October 2013

Make Mayan a cruise: Sailing around Central America in the lap of luxury

Tom MangoldOne anecdote sums it up. We had checked into our luxurious cabin when there's a knock on the door. Enter Bento - a diminutive Indian in smart uniform looking like the telegram boy from a Rockwell picture of the 1920s.

He beams: 'I am your room butler... anything you need, call me.'

Two days later, a knock on the door, a downcast Bento, enters, closes the door and says in a whisper: 'Anything wrong with me. Do I not please you?' 'No,' we answer, puzzled. 'What's wrong?' 'You have not called on me once,' says the lugubrious youngster. 'The Americans call me ten times a day.' 'We're not Americans, and we just don't need anything, nothing.' Bento departs, still sad.

We plot, and call him later for some unnecessary sparkling water. A radiant Bento supplies eight small bottles and continues unbidden to do the same every day.

The Oceania Riviera is that kind of ship. I've heard about luxury but, come on... For most Brits, Oceania is a word-of-mouth American cruise line. As the Caribbean groans with numerous bulging 2,000-up liners, Oceania has pitched for the grey-haired, white-collar, usually retired market. Decorous and dignified travellers who pay well for quality cruises, food and ambience.

On board the Riviera, out of Miami, Oceania's new mid-size vessel for 700 to 1,250 guests on a Mayan Mystique voyage around Central America, the passengers received the benefit of those considerations.

There were 85 Brits on board and of those to whom I spoke I heard not a single complaint. We spotted no bling, no tattoos, there were no children (not one), no fags, no drunkenness and our cabin with a balcony was studio-quality quiet.

The vessel itself has a level of elegance shared with Claridge's or the Savoy. Soft carpeting, hardwood doors that open automatically as soon as they sense you, comfort and more comfort, a library with deep leather chairs, an IT room with 20 desk-tops (you pay for the wi-fi) and restaurants with food to die for. With a staff/passenger ratio of 1:1.6 its not wholly surprising that everyone is smiling.

Shore excursions were not cheap, averaging £90 each, but they were well organised and fruitful. In Georgetown, Grand Cayman (after parking next to a massive Disney liner, music blaring non-stop from the open deck while Disney films ran on a constant loop) we went for a snorkel in the warm waters to look at a huge variety of fish and a wonderful old merchantman wrecked close to shore in the early 1940s.

One day later, and it's Cozumel, Mexico - unashamedly brash with a T-shirt and tat-hell on the waterfront, but walk a few hundred yards inland and there are old squares, open cafes and the odd church or two. We had a delicious Mexican fried bean and avocado lunch for the cost of a Tube ticket at home.

I bought a bargain leather belt at a market and we laughed all the way back to the ship when we heard one trader shouting, 'Same old junk, cheaper price', which demonstrated his sense of humour or his distance from the English language.

Food onboard was stunning. The Terrace Cafe is a large, self-serve, buffet-style restaurant for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The food is wholesome, aggressively non-junky, with smiling servers keeping the customers moving and happy.

We could eat on our own or join larger tables. The speciality restaurants for dinner were superb. We are not foodies, but the Asian fusion Red Ginger did a sea bass that was the talk of the ship. These need to be booked and are so popular that attendance is rationed to allow everyone a chance.

In the Italian, Toscana, I had an osso buco that melted in the mouth. The French Jacques had a wine list I've memorised. Incidentally, the furnishing inside these eateries is discreetly luxurious.

Third stop was Belize for a trip down the New river to the Lamanai Mayan site. The high point for me was sailing past the New River Cove Pyramid Of Health, a fashionable and expensive rehabilitation clinic and sanatorium for alcoholics sited next door to a huge Old Masters rum distillery.

We drifted past jungle foliage sprouting air plants as big as Christmas trees, and we drank in the silence of the calm waters. In the distance we saw carts and horses belonging to an old orthodox Mennonite community which found sanctuary in Belize.

The Mayan ruins? Grandiose ancient pyramids and the faint outlines of those granite-faced Indians just visible on some rocks.

We stopped on the site of what had once been a huge Mayan complex, but came no nearer an answer to why these mysterious people suddenly departed, overwhelmed no doubt by some dreadful human or environmental tragedy, whether war, drought or disease.

We heard first, then spotted the howler monkeys high in the roof of the forest as we stumbled along stony, uneven paths and inclines.

After a few days on board, you begin to sense a return to the womb. It's all rather snug and protected.

You are never more than a nod from a crew/staff member. There's always a free deckchair for sunbathing; a Diet Coke is never more than an eye-blink away; the guests are courteous and friendly and the normal tensions of the day fail to accumulate.

We met one Canadian couple who had booked a double trip for exactly the same cruise with the Riviera as soon as it concluded, not even checking out of their cabin in between.

For Jim and Betty Hunter, he's a retired insurance executive from Edinburgh, there were no ifs and buts about the vacation.

'Cabin outstanding, the best we've ever experienced, absolutely no complaints, this is six-star cruising.' When we anchored at Santo Tomas, Guatemala, the word in the bazaars was that the town was OK but hardly worth the one-mile walk.

There were always the all-day expeditions, one to the Quirigua Archaeological Park, or the Tikal National Park, or Lake Atitlan, home of the Guatemala national bird, the Quetzal. Anyway, we were Mayaned out, and then we discovered something rather practical - if you are too tired to trip around Guatemala, a chunk of it will come to you and set up next to the ship.

Inside a huge warehouse were rows of colourful fabric-draped stalls. Guatemalan traders and a group called Familia Portugaria, six members of a family playing a marimba, were all on hand to sell, gossip and entertain.

We knuckled down to some serious purchases of glistening black obsidian, local jade and brilliant fabrics - and at neat prices. Some of the sustainable hardwood products were a real find (better than the belt I bought in Cozumel which first peeled then rotted after one week).

Evening entertainment on board was frenetic, including one hilarious New York Jewish stand-up comedian with devastating one-liners. The ship's auditorium was invariably packed for every show.

When we ran into a storm and had to miss out on Honduras, the ship produced a former CBS TV reporter who gave interesting Powerpoint performances covering everything from an introduction to the politics of Central America to a history of Hollywood scandals.

It was only when we returned to Miami, and took a taxi from the ship to the airport driven by a snarling, ill-mannered and highly aggressive driver, that we were reminded how much we were going to miss the big womb of the Riviera.

Among my West London dog-walkers set, cruising still has a controversial reputation - 'all those people' and 'all the boozing', and 'the noise', and the endless 'Good Morning Campers drill sergeants'.

Maybe on some boats, but certainly not on this one.

Travel Facts

American Airlines (, 0844 499 7300) operates two direct flights per day from London Heathrow to Miami from £644.

Oceania Cruises (0845 505 1920, offers a ten-night Mayan Mystique cruise on board Riviera, from £1,879pp including return flights, transfers, all meals, soft drinks and bottled water and a $200 onboard credit per stateroom.

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