The Route Less Taken Let Others Ply The Same Old Sea-lanes In The Caribbean. Ports Where Fewer Call Offer More Genuine Sights, If Less Glitz.

Posted: October 06, 1996

COZUMEL, Mexico — ``Call me Ismael.''

In truth, the muscular young man who was leading us to his small outboard motorboat didn't actually say that - he simply said, ``I'm Ismael'' - but I wish he had. It probably would have made a great beginning for a story about the sea.

But we weren't going out in search of anything quite so formidable as Herman Melville's leviathan, Moby Dick. Just a few of those electric-purple fish swimming past our snorkeling masks as we paddled over this island's inshore reefs would do very nicely, thank you very much.

Our abbreviated saga of the sea had begun just a week earlier, when Princess Cruises' Sky Princess sailed from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Cozumel was the last port of call on our 10-day itinerary, and it was the only ``typical'' stop on this Caribbean cruise. (If you don't count our second day out, spent at the cruise line's beach-party resort, Princess Cays, on the southern tip of Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas.)

That's exactly why we had selected this cruise. There would be four full days at sea to provide plenty of pool-potato time.

And when we dropped the hook or tied up at a pier, it would not be beside half a dozen other megaships disgorging their mobs of passengers into the quayside shops of St. Thomas or Martinique or San Juan.

No, our itinerary had a slightly more exotic ring to it - Cartagena, Colombia; the Panama Canal; Limon, Costa Rica. Only at Cozumel would we rub shoulders with travelers whose ships were following the more traditional Caribbean routes (indeed, there were five other cruise ships calling at the island on the mid-November day we arrived).

Certainly other cruise ships visit these South and Central American places, but not in the droves found elsewhere in the Caribbean.

The combination of leisurely days at sea with stops in places where the tourist dollar was not the be-all and end-all of the local economy was irresistibly attractive - at least to us.

To some of our fellow passengers, however, the port cities of Third World nations proved less than appealing. They complained about the dirty streets, about the difficulty in getting around, and, in short, about the basic lack of glitz, glitter or, at the minimum, contrived quaintness in more traditional Caribbean ports of call.

Maybe it was the fact that no charming local took them by the hand and, in a beguiling sing-song patois, led them through the straw market. Maybe it was the conviction that reality - so readily found on the streets of a city in a developing nation - should never impinge upon the cruise experience. Maybe, in the end, they should have booked a different cruise.

For the rest of us, the chance to dip, however briefly, into another culture and glimpse a bit of its past and present made for a memorable voyage.

Naturally, a cruise is more than its destinations. Much of what makes it pleasurable is the time spent aboard ship. Ours, the Sky Princess, is not one of the mega-cruisers replete with seven-story atriums. With 1,350 passengers and a crew of 540, it fits into what is rapidly becoming the mid-size category of cruise ships.

Owned and operated by Princess Cruises - references to The Love Boat may be found everywhere - it is staffed largely by British officers and other professionals. (We got a chuckle out of the assistant cruise director who conducted Texas line-dancing classes in her veddy British accent.)

In its wisdom, however, the cruise line looked beyond the British Isles for its kitchen and restaurant staff - to Italy. The result is what I consider well-above-average cuisine, highlighted at lunch and dinner daily by special pasta dishes prepared tableside by the dining-room captains.

Of course the ship also featured a full complement of bars and lounges (five), pools (two), a casino, several shops, an exercise spa with hot tub, a showroom and theater, and a choice of alfresco buffet dining on deck at breakfast and lunch.

Including the customary midnight buffet, featuring ice sculptures and amazingly intricate fruit and vegetable carvings, there were 10 opportunities daily to dine and snack - not to mention the freebie pizzeria (pay for beverages only) open all afternoon and evening.

FIRST STOP: A BEACH PARTY

If we had any substantive complaint about the cruise, it was the stop at Princess Cays on the first full day out of Fort Lauderdale. Such beach-party stops have become de rigueur for Caribbean cruises, and they can be a lot of fun. The problem with doing it in the first 24 hours of a cruise is that many of the passengers who will later become fast friends are still strangers. Thus, the potential for revelry is seriously diminished.

