Honduras & Belize: Unexpected Encounters and Nature onboard Ponant’s Le Dumont- D’Urville. Part I

Written & Images by Chloe Hambidge

Part I– Punta Sal, Amidst Jeannette Kawas National Park, Guanaja, Bonacca the Cay, La Giralda Cay

Before this trip, when my mind conjured up thoughts of Central America, not much arose other than a far flung corner of the world holding cultures I can only dream of exploring. Thanks to Ponant and yet another unique and well thought out itinerary, since being back, when I think of Belize and Honduras, a kaleidoscope of colourful culture, paradise islands and lush jungle adorned with mountainous backdrops burst to life.

To sum up a trip that collates all your bucket list desires and ticks them off day by day will never be truly achievable, but I’ve tried my best to do justice to my experience, not many 20 year olds can say they’ve explored Honduras and Belize in such depth and if I’ve gotten anything from this trip, it’s a growth for my thirst to travel, which is both dangerous and exciting!

Each day was more rewarding then the next, having the honour to embark on a new itinerary was a gift for both me and the local people. Exploring quaint islands smaller then a football pitch yet brimming with wide eyed people emitting happiness like the sun above their heads. We were welcomed with open arms, as for some, this was the very first time they have had people like us walking around their home; it is something we will all hold dear for a lifetime, and after all, isn’t that was travelling is all about?

In true expedition fashion, the team onboard Ponant elevated and made my experience, I came back educated, excited and with too many photos to count (that will definitely be pulled out at every opportunity). Everything about the cruise was slow paced, allowing to enjoy the wonder in front of you. Exploring to Inspire has never been easier with Ponant being expertise in immersion. With time and attention being put into creating the best daily programme to ensure no immersion is missed, but also scheduling that much needed downtime.

A highlight for me was the structured days of exploring wonder, every adventure accompanied by a guide and a naturalist, each one being a genius in a wide range of fields from geology to the study of birds. I hiked jungle speckled with emerald and forest green, coming together to create a lush playground of bird song and insect whispers- it’s a vision I once thought could only be seen through a screen. It wasn’t until the first day where I truly understood what I was in for as we were rewarded after our hike to a mirage of beach bliss, seemingly dropping out of the sky.

Read on to deep dive into my week of snorkeling with sharks, flying through the crystal clear sea with dolphins jumping by my side, to swinging from a hammock opposite tranquil beach and dining the best cuisine whilst sailing from gem to gem. Growing up cruising with my family and now working amongst this rewarding industry, from experience this trip has been incomparable and I believe that’s something Ponant has truly mastered. Let the story begin…

Wednesday November 22nd 2023, Punta Sal, Honduras

I never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but on the first morning of this cruise, I had never been more thankful for jet lag. Waking at around 5:30am, I was welcomed with the sight of a whole new world. Hiding in the Observation Lounge, I got a front row seat as we sailed blissfully into Punta Sal. Even from a distance, slowly edging towards the silhouette of relief smothered by trees and fauna, I knew it would be day spent hand in hand in untouched nature, and I was more than ready. Tucked in the corner of the Main Lounge, Deck 3 there is a delightful spread from 6:30am to 10am, with pastries, fruit, juices and hot drinks. Ideal for both early risers and late risers, I didn’t think I would be one of the former, but after getting a glimpse of what welcomes me when I do awake early in this destination, it did become something of a habit. For me, there was no better way to start the day then watching the painted sky transform pink to orange as the early morning mist blanketed the horizon, illuminating the canopies of trees we would soon be wandering.

The sun rising over Punta Sal from the Observation Lounge- Image by Chloe Hambidge

Kissing goodbye to dawn which felt like it belonged solely to me as my fellow passengers remained sleeping, it was time to get down to the true exploring. Set to leave the ship at 9am where zodiacs would be waiting for us. Ponant, experts in their trade of making expedition smooth and seamless, has ensured all of their Explorer ships are well equipped for the occasion. We mostly boarded the zodiacs from the landing platform, which is tucked just below the pool the pool deck and is fully retractable right at the aft of the ship, lowering right down to the water to allow you quick and easy embark and disembarkation. The captain is very present on the ship, always lending a helping hand to aid people embarking and disembarking zodiacs with his staple line “ladies first”.

