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Cruise News: A New Yucatan Port Adventure

Plus: Azamara spans the globe, Cirque du Soleil boards MSC, and IST adds a yacht for Cuba

Jaguars, howler monkeys, macaws, ancient pyramids, and living Mayan culture make Mexico’s Puerto Costa Maya one of the most colorfully diverse places you can reach on a weeklong cruise from Florida. Now, there are dramatic changes at this privately developed port on the Yucatán Peninsula.

Costa Maya emerged 14 years ago as a cruise ship gateway to a fascinating, undeveloped stretch of forested coastline. There are traditional Mayan villages and archaeological sites such as Kohunlich with its huge stucco masks. The pyramids at Chacchoben were only recently excavated. Offshore stretches the Chinchorro Bank, part of the world’s second-largest coral reef and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve famous among divers.

No wonder ships flocked in. Then came captive dolphins, Señor Frog’s, and other trappings of mass tourism. Now, to get more in step with travelers seeking adventure, authenticity, and culture, Costa Maya’s owners have reinvented the port’s restaurants and built a major Mayan-themed attraction.

Opened this month, the Lost Mayan Kingdom provides an Indiana Jones–style adventure that should appeal to families with children who may not be able to spend hours trekking around ruins. It has trails, nine water slides, four zip line circuits, a zip coaster, and a ropes course accessed from a towering pyramid. Other elements include a lazy river float, a cenote (a deep, limestone-ringed pool), and a children’s splash park.

Visitors enter at a trading post, between crates from an expedition—one marked “spider monkey” jumps as if there’s something inside. Copal, a resin incense that was burned in Mayan rituals, scents the air. From the top of the 112-foot pyramid, riders get a vast forest view before plummeting down the water slides. Some of the zip lines have water splashdowns.

The cruise terminal itself has been restyled on the expedition theme with rustic décor and signage (an arrow points to “expeditions” instead of “tours”). Mexican regional foods, beers, chocolate, and coffee are the focus of the reinvented restaurants. There’s even a sophisticated beach dining spot for Champagne and local lobster. The food and beverage chief is Jesús Olvera, who was part of the opening team at Wynn Las Vegas and has worked for Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton.

Among the more authentic venues under Olvera’s direction is Cantina Latina, which offers pan-Latin dishes from Cuba and Brazil; Flavors of Mexico, serving regional specialties and a pale ale and lager from the new microbrewery on site, and the upscale, beachfront Fish Market, which grills seafood and lobster hauled in by the fishermen of nearby Mahahual. At a café pairing Mexican coffees and chocolates with pastries, patrons can dip a crispy, sugar-dusted churro in hot chocolate.

Still to come is Journey to the Mayan Legends: Traveling a circuit by horse-drawn cart, visitors will see vignettes about sacred stones, the stars, the Day of the Dead, the ceiba tree (which links heaven and the underworld), and aluxes, the sprites that watch over the corn.

Azamara expands its reach

Thirty new ports and world events are in the charts for Azamara Club Cruises in 2018, when the line returns to Australia and New Zealand and introduces its first world cruise. That 102-day voyage will sail from Sydney to London. Plus, Azamara’s two mid-sized ships will take travelers to such events as the British Open, the Monaco Grand Prix, the Cannes Film Festival, and the Redentore Festival in Venice.

Cirque sets sail

Cirque du Soleil is coming to sea in a purpose-built venue on some of MSC Cruises’ future ships. The Italian-owned cruise line and the Montréal-based circus company formed a partnership to develop shows for a $21 million custom-built entertainment and dining lounge on board. A decade ago, Cirque and Celebrity Cruises had a short-lived concept that involved outlandish characters interacting with passengers in the bars on two ships. The MSC plans are more substantive. Cirque shows developed exclusively for MSC will be performed six nights a week. They’ll debut on MSC Meraviglia, which enters service in June 2017 in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, MSC Divina has just returned to PortMiami for year-round Caribbean cruises, with added experiences tailored for Americans. There are “flou” (glow in the dark) and “snow” (by way of a snow cannon) theme parties, new main stage shows, and new bands playing in the bars and lounges. A new wine tasting focuses on rare vintages from award-winning boutique wineries.

IST doubles down on Cuba

Group IST added a second 49-passenger Greek motor yacht for Cuba cruises starting in December. With Panorama II joining Panorama, the New York City–based tour operator can offer Saturday departures from both Havana and Cienfuegos. The other ports are Trinidad, Cayo Largo, and Maria La Gorda. This will be Group IST’s third season in Cuba, where its people-to-people program complies with U.S. rules for qualified travelers. Among the activities are meetings with musicians, dancers, and artists, a cooking demonstration, and walking tours focused on architecture. There are opportunities to interact with farmers, cigar makers, teachers, students, and doctors.

Anne Kalosh doesn’t count the cruises she's taken, though there have been hundreds—including five years as a shipboard newspaper editor, sailing the world. She loves the experiences sea travel offers. Her byline has appeared in many major publications, and she’s on top of the latest cruise developments as the long-time U.S. editor for Seatrade-Cruise.com and Seatrade Cruise Review.