Monday, 27 March 2017

Cruise aboard Ponant le Soleal: Amazon. Up a raging river

#expeditioncruising

The romantic visions of the Amazon with their near-naked indigenous tribes living a subsistence lifestyle beneath the jungle canopy, hunting monkeys and deer with poison-tipped blow darts is just that. Unless you are prepared to trek and live for weeks like some Bear Grylls, it's best to dispel this myth now.

Since leaving Belem a few days back, Captain Debien and his team have expertly navigated the 142m Le Soleal more than 500nM through the jungle-lined waterways as far inland as Santarem, stopping at least twice a day to launch our Zodiacs on excursions into the dense undergrowth lining this powerful river, the largest by volume on Earth.

Birders, in particular, are rejoicing in the diversity of species sighted on every outing. Waders, raptors and waterbirds of every sort are ticked off. We even sight the bizarre hoazin, a bird so ancient it has more in common with dinosaurs than any of the rest of its feathered genera. Sublime pink dolphins and fearsome caiman pop up regularly to check on our progress while howler monkeys, sloths, iguanas and bats survey us from above.

This entire region is populated by people with ethnicities that include predominately Portuguese and indigenous indian, but there are plenty of French, Dutch and Spanish genes in this deep pool as well. The port towns of Santarem, Mojuizim and Guarja support thriving populations with their multitude of satellite stilt villages connected, not by road, but by busy little ferry 'buses' zig-zagging across the torrent to transport workers, students and entire families back and forth.

It's widely known that the Amazon basin, from here to Peru, Ecuador and beyond, has been brutally exploited for mankind's short term needs such as timber, minerals, soy beans and cattle ranching. While wholesale ravaging of Brazils' jungles has eased, it wasn't long ago that it was vanishing at the rate of a soccer field every eight seconds, leaving an area the size of Turkey (750,000 sqkm) stripped of important biodiversity.

All the regions we visit are long since denuded of their primary rainforest and valuable timbers. While these vast tracts are now listed as 'protected', that protection only extends to those few hardy forest species that have regenerated after initial clearing. Imagine a Renoir or Monet painting in black and white.

While it is encouraging to see such luxuriant growth and a great many native plants and animals living untroubled in the new foliage, many critical species will never return, exiled to those declining areas of technicolour primary rainforest hidden deep in the bosom of Brazil's Amazon basin.

While this may sound a depressing tale, it nevertheless underlines the urgency for those with the inquisitive passion to see for themselves the state of our Earth, for better or worse, and gather those observations and memories for future generations.

Yes, I know I sound like a broken record, but if it weren't for adventure cruise and travel companies like Ponant prepared to invest and seek out these special locations, the enrichment contained in such exceptional ecosystems, environments and civilisations may well never be seen by the likes of you and me.

For further information about Ponant's vast range of expeditions and destinations, see www.ponant.com

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Cruise the Amalfi Coast with Peter Sommer Travels


#expeditioncruising

Australian travellers can explore Italy's spectacular Amalfi Coast by yacht this spring, with archaeological tour specialist Peter Sommer Travels offering two new sailings in September.

Escorted by archaeologist Dr Sophy Downes and art historian Francesca del Vecchio, the eight-day Cruising the Amalfi Coast tour offers a unique perspective on one of the world's most famous coastlines, with holidaymakers enjoying the comforts of a traditional Turkish gulet boat which has been stylishly refitted in Italy.

The tour visits some of the best known destinations in the area including the isle of Capri, the ruins of Pompeii and breathtaking Amalfi, as well as lesser known sites such as the ancient underwater city at Baia and the outstanding Roman frescoes of the Villa Oplontis.

Penguin-spotting in Antarctica

#expeditioncruising

Time to go penguin-spotting: Antarctica home to millions more penguins than thought

Antarctica is home to almost double as many penguins as previously thought, according to research data revealed by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) last week, showing the population of Adélie penguins is nearly six million. This is 3.6 million more than previous estimates.

According to the AAD, the reason for the undercount was that previous population surveys had only taken into account breeding pairs but not non-breeding birds. This time, however, researchers counted both groups.

"Penguins are undoubtedly one of the most-loved species of wildlife in the world and a highlight of any Antarctica trip" said Chad Carey, co-founder of Australia's Antarctica specialist Chimu Adventures.

