PASSENGERS ABOARD THE Iberostar Grand Amazon can have an Amazon adventure while enjoying the comforts of a deluxe riverboat. It's the ideal combination for baby boomers who want their travel to present a unique experience but don't want to give up the good life.
The first cruise venture of Iberostar, the well-established Spanish chain with 100 hotels in Europe, Mexico, Caribbean and South America, the Iberostar Grand Amazon is in its second year of operating three-, four- and seven-night Amazon River cruises. Inadequate air service had hampered the line's ability to promote in the U.S., but its prospects for attracting American travelers greatly increased with the January 2007 launch of nonstop flights from Miami to Manaus by TAM, the Brazilian airline. One-stop Copa Airlines service via Panama is also available.
The Wow Factor: Unlike typical cruise ships, with their eye-popping new facilities on board, the 270-foot Iberostar Grand Amazon's "wow" is where it sails: the Amazon—the river and its jungles—and Manaus, a city of two million people that stretches almost 22 miles along its banks. Passengers get plenty to write home about with thrilling daily excursions such as hiking in the rain forest, swimming with pink dolphins, piranha fishing and nighttime boat trips. The cruise provides travel agents with plenty to sell to adventure-seeking clients—all the more desirable when they are told they will have comfortable accommodations and a hot shower every night.
Another plus: the inclusive price. In addition to the usual cruise features of cabin, meals and entertainment, Iberostar Grand Amazon fares also cover land excursions, wine at lunch and dinner, and drinks at the bar.
Top Table: The Iberostar Grand Amazon's dining room can hold all passengers at the same time, with open seating for three meals and flexible times. All tables seat eight people, except for the 12-seat captain's table.
Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style, but at dinner passengers have a choice of either buffet or a sit-down menu with two selections for each of four courses—or they can choose from both options. The tasty and varied cuisine is Brazilian and international, making use of fresh fruits and vegetables and featuring outstanding local fish from the Amazon, along with excellent lamb, pork and beef. During meals, the affable chef, who hails from Mexico and has cooked at leading restaurants in the U.S., tours the dining room to visit with guests and ensure they are pleased and well-attended.
A bar and a second dining venue for light breakfast and lunch are in the covered area of the top open-air deck. If a couple requests an intimate dinner or a special-occasion meal under the stars, general manager Andre Penna and his chef will use this location. For a birthday or anniversary, members of the expedition staff who play instruments (and can often be found jamming on the top deck in the evening) will provide some celebratory tunes. Penna also provides honeymooners and VIPs with fruit and champagne in their cabin.
Rating the Digs: Built in Manaus at a cost of $12 million and styled like Nile River boats after the owner and architects made several trips to Egypt to see them, the Iberostar Grand Amazon lives up to its advanced billing as the most deluxe cruise boat on the Amazon sailing from Manaus. It has 72 spacious, air-conditioned cabins and two suites, all with verandas that, while small, still hold a couple of chairs where guests can enjoy the peaceful views in early morning, at sunset or in the cool of evening. Cabins on the third deck are perhaps the most desirable, because of the better view.
Staterooms—unusually large for a riverboat—are identical in size and layout, each measuring 240 square feet. The two suites, which are on the second deck, encompass almost 500 square feet, with a living/dining room and separate bedroom, a large bathroom with a bathtub, and a narrow veranda that extends around both rooms.
All cabins are furnished with a queen or two twin beds, a dressing table that can double as a desk, a leather easy chair, night tables, a minibar, a TV that plays movies, a safe, and generous closet space and drawers. A delicious chocolate-covered Brazil nut is left on the pillow during turn-down service. The bathroom has a countertop of Brazilian marble, large glass-enclosed shower, hair dryer and a sensor that turns the lights on and off.
The decor throughout the boat is low-key and pleasant and makes generous use of Brazilian hardwoods and crafts. In the cabins, for example, some walls are faced with golden blond Brazilian hardwood and display artwork reflecting Amazonian traditions. Several public rooms have lovely parquet floors.
The boat has a small exercise room with equipment; a shopping boutique; a clinic with a nurse on duty 24/7; and a large lounge with a bar that does triple duty as the boat's lecture room, show lounge and disco. On the open-air top deck, there's a swimming pool surrounded by comfortable wooden lounge chairs and a hot tub (with warm water only). Internet service is planned.
Hot Spots: Most of guests' time is spent off the boat, which employs an expedition staff of five to eight men, depending on the number of passengers. All come from the Manaus region and are caboclo (the local term for native Indians of mixed blood), and very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the Amazon. They, along with all the boat's staff and crew, take English lessons three times weekly. The boat's personnel were trained by Iberostar hotel members.
Excursions of two to three hours are scheduled for 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily; special ones for birding are offered at 6 a.m. at least twice during the week. The boat carries four launches, each holding up to 22 people (more launches are added as needed), to take passengers into small streams that weave their paths through the jungle. Normally, passengers are grouped for the excursions by language—Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, German and Italian, as necessary. At least two guides accompany every expedition, and on jungle treks one leads and the other brings up the rear behind the hikers.
A typical day will include an early-morning excursion up one of the small tributaries to a landing, where the group will set off on a hike. The pace is easy because the guides stop often to describe the flora and their traditional uses, to discuss skills for surviving in the jungle and to look for animals, birds and unusual insects. It's common to see many different bird species in one outing, but spotting monkeys, sloths, iguana or anaconda is much more difficult. Special excursions are offered for piranha fishing and for nighttime viewing of fiery-eyed caymans. Approximately 70 percent of the region's animals are nocturnal. On the three-day cruise, cruisers visit a village or two and have the opportunity to buy crafts made by local residents.
All excursions are followed by audiovisual-enhanced lectures on specific subjects—the river, its history, flowers, fish, birds, etc.—given in whatever languages the passenger makeup warrants. Fortunately, there are none of the frequent announcements heard on large cruise ships. Instead, a daily schedule is slipped under cabin doors and is posted at the reception desk. The boat stages two evening shows performed by a lively folklore group from Manaus. Dress is casual for the duration of the cruise.
Just the Facts: The Iberostar Grand Amazon offers two itineraries from Manaus: a four-night cruise (Sunday through Thursday) along the Rio Negro, which starts in Colombia and is the major tributary of the thousand smaller rivers that flow into the Amazon, and a three-night cruise (Thursday through Sunday) along the Solimoes, the name of the Amazon River before it reaches Manaus, where it meets the Rio Negro. They can be combined for a seven-night cruise.
Current prices start at $1,150 per person, including airfare, but Orlando Giglio, Iberostar sales and marketing director/Brazil (email@example.com) , said he expects them to increase for next year. Agents should contact him directly, or contact general manager Andre Penna (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have special requests.
The U.S. office's address is Iberostar Grand Amazon Cruises, 2566 Le Jeune Road, Coral Gables, FL 33134; phone, 888-923-2722 or 305-774-9225; fax, 305-774-4810. Go to www.iberostar.com and click on All Inclusive Hotels at the bottom of the homepage.