Editor’s Note: Carnival Corporation has announced that Fathom will cease operations in May 2017. However, passengers visiting Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic on any other Carnival ship will be able to take part in the impact activities first developed for Fathom.
If you’re looking for a vacation that goes beyond lying on a beach or seeing an area’s most famous sights, a trip with a new cruise line dedicated to voluntourism might be right for you.
Fathom, owned by Carnival Corporation, is dedicated to “impact travel” — with activities designed to connect travelers with local communities where they can make a difference. For example, you might spend a day teaching English, crafting clay water filters or working in a women’s chocolate cooperative. The Fathom team works with established local NGOs to identify areas of need and figure out how travelers can contribute in a way that will build projects that eventually are self-sustaining.
I recently had the chance to try out some of these activities on a trip to the Dominican Republic hosted by Fathom. My first stop was RePapel, where about a dozen women work together to produce recycled paper that they then turn into business cards, postcards and other sellable products. Recycling is not yet common in the Dominican Republic, so in addition to providing stable jobs for local women, RePapel is part of a broader initiative to raise awareness of environmental issues. Fathom volunteers help in several stages of the recycling process, including tearing the source paper into strips (white paper must be separated from paper with any type of ink on it), mixing the pulp with water and rolling new sheets flat.
Another day I helped distribute clay water filters to families in a rural village that does not currently have reliable and safe drinking water. My last activity of the trip was teaching basic English phrases (“Hello. How are you? I’m good!”) to adults. Each excursion gave us a chance to interact with the local people, though those of us who spoke at least conversational Spanish had more meaningful exchanges. (Interpreters are always available, but they can’t attend to the entire group at all times.)
I discovered that it’s essential to be realistic about your motives for taking a voluntourism trip and the individual impact you are likely to have. No single traveler will be able to swoop in and make a massive difference in a local community in just a few days, and you might feel that no sooner have you learned a new skill than it’s time to leave. Also, not every moment of each Fathom activity is dedicated to direct impact; parts of the excursions are designed for learning and cultural exchange rather than strict volunteer work.
My limited individual impact felt disappointing at times, but it’s useful to think of your personal experience as a small part of a bigger picture. Sure, maybe I only helped produce a few dozen sheets of paper during my time at RePapel, but Fathom’s initial investment in the project (and ongoing labor support in the form of travelers like me) allowed the workshop to get off the ground in the first place — and will hopefully enable it to develop to a point where it won’t need Fathom at all anymore.
Fathom’s ship, Adonia, carries 704 passengers and will debut April 10 with three weeklong sailings from Miami to the Dominican Republic, followed by a cruise from Miami to Cuba on May 1. The ship will then alternate between the two countries from week to week.
In the Dominican Republic, you can do as much or as little volunteer work as you want — so you could combine a morning harvesting coffee beans with an afternoon relaxing on the ship or going ziplining.
Because of the governmental restrictions on what Americans can do when they visit Cuba, Fathom’s itinerary there will be more regimented and have a greater focus on learning and cultural exchange than on volunteering.
Fathom cruises to the Dominican Republic start at $974 per person, while Cuba itineraries start at $1,800.
March 1 marks the 80th anniversary of the completion of the Hoover Dam — the engineering marvel on the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada. Aside from its primary job of preventing floods and providing water to millions of people, the Hoover Dam is also a major tourist attraction. Some 7 million visitors tour the dam annually.
Aside from the Hoover Dam — which, in my opinion, is far more interesting than actually spending time in nearby Las Vegas — here are five other dams that are attractive to travelers:
Luzzone Dam, Switzerland: Adventurists flock to this high-altitude, 540-foot-tall dam on the Swiss-Italian border for one reason: to conquer one of the world’s tallest artificial climbing walls. A German company affixed one side of the dam with hundreds of climbing bolts and holds. The YouTube video below shows what the acrophobic climbing experience is like.
Grand Coulee Dam, Washington, U.S.: Nightly summertime laser light shows projected onto the dam’s wall make Grand Coulee, about 1.5 hours from Spokane, a fun destination for travelers. The surrounding Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area is popular for boating, swimming and camping. The free light shows run from Memorial Day through September 30 each year.
