Special Note from Mark: As of this writing, many people writing about Fathom cruises to Cuba are being paid or compensated for doing so. When reading my stories about Cuba, I want you to know Clyde and I select and pay for our trips just like you do. We don’t get any compensation of any kind from any company, so you can always depend on us for honest, unbiased advice.
Update: As of the end of 2016, Fathom is no longer operating cruises in Cuba.
In a Nutshell: While Fathom oversells the “person to person” aspect of their Cuban cruise, a voyage aboard the Adonia is currently the most efficient way for Americans to visit Cuba. High points include exotic ports of call, the dynamic and engaging Impact Guide staff, and some of the best onboard programming we’ve seen anywhere, while challenges include mediocre dining, inconsistent on-shore experiences, and too little time in each port.
The novelty of the destination inclines us to overlook some rough edges, but as options for travel to Cuba expand, Fathom will need to improve dining options, expand shopping options, and deliver a better balance of time in port versus time at sea.
Fathom: A Different Kind of Cruise Company
The Adonia, sporting Fathom’s “wide open to new experiences” logo.
Unlike Holland America or Celebrity, Fathom is focused less on pleasure cruising and more on “impact travel” — their marketing term for service-oriented vacations that offer opportunities for person-to-person (or “P2P”) cultural exchange.
For example: Fathom’s cruise to the Dominican Republic offers travelers opportunities to do everything from teaching English classes to local kids to manufacturing water filters for families who lack clean water.
In Cuba, however, Fathom is running a standard series of bus and walking tours with all the associated pitfalls and shortcomings. Frankly, having a genuine “people to people” experience is difficult when you’re squeezed into a group of 45 tourists, herded like cattle past local highlights, and told, “Be back at the bus in fifteen minutes!”
So, do we recommend you take a Fathom cruise to Cuba? Absolutely! In fact, as of September 2016, a Fathom cruise is probably the best way to sample what Cuba has to offer, especially if you set your expectations properly.
While Fathom oversells the “P2P” aspects of their Cuba cruise a bit, a Fathom cruise is an efficient, comfortable way to introduce yourself to Cuba and spot the places you want to come back to later when you’re traveling on your own.
Onboard the Adonia
Anderson’s, the largest bar and public space on our ship.
Fathom’s Cuban cruises all take place on the Adonia, a repurposed luxury liner formerly operated by Fathom’s parent company, British-owned P&O. The change is so recent, safety videos, in-room materials, and even customer satisfaction surveys all still feature P&O branding and refer to amenities (including a casino and an ethnic restaurant) no longer onboard.
The Adonia is small, equipped to carry about 700 passengers. If you’re used to the 5,000 passenger behemoths operated by Carnival, you’ll either love the Adonia’s small town atmosphere and easily navigated interior or you’ll miss the opportunities for exploration and entertainment a larger ship provides.
We enjoyed the largest bar and social area (Anderson’s), the bright and appealing Curzon Theater, the Glass House wine bar, and the well appointed library. An outdoor walking track circles the adequate open-air pool. There’s also a tiny spa and a well-appointed health club.
Poolside, aboard the Adonia.
Tip: Even a ship as small as the Adonia rewards careful exploration. I’m embarrassed to admit we didn’t discover the best public space on the entire ship — the expansive and well-decorated Crow’s Nest — until our last day on board!
Our comfortable cabin incorporated a seven-foot by four-foot balcony, outfitted wth two chairs and a small table. The floor to ceiling window on the balcony made our room feel larger than a standard cabin, and the balcony itself was great for watching the Cuban scenery scroll by.
If you’ve been in any cabin on any ship, you’ll feel right at home with the standard-issue love seat, the tiny desk, two electrical outlets (bring an extension cord!), two generous mirrors, two closets (one narrow, one double-wide), and a queen-sized bed (convertible to two twin beds in a pinch). If you’re into luxurious bathrooms, take note: our bath and shower on the Adonia were the smallest we’ve ever seen outside an Amtrak train.
At the far ends of the cabin spectrum, you’ll find interior rooms (no windows) and massive corner suites with a living room, bedroom, and an impressive wall of windows. Those suites come at premium prices! Our balcony cabin for cost us $3964 (per couple) for the week. For a suite, we would have paid more than $10,000.
