By MARSHALL KRANTZ
It's no secret to Belize cognoscenti that many of the best places along the Belizean coast are remote. Those places lay at the end of long, rough roads unburdened by much in the way of public transportation, or they essentially are accessible only by water. Monkey River comes to mind, as does Gale's Point. Even Placencia and Punta Gorda, which are accessible by air, can be considered remote by today's travel standards, when any commercial airplane equipped with propellers and no aisle qualifies as "primitive."
Perhaps it's true, part of Belize's charm--and what makes it unspoiled by mass tourism--is that only the determined tourist can achieve Belize's outlying regions, which amounts to a fair chunk of the country.
But for the soft adventurer, Belize's outlying regions are now easily in reach--and in comfort--thanks to the M/V Temptress Voyager, a locally based, multi-day cruise ship. Temptress Voyager, which inaugurated service in December 1995, is the only cruise ship to sail exclusively in Belizean waters and the only cruise ship to operate in Belize year round.
In Belize, Temptress has followed a formula developed in Costa Rica, where the Tico-owned company began 1991. The company emphasizes active, casual travel. The ship moves to new locales primarily at night while during the day serving as a floating base for snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, nature walks, wildlife watching, and river explorations via motorized rubber dinghies. That formula, which I experienced in Costa Rica earlier, proved so successful that Temptress moved the 63-passenger Temptress to Belize to make way for a new, 100-passenger ship.
During the first few months of operations, Temptress Belize cruises have been going out about half full, less in a few cases. This is about what management expected, according to Kathy Strempel, a public relations spokesperson in Miami. The company's Costa Rica cruises range from 60 to 90 percent of capacity, low to high season, respectively, and have been running 98 percent in early 1996.
I sailed aboard the Temptress in February, and as a Belize neophyte, found the six-day trip a satisfying sampler of Belize's natural beauty and cultural diversity. The itinerary comprised Placencia, Punta Gorda, Monkey and Sittee rivers, Southern Lagoon and Gale's Point, the Garifuna village of Hopkins, and the small cayes of Goff's, Snake's, Tobacco, and Laughing Bird--in short, some of the best of the Belizean coast from Belize City southward to Punta Gorda.
Upon boarding ship Sunday afternoon off Belize City, at the Radisson Fort George dock, and making my way to the open-air bar on the top deck, I was greeted by the musical strains of Belizean Bumm & Chime and the quartet's Caribbean-style version of "Your Cheating Heart." I'd never before heard the old country-and-western standard accompanied by a guy playing percussion on the jaw bone of a horse.
Other musical fare included Garifuna dance performances at Hopkins and Seine Bight near Placencia, a Mayan music and dance presentation aboard ship at Punta Gorda, and several bouts of passenger participation in Garifuna-inspired Punta Rock dancing at the ship's bar.
As a national dance rage, Punta Rock exemplifies Belize's easy-going, free-wheeling spirit. Or as Janice, dining room attendant and Punta Rock dance teacher extraordinaire, put it, "It's called Punta Rock because you get right to the point!" Despite this explanation, and the repeated hip-thrusting motions incorporated into the dance routine, some passengers still failed to get the point.
The cruise's cultural aspects notwithstanding, the strengths of the cruise is the nature and wildlife watching, along with the water sports. Temptress' water and land mobility, combined with the expertise of local guides, made for fulfilling wildlife viewing.
In Monkey River, for example, we motored up river for about 40 minutes and then landed on the bank for an hour's walk through the forest. Although we glimpsed a few howler monkeys in the trees from the dinghies, the combined shore foray down-river, on a trail cut by the local guides, put us right under a family of howlers. The monkeys casually observed us for as long as we observed them--just a couple bands of primates on a day's outing in the woods. Our guide, Brian Garbutt, of Monkey River Town, also pointed out a fresh jaguar track, probably made the night before, he said, by a cat weighing about 150 pounds.
Birding was especially bountiful, once again thanks to the cruise's land-water mobility (a nod must also go to Belize's 500-plus species of birds). One fellow passenger, a serious birder of U.S. national standing, claimed seven new bird sightings, including a solitary eagle--two more than her set goal. A denizen of the temperate zone, I myself was thrilled merely to see such commonplace tropical birds as toucans and parrots.
Although the Temptress only briefly gets close to Belize's famed barrier reef (at Tobacco Caye), lots of impressive coral reefs and tropical fish were on display around the various small cayes we dropped in on by dinghy. These places were perfect for snorkelers--and just plain perfect, what with their swaying palms and white-sand beaches--and a couple of the islands were small enough to kayak around in less than half an hour. (The Temptress carries eight, lightweight plastic kayaks.)
