When Fred Olsen Cruise Lines asked if I would like to be a guest entertainer on board a cruise up the Amazon, I jumped at the opportunity. This incredible river, the third longest in the world (though the Brazilians claim it is the longest), stems from the Andes in Peru, and flows across a large part of the South American continent from west to east. As it reaches Brazil and is joined by other rivers, the Amazon becomes progressively wider; by the time it meets the Atlantic, it is more than 20 miles across. It travels through the world's largest rainforest, home to many indigenous tribes, some of whom made contact with civilisation as we know it only in the last century.
I have worked on a number of cruise ships, presenting my one-man comedy show, or "singing for my supper". Cruising is a growth area in the travel industry, and ever-larger ships are being built to cope with the increasing demand. The advantage of a ship like the Braemar is that she feels less impersonal than the larger vessels. Although she can accommodate 750 passengers, she is still small enough to travel up the world's greatest river.
My wife and I joined the ship in Bridgetown, Barbados. The cruise had been sold out way in advance. Obviously the idea of sailing the Amazon had fired the passengers' imaginations.
The first planned port of call was a visit to Devil's Island, one of three small territories off French Guiana that make up the Iles du Salut, or Salvation Islands. Devil's Island was used by the French to house political and other prisoners from 1852 until 1946. During those years, reportedly 30,000 prisoners died, mostly from malaria or yellow fever. The island came to the attention of millions after the publication of Henri Charrière's brilliant autobiographical book, Papillon, and the subsequent film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Our appetites for this excursion had been whetted by an excellent talk by one of the cruise lecturers. All lecturers on the ship were first-class, and every port of call was covered by a talk prior to the ship's visit. Unfortunately, to great disappointment, the trip to Devil's Island was cancelled because of bad weather.
Excursions are often the deciding factor when it comes to people choosing one cruise over another. Though all the ports of call except one were in Brazil, the variety was amazing. Our first visit was to Santarém, a substantial port city that was full of character and had a bustling market. We also visited a village a few miles inland on the edge of the rainforest, where the inhabitants live mainly by subsistence farming, growing tapioca.
The following day we stopped at Parintins, a riverside town about 200 miles from Manaus with a population of about 30,000. Here, as elsewhere, well-preserved colonial architecture dominates the town. A particular joy for most visitors is the Church of Sagrado Coração de Jesus built in 1883, and the Catedral de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, the largest religious building in the Amazon basin. Decorated by Italian artists, it took 30 years to construct. *
* The journey from Parintins to the historic city of Manaus took another day-and-a-half, passing through vast areas of rainforest with only the occasional glimpse of habitation. So it was a surprise to arrive in this city, the capital of Amazonas - itself the largest state in Brazil and 1,000 miles from the mouth of the river - to discover a modern metropolis with fine imposing buildings, broad streets, sophisticated shops and everything you might expect to find in a large, well-established city - including an Opera House.
Manaus's prosperity was based on the great rubber boom between 1890 and 1920. Though rubber is no longer a major export, the city maintains a dignified air, graced by some exceptional buildings and impressive museums depicting the development of the area. The university's Museu Amazônico in particular has fascinating documents and engravings about the first exploration of the interior of this vast, inhospitable region.
The big attraction for all visitors to Manaus, however, is the Opera House, or Teatro Amazonas, which is renowned in musical circles. It was built at the height of the city's prosperity, and no expense was spared: marble was imported from Italy, roofing tiles from Alsace and selected wood from exotic locales. It has recently undergone extensive refurbishment for its centenary. Many of the top opera singers from around the world have appeared there, as much for the joy and pleasure of performing in such a beautiful and individual venue, as for the financial rewards.
One delightful touch in the Opera House is the outsize slippers that fit over visitors' shoes, and which have to be worn when visiting the reception area that serves the Dress Circle. The floors are made of special woods such as jacaranda, and in the slippers one can only slide across the floor, which not only preserves the expensive timbers, but the soft material of the slipper continually polishes the wood. The result is the most highly polished and attractive floor imaginable.
A number of excursions were available from Manaus. On the second day at anchor we decided to take the Amazon River cruise that uses smaller vessels to explore further up river and takes you closer to the interior. We were taken to a staging post, then transferred in small groups of 10 into large canoes with outboard motors. As we skimmed under overhanging trees, on the lookout for cayman, we marvelled at the beauty of the varied vegetation or flora, and the multi-coloured shades of green and the beautiful patterns that nature can create. One highlight was the huge lily pads, some eight feet in diameter.
On returning from this exhilarating canoe trip, we boarded the large steamer and were taken to the Meeting of the Waters near Manaus. Here the great tributary rivers of the Amazon, the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões, converge and create a natural phenomenon. The yellow waters of the Rio Solimões and the black waters of the Rio Negro flow side by side without mixing for six miles before finally merging into one shade.
On the homeward journey down the Amazon we called at Boca da Valeria, a village at the edge of the rainforest inhabited by Caboclo, a people of mixed Indian and European ancestry. Our ship had to anchor some distance away and we went ashore by tender. It was delightful to discover such an unusual, indigenous small village not far from the busy metropolis of Manaus. The villagers eke out a modest living from fishing and making wood-carvings and masks. A visit from a cruise ship is obviously an event and the whole village turns out to display their wares.
The gourd masks and wood carvings were beautifully made, modestly priced and were obviously popular mementoes. For the more adventurous it was possible to explore the edge of the rainforest in search of monkeys and butterflies, as well as macaws and other colourful bird life.
Our final visit on the homeward journey was to Alter do Chão. We anchored in the river and went ashore by tender. This is the beach resort of Santarém, with a beautiful bay of white sand combining with the deep blue of the river Tapajós. Many of the passengers went for a swim; however, we opted to explore the small town. On the day we arrived there was a festival taking place, so the central square was crowded with people from outside the town as well as the locals.
The largest building in the town houses the centre for the Preservation of Indian Art, a magnificent collection of artefacts from the Amazon, and a must for any visitor interested in the indigenous people and the background to the areas they were visiting.The rubber trees on Travessa dos Mártires provide a touch of excitement around 4pm each day as the seeds blow up and explode.
In the dry season a sandbank in the middle of the bay is accessible by foot, where there are tree-shaded stalls selling seafood and drinks, and it is possible to swim in the surrounding waters. This being the rainy season the sandbank was separated from the edge of the river, and innumerable boats take visitors to what is now a mini-island. The trip to the sandbank was one of many highlights. So finally, to quote from my radio programme, Just a Minute, I can say without hesitation or deviation, though maybe a hint of repetition, sailing one of the world's most amazing waterways in a delightful ship offering great comfort and unbelievable food was an exceptional experience, and we returned with memories that we will treasure for ever.
TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: THE AMAZON
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines' (01473 742424; www.fredolsencruises.co.uk) next Amazon cruise aboard the Braemar departs on 1 March 2007. The 15-night itinerary costs from £1,768 per person, which includes return flights from Gatwick or Manchester to Barbados, transfers and full board accommodation on the ship.
Museu Amazonico do Amazonas, Rua Ramos Ferreira 1.036, Manaus (00 55 92 3234 3242; www.museuamazonico.ufam.edu.br)
Teatro Amazonas (Opera House), Rua Jose Clemente, Manaus (00 55 92 3622 2420).
Amazonas State Tourism: 00 55 92 233 1095; www.amazonastur.am.gov.br
Brazil Tourism: 020-7396 5551; www.braziltour.com