Ellen Frazer-Jameson reports from her latest cruise on the Norwegian Gem out of
Miami to Central America. The next port of call on a Central American itinerary is
Costa Maya, Mexico.
Welcome to Mexico – Norwegian Gem Cruises into Costa Maya Port
Costa Maya is the first Caribbean port designed exclusively for the cruise ship industry and is strategically located just hours from Cancun on Mexico’s Southern
Yucatan Peninsula. Resembling an ancient Mayan City, Costa Maya, is able to berth three ships at once. However, in these early days of a gradual return to full capacity, even at one ship at a time, the port enthusiastically welcomes seafarers.
The colourful and lively port aims to entertain visitors at a destination that showcases the ancient and colonial heritage of the Mexican Caribbean with all of today’s modern conveniences. Ships dock right alongside Costa Maya’s purpose-built facilities and the pier-side village features a number of swimming pools, one of which is huge with a swim-up bar. Foot-tapping Mexican music spills into the street from local restaurants and bars and shops sell brightly painted pottery, Mexican blankets and hand-made jewellery. There is even a small rocky beach offering ultimate hammock relaxation for those who choose to snooze away shore days under the shelter of an outsized sombrero.
Majahual is the nearest small town to the port and for a few dollars taxi ride, cruisers can visit and experience a typical Mexican neighbourhood which houses about 600 inhabitants. Constructed after a hurricane over a decade ago, there is a one-and-a half-mile promenade which features retail and plenty of places.
Close by are classic examples of Mayan ruins and though they do not feature towering sky-high edifices, these more modest structures are recognizable as Mayan temples with multi levels of stairs leading to an altar at the summit.
Limones village, 5 miles from Cancun and 4 miles from Cozumel, is home to whole families of descendants of the original Mayans and they endeavour to preserve the language and culture of their ancestors.
Few young people speak Mayan but the older generation guard the ancient traditions. The largest group of this indigenous people is In Central America and the Mayan population is estimated at almost six million.
Classic Mayan civilisation reached its peak 250AD to 900AD and the civilisation built great stone cities and towering monuments. Carved in stone, the Calendar Round, a sophisticated and elaborate Mayan calendar which began on a fixed date in 3114BC, calculated dates based on two interlocking cycle, a moon and solar cycle coupled with a sacred year. Recorded dates of the calendar, which for thousands of years had reset according to a Grand Cycle equal to approximately 5,139 solar years, was said by some scholars, destined to end on December 22nd 2012. Across the continents, cults and worshippers warned that the world would end on that date. One belief states that the Mayans were following extra terrestrial instructions when they developed their calendar.
Today’s Mayan’s live largely in rural areas and some still work the land which was given to the indigenous people by the government.
A religious people, Mayan villages typically have a church, a small school and a community meeting place. Ancient Mayan’s devotion to the god’s revolved around sacrificial rituals and the priests chose the most beautiful young girls to be sacrificed. There were said to be nine levels of attainment to reach a spiritual hierarchy.
At Casita Maya in Limones village, Donya Claudia, dressed in a traditional embroidered white floor length dress, and her son Mario work 20 acres of land, plant corn and vegetables, raise chickens and tend mango trees. Their compound is built around a deep cooking pit in the centre of the village and though they have no running water, they do have satellite television.
Lunch at their home, a palm fringed circular hut, comprises of tacos made in a flour tortilla and spread with hot tomato, spicy pepper, salsa and guacamole. Washed down with Coca-Cola. Not one bottle of tequila in sight.
Mayans embrace a religious and spiritual life and on the garden washing line hangs a brightly coloured cushion cover honouring a deity. A flower filled shrine in the home pays devotion to the goddess, a combination of Mayan belief and Roman Catholic tradition. A priest visits weekly to hold services in the small wooden church.
“We have all the services we need,” our guide informs us. “The priest takes care of our spiritual health and for our physical conditions we have a village doctor and one ambulance.”
For effect, he pauses, “The doctor is not working today and neither is the ambulance driver. I am the doctor and the driver of your tour bus drives our ambulance.
Now, it is time to drive you good people back to your ship and we go back to our day jobs.”
