Wonders of the Mayan Coast

January 19, 2001 | Tags: Americas

Bordered by the brilliant Caribbean Sea to the east and verdant jungle interior to the west, the Mayan Coast holds within its close reaches many natural and historical wonders. An L-shaped coastline encompassing parts of Honduras, Belize and Mexico's Yucatan, it provides a perfect window through which to observe wildlife-rich tropical forests, spectacular seascapes, and ancient sites steeped in Mayan culture.

I recently scouted the "L" - from the Yucatan at the top, to Honduras at the base - and came away completely inspired. All the elements are here for an outstanding expeditionary experience by sea.

The Yucatan's lovely capital of Merida offers a portal to two flourishing eras of Mexican history - the great Mayan period of 500 B.C. to A.D. 1540, and the subsequent 400-year Hacienda culture. Numerous preserved monuments surround the city, including the famous sprawling Mayan ceremonial center of Chichen Itza. But that's just the beginning of this treasure trove of Mayan ruins; Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, and Labna are some of the many impressive sites that dominate the nearby landscape.

Located between these Mayan centers are ornate plantations that once thrived as the world's leading producers of henequen, used for making rope. These haciendas - the largest ones being Temozon and Katanchel - have been restored into wonderful boutique resorts with beautifully manicured grounds, pools, elegant suites and regal plantation houses.

Located south of Merida, Hacienda Temozon is a grand complex, complete with 17th-century chapel, restored machine house, and lovely gardens. Hacienda Katanchel sprawls across 741 acres of an ancient Mayan site, with numerous pavilions, reflecting ponds, and a huge factory house that has been converted into a superb restaurant and lounge. With stately accommodations and exceptional dining, each hacienda serves as a convenient base for exploring the sites.

After crisscrossing the Yucatan to further explore limestone caves, colonial towns and more newly-excavated Mayan sites, I turned due south to Honduras. With a mountainous terrain of lush tropical forest and pristine nature reserves similar to that of Costa Rica, Honduras boasts additional treasures - the white sand beaches of the Bay Islands and the dramatic Mayan ruins of Copan.

On the north coast of mainland Honduras are two protected wildlife havens: Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge and Punta Sal National Park. While cruising the mangrove lagoons at Cuero y Salado, I spotted white-front parrots, keel-billed toucans, boat-billed herons, anhingas, woodpeckers and several other bird species. The refuge is best known for the manatees that feed in the canals and for the crocodiles and turtles commonly seen along its shore.

Punta Sal was a special treat for me, and undoubtedly will be for Zegrahm passengers. The peninsula here is breathtaking, with volcanic rock headlands and dense forests of banana palms, gamba, ceiba, and almond trees giving way to sandy beaches. A trail connects either side of the peninsula. Offshore rocks are filled with colonies of brown pelicans, frigatebirds, and brown boobies.

As for the Bay Islands of Honduras, Roatan is one of the best dive and snorkel destinations on the planet. The sheer number and diversity of underwater sites -coral gardens, reefs, pinnacles, caves, walls, and shipwrecks - is staggering. Efforts to study and conserve Roatan's coral reefs are being made by the Institute for Marine Sciences, which operates a laboratory and museum on the island's west end.

The lesser-known and delightfully remote Cayos Cochinos Archipelago lies 20 miles south of Roatan. A day in this paradise of two main islands and 13 small cayes offers a variety of activities. Visit the thatched huts of the Chachauate Garifuna fishing village, hike to the lighthouse for a panoramic view, and snorkel and dive amongst colorful reefs.

A forty-five minute flight from Roatan, deep into the mountain valleys of interior Honduras, is Copan - the magical Mayan kingdom. The site has a huge open-air sculpture museum displaying many original stelae, statues, facades and carvings. The ruins are striking, with courtyards, temples, pyramids, and stairways set amid towering ceiba trees.

Naturally beautiful and historically intriguing, Honduras may be one of the best-kept travel secrets in the world. In addition to an action-packed itinerary, we have chartered the perfect vessel to undertake the voyage - Le Ponant - her comfort and elegance wonders in themselves. I can hardly wait for December 2001 when all of the enchanting Wonders of the Mayan Coast will be revealed to you.

We will offer two Mayan Coast adventures in 2001, the first departing 12 December from Cancun to Belize and the second on 19 December sailing from Belize to Cancun. An exclusive group of 55 passengers will travel aboard Le Ponant for these voyages. Each expedition will have an optional Heavenly Haciendas & Magnificent Maya extension to the Yucatan Peninsula. For more information or to reserve your place on board, please contact our office.

