We sailed Jan. 10, 2013 on HAL Veendam from Valparaiso, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina, via the Antarctic peninsula. Actually WE didn't sail from Valparaiso, we got on in Puerto Montt. And herein lies our tale.
We had three pre-cruise omens that we chose to ignore: Patti's car blew a head gasket for the second time in eight months, Steve backed the pickup into the garage door and demolished it and Steve's dad, 95, had a mild heart attack that nobody told us about until afterward.
We drove the now-repaired car to LAX on Jan. 9 and boarded American Airlines to Santiago, via Miami. As we got to the gate we saw that the flight was delayed about ten minutes. But it wasn't long before a gate agent announced that our flight, originating in Miami, had a mechanical and would be. delayed about 35 minutes. It turned out to be an hour and a half. We were supposed to make an 11:15 p.m. connection to Santiago in Miami, and before we ever left LAX we were busy calling HAL's passenger emergency line as well as our travel insurance company to say that we'd likely miss our connection, and probably the ship's embarkation at 5 p.m. Jan. 10.
Not until we reached Miami at midnight did we learn that the 11:15 p.m. flight to Santiago never took off and had been rescheduled for 7 a.m. the next morning. But leaving at 7 a.m. almost certainly meant we wouldn't reach the ship in time to embark at 5 p.m.-- it's an eight-hour flight to Santiago, plus time at the airport for customs & immigration, plus 2-3 hours in a bus over to Valparaiso. Turns out the ship didn't depart until 7 p.m., but how could we have known that? More calls to HAL.
Dozens of AA passengers who missed their connections were directed to a rebooking desk in Miami where AA put them on next available flights and provided an overnight stay in an airport hotel, transportation and meal vouchers. It took more than an hour to stand in line. We stayed in a plush Sofitel, but we insisted that AA fly us all the way to the ship's first port of call on Jan. 11, Puerto Montt, Chile, and we were successful in being put on an 8:30 p.m. flight to Santiago on Jan. 10, with a morning connection on LAN Air to Puerto Montt. We checked out of the Sofitel at noon but spent all afternoon there, using free internet in the lobby, admiring the view and spending our meal vouchers in their terrific, if expensive, restaurant.
Once in Santiago we were supposed to call HAL and report when we would arrive in Puerto Montt, however we made the mistake of leaving the international terminal and going to the domestic terminal where we couldn't find an international telephone.
Much praise to HAL, however. They tracked us and met us in Puerto Montt and transported us to the Holiday Inn Express hotel where about 18 other delayed passengers were overnighting in order to join the ship the next morning, Jan. 12. All of us quickly bonded and later we became "PMS" -- Puerto Montt Survivors.
But our adventure wasn't over. Many in the group took advantage of the day in Puerto Montt to walk around the town (as we did) or take private tours. I, for one, bounded out of bed around 4:30 a.m. Jan. 12 to watch the Veendam approach, but I saw that the wind was whipping up whitecaps in the harbor and the water was very rough. The Veendam came in and anchored in the bay. We all climbed on a bus for a short ride to the pier where a score of shore excursion buses and vans were waiting. We didn't know at that point that the Veendam's Capt. Pieter Bos had cancelled the port call at 7 a.m. because the wind and waves prevented safe use of tender boats. A HAL local rep came aboard our bus to say that we'd likely be driven six hours to the next port of call, Castro, on Chiloe Island, Chile. The excursion buses and vans departed and we were left alone on the bus. About 40 minutes later the rep returned to say that there wasn't enough overnight housing for all of us in Castro, and the weather ha improved somewhat, so the captain was going to attempt to board us via small pilot boats. He turned the Veendam parallel to the shore to create a patch of calmer water beside the ship, and out came a narrow stairway and a metal platform. We divided into two groups (we were in the first one) and stepped into the small boat, each person donning a lifejacket.
