To be truthful, I signed up to cruise to Cuba with Fathom Travel aboard the Adonia cruise ship with rather low expectations; but given all the cruise lines in the marketplace, I was fascinated by the niche they wanted to carve out in social impact travel, and had a desire to support the concept. It's one which I endorse and applaud.
Prior to embarking, the talk of the town was inconsistency with fathom's pricing and somewhat poor reviews.
To what degree fathom is challenged to be profitable is not something I'm privy to; but I would guess they struggle filling the ship, at least in the hot summer season, but still surprising given the interest in visiting what is undoubtedly one of the "hottest" destinations. On the other hand, Cuba, as close as it is, is not a cheap date. My August voyage, nonetheless, was fairly well booked. Adonia holds 704 guests; there were just fewer than 600 onboard.
As to the reviews, the ship itself was a pleasant surprise. In its day this was a deluxe and somewhat upscale cruise ship for Renaissance Cruises; the ship looks nearly as good as it did in its heyday. I was, quite honestly, surprised how good it looked. There are some changes that have been made, in the shops, for example, the Glass House wine lounge, and new signage, but the decor looks much as it did in the popular days of Renaissance Cruises.
I've been on a number of cruise ships that show their wear, with scratches on wood furniture and a bit of fraying in the carpets. I hardly saw any wear or tear at all throughout the ship. While some reviews indicate nothing was done to upgrade the ship; if so, it didn't call for it. While owned by Carnival, fathom holds its own place within this large family of cruise brands, and has nothing to be embarrassed about or apologetic for. The one thing that should be addressed are the balconies, which show rust and can use some serious sprucing up. Otherwise, the ship gets at least a B+ from me for what it is.
Cabins are quite decent, with a small sofa sitting area, and bathrooms are small. Storage space is adequate in the stateroom and bathroom. Showers are also small, with a shower curtain -- so be it. Azamara has the same ships in its fleet, and the same issue: the options to change away from shower curtains are limited in these small spaces.
Dark wood paneling was, in its day, a sign of richness and elegance, and it's still found throughout the ship, in cabins and lounges. Some find the ship "dark" because of that. Carpeting and upholstery is in great condition, I really didn't come across anything that didn't look clean, well kept, or in dire need of upgrading.
There is a small fridge in the stateroom, though it doesn't keep things very cold. One small complimentary bottle of water was provided in the cabin, with large bottles otherwise for sale for $3.25, or $9.75 for 4 bottles. We hopped over to the CVS in Miami prior to boarding, and picked up some large bottles for $2 each. You can bring your own liquid refreshments onboard, so long as you consume them in the stateroom. Water is also provided on tours. (In line with fathom's values, however, I would encourage travelers to bring their own water bottles to refill in their cabins from larger bottles for use ashore, and do your bit to reducing the use of small plastic bottles.) The theme of supporting local vendors and doing good is exemplified in various ways across the ship. Two attractive shops (see photo below) feature mostly fair traded items.
There is a coffee/espresso bar, with reasonably priced drinks (hot, cold or frozen), and a variety of cocktails, including rum flights. Cocktails onboard run $8.50 and go down easy (that is, aren't particularly strong.) Some alcohol is organic or supports various causes. E.g., there was a vodka whose proceeds support the snow leopard. A decent selection of wines are onboard, ranging from $6.50 up to $28 a glass (for the Phelps Cabarnet). What's nice is there's the option to purchase a taste, a small glass or a large glass. We shared bottles purchased from the wine list, and enjoyed much of the wine. Most is from vineyards that are sustainable or organic, in keeping with fathom's values. The dining room, Glass House Lounge and Ocean Grill each had their own unique wine list.
The young staff is very friendly and casual. There are 13 mostly young new fathom "impact" staff, most of whom are new to cruising and who joined last March. Most of the worker bees in the dining room, kitchen, bars, and room stewards are from India or thereabouts, or the Philippines, and seem to be a seasoned crew previously working on P&O ships. Service was efficient with rare complaints.
The Conservatory is the buffet. The salad bar was fresh and offered a variety of choices -- not iceberg lettuce, thankfully, romaine and other lettuces at times. The hot food offered several choices, including pastas, stir frys, salmon croquettes or some type of seafood, BLTs or burgers... Dinner exceeded what our expectations were: a tasty gazpacho and mushroom risotto, tender steak with chorizo flavored potatoes and asparagus (photo), venison with cooked red cabbage slaw. Dinner in the main dining room are lean on choices compared to many other cruise lines, but offer adequate choices. The vegetarian choice the first night was a truffle-flavored omelette; on another occasion a portobello mushroom and spinach ravioli, which was superb. Each night will feature one or two seafood choices, meat choices and one vegetarian entree. Jerk chicken is readily available onboard, as are the spicy Dominican burgers.