"At least one in three questions we get from clients booking a trip to Antarctica, involves penguins – where to see them, what species there are, how to interact with them, to name only a few. This shows us what a massive drawcard they are for Antarctica travel."

On top of Adélie penguins, there is a plethora of species to be found– from King Penguins to Macaroni Penguins, Rockhopper Penguins and Emperor Penguins, Antarctica has so much to offer for the wildlife lover.

Chimu Adventures has revealed a list of their top five hot spots for penguin-spotting in Antarctica and the Subantarctic:

1) South Georgia

This rugged and rarely visited Sub-Antarctic island lays about 800 miles east of the Falklands and is virtually unspoilt by man. Commonly referred to as the "Galapagos of the South", South Georgia is home to four breeding species of penguin and the largest colony of King Penguins (the second largest penguin) on the planet, as well as sheltering the Macaroni Penguin, a species that is not often seen on the Peninsula.

2) Ross Sea

Found off south western Antarctica, the Ross Sea is both the richest and most vulnerable ecosystem on Earth. Adélie is the most abundant species of penguin in the Ross Sea. Although smallest in size, the Adelie penguin is full of energy having been recorded swimming as far as 300km to forage for food for their chicks.

3) Macquarie Island

Located in the southwest corner of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, Macquarie Island has been designated a World Heritage Site and is described by the United Nations Environment Programme as "the most diverse and extensive of all Sub-Antarctic archipelagos". Macquarie Island is home to the largest colony of Royal Penguins.

4) Snow Hill Island

An almost completely snow-capped island located off the east coast off the Antarctic Peninsula, Snow Hill Island is home to an Emperor Penguin Rookery – the tallest penguin on earth. Visiting the rookery in what is one of the world's most remote areas, is a memorable once-in-a-lifetime experience for many.

5) Falkland Islands

The Falkland Islands are a remote South Atlantic archipelago located east from South America's southern Patagonian coast. There are five penguin species breeding on the islands: King Penguins, Rockhopper penguins, Magellanic penguins, Gentoo penguins, and Macaroni penguins.

For more information on how to see Antarctica's penguins click here.

Friday, 24 March 2017

From aboard Ponant le Soleal: Belem, Arrival Amazonia


#expeditioncruising


If it weren't for the brown turbid waters and the little powered canoes, you'd like the city of Belem was a mini Miami or Surfers Paradise with all the slender high-rises piercing the low clouds.

This busy port was the site of the first European settlement in the Amazon dating way back to 1616 and is actually situated on the Guama River, one of the many arteries that comprise the massive Amazon Delta. Some 300 kilometres wide, this network dumps water into the Atlantic at the astonishing rate of one litre for every person on Earth every second – or so my guide Cicero tells me.

Cicero (fabulous name, I say) at 64, is a true man of the jungle and makes our visit to Belem a truly enriching experience. He spent 10 years living on a patch of primary forest way downstream and only came back to civilisation to put his kids through school.

"The government gave many people land when the highway was built about 40 years ago," he tells us, "but that's all you got. 'Here's your land' they said, pointing to the forest. 'bye bye'. So for many years, it was very hard work."

Our day starts with Cicero walking us through the local market on the riverside, a stone's throw from where Le Soleal is moored at the old rubber industry wharf, now long disused and slowly being converted to restaurants and shops.

All manner of peculiar fruit and vegetables unfamiliar to Western eyes are arrayed for our inspection. Names like cupuacu, bacuri, tapereba and acerola are piled in vivid stacks on the wobbly trestles. Like dense little apples, the acai fruit is the only one I recognise.

"This fruit has made the fortune of the river people," Cicero says, "and we export this all over the world for its miraculous medicinal properties. Once we had rubber, now it's acai!"

Cicero's eyes light up when I ask to try some of these colourful elixirs and I hand him a few rials (about $5) and ask him to buy some of the juices for us. The plastic cups are handed around and produce an amusing range of expressions as the unfamiliar liquids assails our taste buds. Our regenerating livers, revitalised synapses and vanishing kidney stones rejoice in unison.

Deeper inside the historic shed we meet Batu, a feisty woman of 70-something who presents us with a baffling range of jungle remedies and potions. A small photo gallery shows her many celebrity clientele.

"She's a shaman, you know," Cicero whispers with a glint in his eye.

I notice many intriguing little vials dangling in clusters from her stall when one catches my eye.

"What does this do?" I ask innocently.

