Tarantulas, Piranhas and Caviar - Oh My!

| August 24, 2009

Silversea's Amazonian Adventures on the Amazon River from Manaus to Belémon.

I'm walking this wooden bridge strung with rope and a prayer from the river bank into the jungle. The planks are uneven, and with termites crawling on the railing, I can't hold on. I don't like heights and now I'm some eight-to-10-feet above the jungle floor. "Breathe," I tell myself. "Just breathe." Finally I reach a viewing platform and peer down at my reward. Lily pads. No ordinary lilies, because nothing in the Amazon is ordinary. The yard-wide leaves look like someone force-fed them fertilizer. Flowers, this violet, shock the senses. I'm shaky from the walk, and darn, now I'm blinking back tears. I'm such a wuss over Amazonian beauty. I march back, single file, with fellow explorers until we reach tiny motorized canoes. The brown Amazonian waters swirl around us. We pass native Indians, paddling even tinier canoes, and rickety wooden ferries. The waters are busy as the river is the highway; there are no roads in the Amazon. Distance is measured not in miles, but rather, how many days it takes to get somewhere via water.

Vultures fly overhead and small brown birds perch on wooden branches jutting out of the river. It is very hot and humid -- we are only 2 1/2 degrees from the equator -- and I am dripping sweat like a polar bear in a sauna.

That night I wiggle into a cocktail dress, slip on some bling and sip a dirty martini before deciding between fresh grouper and roast duck. A passionate sommelier and I get into a spirited conversation over the virtues of Umbrian Chardonnay and the spiciness of South African Shiraz.

It's just another day in paradise on the Silver Wind. This ship is sailing Brazil for 14 days, heading east on the Amazon River from Manaus to Belém, before entering the Atlantic Ocean and traveling south to Rio de Janeiro.

The Wind is a small ship (296 passengers), one of four sleek vessels owned by Silversea Cruises. I haven't sailed on the Silver Wind in 10 years and I forgot how small small is. I keep thinking I'm on a friend's yacht rather than a cruise ship, until I remember I don't have friends rich enough to own anything this posh.

Silversea Cruises attract travelers rather than tourists. Most passengers have seen much of the world already. They don't want to buy oil paintings or play silly games onboard. Silversea guests want to explore. To visit ports rarely accessible by other cruise ships, and, yeah, spend a week or two being spoiled rotten.

Spoiling is a Silversea activity. Like water volleyball or blackjack. Even inanimate objects, like Bulgari toiletries, spoil you. After a week or two of using stellar beauty products, you'll sigh at drugstore soap back home.

All-suite accommodations are spoilers, too. A verandah suite is a spacious 295-square-feet. Marble abounds and the richly veined wood is like some oiled guy on Muscle Beach, cut and glistening, just begging to be admired. Although it looks mighty spiffy already, the Silver Wind is undergoing a big-time refurbishment in November. Suites will have new bathrooms, plusher beds and carpets, flat-screen TVs and fancier verandahs with cool custom furniture by this edgy Spanish design firm. Public areas are also being redone, and most notably, there will be a new ocean-view spa and fitness center, and an observation lounge with 180-degree floor-to-ceiling ocean views.

So much is included in a Silversea cruise, I forget about money all-together and get flustered when someone actually wants some onshore. Wine and spirits, coffee drinks, specialty dining and all gratuities are included -- those hidden costs really add up on other cruise lines. And Silversea is generous with freebies; caviar flows and suites are stocked with favorite drinks, from fresh juices to premium vodka.

Me, I like bubbly, and I'm sipping champagne to toast Manaus before we set sail. With a population of two million, Manaus is a bustling city with nonstop traffic. Shops are narrow dark spaces teeming with goods. Streets are filled with casually dressed people wearing tees and flip-flops.