Tip: During some Cuba trips, Fathom offers guests steep discounts to stay aboard for the next week’s trip to the Dominican Republic. We could have added an extra week in our balcony room for just $219 per person (!) or upgraded to one of those expansive suites for $1000 per person. Near the end of a sailing, you may also receive offers for discounted Cuba and Dominican Republic cruises scheduled later in the year.
On our voyage, the average age was around seventy years old, with the majority being friendly retirees curious about seeing Cuba for the first time (or, in some cases, returning there after having seen it during its glory days). Perhaps a third of all guests were professionals in their 40’s and 50’s, supplemented by a handful of people in their 30’s and few than ten people in their second decade on the planet. There were no young children or teenagers present.
Staff and Service
Fathom’s Impact Guides — crew members who provide cultural lectures throughout the voyage — are young, enthusiastic, inspiring, easy on the eyes, and a delight. Fathom would do well to hire more of them.
Cabin service was snappy and responsive, with rooms being refreshed morning and evening. Our cabin attendant was friendly and professional.
By contrast, the dining room staff needed more training. Though they meant well, they fumbled with silverware, struggled with service, and didn’t keep an eye on refills or inquire about issues when dinners went uneaten. Holland America — a sister company that sets a high standard for service — should send over a manager or two, perhaps.
Even very casual shoppers will quickly exhaust options aboard the Adonia.
One tiny sundries shop stocks alcohol, snacks (chips and candy), personal items (hair brushes, nail clippers), basic meds (Tylenol, sea sickness pills), Fathom-branded merchandise (water bottles, t-shirts), and, oddly, Body Shop bath products. Across the hall, you’ll find a watch and jewelry shop selling expensive watches and dubious-looking Zultanite jewelry.
Some passengers complained about the shops, citing high prices and a lack of “authentic Cuban merchandise.” The first complaint has some basis in truth. (Thirty-five dollars for a t-shirt? Thirty dollars for a plastic water bottle?) The second complaint, though, betrays an unfortunate ignorance about the state of goods in Cuba. Given the scarcity of authentic Cuban products in authentic Cuban stores, expecting to find them in the Adonia’s gift shop borders on the absurd.
I’ll keep this simple: if you’re a foodie, or if good onboard restaurants are critical to your enjoyment of a cruise, the Adonia is not the ship for you. Dining options aboard the Adonia are severely limited, and food (with a very few exceptions) is the least satisfying we’ve ever encountered on any cruise line.
The Ocean Grill
The biggest offender? The Ocean Grill, the Adonia’s most expensive restaurant. Despite paying an up charge of $25.00 per person (plus an additional $5.00 upcharge for ordering lobster), we received flavorless, indifferently prepared meals.
In addition to bad food, our Ocean Grill meal was clumsily served. Our lobster came in a bowl, along with several sides in what amounted to gravy boats. With no salad plate and no dish other than our lobster bowl, what, exactly, were we expected to do with the side dishes? Stir ‘em in?
The Ocean Grill’s food can look good — but looks can be deceiving.
We had better meals on shore in a impoverished country than we did in the best restaurant on the luxury liner that took us there. That’s a problem, and Fathom needs to fix it — fast!
Main Dining Room
The main dining room was, at best, inconsistent. One night’s pork tenderloin was tasty, but the next night’s shrimp dish proved inedible. Ice cream flavors were inventive (cactus and papaya, for example), but the chocolate root beer cake was so dried out, it couldn’t be pierced with a fork.
Generally, dining room food had the quality, consistency, and flavor you’d expect from an Indian-influenced Piccadilly or Golden Corral. Again, this needs prompt attention.
We ate at The Conservatory buffet only once, finding it too cramped, too crowded, too competitive, and too under-stocked to be practical.
Staff refilled empty entree bays too slowly, and when food did appear, it tended to be either bland or bizarre. Worse, “afternoon snacks” at The Conservatory seem to be little more than a strategy for disposing of lunch time leftovers.