Crossroads Where Cultures Collide

October 20, 2000

Rob McCall, October 2000

History was always a bit of a no-go area for me at school. Our history teacher was more renowned for his remarkably somnolent lectures, rather than his history teaching abilities. For that reason, amongst others, history was never my favorite subject and instead my interests thrived in other areas, such as biology. However, my jaded view of history was brought to an abrupt end in October of 1998 on Zegrahm's Crossroads of Empires expeditions.

I was appointed as the natural historian on board, as we sailed the eastern Mediterranean and on to the Red Sea. I anticipated several weeks of excellent birding with our group, spotting plenty of Europe's migrant species heading south. Sure enough, the autumn migrants were there in abundance, but to my surprise, I found my focus of attention under siege from a most unexpected quarter.

I remember my historical "Road to Damascus" experience well. Our group was standing in the precincts of the ruined city of Ephesus in the refreshing cool of morning. The hillside was filled with the sweet sound of European robin songs and I was tracking a blackstart through my binoculars. The blackstart alighted on the beautifully preserved portico of the Temple of Artemis. My binoculars focused first on the bird and then on its perch of exquisite carvings, looking as fresh as if they had been carved yesterday. The blackstart flew off, but I remained fixated on that remarkable building, spending the next half an hour marveling at its extraordinary form. Luckily, we saw plenty of blackstarts later on in the trip, but the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) was truly one of a kind.

Aided, as ever, by our excellent team of lecturers, my historical interest in this remarkable region burgeoned. During the course of the voyage, it became apparent that even though we were covering comparatively small distances, the cultural distance that we were traversing was truly huge. It was as if we were traveling through an area that had borne witness to a cultural big bang -- the birth of the modern cultural universe.

A combination of rich natural resources, superb climate, geographical location, and the beautiful Mediterranean Sea nurtured a succession of empires in this cradle of civilization, including the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Minoans, and Ottomans. Today, the same reasons that attracted these empire-builders still lure curious explorers to this area's fabled shores.

Another surprising transformation took place on the past Crossroads voyage. I am not usually a shopper. Those of you who have traveled with me know that if there is shopping to be done, I'll be found leading a birding walk somewhere else. But how could I resist the lure of a shopping trip through a souq? It is an experience that accosts all (and I mean all) of your senses. I emerged from my first souq with a Bedouin rug that weighed 14 pounds and smelled of goats. My airline luggage allowance has never been so stretched!

In a world where history is increasingly separated from everyday life by fences and tariffs, a journey through the Mediterranean offers a chance to visit a part of the world where many historical monuments are real, living buildings still used and cherished by the local people. The ancient Lycian fort overlooking the lagoon at Kekova is a fine example. Our evening walk up the hillside took us along dusty paths and tracks where lizards scuttled out of our way. We reached the ancient village of red-roofed stone houses, in the middle of which stood the fort, a playground for local children, and grazing grounds for the ubiquitous goats. As we rested on sun-warmed stone fortifications, our twilight view was inspirational: our sailing vessel lay illuminated in the lagoon below, whilst lamps began to alight in the windows of houses, crickets chirped, and geckos emerged from the cracks in the walls to scamper after drowsy insects. The scene was timeless.

There seem to be few places in the world where such a sense of continuity between the historical past and the present day exists. But here in this cradle of civilization, history interweaves itself into modern daily life.

Crossroads Where Cultures Collide

October 19, 2000 | Tags: Europe

Rob McCall, October 2000

History was always a bit of a no-go area for me at school. Our history teacher was more renowned for his remarkably somnolent lectures, rather than his history teaching abilities. For that reason, amongst others, history was never my favorite subject and instead my interests thrived in other areas, such as biology. However, my jaded view of history was brought to an abrupt end in October of 1998 on Zegrahm's Crossroads of Empires expeditions.

I was appointed as the natural historian on board, as we sailed the eastern Mediterranean and on to the Red Sea. I anticipated several weeks of excellent birding with our group, spotting plenty of Europe's migrant species heading south. Sure enough, the autumn migrants were there in abundance, but to my surprise, I found my focus of attention under siege from a most unexpected quarter.

I remember my historical "Road to Damascus" experience well. Our group was standing in the precincts of the ruined city of Ephesus in the refreshing cool of morning. The hillside was filled with the sweet sound of European robin songs and I was tracking a blackstart through my binoculars. The blackstart alighted on the beautifully preserved portico of the Temple of Artemis. My binoculars focused first on the bird and then on its perch of exquisite carvings, looking as fresh as if they had been carved yesterday. The blackstart flew off, but I remained fixated on that remarkable building, spending the next half an hour marveling at its extraordinary form. Luckily, we saw plenty of blackstarts later on in the trip, but the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) was truly one of a kind.