Still, we enjoyed renting snorkeling equipment ($18) and paddling about in the warm waters among mini-schools of colorful fish. And there were sail and paddle boats to rent, along with Wave Runners ($35, 25 minutes), swimming, volleyball, the luncheon barbecue, and two bars, one with a Bahamian band.

As we listened to the slightly reggae, slightly hip-hop music, we talked with John and Dorothy Carpenter, Marylanders who had recently retired to Coconut Creek, Fla., and loyal Princess cruisers.

``We've been on several Princess cruises,'' Dorothy said, adding that it was their fourth visit to Princess Cays. In less than a month, John said, the couple were scheduled to cruise Alaskan waters aboard the line's newest mega-ship, the Sun Princess.

By mid-afternoon, the last tender had brought the last partyers aboard, and we weighed anchor and headed south for two lazy days at sea. En route, we would cover nearly 1,000 nautical miles and pass almost within hailing distance of the eastern tip of Cuba and the westernmost point of Haiti.

This is the luxury of a 10-day cruise: several days at sea with absolutely nothing to do but get in some meaningful deck time, do a little swimming in the pools, maybe yank the arm of a slot machine in the casino, and get to know some of your fellow cruisers.

On one such lazy day, Elizabeth and I were drawn to a clutch of passengers gathered around a few chairs on the shady side of the ship. At their feet lay small but growing piles of wood shavings as several members of the Pennsylvania/Delaware Valley Wood Carvers practiced their craft.

``We do a cruise every year,'' said Jack Marshall, the group's leader and a retired Acme Markets meat department manager from Feasterville. There were 51 carvers and their families aboard, Marshall said.

Marty Briner, a carver from West Chester, was carefully crafting a tiny sea bird. With the sea shining behind him as he worked, he seemed reminiscent of the sailors aboard the old whalers, carving scrimshaw on whalebone during endless days at sea between whale sightings.

We took advantage of our second day at sea to tour the bridge (advance sign-up at the purser's desk required), where Third Officer Phillip Dulson explained the intricacies of the ship's operating and navigational systems.

Among other things, we learned that the ship desalinizes 600 tons of seawater daily, only some of which is for passenger use; the rest is consumed by the 32,200-horsepower steam turbine engines that propel the Sky Princess.

EXPLORING OLD CARTAGENA

We arrived at the pier in Cartagena at 7:45 a.m. on our fourth day out - exactly on schedule, according to the ship's newspaper, which, along with a weather forecast and a summary of world news, was slipped under cabin doors early each morning.

I stood on deck watching as 49 minibuses and larger vehicles pulled into line on the pier with D-Day precision, primed for the hundreds of passengers who had signed up for the ship-sponsored shore excursions.

There is plenty to see in Cartagena, a city of 700,000 and Colombia's second-busiest port. Despite concessions to modern manufacturing and shipping, much of the old city remains as it has been for hundreds of years, dating to the time when it was one of Spain's most important - and most heavily fortified - ports for the transfer of New World wealth back to the Old World.

As we would throughout the cruise, Elizabeth and I eschewed the package tours and set off to see the city on our own. Well, almost on our own. En route to the taxi stand, we met Ed and Gwenn Wyckoff, retirees from Lancaster who were also interested in some independent touring.

After a bit of haggling we negotiated a price ($5 apiece for 2 1/2 hours) with one of the dozen or so gypsy-cab drivers who wait for cruise ship passengers just outside the pier entrance. The Wyckoffs were interested in shopping, and we wanted to see something of old Cartagena, within the remnants of its 17th-century walls, as well as the new city, much of which lies on Bocagrande, a peninsula that separates Cartagena Bay from the Caribbean.

Our first stop, it was decided, would be at the Pierino Gallo Shopping Center on Bocagrande, a mini-mini-mall that was heavily promoted during the port lecture aboard ship and a major stop on several of the shore excursions. While the Wyckoffs investigated the center's jewelry stores (Colombia produces 70 percent of the world's emeralds), we checked out the lovely gardens of the Hotel Caribe, almost next door.

Shut off from the bustle of the new city by lush plantings, the gardens are home to a wide range of macaws and other colorful tropical birds - unfortunately, all caged. Not in cages, however, were several tiny deer, about the size of large dogs, that roamed through the undergrowth, occasionally peeking out at the strangers.