Punta Sal National Park was the first glimpse of the jungle on our ‘Unexpected Encounters and Nature’ voyage. Whilst flying through the Caribbean Sea via zodiac we were educated on snippets of what makes this flourishing corner of Central America so special. The National Park was renamed Jeannette Kawas in honour of the environmental activist murdered in 1995- which is just small anecdote from my teachings. Commencing our hike from the shoreline, wandering inland where the tropical forest unfurls, we were met by local guides who know these treks like the back of their hand. This brought to light the true difference in travelling expedition, we didn’t just explore these incredible places but we understood them, it made me all the more grateful to see these unspoilt acres as I learnt the story of how they came to be and the secrets that are hidden amongst them from snakes, to how the locals go about their day to day life.

Amidst Jeannette Kawas National Park- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Image by Chloe Hambidge

During our hike, apart from an abundance of awe-inspiring views from the jungles canopy, we came across a variety plant and wildlife. I watched a lizard scale trees and a range of snakes slithering through foliage and tree roots, it felt like a sneak peek of everything the jungle hides from us. After dragging ourselves away from the jungles depths- and its many mosquitos, we were rewarded with a mirage of beach bliss. This hidden cove, hugged by the jungles edge, seemed to have dropped out of the sky. We were surrounded lapping waves and rocky pillars erupting from the depths of the turquoise waters, reflecting its verdant surroundings. It was beautiful to take in this moment of peace and have a quick swim in the bay before the zodiacs picked us up for our next adventure James Bond style.  

Vultures circling overhead looking for dead animals- Image by Chloe Hambidge
The secluded bay we stumbled upon after our hike- Image by Chloe Hambidge
As we were sailing away via zodiac to Bird Rock leaving behind the emerald beauty of Jeannette Kawas National Park- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Image by Chloe Hambidge

The next leg of our Punta Sal adventure was a zodiac cruise to the Bird Rock. Upon reflecting on my time in this unique area, it’s safe to say my eyes have been opened to the array of bird species hiding around this part of our world; and the knowledge around them thanks to the passionate and well educated Ponant expedition team. On this one hour zodiac cruise alone, we came across Frigate birds, Pelicans with their young and the eerie Black Vultures always circling for prey. All this down before 12pm…

Bird Rock- Image by Chloe Hambidge

With perfect balance of enticing exploration and relaxation, Le Dumont-D’Urville is the perfect place to unwind and take in the wonders of the new memories made. With an infinity pool and a bar stocked with whatever your heart desires you can spend the morning getting down to the nitty gritty of exploring, and the afternoon with your feet up. My favourite was the Creola mocktail, the perfect refreshing punch after spending the day in the tropical heat with mango, passionfruit, and peach juice topped with grenadine.

The beauty of Le Dumont D’Urville- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Le Dumont D’Urville infinty pool- Image by Chloe Hambidge

This snippet of relaxation is needed with the excitement of the Gala dinner in the evening. Just another plus of sailing in small ship luxury, your experience is taken personally to all the staff onboard. I can vouch for this incomparable level of service and attention as all the waiters greeted me by name, remembering my usual drink and always saving me my favourite table overlooking the sprawling sea. The night continued into an evening of high standard food and well thought out entertainment, a glimpse into the special voyage you’re about to embark on as you have the opportunity to meet all your crew from the Captain to the chef. It’s the perfect opportunity to socialise, enjoy the cuisine Ponant are so renowned for and mingle with all ranking well respected crew. My voyage wasn’t at full capacity, with just over 100 of us, either way I was excited to meet my Ponant family for the week…

Gala dinner- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Gala dinner- Image by Chloe Hambidge

Thursday November 23rd 2023, Guanaja, Honduras

Waking up in the gorgeous Guanaja, I was filled with excitement for the day to come. Daily programmes for all your activities and the days scheduled events are left in your cabins the previous evening, so you can prepare for what’s to come. I for one, was definitely ready to discover the heavenly deserted gem of Guanaja.

A look inside my Prestige Stateroom- Image by Chloe Hambidge

My first stop, of course, was Le Nautilus, which is one of the ships two main restaurants. With a modernised yet chic interior it’s a breath of fresh air to walk into after an early morning. Although, I was a regular on the outside veranda, simply to make the most of the sea breeze and the views as little puzzle pieces of islands dotted the skyline- signaling our destination is near. Breakfast is simple, you can order your desired drinks almost as soon as you take a seat and the rest is up to you! It is served buffet style with an array of hot choices like eggs and bacon as well as fresh fruits and delightful cheeses, you will definitely feel spoilt for choice. There is also an a la carte menu if you fancy anything in particular serving anything from waffles to a personally designed omelet.