Once the boat cleared the narrow harbor we were rocking and rolling in the bay. But comedian Marty Brill, who was boarding in Puerto Montt to entertain in the showroom, kept us engaged in conversation and we hardly noticed the ride. In fact, it was fun! We bounded up the staircase and we were finally aboard!
We dumped our bags in the stateroom and made a beeline for the Lido where we watched anxiously for the next run of the pilot boat. Turned out that minutes after we got onboard, officials closed the port for about 45 minutes because conditions deteriorated again. Finally, the second load of "PMS" came aboard and was quickly followed by a boatful of our luggage.
Capt. Bos turned around and high-tailed it out of Purto Montt. We we among the fortunate few who got to see the town. Puerto Montt has many delightful buildings faced with shingles or siding from the native Alerce tree, a now-protected species that is the second-oldest tree in the world, next to California's own Bristlecone pine.
Next stop was Castro, Isla Chiloe. We did not take a shore excursion but walked (uphill) to the town square. It was a sunny, warm Sunday and we stepped into the brightly painted Cathedral for a crowded Mass with delightful local singers and guitars. We shopped next door at the parish hall where artisans and their local knitted crafts were displayed. It's all about woolen goods here, and fishing and seafood. We visited a downtown bookstore with books in English, and Steve bought a medium-weight jacket. This long, calm "inside passage" area is lined with salmon an mussel farms. Lazy sea lions perch on the buoys attached to nets and just scoop up a meal whenever they're hungry. On the way to Puerto Chacabuco/Aisen, Chile, fog set in and we were unable to view the preserve for blue whales at the south end of Chiloe Island.
There's nothing to Puerto Chacabuco except the actual port facility. A volcano explosion and tsunami some years ago ruined the port at Aisen, so a new port was established about 25 minutes away. We took a taxi into town, skipped the shore excursions, and did a long walk along the main drag, shopping a bit (lots of Chinese-made goods here) and checking out schools, churches and civic buildings. A drunk teetered out of a bar next to where we were standing and announced in a loud voice: "Thank you very much!" In English! Our giggle for the day. Aisen has some charm but it's quite far inland, hot and dusty. This was the least interesting of our ports.
Next stop was Punta Arenas, Chile, a beachy city of some size perched below incredibly dry, dusty hills. We were told all of the city's water has to be brought in from 60 miles away. First we took a ride into town and walked around many blocks. There were lots and lots of stores, but we found an internet cafe and spent at least an hour online for just a few dollars. I printed out a star chart of the summer sky in the southern hemisphere -- oddly, none was provided on the ship because the Travel Guide Benjamin felt the sun set so late (around 10:30 p.m) that no one would be interested. Later we returned to the port and took a free bus to a nearby shopping center with a large grocery store, Walmart-type superstore, electronics store and much more. Everybody from town and from the ship was there, it seemed. I bought a bathing suit on sale and some swim goggles that I used later in the ship's pool. Great fun, swimming on a cruise ship.
Everyone was looking forward to the stop in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city on earth, but our stop there was cancelled by bad weather so we steamed immediately for the Antarctic peninsula. We had an easy crossing of the Drake Passage -- it's 500 miles from Cape Horn to Antarctica -- with no bad weather and only medium swells.
Antarctica was immediately otherworldly. Truly it's like being on a different planet. The quality of light and air are different, the water is glassy still, the only sound is that of the ship and there's a sense of everpresent danger -- death in the water or on the ice is just minutes away. Wildlife is everywhere -- penguins, seals, whales, orcas and birds -- and plentiful. The occasional scientific outpost or supply ship looks like a brash intruder on this landscape. Images of Antarctica are forever in my mind, but if I ever need reminding I bought the excellent DVD produced by the ship's photo staff. It was exclusive to our trip and contained no stock footage.
Everything in Antarctica (and even in all of the south of South America) is dictated by wind, weather, water and ice conditions, so our route along the peninsula was a series of forays and turnarounds. Pack ice scrapped the Lemaire Channel, but it's amazing how the Veendam can rotate on a dime. We passed an iceberg that ship's staff estimated was more than 150 meters high, more than a mile long and so wide you couldn't see across it. We got down to about 64 degrees south latitude, by the way, with the Antarctic Circle at 66.3 degrees. HAL ships can't go that far because they don't have ice-strengthened hulls.