The open-air market is one giant photo op with colorful spices, freshly killed piranhas, a floor full of plantains, and squash so big they look like Food Network props. In the butchery, macho men wield long knives, expertly cutting bulls' tongues and laying them in long neat rows. Everyone is so friendly. Vendors give thumbs-up, twirl sharp knives for show, or playfully "attack" with a piranha.

Santarém, our second Amazon port, dates back to 1661 and is a local trading center. I'm taking advantage of Silversea's singular shore excursions and signing up for piranha fishing. Some guests get lucky and a guide sautés the piranhas right on the boat. (Nope, piranha doesn't taste like chicken, but rather, like trout or perch.) Then we have the sighting of the century -- the rare pink Amazonian dolphin. Two of them. Frolicking off the side of the boat. Grown people -- now this is a elegant, CEO-type crowd -- are so jazzed, they're jumping up and down like kindergartners on the playground.

That same day, I join a rain forest walk and learn about the medicinal value of trees, and how locals brew tea from bark to heal ailments. I had imagined that piranhas and snakes (remember the movie "Anaconda?") are daily dangers, but we're told natural predators have enough to eat and everyone lives in relative harmony.

Sailing Breves Narrows, a strait on the Amazon that lives up to its name, is unforgettable. (Another reason to cruise the Amazon on a small ship; most are too big to do this.) As we navigate hairpin turns through the Narrows, the banks are practically at arm's reach. Locals spot our ship and react as if the president of Brazil had arrived. They jump into teensy canoes and paddle up besides us. Kids are whooping and hollering and adults are waving. The people, many an exotic mix of Portuguese and native Indian, are called riverinhos and are so pretty. I wave back and wish we could converse. Imagine being able to talk to somebody on this planet who has never heard of Britney Spears.

We sail past wooden shacks on stilts that protect the homes from flooding. The best homes have aluminum roofs; the poor settle for thatched. Many riverinhos make money by fishing, lumbering, or selling wares on the river. (We're told that the biggest threat to the rain forest is cattle-raising, not lumbering, as the jungle is cleared versus reforested.)

The homes butt right up to dense jungle -- tall leafy trees and palms hug the houses, while ferns, vines, and plants fill the muddy shores. I spot some huts with satellite dishes powered by generators. Oops. Maybe they do know who Britney Spears is, after all.

Our next stop is Belém, an Amazonian city with a strong Portuguese influence, where we take a boat ride to a remote village. We see trees more than 400-years-old and spot termite pods (giant and otherworldly, they look not unlike the pods in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers") and a feathery beetle, called the "rooster of the jungle," perched on a tree.

Our guide whacks a pod off a Brazil nut tree and we taste the fresh nuts inside. A villager puts on a show for us, tying vines to his feet and shimmying up a tall skinny palm tree. He slides down so fast he is on the ground before anyone can snap a photo.

But perhaps the real wow-we're-in-the-Amazon moment is when we encounter a tarantula. Our guide says it's a baby (it looks mighty big to me) and that we can let it crawl on us. He might as well have asked if I wanted to lie down on the 405 at rush hour. My husband goes for it and says the tarantula feels like a feather dancing on his arm. I am proud I get close enough to take a picture.

A couple hours later, I'm in our suite, wrapped in the softest robe, having washed off the rain forest dust and smelling faintly and lusciously like Bulgari body lotion. The stewardess delivers our freshly laundered clothes, wrapped like emeralds rather than underwear.

The contrast between the present and what just past is startling. My husband and I look at each other. Were we really in a rainforest? Did a tarantula truly crawl up his arm?

Leaving Belém, we sail onto the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone is on deck, enjoying the cool ocean breezes. The water is startlingly blue. On the second sea day, it's the color of tanzanite. I wish I could scoop some up and make it into a ring. Sea days are when Silversea shines. I bet it's also when most passengers book their next cruise. They probably break out in hives just thinking these could be the last days of extreme pleasure.