Rather than cook to order, the poolside grill piles burgers, jerk chicken, and french fries under heat lamps, where the bread and potatoes quickly become hard and inedible. And if the well-named “Pizza Hatch” — literally, an (infrequently) open hatch through which (infrequently) prepared pizzas were (infrequently) dispensed — can’t do better, it should be mercifully and permanently welded shut.
The Adonia offers excellent storytelling workshops (based on the models formulated at Stanford University) led by talented Impact Guides. I’m a professional storyteller by trade, and the storytelling workshop delighted me, providing opportunities to make real and meaningful connections with other travelers.
And while I think of myself as a capable photographer, the street photography workshop gave me a new level of confidence with asking people on the street their permission to take a photo. It’s not an exaggeration to say I owe my best shot on this trip to inspiration I received in this class.
I owe one of my favorite photos from this trip to the workshop that encouraged me to be bolder about my street photography.
We found the orientation sessions — to Cuba’s culture and religions, to each port, and to Fathom’s Dominican Republic itinerary to be top-rate. Don’t miss them.
In addition to these gems, you’ll also find dance classes, mixology demonstrations, wine tastings, a painting class, basic Spanish language practice sessions, yoga and meditation classes, giant board game sessions on the pool deck, and the occasional karaoke and movie night.
Music lovers will appreciate the fact that a very good Cuban band performs frequently. The ship’s serviceable jazz trio is underutilized and under-appreciated.
If I have any criticism of programming on the Adonia, it’s this: especially as the week wears on, the frequency and variety of programming declines. The bones of a first-class program are there; Fathom just needs to offer a greater variety of sessions and repeat them more often, particularly on sea days.
Approaching Santiago de Cuba
In Cuba, Fathom visits Havana (two days, with an overnight stay), Cienfuegos (for about four hours!), and Santiago de Cuba (for about nine hours). Everyone agreed that Fathom needs to spend more time in every port — particularly Cienfuegos. But given how difficult travel from city to city can be on Cuba’s highways, I’m confident Fathom’s cruise remains the fastest way to glimpse the most ports in the least time.
Havana is a thriving urban center with more than 2 million inhabitants, yet retains a friendly, laid-back island vibe. Cienfuegos is far more rural — think of it as a sleepy seaside village with two shopping streets. Santiago de Cuba offers historical sites nestled in lush tropical settings and bustling city streets.
In all locations, we felt perfectly safe. Remember, though: Cuba is a developing country, and many of its residents are in desperate situations. In every port, you’ll encounter entrepreneurs and panhandlers, saints and beggars. Some of these will be persistent; others may be aggressive. Be prepared to smile a lot, to say no very firmly when you are not interested in the performance or good being offered, and to use common sense with regard to where you go and what you do.
- are new to cruise ship travel
- speak absolutely no Spanish
- feel very nervous about travel in Cuba
- are disabled or have mobility issues,
- prefer dining with people just like you,
- have a very small travel budget, or
- want a layer of insulation between you and Cuba’s harsher realities,
you will appreciate Fathom’s shore excursions. With the exception of the night at the Tropicana, they’re all included in your ticket price, and they eliminate any need to research ports or interact with Cubans other than your tour guides.
The packaged tours do include some nice experiences. I loved the time we spent at a community center called El Tanque, and watching the Ballet Folklorico Cutumba practice in Santiago de Cuba was a delight. I would also note our best meal on the entire trip was at Primos Twice, a place we would have been unlikely to discover without significant research.
Not even the sluggishness of a packaged group tour could dampen the impact of a session with the Catumba Ballet.
That said: if you are an experienced and independent traveler, know some Spanish phrases, and don’t mind a little uncertainty, I’d recommend you invest a few minutes on TripAdvisor.com, hire a well-reviewed local guide or do some basic research, and make your own way around each port. You will see more of what the real Cuba has to offer, without the stress of pushing a crowd to board a bus or hustle from Attraction A to Attraction B.
For Fathom’s capable Impact Guides, comfortable rooms, and exotic ports, we award high marks, but bad food and rushed shore excursions bring Fathom’s overall score down to a tenuous B-.
I recommend Fathom’s Cuba cruise — particularly when expectations are properly set. If I could find the right price and book my own local guides, I wouldn’t hesitate to return.