Visiting local schools to converse in English is offered during the school year only. // © 2016 Fathom
Feature image (above): Guests will have the opportunity to make environmental, economic and educational impact. // © 2016 Fathom
New cruise line, Fathom, made headlines and history this spring when its sole ship, Adonia, became the first U.S. ship to sail from the U.S. to Havana in more than 50 years. Though the popular biweekly Cuba itinerary is worthy of excitement and celebration, it’s only one part of the Fathom story.
On the North Coast of the Dominican Republic, Fathom’s hope of reinventing the idea of a cruise vacation is at work. Here, in Fathom’s other destination, passengers are gaining firsthand experience on how to travel with a purpose. It’s voluntourism with a new, cruise twist, and traveling families may be poised to reap the biggest rewards.
One of 10 brands in the Carnival Corporation & Plc family, Fathom’s parent company is not new to the Caribbean or the family travel market. The 704-passenger Adonia sets sail from Miami on Sunday afternoon, arrives in Puerto Plata around lunch on Tuesday and stays put until midday on Friday. In comparison with other Caribbean cruise lines, the excursion options available are limited. Instead, guests are encouraged to take part in what Fathom calls “impact activities.” These are service projects that benefit Dominican Republic communities, and passengers as young as 8 years old are welcome to participate.
Projects such as creating water filters out of pottery and laying concrete floors in village homes might be a bit too labor-intensive for some youngsters, but working on English skills with elementary school-age children and playing soccer together seems to resonate — especially when the soccer balls are made of nothing more than a balloon wrapped in newspaper and packing tape. My teenage daughter was hesitant as she helped Dominican fourth-graders Luis and Marlenis tape together a soccer ball in the classroom, but once outside, applause and cheers replaced any concerns about practicality.
Chocal, a local women’s chocolate collective in Altamira, is using the boost in manpower provided by Fathom travelers to increase production, sales and, ultimately, profits. Guests do a bit of everything, from sorting cacao nibs and scooping tempered chocolate into molds to boxing hand-wrapped chocolate bars. With chocolate samples within reach, time flies.
Some impact activities charge a $20 fee to cover supplies, but most are free. Fathom accepts credit cards for onboard payment, but having small bills is handy, as most local businesses, including Chocal, happily accept U.S. dollars.
Of course, giving back as a family feels good, and the Fathom model, whether intentional or not, provides a perfect setting for family togetherness. Adonia isn’t the type of ship where there are activities constantly taking place. With no onboard kids’ club and no activity to run to, we often lingered at the dinner table, laughing and catching up.
Evening activities included board games and 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles from the ship’s impressive library. For the record, we did not complete the puzzle, but we laughed hard trying. With 1,500 books lining the library’s shelves, hours spent reading, sometimes poolside, hit near record levels.
My girls and I kept a nice work-play balance by taking a day off from impact activities to explore 27 Charcos (27 Waterfalls), with local tour operator Iguana Mama. The roughly 40-minute hike up to the falls was sweaty, but it set the stage for a wet, wild ride down — smiling all the way from one natural pool to the next. It meant giving up a chance to sleep in, but the teen bragging rights it added to a service-oriented vacation sparked conversation of a return family trip. Now, that’s a success.