Back on board, after a sail away party on deck, our ship sails overnight to Cozumel, Mexico en-route for the end of the roundtrip cruise in Miami. As every other evening, a starry line up of singers, dancers and speciality performers are in the Stardust Theatre to entertain. Production values are Broadway standard but the shows are original and the high energy young dance team and super talented singers deliver show-stopping renditions of all genres of music from ballads to pop to country to swing. An aerial and acrobatic show featuring married couple, American Megan Wilson and Brit Andy Parrish, called Duo Quintessence, thrill the audience with a cirque-style show of sky-high balletic artistry.
Norwegian Gem on this cruise, attracted mature and appreciative cruisers, almost exclusively American, as international borders are still closed, and the traditional ship with a period feel in its elegantly polished wooden interiors and sparkling chandeliers provides a cruise experience more smooth sailing than party city.
Captain Kim Klasson, a Finlander, in a Q and A session, thanked the passengers.
“Our guests are very grateful to be back on board, “ he said, ” and we have many less complaints than usual, for which we are very happy.”
Thank you, Captain, thank you, NCL, thank you the cruise industry. You have done a phenomenal job of getting travellers back to sea, safely on a ship with 100% fully vaccinated passengers and crew. Freedom to experience and enjoy all that the floating luxury hotels ships have to offer has returned the world is open to travellers again. Hop aboard.
Ellen Frazer-Jameson continues her ‘Return to Cruising’ series
From Miami she sailed to Harvest Caye, Belize on NCL’s ‘Norwegian Gem’
YOU BETTER BELIZE IT!!!
Harvest Caye, Belize, is a private island in the Caribbean, owned and managed by Norwegian Cruise Lines. Through the long pause in operations, as passengers waited to get back to sea, the trend for upmarket tailored destination travel reached new heights. The major cruise lines seized the opportunity to develop and market their own exclusive enclaves and capitalise on the ability to offer passengers a safe bubble, socially distanced and mask-free, while inter-acting with vaccinated fellow passengers.
Pristine palm-fringed beaches with sugar soft sand, lapped by vibrant blue seas in a natural setting, no longer fulfils the needs of high-end discerning travellers.
Expectations of cruise ship passengers rise constantly as they demand more and more exclusivity and access to luxury facilities even as they leave five-star ship living behind and venture ashore. Cruise lines endeavour to manage every aspect of the local experience – with none of the unpredictable aspects of everyday locations.
Harvest Caye in Southern Belize in the Caribbean, offers the perfect premier island destination for a port call. There you are made welcome on a 75-acre oasis featuring an expansive pool with a swim-up bar, salt-water lagoon for water sports, exclusive 7-acre beach and exciting shore adventures ranging from zip lining across the island to snorkelling the world's second largest barrier reef.
The development of Harvest Caye is part of Norwegian Edge, a program designed to bring higher tourism standards to the high seas. Business owner’s partner with the cruise lines to offer unique, quality locally designed and sourced jewellery and artefacts as well as jewelled flip-flops, sunglasses and hair accessories. Services such as hair braiding and henna tattooing are available and tiki-hut palm fringed shops and bars offer shelter from the sun and cooling coconut filled drinks.
The extensive pool area has a swim-up bar, cascading waterfall and private canopy cabanas available for rent. Shopping village features popular name-brand retailers as well as local Belizean crafts.
Luxurious beachside cabanas can accommodate up to 6 guests and feature concierge food and beverage service, lounge chairs, private bathrooms and air conditioning, with access to golf carts for easy transportation around the island.
The Flight house is a thrilling 136-foot high venue for aerial activities featuring 3,000 feet of zip lining across the island, quick jumps and an observation deck with mainland views. There’s a salt water lagoon for aqua sports such as kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and electric float boats.
But is it the authentic Belize?
To experience the real Belize, take an excursion away from the caye.
Belize is a nation on the Eastern coast of Central America, with Caribbean shorelines to the East and dense jungle to the west. Offshore the massive Belize barrier reef, dotted with hundreds of low-lying islands called cayes, hosts rich marine life. Belize’s jungle areas are home to spectacular Mayan ruins. To the north Belize borders Mexico, and to the east, the Caribbean sea and Guatemala.
To the south. The capital is Belmopan and largest city, Belize city.
