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May 7, 2010 > Travel: Cruising the Western Caribbean - Cozumel, Belize, Honduras, Costa Maya

Travel: Cruising the Western Caribbean - Cozumel, Belize, Honduras, Costa Maya

By Denny Stein

There is nothing more exciting than standing at the rail of a ship and watching the shore slip by, the port growing smaller in the distance; the land lights dim while echoing starlight looms large overhead. At that magical moment, it really doesn't matter where you are or where you're going. I don't know if this feeling is capturable on one of those new megalithic Disney-type cruising town-sized ships, but it is definitely there on Holland America's old-fashioned liners. Their black hulls and white upper decks signal devotion to a tradition of service, quality, and luxury, while offering entertainment and freedom, comfort and privacy at the same time.

So here we go, on Holland America's MS Ryndam, leaving Tampa late at night after an Indigo Girls concert in the ship's theater. The passengers are mellow and happy, the air is chilly, and we are heading south and west through the Caribbean. Seven days of sun and sea, pampering, swimming, eating, and relaxing lie ahead of us.

First, go to the Greenhouse Spa desk and make some appointments-pedicure, rejuvenating massage, facial, seaweed wrap, sugar scrub. This is like working out before the big game; you want to be relaxed and beautiful before tackling the beach, pool, and sightseeing. The graduated rack of polish colors was daunting. Staring down at my winter toes, I wondered why did I have to choose only one color? Thus, I ended up with five colors on ten toes, and a lot of compliments from shipmates!

Being offshore, away from your regular life leads to thinking outside the box; all those old "rules" relax. That one about watching what you eat? Forget it. The rule here is "pace yourself." The breakfast buffet is too tempting-eggs any style, cereal, yogurts, fresh fruit, pastries, bagels or toast, bacon, sausage, muesli, stewed prunes-whatever you need or want. Then there's lunch, another overachiever's smorgasbord of choices, then High Tea, and finally dinner. I won't go on about everything we ate or were offered, but needless to say, it was excellent fare and always there-in the dining room, buffet, around the pools, in the cafˇ and bars, plus 24-hour room service.

Day One is a full day at sea, good for orientation and acclimation: fore vs. aft, port vs. starboard, upper vs. lower promenade decks. Holland America still gives you that full outside walk around the whole ship on a teak deck with white railings, the sun bouncing off the water and whitecaps, a breeze keeping you moving. Old fashioned deck chairs with blankets line the sides so you can sit, read, or just watch the walkers. The point is to downshift your brain from "squirrel" to lounging lizard.

Though we have come on this cruise for some R & R, the day's schedule of optional activities is full. There are exercise classes, dance lessons, behind the scenes tours, Solo Activities for traveling singles, pool games, an art auction, a massage class, a Commitment Ceremony for traveling couples, pre-dinner ballroom dancing, a comedy show, dinner, and finally a champagne party complete with DJ. I really only wanted a nap, but true to form I ate too much, stayed up too late, and had great time.

Day Two started at 8 a.m. Arriving in Cozumel, Mexico, we read the short history provided by the cruise director. Cozumel is an island first settled by the Mayans in 300 AD. You may have noticed there are not a lot of Mayans around these days. Spanish "visitors" managed to enslave or destroy them, while attempting to convert them. After 1519, the island was basically deserted until 1848 when Indian refugees from the War of the Castes settled there. In the 20th Century, a new industry, chewing gum, breathed life into the island economy and population.

These days Cozumel is mainly a tourist destination, thanks to the beautiful beaches and large resort hotels. Rather than signing up for an excursion through Holland America, we opted to share a cab into downtown Cozumel and suss out the shopping. That turned out to be a disappointment. There were fancy international stores and small touristy shops, and tables full of identical "Mexican" souvenirs that just might have come from China. The multitude of reds, blues, greens, purples, and yellows were a perfect backdrop for the magpie calls of vendors and the swirl of international visitors on the streets. At one point, being human, I needed a restroom, and a server in front of a courtyard restaurant promised me a ba–o Americano. Indeed, it was clean and spacious, and not at all worrisome, until I noticed the two lizards painted inside the toilet bowl!

Disliking the crowded touristy streets, we decided to find a resort hotel and just plotz for the day. A taxi driver was stopped at the curb of a side street, and we asked him to take us to a top hotel with a beautiful pool. As we talked to him, an ex-pat American woman popped her head in the window and thanked him for returning the cell phone she had left in his taxi. "You should know," she said, "this man is totally honest and a lovely person." What a nice accolade.

He drove us across the island to the Iberostar Hotel, where we were given day passes for the pool, restaurant, and beach. Dr. Park immediately flung herself in the clear blue pool waters and I stretched out to read and sleep. Later, we walked the beach and were enchanted with the wealth of shells that we found. Two even had occupants, and these we threw back into the sea. The grounds of the hotel were lovely, including a flock of exquisite salmon colored flamingos, plus the biggest iguanas I have ever seen lounging on tree trunks and under ferns.

Back on the ship, we showered, napped, and went to dinner. The ship sailed out of Cozumel at 8 p.m. and we were again free of land. There is an unconscious release, I think, that comes from being untethered and afloat in the dark. It allows you a certain freedom you don't have at home. Dr. Park played poker until 2 a.m. I took in the comic de soir, read, and went to bed early. The younger, wilder folks danced and partied. There is something for everyone. For the next four days, this was our basic modus operandi. Yet each day brought us to a new destination.

