Ocean Attractions

Enjoying star treatment on Celebrity Cruises’ Summit

I was seated at the wall of windows that wrap the Waterfall Grill, enjoying cinnamon waffles and omelets, when a pod of playful dolphins sprung from the twirling sea, one after another, to kiss the warm morning sky.  Over the next five days of our sojourn aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Summit from Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera, I anticipated more magical experiences in a departure from the ordinary.

The Summit boasts 11 passenger decks and 1,059 suites that accommodate 1,950 guests, whose epicurean tastes are satiated with 45,000 pounds of beef, lamb, lobster, and fish.  The crew, made up of more than 60 nationalities, provides Vegas- and Broadway-style entertainment; prepares and serves 9,000 meals daily in three dining rooms; and facilitates socials, seminars, and shore excursions.  ConciergeClass is one of three unique brands of services—offering guests preferential pampering.  At this level of service, staterooms are appointed with 24-hour butler service, guests receive dining seating preference, VIP invites to onboard events, and a variety of in-suite comforts.

Each day at sea allowed for indulging in a tireless roster of fun opportunities.  To view the poolside cooking competition and live band, I joined Kathy and Gregg McCree from Brooklyn, New York, who had dropped anchor in a sun-kissed whirlpool spa.  “We usually cruise for birthdays and anniversaries,” offered Kathy as we ordered smoothies, “we were told Summit had a mature crowd; so far we’re in the whirlpools most of the day.”  That evening we dined in the plush, art deco Normandie, which is distinguished for its decoupage, flambé tableside service and dine-in wine cellar featuring 175 fine vintages.

The abundance of tequila factories in Puerto Vallarta, our first port of call, supports the popularity of this excursion. Mario, our guide, steered us to a crowded demonstration and sampling of two-dozen flavors of the legendary libation.  Later that evening, after dinner — and more tequila — we donned white attire and attended the masquerade ball in the whimsical Cirque du Soleil-designed lounge.  Roughly a dozen excursion options are crafted for each port.

A colorful folkloric showcase followed by sightseeing along the waterfront, then silver shopping in the Golden Zone, easily filled our itinerary in Mazatlan.  Founded in 1531, it’s Mexico’s oldest town.  Cabo San Lucas is the hot spot for aquatic adventures. Qevin and I chose the two-bay snorkeling experience for the chance to swim amid flamboyant fish and got a great adrenaline rush wave-running back to the ship.

Michelle and Stephen White of Quartz Hill, California, on their fifth and first cruise, respectively, were among the guests snapping farewell photos as the anchor lifted.  “I’m a casino girl myself,” whispered Michelle as we recapped the trip.  “I wasn’t looking for a 24-hour party boat [which Summit isn’t]; the costume ball, bingo, and Broadway show are a good blend of entertainment.”

The last dinner at sea is a regal affair with tailored tuxedos and elegant gowns.  A string quartet serenaded patrons as captain Michail Karatzas greeted his guests.  At our table, Sandra and Dexter Bryant of Orange County, California — usually fervid conversationalists — were still in sensory heaven from the romantic Cleopatra Slipper treatment they enjoyed in the AquaSpa.  To chart a course for your own divine cruise experience, visit Celebrity Cruises.

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

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Short Stay: Nature Thrills in Belize

Green tourism can offer nonstop adventure,

Sean Drakes discovers the wild side and

soothing aquatic splendors of Belize

The vast, mysterious night sky silenced every thought in my head as I marveled at the dazzling blanket of low-hanging stars that lit our course across the New River.  It is the longest river in Belize and the 90-minute river ride is the most exhilarating route to Lamanai Outpost Lodge, an eco-friendly sanctuary with 17 rustic cabanas nestled in a vibrant habitat teeming with wild black howler monkeys, crocodiles, and more than 250 species of vivacious birds.  The thatch-roofed structures receive crisp surround-sound of the restless wildlife.  The lodge is named after the region, which translates to “submerged crocodile.”