Aided, as ever, by our excellent team of lecturers, my historical interest in this remarkable region burgeoned. During the course of the voyage, it became apparent that even though we were covering comparatively small distances, the cultural distance that we were traversing was truly huge. It was as if we were traveling through an area that had borne witness to a cultural big bang -- the birth of the modern cultural universe.

A combination of rich natural resources, superb climate, geographical location, and the beautiful Mediterranean Sea nurtured a succession of empires in this cradle of civilization, including the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Minoans, and Ottomans. Today, the same reasons that attracted these empire-builders still lure curious explorers to this area's fabled shores.

Another surprising transformation took place on the past Crossroads voyage. I am not usually a shopper. Those of you who have traveled with me know that if there is shopping to be done, I'll be found leading a birding walk somewhere else. But how could I resist the lure of a shopping trip through a souq? It is an experience that accosts all (and I mean all) of your senses. I emerged from my first souq with a Bedouin rug that weighed 14 pounds and smelled of goats. My airline luggage allowance has never been so stretched!

In a world where history is increasingly separated from everyday life by fences and tariffs, a journey through the Mediterranean offers a chance to visit a part of the world where many historical monuments are real, living buildings still used and cherished by the local people. The ancient Lycian fort overlooking the lagoon at Kekova is a fine example. Our evening walk up the hillside took us along dusty paths and tracks where lizards scuttled out of our way. We reached the ancient village of red-roofed stone houses, in the middle of which stood the fort, a playground for local children, and grazing grounds for the ubiquitous goats. As we rested on sun-warmed stone fortifications, our twilight view was inspirational: our sailing vessel lay illuminated in the lagoon below, whilst lamps began to alight in the windows of houses, crickets chirped, and geckos emerged from the cracks in the walls to scamper after drowsy insects. The scene was timeless.

There seem to be few places in the world where such a sense of continuity between the historical past and the present day exists. But here in this cradle of civilization, history interweaves itself into modern daily life.

Discovering Vietnam

July 20, 2000

Mike Messick, July 2000

Just prior to leading our May 2000 expeditions, which circumnavigated Japan's Honshu Island followed by a voyage northwards through the Kuril Islands, I completed a most amazing 16-day scouting trip to Vietnam. Zegrahm Expeditions is planning two Vietnam programs in 2001 and my goal was to define the best that a visit to this country could offer our clients. Before arriving in Hanoi City, I anticipated a country of tranquil rice fields, scenic coastline, and colorful people. Not surprisingly, I encountered all this, along with many unexpected and amusing experiences that I know will make for a fascinating exploration of Vietnam next year.

Upon arrival in Hanoi City Airport, my guide Paul drove me through the serene countryside where graceful women in straw conical hats tended emerald-colored, terraced rice fields. As we entered the city, however, this tranquil setting suddenly morphed into the frantic pace of bustling traffic. Bicycles, motorbikes, cyclos, tuc-tucs and a few buses, trucks, and cars weaved and zig-zagged down the road in harmonious chaos. To my Western mind, this mayhem of traffic could never work, as there were no stop signs, almost no traffic lights, and an inordinate number of bustling pedestrians. I tried to imagine briefing the passengers next year on "how to cross a Vietnamese street," especially following a long trans-Pacific flight.

It took me only a short while to realize that Vietnam is the perfect destination to be explored by ship. Traveling the long, curving coastline of spectacular scenery, our floating home aboard the Clipper Odyssey will provide the perfect base from which to experience the country's natural and cultural wonders.

The Vietnam coast is home to great beauty found in areas such as Halong Bay where towering limestone formations rise from the calm sea. Local legend claims that celestial dragons created the area and were so entranced by its beauty that they took up permanent residence, giving rise to the literal translation of the name - "dragon descending." Hue, Vietnam's cultural and historic center, is the site of some of the most impressive architecture in the country, including the Imperial City, Citadel, and the seven-tier Thien Mu Pagoda. I was particularly excited to discover that the beach at Nha Trang offers a tempting invitation for snorkelers and divers alike to explore the waters that lap at its fringes.

Culturally, Vietnam is equally intriguing and diverse. Whether it was watching a traditional water puppet performance, observing the delicate craft of incense-smoking, or marveling at the women of Hoi An who spin fibers directly from the cocoons of silk worms, Vietnam's centuries-old culture provided me with a remarkable selection of activities to offer for the expeditions. In contrast, modern Ho Chi Minh City provided the perfect place to "people watch" and experience modern-day Vietnamese life.