Day Three found us in the port of Belize City. Here we had to use tenders (small boats) to transfer from ship to shore. The local boatmen were themselves tender, polite, handsome, and friendly, a nice early welcome to Belize. It's not easy handing off 1,200 women from a large ship into a little bouncing boat, but they made it fun and safe.

Belize was touted as the site of 600 Mayan cities, the "center of the ancient Mayan world." The British were the last colonials to settle Belize, and from 1840 to 1973 it was known as British Honduras. Once you walk through the port arcade stores selling diamonds and gems, souvenirs, clothing and gimcracks, you come out into a dusty cobblestone street. Here is the real Belize City-tired buildings, dry vegetation, family vendor stalls, small cars and taxis, and horse drawn carriages. Everyone wants to sell you something. It made me wonder where the economic draw that excited the British settlers had gone, or why Guatemala wants to claim Belize as its own territory.

But each time we land some place new, there is a human aspect that culminates in a meeting of minds and spirits. Standing in the middle of the street as horses and chickens and vans went by, we stared at a tiny map and tried to figure out where to go. A taxi driver came over and offered us a tour of the island, but we politely refused, having only about an hour to spare. So he looked at our map and helped us figure out where we were and where we could go. Then he offered to drive us there, for free. We ended up going on a 45-minute tour of the city and learned more about life in Belize than we ever would have from a tourist excursion.

Ray's family was originally from India, as are many of Belize's people. Indians and Chinese were transported here by the British to work in the sugar cane fields. Now that the British are gone, these two ethnicities, plus those of African descent, comprise most of the country's populations. Ray has two daughters and a son, and their education is the primary family goal. But in Belize everyone must pay for school, and it's not cheap, by their standards. Ray had been driving a cab for years, but he must rent the cab everyday, for $40, and depends on the cruise trade for passengers. He drove us past schools with uniformed children, past the unfinished soccer stadium in a weed-strewn field, and an unfinished highway that went in only one direction-victims of government corruption despite international grants.

He pointed out the tiny Chinese-owned fried chicken stalls where everyone gets their lunch, and the old British colonial government houses. Whether simple or ornamented, the buildings were painted in pastel Caribbean colors subdued by the dust of ages. We passed men on street corners whacking open fresh coconuts, and women selling homemade jewelry and hand carved wooden animals. Eventually, Ray got us back to the port right on time. Dr. Park had a date with a snorkeling group and I returned to the ship for my afternoon nap. We gave Ray a "thank you" enough to cover his cab rental and a bit, and felt very lucky that he found us in the middle of that Belize thoroughfare.

At this point, we have begun to rely on the ship's Daily Program to know what day it is and where we are. Day Four? Must be Honduras, the island of Roatan, Mahogany Bay. Like Belize, the population of Roatan is made up of emigres, this time mainly from the Cayman Islands. The biggest driver of the economy here is tourism, due to the magnificent reefs and beaches, and snorkeling opportunities. We decided on a trip to a beach with a snorkeling jaunt thrown in. Well, in life, even on vacation, everything doesn't always work out. The day was overcast, the beach was dreary, the snorkeling was disorganized and we decided to leave early. So we took a taxi back "home" to the ship. Just as well, Dr. Park needed her "stretch out" before another night of poker, and I was happy in my cozy stateroom.

Our last stop, Friday, March 5, was Mexico again. Costa Maya is the last unexploited stretch of coastline in the eastern portion of Mexico, in the state of Quintana Roo. In order to attract cruise ships and make the port a "destination," a Disney-esque village has been created right at the pier. There is a "beach" swimming pool area, lounge chairs, bars, shops, and restaurants. If you want to get away from the crowd here, go outside and find a taxi driver to take you to the Monkey Farm or to another beach. The water is a delicious see-through blue, the breezes are warm, the food is okay, and you can get an inexpensive henna tattoo. If you find a hammock available at a beach, crawl in and sway the day away. For the energetic there are zip line trips, parasailing, snorkeling, and more Mayan ruins to explore. And there is always shopping at the end: rum, tequila, jewelry, clothing, sombreros, etc.

That night on the ship, Suede was live in concert with a mix of jazz, pop and blues, accompanied by Julie Wolf on keyboard and accordion. Wolf is a polished and exciting performer on her own; the first night she accompanied the Indigo Girls before we left port. Comedians Vickie Shaw, Dana Goldberg, Karen Williams, and Julie Goldman were all booked on board by Olivia Travel. Not to be outdone, Holland America offered napkin folding classes, wine tastings, current movies (Up in the Air at sea, anyone?), and dessert extravaganzas that were downright heart-stopping.

Finally, we had one more day at sea to contemplate being land-based once again. It was a low-key kind of day, sleeping off the chocolate, lounging by the pool, one more lap around the promenade deck. That night the chef's crew entertained with skits, songs and The March of Baked Alaska, a tradition on Holland America's ships. I have to admit that the days at sea, without a port of call, are really my favorites. But whatever you like to do, doing it at sea, in port, and away from home, is often a good choice. Bon voyage.

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