There are eight in our group of bird watchers, novice hikers, and seasoned thrill seekers who have ventured to a destination where roughly 50,000 Mayans lived between 1500 B.C. and the early 1700s.  Situated north of Belize City, it’s the jewel of the Orange Walk District, which offers nerve-tingling wilderness adventure and archaeological expeditions.

In the 20th century, major excavations of the area unearthed temples of an ancient Mayan civilization that survived the Roman Empire.  Hieroglyphic decoders believe the site carvings record sensational stories of war and peace.  The trails to the Mayan ceremonial site at Lamanai are swarming with ruthless mosquitoes that laugh at repellent, but the breathtaking view from the summit of the High Temple is worth the treacherous climb.

There are other excursions: At daybreak bird watchers in our group set out to scout for gray catbirds, great kiskadees, and mangrove swallows.  After dusk they revisited the riverbank to stalk nocturnal birds, while the rest of our group went crocodile hunting.  Well, we accompanied the guide who caught (and released) the toothy reptiles.

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Leaving Lamanai we traveled by river, highway, and rugged dirt roads to our lunchtime pit stop at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, a haven for migrating birds.  Crooked Tree is noted for its abundance of cashew trees which fuel a fledgling cottage industry that produces cashew jam, cashew wine and a weeklong cashew festival.  Guest house proprietor Verna Samuel served us a sampling of her cashew creations after a hearty lunch at Bird’s Eye View Lodge.  The forested Cayo District, 90 minutes southwest of Belize City, was our next overnight destination.  This region offers cool creeks and the dramatic Thousand Foot Falls that plunge 1,400 feet.

By day four we arrive at the bungalows and communal house at Pook’s Hill, a 300-acre reserve and rainforest near the Maya Mountains, which during our visit  serves as an ER for a weak young owl who lingered awhile then patiently grasped its last breath.  Here, our group geared up for a canoe tour through Barton Creek Caves.

Rainwater created underground rivers and carved cave systems that were inhabited by deities and Mayan ancestors.  In Mayan culture, caves (actuns) were a portal to the gods of the underworld and are where sacred rituals and sacrifices occurred.  Skeletons, footprints, pottery, and cathedral ceilings are discovered in Belize’s 250 cave systems.

Belize City is not the capital but it richly represents the pulse of the country—it’s also a hub for island-hoppers.  Belize is set between Mexico and Guatemala and is two hours by plane from Miami.  English is the official language though Spanish is widely spoken by its 325,000 residents.  At the Belize Legacy Beach Resort the cedar and mahogany condos are appointed with the modern comforts big city dwellers relish, and destination treats such as deep-sea excursions, aromatic spas, and fine dining by head chef Rafael Valdez.

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Activities such as snorkeling in Shark Ray Alley in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve allows brave hearts to pet and feed stingrays and Nurse sharks.  Nightfall lures sleepless souls to the loud and festive Wet Willy’s in San Pedro Town, where two strong drinks of rum and the boat ride back to the resort serve as a relaxant.  I enjoy a sound sleep ready to wake to a new adventure with nature.  Visit www.travelbelize.org for help charting your course through the wild and mild side of Belize.

© SEAN DRAKES

[404.654.0859  |  seandrakesphoto@gmail.com]

Short Stay: Casa de Campo

Casa de Campo is an extraordinary island outpost,

Sean Drakes samples the beautiful life


If I try to picture what a replica of a 16th century Mediterranean village situated on a coastal bluff in the Dominican Republic would feel like, I couldn’t have visualized Altos de Chavon in Casa de Campo.  This ultra-exclusive resort and residential community is a Caribbean destination that is part 16th century, part 21st century and passionately devoted to the arts.

