May 16, 2016
Visiting Cuba, the long-forbidden travel fruit for U.S. citizens, has never been easier now that Carnival Corporation's new line Fathom sails from Miami to the island twice a month, offering people to people itineraries that visit three cities: Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Cruise Critic was onboard the line's first sailing to Cuba, and while the Cuban people were warm and friendly and made the trip unforgettable, Fathom hit quite a few speed bumps.
Designed for cruisers who want to "travel deep," Fathom's Cuba sailings are supposedly designed to bring Cuban culture, music and food to life for passengers through a mix of experiences that can include walking tours, private concerts, visits to community projects and talking with Cuban people. But despite all the glossy marketing and detailed tour descriptions provided by Fathom, it would be more appropriate to call the line's Cuba cruises people to people lite.
Representatives with Fathom say that because the line had only received approval to go to Cuba a few weeks before the first sailing, the schedule and onboard lineup of programs had not yet been fully fleshed out. So what we experienced will not be the same Fathom experience of three or six months from now.
That being said, here are a few of our first impressions of Fathom's Cuba sailings.
In Havana and Cienfuegos, Fathom brought local bands onboard to perform a handful of shows with live music, both outside on the Lido Deck (weather permitting) and in the ship's show lounge. Madera Buena Band, the Havana group, stayed onboard two nights, while Septeto Union Band, the Cienfuegos group, stayed on only one night. Both bands were excellent and gave passengers a taste of authentic Cuban music, including lots of son (Cuban's national music style). Our only complaint: None of the band members spoke English and Fathom didn't provide a translator for times the lead singers explained the music in Spanish.
Using U.S. dollars in Cuba is not recommended; dollar to CUC (Cuban convertible peso) exchanges are subject to a hefty surcharge and do not get a good exchange rate. Fathom encourages passengers to use euros or British pounds instead and offers currency exchanges at prevailing exchange rates at the reception desk. This made it very easy for anyone who had not known this beforehand to switch all their American dollars into more acceptable currency.
Without exception, every passenger we spoke to who went to the Tropicana Cabaret excursion said the show was great. The music, the costumes, the atmosphere -- people loved it all. But passengers also complained that the excursion left the ship too early, and that people were forced to wait around for the show to start for too long, without anything to drink in very hot and humid conditions. Fathom took the complaints to heart; all passengers who went on the Tropicana excursion received a partial refund and future excursions will leave the ship a full hour later so there is less waiting around before the show starts.
While Adonia was at sea, programming included a peculiar mix of Cuban- (and Dominican Republic-) inspired activities such as salsa dance classes, make-your-own mimosa sessions and basic Spanish lessons along with personal empowerment offerings with names like "The Story of You," "Curiosity Advantage," and "Travelers of Fathom." (We never did quite understand what a workshop about "unveiling and capturing the power" of a "moment of transformation" in our own lives had to do with visiting Cuba.) Passenger participation in all activities was mixed, especially in the personal empowerment sessions. Those who partook usually came away having enjoyed them, however and most complaints revolved around there not being enough, particularly activities related to Cuban culture.
D.R. Cruise Offer
Two days before the end of our cruise, a note was left in our cabin giving us the opportunity to stay onboard for the next week's sailing to the D.R. for $99 per person, plus taxes and fees; the only catch was you had to accept the offer the same day. Lots of passengers we talked to were thrilled by the offer and some 50-something people (about 20 cabins) accepted. Many others wanted to accept the offer, but needed more time to determine if they could take the following week off or couldn't do another cruise on such short notice. All who asked for more time to decide -- or an extension on when they could take the second cruise -- were told no.
People to People Expectations
This is an all-encompassing "miss" we're using to cover multiple aspects of the Fathom experience, including shore excursions and onboard programming. From the time a prospective cruiser first checks out Fathom's Cuba cruise, expectations for a deep cultural immersion are set. The brochure notes several things, including "As a Fathom traveler, you'll have the opportunity to interact with artists, musicians, business owners and families who make up the fabric of Cuban society" and "Explore cuisine as a window into the culture of the Cuban people. Immerse yourself in Cuba's cinematic history, from the Golden 60s to today." Once we came onboard, we realized there twere no cooking demonstrations or lectures about Cuban food. The only movie shown even remotely related to Cuba was "The Old Man and the Sea."
Expectations didn't match reality with the shore excursions either. The description of the Old Havana Walking Tour with Lunch includes this: "Enjoy a coffee in Plaza Vieja while a local Cafe owner will explain the role of tourism in Old Havana," "Visit San Francisco de Assisi Square to discuss the role of religion in the island from patrons of the square's beautiful cathedral," and "Have your fortune read by one of the many Santeros who have set up shop in Cathedral Square." None of this happened, leaving many cruisers feeling disappointed. This continued all cruise long, with descriptions of tours never matching what actually took place.
Or lack thereof. Prices for Fathom Cuba sailings are not inexpensive, with prices starting at about $2,300 per person for an inside cabin. Because of the high price points, many of the passengers onboard were veteran cruisers of high-end cruise companies and were surprised to find very little onboard was included in the price. Wine was never included, room service (only available for breakfast) carried a $5 surcharge and, most disappointing to many cruisers, bottled water was not freely available, not even on shore excursions, which were usually full day tours in hot and humid weather. By the second port stop, the tour operator began making water available, but passengers agreed Fathom should have been handing out free bottled water to everyone as they departed the ship.
--By Dori Saltzman, Senior Editor