The country formerly a British colony from 1840, known as British Honduras, won its Independence from Britain in 1981 and continues to be a Commonwealth realm with Queen Elizabeth as its monarch. The country’s anthem is Land of the Free and its Royal anthem is God Save the Queen. English is the official language and Spanish second. Most of the population are bilingual and speak a Belizean Creole and a few locals speak the traditional ancient Mayan language.
The Mayan civilisation flourished in Belize until about 1200AD and mystery and myth still surround the reasons the Mayans died out. It may have been due to disease; possibly their worship rituals that involved human sacrifices or more fancifully the enduring notion that the population was captured by aliens and transported to space.
Belizean cuisine is an amalgamation of all the diverse ethnicities in the island nation and a typical meal includes rice and beans with coconut milk, stewed chicken and potatoes salad. Punta is a popular modern style of Belizean Afro-Caribbean music with an international beat said to be an amalgamation of calypso, reggae and merengue.
The national flower of Belize is the black orchid, their national tree is mahogany and the national bird is the keel billed toucan.
Leave Harvest Caye for an off-shore excursion and a catamaran with the exuberant Captain Kirk, makes a 30-minute journey to a nearby island and offers a coast line of indigenous trees, a few waterfront properties and pastel coloured houses on stilts with communal meeting areas alongside under the shelter of tiki huts.
After the boat ride, a short coach journey arrives at a nearby settlement. The Mango and Independence villages. Unpainted wooden houses line the streets of two villages separated by one street.
Upwards of four thousand people live and work in the area, mostly at the rum refinery and a cashew factory which produces a fine wine known as ‘poor man’s whisky.” The population is made up of descendants of the Mayan culture and various other Caribbean ethnicities.
Hummingbird Highway crosses the small island and all points lead to the commercial centres and transport depots from which bananas – described as “Fyffes, regular size bananas, not baby size Chiquita’s” - and a factory producing 30 different kinds of rum, mostly for export to Europe. This small island community produces 22 varieties of mangoes and the largest of the crop which are “the size of your head” are known locally as bellyful mangoes. Seafood comes in all shapes and sizes and shrimp , red snappers and lobster are fished and exported
The small town boasts a school, a church, sports stadium, nursery day care centre, an ice cream parlour, three cell phone shops, several Chinese superstores and a Holy Redeemer Credit Union. The Hello Hotel is a low-level structure painted sky blue and sunshine yellow and the lot next door complete with a house, is to be raffled – when all the tickets are sold. A young man on a push-bike wearing a superman t-shirt stands by the ticket board, calling out, “Buy a ticket, win a house.”
On main street The Pioneer House built in the 1950’s acts as a museum. Formerly an office building for the now defunct lumber yard and saw mill, the two -storey structure was home to the Zabadi family; parents and seven children. With five bedrooms and two bathrooms, the Pioneer House, also known as “the rich man’s house” was the first in the village to have running water and electricity.
Two Belize flags flutter on the towers of Jian’s Superstore and a welcome breeze drifts across the well-swept sidewalks.
“We are warm as the weather,” Belize people like to proclaim.
The contrast to Harvest Caye is certainly apparent but with high employment in the area and a happy-go-lucky attitude, Mango and Independence villagers take pride in their homes and their country.
Local people and business owners have developed a marketable brand signature, you hear it everywhere you go.
“BELIZE IS UN-BELIEZABLE. YOU BETTER BELIEZE IT.”
International Travel Write and author, Ellen Frazer-Jameson, continues her series on
“Return to Cruising” from her home port of Miami, Florida.
Her latest voyage, round trip Miami on NCL’s “Norwegian Gem” to Central America.
A Jewel of a Ship – Norwegian Cruise Lines “Norwegian Gem”
Under the shade of a cotton tree in Gumbalimba Preserve and Animal Sanctuary in Bay of Islands, Roatan, 40 miles off the northern coast of Honduras, in the Caribbean Sea; the monkey sitting on my head nurses her baby and eats her nuts.
She shows no fear of humans and after the initial shock of a two-foot-tall hyper -active creature leaping from the ground right into my arms, we come to an understanding. She will not pull off my hat and I won’t attempt to share her treats.