Aswan High Dam, Egypt: Threatened by floods, more than 20 temples in the vicinity of Lake Nasser had to be removed and painstakingly rebuilt elsewhere to make way for this Nile River dam system, which controls flooding. UNESCO supervised the moves, and several of the temples were relocated to other countries that supported the effort. The best known is the Temple of Dendur, which is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Grande Dixence Dam, Switzerland: Another high-altitude Swiss dam, this one, in the Val d’Herens Valley, is a popular starting point for hikers. This is considered the world’s highest gravity dam, and its reservoir is completely fed by melting water from 35 glaciers. Guided tours and cable car rides are available.
Almendra Dam, Spain: Also called the Villarino Dam, the Alemendra Dam is one of Spain’s tallest manmade structures at 663 feet high. It provides hydroelectric power to a great wine-growing region known as the Douro River Valley, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s worth a quick photographic detour when visiting the charming university town of Salamanca.
Ever dreamed about taking a trip to Afghanistan? How about Pakistan, Chechnya or Somalia? For travelers with a lust for adventure and a high tolerance for risk, there’s a company that will take you to these and many other seemingly dangerous places.
Untamed Borders was founded in 2006 by Kausar Hussain and James Wilcox, two adventure guides who met in the mountains of Afghanistan. Their mission is to offer “unparalleled access to some of the world’s most interesting and inaccessible places,” according to the company’s website.
Itineraries include an annual “Melons & Grapes — Grand Afghan Tour,” a two-week trip that combines a few days in Kabul with time in remote rural areas and ancient cities; a weeklong journey called “Chechnya, Dagestan and Russia’s Deep South,” which stops in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Derbent, a fortified Persian hill town; and a 16-day exploration of the tribal states in northeastern India. More active adventures are also available, including horse trekking in Tajikistan, glacier trekking in Pakistan and even running a marathon in Afghanistan.
The group size is always small — no more than 12 people, and often fewer — both for safety reasons and to keep the trips flexible. The company can also arrange custom trips for journalists, climbers, skiers, photographers or independent travelers interested in certain areas.
Of course, the big question is: Just how safe are these trips? The FAQ section on the company’s website notes that certain parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan are significantly more dangerous than others, and the trips are deliberately planned in the safer areas. In an article on CNN, the company notes that months of planning go into each trip, including plenty of brainstorming for worst-case scenarios.
The company relies on government warnings as well as first-hand info from local guides and contacts living in each country. On some trips, groups travel not only with guides but also with a security detail. All itineraries are subject to change if the situation on the ground becomes unstable, and guests must have travel insurance that covers them in the country they’re visiting. (Note: This may be difficult to find, but Untamed Borders can recommend a few specialty insurers.)
Such remote adventures don’t come cheap. Organized group trips start at 1,600 GBP per person (about $2,300 USD as of this writing), which includes accommodations, transportation, guides and breakfast. Travelers are responsible for flights, visas, insurance and other meals. If you’re traveling solo, you won’t need to pay a single supplement, but you will be expected to share a room with someone else in the group.
While Libryia Jones was obtaining a master’s degree, she explored the idea of doing an overseas internship in China. After reviewing the program’s requirements, she quickly realized she didn’t qualify because she had a child. Other programs she looked into had the same rule.
“I thought, ‘Why should it be not for me just because I’m a mom?'” said Jones, an information technology project manager in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jones knew she wasn’t the only person who wanted to live abroad but felt held back for one reason or another — so she decided to do something about it through a new start-up venture called My Wander Year.
From a pool of applicants, Jones and her team will select a group of 30 to 50 people who will live overseas for a year starting this August, basing themselves in Prague, Czech Republic, for the first three months. They then will move to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for three months, followed by Cape Town, South Africa, and Panama City, Panama.
The Wander Year team will arrange for flights, lodging in a condo or small inn, a SIM card for a smartphone and group office space for participants who will work remotely. The group will have occasional meetings and excursions, but what participants do with the rest of their time is totally up to them. Some people may have the option of continuing their existing job from abroad. Others may take classes or simply enjoy living in a different city.
The initial application requirements are basic: You must be 21 years or older, have been to another country at least once in your life and speak English. And yes, participants may have kids (though the children must be over the age of 8 to apply). There are a few essay questions and an interview involved, and selected participants will undergo a background check.
“We are looking for people who can articulate a real desire to grow through this experience and who intend to contribute to this community,” Jones said in an interview. “We want to invite cool people who we would love to spend a year with.”
The cost to participate for the year is $2,000 per month, with an initial fee of $3,000. A spouse or child can be added on for an additional cost.
Jones preferred not to reveal how many applications she has received thus far, only saying that they’ve gotten “well over the number of slots available.” Applications are still being accepted on the My Wander Year website. The application fee is $25.
