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Cultural Caribbean

Tasty treats, historical discoveries, artistic endeavors and more
await on these shore excursions

By Rebecca Matheson Ortiz

Vacations Magazine: Cultural Caribbean
Mark Katzman/Princess Cruises
When you think of the Caribbean, you might visualize sun-kissed beaches, turquoise waters and swaying palms. If you dig a little deeper, you might imagine the pleasant heat of spicy entrees and music that makes you want to get up and groove. And further still: islands with rich histories and roots in ancient indigenous tribes like the Mayas as well as Spanish, African and European influences.

Many cruise companies emphasize cultural exploration during their voyages, both on and off the ship. Princess Cruises, for example, recently introduced the "Rhythm of the Caribbean" program to immerse passengers in the island way of life through onboard activities, from musical performances and restaurants boasting regional cuisine to parrot encounters, pirate-themed kids' parties and more. Other cultural encounters can be had on a shore excursion, where travelers can delve into the beating heart of the Caribbean, perhaps in an artsy Cuban alley or modern-day Mayan town on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Read on to learn about opportunities for firsthand cultural encounters in port as well as suggestions for kicking back and relaxing in the sun as you cruise in comfort. To book your getaway, contact the experts at travel discounter Vacations To Go.

Cacao and creation
Sail away with Celebrity Cruises to a land where chocolate, long considered a "food of the gods," has been revered for thousands of years and brightly colored, fantastical beasts occasionally adorn homes, shops and galleries. That land is Mexico, known for its vibrant handicrafts and tasty cuisine.

On Celebrity's "Chocolate Workshop & Alebrije Painting" shore excursion, visitors to Cozumel, an island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, will have the opportunity to learn about the histories of both chocolate and alebrijes (mythical animal sculptures) through hands-on projects. Cacao's heritage in Mexico is even richer than its flavor: Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations like the Mayas and Aztecs are said to have been the first to cultivate and harness its deliciousness. They used cacao beans as currency, in ceremonies and for religious rituals and ground it into flavorful drinks to increase stamina, enhance mood and more.

During Celebrity's workshop, an expert chocolatier will guide you through the traditional process of making your very own chocolate bar, from grinding the fermented cacao beans to wrapping your final product.

Next, guests will be invited into the alebrije workshop, where a skilled artisan will lead you through the steps of crafting and painting one of the brilliant beasts that make up an iconic branch of the country's folk art. In the 1930s, Pedro Linares first produced these mystical creatures out of papier-mache when a fever dream formed dragons, griffins and wild imaginings of roosters with horns or hoofed mammals with wings. His work was popularized by the likes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and artist Manuel Jimenez developed his own version of the colorful creatures, which he made out of wood.

A handful of Celebrity ships visit Cozumel on their Caribbean routes, including the Celebrity Edge, making its debut this December. The inaugural cruise sets off from Fort Lauderdale, FL, on Dec. 9 and will spend a week exploring Key West, the Cayman Islands and both Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico. Between ports, enjoy shipboard innovations like the industry-first Magic Carpet, a cantilevered platform that moves between decks to create extra space for alfresco dining, poolside parties and more. Fares begin at $1,299.

Belize eats
This Caribbean nation beautifully blends many cultures from around the globe while still maintaining individual aspects from each. Hand in hand with this diversity of population goes a tantalizing variety of international flavors.

Seek out the tastes of this tropical country with "True Belizean Foodie Tour" from Carnival Cruise Line. You can sample genuine recipes from the Garifuna (an Afro-Caribbean group), Mestizo (with both indigenous and European ancestors) and Mayan cultures that inhabit the region and visit a produce market where you'll try the native fruits and veggies. Your expert guide will teach you about the country's history and the sharing of cooking methods over time that has led to dishes that are uniquely Belizean. You'll end the tour with a cooking lesson, where you can prepare your own ceviche, an appetizer of raw fish, shrimp or conch marinated in citrus with a daring dash of habanero peppers for those who like it spicy.

On the outing, you might try a Garifuna-inspired bowl of sere, a fried-fish soup made with coconut milk, plantains and cassava (a root vegetable). Or, sample corn tortillas topped with pibil, marinated pork that has been wrapped in leaves and buried in a heated pit to cook in the Mayan tradition. And look for salbutes, a Mestizo treat of fried tortillas heartily sprinkled with cabbage, chicken, onions, tomatoes, cheese and avocados.

Carnival stops in Belize City on an assortment of Caribbean sailings departing U.S. ports stretching from Galveston, TX, to Miami. Weeklong adventures from New Orleans skim Central America's Caribbean coast, with prices from $439 aboard the Carnival Dream departing Dec. 2.