Dining is definitely an exalted delight. With so few passengers, the kitchen cooks, rather than mass-produces, meals. The chef often visits local markets to buy ingredients for the evening menu. One night, I try pirarucu, a large (nearly 10-feet-long) tropical freshwater fish with sweet delicate meat. How lucky am I to try exotic local food prepared to the ship's standards. Culinary adventure without the usual bellyache.

By now the staff, who has called you by name since Day Two, knows what you love to eat and drink. Belly up to the bar, and that neat Scotch is waiting. Sit down for a poolside lunch and the waiter automatically brings extra onion rings with the crab burger. Servers are that good. There's Nina, the tall pretty Parisian who lets me practice French. Ronnie could make a killing running a school on how to be the perfect dining room waiter. Jose, in La Terazza, flashes 1,000-kilowat smiles that make you feel like a million bucks. My favorite dinners are in La Terrazza. I can't figure out how Silversea transforms a daytime buffet restaurant into a candlelit room for Italian food and romance each night. The antipasto is swoon-worthy, a feast of tiny treats like the ripest, reddest sun-dried tomatoes, perfect prosciutto and aged Parmesan scooped from a giant wheel. One night I devour osso buco so fragrant, its aroma dances around the room, making every other diner turn towards me and smile.

Silversea isn't just dining and service. The ship offers cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, dancing lessons, and lectures by a professor who knows the Amazon the way I know the Valley. Evening entertainment includes a sultry singer and an English violinist who has performed for Prince Charles. One night, we cuddle under woolen throws for a movie under the stars, while servers pour champagne and offer crystal bowls filled with fresh-popped corn.

I am happiest walking the deck, seeing the ocean from every angle. Sunset is my favorite time for solitary strolls. The sky is a blank canvas and I never know which artist will show up to paint it. Sometimes the bright expressive colors say Matisse, other times the soft dots for clouds are pure Seurat.

One evening, a trio of freighters pops up on the misty horizon, looking like cardboard cut-outs props Silversea procured for guests' pleasure. But my bliss-meter really goes berserk when I 'm on my verandah reading, my reverie broken by only by a splash of a wave reflecting a rainbow as the sun strikes the water.

When we dock in Recife, the second largest city in northeastern Brazil, I spend most of the day in Olinda, a nearby colonial town of cobblestone streets and a spectacular old Franciscan church. At one restaurant (Oficina do Sabor), I feast on a green-shelled pumpkin stuffed with big sweet lobster chunks and mango cream. I'd fly back to Recife just to eat there again.

That night Silver Wind hosts a barbecue on the pool deck and brings aboard local talent for an after-dinner show. Costumed dancers never stop moving to the hypnotic beat of the Afro-Brazilian music. Afterwards, passengers crowd the dance floor, and under the spell of the full moon, party until late in the night.

Salvador, the capital of Bahia, is our last port before we disembark in Rio. Salvador has a distinct Afro-Brazilian culture and is a colorful and vibrant city. Get-in-your-blood-and-make-you-want-to-dance music wafts from nearly every window. Sidewalk vendors flood streets with folk art painted bright Crayola colors, and restaurants cook seafood stew rich with coconut milk and dend´┐Ż (red African palm oil) that deliver fireworks of flavor.

When we sail into Rio and see Sugarloaf Mountain up-close-and-personal, I am both thrilled and sad. Joyful at the sight and bummed my trip is over. I realize that what I will miss most is not the exciting sights, my cushy suite or -- surprise -- the Bulgari shampoo. It's the people.

Silversea staff, like Jose, Ronnie and Nina. Amazonian children paddling up in canoes and waving like I was their BFF. Guests from France with whom I obsess over food, and the British passengers who told hysterical tales of life in their 18th century cottage.

If there's one thing I take away from the trip, it's this: People make travel and travel makes life rich. What a neat and tidy circle in a not-so-tidy world.

FAST FACTS: Silversea sails a similar cruise from Dubai to Singapore in November, 2009. Savings are 50% off published fares. (1-800-722-9955; www.silversea.com.)

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