The following is more a personal journal than an organized review. It originally took the form of several posts, sent back whenever access was available. I've now combined all the posts, juggling where necessary, and added some additional verbiage--some substantive, some stuck in just to provide photographic captions. A more traditional review (of the cruise right before mine, as it happens), dealing with some topics I omit, may be found here.
Also included are direct links to a lot of photographs. Looking at them all will obviously be much easier with broadband access. You can click on each link (or whichever links you wish) as you go, but should then close the display of that photo, since the next link will open in a new window. Or you can bring up each gallery and click along sequentially within them.
Usual Introductory Blather
For a long time I have preferred to take a vacation during the end-of-year holiday period, thereby being able to take a longer one by appending the Christmas and/or New Year workplace holidays to whatever meager vacation-time the job provided. (If more Americans knew how much vacation-time is routinely granted to European wage-slaves, there would be a revolution. Fortunately, having been laid off last February, I am no longer restricted in this regard.) Doing so also provided an escape from the Chrismas madness of endless carols on the radio, repeats on the television, traffic, and general commercialization. For about ten years I regularly went to Thailand. The Thais love any excuse for merrymaking, so have no compunction about adopting other cultures' holidays; but I could still escape Thai men dressed as Santa Claus by going upcountry with local friends to visit their relatives in the northeastern Lao region of the country.
Nevertheless, as with all my other obsessions (contract bridge, peak-bagging, collecting classical CDs, etc.) I eventually burned out on Thailand, which is when I started taking cruises three years ago. I don't much like visiting cities anymore, preferring areas of scenic grandeur, particularly when combined with remoteness and emptiness. (It's too bad that one cannot take cruises through deserts, although, back in less rotund days, I did go on a two-week trek through the Algerian Sahara in the company of "ships of the desert," i.e., camels.) A 16-night jaunt on [i]Silver Wind[/i] from Valparaíso around Cape Horn to Buenos Aires seemed to fit my criteria nicely. I was not going to fly out for it until the day after Christmas, but the need to prepare my mind for travel and to figure out what and how to pack occupied me for several days before that, which made it possible to resolutely ignore the climax of the pre-Christmas frenzy.
Packing this time was a bit more complicated than usual. In addition to the traditional Silversea tuxedo, I also had to fit in things like rain pants, mittens, fleece hat, windbreaker, and storm jacket. It remained to be seen whether this was sartorial overkill for this itinerary, but I wanted to test out the gear in preparation for the five-week Lindblad cruise I would be taking in March and April to such island garden-spots as the Falklands, South Georgia, and Tristan da Cunha. (By the way, does anyone know where North Georgia is?) Apparently I packed pretty well, because my two (hardsided) suitcases weighed only 42 and 47 lbs. It's fortunate that there's no weight limit for the carryon bag, because that seemed to weigh nearly as much.
It had been stormy for several days in the Bay Area, which always snarls flights at SFO, but today dawned bright and sunny. My itinerary provided for a connect-time of only one hour at DFW. Such a short interval started to make me very nervous. It would be sufficient if everything went right; but the last time everything went right on a flight itinerary was during the lifetime of the shorter-living Wright brother. So I went to the airport early enough to try to get on a flight that left two hours sooner. This would mean a three-hour layover at DFW, but, with three trips featuring long layovers scheduled this year, I had paid $450 for an annual Admiral's Club membership in order to have a comfortable place of refuge away from the unwashed masses and (in Max Nomad's immortal phrase) horny-handed workers. I was fortunate enough to get on the earlier flight, a particular relief when I saw on the departures-monitor that my original flight was scheduled to depart thirty minutes late.
After picking up my "bistro lunch" at the entrance to the jetway ("bistro" apparently is the French word for "paper sack"), I was delighted to find myself, despite the flight having been announced as nearly full, assigned to an otherwise unoccupied three-seat section, so had nobody with whom to elbow wrestle. Before takeoff I amused myself by watching other people trying to cram stuff that clearly wouldn't fit into the overhead bins and putting additional carryon items into bins in other peoples' rows. The airlines have precise rules about number and dimension of carryon items, but I've never seen them enforced. Why are they even maintained? My guess is in order that enforcement can be imposed suddenly without prior notice whenever it suits managerial convenience, as happened with the weight limits for checked baggage. I naturally had only "legal" carryon items, because following rules precisely gives one many opportunities to feel morally superior to everyone else. The presence of the usual enticingly juicy panoply of small children made the provided meal seem even more insufficient for someone of bearish appetite. Eventually we landed about thirty minutes early, so my original flight would probably have landed with sufficient connect-time as well; but by then I'd have been a quivering mass of protoplasm that would have had to be poured off the plane into a "bistro".
