on individuals. This care shined through little touches, like the use of fair-trade amenities or the sign outside our door where we opted to share quick facts about ourselves, like our superpowers and spirit animals.
We set sail early that evening and enjoyed a launch party, done the Fathom way. After an inspiring talk from Tara Russell, we got to explore the ship in depth for the first time with a scavenger hunt and plenty of opportunities to meet and interact with our fellow travelers.
Although the Adonia doesn’t have a casino, a theater or any of the other over-the-top features of larger ships, we still found plenty to do during our day at sea with the different sessions led by Fathom’s “impact guides.” These staffers were our points of contact during the trip and led information sessions and many of the onboard activities. In our first session, we learned what it meant to be a Fathom traveler: learning empathy through travel and new experiences. Another session Graham and I enjoyed was “The Story of You.”
Overall, there is a different, fun personality aboard a Fathom cruise. During a session, our impact guide, Michelle, shared with us how she trained and worked as a gymnast, so in an impromptu vote, our group decided we wanted to learn how to do handstands.