These two strangers, mixing a little larceny with a love of wildlife, managed to cadge a few slices of bread from the breakfast buffet on the hotel's pool terrace nearby and provide a snack for one of the dainty deer. The garden proved to be an oasis of coolness and calm in a city whose mid-morning temperature had already climbed into the 90s, with humidity to match.

PICTURES WITH A SLOTH

After strolling along the beach across from the hotel, where families were establishing cabana sites and melon vendors were at work slicing their wares, we rendezvoused with the Wyckoffs and our driver and set out for Las Bovedas, a string of shops ensconced in a portion of the old city wall. Another shopping stop on the ship-sponsored excursions, it is a bazaar to rival anything in the Middle East for the unremitting aggressiveness of its street vendors and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of shoppers.

After poking about and picking up a few trinkets, it was back in the cab for a quick look at the old city's newest hotel, the Santa Clara, an island of serenity in an exquisitely restored convent, with rooms starting at about $260 a night for two.

We took a pass on the imposing Fort San Felipe. Considered one of the most impressive examples of Spanish military engineering in the New World, the 16th-century fort took 121 years to complete. After hiking up the hill to the entrance in the oppressive heat, Elizabeth and I decided it would take another 121 years to reach the fortress gate. We rejoined our companions and driver for the trip to El Convento de la Popa, the hilltop monastery that, along with the fort, dominates the Cartagena skyline.

In the monastery parking lot, a vendor thrust a long-armed, long-legged, very hairy creature into Elizabeth's arms. It was a three-toed sloth - complete with frightened baby sloth clinging to her breast - and we were instructed to take pictures. When we did, the vendor demanded $4 for the privilege and was less than thrilled when Elizabeth handed him $1.

Inside the monastery, cool breezes flowed through a lovely courtyard, and beyond the walls, the city of Cartagena spread below to the waterfront. We were thankful we didn't have to hike up this hill for the view.

We returned to the ship just in time for the 3 p.m. castoff, satisfied that we had made the most of the few hours we were given in this interesting city on the north coast of South America.

The Sky Princess covered about 275 nautical miles overnight, and the following morning found us standing off the entrance to Gatun Locks, the set of three locks that would lift the ship 85 feet from the Caribbean up into Gatun Lake, the northern end of the Panama Canal. (Although we often think of the canal leading from the Caribbean to the Pacific in an east-west direction, it actually runs north-south.)

Our canal pilot was already aboard, and as he directed the ship into the first lock, the public address announcer informed us that it would take 26 million gallons of water to lift our ship the 28 1/2 feet to the next lock. Passengers crowded the rails to watch the diesel-powered ``donkeys'' stretching the ship's lines as they chuffed along railways on both sides of the ship, pulling the Sky Princess into the lock.

The process was repeated twice more until, after a little over two hours, the ship proceeded into Gatun Lake. Here, our sense of wonder at the magnificent feat of engineering that the canal represents was tempered by our disappointment that we would not see more of it.

Many passengers, us included, had hoped that we would cruise the lake, or at least go as far south as the entrance to the locks leading to the Pacific. Instead, the ship simply took up a position about a half-mile from the locks and sat for a couple of hours, after which we reversed the process and descended back into the Caribbean. All in all, it was fascinating; but the memory will always carry the negative feeling of our being somewhat shortchanged.

THE ATTRACTIONS OF LIMON

By 7 the next morning, our ship was docked at Limon, Costa Rica, a city of 60,000 that is a major shipping point for the Central American nation. Not long after disembarking, we found that the previous afternoon's port lecturer had been wrong on two counts: We were told the town itself had little to interest visitors; and that, if we wanted to go to a beach, we should go to Portete, since the closer Playa Bonita, a few miles up the coast, had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1991.

While it may be true that this run-down port city holds little attraction for many cruise passengers, we found it delightful. No glitz, no pushy vendors with crummy souvenirs; just an unpretentious blue-collar town going about its daily business. Sure, the sidewalks - where there were sidewalks - were cracked and cratered, necessitating a watchful eye on where we stepped. And, sure, there was no impressive fort or any other awe-inspiring architecture.

But there was a certain appeal in the fading Coca-Cola signs, the shop windows full of plastic basins, screwdrivers and other everyday items and, particularly, in the friendliness of the Ticos, as the Costa Ricans call themselves.

