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To Central America, The Yucatan & The Caribbean On Oceania’s Riviera


by Georgina Cruz

My husband Humberto and I wanted a voyage to Central America, the Yucatan and the Caribbean, but what we could call “Goldilocks” style: neither too short that it ended too quickly and called at few ports, nor too long that it required two weeks or more of vacation time. We booked a stateroom on Oceania Cruises’ Riviera for a 10-day “Mayan Mystique” voyage roundtrip from Miami.

We liked the Riviera’s itinerary as it is faithful to the port-intensive philosophy of Oceania and offers visits to seven ports, in addition to the embarkation/disembarkation port of Miami, with two leisurely days at sea, so it has the ideal combination for travelers who wish to relax, but also to explore various destinations unpacking only once and with a moderate time investment.

Points of interest on the itinerary that could be visited, either independently or on optional shore excursions, included the following:

George Town, Grand Cayman – Idylls like Seven Mile Beach beckoned and for those who wished to enjoy the crystal clear waters and tropical marine life of this island without getting wet, tours on the Atlantis submarine are available (we sailed in early January and as true Floridians, we need really warm water to lure us in, so the Atlantis was an excellent option). The submarine’s offices are located steps from the cruise tender pier in downtown George Town, so it is easy to enjoy an hour-and-a-half tour that takes participants to depths of 100 feet below the surface to observe corals, rainbows of fish and other marine life.

Key West, Florida – The Last Key is a favorite of ours as it is very cruise-passenger-friendly: ships dock in the heart of Old Town, within walking distance of Mallory Square, shops and attractions including the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene Street, with exhibits showcasing findings by the treasure salvor from the Spanish galleon Atocha, and the Ernest Hemingway House-Museum, 907 Whitehead Street, with memorabilia from the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author who lived in Key West for many years and wrote some of his most notable works on the island including “To Have And Have Not” which is set in Key West. To trace Papa’s footsteps, visitors can drop in at Sloppy Joe’s at 201 Duval Street, Hemingway’s favorite watering hole – his preferred drink was Papa Dobles (Bacardi Light Rum, grapefruit juice, grenadine, splash of sweet & sour, club soda and fresh-squeezed lime juice).

Belize City, Belize – A popular tour here is one that combines contrasts: the modern Belize City and the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha. Altun Ha, a Mayan city of the Classic and Post-Classic Periods (the Classic Period is usually listed as 250 to 900 AD), served as a commercial center and gained fame as the site where a colossal jade head representing the sun god Kinich Ahau was discovered by Dr. David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum. Among the points of interest in Belize City are the Cathedral of St. John and the colonial British governors’ mansion, now a museum called the House of Culture.

Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala – Passengers who wished to expand on the Mayan theme could opt for an excursion to the Quirigua National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its Mayan ruins dating from the Pre-Classic Period (a period ranging from 200 BC to 250 A.D.) including the biggest stelae found in the Mayan World. For even more ambitious explorations, an optional program called Route of the Mayas – Tikal By Air In-Depth takes participants to the spectacular ancient citadel of Tikal. Tikal has imposing temples and pyramids and is one of the most impressive Mayan ruins in Central America.

Roatán, Honduras – Gumbalimba Park is the ideal spot here for contact with nature. Visitors are rewarded with encounters with cute capuchin monkeys who jump from the branches to trees to perch on shoulders (guides caution visitors to remove hats, eyeglasses and other loose objects as the critters are known to go off with them). Other encounters include bird life: from tiny, helicopter-like, hummingbirds to showy macaws. The park also has a sandy beach and zip-line.

Costa Maya, Yucatán – Many cruise passengers simply walk from the ship to a 70,000 sq. ft. tourist complex with shops and two swimming pools, restaurant and bar, and spend an indolent day there. Others can opt to explore, independently or on tours, the surrounding areas like the town of Mahahual with a mile and a half of beach only two miles from the cruise terminal. Other points of interest include Lake Bacalar and Mayan ruins including the ones at Chacchoben, dating from 350 AD, with such imposing structures as the Temple to the Moon and the nine-level Pyramid of the Sun.

San Miguel, Cozumel – Cozumel, the Mayas’ legendary “eden” from where they believed they sprung and went on to the Yucatan and beyond, offers Chankanaab Park, a 15-minute taxi ride from the pier. Here visitors can swim and snorkel in crystalline waters, visit botanical gardens and take in exhibits and a sea lion show. Options include swimming with a sea lion or dolphin. Other Cozumel points of interest include Punta Sur Park, 20 minutes from the pier, with a fine beach, eco-attractions and the picturesque Celerain Lighthouse.

After each adventure ashore we had the Riviera to come home to. The 66,172-ton Riviera, which debuted in 2012 as a sister to the popular Marina, has a capacity for 1,250 guests and gracious interiors that look as fresh as when she was launched. The Riviera has an extensive art collection and elegant touches like her Titanic-inspired Grand Staircase and lovely English-style library with art, ships’ models, comfortable seating and more than 2,000 books – but the dress code is never formal, just resort casual, so no need to pack tuxes and gowns.

Onboard we found everything we needed for a relaxing vacation: seven no-fee restaurants (this is a line for foodies and all the restaurants are outstanding. Among our favorites are Toscana, as we have a weakness for Italian food, particularly this restaurant’s tender and juicy osso bucco; and Jacques, featuring specialties like steak and frites, free-range rotisserie chicken, and supreme of salmon from celebrity chef Jacques Pepin).

Other Riviera amenities include a swimming pool and whirlpools; a Canyon Ranch SpaClub with treatment and relaxation rooms, thermal suite and a terrace with a blissful thalassotherapy pool. The ship also boasts a casino; bars; show lounge; and a wonderful hands-on Bon Appetit Culinary Arts Center with a dozen work stations and various classes given by Master Chef Noelle P. Barille. We signed up for the Mexican Fiesta class and found it a fun and ambitious experience – we prepared quesadillas filled with grilled white onions, grilled poblano peppers and Monterey Jack cheese; sautéed shrimp with creamy red chili sauce and chicken, goat cheese and apple tacos (yummy!). Each class is $69.

A variety of organized activities including team trivia contests, deck sports, enrichment lectures, bingo and more kept us entertained. A fabulous feature for art lovers like me is the Artist Loft where artist in residence Graham Denison, from the U.K., offered a whopping 11 complimentary art classes and open studio sessions during our sailing – all materials are provided in addition to guidance – so we could create original work to our hearts’ content. An art course such as this, with materials provided, would have set me back more than $100 back home.

Evening highlights included shows by the Jean Ann Ryan Company as well as cabaret entertainment including concerts by international classical guitarist George Sakellariou.

After days and evenings filled with activities and entertainment on this neither too short, nor too long, voyage Goldilocks would have approved of, we retired to our concierge-level stateroom, 10110. It is very attractively decorated in earth tones, fine woods and artwork, and with a private balcony and access to a Concierge Lounge with a great coffeemaker, continental breakfast, beverages, hors d’oeuvres, newspapers and magazines. Some of the concierge-level accommodations’ perks include lovely bath amenities like Bokek pure Dead Sea salt and Himalayan pink bath salt crystals for relief and relaxation (in addition to Bvlgari toiletries that also included surprisingly cologne for the ladies and after shave lotion for the gentlemen). But arguably the best concierge-level perk is unlimited free access to the private Spa Terrace with a thalassotherapy pool – a peaceful enclave to laze away mornings at sea and late afternoons after exploring the ports.

IF YOU GO – For additional information, visit oceaniacruises.com.

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