A dusky sky enveloped us as we motored in our skiff on the remote Ucayali River, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. The heathery, luminous pinks of the firmament would swiftly yield to shadowy ebony, as we made our way back to the M/V Aria, our shipboard home in the dense tropics. A light drizzle caressed my face just as our naturalist guide, Victor Coello, shouted: "Rain gear!" Before I could unfold the Army-green body tarp, I was soaked. The fierce squall descended with prodigious force, but the six of us in our expedition boat, along with Victor and our pilot were giddy with laughter, since, I suspect, none of us had ever experienced so aggressive a storm. From December to May, a downpour can occur almost daily; it is, after all a rainforest. There are no seasons here, though, just the high- and low-water phases. From about June to November, it's low water, with the river consistently ebbing, almost five feet or six feet a month; from December to about April/May, it's high water, as the rivers replenish themselves. We were here at May's end, and the watermark along the riverbanks already showed that a good five feet had receded.
This is also the land of black and brown water: The black water is in the tributaries, and has the exquisite gleam of a slab of jet marble, the result of the reflection of all the tannic acid in the decomposing foliage underwater; the brown water is in the main river, and its murky, muddy tone is the result of minerals and metals. Into this dark palette, if you're lucky, you'll get splotches of bright pink: Where the currents meet and swirl, river dolphins-not Flipper and his ocean-going, bottle-nosed pals-breech the surface, as they cavort. This genus of endangered mammal gets pinker, the more active he is, as his capillaries fill with more blood.
But, lest I get ahead of myself, I return to our deluge: As quickly as that tempest menaced, it evaporated and soon against the pitch night sky, stars, the likes of which you'd see only in a planetarium, were showcased. The luminous Southern Cross gleamed (we were a mere four degrees south of the equator) and even the Big Dipper twinkled radiantly (lopsided and upside down, it seemed, to this Yankee).
Soon we were back on board the Aria, our luxury expedition cruise ship, the brainchild of Francesco Galli Zugaro, a seasoned travel-industry veteran, who had this boat and its older sister, the Aqua, built to his very stringent specifications by the Peruvian Navy; the ship is outfitted with two of virtually every vital piece of equipment and machinery. The staff greeted us with cinnamon-scented towels and delicious camu-camu fruit drinks (a local, delicious cherry-like fruit), purported to have many curative powers. The most healing thing I wanted at that moment, though, was to stand under the rainforest shower in my cabin. When I entered my stateroom, I greeted the adorable menagerie of folded-towel creatures which the staff lovingly molds daily; today, there were monkeys dangling from hangers attached to the rafters.
A trip on the Aria is much like a safari: Your home base is your lodge, in this case, the mother ship, and you move around in vehicles, i.e., our eight-person skiffs. (At capacity, the Aria can accommodate 32 people in 16 staterooms.) "Game drives" for stalking the indigenous wildlife are scheduled for early morning and late afternoon, when creatures are more active.
The ship books three-, four- and seven-night trips, and I think the four-night trip is just perfect. We covered an immense amount of territory, in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, one of the largest (over two million acres, with 80% under water at any given time) protected areas in Peru, and about the size of Belgium; we reconnoitered along the Marañon and Ucayali Rivers, arriving at the point where they meet, at the true birthplace of the Amazon. There are 40,000 species of flora in the rainforest, and you'll see lily pads so huge they can hold 40 pounds! During the course of our daily expeditions we glimpsed wildlife galore-playful squirrel, Monk saki, and red howler monkeys, as well as saddle-backed tamarins; herons, vultures, hawks, parrots, macaws, and on and on.
The fare is as indulgent as the ship is well-appointed. With menus designed by Lima's five-star chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, each meal is an epicurean banquet. But perhaps the greatest extravagance on board is that stateroom windows are really floor-to-ceiling walls of glass, enabling you to watch TV 24/7 on the one station that the ship receives: The (Real) Nature Channel.
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The Mediterranean on MSC Cruises' Splendida
A journey on MSC Cruises' Splendida, in the private on-board Yacht Club (that is to say, a ship within a ship), is light years removed from the Peruvian jungle. This is a 3,900-person cruise ship (with a crew of over 1,300), regularly plying the docile waters of the Mediterranean. The only wildlife you'll see here are the Gummi Bears that are sold in the Willy Wonka-style candy store! And the only way you're going to get soaked is by testing the rides in the barrel-of-fun mini water park. The fact that this massive ship even has a dedicated candy store, attests to the truism that it has just about everything: A half-dozen bars/lounges; many tempting restaurants and buffet-style eateries; cafes, pastry parlors, a gelateria; plenty of activities for teens/kids and for grown-ups alike, including a library, spa, cinema, theater, and even a Formula 1 simulator.
But, what is unique about this ship and its twin, the Fantasia (and the newest ship coming on line in 2012, the Divina), is that they feature the privacy of a club on board, with special amenities, geared to those who want all the hands-on pampering of a pricey, intimate, smaller vessel, and yet still crave the diversity and activities of a large-capacity liner. (No it doesn't approach Crystal Cruises or Silversea, but then it doesn't cost what they cost; MSC Yacht Club delivers pampering at a value-oriented tariff.)
Should you opt to pay the upcharge to stay in one of the Club's 71 staterooms, expect to have 24-hour butler and concierge service; priority check-in; access to exclusive lounges; a private pool, Jacuzzis, and sundeck; separate restaurants and priority access to the ship's other eateries; daily newspapers; special access to the spa and two club-dedicated treatment rooms; complimentary mini-bar; afternoon tea, and more. Additionally, the Club's staterooms are in a private part of the forward, higher decks.
Because the ship services such a vast audience-and does so in four languages-you will never be at a loss for activity, or conversely, for privacy and serenity. Perhaps the most tranquil place on board is the Club's pool deck, where I counted 200 comfy chaises longues for a mere 160 people.
The heart of the vessel is the multi-level grand salon, graced by two staggeringly glittery Swarovski crystal-encrusted staircases. They will take your breath away. But the thing that really took mine away, was sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar, en route to Casablanca; it was perfectly timed-sunset. With the Straits just under 8 miles wide at the narrowest point-and my perch in the Club's private Topsail Lounge at the bow-I didn't even need binoculars to appreciate the splendor of this magical moment on the Splendida.
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The ships of MSC Yachts generally cruise the Mediterranean; 7- to 11-night journeys are the most common; prices start at $3,969 per person (including airfare from a specified gateway city) in a deluxe Yacht Club stateroom; mscyachtclub.com; 954-958-3268