Wine Trader Magazine

What Columbus Never Knew

Lightning far off in the distance greeted passengers onboard the Norweigan Star as the elegant ship knifed its way through Caribbean waters on a path making cruise travel history. The flashing bolts of electricity that danced across the night sky seemed an appropriate way to usher in an entirely new era in cruise travel. Suddenly on the cruise horizon is a new word: "Texaribbean."

The lightning also seemed to thunder its greeting for the cruise adventures which waited just ahead. Soon passengers would visit thousand year old Mayan ruins, complete with the relics of where human sacrifices were once held. They would also swim with dolphins in a tropical lagoon, surrounded by jungle, in the blazing heat of an island seldom visited.

Norwegian Cruise Line recently inaugurated voyages into the Caribbean Sea, thus becoming the first to visit exotic destinations not usually found on any cruise itinerary, places whose names read almost like an eye chart: Chichen Itza, Tulum/Xel-Ha-Xcaret.

dot Much like Columbus who visited this same area when he sailed into the "new world," there is now another "new world" for cruise passengers to discover. Places where cruise ships have never before visited including Calica, Mexico and Roatan, Honduras. All are filled with an unending series of picture postcard delights from white-sand secluded beaches to ancient traditions waiting to be rediscovered.

Yet all of this now waits only a few days from Houston.

Houston! Not the expected traditional cruise departure locations-not Florida, New York, Los Angeles or even San Francisco-but Houston which now shortens travel time for passengers eager to sail deep into the Caribbean.

Thus the Norwegian Star is the only cruise ship to leave Houston, sail past Galveston with its seemingly endless maze of off-short oil rigs, cruise through the Gulf of Mexico and deep out into the Caribbean Sea.

The "wonders" were spotted early at the very first ports-of-call: Cancun and Cozumel, on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, are a thousand years removed from when Mayan women came out of the nearby jungle to worship Ixchel, the fertility goddess. Cozumel was considered a sacred shrine and named "Ah-Cuzamil-Peten" ("Island of the Swallows"). Today it boasts world-class resorts and upscale shopping yet all of that is but the starting off place for the new cruise adventures.

dot "We all know Mexico but the Yucatan Peninsula is more like South America," Ceasar Ruiz, a local guide, explains. It is 8 a.m. and thermometers hover at 90 degree heat, 90 degree humidity, making shirts cling to backs and Ruiz, with a smile, adds "Here we know only two seasons. Hot and cold."

The Palancar Reef, which surrounds Cozumel, is the second largest reef in the world and a paradise for scuba divers and snorkelers. No less an authority than the late Jacques Cousteau proclaimed the area, "one of the world's finest diving sites." It is a place where coral rests just below the surface; Parrot Fish make their home and the water is crystal clear adding luster to the views of the exotic sea life and even shipwrecks which lay near the reef.

Playa del Carmen, a small Mexican town which hasn't changed much through the years, gently rests snug against the ocean. It boasts a white sand beach and a fossil-rich nearby jungle. Perhaps even more important, it is near Chichen Itza and Tulum, the only Mayan ruins on the west coast, filled with the ancient wonders and secrets of that lost empire. It is also near the almost mystical Xcaret, a unique blend of a Mayan cultural center and a living museum which rises out of the steaming jungle.

A visit to Xcaret at night is hauntingly beautiful, where the jungle becomes the dramatic setting to another world and another time. Visitors stroll through a series of ancient caves and underground rivers. In the black-ink darkness, drums can be heard and the "Dance of Fire" is performed, a ceremony lost in time. It was once only performed to celebrate a new century, which, for the Mayans, occurred every 52 years.

dot Visitors stroll past the sacred owls, kept in the darkness of the caves, which once symbolized death. They learn how ancient physicians treated the sick with incense and used boards to deform the head of infants as a sign of beauty.

Nearby are examples of unearthed Mayan pottery and handcrafts and a complete replica of a Mayan village where those working at lost arts nod in friendly greeting.

Because the Norwegian Star is the first cruise ship to stay overnight on the Yucatan Peninsula, passengers can view a stunning evening performance of Mexico's Ballet Folkloric held in Xcaret's outdoor amphitheater. The theatre remains in its natural setting, offers seats carved out of rock with stars twinkling overhead.

The nearby caves and rivers form a perfect backdrop for the colorful production. Candles float down an underground stream behind the stage as a lone trumpeter slowly sails towards the audience. The extravaganza is filled with a blaze of color as the stage comes alive with the authentic dance, dress and music of Mexico. Birdmen spin down from a tall pole to the gasps of the crowd as they perform an ancient dance to the Gods; performances range from mariachis to drum beaters and when everyone in the audience lights small candles in the darkness, there is a hushed moment of sheer beauty.

Tulum and Chichen Itza takes visitors deep into the ruins of Mayan walled cities built a thousand years ago. It is here where one quickly gains an insight into Mayan life. Visitors can see the Pyramid of Kukulcan, which towers on a cliff high above a narrow white-sand beach; the Temple of Warriors, where human sacrifices were held; the Caracolor observatory, the Mayans once led the world in astrology and calendars; the Platform of Venus; the Eagles and Jaguar Platform; and the ball court.

dot The pyramids are on a par with those found in Egypt. The long, sloping area adjacent to the balmy ocean easily shows why Mayan kings used this area for their own vacations.

