When we booked in August, 2015, we knew this cruise would be an historic event, but didn’t imagine there would be such media focus on the first cruise ship to sail from the U.S. to Cuba in 50 years. We were pleasantly – and at time not ... Read More
When we booked in August, 2015, we knew this cruise would be an historic event, but didn’t imagine there would be such media focus on the first cruise ship to sail from the U.S. to Cuba in 50 years. We were pleasantly – and at time not so pleasantly – surprised to encounter all the media buzz.
I’d love to go back, but next time it'll be on my own. The rest of the world has free reign to travel to Cuba, and it'll start to get easier for the U.S. There are very good tour companies within the country, and it's only a 45-minute plane trip from Miami (~ $450 round trip).
The Fathom on-ground activities will be in flux for a time, as they begin with cultural immersion and continue to grow their offerings and opportunities in Cuba. We had some terrific experiences, and some that were less than ideal. Fathom seems to be listening, which is great, though they haven’t talked to me, so I'll list a few things here:
Walking tour of Old Havana, eating at an in-home paladar, speaking with Cuban citizens while walking the streets, our Cuban guides from the tour company, the community centers we visited, the history, the architecture, the street food, the old car taxis, bicitaxis and "coconuts", the craft market in Havana, viewing the ration stores and pharmacies.
Not so great:
• Revolution Square in Havana - we were given 20 minutes of precious time to view a parking lot. So frustrating.
• Visiting two cemeteries: There are only so many people-to-people interaction possibilities here. The cemetery in Cienfuego was the better one, as there was a guide who gave explanations of who was buried there along with some history. There's also a changing-of-the-guard ceremony there, but ours was cancelled due to rain.
• Too much time on the bus, and being unable to see all that was pointed out. I’d much prefer to take a hoho (hop on/hop off) bus on my own, and I did see these available in Havana.
• Eating in a paladar was a plus as well as a minus. Fathom literature has these described in two different ways: as a family-run restaurant, and as an in-home, family-run restaurant. The owner of one we ate in actually told us it was a restaurant for tourists. I can't imagine a Havana citizen being able to eat here, and I understand it’s about the ability of Cuban citizens to start their own businesses, but these felt especially pretentious. Some cruisers ate at different one, where the family grew their own food and shared it with neighbors, and the business was also frequented by the locals. THAT'S the business I'd like to be supporting.
• Being shepherded around in groups, with little or no opportunity to explore (i.e. 20 minutes at a time), or being told we can't leave the group.
• Not having most of the experiences that were described in the daily ship newsletter, Soundings. The interactions didn't happen in most cases. Perhaps Fathom should explain that either a.) it's up to you to initiate a conversation, or b.) train their guides to facilitate these discussions. Here are two examples that didn't materialize:
o "Enjoy a coffee in Plaza Vieja while a local cafe owner will explain the role of tourism in Old Havana, or see how coffee beans are roasted"
o "a private performance" and "an opportunity afterwards to hear directly from the musicians about their lives, training and their roles as music professors at area schools". The performance was great, but there was no follow-up opportunity.
THE FATHOM SHIP EXPERIENCE
For $8000, I expected the ship experience to be top-notch. We were disappointed. My expectation was based not only on the price, but that fact that Carnival is one of the leaders in the industry with 10 brands under their belt. In practice, in often appeared this line had no cruise experience at all.
• Lack of Information: Information was non-existent or late. This was a frustration for months before sailing and continued to frustrate while aboard.
• Shore Excursions: Shore excursions were only available the first night. There was no information ahead of time for those who self-booked. Travel agents had been informed, but it you booked on your own you were left out. The information was hidden at the back of a small “Programming Guide” booklet in the cabin. “Shore Excursions” were not listed in the index. Only 3 were available, for the first night only ($199 pp for Tropicana Cabaret, $129 pp for Parisien Cabaret, or $59 pp to hear a cannon blow at a fortress). Hint: Look these up beforehand and take a taxi.
• Lack of Water: With temperatures in the 90's, we should have received of a bottle of water getting off the ship when heading on a walking tour. We could have brought a bottle of water from the cabin (4 bottles were left in the cabins at a cost of $3.95 each), but didn't know to do that (or refused to purchase it). Fathom has pushed this off on the tour company and said it would be rectified immediately, but I believe they have an obligation here. There was also no water handed out upon returning to the ship. We were dying of heat and thirst. Some people took taxis back to the ship rather than continue the walking tour the first day. We abandoned our tour group later the next day in search of something to drink.
• Choices: There were very few, and I see no reason why some choices couldn’t have been incorporated. For daytime activities you were assigned a group and went wherever that group was headed. There was NO opportunity to customize your experience. (For example, many wanted to tour a cigar factory, or a rum factory, and many wanted more opportunity to shop at local markets. Some of us aren’t comfortable talking to dead people.) I wanted more time to discover on my own. Some guides wouldn't "allow" you to leave the group. I was so glad we didn't have to hold hands!
• Organization: It just wasn't there. Each day you’d receive a group number and a time. When your group was called, you’d go get a sticker with a new group number and board your bus. We went as Group #1 was beckoned each day because we like to be out early. It didn’t matter one bit.
• Ship activities: There is no casino, which I knew from the start. There were no theatrical shows. There were 3 dance classes (2 Salsa classes the first night, 1 Bachata class on day 4). I wish these had been daily. A Wine & Paint night was cancelled and never rescheduled because there were very important people on board who took precedence (the media, travel agents, and cruise line VIPs and their friends). A cocktail class seemed popular, and the Spanish phrases class was a very good one to attend. A camera class was unfortunately titled “Visual Storytelling”, but it’s a very useful class. There were also various enrichment classes that may be of interest to some, but which I found odd (The Story of You, Curiosity Advantage).
• Speaking of VIPs: Yes, this was an important first, but paying passengers should not have played second fiddle to the media, the travel agents, or the friends and family of cruise ship employees.
• Specialty Restaurant: There is only one, the Ocean Grill. I was told they were booked solid the first day but it was possible to put your name on their waiting list. I heard this on Day 3 and therefore didn’t make an attempt.
• Spa: I called to make massage appointments for me and my husband but they had no availability other than for hair blow-outs. I was put on the waiting list but didn’t receive a call. I later heard they filled up the first day.
• Customer Service: They have a long way to go and need to put some focus on this.
• Cruiser Bonus: We were offered the chance to stay on board for the next cruise to the Dominican Republic for only $99. How I wanted to go! The offer was put outside our cabin doors "between midnight and 6 a.m". on Friday. We didn't receive it until we were leaving for the day's activity that morning, and it said it needed to be turned in by "tomorrow, May 6, at 6 p.m.", which was actually TODAY. I had to check with my employer first though. When we returned, I tried to reach my boss and her boss, but by 10 p.m. still hadn't received word back. I figured I'd better turn in the request anyway, because I just couldn't wait any more. Even though it was past the deadline, I asked them to PLEASE consider it and explained I was trying to get the time off. Nope! They denied it simply because it was late, they never sent it in, told me they called my room but they hadn't, and didn't troubleshoot when I tried following up the next morning. It was SO disappointing. Read Less