Presumably because DFW is American Airlines' primary hub, the Admiral's Club there is quite impressive. Rather than one or two large rooms, it has around ten seating areas and enclosed rooms located off a single corridor. There's even a dedicated children's room as well as a "family bathroom," in which such illicit rituals as diaper changing may be performed. There was also a decent number of Internet terminals, particularly decent in view of the single terminal provided at SFO. My layover thus passed quite agreeably. There was nothing particularly memorable about the flight to Santiago, which is the highest praise one can give to contemporary flights. The middle seat of my section was empty, and we were served real plastic meals with real plastic utensils. Elapsed time from limo pickup at home to arrival in Santiago was ca. nineteen hours.
After paying the $100 reciprocation fee, we were off for our pre-cruise night at the Santiago Ritz-Carlton. This is a very upscale chain, and the decoration scheme certainly tried to reflect this--lots of dark wood walls in the public rooms, hunting and landscape prints hanging thereon, quasi-Chinese vases on side-tables, and so on. In my room the television remote was housed in its own cute little leather case, the bed looked like a pillow farm, and the loose end of each fresh roll of toilet tissue was secured by a golden sticker. One could request the drawing of a specialty bath, the "Gentleman's Bath," for example, including sandalwood oil, a glass of brandy, and a Cuban cigar (the latter two items presumably provided on the side). No price was listed for these baths. One nice custom followed by the staff, when you asked where something was, was to conduct you there rather than just pointing the way or giving verbal directions. Unfortunately, it seemed that more attention was being paid to presentation than to implementation. None of the numbers of television stations on the channel guide were accurate. My floor lamp did not work. The water pressure in the shower could not be regulated, and was not all that strong; the water temperature could never be made really hot; and it was very difficult to get any shower gel out of the provided bottle. The horror, the horror! Prices of items in the minibar were typically outrageous. A small bottle of water (33 cl) was 1800 pesos (~$3), whereas a 1.6 liter bottle purchased at the minimart across the street was 580 pesos. The restaurant menu offered an item that I have never seen anywhere else and have always dreamed of trying--shrimp ravioli with pineapple sauce--but it turned out to be unavailable. The breakfast buffet was quite comprehensive, even including the proper garnishes, such as capers for the smoked salmon, but you had to ask for butter. Despite many waitpersons wandering around, used plates were not cleared from one's table in a timely manner. The financial method at checkout was very nice, though. Charges were reduced by 19%, since foreigners were exempt from the VAT, and the final amount was charged to one's credit card in dollars, at a very nice rate of exchange (615 pesos = $1). Many of the above criticisms of the hotel may strike some people as excessively picayune, but we're talking about a very hoity-toity establishment here.
The hotel was located on a lovely avenue with very wide sidewalks, lined with lots of trees, benches, and decorative trash receptacles. In fact, as I discovered on the ride out of town toward the coast, many of Santiago's streets, both main and side, even in poorer areas, were lined with trees. This greatly softens the urban ambience, and is a feature distinctly lacking in many US cities.
Although most past reviews of cruises leaving from Valparaíso indicated that one first checked in at a sport club or race track in neighboring Viña del Mar, we checked in at a terminal right on the pier. Maybe it's new, or maybe it can't handle the passenger-load of larger vessels. Anyway, all the foreplay was finally over, and it was cruisin' time at last.
The [i]Wind[/i] had undergone extensive renovation during its long drydock in 2002 (see here for details). There was one definite design improvement in the suites (as all cabins are known on Silversea ships): The drawers in the closet had been relocated from the side wall at the entrance opposite the hangers (which thereby required standing virtually amidst one's hanging articles in order to get things from the drawers) to the back wall, corresponding to the design on the newer [i]Shadow[/i] and [i]Whisper[/i]. Other major differences between the older and newer pairs of ships: The desk area remains significantly smaller; there is no separate shower stall, which I don't mind because I find the stall a bit cramped (probably more my fault than the stall's); and there is only a single sink, which is not too much of a hardship for solo-traveling bears other than those who prefer a separate sink for each forepaw. I had requested some atypical soft drinks such as Fresca and Diet Mountain Dew to be provided in my suite, and was delighted to find supplies of them awaiting me. I had a couple of problems to report and other special requests to make, all of which were dealt with both agreeably and quickly, so the level of service provided by at least some of the ship's personnel appears to have remained satisfactorily high.