While friends of mine spent their recent snowed-in weekend reserving their summer vacation rentals and booking flights to Florida, I took the opposite approach: I looked through photos of some of my favorite snow-covered destinations around the world.
Svalbard, Norway: As I bemoaned my cabin fever this weekend, I thought about how the hearty residents of one of the world’s northernmost towns would laugh at my whininess. The archipelago of Svalbard — and specifically its main city of Longyearbyen — was my first experience in a faraway Arctic outpost where people eke out a living year-round. I visited in July, when the temperature was a balmy 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the streets were clear of snow. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, because polar bears often wander into town.
From Longyearbyen, we then sailed throughout Svalbard for 10 days aboard a cruise ship with a strengthened hull that could cope with the slushy waters. We took daily excursions via Zodiac landing crafts, getting splashed by the frigid water the whole time. But the natural ice sculptures that surrounded us at every turn took my breath away and I barely noticed the cold.
Churchill, Canada: A November trip to Churchill, Canada, put me in close proximity to polar bears. Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, as the bears congregate there waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so that they can hunt.
Following a three-hour flight from Winnipeg, I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac and was immediately whipped in the face by 50-mile-an-hour winds. It was the coldest weather I had ever experienced — negative 41 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill.
The cold was worth it, though, with close-up views of polar bears (from the safety and warmth of specially outfitted and heated polar rovers) and sunsets like the one above.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.A.: Yellowstone National Park is a marvel, but neighboring Grand Teton National Park is a gem in wholly different ways. Even in June, the Tetons were still covered in snow during my visit, making for a lovely backdrop as we went kayaking on Colter Bay.
Like Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is accessible only half the year, and most of the lodging is closed in winter. Snow cover makes it virtually impenetrable for most travelers.
Southeast Alaska, U.S.A.: Sailing in a small vessel through the Inside Passage of Alaska left me cold to the core, even in the middle of summer, thanks to a bone-chilling rain that fell on us nearly the whole time. But the gray skies created atmospheric backdrops for photos, and I got to see calving glaciers for the first time.
What does travel look like without sightseeing? Fortunately for blind or visually impaired travelers, there’s a tour company out there to help them — and sighted travelers — find out.
Traveleyes, founded in 2004 by a blind man who loves to travel, offers small-group trips to a wide array of destinations around the world, including Australia, Morocco, Italy, Bulgaria and Peru. What makes the company special is that the trips pair blind travelers with sighted companions who serve as guides, describing the scenes in front of them and assisting them with navigation through restaurants and shops. In exchange, sighted travelers save up to 50 percent off the cost of the trip and get the satisfaction of helping their new friends discover the world.
To make the experience as rich as possible for everyone, itineraries emphasize multisensory activities such as learning the tango in Argentina, riding a camel in Morocco and tasting wine in Rome. This isn’t just for the benefit of blind travelers. On the Traveleyes website, the company notes that this is a benefit for sighted travelers as well: “Seeing is only part of the experience. As a sighted traveller, you’ll be guided on how to explore the world through all of your other senses. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ve been missing out on.”
No experience is necessary for sighted travelers — the company provides pre-trip information as well as training on the first day to help you learn how to guide. Blind and sighted travelers will be partnered with different companions each day throughout the trip so everyone can get to know each other.
Rates for sighted travelers start at just $283 per person, while rates for blind travelers start at $552 per person. Rates do not include flights or transfers unless you’re traveling from the U.K.
Catch up on what you may have missed this week with this roundup of our favorite travel stories.
52 Places to Go in 2016
The New York Times kicks us off with an inspiring collection of destinations to visit in the coming year, complete with droolworthy photos and videos. Suggestions include familiar favorites (such as Dublin, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising) and up-and-comers (such as Garzon, a new wine region in Uruguay).
Inside One of the World’s Biggest Airline Food Factories
CNN visits the Emirates Flight Catering facility in Dubai, which provides 55 million meals a year for hungry fliers. It’s fascinating to learn the scale of the operations here — for example, the facility cleans three million items of equipment every single day. (Now that’s a lot of dishes!)
Airports Shutting Terminals at Night in Effort to Evict Homeless
Conde Nast Traveler examines a recent push by U.S. airports to force out homeless people by shutting down public, pre-security areas overnight. Especially this time of year, many homeless people find airports a warm, clean and safe place to sleep, and some “fear the alternative: a city shelter that is often dirty and dangerous.” New York’s LaGuardia and Washington D.C.’s Reagan are among the airports cracking down.
