Experiencing The ADONIA As Fathom Bids Farewell

Experiencing The ADONIA As
Fathom Bids Farewell

By Shawn J. Dake

All photos by and copyright Shawn J. Dake 2017.

The ADONIA rests alongside her berth at Amber Cove on one of her final calls to the port on May 12, 2017. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.

On May 28, 2017 a near-capacity list of passengers boarded a 30,277 ship for a seven-day voyage calling at the three Cuban ports of Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba. When the ADONIA returned to Miami on June 4th, a brief, but memorable experiment in cruising would be over and a brand called Fathom Travel would fade into history as a cruise line. With passengers disembarked, the ship would deadhead across the Atlantic for England. While en route all traces of the Fathom brand would be eliminated as the ship returned to P&O Cruises. A short two day stay in a Portland shipyard would encompass the slight alterations to the exterior color scheme, painting over the Fathom logo on the bow and company name near the stern as the already blue funnel took on the new P&O colors once again. That simply, a cruise line can vanish from the seas.

Bow of the ADONIA wearing the Fathom logo.

The ADONIA started her seagoing career as the last in the series of eight R-ships built for Renaissance Cruises. Built by the famous shipyard of Chantiers de l’Atlantique, in St. Nazaire, France she was completed in 2001 and given the name R EIGHT. She would only sail a few months for them before bankruptcy forced the company out of business. In her subsequent careers, three times she would end up as the second ship to use each of her new names. In 2003, she became the MINERVA II for Swan Hellenic Cruises. By 2007 the ship was transferred within the fleets of parent company Carnival Corporation & plc, to Princess Cruises where it became the second ROYAL PRINCESS. Another internal transfer took place in 2011 when it was moved to the P&O fleet where it became the next ADONIA, ironically replacing a ship of the same name which went back to Princess Cruises. It has been with P&O ever since and until the foray with Fathom catered primarily to British passengers with an adults-only audience on all of its cruises.

The entrance to the Curzon Lounge, forward on Prom Deck 5.
The Curzon Lounge seen facing aft, is the Main Lounge of the ship.

The public rooms aboard the ADONIA are some of the most attractive to be found at sea today. Dark faux wood paneling covers most of the walls. Fluted columns adorn many of the lounges. A rather grand staircase makes an impressive ascent from the Reception Office on Deck 4 to access the range of public rooms most of which are found on Deck 5.

The walls of Anderson’s Lounge and Bar are decorated with plaques from the ports visited by the ADONIA.
The aft section of Anderson’s with one of several faux fireplaces found aboard the ship.
Raffle’s coffee bar and entrance to the Restaurant on the right.

These include the Curzon Lounge, a showroom located forward, Anderson’s situated midship, and Raffles Bar and coffee lounge which is a staging area of sorts for the lovely Pacific Restaurant set all the way aft.

Forward section facing port of The Crow’s Nest overlooking the bow.
The Crow’s Nest showing the bar and dance floor facing starboard.

Also of particular note are the range of facilities found on the Sun Deck, also known as Deck 10. The largest of these is The Crow’s Nest forward with spectacular views in three directions. Stepping outdoors while moving aft, a jogging track encircles the swimming pool a deck below.

Looking aft over the Crystal Swimming Pool and the Sun Deck above.
The lovely Library aboard the ADONIA.
The aft staircase at the Deck 10 level.

Perhaps the most beautiful and comfortable space aboard is the Library with its domed ceiling painted with birds and a faux fireplace surrounded by comfortable chairs. A wonderful place for quiet contemplation, reading a good book or consulting the charts to see where you are. Rounding out this level at the aft end are the Glasshouse Wine Bar on the portside and the Ocean Grill restaurant to starboard. To work out or be pampered there is a gymnasium, spa and beauty salon at the forward end of Lido Deck 9. Adjacent to this health area is the card room which can be opened up to form a larger conference room.

Balcony Stateroom #A-015.
Stateroom #A015 looking inboard.

The majority of the stateroom accommodations on the ADONIA are extremely comfortable, if not overly large. The passenger decks are named in the traditional style from top to bottom as A, B, C and D Decks. For the period the ship was with Fathom all accommodations of a particular type were priced the same; therefore only four categories were offered. There are ten spacious suites mostly named after former P&O ships. Staterooms with balconies are found on the three highest levels. Unlike the earliest of the R-ships built, the ADONIA has all standard balconies with no mini-suites on A-Deck. The least expensive categories of accommodations are the Inside and Outside cabins found on all four passenger levels. All provide very nice living quarters if having a balcony is not a requirement.

The Grand Staircase from the Reception Lobby on Deck 4 leading to Prom Deck 5.

