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Good Works and Good Times in the Dominican Republic

From the Mountains to the Sea

Besides the ample opportunities to help, Fathom has also included some amazing experiences to explore and relax in the Caribbean atmosphere around the province of Puerto Plata. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to travel into the mountains on a tour to see La Isabela, located in the northwestern part of the province. The town was established by Christopher Columbus and was one of the first European settlements in the New World. I enjoyed seeing the variation form the urban landscape; our bus made its way down dirt roads that seldom see automobiles. At one point, we even got stuck behind some boys herding cattle between fields.

Once we reached the ruins, we were able to see the stone foundations, the only structures that remain of the fledgling town, as well as the explorer’s grave. It was a particularly powerful feeling for me to stand on the bluff overlooking the ocean and see the same timeless view that Columbus saw as he made such a lasting impact on our world.

Rather than traveling inland as I did, Graham embraced his love of the ocean and went deep-sea fishing. Unfortunately, the group didn’t land any big catches, but Graham still had a blast spending the afternoon with Captain Bartolo. After tasting a freshly cut pineapple that had been hanging on the tree that morning, my husband informed me that he was ruined on store-bought “fresh” pineapple forever.

Making an Impact

On our second day in the Dominican Republic, we had what was, hands down, our best experience of our trip: our impact activity. We got up early Wednesday morning to load onto the bus to San Marcos, one of the poorest areas of the city. A short time later, we arrived at the elementary school, where Alberto, the school’s English teacher, greeted us. He let us know how much he appreciated us and the volunteers with Entrena, the teaching organization with which Fathom partners for the activity, saying, “I wanted to teach the kids right. I wanted them to work with native speakers because it’s so important for them to learn it for the real world,” since the jobs in tourism are some of the most sought after.

We were blessed to work with two fourth-grade classes. Graham and I tutored two bright girls, teaching them the alphabet, then practicing how to pronounce and write the letters. At the end of our session, our students shared what it meant to them for us to come to the school and how appreciative they were. One little boy, Elvis, poured out his heart in a long thank-you speech that melted ours. We also got to experience this firsthand during recess as we were constantly patted and hugged by all the children, who were so excited for us to be there.

Exploring Like a Local

One of the tips we heard most frequently aboard the Adonia was how affordable it was to take a cab from Amber Cove port area into the city of Puerto Plata. Many of us took this advice and got to spend more time at the highlights we had visited on our earlier Puerto Plata tour. The Brugal Rum Factory was a big hit with almost everyone I talked to. Rum is one of the most famous exports of the Dominican Republic, along with chocolate and tobacco for cigars. We also stopped at the Larimar Museum, where we learned about the history of mining larimar, the precious, ocean-hued stone found exclusively on the island of Hispaniola. Graham even talked me into bringing home a deep-blue larimar bracelet as a memento of our trip.

Afterward, we headed to Independence Park in the heart of the city. The pigeons here were so tame they would come sit on your knee or your shoulder, and I thought that would make for a cool photo. Unfortunately, there weren’t any pigeons around, so I scattered some granola on the ground to attract two or three for a photo op. That was a big mistake: I was suddenly swarmed by what had to be 100 or more pigeons flocking to the food. Graham said it made for a memorable photo, even if it wasn’t the one I had in mind.

After spending the morning running around the city and doing a bit of shopping, we asked our driver to take us to a local restaurant. We weren’t disappointed when he drove us to Long Beach, the same beach where he brings his children to play, and we were treated to a meal with amazing ocean views. Afterward, we topped off our experience with some fresh coconut, hacked open before our eyes by the street vendor with his machete.

A Special Surprise

Our day exploring was also Graham’s birthday. Our hosts, Russ and Susan Rosenberry, the owners of Islands in the Sun, had planned a wonderful surprise for him at dinner that evening. As we enjoyed our impressive spread of dishes, we were suddenly surrounded by the wait staff, who, along with many others in the restaurant, sang him a special version of “Happy Birthday.” This year ended up being exceptionally memorable, even though we weren’t able to celebrate with our family. I’m so appreciative of Russ and Susan for adding such a personal touch when I was afraid of Graham’s special day being overlooked on our trip.

After experiencing our cruise with Islands in the Sun and Fathom, we are huge fans of voluntourism trips. This style of traveling may not be the best fit for everyone, but it’s perfect for busy people like me who want to make a difference while still, somehow, fitting downtime into my busy year to preserve my mental well-being.

One of the words our impact guide used was “eudemonia,” which they explained to us as Greek for “do good, feel good.” This trip was good for both our hearts and our minds in that respect. Since setting foot back in the United States, Graham and I haven’t stopped talking about the cruise and, in particular, our experiences with the generous and optimistic Dominican people we had the pleasure of meeting.

For more information about booking your own Fathom cruise contact Islands in the Sun at 800-278-7786 or go to

Ashley Ricks

Ashley Ricks is the circulation and marketing manager for The Group Travel Leader Inc.