Steve McQueen (as Papillon) had a hard time escaping Devil’s Island. Maybe he should have booked a Silversea cruise – the ultra-luxury way to travel from the Caribbean to the mighty Amazon river
It's not on every holiday that you get the chance to go out hunting alligators. All right, to be strictly accurate, they weren't alligators but caymans that I found myself peering out for in the middle of a dug-out canoe in a dark and eerie backwater of the mighty Amazon river.
I was told that caymans are no great man-eaters but I was also told that they had been known to grow to 25ft long so I was not over-anxious to put this theory to the test. You won't be surprised to learn that I made a point of sitting in the back of the canoe and letting the expert (the local indian boatman) do the business.
As he punted us along, he carried a torch in his teeth and swept the banks for an hour before finally transfixing a young - and thankfully small - cayman in its beam. He leapt on the banks, grabbed it and brought it into the boat to show me before letting it slip back into the water - the cayman is a protected species in these parts. Even from my seat, this was an exciting moment and one of the highlights of a cruise along the world's largest and second longest river.
My cruise, on Silversea Cruises' Silver Cloud, had begun in Barbados and first called at the fascinating Devil's Islands, off the coast of French Guyana. These were once the French penal colony that held prisoners like Dreyfus and, if he is to be believed, Henri Charrière - better known (thanks to Steve McQueen) as Papillon. The cells are still there, including Death Row and the block on which Madame La Guillotine once stood. Goriest of all, though, were the remains of the abattoir where the warders deliberately let the blood run into the sea to ensure one escape route was guarded by a constant supply of sharks.
From there, it was straight to the Amazon although, once we had reached the river, our route took us through the mazy Breves Narrows - an atmospheric introduction to the river, especially at night. For the next week, we cruised along more than 1,000 miles of the Amazon but that was still only a quarter of the river's length.
The scale of the Amazon Basin is extraordinary - 17 of its tributaries are more than 1,000 miles long; about a fifth of the world's oxygen is produced by its rainforest and it carries a fifth of the world's fresh water. The Amazon is so long and wide that it is sometimes easy to imagine yourself back at sea. So, to get the real flavour of the region, the cruise line organises excursions into its tributaries along the way.
At Santarem, there is a wedding of the waters, as the brown, faster-moving Amazon meets the clearer, slower Tapajos River; a boat trip took us right down the wavy but distinct line where the waters meet. Our boat could have come straight out of The African Queen and it, too, got stuck on sandbanks a couple of times, which gave some of us a bit more adventure than we had bargained for.
We were dropped off at a small settlement where the local indians showed off a variety of animals including a sloth, the first of many we saw along the river banks. There was nothing sloth-like about the villagers of Parintins, who staged an edited version of their June Boi Bumba folk festival three months early just for us. Despite the change of date, there was still a genuine enthusiasm in their dancing and the indian costumes were superb.
But the highlight for most of the passengers was all the ship's own work. The line promises a Silversea Experience on every cruise - this is a free shore excursion that is a bit special and exclusive to its passengers. The line surpassed itself on the Amazon by setting up an evening barbecue on one of the 400 islands of the Anavilhanas, the largest river archipelago in the world. Before we came ashore, the staff built a huge bonfire and set up and laid tables and chairs, using the high quality china and cutlery from the ship's five-star restaurant - just about the classiest under-the-stars barbecue ever. In between courses, passengers - or "guests", as the cruise line calls them - went out on those cayman hunts.
There was another Silversea Experience the next day - a long canoe ride among the islands to an extraordinary jungle hotel with a tall obvservation tower above the tree line. This, though, was a rare case of modern life intruding. The Amazon Basin remains a place where the 20th century struggles to make an impact - in complete contrast to the sophisticated elegance of life on Silver Cloud.
On board, all the guests stay in suites, most of them with private verandahs. They have walk-in wardrobes with personal safes, marble bathrooms with hairdryers and bathrobes, TV with DVD player (there is a DVD library on board), and a fridge stocked with drinks to the guest's personal taste. These - like all drinks on board - are free. Also included in the cruise price are all tips, meals, onboard entertainment and some shore excursions, and it just has to be the most comfortable way to see one of the world's last remaining wildernesses.