By Toby Saltzman
Snorkeling through crystalline waters as the sun’s rays streamed over a kaleidoscopic garden of coral reef, I was living a dream sparked long ago by a film clip of Jacques Cousteau. As tropical fish flashed by, their neon hues glowing in the light, I recalled the French explorer’s description of the brilliant underwater world surrounding Cozumel, Mexico’s largest island, lying 19 kilometres off the Yucatan Peninsula: “No aquarium, no tank in a marine land…can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea.” Navigating with flippers, I motioned to my husband, Ken, to follow a trio of purple-and-silver striped fish as they waved between clusters of feathery yellow plants, dipping to nibble at orange coral. Back on shore, we agreed: nothing can duplicate the personal experience of being here. Years later, vivid memories still linger of this and other travel dreams realized while cruising.
For cruise enthusiasts like us – whose interests span the globe – a beautiful ship is a destination unto itself, but our pleasure magnifies with tantalizing experiences. Take the Western Caribbean itinerary: more than sailing in sparkling waters and sunny weather, it’s a route to a myriad of natural splendours, the mystic realm of Mayan culture, and all the adventure you dare to try.
Cozumel, for example – which is rated as one of the world’s top five diving destinations – offers easy viewing of its marine life via a scenic ride in the Atlantis Submarine. Beyond the sea, the island provides a fascinating introduction to the ancient Mayans if you visit Tulum. Here, remnants of pyramids and temples still hold court over the sea, legacies of the entrepreneurial civilization that ran a brisk trade centuries ago. Adventurous types can take a jaunt to the jungle interior to see the ongoing archeological excavations at San Gervasio, itself a haven for multicoloured species of birds, butterflies and iguanas.
Reputed as the birthplace of Mayan culture, Santo Tomas, Guatemala provides a more intimate look at Mayan culture. Populated today by descendants of the ancient people who proudly showcase their colourful traditions, dress and handicrafts, Santo Tomas is a convenient gateway to the most secluded and spectacular Mayan ruins in both Guatemala and Honduras. Quirigua National Park – a veritable gem of archeology – has towering temples and a palace accented by huge stone monuments depicting mythological animals. Take a scenic river ride to the Ak-Tenamit Community to meet local artisans. Or join a nature trek to Las Escobas Springs Reserve: known for cascading waterfalls, exquisite flora and fauna, it is a magnet for international biologists, scientist and naturalists who come to study the thriving ecosystem.
For serious explorers, two cruise lines offer exceptional experiences from Santo Tomas. Holland America Line (HAL) offers unique tours with its “Wonders of the World Collection” and Silversea offers signature excursions with its “Silver Shore Expeditions. Both include a flight to Tikal, the UNESCO World Heritage site known for remarkable Mayan excavations, including the famed Palace of the Masks, Acropolis temples that tower above the trees, and Temple IV, the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Western Hemisphere.
Intriguing for its gorgeous location at the southern tip of the world’s second-largest barrier reef, Roatan, Honduras beckons with eco-adventures. A favourite excursion visits the Roatan Institute of Marine Science for a briefing about dolphins, followed by a chance to personally interact with the playful creatures in waist-deep water in a protected cove. It’s worth visiting the Mayan Eden eco-park for a guided hike through virgin jungle at Ocelot Mountain, where you are destined to spy monkeys frolicking from tree to tree, chattering parrots and bright species of flora, including bromeliads and rare orchids clinging to trees.
Dubbed as “Yucatan’s quiet coast,” Costa Maya – a paradise of sandy beaches fringing virgin rain forests – invites extreme sportsmen as much as leisurely types who prefer to sit back with local beer or a frosty margarita. Just off its coast, the Chinchorro reef lures divers to explore centuries-old shipwrecks. One of the most popular – though breathtaking – excursions is to fly through the rainforest in zip-lining BioMaya Canopy Experience. For active types, guided safaris explore jungle trails in 4x4 jeeps, ATVs or bicycles. At the Chacchoben ruins, climb the towering Gran Basamento pyramid, and learn how the descendants of the ancient Mayan people still use plants for medicinal healing.
Nestled between Guatemala and Mexico, the tiny country of Belize beckons with escapades among its splendid natural sites and Mayan ruins. A mélange of beaches, tropical forests and mountains, Belize boasts the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Board a river tube to float through deep caves, or join a river expedition to the Lamanai Temples, where sacred deities are immortalized in stone sculptures. Join a guided trip that sends you soaring like a bird on a zip-line to a 30-metre-high crevassed rock wall, then rappelling down its sheer side. Or participate in Silversea’s thrilling “Silver Shore Expeditions” on a “Raiders of the Lost Mayan Caves Ultimate Aventure” which includes a trek through the Bilezean jungle, zip-lining over the jungle floor, swinging on suspension bridges, and travelling through caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites.
Less exotic, but definitely lovely for its location in shimmering turquoise waters and laid back atmosphere, Key West is typically the first or last call on a Western Caribbean itinerary. The southernmost city in the continental United States, Key West’s charms are easily explored on foot, or by hopping on and off a local trolley. Among its prime sites, my favourites include: President Truman’s Little White House, loaded with historic memorabilia; and the quaint Hemingway House, where Ernest Hemingway wrote most of his novels and short stories. For sporty folks, there’s sea kayaking, catamaran cruising and deep-sea fishing. But we love to stroll down to the foot of Whitehead Street, tuck our toes into the southernmost swath of sandy beach and gaze out to where the horizon meets the western sea. We know Jacques Cousteau would approve.
If You Go:
Two cruise lines offer outstanding Western Caribbean itineraries with thrilling experiences.
• Holland America Line’s 7-day cruise aboard the ms Ryndam loops from Tampa. Check out its “Wonders of the World Collection experiences.”
• Silversea’s 8-day cruise aboard the Silver Spirit, loops from Fort Lauderdale. Check out its unique “Silver Shore Expeditions.”