Think of a classic Caribbean cruise, and images of white sandy beaches, rum shacks and jungle-clad volcanoes spring to mind. Now turn that on its head and replace it with pastel-hued deco hotels, six-toed cats and jaw-dropping Mayan pyramids and temples.
Viking’s popular 14-night ‘Panama Canal & Central America’ cruise offers the chance to sail aboard Viking Sky to some amazing Caribbean and Central America destinations, including Belize, the Panama Canal and Mexico, on a port-heavy round trip from Miami.
It’s the perfect itinerary if you’re looking for a short cruise that offers history, culture and lots of sun in this fascinating part of the world. And as a first-time Viking ocean cruiser, I was intrigued to find out why so many cruisers can’t get enough of the line’s six identical ships.
Over the course of five days on Viking Sky, I discovered a winning blend of chic Nordic style and a wide variety of onboard activities. Viking’s complimentary shore excursions are just as impressive, and this unusual Central America cruise itinerary is perfect for cruisers who have yet to experience this fascinating part of the world.
Maybe it has something to do with watching too much Miami Vice as a teenager, but as I fly into Florida’s most glamorous city, I think how lucky I am to be visiting one of the world’s most alluring destinations.
A glorious mix of American art deco hotels and the modern beat of Cuban-inspired bars and restaurants, Miami is a heady, infectious fusion that you’ll be keen to explore.
Luckily, this is a walking city, and it’s a joy to spend a couple of hours wandering the wide streets around the famous Ocean Drive and South Beach.
Here you’ll find the best examples of Miami’s art deco architecture as well as plenty of great cafes and bars serving sizzling fish tacos and fiery ‘Miami mule’ cocktails. And don’t miss the chance to dip your toes in the white sands of South Beach while marvelling at the super-fit Floridians as they dive into the crashing waves.
Half a day in Miami gave me a taster of this incredible city but I couldn’t wait to step aboard the ship, and there the delights just kept on coming.
From my roomy stateroom with its deluxe veranda to the seriously impressive Explorers Lounge on deck seven, Viking Sky feels like a fabulous floating five-star hotel. No wonder my (mainly American) fellow guests couldn’t wait to tell me they’d never sail on any other line.
With only 930 passengers on this roomy ship, it’s easy to find a quiet spot by the pool or in the library to relax, making sea days a total pleasure. And if, like me, you’re a bit of a foodie, you’ll love the quality on offer, from the impressive buffet through to the six outstanding onboard restaurants.
These include Mamsen’s, where they serve Norwegian specialities, and The Chef’s Table, for wine-pairing and fine dining. But I was keenest to try Italian eaterie Manfredi’s, where the steaks are legendary.
How good can a steak be, I wondered. Well, these are big, juicy and incredibly succulent, having marinated with ten ingredients for 48 hours. I have never tasted steak like it – so beg, borrow or steal a reservation here.
But it’s not only the great restaurants that keep guests entertained. On one memorable evening, I enjoyed the ship’s signature Nordic Experience in the spacious spa, dashing between the steamy sauna and freezing ‘snow room’, screaming as the temperature plummeted or soared. Did I enjoy it? I loved it – especially the end of the session when I was cocooned in a warm bathrobe to enjoy a head massage.
Great excursions make a cruise, and as a massive Ernest Hemingway fan, I couldn’t wait to visit his sunny Key West home. Hemingway resided here from 1931 with his family and their cat, Snow White.
Today her descendants, some 40 or 50 friendly felines – all with six toes – still live in the grounds, enjoying the attention of the many daily visitors.
The house is a delightful testament to one of America’s most celebrated writers, and it’s almost as though the great man himself has just popped out for a rum cocktail on a sultry Caribbean night before heading home to finish a chapter.
Viking’s included excursion at Key West is a hop-on/hop-off tour by roadgoing ‘conch train’ around the major sites, including the ‘90 miles to Cuba’ monument, marking the southernmost point of the USA, and former president Harry S Truman’s Little White House.
The shopping opportunities here are pretty good, too, with some great outlets, including Coach and Banana Republic. But I loved just wandering the streets of the old town, where you can admire the island’s classic homes with their shady porches, metal roofs and lush green gardens.
Key West was fun, but the absolute highlight of my cruise came a little later when we visited Belize, on the other side of the Mexican Gulf.
The two-hour bus journey from lively Belize City to the Mayan temple complex of Xunantunich was mesmerising. Through the window I spotted brilliantly painted houses, swaying palm trees, goats and horses, and smartly dressed schoolchildren heading off to their lessons.
Because the hurricane threat is so high here, many of the houses are built on stilts to protect them from flooding. Blink, and you could be in Brisbane.
On arrival we were greeted by a crowd of friendly locals, and there were shops selling funky bags, wooden masks and colourful bracelets.
To reach the temples, you have to take a trip across a small river on a floating bridge, but this 1,200-year-old site is well worth the journey.
The mysterious Mayans lived in Belize for more than 5,000 years and you’ll find many remarkable ruins scattered around. This is one of the largest and most famous, but there were only a handful of other tourists when we visited, making our day feel truly special.
We finished our trip with a traditional Belizean lunch of beans and rice, cooked in coconut milk and served with fried chicken and a dash of the local hot sauce. Belize may be a poor country but what it lacks in wealth it makes up for with its rich Mayan heritage, stunning Caribbean beaches and super-friendly people. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
A cruise with a difference
Sadly, I had to leave Viking Sky at Belize and head home, but I knew that the lucky passengers heading onwards to amazing destinations including the Panama Canal and Costa Rica were going to enjoy the trip of a lifetime.
This is an unusual itinerary that takes in some of the less-visited destinations in the Caribbean and Central America, and it would make a great trip for anyone looking for a cruise to some truly memorable places.
Get on Board
14-night ‘Panama Canal & Central America’ cruise aboard Viking Sky, round trip from Miami via Key West, Belize and Panama Canal, departing 6 December 2020, from £4,290, vikingcruises.co.uk