View from the balcony during breakfast- Image by Chloe Hambidge

We kick started our second day in paradise nice and early, leaving the ship at 8am to go to the charmingly quaint islet of Bonacca the Cay. Seemingly built straight out of the sea, you will be welcomed by the sight of colourful houses and bobbing boats, Guanaja is one of the three main islands of the Bay Islands alongside Roatan and Utila. Discovered in 1502, their way of life hasn’t changed all that much. Living a simple and minimalist life the first thing you will notice is the kindness running through the whole community, when wandering around its vibrant streets everyone you pass with offer a greeting and a smile. Although, our ears were greeted before anything else as the schools local band played upbeat music with their very own instruments, the perfect way to blend into the island life rhythms. This just shows the thoughtful nature behind these cultures, we were made to feel at home despite coming from a completely different walk of life to them. The Caracoles people are by far the friendliest community, as well as those from Belize and across Honduras, I have come across in my travels and it made the experience of delving these areas all the more close to my heart. It was definitely a far cry from Londons hustle and bustle.

Bonacca the Cay- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Bonacca the Cay local school band performing for their Ponant guests- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Bonacca the Cay fresh food market- Image by Chloe Hambidge

Guanaja is called the Venice of Central America, with small canals of water flowing throughout, our local tour guide was reminiscing on the days when he was younger and would swim through them with his friends. Whilst wandering the whole island in less than 15 minutes, we took a pit stop at a local bar. Tucked away and revealed at the end of an ally, stringed lights guide the way until you reach the shack painted brighter than life, holding a much needed fruit punch, packing a punch as vibrant as the shack is came from. All these delights were gifts from the local people who are eager to share their way of life just as much as we are eager to explore it.

Bonacca the Cay- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Bonacca the Cay- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Bonacca the Cay- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Bonacca the Cay- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Bonacca the Cay as we sailed away, the island isn’t attached to the land in the background, it’s small island seemingly erupting from the water- Image by Chloe Hambidge

We continued our day in La Giralda Cay, here we got to experience a day in the life of the magic that comes out of Guanaja. From pottery making with local experts to chocolate making from scratch, watching the cocoa plant transform into something we love so dearly. We even got to try this ‘fresh’ chocolate and it was sensational- it’s making my mouth water even thinking back to eat, it was the quietest we’d all been since the exploration begun! Hummingbirds are the true locals on this island, whilst observing clay as it’s molded into the most intricate of designs in the treehouse we stayed in throughout the morning, hummingbirds came and went, attracted to the sugar water hanging from the balcony. It was a precious moment to be able to get so close to these delicate birds. These islands and all its discoveries have come on leaps and bounds since Chrispher Colombus’s discovery, but it would still be recognized for its timeless natural beauty which is held in abundance.

Stepping through mangroves into La Giralda Cay- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Watching the local experts create pottery from scratch- Image by Chloe Hambidge
The final pottery pieces- Image by Chloe Hambidge
A hummingbird taking a rest and sipping on sugar water- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Watching the experts create fresh chocolate from cocoa beans- Image by Chloe Hambidge

After seemingly exploring all day, we were back at the ship by 11, free to sunbathe by the pool, take a trip to the spa or even make the most of the Blue Eyes opening hours- for some relaxation under the waves. Despite so much morning adventure the day is far from over, and it’s never wasted when onboard Ponant…

During these down hours, the mayor of Guanaja came aboard with her family, it was an honour to meet them. It also seemed just as special for them as they had never seen a boat like the one we had the privilege of sailing on. After thanking her for allowing us to explore her stunning island, it was clear Ponant paves magical experiences for not only us onboard, but also the local people allowing us into their world.

From 2:15 there were zodiac shuttles going regularly back and forth from the ship to the beach, allowing you your own freedom for how you want to go about your day. I decided to grab my book and have a beach afternoon to myself, it was the perfect haven of calm compared to the morning of exploring, both equally as special in their own way. After chatting to a local man who lives on the beach, one of only a handful, he allowed me to lay on his hammock tucked away on a wooden boardwalk over the water. Warm from the sun and countless acts of kindness from the locals I’d met along the way, it was the perfect place to reflect on the wonderful things I’ve seen and learnt with the lapping waves below me. It seems Ponant have mastered the balance between exploring these incredible places, as well as seeking solace to sit back and appreciate it all. I left this seemingly undiscovered beach blissfully happy and with a few seashells gifted from a new friend.

Secluded beach in Guanaja, a local allowed me to relax on his hammock elevated over the waves. He says this is also the only place he can get any phone reception- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Secluded beach in Guanaja, we were the only inhabitants on the island for the day (alongside the handful of locals of course)- it was the first time this many tourists had visited- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Cute local dog- Image by Chloe Hambidge
Shells gifted by the local man who cares for the beach, he collects them when cleaning the beach to give to people who visit- Image by Chloe Hambidge

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