The Observation Lounge on the two smaller ships had never been very popular, probably because it could not be reached by elevator and even required walking outside to get to it. It has therefore now been turned into The Gym. I consider this change unfortunate, because there is now no forward-looking enclosed public space and the ursine religion prohibits bears from ever getting in close proximity to sweat. The small side-arm of The Restaurant has now been closed off and turned into a second reservation-only venue for dinner called Saletta, ostensibly offering a hyper-gourmet set menu equivalent to that at a Michelin two-star restaurant.
Instances of cost-cutting, alas and alack, are becoming increasingly apparent. Mixed nuts without peanuts are no longer available in the bars. A two-tier stewardess hierarchy has been instituted, with predominantly Asian Assistant Stewardesses under predominantly European Stewardesses (with the former no doubt being paid less than the latter). A printed list of complimentary wines (in addition to each night's default white and red) is no longer available. According to the Head Sommelier, this was because attempts were now being made to offer different default wines on each itinerary, corresponding to the region being visited. On this cruise, for example, there are various Chilean and Argentinean wines being poured. Complimentary wines from other regions are available as well, but the selection is supposedly constantly changing, making maintenance of a printed list impossible. But you can tell the sommelier what sort of wine you would like and he will strive to find something matching your desire. (I started out with an Australian Pinot Noir, for example.) But none of this information is announced. First-time Silversea customers, who never knew of the complimentary list's previous existence, would not know to ask about it. Repeat cruisers who don't give the sommelier a third-degree interrogation as I did will not know about the continuing secret availability of additional complimentary selections. Persistent inquisitiveness is necessary to ferret out the true situation.
The absence of the complimentary wine list, which will presumably drive many people toward wines on the extra-cost "Connoisseur's List" instead, is also an example of what appear to be new techniques to obtain additional revenue beyond the all-inclusive price. Other examples: One is not permitted to have complimentary spirits in Saletta; it's extra-cost liquor or non-alcoholic beverages only. There is now a little screened-off area near the swimming pool for massages. There is a note in the bathroom mentioning availability of gift boxes of Bvlgari toiletries for sale to take home. Most heinously of all, a photographer is back on board! He only does pictures upon request, but still . . . If these sorts of measures are necessary to permit the line to remain solvent, I guess they have to be tolerated. If, on the other hand, they have been instituted simply to increase profitability, that would be very saddening. Silversea remains one of the top cruise lines in the business, but some of its distinctiveness is vanishing, and the distance between it and premium mass-market lines is narrowing.
The sea was unexpectedly choppy as soon as we left Valparaíso, and remained so for several hours. There was also a very strong southerly head wind of up to 30 knots. This enabled me to verify that my new windbreaker worked quite well and minimized the chances of my accidentally bumping into anyone else out on deck. My dinner in the Terrace Café comprised an [i]amuse bouche[/i] of Crispy Pan Fried Fillet of Pike Perch on a Bed of Green Lentils with Chili, followed by Lobster Ravioli with Stir-fried Chinese Vegetables and Lemon Grass-Mint Juice, White Tomato Soup with Curry Tempura Prawns and Basil Cream, Carrot-Black Pepper and Lemon Sorbet, Grilled Beef Tenderloin with Braised Ox-Tail, Creamy Bok-Choy and Truffle Mashed Potato, and Roasted Strawberry with Chamomile Infusion and Ricotta Cheese Ice Cream as well as Homemade Petits Fours. This meal was only a mixed success. There was but a single large raviolo with a tiny piece of lobster in the very center. The tenderloin may have been loiny, but it was neither tender nor tasty. It was nice having truffles, though. In fact I requested an additional serving of the potatoes in order to have even more fungi upon which to chomp. The truffles were frozen rather than fresh, but certain hardships must be borne given the current world situation.
Other than unpacking and organizing my suite, I did nothing else useful this day.
I felt very cozy under my down duvet and slept until around 11:00 a.m., hence missing breakfast. The captain's noontime announcement contained some surprising information. Due to the strong headwind and heavy southerly swell, we will reach Puerto Montt tomorrow around 7:00 p.m. rather than at 8:30 a.m., resulting in cancellation of the Lake District shore tours. So I won't get to see Lake Llanquihue, the Osorno volcano, or Petrohué Falls, nor take a cruise on Lake Todos Los Santos. Oh well.