Most people, upon hearing the word "Vietnam," cannot help but immediately think of the war. My visit to the 17th parallel in the heart of the former Demilitarized Zone quickly brought the realities of "The American War," as the Vietnamese refer to it, to life. The Vinh Moc Tunnels (not to be confused with Chu Chi Tunnels) are open to visitors as a poignant reminder of the battles that took place. This two-kilometer long network of man-made tunnels served as an underground village to some 600 Vietnamese during the almost continuous bombardment by the West.

Although the war is not forgotten here, the healing power of time is evident in the warm, smiling faces that greeted me at every turn. Throughout my travels, I was met with open arms and made to feel most welcome by the locals. The Vietnamese are among the friendliest people I have ever encountered and I anxiously look forward to seeing them again in 2001 when I travel with Zegrahm passengers through this most fascinating country.

Nordic Summer: Adventure and Exploration

July 20, 2000

Lisa King Wurzrainer, July 2000

In the summer of 2002, we are excited to offer two all-encompassing programs, which combine highlights from our past 'Round Britain and Spitsbergen expeditions linked by an exciting popular destination - Norway. Our Nordic Summer expeditions will embark on the Endeavour; the first leg traveling from the Scottish Isles to Norway and the second from the North Cape to the islands of Svalbard.

For most of us, Northern Europe does not conjure up the same isolated or primitive images as Papua New Guinea, Antarctica or the virtually inaccessible atolls of the South Pacific. However, even in the relatively civilized territories of Northern Europe, there is adventure and exploration awaiting the curious and inquisitive adventurer.

Our journey begins as we explore the secluded offshore islands of northern Scotland - the Orkneys and the Shetlands - ancient dominion of Norsemen, Vikings, kings, and queens. The burial chambers of Maes Howe, as well as the ruins at Skara Brae and Jarlshof, are just a few of the many well-preserved archeological testaments to the early inhabitants of these islands - some vestiges dating back more than 4,000 years.

Humans have not been the only inhabitants of these remote outposts. In fact, in terms of simple numbers, they have always been a rather pitiable minority. The sheer rock and sandstone cliffs of these weathered shores provide an exceptional nesting ground for a variety of seabirds including kittiwakes, murres, gannets, storm petrels, shags, and puffins who naturally segregate their nests from one another creating a sort of seabird layer cake.

In the more southerly Orkney Islands, the green and fertile countryside is carpeted with a variety of colorful wildflowers in the summer. While, along the more remote and barren shores of the Shetlands, seals, whales and myriad seabirds haunt the rocky coastline.

Our journey continues across the North Sea to the west coast of Norway, following in reverse the route of the early Vikings. From Bergen we venture inland past charming little villages, old farmhouses, and fruit orchards teeming with their plentiful harvest.

We explore ancient ruins and unearth centuries-old tales of Viking history and discovery. We behold the striking architecture of churches and cathedrals built centuries ago - still so beautifully preserved, despite the merciless hands of time.

As we continue our travels north, we weave our way through countless islands and islets, and in and out of narrow fjords. Ashore, the landscape begins to change, reminding us that we have crossed the Arctic Circle. Reindeer graze freely on the varied flora in this treeless landscape. Idyllic fishing hamlets, with their brightly colored buildings and friendly inhabitants beckon us to their sheltered harbors.

At the northern tip of contiguous Europe, the precipitous cliffs of the North Cape rise more than 900 feet above the Arctic Ocean. The first leg of our adventure ends in the small town of Alta, home to the largest single collection of rock carvings in all of Europe, which is believed to be between 2,500 and 6,200 years old. The carvings, which were entered on to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1985, depict human beings, boats, weapons and hunting scenes.

If this has only just begun to whet your appetite for adventure, more natural treasures await you on the second leg of our journey - from Arctic Norway north to the remote islands of Svalbard, including Spitsbergen.

There are very few untouched wilderness areas remaining in our world today where a traveler can witness landscapes of austere beauty and prolific wildlife. The isolated, yet enchanting, Arctic islands of the Svalbard Archipelago are just such a place. Imagine a vast, pristine land covered in ice, with immense glaciers carving their way past snow-cloaked mountain peaks on their journey to the sea.

This is the High Arctic. It is a land where, in the summer, the sun never sets. It is a place of contrasts, where black basaltic islands float in seas of gleaming ice; harmless seabirds scatter at the approach of a powerful polar bear; wildflowers burst to life from the dormant tundra; barks of ringed seals and snorts of walrus fill the air; and thousands of kittiwakes, murres, little auks, and puffins darken the skies.

We plan to land at historic sites to honor the resolution and fortitude of the early Arctic explorers, many of whom perished as a result of their obsession with exploring the undiscovered North. Svalbard today remains one of the truly secluded corners of our globe.

In the lands of the Nordic Summer, an enchanting world beckons the traveler with an affinity for the natural world and a spirit of adventure and exploration.