¹Updated March 17, 2017
To give you my background, I have cruised over 20 times, mostly to the Caribbean, with one to Alaska, one to the Amazon River, and several to the Mediterranean including a transatlantic. The cruise ship I took to the Amazon River was actually the Mv Adonia; however, it was a Princess ship at the time, the former Royal Princess, one of about ten former Renaissance ships, which after 9/11, were bought up by American cruise lines Princess (3), Oceania (3), and Azamara (2) mostly. My husband and I have also sailed on the two Azamara ships, so I was very comfortable with what the Mv Adonia would offer. It is currently leased by Fathom™ from P&O, a British cruise line. Its size is considered medium and is cozy; however, the casino was removed and there were only two on-board shops, one for luxury items such as handbags & jewelry, the other sold eco-friendly products in line with Fathom’s theme. There was very little sportswear or toiletries available. The shops carried the same merchandise every day, nothing new introduced at a later date, nor were there any “reduced sale items” at the end of the cruise. Still on board the ship is the complimentary launderette on deck 7 near the aft elevators/stairs, with 8 sets of stacked washers/dryers. Powdered detergent was also complimentary, and I am glad I brought dryer sheets; the facility was underutilized on my cruise.
The Glass House is a new venue — a wine and champagne bar on deck 10; across the way is the library which housed 4 internet desktop computers for passengers’ use as well as an extensive collection of books including a few about Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The Ocean Grill was the specialty restaurant (additional charge) which served Cuban food from their new chef, and the Lido Cafe was the poolside grill venue offering Cuban sandwiches at lunch. (I did not eat at either and no Cuban food was available at the buffet or main dining room). Twice on sea days, they offered a tasty poolside Bar-B-Que which had chicken, seafood, burgers, hot dogs, lasagna, vegetables, corn-on-the-cob and fruit salad. Dining room food was catered to the British as lamb in some form was available most evenings, fish and chips were offered, and cappuccino was complimentary for breakfast and dinner (did not eat lunch there, so I cannot advise); also tea flavors offered were plentiful.
My husband was not interested in visiting Cuba, so I traveled solo, originally booking in an ocean view and was given one forward on the lowest deck D which also houses the guest relations and shore excursions desks. Once on board, I inquired about availability of other cabins as I suspected the ship was not sold out and was offered a balcony — an aft balcony up two decks on C (deck 6). Cabins are pretty standard, with a desk, love seat or chair, sufficient storage space, two night stands, small shower including mounted shower gel, toiletries of shampoo/conditioner/body lotion/shower cap/nail file, and a tea/coffee station near the mini-fridge which included two complimentary water bottles which I reused by refilling from the ship’s tap. Walking tours usually provided a bottle also as you departed. All cabins in any category are the same price (which I do not find fair); there are only four categories and the ranges depending on sailing date. Price excludes visas, taxes, fees and port charges and start at $1199.
(If interested, currently Fathom is offering Dominican Republic cruises with the following prices: inside @ $499, ocean view @ $599, balcony @ $699, and suite @ $2499). My cabin steward was from India as were quite a lot of the crew from P&O. Fathom crew were mostly young people from English-speaking countries in addition to the U.S. (Canada, Australia, UK) who had done similar impact activities such as the Peace Corps and they had little or no cruise experience until April’s first sailing to the Dominican Republic. Since most sailings early on do not appear to be sold out, Fathom offered those on the Cuban sailing an incredible rate to stay aboard for the following Dominican Republic sailing of $199 per person, an incredible value for a cruise; had I not had so many commitments at home, I would have stayed on.
Complimentary excursions — Originally, it was required that all passengers partake in these and stay with the tour through the end. This is now relaxed and is not required. There were four large groups based on the location of assigned cabin on board which were called about 20 minutes apart for disembarkation each day for the tours. I felt this was unfair because every day of ground tours, you were assigned to the same group at the same disembarkation time (so you were always first, second, third or fourth, with no rotation). Then it was pot luck as to which bus and walking tour guide you received and where you ate lunch and in some cases, activities you attended. All guides were very well versed in English and easy to understand; they varied on the topics they discussed other than the sights we were seeing; i.e., political, economical, etc. Descriptions given in the daily ship newspaper were overhyped as to the P2P experiences we would receive. My Havana bus tour included a wonderful lunch near the top of a 39-story modern apartment building at the Le Torre Restaurant on the 33rd floor. This not only afforded us a panoramic view, but fantastic food with the following options: (1) Lobster, (2) Steak, (3) Fish/seafood; we could choose to have only one or smaller portions of two or three items. I almost felt guilty eating so well while looking out at the way the Cuban people lived. It was an experience to take the direct non-stop elevator up, as there was only one and it held only about 10 people. Most of the Paladare (privately-owned restaurants) owners were not fluent in English, so our guides interpreted for us. There was limited opportunity for us to interact with the average Cuban citizen. There were several evening excursions offered at additional cost and most people who took them said they were way overpriced and could easily have been booked independently at a reasonable cost. I did not participate in any of them, but did not hear any negative feedback from those that did. The most expensive was $199 at the Tropicana and took place outdoors. All ship’s evening tours included transportation. Something to remember is to carry local CUCs, their currency, for tipping paladare staff, tour/bus guides and restroom attendants (also bring TP when in some of Santiago’s restrooms). The ship’s literature advises you as to the amount of tip. A fun option is to take a short coco taxi ride, an open air yellow mini-vehicle available for hire.