For lunch I had Marinated Salmon with Apple Chive Crème Fraîche, Chilled Cream of Strawberry Soup, a very nice Bouillabaisse with Garlic Bread and Sauce Rouille in Saffron-Vegetable Broth, and a selection of cheeses with walnuts, grapes, and dried apricots from the trolley. The hours after lunch were spent composing the first part of this report, followed by the only shipboard activity other than meals guaranteed to entice me from my cave--Team Trivia at 5:00 p.m. I was quite fortunate to end up on a team that included some other very bright people, including a British couple who had already been aboard for the two previous cruises and had therefore heard many of the questions (and answers) already. This version of the game had an interesting twist I had not previously encountered--the questions were of differing grades of difficulty, with more points being given for correct answers to the harder ones. Our team came in first today.
Tonight was the "Captain's Welcome Dinner," although I don't remember seeing the captain there. I dined on Sevruga Caviar with Buckwheat Blinis and Traditional Garnish, Curry Clam Soup with Apples (an interesting melding of tastes), Passion Fruit and Champagne Sorbet, a double serving of sweet and juicy Boiled Fresh Maine Lobster "American" with Light Creamy Lobster-Tarragon Sauce and Saffron Rice (the latter having somehow turned into risotto instead), and a Strawberry Sablé. Someone else at the table had Roast Prime Rib of Kansas Beef with Natural Jus, Stuffed Baked Potato, and Shredded Horseradish. One of the lecturers, an emeritus professor of Latin American cultural geography, and his wife (who was on my trivia team) were among my tablemates, so dinnertime conversation was a bit more elevated than the shipboard norm. I must have done something between the end of dinner and going nighty-night, but cannot remember what.
Another late arising and missed breakfast, a bit of Web surfing, and a lunch of Gorgonzola Cheese Tart with Fresh Pears Marinated in Balsamic Vinegar, Carrot-Pumpkin Soup with Orange Cream (another interesting taste combination), Szechuan Beef with Roasted Cashew Nuts, Green Paprika, Red Chili, Ginger and Chinese Rice, another raid on the cheese trolley, a glass of port, and my usual double espresso.
While we were winning again at Team Trivia, the ship docked at Puerto Montt. I disembarked and walked a couple of blocks to an artisanal crafts market, which consisted of stall after stall offering basically the same selection of stuff--a lot of articles of clothing woven from the hair of such local fauna as llamas, penguins, and alpacas, plus all the other knick-knacks that, upon returning home, one cannot imagine why one had ever purchased.
I've been eating lunch alone, but at dinner have been asking to be seated with whatever table would like additional company. So far (last night and tonight) I've been fortunate in the company I joined. Tonight's table included a professor of mathematics from New Jersey and his economist wife (who turned out to be the couple with whom I socialized the most throughout the cruise) and a German shopping center magnate and his wife (both of whom had, like most Europeans, an excellent command of English). The discussion was wide-ranging, including the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. In between topics I munched on Roasted Squab with Arugula and Warm Potato Salad, Maui Red Onion and Ginger Soup, a Refreshing Sour Cream-Strawberry Sorbet, Crisp Duck with Candied Turnips and Spiced Plums, and a slablet of New York Cheesecake. After dinner a local folkloric troupe performed Chilean songs and dances for about twenty minutes, including handkerchief-waving, heel-stomping, and inviting passengers to join in. Fortunately, despite Silversea's demographic, everyone survived the unexpected exertion.
After awakening at the crack of dawn (7:30 a.m.), I finally managed to patronize the breakfast buffet in the Terrace Café. After making only a moderate pig of myself (to the extent that a bear can acquire porcine attributes), I picked up a free bottle of water at the exit (another nice Silversea amenity) and caught the 9:00 a.m. free shuttle (yet another amenity) to the Plaza de Armas in the center of Puerto Montt.
It's fortunate that yesterday was clear and sunny, enabling me to see and photograph the mountains overlooking the city, because today was overcast, making the mountains but a fugitive memory. I wandered around town a bit, photographing various colorful buildings, including the cathedral. It seems to be a feature of urban areas in gray and dreary areas of the world that many of their buildings are painted in a wide variety of bright or vivid colors. I noticed the same thing in 2002 in Hammerfest at the northern tip of Norway. It does help to brighten up the surroundings.
An interesting linguistic phenomenon I've noticed is that spoken Chilean Spanish drops the final 's' in most or all words. So you hear words like "bueno dia" and "gracia". I remember this being done in Andalusia (southern Spain around Seville) as well.
There was an Internet Café in a bright blue shopping center, from which I emailed the first part of this report to various interested parties. The PCs there had a high-speed link, with a cost of only 720 pesos for thirty minutes. I can't upload the text-files from the Internet terminals on the ship because there are no diskette drives attached to them, so must search for appropriately equipped PCs on land, rather like the Flying Dutchman searching for a wife.