While the ship is fully equipped for dives--and in fact one can get resort or full NAUI certification--dedicated divers are probably better off sticking to Belize's live-aboard dive boats. However, if you're traveling with a spouse or friend who doesn't dive or you want to mix other activities with diving, Temptress strikes the right balance.
One thing I especially liked about the cruise was that, whenever feasible, passengers were offered choices in excursions. So for example, at Southern Lagoon one group set out in a rubber dinghy for some manatee watching and then continued on to Gale's Point for a little sightseeing while another group took a forest walk and cave tour. In Punta Gorda, I went with a couple of friends to visit Florence Galvez, a retired school teacher, in a kind of meet-the-locals program, while another group visited Martin Enriquez's botanical farm, and yet a third group hiked through the countryside and up a hill for splendid view of the area.
In that same regard, I was glad on our last day we were spared a tour of Belize City, and instead offered a choice of tours to the Mayan ruins at Altun Ha or the Baboon (actually, howler monkey) Sanctuary.
Temptress' use of local guides, tour operators and cultural performers not only provides the expertise to insure that passengers get the most from any one locale, it also represents the cruise line's claimed commitment to making sure Belizeans benefit financially from the cruise line's involvement in their country.
Toward that end, Temptress also buys all its fuel and food in-country; and two-thirds of its 24-member crew are Belizean, with that percentage to grow as locals are trained in shipboard procedures, according to cruise director Juan Jose Apeste. Large Caribbean cruise ships, on the other hand, typically buy all their food and fuel at their home port, usually Miami, and hire foreign crew members. These financially unbeneficial practices to host countries, along with the hundreds of cruise passengers who invade relatively small ports during shore visits but spend little money, have made cruise ships controversial in the Caribbean and prompted the Belizean government to prohibit port calls by ships with more than 800 passengers.
To avoid environmental damage, the Temptress anchors well-away from coral reefs, up to one mile, under a government agreement, said Apeste. In addition, he said sewage is stored and treated aboard ship for later disposal by truck at Belize City, and garbage is collected for transport to a landfill.
Traditional cruise critics are mostly satisfied with Temptress' efforts to practice low-impact ecotourism and financial fertilization. William "Chet" Schmidt, a member of the Toledo Ecotourism Association and Temptress' local tour organizer in Punta Gorda, said about 50 locals worked as a result of the Voyager's visit to PG during my cruise, equal to the ship's complement of passengers. Bart Mickler, a board member of the Belize Ecotourism Association and owner of Maya Mountain Lodge in the Cayo District, said he considered Temptress "a very good asset" to Belize.
The ship itself is pleasant and comfortable, and though hardly luxurious by cruise standards almost always exceeded the accommodations available--if indeed any accommodations were available--at its ports of call. The all-outside cabins measure about 110 square feet each, including private baths, and are available with either double or twin beds. The public rooms include a forward, inside lounge, the bar and top deck, and a dining room that allows for single-seating meals.
The atmosphere aboard the Temptress is more like that on a dive boat than a typical cruise ship. For example, convention had it that passengers dress for meals, but that is, be dressed, minimally with a shirt or blouse, which more often than not meant a T-shirt; something to cover the body from waist to upper thigh; and foot apparel with at least a sole, although bare feet seemed negotiable. The only way you'd know you were at the captain's dinner, a formal affair on most cruises, was that we ate steak and lobster that night.
Meals typically consisted of a choice of grilled beef, chicken or fish and were served either sit-down or buffet style. Too often, unfortunately, the served food came doused with calorie-laden, bland, white sauces--an ill-fated attempt at gourmet cooking, I presume. Simple, healthy food well-prepared might win more plaudits. Same for the desserts, which were often mediocre. I would have appreciated fresh fruit for more than just for breakfast.
The food service staff was friendly and attentive though too often forgetful; maybe it's an under-staffing problem. Cabin service, however, was uniformly good.
Temptress' active-outdoors orientation and casual style tend to draw a somewhat younger, more adventurous crowd than the typical cruise. Passengers are often couples in their forties, fifties and sixties, though the company actively courts families with children May through October with a program of specially tailored activities, arrangements and prices. Regardless of age, passengers must be fit enough to negotiate the transfer from ship to rubber dinghy, which can often bounce in the water like a basketball in the custody of Michael Jordan.
Marshall Krantz is a travel writer living in Oakland, California. He has contributed to the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, airline inflight magazines, travel guidebooks, and the travel anthologies Travelers' Tales Spain and Travelers' Tales Mexico. The cost of Krantz's trip on the Temptress and his air fare to Belizewas defrayed by the cruise line.