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TPG Senior Editor Kaeli Conforti recently set sail on Fathom’s inaugural cruise to Cuba aboard the MV Adonia, where she spent the week participating in various cultural exchange tours designed to bring Americans and Cubans closer together. Read on for her review of the Fathom Adonia experience.
As a huge history buff, I was thrilled to be covering the inaugural sailing of the first cruise ship allowed to sail to Cuba from the US in more than 50 years. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I read about all the places we’d be visiting, took photography classes and brushed up on my Spanish in the hopes of holding a real conversation with the people we’d meet.
I was also keeping a close eye on the controversy that had unfolded shortly before the cruise. Originally, Cuban-born American citizens weren’t allowed to sail, but thankfully Carnival and the Cuban government managed to work things out in time so everyone — whether you were born in the US or Cuba — could experience this historic trip.
Booking the May 1-8 cruise was easy and only took about 15 minutes — you can visit Fathom.org to book online or call 1-855-932-8466 to speak to a representative. I booked my seven-night cruise with my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card so I’d be able to earn 2x the points on travel.
The grand total for my Oceanview room — including the processing of my Cuban visa, all land-based cultural exchange tours, most onboard activities and meals, taxes and fees — came to $3,682, so I earned 7,364 Chase Ultimate Rewards points for the purchase. Note that gratuities are an additional $80 and automatically tacked onto your bill at the end of the cruise.
Check-In and Boarding the Ship in Miami
After clearing security at the Port of Miami, I arrived in the check-in area at 12:00pm to find a rather large line — lucky for me, it only ended up taking 25 minutes to get through.
As part of the registration process, Fathom had already asked me to fill out an official affidavit stating I was only visiting Cuba for a People-to-People cultural exchange tour, so I was confused when Fathom employees passed through the line with paper versions of the same form, saying they didn’t have access to them here at the port and that everyone needed to fill out two copies before we reached the front of the line. There was also a separate health form asking if we’d had a fever in the last few days or if we’d recently visited a country with the ebola virus, so make sure you bring a pen!
The boarding process itself was a little confusing, too, since I kept getting different instructions from different crew members. One said that the rooms weren’t ready yet so I should bring all my stuff upstairs and have lunch at the buffet, while another said I should go see if my room was ready and drop my things off. I took the second person’s advice, found my room all ready to go and started unpacking.
My Oceanview Room
I was assigned to D014, an oceanview room on the fourth floor near the front of the ship. Inside, I found two single beds (which could be pushed together to create a larger bed), two closets, a desk, a floor-to-ceiling mirror, a mini-fridge, an in-room safe and a large, window-sized port hole to check out the view.
My room also came with a coffee/tea machine, and a few Larabar gluten-free fruit and nut energy bars. Not everything was free though — there were four large 1.5-liter water bottles on the desk for $3.25 each or $9.75 for all four. I knew not to drink the water in Cuba and purchased all four so I could carry one around each day we left the ship.
Each room also has its own bathroom and shower with Fair CosmEthics shampoo, conditioner and body lotion as well as Eco-Boutique aloe and green tea shower gel and a hair dryer, so no need to pack those, ladies!
Wi-Fi soon became another surprise expense. Fathom offers three options: A pay-as-you-go plan for 50 cents per minute, $35 for 100 minutes or $62.50 for 250 minutes.
Be warned: You only get to use one device at a time, and you’ll be asked to log off one in order to log into the other — an annoying process I went through several times during the trip, especially whenever I tried to get some work done using my phone and computer.
The Wi-Fi was considerably slow throughout the cruise, better in some ports than others and iffy at best during our days at sea. Even some of the crew made fun of how bad it was.
Food and Beverage
I didn’t realize you had to make reservations for The Ocean Grill, the fanciest restaurant on the ship, ahead of time (no one had mentioned that), so you can imagine my shock when I found out it was booked solid all week! I opted for the Pacific Restaurant for dinner on my first and last nights of the cruise, and later discovered that much of the same food was being offered at the buffet anyway.
At the Pacific Restaurant, and on most traditional-style cruises, you’ll be led to a large table full of strangers to dine with — it sounds intimidating but was extremely welcome as I was traveling solo and it was an easy way to meet my fellow passengers.
There were so many dinner options available at each of the different restaurants over the course of the seven-day cruise that it’s impossible to list them all here. Most menus offered a selection of seafood dishes (lobster thermidor, salmon and a variety of fish), meat dishes (pork, beef, duck or chicken) and vegetarian-friendly options, so there’s definitely something for everyone.
Reservations weren’t required at the Pacific Restaurant — it was so packed the first night I was handed a pager that finally went off 35 minutes later when my table was ready — so for sake of convenience, I ate most of my meals at the buffet. It was fun meeting up with new friends on our own time for meals without having to sit through a 60- or 90-minute long dinner and risk missing out on any of the nightly onboard activities.
The buffet offered beverage stations where you could find coffee, a variety of teas, ice, lemonade, orange juice (in the morning), iced tea and water. Note that every other beverage from a glass of wine to a can of soda will cost you extra.
I chose to have breakfast, lunch and all but two dinners at the buffet, since I was able to enjoy my meal outside instead of being stuck inside in one of the inside restaurants — there’s nothing like that sea breeze! The view from my favorite table, pictured above, kept me coming back, especially at sunset.
Room service was also available for breakfast but the choices weren’t nearly as interesting as what was being offered in the restaurants or at the buffet, basically just an assortment of juices, pastries, cereals, muffins, fruit and other continental breakfast options.
