'Could This Really Be Seabourn?'

Cruise editor Cathy Carroll sailed aboard Seabourn Cruise Line's Seabourn Legend, on the first half of an 11-night itinerary from Curacao to Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. Her report follows:

ABOARD THE SEABOURN LEGEND -- The wing of the vintage DC-3 dipped, and the valley of Venezuela's 7-million-acre Canaima National Park, home to the world's tallest waterfall, stretched out below.

As I peered through the window of the banking 20-seater, the sensation was like that of skydiving or being harnessed to the plane's belly and basking in the wonder of Angel Falls.

At 6,000 feet, the craft skimmed alongside the tops of the great tepuys (pronounced teh-poo-wees), much like the the mesas of Arizona, which rose, godlike, from the valley floor.

The pilot repeatedly circled and dipped the plane, and we were in awe.

After just one day amid the world's most ancient rock formations, it seemed as if the Pemon Indian view of the cosmos and their relationship with nature was taking over.

It was then that I had to ask: Could this really be Seabourn?

In my mind, the word Seabourn was directly linked to the words caviar, tuxedo and diamonds -- not canoe, hiking boot and bug repellent.

I reveled in learning how it could mean both.

In any case, I found it all too easy to anthropomorphize here.

That morning, speeding upriver in an outboard-equipped canoe, I found myself asking the looming monolith to allow its enshrouding clouds, which would prevent our flight over the falls, to lift.

By the time we had hiked through the jungle, walked beneath El Sapo waterfall and sipped yucca wine from a gourd with a Pemon family, the soft, late-afternoon sun was kissing the falls.

Seabourn officials and agents invited to sample this new itinerary acknowledged that for the line to continue to succeed, it must evolve, by including soft adventures such as this one for its increasing number of baby-boomer guests.

Yet at the same time, the line continues to live up to its every promise of luxury.

"Oh, yes, this is Seabourn," I thought, as I reclined in a Legend lounge chair in the nearly equatorial sun and a steward approached with a bottle of lavender-infused Evian and spritzed me head to toe.

Later, his assistant brought a platter of rolled hand towels, glistening and fresh from the freezer -- chilly diplomas to be opened and dabbed upon glowing brows and wrists.

Lunch was served in the Verandah cafe and its open-air aft deck, beneath the canvas canopy snapping in the Caribbean breeze.

Or one could opt for lunch poolside, with the chef grilling lobsters, hamburgers and hot dogs, and chicken and scallops and shrimp for fajitas.

At sunset, we unwound in the outdoor Jacuzzi, discussing the day with our sailing companions while sipping champagne and dolloping creme fraiche on Osceitra caviar.

Chef de cuisine Ulf Robel's featured dinner started with warm prawn and Maine lobster salad with tarragon and truffle dressing and caviar; a light roasted garlic soup and parsley croutons; fillet of turbot on Madagascar peppercorns; Dom Perignon champagne granita; pink roast rack of spring lamb on a wild mushroom and leek confit with gratin potatoes; a salsa of peach and apricot with vanilla frozen yogurt; handmade truffles and ginger snaps, and a selection of cheeses.

Here, elegant evenings were juxtaposed with adventurous days.

As the Legend plied the Orinoco River, the flat coastline passed hypnotically, seeming as wild as the Serengeti.

Punctuating it every several hundred yards were neatly thatched huts perched on stilts, with a few items of clothing drying on each line.

All afternoon, Warao Indians, usually pairs of adolescent boys or girls, rowed in dugout canoes toward the ship.

They would wave, calling out a single tone -- a steady low note -- and smile.

Peter Cox, director of cruise and land programs for Seabourn, said he chose the Orinoco because it has as much jungle and wildlife as the Amazon but is closer to the U.S. and more pristine.

The Amazon is more developed, with modern structures on its banks, he said.

After our day cruising the river, I awoke at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of drums and thought the cruise was tapping my imagination too deeply.

But I had not succumbed to jungle fantasies.

Beside the ship, a dozen canoes bobbed in the darkness, one with a group of Warao playing guitars and beating handmade drums.

The canoes, except those carrying the musicians, were rigged with outboards and piloted by English-speaking guides who escorted 100 of the ship's 200 guests through the Orinoco delta.

As we waited to board the canoes, the Seabourn crew offered us bug repellant and supplied plastic ponchos.

A capuchin monkey, a pet brought by the Indians, climbed around on guests' shoulders.

Daybreak came as the ship faded in the distance, and we turned into a narrow tributary.

As we navigated among vines streaming 40 feet from the treetops, parrots, egrets, herons and eagles traversed overhead.

Long grasses undulated in the warm, cafe con leche water, which our canoe sliced through slowly, as we silently wished to spot a crocodile.

My mind wandered to the mosquito that had drawn blood from my thumb for breakfast that morning. I made the mistake of asking our guide, Ricardo, about it.

He replied calmly, "I've had malaria four times and would not wish it on my worst enemy."

But I had forgotten about it by the time we reached the cove where hundreds of flying fish were hurtling themselves from the water.

One struck a graphic designer from San Francisco square across the face, and a blond woman from New York squealed as though she'd been goosed on a crosstown bus.

Shrills were sent up from the other canoes, and the once silent cove now sounded like the audience on a Lenny Bruce recording.

Another silvery fish leapt into our canoe.

Luis, who was operating the motor and did not speak English, held it in his fist, just below its head, the mouth gaping.

"Esta muerto?" Ricardo asked him. Luis nodded.

"We'll have fried fish for dinner," Ricardo said.

It was then that we caught several glimpses of the pink dolphins, their arched backs breaking the river's surface.

Back on board, a couple in their 70s relaxed in the Midnight Sun lounge and chatted about how they enjoyed the excursions, hiking through the jungle, flying over the falls and canoeing down the delta.

"It was exciting," the woman said. "But not as strenuous as the cruise we did in the Galapagos."

Cruise-only prices for the 11-night New Caribbean Landfalls North itinerary start at $6,950 per person, double. The next sailing date will be scheduled for 1999.

Seabourn's other soft adventure itineraries include river rafting in Bali, hiking the Costa Rican rain forest and flight-seeing in the Antarctic and Alaska.

For reservations, call (800) 929-9595.

For sales and support, call (800) 929-4747.

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