Reviving Old Havana
Cuba, off limits to Americans since the 1960s, once again is open for visitors. The U.S. moved to reestablish diplomatic relations in 2014, easing travel restrictions with some stipulations, including a focus on "people-to-people" excursions and cultural exchange.

From Royal Caribbean International, the "Culture of Havana" excursion heads to the capital's Callejon de Hamel, a two-block alley that has become a shrine to Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion. It's also a social hub, where buildings are decked out in bright murals, sculptures and other artworks and rumba groups play while Cubans and tourists alike dance in the street. Artist Salvador Gonzales Escalona first made this backstreet popular when he began decorating the outside of his apartment with his work, a mixture of surrealist, cubist and abstract styles that eventually overflowed into the alleyway.

A sightseeing tour includes a photo op at the Plaza de la Revolucion, the setting for speeches and rallies during the Cuban Revolution. It is home to a 370-foot-high tower, built in honor of Cuban independence champion Jose Marti, and other tributes to prominent revolutionary figures like Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

You also will dine at authentic eateries and take a guided walking tour through Old Havana, with its classic cars, baroque and neoclassical monuments and 1950s vibe. Afterward, browse the Almacenes San Jose open-air market for locally made goods like baskets weaved from coconut fibers and handcrafted humidors.

Royal Caribbean visits Havana on a host of four- and five-night cruises from Miami. A Sept. 10 departure aboard the Empress of the Seas overnights in the capital before heading for the Bahamas, with prices from $469.

Past, meet present
One of Mesoamerica's most dominant societies, the Mayas lived in cities on the Yucatan Peninsula as well as Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Some settlements date to roughly 1500 B.C., and though these great pyramids and cities now stand in ruin, the Mayan culture lives on.

Norwegian Cruise Line guests visiting Mexico's Costa Maya can partake in the "Mayan Reality Tour" shore excursion, which explores a few of these ruins and invites culture-seekers to Limones, a small, present-day Mayan village. Observe the way its residents' venerable heritage merges with the modern world as you are welcomed into the home of a local family for a firsthand look at everyday life. Many homes are thatched-roofed huts that don't have running water, but often a television can be spotted, blurring the lines between past and present.

You'll learn about local foods (and likely get to try some), ancient medicines and the legends and lore that has been passed down for generations. This includes stories of the sacred ceiba tree that is believed to be a portal to 13 heavens: Thorns protrude in thick spikes from its trunk and a bushy green canopy bursts from its limbs, which the Mayas believed held up the sky, even as the ceiba's roots are said to reach the underworld.

Go and explore Limones for yourself during a stop on a weeklong cruise from Miami. Prices for a Sept. 30 departure aboard the Norwegian Getaway start at $549, and port calls made after Costa Maya include Roatan, Honduras; Cozumel; and Norwegian's private haven at Harvest Caye, Belize.

Sips and sweets
Few things are as famously "Caribbean" as rum. Pina coladas, mojitos and punch mixed with this sweet and sometimes spiced liquor can take your mind right to the region's white-sand beaches and sea breezes. With Holland America Line, connoisseurs can cruise to Grand Cayman for a dose of sunshine and strong sips on the "Flavors of the Cayman Islands" shore excursion.

It begins with a drive around George Town, the capital of the Caymans. You'll listen to a talk on the country's history as you pass landmarks like Heroes Square, with monuments dedicated to exceptional islanders. You also can do some shopping during a visit to the Cayman Craft Market, a venue for local artisans to sell their works, like souvenirs made from leather, shells and wood.

Then it's on to the Cayman Spirits Co., which makes its Seven Fathoms Premium Rum with fresh, organic, locally sourced sugar cane, coupled with traditional West Indies techniques and an ingenious aging process. It's sealed in American white-oak bourbon casks and anchored 42 feet (or seven fathoms) beneath the Caribbean Sea, where currents gently rock it and keep it at a consistent temperature. Sample three of the company's specialties before moving on to your next stop, where you can satisfy your sweet tooth with the touted Tortuga's Rum Cake. You'll finish off your excursion with another dessert, this time made with plantains, after lunch and a chef's demonstration at a Caymanian restaurant.

Grab your samples on a seven-, 14- or even 21-night Holland America journey sailing round trip from Fort Lauderdale from mid-October to April 2019. Prices begin at $429 for the Oosterdam's Dec. 8 departure, with port calls in the Bahamas, Jamaica and Mexico as well as Grand Cayman.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Summer 2018. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.

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