RIO DULCE, Guatemala — What's a nice New England vessel doing in a jungle like this?
This is where black orchids grow in shadowy corners, pelicans and egrets roost in the tops of trees, Kechy Maya villagers paddle dugouts down an uncharted river, a thousand cormorants flap overhead at dawn and vivid green and crimson macaws and parrots flash through the trees.
In the case of American Canadian Caribbean Line, the U.S.-flag, Rhode Island-based "small ship cruise line," it's a sellout in its first season of cruising the turquoise Caribbean waters of Belize and Guatemala.
We made the last cruise of the current series in late March aboard the New Shoreham II. Next season, Dec. 15 through April 17, 1990, its sister ship, Caribbean Prince, will be positioned in Belize City for the 12-day sailings, and early bookings are advised for the 80-passenger vessel.
These are casual, homey, unpretentious vessels, each with a six-foot draft that allows cruising into small ports and making bow landings on sandy keys for swimming and snorkeling.
Capt. Luther H. Blount, founder and president of the line and designer and builder of its two ships, is a 72-year-old Rhode Islander.
Almost at once the vessel entered the river canyon, narrow and green and teeming with bird life. At a tiny village called Piedra Pintada, the New Shoreham II nosed into shore and opened its bow landing platform for passengers to disembark for a one-on-one encounter with a cluster of Kechi Maya Indians.
The Indians managed to remain calm when surrounded by a clutch of still and video cameras, even a microphone thrust into their faces by one eager tourist.
Soon more and more dugouts paddled in from up and down the river, the children smiling, the adults staring with impassive faces.
Thatch-roof hotels welcomed wealthy weekenders from Guatemala City, and in a pristinely tended national park, sightseeing families climbed the stone steps of a 16th-Century Spanish fortress built to protect gold-laden Spanish galleons from raids by the pirate Jean Lafitte.
One morning, from the lakeside fishing village of Mariscos, the passengers set out on a sightseeing excursion to a banana plantation and Mayan ruin.
Most rode in a bus, but a few, like an enthusiastic 75-year-old Rhode Island bird watcher named Betty, elected to bounce along in the open back of a banana truck.
Up over a hill and through a shady chicle forest we jounced, past thatch-roof country houses where children played with pet turkeys or pigs in the packed-dirt front yards, past rural tiendas (shops) selling soda pop and plastic pails, past a pretty girl in a bright red dress mincing along the rough dirt road in high-heeled white shoes, perhaps on her way to a Palm Sunday service in a tiny roadside church.
At one place we bought a fresh heart of palm, a huge chunk fourfeet long and big around as a chubby 2-year-old, for about 50 cents, but the shipboard chef--whose forte seemed to be chocolate chip cookies and blueberry muffins--studiously ignored it on board, despite some broad hints from certain quarters that it would make a delectable salad for dinner.
An Unfancy Ship
The New Shoreham II is not a fancy ship--it has no bar. You bring your own beer, wine and liquor, and the ship puts out soft drinks, set-ups and garnishes free.
Occasionally there is some entertainment--videocassette movies in the lounge after dinner; a Caribbean band that comes aboard at Placencia in Belize; a stunning Garifuna group that performs ethnic dances in a Livingstone hotel lounge, and a passenger talent show scheduled late enough in the cruise that everybody knows everybody else and will be kind.
Everyone envied one passenger who was taking his 10th cruise with ACCL, because every 10th cruise is free.
On the New Shoreham II per-diem prices are about $95 per person, double occupancy, for some very small and basic inside cabins to a high of $155 for two staterooms that boast a lounge chair as well as two beds and two windows.
On either ship we recommend the standard outside staterooms for about $140 per person a day, double occupancy.
For free color brochures, call toll-free (800) 556-7450.