The levels of luxury accommodations here aim not to be outdone.  After all, some of the richest business tycoons own palatial homes here, and both a famous Bill [Gates] and an infamous Bill [Clinton], along with a host of Hollywood highbrows, have deplaned in the private airport here.  Name-dropping isn’t part of the accepted local culture, if you want to feel welcomed.  I learned this from Angel, the resort agent I befriended and who personally arranged my VIP access.  My tour of this 7,000-acre sprawl in La Romana, which is 130 miles southeast of Santo Domingo, starts in the 16th century.

Altos de Chavon at Casa de Campo. Photo: SeanDrakes.com

Altos de Chavon is a replica of a traditional Mediterranean village, it was built on the highest point overlooking the Chavon River.  Construction of the coral block and terracotta buildings that frame narrow cobblestone walkways, began in 1976 under the stewardship of Italian artist Roberto Copa.  The final stone was laid in 1982.  Walking the site at midday feels like a Hollywood set for a movie involving a romantic tryst in Europe.  You can dine at bistros or three specialty restaurants: El Sombrero, La Piazzetta and Café del Sol.  The site houses a 5,000-seat Grecian-style amphitheatre that has hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias, Alicia Keys’ music video shoot and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.  There is a Regional Museum of Archeology that is home to a collection of pre-Columbian ritual artifacts.  And an art gallery and craft ateliers that make ceramic and silk-screened souvenirs, and The Altos de Chavon School of Design caps the effort to market Casa de Campo as an arts-friendly destination.  You should note: The School of Design offers degrees in design fields and the fine arts, and is affiliated with Parsons School of Design in New York and Paris.

The Dominican Republic, is the Spanish-speaking territory of the island of Hispaniola, a border with a treacherous history separates it from Haiti.  Puerto Rico is just 60 minutes east by plane.  In order to deliver me to the resort’s doorstep, my driver surrendered his license at a security stall that has the span and scale of an interstate toll booth.  That was the first cue to the grandeur that is a staple at Casa de Campo.

I am in a chic suite, but Casa de Campo resort offers the option to supersize your accommodation with a rental villa tastefully lathered with luxury.  Exclusive and Oceanfront Villas host up to 12 guests at roughly $840–$2,445 per night ($577–$1,345 off-season), that includes maid and butler service, breakfast prepared in your villa, a pool or whirlpool, and concierge service for sporting and dining reservations, and private airport transfers.

Private residence at Casa de Campo. Photo: SeanDrakes.com

I won’t name-drop, but I have the good fortune and pleasure of photographing two gorgeous private residences during this visit.  Both homes reside on an 18-hole golf course.  There are three here, each designed by Pete DyeTeeth of the Dog has seven holes skirting the ocean and is ranked #17 on Golf Digest’s list of top 100 courses in the world.  Links is a hilly inland course with five holes that tangle with lagoons and lakes.  The Dye Fore course is positioned 300-feet atop the bluffs of the Chavon River, it is a mesmerizing masterpiece.  Its 7,800-yard par 72 layout attracts and challenges pro golfers who shell-out $90 – $215 per person per round.

Marina at Casa de Campo. Photo: SeanDrakes.com

I grabbed lunch at Chinois at the marina fashioned after Italian portofinos.  I am passing on shopping at designer boutiques, shooting sporting clays and playing tennis (there are 13 courts).  My visit is out of season for the polo matches hosted

Cuban artist Bibi Leon (2nd from right at top) toasts guests at her home. Photo: SeanDrakes.com

November – May at the equestrian facility, which has five fields and 70 trained ponies.  Instead, I’m bound for a day trip sail to Catalina Island.

After sailing, a dinner party at the home of Cuban artist Bibi Leon is a great wrap to the day.  Walking through her elegant front door, my feast begins.  My eyes are restless, in every room, there’s original creative expression by Spanish artists to admire.  Tomorrow, I will ride Bibi’s coattail as we soak in the decadent interior design of her friends’ vacation homes, a collective that can fill two coffee table books.  This is la dolce vita, where the air always feels rare.

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  | SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

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