Carnival’s new brand Fathom is the first ‘social impact’ cruise line. Liz Jarvis was on board for the inaugural sailing to the Dominican Republic and believes it’s a concept that just might catch on

We are sitting in a tiny factory high up in the mountains of the Dominican Republic, sifting through tubs of cocoa beans to find the good quality ones that can be roasted and turned into organic chocolate. Outside there’s very little but rainforest and ramshackle wooden houses painted in vibrant shades of pink, blue and green.

During the course of our morning’s activities at the Chocal women’s chocolate cooperative, we’re also taught how to pour melted chocolate into moulds (resisting the temptation to go full Augustus Gloop), before helping to box up bars ready to sell.

Welcome to a different kind of cruise holiday. The idea behind Fathom is ‘social impact’ which, as the term suggests, involves making a positive difference to the destination and people you visit.

Activities on offer in the Dominican Republic include teaching English to children at a local school, helping out at a recycled paper plant, laying a concrete floor (which I’m assured is a lot of fun) and reforestation – planting trees.

While on board Fathom’s ship (the repurposed Adonia) everything seems to be cruising as normal, with a swimming pool, spa, bars, restaurants and entertainment, this is definitely not your average cruise holiday. You are encouraged to join in with the social impact activities (three are included on each cruise) attend onboard lectures and really embrace the ethos behind the brand. This week, we’re not guests, or passengers: we’re responsible travellers, although there are other more regular excursions available.

There are subtle but effective onboard alterations, however, including excellent Dominican and Cuban food on offer in all of the restaurants, including the fabulous Ocean Grill; a shop selling ethically-sourced products, and very cool ‘green’ toiletries in the bathrooms.

The ship cruises from Miami to Amber Cove, near the city of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, where it stays for three and a half days. At first it seems slightly strange cruising to just one destination and staying there, but it soon becomes clear that the best possible way to make a real impact on the area is to ‘travel deep’, which is Fathom’s tagline. All the activities are properly organised with the help of local non-profit voluntary groups, so you know the work you are doing is actually helping in the places where it is needed the most.

It is a pleasure to meet and work alongside the local women at Chocal and RePapel, where we’re also encouraged to do some dancing in between the different steps of recycling paper and creating arts and crafts to sell.

What’s really brilliant is that the creation of these cooperatives has enabled the women to work close to home, so that they can be there if their families need them. One lady tells me proudly that her job has enabled her to send her daughter to university, and all the women seem genuinely happy to be at work.

The activity I find the most rewarding is teaching English at a local school. While the Dominican Republic is actually one of the better-off Caribbean islands, 41% of the population lives below the poverty line. It’s difficult not to notice that the school is in a very poor area, with barbed wire on its walls. I’m told that because families in the Dominican Republic are large, children will sometimes take it in turns to go to school or stay at home and help out.

None of us are trained teachers, but we’re given easy-to-follow workbooks to go through with the groups of children. They are heart-meltingly pleased to see us, excited to learn English from English-speakers. Our session is ‘Pleased to Meet You’, and the look of absolute delight on the kids’ faces as they say ‘Pleased to meet you Liz’ and proudly shake my hand is one of my personal highlights. At the end of the class, they all spontaneously hug me, which brings tears to my eyes.

Afterwards we’re taken for a traditional lunch in a local restaurant next to a baseball field where kids who should have been at school are running round barefoot. There are three rottweilers barking loudly on the top floor of an apartment building and a very visible police presence. This does, I think, offer some insight into the kind of problems faced by the community.

For some people the biggest takeaway from Fathom will be the impression it leaves on them personally, and the difference it makes to their own personal growth. As a practical Brit, though, that’s not something that sits particularly well with me. I’m more interested in the actual impact we’re having on the local communities, and how we can make a real difference to these people’s lives.

Of course, there are some river cruise lines that have been offering the opportunity to visit local people and schools for some time. Where Fathom differs, however, is that you’re staying in one place for the whole trip, and helping make an impact on one area. If you want to combine an interest in cruising with doing something positive to help the communities you’re visiting, this is the holiday for you.

While I’m not convinced that we do anything other than learn about cocoa production and buy chocolate at Chocal (although it is wonderful to spend time with the women), I am very encouraged by the session at the school; it’s obvious that after just a few hours with us the children’s English is improving, as is their confidence.

For me, that’s definitely the most rewarding part of the whole Fathom experience. It’s something I would do again in a heartbeat.

GETTING THERE: Prices for a seven-day round-trip sailing from Miami to the Dominican Republic on Fathom start at $974 per person, excluding taxes, fees and port expenses and including all meals on the ship, onboard social impact immersion experiences, three on-shore social impact activities and related supplies. For more information visit fathom.org. British Airways flies direct to Miami from London Heathrow twice daily with flights starting from £541 return (britishairways.com).

Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise here.