Costa Rica has strong political and economic ties to the United States (it is a favorite haven of American retirees); witness the produce on street vendors' carts: grapes from California, apples from Washington state.

After little more than an hour in town, it was clear that its residents take seriously the words inscribed in Spanish on the four sides of an obelisk in Vargas Park, which adjoins the port area: Work, honesty, sensitivity, humility.

The park is home to towering palms and deciduous trees populated by a resident band of sloths, as well as a mural stretching more than 60 feet along a park wall, depicting the history of Costa Rica and its people.

Our wanderings through town took Elizabeth and me to an outdoor table at the Maclean Cafe. There, owner Hartley Maclean, a transplanted Nova Scotian, set us straight on the beach situation: It was the beach at Portete that was destroyed by the earthquake; Playa Bonita was the place to go for a swim.

Maclean pointed us toward a local bus that would take us to the beach and, after a short ride and a quick change at the beachside Joy Restaurant, we were once again waist-deep in the warm waters of the Caribbean. We spent a wonderfully lazy morning and afternoon swimming, exploring the coastline, lunching on fresh shrimp at the restaurant and swimming some more.

All the while we congratulated ourselves for opting out of the ship's excursions to a banana packing plant, a flower farm, or on a bus ride up the coast - the cheapest of which cost $27 per person. Our entire day - cafe, bus, cab, lunch - came to about $25, total.

That night, the highlight on board was a tour of the ship's extensive kitchen complex that culminated at the tables of the midnight buffet, this time served in the main dining rooms. It had to impress gourmet and gourmand alike.

After another full day at sea, during which we covered nearly 1,000 nautical miles, our eighth day of the cruise brought us to the island of Cozumel, off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Unlike the other ports on this trip, Cozumel and its main town of San Miguel exist almost solely to serve cruise passengers and other tourists.

And if Cozumel was atypical of the ports of call on our cruise itinerary, so was the weather. After a week of sun and blue skies, we were greeted by storm clouds, intermittent showers and rough seas when the Sky Princess dropped anchor off San Miguel. Tenders ferrying passengers to shore encountered such difficulties that many passengers never made it onto the island. Again avoiding the cruise-affiliated land tours, Elizabeth and I strolled past the long lines of passengers being marshaled by harried tour operators into buses and cabs; we headed straight for the Museo de la Isla de Cozumel. It's not that, after seven days on a cruise ship, we were starving for culture; it's just that the tiny museum is home to a marvelous little restaurant on its second-floor patio.

The museum sits among the dozens of shops - selling the onyx chess sets, pottery and jewelry that are magnets for shopping-addicted cruise-ship refugees - lining Rafael E. Melgar Avenue, San Miguel's main drag. The patio overlooks the rocky beach across the street and the sea beyond, a perfect backdrop for enjoying bowls of the restaurant's spicy ``Aztec soup'' (which I had discovered on an earlier visit), washed down with icy bottles of Dos Equis.

SNORKELING WITH ISMAEL

After a cursory look at the shops along Melgar Avenue, we tired of dodging the hordes from the cruise ships, jumped into a cab, and headed for Playa San Francisco, a beach resort about 12 miles south of town. There we changed into swimsuits, rented snorkeling gear and met Ismael, who ferried us out to the reef in his motorboat.

An expert swimmer who free-dived to the reef 30 feet below with the facility of a two-legged Flipper, Ismael also proved knowledgeable about the aquatic life we were observing.

After a post-snorkeling snack and libation at the beachside restaurant, we caught a cab back to town and a tender back to the ship. Over the next day and a half at sea, we would cover another 600 nautical miles, bringing us back to Fort Lauderdale and bringing our total cruising distance to more than 3,200 nautical miles.

Probably just a good stretch of the sails for Melville's whalers.

IF YOU GO Choices. Several cruise lines offer itineraries to lesser-visited Caribbean ports and a Panama Canal experience. Some lines, including Princess, Crystal and Royal Caribbean, offer canal-transit cruises.

Costs. Published rates for canal-visit and canal-transit cruises begin at about $2,000 but there are bargains galore, with cabin upgrades.

Information. Call the cruise lines listed on Page 15 of this section. More than 95 percent of cruise bookings are made through travel agents. Call yours for information and reservations.

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