Passengers on the new Fathom cruise line can volunteer to help cacao growers and chocolate makers

Plus: New adventures in Mexico

Carnival Corp.’s new socially conscious Fathom cruise line had its inaugural sailing last week, and we got to see firsthand how the line’s “social impact” projects in the Dominican Republic work. On each trip to the D.R., travelers sailing on the line’s 705-passenger Adonia can choose to participate in a variety of community-led projects. These have been developed in partnership with two NGOs: Entrena, which specializes in training, education, social entrepreneurship, and sustainable development (and has coordinated projects for USAID and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and the Instituto Dominicano de Desarollo Integral, which specializes in community education and organization, health, construction, artisanal crafts, micro-business credit, and bio-sustainability (and has also worked with UNESCO, USAID, and other groups).

On this first trip, many volunteers spent half days working with local women who've started a paper recycling enterprise in one of Puerto Plata's poorest neighborhoods. They tore mounds of used paper into shreds that were then washed, whirred into pulp in blenders, and spread onto screens to make paper that would be decorated and sold as cards or other products. 

Other Adonia passengers ventured into rural communities to teach English. (Because the Dominican Republic is dependent on tourism, English skills can be critical for finding good jobs.) The participants used songs, flashcards, and other tools provided by the facilitators to help individuals or small groups learn their ABCs and practice conversing with native speakers as part of a curriculum that will be continued and advanced by each successive group of volunteers. Another group built ceramic water filters for use in homes that lack clean drinking water, while others helped a collective that uses local cacao to make artisanal chocolate or worked on reforestation activities, including planting sea grapes and starting samán seedlings (to help combat erosion). 

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One of the hardest and dirtiest (but potentially most deeply satisfying) projects volunteers can sign up for is pouring concrete in homes that have dirt floors. On this trip that meant pitching in to transform a grandmother's tiny three-room house by lugging bags of cement, mixing concrete, and forming a bucket brigade to pass the cement to local builders (who did the professional work of spreading it). The passengers' joy at being able to help this grandmother was surpassed only by her obvious delight at getting a drier, cleaner place to live. 

Bilingual Dominican "impact guides" from Fathom's partner organizations accompany the volunteers on every activity. These guides explain the tasks, translate so that travelers can talk with members of the community, and help facilitate the volunteers' participation.

Because Adonia sails to the Dominican Republic every other week, it is hoped that over time the work of tens of thousands of volunteers will make a difference on a real scale and transform poor communities. The company estimates that in the first year their volunteers will plant 20,000 trees, give 2,000 students more than 60 hours of English instruction each, equip 15,000 homes with water filters, and help participating local entrepreneurs double their monthly incomes.

Of course, a Fathom cruise isn't all work. Passengers can explore Puerto Plata's beautiful beaches, sail and snorkel, hike to waterfalls in the mountains, ride a zip line over the forest, shop for arts and crafts, and sample Dominican cuisine. There is group meditation, yoga classes, spa treatments, and scavenger hunts. And the meals options include Dominican and Cuban dishes like ropa vieja (meat stew), pescado con coco (fish with coconut), and mofongo (mashed, fried plantains with fried pork), created by the noted Dominican chef Emil Vega. 

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But unlike most other cruise ships, Adonia has no casino, bingo, or dress-up nights. Most of the time not spent on the impact projects ashore is spent doing preparatory activities like taking classes in how to tutor English or participating in workshops on topics like how to become a change-maker.

Fathom sails every other week from Miami to Amber Cove, a new cruise port near Puerto Plata on the Dominican Republic's north coast. (On alternate weeks the Adonia sails to Cuba for cultural immersion tours.)

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Take Time Out in Mexico 

Passengers on Carnival Cruise Line ships will be getting more time to explore Mexico's Cozumel island, the Caribbean's most-visited cruise destination. More than 750 sailings on 17 Carnival ships labeled "Cozumel Plus" give travelers the option to spend extra time relaxing on the island’s white-sand beaches, go fishing and snorkeling, or enjoy local shopping and dining. Alternatively, passengers can use the extra time to take a number of new excursions. These include mainland attractions like the magnificent ruins of Chichén Itzá (one of the largest Maya cities) and snorkeling at Xel-Há, a series of crystalline lagoons that contain 70 marine species including angelfish, rays, barracudas, and queen conch.

 Anne Kalosh doesn't count the cruises she’s taken, though there have been hundreds—including five years as a shipboard newspaper editor, sailing the world. She loves the experiences sea travel offers. Her byline has appeared in many major publications, and she's on top of the latest cruise developments as the long-time U.S. editor for and Seatrade Cruise Review.