Old Driver’s License? You Can Still Fly for Two More Years
There’s been a lot of anxiety lately about the new Real ID Act, which sets minimum security standards for driver’s licenses and other identification cards — standards that are not currently met by some states. Fortunately, the Associated Press reports that there will be at least a two-year reprieve before travelers in non-compliant states will have to use an alternative form of ID instead of their driver’s license when flying within the U.S.
Irish Hotel Helps a Lost Toy Bunny Find Its Way Home
From the “Awwww” department comes this Travel + Leisure story of a stuffed animal left behind at the Adare Manor Hotel in Ireland. The hotel staff took good care of the toy, sharing photos on the property’s Facebook page of the bunny taking afternoon tea and getting a massage while it waited to be reclaimed by its young owner. Adorbs!
Our favorite travel video of the week is an upbeat journey around the cities, beaches, deserts and mountains of Morocco. (We love the soundtrack.)
It’s around this time of year that I start thinking about the perfect winter escape, and islands nearly always capture my attention. I tend to drift toward the Caribbean, but why? There are tens of thousands of islands on the planet, after all.
The following lists have gotten me to think about island escapes in a new way:
The 55 Best Islands in the World: Dozens of top travel bloggers around the world told DrifterPlanet.com about their favorite islands. One writer picked Spain’s Mallorca, which he acknowledged as touristy but noted: “There are absolutely some more secluded parts of the island to discover.” Another selected Saona Island, a nature reserve off the southeast tip of the Dominican Republic.
The Best Private-Island Vacations for Every Budget: The Wall Street Journal selected the top 12 islands that you can have all to yourself — and they’re not all eye-poppingly expensive. Bird Island in Belize, for example, runs just $295 a night for a three-bedroom house with blue sea views in every direction.
The Largest Islands in the World: While there’s plenty of remote charm to be found on little postage stamps in the middle of the sea, large islands tend to have more unique biodiversity, meaning you’ll get to see wildlife and plants found nowhere else on Earth. Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo top the list of the largest islands in the world.
The World’s Must-Visit Islands: This roundup from the BBC includes the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, Tristan da Cunha, in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
Islands for the Jet Set: These glamorous islands span the globe, from Nevis in the Caribbean to the Maldives south of India to spectacular and little-known gems off Mozambique.
6 Cruise Line Private Islands: Our sister site Cruise Critic provides the lowdown on six Caribbean islands that are only accessible if you go on a cruise. Many are in or near the Bahamas.
Travelers looking to explore the Yangtze River in China or the Danube in Europe may have already heard of Viking River Cruises, which offers dozens of boats plying various rivers around the globe. But the company has recently expanded to include larger ocean-going cruise ships, with the first one launching earlier this year.
Viking Star is the first of three identical, 930-passenger ships; the other two, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, will debut within the next two years. I recently sailed aboard Viking Star from Barcelona to Rome to see how well the experience might suit independent travelers. Read on to learn what I loved about the cruise — as well as a few drawbacks.
1. Unique Itineraries
Viking Star sails all over Europe as well as to the Caribbean and the East Coast of the U.S., and it’s hard not to be enticed by some of the less-traveled ports the ship visits. The 14-night Ancient Empires & Holy Lands sailing, for instance, starts in Rome and includes calls in Israel (Haifa and Jerusalem) and Turkey (Ephesus and Istanbul) as well as Naples and Athens. Or head north to follow “In the Wake of the Vikings,” a journey that starts in Bergen, Norway, and passes through Scotland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland en route to Montreal. The Caribbean itineraries start in Puerto Rico instead of Florida, minimizing days at sea and allowing passengers to explore islands like Tortola, Guadeloupe and Antigua.
2. (Almost) Everything Is Included
On most mainstream cruise lines you’ll pay extra for things like onboard Wi-Fi, dinner in an alternative restaurant, and beer/wine with meals — all of which are included on Viking Star. There’s always one free shore excursion in each port as well (typically an introductory bus or walking tour). Another nice perk? All cabins have balconies.
Note that a few things do cost extra, including spa treatments, gratuities for the crew, some shore excursions, and premium cocktails, wines and spirits.
3. Tasteful Ambience
If your vision of cruise ships includes cheesy, over-the-top decor and crowded buffets, rest assured; as befits its Scandinavian sensibility, Viking Star feels elegant and understated. My favorite spots included the quiet Explorers’ Lounge, where you can curl up on a couch with a book from the well-stocked bookshelves, and the Nordic spa, where you can cool off in a Snow Grotto between trips to the sauna or hot tub.