Bruna is a white-cheeked, black-haired spider monkey and with other family members including Petra and Joey, she lives with her trainer of 12 years, Angel, who has his work cut out stopping the playful monkeys, who roam uncaged, squabbling with each other and running rings around tourists.
“The monkeys will steal your personal possessions,” Angel warns. “They are fascinated by cell phones, love to know what you have in your wallet and pick pockets for the fun of it.”
Arriving in the early morning sunshine on Norwegian Gem after sailing for two days out of Miami, the first stop on the Central American itinerary was a former British Colony, British Honduras which was fought over by the Spanish and British in the 1850’s and regained independence from an English-speaking government a decade later.
Norwegian Gem, 15 decks high, 1,000 ft long, weighing 93 and a half tons, was built in 2006 to carry 2,394passengers. Post-covid social distancing restrictions have halved that number to 1,200 on current voyages but crew numbers remain above 1,000 individuals, all happy to be back at work after more than a year of enforced home leave. Half the passengers, twice the service, with NCL pulling all the stops out to ensure that returning cruisers feel safe and protected by stringent health protocols though only employees are required to wear masks. Many ports of call impose mask-wearing rules and this applies to passengers who travel on shore excursions from the ship.
Gumbalimba Preserve is high in the hills above Flowers Bay, home to the second largest coral reef outside of Australia, close to the town of Coxen Hole, the major settlement on the Bay Islands. Named after Captain John Coxen, a notorious pirate, one of the more than 500 who set up home on Roatan when several British families arrived from the Caymen Islands in 1835. Coxen’s Cave is a man-made cavern showcasing the Golden Age of the Pirates and the first inhabitants of the islands from 600/700 years ago. A recently excavated barnacle covered cannon guards the entrance to the buccaneer, Coxen’s Cave and a replica of a 7th century Spanish battlement houses an Insectarium of 1,000 breeds.
Roatan has an international airport and is an ever-popular cruise ship destination. It claims bragging rights as a world class scuba, water sports and snorkelling destination with nearly perfect diving conditions.
Sparkling turquoise waters of the gigantic coral reef are surrounded by tropical white sand beaches and an abundance of cotton, coffee, cinnamon, lemon and cannon ball trees, so named because of their unique shape.
Black and green iguanas who can grow up to 5/6ft long and lay 50/60 eggs a year, roam wild in the Animal Sanctuary though elsewhere they are a delicacy eaten by the locals and known as chickens of the trees. In the natural habitat of the outdoor Bird Sanctuary, exotically coloured parrots fly free and are tame enough to pose for photographs with visitors.
Christopher Columbus visited Roatan during his explorations of the central American territories and named one area “deep water”.
“He knew he was in “deep water” when he sailed into our bay,” explains an enthusiastic young guide, and he laughs, “the water around our island are very deep.”
Maybe that is the reason why, even the most expensive newly constructed brick- built houses with spectacular bay views from their hilltop acreages are built on stilts. Driving up the mountain side from the port, the oldest church, a rum factory, a barber shop and huge golf course, once visited by Tiger Woods, are all visible from the road that runs East and West across the 36 miles x 8 miles island. The island is shaped like a crocodile and the best beaches and best restaurants are claimed by West Beach. It is here that veteran Hollywood superstar Michael Douglas and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones have a vacation home. If you want to know where the couple live, it is necessary to know the colour of the house. There is no mail service on the island, addresses are listed by distance from the clock tower and the colour of the paintwork.
Exports from the island include five varieties of bananas, rum and coconuts. Fishing, hunting and farming sustain many locals and the recent return of cruises has given the economy and service industries a welcome revival.
Aspects of Roatan can rightly be called Untamed and with the awakened interest in ecologically sustainable tourism, the largely undeveloped areas attract visitors who choose to tread softly on the lands they explore.
“ Welcome Back,” reads a sign in a tour coach window,
“Arrive as strangers, leave as friends.”
The journey continues……next Port of Call – Harvest Caye, Belize, Central Americato edit.
Ellen Frazer-Jameson is a journalist, author, actress. theater producer and drama coach. She co hosted the largest live late night radio show in Europe for the BBC and has appeared on national TV shows and taken leading roles on stage. She lives in Miami and London and loves to dance Argentine tango.