The fathom, with a lower-case “f,” concept was first broached in 2015 when Carnival Corporation executives partnered with Tara Russell, who would become President of the new division, to offer “social-impact” journeys to Carnival’s new resort development at Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic. Promotional materials described the trip as “A different kind of cruise. For people who want to make a difference.” Besides enjoying the traditional pleasures of cruising, guests could contribute to the economy of the region they were visiting by participating in a choice of seven different shore side activities working alongside local residents on community improvement projects and developing organizations to support income and employment opportunities. It was a wonderful, altruistic idea. Not entirely coincidently, it also positioned a perfect-size ship to be immediately available should permission be granted to resume regular cruises to Cuba from the United States for the first time in over 55 years. One of Carnival’s largest subsidiaries, P&O Cruises would supply the ship, which was already spending the winter season based in the Caribbean. Although marketed as fathom, and with only minor alterations, the ADONIA would remain a member of the P&O fleet, flying their flag and staffed by their crew.

The P&O houseflag flies from the mast of the ADONIA. The ship’s registry is Hamilton, Bermuda.

The first cruise for fathom departed Miami in April, 2016. Sailing Sunday afternoons from Miami, the first two days were spent at sea with various workshops and Dominican related activities as part of the daily programs. Three days would be spent alongside at Amber Cove for a wide-variety of activities ashore. Then the final two days at sea for the return voyage to Miami as passengers recounted their activities and enjoyed shipboard life. The atmosphere aboard was completely casual. No need to dress for dinner. All meals were served open seating to encourage interaction among passengers.

The ADONIA departs from Miami on a cruise to Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Within a month of the inaugural fathom voyage, authorizations to visit Cuba had been granted and a country that had been off-limits to Americans for so long was back on the tourism map. The ADONIA nosed past El Morro Fortress into Havana harbor on May 2, 2016 to much fanfare, flag-waving and horn blowing. In addition to the around-Cuba itinerary of the first trip, Carnival announced that the ship would continue to cruise twice each month to Havana, interspersed with the “social impact” programs to the Dominican Republic.

The portside Promenade Deck looking aft.

Those first Cuba cruises commanded high tariffs ranging from nearly $3,000 for an inside cabin to over $8,000 for a suite in the peak season. Meanwhile the intervening “social impact” journeys to the Dominican Republic were met with indifference by a large portion of the public that was having trouble grasping the concept of paying to work on their vacation. Rates on those seven-day trips that had originally started at $1,540 per person were reduced to as low as $249 on the least popular sailings when the ship could not be filled any other way.

A portion of the Reception Lobby on Deck 4.

The short lead time for marketing and a less than clear message while introducing a completely new concept did not help the situation any. Throughout the year progress was being made but apparently it was not enough. Before the end of 2016 Carnival Corporation announced plans to drop the Fathom brand and return the ship to P&O Cruises in June, 2017. In truth, they probably did not give the new division enough time to fully establish itself. With new itineraries in place visiting both countries on the same cruise and the public beginning to catch on to the concept, the popularity of Fathom and the ADONIA was on the upswing, but the plug had already been pulled. Carnival Cruise Line replaced the 704-passenger ADONIA on itineraries to Havana later in June with their own, considerably larger, CARNIVAL PARADISE (ex PARADISE) carrying over 2,000 passengers.

The ADONIA docked at the Cruise Terminal in Santiago de Cuba.

Recently, I was able to enjoy a cruise aboard the ADONIA on one of the final trips for Fathom. The May 7th seven-day voyage visited the fascinating port of Santiago de Cuba before spending two nights in Amber Cove, near the town of Puerto Plata on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. I knew in advance that I would love the ship but I had no idea how much I would enjoy the atmosphere created onboard. As expected, the food was terrific with an authentic emphasis on some Caribbean cuisine that was very well prepared. The dining room had nightly regional offerings, the extra-tariff Ocean Grill specialty restaurant had a menu featuring dishes of the Dominican Republic and even the casual outdoor buffet served up terrific Jerk chicken, spicy Dominican hamburgers, and Cuban pork burgers. Open seating throughout allowed passengers to meet and mingle in ways that promoted being sociable with one another. The entertainment options were limited with nothing resembling typical cruise line production shows. Some nights a relatively recent movie might be shown in the Main Lounge. There was no casino onboard. An excellent house band provided musical entertainment day and night by the pool or in the lounges. This same quintet would sometimes divide up into a jazz trio or an acoustic duo consisting of the guitarist and singer. Cuban musicians including multiple Grammy winner Tomasito Cruz were also on hand adding to the spirit of the voyage. But basically it was the kind of cruise that remained very much in the style of earlier days, on a smaller ship where you made your own fun and enjoyed the company of your fellow passengers. I found it reminiscent of trips I did back in the 1970’s that were so much more enjoyable without all the bells and whistles and thousands of people that make up so much of cruising today. Give me a ship of around 700 passengers, capably served by a crew of 373 with interiors of an elegant, classic appearance and I am happy.  Embarkation in Miami was a relatively simple affair, especially given the rare sight of no other ships in the port.

A first glimpse of Cuba at sunrise over the south coast  near Guantanamo.
The fortress of El Morro guards the long entrance channel to Santiago de Cuba.

The first stop at Santiago de Cuba gave many of the guests including myself their first opportunity to set foot in Cuba. The years of the U.S. embargo and a lifetime of propaganda from both sides had created the image of a mysterious, forbidden, perhaps even hostile place. The reality could not have been further from that impression. Cuba’s second largest city was a friendly, welcoming place, easy to get around and not all that different from other Spanish speaking ports in the Caribbean. Modern motor coaches whisked passengers off on six hour tours showcasing highlights of the region.

