Steve Newman meets ancient Mayan cities and some amazing wildlife
Hurtigruten are best known for their polar cruises visiting Antarctica, Greenland and Spitzbergen. Their classic voyage along the Norwegian coast has been called the world’s most beautiful cruise and when you do it you can see why. It is not so well known that as the ship’s reposition from the Arctic and Antactica, and vice versa, each year that you can take cruises along the route.
More famed for their association with the midnight sun and the Northern Lights it was with some curiosity that I boarded Hurtigruten’s MS Fram to visit Central America and the Caribbean. It promised seven different countries and two UNESCO sites and more to the point in April a tropical climate and warmth!
MS Fram is a small ship with a maximum of 300 passengers so where you cruise in the world from Greenland to Panama you can visit small ports that are free from the hordes of passengers that disembark from those giant ships and can swamp a place in minutes. Consequently, your experiences are far in advance in terms of hands on and getting under the skin of places. The ship is really comfortable too, with an open dining policy and superb lectures and service.
Hurtigruten are renowned for their excursions and we certainly sampled as many as we could. One of the most enjoyable on this trip was in Belize with a 25-mile fast river cruise deep into the rain forest with amazingly colourful birds feeding on the banks, and the occasional crocodile and then suddenly the narrow river opened up into a lake.
From a jetty we literally only walked one minute into the rain forest and suddenly found ourselves in the 3,000 year old ruined Mayan city of Lamanai with incredible step pyramids, jaguar temples and giant stone heads protruding from the walls still surviving intact.
Talking of rain forests, in Panama we walked into the forest for an hour with Howler Monkeys all around us as our guide explained about the way the local indigenous people use the plants for medicinal purposes as well cooking. Sloths watched us with one eye almost with disdain and toucans with the huge bills flew overhead.
This area hosts the second largest coral reef system in the world and many of us took the snorkelling excursions that were on offer most days and I have to say the colours of the fish were simply staggering from vivid blues of the small wrasse to the incredible yellows and blacks of the Angel Fish. Sea Cucumbers and anemones were abundant and fan corals waved and danced in the water and all of us enjoyed these wonderful places.
Some of us took the snorkelling excursion to The Great Blue Hole. As the name implies this is the deepest marine sinkhole on the planet, formerly a cave where the roof had collapsed thousands of years ago. I must confess I did feel very nervous about going here as it is completely submerged, and you can’t see it until you are actually inside the hole itself. I have always wondered about the word abyss and it’s not until you are floating above one that you fully understand its meaning but the snorkelling around the coral rim of the Hole was incredible and I will never, ever forget it.
We visited the tiny archipelago of The San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. Imagine the Seychelles with no people and no hotels or roads and you will get some idea of what awaits you.
We even had to wait for the crew to talk to the Chief so we knew exactly where we could land. The morning found us bouncing across the waves in the small tender boats and landing on the tiny island of Abuja only two metres above sea level at its highest point. We watched the women of the Kuna people making the most vibrant of scarves and fabrics, not for them the mass produced souvenirs found in other Islands.
I love the Hurtigruten way of cruising as there are no fixed times for these trips and you could return to the ship whenever you liked or go back and forth as you wished. On some of these islands we were able to walk in the forests marvelling at emerald green Humming Birds flittering amongst the trees or sit on the beach of villages where pelicans, Terns and Frigate Birds waited to pounce on the fish scraps thrown into the sea after the children had finished cleaning them for the evening meal.
There are no Broadway shows on Hurtigruten’s ships and as a result people tend to bond and have a great time. Some days I learned to tie knots and how to use a sextant. I even joined the daily ‘walk a mile’ around the ship and thought about having a go at the yoga before breakfast!
It was ten days before we saw another cruise ship when we arrived at Cozumel in Mexico and I opted to visit the huge Mayan City at Tumul built some 2,000 years after Lamanai. It turned out to be a bit of a culture shock to see so many people again, but it was great to try the local food of tapas and chocolate sauce.
I have to say the food on board was excellent with some nights being themed to the food of countries we were at. Also, for me hash browns at breakfast are always a plus!
There are many variations of this cruise as the ships reposition in the spring and autumn but either way it is incredibly well thought out and is an amazing adventure. I simply can’t praise it enough.
More information on this cruise and others similar to it can be found on www.hurtigruten.co.uk.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Hurtigruten.