"It makes you irresistible!" Cicero confirms, "and this, well you put it on your ..." His forefinger dabbing vigorously on his upturned thumb. Batu reinforces its unique property with a most unambiguous gesture. Okay.

The fish market reveals an even more astonishing variety of produce with several species looking like prototypes for the next Ridley Scott movie.

After lunch, we motor upriver a short distance with Cicero and visit a plot of secondary forest where we meet big furry spiders, industrious ants and a few remaining kapok trees, once the lords of this jungle. Our local hosts offer us a powerful spirit made from sugar cane and some mysterious leaves. I try a thimbleful and my tongue immediately electrifies. Imagine a sherbet bomb that transforms into a kaleidoscope of flavours, each detonating at predetermined intervals and lasting several minutes. I turn to ask Cicero what the heck I'd just sipped and he's laughing uproariously. My reaction is a pleasure he clearly enjoys.

On the return journey, past the many little stilt houses and moored ferries, we discuss the radical changes in the jungle he has witnessed over a lifetime and not all tell a cheery tale.

"Our president (Lula) introduced palm oil a few years ago," he says through a furrowed brow, "and now we have these [expletive] green deserts that have each destroyed hundreds of jobs for the people."

Today is one occasion that proves expedition cruising is much more than just sightseeing in exotic locations. It's a chance to meet and interact with local communities and their people and hear their stories. Listen and you soon start to understand their triumphs and challenges and how the ripples of change spread all around the world, affecting others at the farthest reaches of the planet. Something to ponder as you push your trolley down the supermarket aisle.

For further information about Ponant cruises: www.ponant.com

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

From aboard Ponant Le Soleal: Who cruises Ponant and why?


#expeditioncruising

It's always an interesting survey to chat to fellow passengers aboard any of the world's diverse fleet of expedition and boutique ships and Ponant follows a similar pattern to that genre of softer adventure vessels offering higher levels of onboard amenities and comforts mixed with enthralling destinations. 

This second leg of my South American voyage sees Le Soleal sailing to its 264-passenger capacity. The make-up is cosmopolitan but predictably skewed toward French nationals and our Anglophone contingent of about 10 per cent comprises over-50s Australians, Brits, Germans, Americans and a couple from Hong Kong. It would be fair to call them either "well to do" or financially comfortable. No one is telling me they've scrimped and saved to be aboard. They understand you get what you pay for and, believe me, they expect it too.

Despite our small number, all announcements and printed material is in both French and English. Hotel staff, lecturers and crew are either fluent in English or sufficiently bilingual to converse without hesitation.

In contrast to many of the 'purist' expedition ships, our passengers have considerably more experience on conventional 'white ships'. They enjoy the comfortable offerings like semi-formal and flexible dining, superior cabin fittings and décor as well as ample public spaces like swank bars and lounges. It's the smaller ship, fewer numbers and more intimate atmosphere that is a consistent comment among our group when citing Ponant as part of their brag-bag.

"It's friendly and generally a good mix of passengers," says Liz from Sydney, a former Orion passenger on her third voyage with Ponant, now shunning the larger ships, "The variety of destinations and excellent excursions top it off."

Nicholas, an ex-pat Brit from Hong Kong, loves to "stack 'em up" and frequently sails back-to-back voyages. He and his wife have an astonishing seven Ponant cruises lined up for this year alone.

"We love to sail Ponant and when I apply all my loyalty discounts and early booking bonuses, I can get quite a saving," he says, "and the excursions cater for all levels of activity and ability, so there's always something for you even if you're not feeling particularly energetic."

Margaret and Neil from Perth have eight Ponant cruises under their belt and Neil has developed a special relationship with Eric the sommelier. Many a cheeky wink is exchanged before a special bottle of Bordeaux is brought to the table. Although Margaret cites the itineraries, ship and excursions as her priority criteria, clearly Neil has an affinity with the French grape and Eric's comprehensive cellar.

Now just to dispel that hackneyed cliché about travelling with Americans, Sue and Dennis are third-timers from Arizona and have seamlessly grafted themselves onto our Antipodean clique. Dennis is a big fan of the all-inclusive policy, not because he's a conspicuous consumer, but rather the peace of mind knowing there are no surprises come check out time. Sharp and inquisitive, Sue thrives on the enrichment given during expedition outings and lectures given by Ponant's expert team.