Many of the taxis are old classic cars such as this 1950 Buick.

A great alternative mode of transport is to hire a driver and taxi to see the same sights in a vintage 1950’s automobile. The tours included lunch in a Paladar for an authentic taste of homemade Cuban cuisine prepared in a Cuban home. History from pirate days, to the Spanish American War and the Cuban Revolution concluded in 1959 was all on view during “The Magic Of Santiago: El Morro” tour. As the ADONIA arrived that morning, it passed the impressive fortress of Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, better known to all as simply El Morro. Multiple levels of guard towers and cannons defended the mouth of the narrow waterway that marks the approach to the city. Constructed in 1637 this cliff-top structure is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Impressive views from the parapet of San Pedro de la Roca.
The Cuban countryside viewed from San Juan Hill. A plaque reads: “Mark the 1st of July 1898, as the date on which the sun of liberty first shed its rays on Cuban soil” at the culmination of the Spanish American War.

Another site not to be missed is San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were only one of many units represented in one of the most famous battles in Cuban or American history. Other stops included an impressive monument to the revolution, a Cuban music and dance performance, the central square and Cathedral along with some free time to shop, with Cuban rum and cigars being the most popular items. I can’t vouch for the cigars except by reputation, but the rum is good!

A large plaza, nearly vacant in the daytime, adjoins the cruise ship dock with the ADONIA alongside on May 9, 2017.

Back at the port there was enough time for a quick walk along the waterfront to get photographs of the ship and stop off for a beer. The weather had remained perfect all day but as the ADONIA cleared the channel putting Santiago de Cuba astern the most tremendous squall pounded drops of rain the size of fists against the canvas awning over the Crystal Pool bar; nature’s drumming bidding farewell to Cuban waters.

Gathering clouds as the ADONIA prepares to depart Santiago de Cuba.

Wednesday was one of those great days at sea, spent lounging around the pool under the hot Caribbean sun. Just before sunset the ADONIA made the approach to Amber Cove, Carnival’s 30 acre port development in the Dominican Republic, which opened 18 months earlier. Eight of Carnival Corporation’s brands make calls here. Dinner ashore and a high-energy show called the “Bravissimo Experience” was offered the first of two nights the ADONIA would spend dockside. Or passengers could opt for a very quite evening of movies onboard. Beyond the obvious size difference between the diminutive ADONIA of Fathom and the fleet of 25 behemoths sailing for Carnival is an onboard experience 180-degrees apart.

The 113,300 gross ton, CARNIVAL SPLENDOR arrives at Amber Cove, D.R. on May 11, 2017 with 3,000 + passengers aboard.
The flags of the Dominican Republic, Carnival and Fathom fly over the Amber Cove complex.

Perhaps the difference in philosophies could not have been better illustrated than the next morning as the CARNIVAL SPLENDOR docked across the pier from the ADONIA. As thousands of Carnival’s fun-seeking passengers disgorged onto the island, congregating around the pool or filling the shops of the purposely created resort development, a few hundred of ADONIA’s social-impact-minded guests went off on early morning ventures to help students learn English skills, pour cement floors in a couple of homes that had been waiting over a year for them, or to assist at a women’s cooperative with processing cacao, from the planting of the seeds to boxing the finished chocolate product.

Cacao drying in the sun, awaiting their chance to become chocolate bars.

Others opted for reforestation activities, making water filters or contributing to local entrepreneurship at a recycled paper co-op in a low-income community. To be sure, there was plenty of time for fun and leisure activities too. Touring the local sights, taking in the attractions within Amber Cove or visiting nightclubs and a casino were among other diversions. Or perhaps time for some quiet moments; Like sipping some fine Dominican Republic rum while watching a spectacular sunset over the island.

Nightfall finds the diminutive ADONIA at rest in Puerto Plata.

While other cruise lines are now flooding into Cuba, it was the ADONIA which first opened the country to U.S. tourism by sea.  For the people of the Dominican Republic that benefited from the ship’s presence, the economic impact of its departure is very real.   The experiment of Fathom was a noble effort that if initially priced right, and with time and proper marketing could have worked. It is a shame that it was not allowed to continue as there is definitely an audience for quiet, low-key cruises in support of a good cause.

Day 3 in the Dominican Republic dawns with another half day of social impact activities ahead.

In years to come, the success or failure of the Fathom brand will no doubt be the subject of debate. Other than those that were there to experience it, outside pundits will be poorly equipped to judge. Was it a life-changing experience as advertised? For me, it was. A small ship full of people, a community at sea of sorts, was able to reaffirm the basic good in humanity. Therein lies the success of Fathom and their experiment with the ADONIA. In an increasingly divided society, here was a place for people of vastly diverse life experiences to come together and find common ground. It was a refreshing alternative to all the other cruise offerings out there, not to mention an antidote to our stressful daily lives in the world today.


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