We dined at the alternative restaurant, Ocean Grill, three times. The menu doesn't change but there are a number of choices, and on all occasions the food was excellent. The menu features Caribbean dishes, including lobster with a shrimp risotto, an oxtail stew with pasta, a goat stew, a red snapper, jerk chicken, and the like. Appetizers included a wonderful citrus flavored seafood dish with octopus, scallops, shrimp. The bread pudding was outstanding.
Room service is available for a $5 cover charge. The menu includes two salads, cold and hot sandwiches and burgers, a Cuban pulled pork panini, tuna melt, a pasta and soup choice and desserts. Breakfast room service is also available and efficient, also a $5 charge, but does not include egg dishes.
The first night onboard included an orientation on visiting Cuba, the immigration process, and the sightseeing included in the cruise price and tipping guidelines. It was a useful talk provided by Becca, a well-spoken young fathom staffer whose work experience previously included working for Ritz Carlton. The staff personalized the talk with stories of their experiences getting close and personal with Cuban people -- something the brand encourages and is to be admired. "Go off from the group and meet some locals -- you won't get those experiences as part of a large group."
Some of the fathom staff worked in the Peace Corps. Gabe worked in Peru, and Gil worked in South Africa. Francisco is a psychologist that worked 6 years in the volunteer field with the Red Cross and other organizations. On board programming by the fathom impact team included talks on the history of Cuba prior to its revolution, a fascinating lecture on the Santeria religion, talks on each port, and various personal enrichment chats on becoming a change maker, story telling, improving one's efficiency, etc. Many of these were very small group discussions as most passengers onboard seemed to have little interest, and they provided good opportunities to get to meet fellow travelers.
If one of the questions is about whether you have to stay together as a group on a people to people exchange in Cuba, the answer is no. You have the option to go off on your own. The only current requirement is you have to keep a record of what you did for five years, in case you are audited. The assumption is if you're off on your own, you are not spending a day at the beach, or if you do, you did so to meet locals to conduct people-to-people exchanges. Just remember to check off on the travel affidavit fathom provides that you plan to do some of your own sightseeing.
Fathom has organized disembarkation as well as can be with several hundred people getitng off at one time -- you disembark in groups in order to minimize the wait going through immigration and dealing with currency exchange. Upon disembarking we take the advertised 6-hour walking tour in small groups with guides, two guides per group of about 25 persons. Unfortunately, you have to stand close to hear the guide if you want to learn anything. At one point, in Plaza Armas we stood for 20 minutes listening to a history of Cuba in the sweltering heat of August, and many in the group tuned out. And the walking tour wasn't a grueling 6 hours as advertised, as it included a 2-hour lunch stop in the middle at a well-rated and award winning paladar. There were a few entree choices following the butternut squash soup and welcome cocktail, and our table all went with the grilled lobster, which was excellent, served with rice and a stuffed chili pepper.
If there is a "disconnect" it's the high price charged for a fathom Cuba cruise that in another destination would be priced by half. While I found the fathom product overall quite good, with some changes that can be made to improve things all the more (we were, after all, only the eighth cruise group into Cuba in 50 years), there is a huge premium added by fathom to be the first into Cuba by cruise ship. Some may not find that a price worth paying. And with the high price tag, to be charged $5 for room service is a bit cheesy, as is the overpriced [optional] Tropicana show trip, which can be done on one's own for much lower price.
On the other hand, there's a certain investment Carnival Corporation has made to create social impact cruising, and they certainly want to try to recoup that as best they can -- but a lower price point would make it a fairer proposition. Once other cruise lines start operating in Cuba, it will be interesting to see how fathom can fare at this price point, or what others will charge once competition is in the air. But if you are eager to go to Cuba now -- and yes, it will be very quickly changing so it's best to go now -- a cruise is a comfortable way to do so if you're willing to invest in the experience at the going rate. Certainly we can guide you along the way, as we've had several of our staff now having visited Cuba and cruised on fathom.
Coming up: read more on the Cuba visit.
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