Itinerary — Our cruise was Fathom’s™ third to Cuba, and due to returning to Miami the night of sailing because of a power outage, only visited Havana and Santiago; Cienfuegos was eliminated. I understand that since the scheduled visit was only 5 hours, there probably wasn’t a lot to do, however, my research suggested that I personally would have liked it better and found it to be more of an accurate representation of the Cuban lifestyle. It was necessary to spend two days in Havana to experience all it has to offer and Santiago, the second largest city, has more to see and do presumably. Santiago I found to have fewer modern buildings/facilities and probably the people were in a lower socio-economic status. The ship refunded port charges and also applied a $75 on board credit for the missed port.
Shopping on ground — In Havana, the bus tour takes you to a local artisan/craft market – be sure to bargain there. Cigars and liquor (rum) are available in all ports, basically at the same price (I believe they were government regulated/owned). I purchased some craft items at the fort in Santiago as well (barter there).
Shipboard activities — The band on board, the Craze Band Trio, was one from the U.K. and they were very good in that they performed all types of music at almost all the venues on board. They also performed a couple times with the local Cuban band Jelengue, that boarded when we sailed from Havana and disembarked in Santiago. They were also excellent (and included an superb trumpet player) and performed various salsa, cha cha and other local music that could be danced with a partner or in line dance form. There was music and/or movies under the stars most evenings. Movies included “The Old Man and the Sea” and “Havana Motor Club” and were offered more than once.
Wi-Fi packages are available and reasonably priced; however, I only wanted to send emails home and was having difficulty in that as I found out on the last sea day, they were indeed reaching my family, but my husband’s replies did not reach me. Someone said that the internet was set up through the Dominican Republic and perhaps some servers (mine is Yahoo) were not being handled responsibly.
Fathom-related activities were plentiful but not necessarily Cuban related; examples are curiosity boxes throughout the ship, scavenger hunt and other games (trivia), visual storytelling, cocktail & photography classes, salsa and cha cha dance classes, yoga & meditation, wine & paint class, and of course Spanish language classes — most classes were offered more than once.
SUMMARY — I am thankful to have had the opportunity to take this cruise and for the most part, it was what I had been led to believe it would be. There are quite a few small issues that need addressed and tweaked and our feedback will help them with that I am sure. My suggestions included: more seminars about Cuba and its history and culture prior to disembarking (perhaps more information can be emailed to passengers); making tours more accessible to older and physically challenged people (pavement – cobblestone was uneven) with places for people to sit and take a break, especially given the heat; providing more situations for interaction with the locals. Fathom’s™ response to passengers’ suggestions to date results in these just announced July 1, 2016¹ additional on board activities for guests sailing to Cuba:
• Getting to Know Cuba / Intro to Havana — This program provides essential information for the week ahead to ensure travelers get the most from their time in Cuba, as well as an comprensive overview of Havana.
• Getting to Know Cienfuegos — Known as The Pearl of the South, Cienfuegos is famous for its remarkable beauty, intertwined with its French roots. Travelers learn the history of Cuba’s third largest port that includes sites like Parque Marti and the Cantores de Cienfuegos.
• Getting to Know Santiago de Cuba — Once the Spanish capital of Cuba and the birthplace of Castro’s 26th of July Movement, Santiago de Cuba is rich in history. Guests learn about its culture and people, and discover why the land of “Ron, Son, and Revolución” has birthed many unique genres of music and ideologies.
• Pre-1950’s Cuban History — The country’s pre-revolutionary history tells of Spanish colonialism, Caribbean resources, pirates, and the pride of the people. During this program, guests get a closer look at the development of Cuba’s culture, and see why many fall in love with the spirit of the local people.
• Havana Architecture Bingo — Havana is undoubtedly an architectural playground, featuring styles from Baroque mansions to contemporary offices and more. Travelers learn about the city’s unique buildings and styles during an interactive game of bingo.
