The Odd Couple: Altun-Ha and Jacques Pepin
Unlike the Spanish forts dating from the 16th century or the British Colonial settlements, the ancient Mayan ruins at Altun-Ha in Belize, a country on the eastern coast of Latin America and bordered to the north by Mexico, date back thousands of years. Of course, the challenge for your trusty correspondent, someone desperately seeking Paris, will to unearth something that's très chic, something with a soupçon of French style.
The morning came up soft and gentle—a boy 'n' girl sky above a tanzanite sea. Lounging on the terrace, I'm enjoying a pot of coffee delivered at 6:45 AM by our butler. I could get used to these sybaritic pleasures. All too soon, it's time to grab the sunscreen, sunglasses and insect repellent and join the group going ashore for the day to Altun-Ha. The name Altun-Ha translates as Rock Stone Water, but it’s more instructive to think of it as 'Rock-stone Pond,' as it was a natural cistern made of rocks and stones and fed by fresh water springs. It was the fresh water that made the settlement a vital and dynamic trading port.
On a five-mile site stretching to the sea, the Maya built their pyramids, temples and tombs meant for the elite members of the community. The Temple of the Masonry Altars, above, at 54 feet, is the highest one left standing in the area and the tree growing on top will give you a good idea of how relentless is the spread of vegetation. Indeed, what we see of the ruins of Altun-Ha had to be excavated from under a jungle canopy that covered the entire site.
Where did they go?
It would appear that the Maya, for whatever reason, frequently abandoned their settlements and moved on, at which the jungle moved in and the vegetation completely obscured the earlier settlements.
With hundreds of sites, large and small, spread throughout Belize, Honduras and Guatemala, this particular one became famous when Dr. David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum discovered among the ruins the largest carved Jade Head ever found, a head depicting the Sun God “Kinich Ahau.”
Had that not happened, Altun-Ha might have been remained undiscovered, thoroughly neglected, unknown to all who came after. What's intriguing about the Maya is their intelligence refeckted in their deep understandings of astronomy and mathematics. In fact, the Maya used a series of three different and highly sophisticated calendars that date to the 5th century BCE. To this day, many of the highland peoples spread throughout Guatemala, Honduras and the Yucatan peninsula are said to use these calendars. Yet no matter how fascinating the site or interesting the history of the Maya, the day's not complete for someone searching for French style in the Yucatan. What to do?
Where did we go?
Reserve a table at the Parisian bistro, Jacques, the signature restaurant of Jacques Pepin who has partnered with Oceania to create his restaurants on both the Marina and the newest ship, the Riviera. Even before entering the dining room, we catch sight of a smiling Jacques in a painting hung by the door, where, clearly, he's in his element, doing what he loves best.
Within the restaurant the ambiance was luxe, calme, et volupté.We dined on the classics of French cuisine, starting with escargots served in their shells, followed by a pumpkin soup a l'Anglaise served from a hollowed-out pumpkin. The hallmarks of Pepin’s cuisine are simplicity and high-quality ingredients. And the fresh-baked 'signature' rolls came with edible labels.
My companion ordered the lobster, I the Dover sole, which came to the table glistening with butter. Both were fabulous, as was the best-ever surprise birthday cake covered with a decadent dark chocolate icing and accompanied by a half-dozen singing waiters. If initially taken by surprise, my companion was ultimately delighted.
On Oceania’s Riviera, there are no fewer than nine dining rooms—from the lovely Grand Dining Room to the intimate themed-restaurants including Jacques, Red Ginger, Toscana and the Polo Grill, each seating about 80.
If that’s not enough food to think about, there’s always Bon Appetit at Sea offering expert instruction, complete with floppy white toques, in a splendid teaching facility. Cooking classes? Not for me! I head for the Canyon Ranch Fitness Center and Spa to steam and sauna the afternoons away. Before we know it, the splendid day spent at Altun-Ha and the evening with Jacques Pepin—the odd couple—is drawing to a close, the sun going down smoking into the Caribbean Sea.
I cant help but wonder whatever happened to the remarkable intelligence that built those temples and developed sophisticated calendars. How is it that areas and populations once full of promise have become so poor that mothers throughout Guatemala and Honduras send young children north on boxcars? It would seem that civilizations are like people in that they're born, grow old and die. It's a sobering thought, even when cruising the Caribbean.
See you in a week or two and until then mes amis, may life be good to you.