Amazon Adventure on Seven Seas Mariner
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in South America. Whether it be an exploration of Antarctica - the White Continent, the Galápagos Islands – that living time-warp of natural selection, or the world’s mightiest river – the amazing Amazon; there’s a variety of cruising options that range from spartan to sophisticated.
Not being a paid-up member of the David Attenborough intelligentsia, I enlisted for a two-week sojourn to the cradle of biodiversity that is the Amazon on one of the world’s highest-rated cruise ships. Aboard the Mariner the emphasis is on ‘soft’ exploration and the myriad creature comforts are all-consuming.
At 4,000 miles, the Amazon is edged out by the Nile as the world’s longest river, but by any other measure it has no equal. The natural phenomenon that is the Amazon basin contains a third of the world’s remaining rainforest – the planet’s greatest natural resource. Such a rich ecological wonderland boasts an array of plants and animals so vast that scientists are only now beginning to grasp its scale.
Part of the cruise package included a five hour charter flight from Fort Lauderdale to the capital of Amazonia – Manaus. By any yardstick this city of 1.7 million just south of the Equator is unique. A thousand miles from the Atlantic and surrounded by trackless jungle, this conurbation lies at the confluence of the Rio Negro and Solimões rivers, two enormous currents that together form the main branch of the Amazon.
Manaus is famous for the unprecedented rubber boom that lasted from 1890 to 1920. Profits were enormous and European “rubber barons” constructed lavish mansions, most of which are now museums. This supreme conceit is encapsulated in the eclectic, neo-classical Teatro Amazonas. The pink façade of this 1896 Opera House gives way to an exuberant interior of crystal and gilt chandeliers, wrought-iron banisters, and Italian frescoes.
After a two-day reconnaissance of this “Paris in the Jungle” my exploration of the most remarkable eco-system on earth began as we witnessed one of the most incredible displays of nature’s majesty. At the “Meeting of the Waters” the milky-white Solimões River collides with the dark waters of the Rio Negro. Differences in temperature, density, acidity and velocity keep these two distinctly-coloured bodies of water separated for more than six miles.
At Parintins I was bewitched by a performance of the Boi Bumba show – a flamboyant spectacle of singing, dancing and drumming reminiscent of the Rio Carnival. The following morning at Santarém the 48,015-tonne “mother-ship” was traded for a rustic river canoe to explore the “blue waters” of the Tapajós River. Navigating a backwater channel we veered into a creek where trees garlanded with lianas resembled a verdant curtain, shards of sunlight through the jungle canopy illuminated scarlet macaws, three-toed sloths grazed lazily on succulent leaves, and howler monkeys lived up to their name. In front of the canoe startlingly-blue morpho butterflies, as big as a thrush, speckled the shadowy swamp.
Leaving this monumental eco-system in our wake we headed for Devil’s Island. Lying some ten miles off the coast of French Guiana, Les Iles du Salut are a cluster of three islands used as a French penal settlement from 1850 to 1947. Today only the largest, Ile Royale, is open to tourists; the infamous Devil’s Island lies a sort distance across a fast-flowing, shark-infested channel. Henri Charrière’s autobiographical account of enduring the horror of this unforgiving outpost was brought to life as I strolled around the ruins of the administration buildings atop Ile Royale, recalling the barbaric scenes portrayed in ‘Papillon’.
The remaining week of my cruise was punctuated with calls at Barbados, Dominica, and San Juan. However there was a fitting finale at the iridescently-white beach at Grand Turk when Captain Delavault threw an impromptu party for passengers and crew. It was a pleasure to see the ship’s company relaxing and playing watersports with many of the passengers who they look after so obligingly when in uniform.
I had ventured to a remote corner of our watery planet aboard the largest ship capable of navigating so far into the mighty Amazon amid an atmosphere of genteel perfection. Undoubtedly the world’s first all-suite, all-balcony ship is a paragon, and the multifarious facets of this cruise coalesced to create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Join Seven Seas Mariner in February 2010 for her similar trip to South America and the Amazon.