Part 1 of 4: Never say never. A reluctant non-cruiser books a cruise and eats her words and so much more.
Why Cuba? I refer to George Mallory’s reply of the same question about Mt. Everest, “Because it’s there!” And ‘there’ is very close, just 90 miles from the US, yet the country has been off limits to Americans for over 50 years. In 2015 the US loosened restrictions for tourism and earlier this year, the Adonia was the first US-based cruise ship to visit Cuba since 1959. While I have dreamed of visiting Cuba for many years, I never imagined I’d go there on a cruise ship.
I prefer self-guided travel, but it is not easy in Cuba. In many ways, time has stood still since the Castro revolution. There is no internet, no cell phone service for tourists, no credit cards and no ATM machines. There is little information available to plan a trip and the unknown seemed a bit too unknown to brave it on my own. There are guided tours available but are cost prohibitive for a low-budget traveler like me. Then I read an intriguing article in the New York Times about Fathom Cruise Lines.
Fathom’s only ship, the Adonia, alternates weeklong trips to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. The DR trip makes only one stop at Puerto Plata and offers a number of excursions to work with locals on projects such as reforestation, water purification, pouring cement floors, and teaching English to adults and children.
The focus of the Cuba sail is a people-to-people experience. Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba only if they meet the criteria in one of twelve categories. As a tourist, the US government requires you to either participate in either a guided people-to-people tour or you must engage in at least six hours a day of people-to-people related activities on your own and keep receipts and a journal for a period of five years. Included in the Fathom Cuba cruise are free land-based people -to-people excursions and optional excursions for a fee. They take care of the legalities and the required visa as well.
After some research on the ship and Cuba, I contacted my travel buddy Johnna. We hemmed and hawed for a while, but two factors convinced us to book: the price dropped and we learned that Fathom cruise lines will cease operations in May of 2017. The parent company Carnival Cruise lines plans to incorporate stops in Havana on some of its Caribbean cruises, but we weren’t interested in a large ship, multi-island sail. We wanted a total Cuban experience of Cuba as it is now, so booking sooner rather than later made sense.
Since I had never cruised before I had lots of questions. Each time I called Fathom, their agents were very knowledgeable and helpful; it seems there is a culture of that in the company. I booked a cruise two weeks following with the only affordable option, an inside cabin, essentially a large closet with beds. You can imagine our delight when we arrived on ship and learned we were upgraded to a patio room for free – a gift worth $2000 each!
While they don’t advertise themselves as such, Fathom is the un-cruise cruise line. Their focus is impact travel, travel with a purpose to change lives, yours and others. There is no casino on the ship, no dinner theater, no formal night or dressing up period, and no captain’s table – however, the captain may just ask to sit at your table.
Instead, Fathom offers basic Spanish lessons, classes on Cuban history and its culture, rum tasting and Cuban cocktail classes, Cuban musical entertainment and dance classes, exercise and wellness sessions, informational presentations on each destination, and classes on storytelling and social innovation. You can do as little or as much as you like. We divided our time between learning and leisure, the perfect balance.
The Adonia is a 700 passenger ship and looks like a bathtub toy next to the huge liners that cruise the Caribbean; this is both good and bad. It is easy to find your way around the small ship and the cruise is a much more personal experience than that of the larger ships, but the Adonia lacks the stabilizers that smooth the bumps of a rough sea. I learned this immediately after departing dock in Miami. I survived with help from the motion sickness medicine, Bonine and acupressure wristbands. Once we rounded the eastern corner of Cuba and the ship entered the Caribbean, the seas were calm and I recovered. By the time we turned home into the Atlantic, I had my sea legs and did fine.
The Adonia’s pool is tiny compared to those on the big ships, but there are two nice hot tubs and plenty of deck chairs to hang out and enjoy the sun, a burger, and a mojito.
The ship has three other dining options: a buffet, a sit-down restaurant and an upscale restaurant with a cover charge. The food in the buffet and sit-down restaurant are very similar so we opted for the buffet most of the time simply so we could eat outside and enjoy the warm weather. At the sit-down restaurant, you may request a table of your own or sit with others. Both times we sat with others, one experience good and the other, not so much. One table was full of laughing, entertaining people and the other, constant complainers who engaged in a vigorous round of name-dropping and one-upmanship. The two meals epitomized what I both love and hate about group travel: people.
Will I cruise again? There are definite advantages. You unpack only once. During travel between each city, you are in the comfort of your bed rather than on a crowded bus for hours on end. There is little planning involved; the cruise line takes care of most of that.
The problems I have with cruising are not the fault of the cruise line but instead with me (it’s not you, it’s me…). I have been apprehensive of cruises always, for good reason. I am claustrophobic, I get seasick and I usually prefer quiet times to crowds of people. While I experienced all that on the ship, it did not prevent me from having a good time. I was determined to make the best of it all.
What I struggled with the most was the time spent at sea. There was plenty to keep busy on the ship, but I’d rather have been in the country itself. Four days in Cuba was not enough for me. I work and have limited time off, so when I travel, I want make the most of every minute.
And people… they are hard to avoid on a cruise ship. A hundred times over I said thank you for our lovely little patio where we sat in quiet peace and watched the sun set into the sea every night. It was a godsend.
While I have no other experience to compare it to, I will be cliché and say that Fathom runs a tight ship. Other than a few minor blips, everything was very well organized, the crew friendly and efficient, the ship clean and comfortable, the food good and plentiful. I’d read some poor reviews but I’ve learned that if you want a good trip, you look for the good. It’s all in the perspective. Our cruise was good, very good actually.
Back to my question: I never thought I’d go on a cruise. I ate my words and a whole lot more on this trip. My answer: never say never.
Next blog post: Santiago de Cuba and our experience with Fidel.