As this is my third time aboard Ponant, it's now easy to see the attraction for those of a certain ilk. Dress code is chic but not ostentatious with an emphasis on comfort and practicality. Without too much exception, guests are worldly and successful in their own right with a wealth of lifetime experiences generously shared with like minds at mealtimes and without a sense of intimidation.

Why not try your own Ponant experience? Talk to your preferred travel agent because there isn't too much of the world without Ponant ship exploring there at some time.

See: www.ponant.com

Image: Bon appetit! (Clockwise from bottom left) Margaret and Neil from Perth, Sue and Dennis from Arizona, myself, Noel and Elizabeth from Sydney.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

From On board Ponant le Soleal: Say Hello to Sao Luis

#expeditioncruising

Unlike most of Brazil, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Sao Luis has French origins and was founded in 1612 by a royal consortium under the name Saint Louis de Maragnan.

Today most of the heritage buildings are occupied by shops or artisans but a great many remain unoccupied and in varying states of (dis)repair. The usual churches, civic buildings and hotels make up the balance.

Dark clouds and rain welcomed us, but broke just long enough for us to stroll through the cobbled streets and admire the mostly 19th century houses lining the narrow lanes and alleyways.

It was pleasing to see the city welcoming us with some performances of traditonal music and dance in the square and a particularly exhilarating carnivale-style demonstration in one of the empty spaces. It would have been extra special to see it outside in the square where it was planned, but the clouds threatened to send the mascara running.

The dance is called Bumba Boi and tells a folk tale about a villager's pregnant wife who craved bull's tongue and incurred the wrath of the farmer who owned the beast of her desires. Seemed a flamboyant and boisterous way to celebrate such an event, but to our advantage.


Monday, 20 March 2017

From aboard Ponant Le Soleal: Oh for Olinda

#expeditioncruising

Gilbert is probably the most enthusiastic guide I have ever had. If 'enthusiasm' can be measured in an ability to talk without drawing breath, then he is the winner, hands down.

Every seemingly minor detail is punctuated with an urgent "look over there!", "see what I mean!" or "you can take a photo of that!" in his charming staccato style.

We are on a shore excursion from Le Soleal on our changeover day in the city of Recife in the north-east of Brazil. Recife shares a similar history with so many coastal cities of Brazil. With an official foundation in the early 16th century it soon developed into an important Portuguese trading port that attracted envious attention from the Dutch, who made themselves unwelcome for a period in the mid-17th century before being asked to leave in a forthright manner by the locals.

We don't hang around the city centre, rather we join Gilbert's tiny Anglophone group with his voluminous narrative of the outlying cultural centre of Olinda. Listed by UNESCO in 1982, the little cobblestoned streets and squares are interrupted by churches and civic buildings painted in a variety of pastel hues without the influence of incongruous modern structures. That is, except the old water tower on the hill above the church of Sao Salvador. An elevator has been installed to the rooftop, and for a paltry R8- (about $4) you can ride it to the top to enjoy a panoramic view.

We gather in the square below where a few trinket stalls encourage us to fritter our dollars on carved and sewn items whose little charm is smothered by their homogeneity.

"Please enjoy your coconut and take a seat and rest or buy a souvenir!" Gilbert urges as we mingle awkwardly among the imploring vendors while slurping our gigantic fruit. My request to investigate the tower is dismissed with "we don't have time, please stay together". Five minutes later, our awkwardness undiminished and the empty coconuts piled high, I make my intentions clear and stroll purposefully to the little turnstile at the base. It is indeed a great view above the power lines and air conditioners that obstructed my outlook from the plaza.

We cautiously walk the short distance over the uneven cobblestones, gazing into the dainty little houses along the narrow sidewalks, to another church with the same gilded Madonna and where more copious descriptions ensue. My capacity to absorb any further detail of the Catholicisation of Brazil is long exhausted and I retreat to the small plaza to observe scraggy pigeons peck at the sand between the weathered stones.

Now don't get me wrong, Olinda is every bit the enchanting historic town with much to commend it. It just seems that, apart from the few merchants and their baubles, nobody knew were coming.

After a quick stop to photograph the Recife town square with its attendant fountain and colonial structures, our tour winds up back at the port where we navigate another cavernous, underutilised passenger terminal back to Le Soleal tied up at the wharf.

Images:
Igreja da Se (church) from the water tower
Igreja de Sao Joao (church)
Guests admire giant carnivale 'puppets' 
Carnivale decorations along Olinda's streets

Next: we head north west toward the Amazon