Best-selling novelist Rachael Lucas reviews Thomson Dream on a cruise from Jamaica to the jungles of South America and the Panama Canal
I’m peering up into the dripping canopy of trees, long, moss-covered cables hanging down, the air filled with birdsong and the rush of the waterfall, when I spot the group of Howler monkeys high in the branches above us.
We’re in the depths of the Veragua Rainforest in Costa Rica, and it’s raining hard. As shore excursions go, it’s a breathtaking start to our cruise, but this trip was always going to be unusual. The seven-night itinerary takes you from Montego Bay, Jamaica, to Colombia, Costa Rica, the tiny San Blas islands and the Panama Canal.
My first taste of the unexpected on this week-long cruise comes as we dock. Before breakfast I head to the top deck of the ship where I take in the view of South America. An inky blue sea surrounds us, and in the distance a mist rises from the lush green hills. I’m so excited that I do a little dance of happiness, and am caught out by a fellow passenger. When I tell him that I’m so excited I could skip a circuit of the deck, he bursts out laughing – he feels exactly the same.
The hour-long trip to the Veragua Rainforest takes us through the town of Puerto Limón, passing houses and shops made from brightly painted corrugated iron. Palm trees are everywhere, the ground underneath them carpeted with orange petals. We pass colourful houses on stilts, with long horned cattle grazing in fields dotted with orange trees, and climb into the rainforest. A little girl in a cerise pink skirt waves from a porch, her dog sitting on a rocking chair as she plays in the rain.
Suddenly we pull over onto the side of the road. The driver points upward and we all peer out. Amazingly, it’s a sloth, hanging in the tree.
“We cannot protect something we can’t understand,” Jonathan, our guide, explains. That’s the whole principle behind the National Institute of Biodiversity, which makes its home here. By the end of the Eco-Adventure experience we’ve seen hosts of exotic butterflies, red-eyed frogs and snakes. We take the aerial tram passing through the mist which rises through the canopy, down into the depths of the Victoria River Canyon, where walking trails snake upwards through the rainforest with tracks to suit every ability.
Lunch is Casado, the traditional local mix of rice, black beans, spicy chicken and fried plantain. The only way to explore the Tortuguero National Park is by boat. Floating along, fallen coconuts bobbing alongside us, we’re up close with groups of monkeys, sloths – including a mum and her baby – kingfishers, parakeets, herons, a laughing falcon, and the vibrant green Jesus Christ Lizard, so named because he can walk on water.
Back on board Thomson Dream, there’s time for a shower, a glass of Champagne, and a snooze in my spacious, air-conditioned cabin before dinner. The beds on board are so comfortable, and there’s loads of room. In the en-suite bathroom there’s a decent sized bath, a powerful shower, and – most importantly – a really good hairdryer. Couple that with a sofa to relax on and enough storage space for even an over-packer like me and you’ve got everything you need.
Passengers range from couples with young children (the Kids Club is for three to 11-year-olds) to solo travellers – the hostess has a designated table in the Orion Restaurant for making new friends. Everyone’s so welcoming, though, that I’ve had several invitations to join people for dinner by the end of my first morning by the pool.
On our first day on board, we spent the day at sea, enjoying a behind-the-scenes tour of the ship, which took in the bridge, engine control room and lots more. We chatted with Captain Terje Ulset and his crew and I was amazed to discover there are almost as many crew members on board as there are passengers.
Dinner that night in the Orion Restaurant after our day at sea was a glamorous affair – dressing up for the one formal evening of the week was great fun, and the captain took the opportunity to introduce his senior crew members in the Broadway Lounge before dinner. I had a perfect asparagus risotto topped with crispy pancetta, followed by a panna cotta to die for.
Rested after my rainforest adventure, I found space for another delicious meal – six gourmet courses at Mistral’s (cover charge £19.95). Later that night we returned to the Broadway Lounge for a dazzling show, At The Copa. I’m a bit of a West End junkie so this was a real treat.
We awoke the next morning in Cólon, Panama, a crumbling old colonial beauty with heaps of character. We passed through the streets by bus, taking in the colourful jumble of street markets, trestle tables loaded with fruit and bright yellow taxis nose to nose with bicycles. Arriving at the station, we climbed on board the vintage dome car for a trip that took us from the Atlantic to the Pacific. After a coach ride along the Amador Causeway, where we saw the Bridge of the Americas glistening in the sunlight, there was time for shopping and an ice cream before we headed back to experience the gargantuan Gatun Locks and see the Panama Canal in action.