• Cuban Coffee Games — Coffee plays a huge part in Cuban culture, as its most important export. Guests learn how coffee got to the island, and why coffee from the Sierra Maestra is considered the finest in the world.
• Havana / Cienfuegos / Santiago de Cuba Bands — The influence of music and art on Cuban culture can be seen and heard on almost every block. Cuban bands join the sailing during the ship’s time between ports, adding their sound to the on board entertainment. They’ll be playing classic and contemporary hits, as well as original compositions for guests’ listening pleasure.
• Shop Handcrafted Products — Fathom™ has partnered with a Cuban design store in Old Havana, Clandestina. The shipboard store will feature their local merchandise, including toys, handbags, posters, and other design products. It is the first store outside of Cuba to sell Clandestina products. Founded by Cuban creatives, the design brand is well-known for their signature Vintrashe Collection, which features toys made from recycled plastic and decorated by hand, as well as t-shirts and handbags designed by local artists and made with up-cycle techniques and second-hand fabrics. “Each time Fathom™ travelers purchase our products, they support independent entrepreneurship. They are taking home a unique design product that is ‘authentically Cuban,’” said Idania del Rio, co-founder and owner of Clandestina.
As of September 22, several optional shore excursions (tours) have been added as follows:
- In Hemingway’s Footsteps (5 hours) – Ernest Hemingway fans and other travelers alike will see Havana through the eyes of the famed author. From the cobblestone streets of Old Havana to the shores of fishing village Cojimar, the spirit of the man is alive in bars, recipes, and museums. Guests will also visit Hemingway’s home “Finca Vigia,” stop by his favorite fishing spot and inspiration for “The Old Man and the Sea,” step foot in the room where he wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and grab a drink at his favorite watering holes. The excursion includes lunch and drinks and is $59 per person.
- Beyond Havana: Exploring the Cuban Countryside (9 hours) – Travelers will be able to experience rural life in Cuba as they visit the countryside known for its sugar and coffee production. One highlight is Las Terrazas, developed in the 1960’s as part of Cuba’s Green Revolution, and is now a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Las Terrazas is an ecotourism hotspot and sustainable community model for artists, farmers, and families utilizing organic farming and medicine. Guests can interact with doctors who transform plants into alternative medicine, visit organic farms, and wander the ruins of a former French coffee plantation. The tour includes lunch at one of Las Terrazas’ locally sourced restaurants, and refreshments throughout the day. It’s $69 per person.
- Magic of Santiago Featuring El Cobre (6 hours) – Travelers who want to experience revolution, rum, religion, and salsa will love this tour of Santiago de Cuba – the country’s former capital. Beginning downtown in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, guests head to the resting place of Cuban hero Jose Marti before touring San Juan Hill, home to the Rough Riders assault during the Spanish-American War. The excursion then ventures beyond the city limits into the Sierra Maestra mountain range for the city of El Cobre, a historic copper mining town with African influence. Travelers will visit Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, where they’ll learn about the role religion plays in the daily lives of the locals, and learn about the history of the shrine. Guests will also have the option to attend a mass, and listen to the sounds of the city’s steel drum band El Cobre. The tour is $69 per person.
Travelers interested in heading off on their own can also self-certify with approved People to People activities. For example, they can take a spin around Havana in a classic American car, sample rich Cuban rum, dance to lively Cuban rhythms at a tropical Cabaret, or enjoy an authentic Cuban meal in one of the country’s many restaurants. The choices are virtually limitless.
Prices for seven-day itineraries to Cuba start at $1,599 per person this year. Next year, they will begin at $1,699, and vary by season.
In conclusion, if you are interested in visiting Cuba, I recommend Fathom’s™ week-long cruise. Do consider the weather which at least in the summer (rainy season) is sub-tropical and therefore has extremely high humidity and high temperatures reaching 90, and lows staying in the 80s at night — dew points made it feel like 100 or more and there were few places where there was a breeze unless on a hill (visiting a fort); so be prepared. The people are genuinely happy to see Americans and as curious about us as we are about them. I am sure the country is on its way to becoming “Americanized” and some day there will be McDonalds and Wal-Marts, but I think that is a ways off (several years), so don’t be in a rush to book; I do believe this cruise is the best, most cost-effective way to visit Cuba at this time. I have researched land package tours and other cruise lines which I update as needed, and they offer less inclusions and prices are considerably more.
All photos by Mimi Auchter
You may wish to view our travel blogs related to Fathom’s Cuban People-To-People Experience:
Also view the following videos for a glimpse of this Fathom™ experience: