The Odd Couple: Altun-Ha and Jacques Pepin

Unlike the Spanish forts dating from the sixteenth 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 glint of French style.

For starters, the morning comes up soft and gentle -- a boy and girl sky hovering above a tanzanite sea. Lounging on the terrace, I'm enjoying that first pot of coffee delivered at 6:45 AM by our butler. I could get used to these sybaritic pleasures. But all too soon, it's time to grab the  sunscreen, sunglasses and insect repellent and join the group going ashore for the day, going to Altun-Ha.On Board Oceania 011The name Altun-Ha translates as Rock Stone Water, but it’s more instructive to think of it as 'Rockstone Pond,' as it was a natural cistern made of rocks and stones and fed by fresh water springs. Fresh water is what made the settlement such a vital trading port.

103On 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 fifty-four 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.

101It would appear that the Maya, for whatever reason, frequently abandoned their settlements and moved on.  At which the jungle moved in, with the vegetation completely obscuring the 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 that has ever been found, a head depicting the Sun God “Kinich Ahau.”

Had that not happened, all of Altun-Ha might have been remained undiscovered and thoroughly neglected. What's intriguing about the Maya is their intelligence, their deep understanding 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 still use these calendars.

But no matter how fascinating the site or interesting the Maya,  the day is not complete for someone searching for French style in the Yucatan. What to do?

 099 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 and doing what he loves best.

Within the restaurant all was luxe, calme, and volupté.  We dined on some of the classics of French cuisine, starting with escargots 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, its body  glistening with butter. Both were fabulous, On Board Oceania 007as 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 guest 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? No way. Rather than cook, I head for the Canyon Ranch Fitness Center and Spa to steam and sauna the calories away. And before we know it, a splendid day with Altun-Ha and Jacques Pepin--the odd couple--is drawing to a close, the sun going down smoking into the Caribbean Sea.

On Board Oceania 010

But whatever happened to all the  intelligence that built those temples?  How is it that areas and populations once full of promise have become so poor that mothers throughout Guatemala and Honduras send their children north on boxcars?  Unavoidably, or so it would seem, civilizations are like people in that they're born, grow old and die. It's a sobering thought, even when cruising the Caribbean.