4. Longer Days in Port
On my Mediterranean sailing, Viking Star overnighted in two different ports (Rome and Barcelona), and stayed late in most others; passengers didn’t have to be back onboard until 8 to 10 p.m. — unusually late for the cruise industry. That meant we had at least 12 hours to explore each day, giving us the option to take multiple excursions or to eat both lunch and dinner ashore if we wanted to experience the local cuisine.
5. Enrichment and Immersion
Daily lectures (such as “The Restoration of the Sistine Chapel: What Went Wrong and Why?”) and informational port talks help passengers get to know each destination before visiting, and many of the shore excursions go beyond the usual major sightseeing attractions. For example, one offering in Rome takes travelers to the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, which predates the rise of the Roman Empire. During a call in Livorno, Italy, you can take a cooking class in a medieval Tuscan castle or meet working artisans in Florence. Viking also offers a Kitchen Table experience that involves shopping with the ship’s chef at a market in port and then working with him to prepare local specialties (such as Spanish tapas).
Despite all of these benefits, there are a few important caveats to note about sailing with Viking Ocean Cruises. Most importantly, despite the overnights and longer days in port, these itineraries have the same major drawback as any other cruise, particularly in Europe: not enough time. Spending a single day in a city like Florence or Jerusalem will give you no more than a taste — especially in places where the port is a one- or two-hour bus ride from the city you actually intend to see. To avoid frustration, consider your cruise a sampler that will help you figure out which cities are worth a longer visit in the future.
Also, while the included shore excursions are a nice perk, independent travelers who chafe at the thought of shuffling along with 35 other tourists behind a guide holding up a Viking sign should book their own private tour (for a more personalized experience) or simply go it alone.
Cruises start at about $2,000 per person (not including airfare). Learn more at VikingCruises.com.
Editor’s Note: I traveled as a guest of Viking Ocean Cruises, with the understanding that I would cover the trip in a way that honestly reflected my experience — good, bad or indifferent. Along with the cruise itself, Viking also included some complimentary extras to allow me to experience various aspects of its onboard experience. You can read our full editorial disclosure on our About Us page.
On the first day of a recent trip to Barcelona, Spain, I found myself elbow to elbow with a mob of fellow tourists outside Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batllo, one of the city’s most famous attractions. A few hours later, I shouldered through the hordes at a Christmas market in front of the cathedral. And the next day I discovered a line stretching out the door of the basilica in Montserrat (a popular day trip from Barcelona), where hundreds of travelers waited to touch the hand of the revered Black Madonna. I’d hoped to miss out on crowds by traveling in early December, part of Spain’s winter low season, but that wasn’t the case — with one exception.
During an hour and a half at Pedralbes Monastery, located in a leafy residential area just a 15-minute subway ride from the center of the city, I wandered through the world’s largest Gothic cloister, peered into small cells where nuns once embroidered and prayed, and marveled over a chapel adorned with colorful 14th-century frescoes. The best part? I had this serene spot almost entirely to myself.
Known in Catalan as Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Pedralbes, the monastery was founded in 1327 by Queen Elisenda de Montcada as a home for the Poor Clare Sisters, an order of Franciscan nuns. While the sisters lived lives of quiet contemplation, they also accumulated a surprising number of religious treasures, from altarpieces and alabaster sculptures to gold and silver chalices. (My favorite? The massive, richly illustrated choir books.) Many of these artifacts are on display under the vaulted ceiling of what was once the nuns’ dormitory.
As you walk through the monastery, you’ll see the sepulcher of Queen Elisenda, the refectory where the nuns took their meals, the abbey room (the oldest part of the building) and even the kitchen, where I loved the colorful tiles added in the 19th century. It’s easy to imagine what life may have been like here, especially when you stand in the center of the cloister with its trees, fountains and medicinal garden. It’s a perfect place for quiet contemplation — and a balm to anyone seeking to escape the crowds at Barcelona’s top tourist spots.
To reach the monastery, you can take the FGC train (which connects easily to the Metro) from Placa Catalunya to the Reina Elisenda station, a 10- to 15-minute walk from Pedralbes. Barcelona’s hop-on, hop-off bus also runs out to the monastery. Note that the church attached to the monastery is accessed via a different entrance and has more limited hours, so you may want to stop there first to make sure you don’t miss out.