We hated to leave Antarctica, but Capt. Bos held out the possibility of a stop in the Falklands. We thought this had been cancelled off the itinerary since last summer because there's less than a 40 percent chance of docking there and tendering in. Sure enough, the weather was impossible as we approached, so it was a very long steam to Puerto Madryn, Argentina. Fortunately our second traverse of the Drake Passage was as uneventful as our first one.
Puerto Madryn was a charming town with a teeny shopping mall where a couple danced the tango. We strolled and shopped but the closest internet cafe was jammed and a larger one further in town was closed. Again we skipped shore excursions. The next port, Montevideo, Uruguay, was intriguing. The Rio Plata is so wide here you'd swear you were on the ocean. I did take three-hour bus tour of the city -- a proper shore excursion. There is much wealth here, with highrise condos lining the beachfront as they do in similar European and American cities. It got warmer. On to Buenos Aires, our final port of call and one of South America's largest cities, somewhere between 9 and 12 million. It could be Los Angeles, Toronto or New York. Again we took a three-hour city shore excursion by bus. It was hot and humid.
While many passengers took further shore excursions, trips to Iguazu Falls or other adventures after disembarking in Buenos Aires, we headed immediately for home and had no delays this time on American Airlines.
Here's my short take on this cruise. We had planned it for two years because the trip in January of 2012 already was full when we wanted to book. This HAL itinerary is the least expensive one you'll find to Antarctica -- expedition cruises that actually land zodiacs on the continent cost at least twice as much per person, starting around $10,000. HAL shore excursions and onboard slow internet continue to be frightfully expensive, yet we found the city highlights bus trips to be well priced, extremely informative and complete. We were put off other shore excursions by their great distance, such as 2.5 hours each way partially on a gravel road to the Punto Tombo penguin reserve. We saw enough penguins in Antarctica; granted they weren't close enough to touch. Also we didn't need a shore excursion to see expert sheep shearing -- we've seen that at the county fair! As an older ship the Veendam has some problems that fortunately didn't affect us -- leaking bathrooms, telephones that didn't work, questionable cleanliness. To boot, almost everyone onboard shared a headcold that put many passengers out of commission for several days. We were dismayed when told by the infirmary staff "this happens on every cruise more than ten days long." Apparently two or more passengers were hospitalized in foreign cities, and one had surgery. We found lectures by Antarctic scientists and naturalists utterly intriguing and infinitely informative, over and above the six months of research we had done on own own before the voyage. It's a touchy subject, but a lecture on the troubled political history of South America would have been welcome. The ship's Signature Shops carried no souvenirs of Antarctica and their response was that they couldn't sell enough of it to be worthwhile because HAL makes so few trips on this itinerary. This was exacerbated by not stopping in Ushuaia, apparently a shopping opportunity for Antarctica souvenirs. We've had to buy some items online after our return home, but who will know? HAL food was typical, with high marks for bread pudding with vanilla sauce and fresh orange juice, and an unusual treat of seared ahi tuna worthy of any fine California restaurant. Good beef tenderloin and filet, too. Lots of salmon. Unripe tomatoes at the top of the cruise. Indonesian specialities instead of local specialities such as barbecued beef from Argentina. Adequate service to HAL standards. Some cruisers are noticing cuts in HAL staff and service -- yes, there are noticeable cuts but they are not yet devastating. Our biggest complaint -- we met some wonderful folks but the ship was full of grumpy passengers who complained about everything. We have no idea how the front desk staff managed. They should get a medal. For us this cruise was expensive, fraught with problems and some disappointments, yet still the trip of a lifetime. Cruisers ought to be more able to roll with the bumps. A word to the wise -- take this trip originating from Buenos Aires and you won't have to pay a $160-per-person Chilean entry fee.