The next morning our captain announced that it was sadly too rough to make our visit to the San Blas islands, but we made the best of it with a lazy day by the pool. With tips and service charges included in your holiday and a cashless system in place, all you need to order is a cabin card and a signature.
The staff swung into action with a day of entertainment – my favourite a colourful Q&A session in the Medusa Lounge with the entertaining Captain Ulset, who explained that his previous job had involved firing rockets into space from a ship based at the Equator.
Even with the ship at full capacity, it always felt spacious and there were plenty of quiet spots to relax. There’s a sunbed parking ticket system (staff will leave a note for anyone who has grabbed a spot by one of the two pools and disappeared) and a brand new sunbathing space, The Sun Lounge, which features its own bar.
Cooking your own dinner on a hot lava rock while being serenaded by singing waiters is a pretty good way to end a relaxed day. Black Rock@The Terrace Grill is one of the new eating experiences on board Thomson Dream, and it makes for a fun evening by the poolside. I was presented with a huge steak, and it was up to me to cook it to perfection – I’m glad to say I did.
Rounding off the night with some music and a cocktail in the atmospheric Delo piano bar, we turned in. Some of the more energetic guests were just warming up as we left, dancing into the small hours at The Water’s Edge.
I woke in Cartagena, Colombia, a city of contrasts. Our guide Daniel, showed us the newspaper where Gabriel García Márquez started his writing career, before we paused in the busy street packed with the brightly coloured Chiva party buses to take in the beauty of the Barajas Fortress. Through the colourful streets and alongside the beaches of the Caribbean, we drove on into the Cueva del Manglar, where local fishermen helped us on board carved wooden canoes. Gliding silently through the shallow waters, the sounds of the birds within the mangroves were broken only by the gentle splash of the paddle as we made our way along, spotting kingfishers and herons. Daniel explained how the fishermen hand-knot their nets, each one taking 10 days to make, and they pass on the skill of throwing them from father to child. Using the nets they collect crabs to make traditional crab rice, working together as a community to make sure that if one family has a bad fishing day, nobody goes hungry.
After a demonstration of local dance in traditional yellow, blue and red dress, we headed back to Cartagena where we soaked up the vibrant colours and architecture of the old town on a walking tour. Wandering the streets it was fascinating to discover that each ornate door knocker on the huge, studded doors held a different meaning. A lizard indicated an artist or writer, whereas a lion meant someone of royal blood lived inside. Most interesting of all, a hand signified that the owner was opposed to slavery.
We then headed up to the city walls and watched the sun set over the Caribbean with a mojito in hand – the perfect ending to the day.
I felt like I’d been on holiday forever as I came full circle the next morning, starting off with a plate of the same delicious banana pancakes scattered with nuts and a heavenly butterscotch sauce I’d had on the first day. After an al fresco lunch from the Lido Pool grill and a coffee or two later, I headed to the Oceans Spa for a hot stone massage, which was bliss. The spa is open from 8am to 9pm, and even on a sea day I didn’t have trouble booking a session.
The last meal of my trip was in Kora La, the new Asian dining experience. The king prawn vindaloo I chose was an explosion of rich, sweet, aromatic flavour, while I left just enough room for tasty pineapple flambé dessert. With a reasonable cover charge of £19.95 it’s unsurprisingly popular with diners.
The final day dawned, but there was one more treat ahead. Thomson’s cruise-and-stay package offers you the chance to soak up the reggae vibe with a week in beautiful Jamaica. We visited the 5T Sensatori Resort which is set on Negril’s famous Seven Mile Beach. You haven’t known relaxation until you’ve had a beachside aromatherapy massage, lulled into zen calm by the sound of the Caribbean waves lapping on the shore.
Sensatori has been designed as a holistic, all five senses experience – I’m a bit ashamed as a novelist to admit it, but it’s impossible to describe just how breathtakingly beautiful it is, how soft and white the sand, and how blissful it feels to dive into an azure sea so warm, clear and welcoming. I’ll just have to take another cruise-and-stay and let you know.
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