Throughout the ship, there were several other places to grab snacks and drinks, like The Glass House (a wine bar), The Crow’s Nest (a bar at the front of the ship), the Curzon Lounge (a bar that’s home to nightly entertainment), Anderson’s (another bar) and the Lido Grill, where the crew often hosted BBQ lunches out by the pool deck.
The Adonia’s salt-water swimming pool was extremely refreshing after a long, hot day of touring, offering a shallow seating area around the edges and four feet to cool off in. It was usually pretty empty, too, which was nice.
I really enjoyed rocking out to live music by the Craze Band, a British group that lives aboard the Adonia and plays oldies rock and roll music at night as well as Latin music during deck parties as we pulled into or out of each port.
In addition to the Craze Band, Fathom arranged for a local Cuban band to join us between Havana and Cienfuegos, and another from Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, (pictured above). We were able to hear some great rumba and mambo music on deck and in the Curzon Lounge at night, which helped make our time at sea feel more authentic.
Somewhere in our Cuba cruise info, it mentioned that we’d have access to Cuban cinema, so we were surprised to see one showing of The Old Man and the Sea on the first night, followed by nothing but newish American movies the rest of the cruise — including Bridge of Spies, shown here, The Walk and The Intern — which was slightly disappointing since they had absolutely nothing to do with Cuba.
During our days at sea, we had the option of attending Spanish language classes, dance classes, seminars on what we could expect to see in Cuba, visual storytelling and street photography sessions and book club meetings, as well as wine and paint night, trivia night and giant outdoor game night. Additional activities included live-band karaoke, music and dancing after dark, movie nights and a Super Power Party on the last night of the cruise where guests could create their own alter-egos.
There was also a jogging track around the top level of the ship, as well as a fitness center — yoga and meditation sessions were free of charge, but pilates and cycling classes were available for an additional fee. There was also a soothing spa and relaxation area — available for an extra $26 per day plus spa treatments — and a hair salon so you could get a quick trim or style before a big night out.
I spent quite some time relaxing (and working) in the library, which offered several shelves full of books and board games that guests could sign out as long as they returned them by the end of the cruise.
There were also Fathom-branded activities like a seminar about charity work and another designed to help you figure out how to balance your busy life, as well as places around the ship where you could mail yourself a postcard to commemorate your trip or create a video message to email to your friends and family. I liked finding little “Curiosity Boxes” that were scattered around the ship and filled with factoids about Cuba.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the places we visited in our three ports of call — click on these links to view my three in-depth posts about the things we did in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba — Fathom definitely needs to work out some kinks to make future land-based tours run smoothly.
For starters, the cruise line needs to do a better job of organizing its bus tour groups by activity level instead of randomly giving everyone different numbers that correspond to the different buses. During our second day in Havana, I was on a bus full of older travelers who decided they were too hot and tired to get out and explore Revolution Square, so we ended up driving through it instead. Another woman I spoke to said their bus insisted on going back to the ship early so she didn’t get to visit the Hemingway bust in Cojimar since her group had skipped that part of the day entirely!
Fathom works with Havanatur, a land-based, government-run Cuban tour company that manages the land-based bus and walking tours. While the tour guides spoke almost-perfect English and did the best they could handling large groups of excited American tourists, it was often hard to hear their explanations. In some places, a few people (including myself) missed their buses and got lost for a little while since some of the guides were better at keeping track of their 35-person tour groups than others.
I think the Adonia crew members did an all-around excellent job with customer service — the reception team was always there to answer any questions and everyone from the room stewards to the waitstaff and buffet team were extremely courteous and greeted me with a smile.
During the last two days of our cruise, there were an increasing number of gastroenteritis cases on the ship that were possibly connected to Norovirus. This prompted Fathom crew members to take special precautions, like serving us food while wearing gloves at the buffet instead of having us serve ourselves and encouraging us to use the hand sanitizer stations located at the buffet and restaurant entrances.
Throughout this time, the Adonia crew did a really good job of keeping us all in the loop. The Captain came on the loudspeaker constantly to remind us to wash our hands after using the restroom and after touching any railings, elevator buttons or door handles — we were even asked not to shake hands with anyone, just in case. In the end, the virus was contained and only about a dozen out of 700+ people aboard suffered symptoms.
Disembarking in Miami
We were assigned certain times to leave the ship so disembarkation could be done in an orderly manner. I must have been one of the last people off the ship because the cruise terminal was pretty empty. I put my bags through the security machine, handed over my passport and answered some questions about my trip, which took no time at all.
The good thing about the Fathom Adonia is it’s much smaller than your average mega-cruise ship — 592-feet long compared to the 1,188-foot long Royal Caribbean ship Harmony of the Seas, for instance — so it was much more manageable. The down side is because the ship is smaller, you’ll feel it more if you’re caught up in a storm at sea, which we were most nights of my cruise, so make sure to pack some Dramamine just in case!
Ultimately, I think Fathom has some work to do with its current product, but it’s definitely on the right track — it was an inaugural cruise after all, so we were essentially the guinea pigs. I had an absolute blast visiting Cuba on this historic sailing and will always remember the places we visited and the people we met. If you’re looking for a totally unique way to visit this incredible island nation — and don’t want to worry about picking out a hotel or finding things to do there — give this cruise a try.
Featured image (and all others) courtesy of the author.
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