"The priest knew exactly when the sun would come though that small crack," Ruiz says as he points toward a small opening in one ruin. "He would tell the people he had talked to God and when the sun came at the precise moment, he was held in awe."

The entire Mayan culture, established 1500 B.C., came to a savage end with the arrival of Cortez, who destroyed their books, calling them "the work of the devil." Nothing remained other than what has been handed down from father to son.

"Mayan culture may be gone but our pride remains," Ruiz quietly says.

Xel-JIA, a National Park located nearby, is a series of fresh water lagoons. The water comes from several underground rivers which blend into the ocean, creating a mixture of fresh and salt water. The lagoon is one of the largest natural aquariums in the world and serves as an ecology center. Cruise passengers can swim in the warm, clear water and even get free inner-tubes to paddle about looking at the exotic fish. Only one major note of caution: suntan lotion is forbidden! The chemicals, of course, are dangerous to the coral and reefs. For those who may not wish to swim, rows of hammocks, perfect for nap takers, line the nearby shore.

Leaving Mexico, the Norwegian Star sails to Roatan, never before visited by a cruise ship. The island rises slowly out of the Caribbean Sea, its gentle rolling hills surrounded with jungle.

dot "This is a brand new island for the tourist industry and one of the last islands untouched by tourism," Captain Sverre Sovdsnes, Master of the Norwegian Star, recently said, adding, "It's nice to be the first."

Columbus stopped here on his fourth voyage and pirates knew its hidden harbors for their plundering, yet Roatan remains much today as it was 100 years ago. Agriculture and forestry may be the main source of commerce, but for the casual visitor there are idyllic beaches, incredible tropical vegetation, botanical gardens and the dolphins. Oh, yes, the dolphins!

On Roatan one may swim with the dolphins who glide through the water, eager to be petted and loved, lifting themselves just far enough above the surface for a kiss. They swim and play in a lagoon near the ocean and cuddle up to passengers who have entered the water to be with them.

"Dolphins see only in black and white," a guide explains. He grins and adds, "There is much to learn when one swims with a dolphin."

Downtown Roatan is an easy stroll from the ship. It is filled with narrow streets, beeping horns, children who follow the tourists in awe, lazy dogs resting in the mid-day sun. Best part: Roatan has not yet been spoiled by tourism and offers the visitor a rare glimpse at a destination in its natural state and far from that soiled word "Commercialism."

A rusty sign best describes the small town: "Cleanliness is synonymous to culture. Our city is cultured."

dot In the middle of the nearby jungle some wag has posted a hand lettered sign which reads "Rick's American Cafe." For those who recall the film "Casablanca," well, maybe, just maybe, it might have been the very kind of place where Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains ended up after walking off into the fog.

Perhaps Roatan is best explained by some of the names found around the island: Pollytilly Bight, Man O'War; Inn of Last Resort; Pirates Cove.

When not visiting new destinations, passengers onboard the Norwegian Star have ample time to enjoy all the expected pampering found while cruising. Rousing evening outdoor buffets include everything from a Mexican Fiesta to a Western hoedown, complete with a chuck wagon buffet; there are award-winning Broadway-styled productions and, of course, the famed cruise world's round-the-clock ability to serve outstanding cuisine in a variety of elegant locations from the main dining room to Le Bistro, a small, intimate restaurant.

Two special buffets are of particular interest: the chocolate buffet filled with vast displays of every chocolate imaginable: elegant chocolate carvings, chocolate statues, chocolate cornucopias and an endless offering of chocolate desserts.

There is also an astounding buffet which features a variety of flowers, animals and birds all carved out of fruits and vegetables. The dining room becomes a virtual "garden" of unexpected dining delights.

According to Stig Jacobsen, the Hotel Director, the ship uses over 12,000 pounds of meat a week, 7,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables and 3,000 dozen eggs. It was quite possible to eat 24 hours a day including three buffets and round-the-clock room service.

dot "Passengers come to the chocolate buffet just to take photos of the display. They tell me they've already had enough food and can't eat another bite," Stig smiles, "But I have to order 1,200 pounds of chocolate every week anyhow. Try to explain that one."

Is there an interest in cruising from Houston? To help herald this new cruise port, Norwegian Cruise Line held an open house for those in the Houston area. They expected around 3,000 people. Over 10,000 arrived, in a drenching rain storm.

As the ship sailed back towards Houston, a huge school of dolphins were spotted swimming along. They just skimmed the surface, occasionally leaping out of the ocean. Some passengers joked that it might have been the same dolphins they had just swam with, only sadly nodded their heads knowing this wasn't possible. Might it have been the same dolphins coming to say farewell?

At any rate, it proved a memorable ending to a memorable cruise.

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© Copyright 1997 Jerry D, Mead, JDM Enterprises and Wine Investigation for Novices and Oenophiles; all rights reserved.

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Latest Update: December 10, 1997