Being back on land apparently caused a severe shock to my system, because when I got back on board I forswore lunch and napped all afternoon instead, fortunately awakening at 4:40 p.m., in time for Team Trivia and our third consecutive victory. I'm considering auctioning off my services to the other teams. During my slumbers, the various public rooms, including The Bar, were decorated in preparation for New Year's Eve. After trivia I had to struggle into the modern equivalent of a hair shirt, i.e., my tuxedo, with all its silly little studs and cufflinks cunningly designed to frustrate a bear with neuropathy and crappy tunnel syndrome (I wonder whether putting on Scottish formal wear is easier), in preparation for the Captain's Welcome Cocktail Party and New Year's Eve Gala Dinner.
The Cocktail Party was little more than the usual excuse to introduce all the senior officers. I'm not even sure why I still go to them. Then came the Gala Dinner. Rather than being served in the usual 7:30-9:30 p.m. range, this was at a set time (8:00 p.m.) with a set menu (other than a choice between meat and fish as a main course, just like on an airplane). The Restaurant had been gaily decorated in a predominantly black-and-white color scheme, with balloons ready to drop from the ceiling, while on all the tables were items like noisemakers, hats, tiaras, and streamers. The ship's musicians were stationed inside as well, to provide opportunities for dancing between courses. Unfortunately I was at a table with a few older people who should have been wearing hearing aids but weren't. So, in unsuccessful competition with the music, there was a lot of leaning toward each other, repeating sentences, and nodding knowingly without really having understood what was being said.
The plan was for everyone to stay in The Restaurant until midnight, so the courses were served at a very leisurely pace, not even starting until around 9:00 p.m. There were two [i]amuses bouches[/i]--Warn Crushed Baby New Potatoes Topped with Sevruga Caviar and Sautéed Fresh Foie Gras with Apple and Grapes Compote; a soup in the form of Essence of Guinea Fowl with Vegetable Julienne and Poached Quail Egg (for which the guinea fowl relinquished its essence in vain); Crispy Maine Lobster and Porcini Mushroom Parcels (actually only one parcel but with marvelously concentrated flavors); Refreshing Russian Vodka Lime Sorbet Topped with Champagne; Spiced Roast Filet of Beef Tenderloin with Sweet Red Onions and Garlic Sauce, Creamy Mascarpone Polenta, and Sautéed Rosemary Vegetables (this time tender and flavorful as well as loiny); a "Pre Dessert" of Coconut Marinated Fresh Red Berries in Crispy Horn; and finally New Year's Orange and "Caraïbe" Chocolate Volcano with Poppy Seeds Tuile. The menu also listed a Cheese Trolley and Petits Fours, but neither actually appeared, resulting in my leaving the table hungry. I even splurged and bought a bottle of non-complimentary wine, a 1999 Gevrey-Chambertin, which is one of my favorite red Burgundies. It didn't have as much of a bright cherry bouquet as I remember from earlier vintages, but I was still amused by its presumption.
There were seven raffle drawings, for everything from a bottle of Dom Perignon to a free 7-day cruise for two, none of which I won. (Could I have changed the grand prize into two 7-day cruises for one?) Finally midnight came, the balloons dropped from the ceiling, everybody air-kissed everybody else, and another arbitrary point along the temporal continuum was commemorated.
Today was to be devoted to the "Silversea Experience," a free shore tour offered on some of the line's itineraries. On this route the Experience was a cruise around Laguna San Rafael, a 27-mile long lagoon ringed by mountains, featuring the San Valentín Glacier and icebergs. So it was up at the crack of dawn (9:00 a.m.) again. I had ordered a room service breakfast of a double order of smoked salmon with bagels, cream cheese, and all the other trimmings, to be delivered between 9:45 and 10:00. The knock on the door came at 9:25 instead, so I growled at the waiter and told him to come back at the time I had requested. This is not the first service-lapse that I have noticed on this cruise. They've all been minor, and quite quickly and agreeably resolved, but a line like Silversea is not even supposed to have many of these lapses in the first place. This is a disheartening trend. Or else I'm becoming even more curmudgeonly than usual. I also have the Food & Beverage Manager researching the mixed nuts situation.
The Laguna tour had to be done in three shifts because our ship couldn't navigate through the complicated channel and narrow opening into the lagoon. So groups of us transferred to a local catamaran that could hold around 100 people for our three-hour excursion. This part of the Chilean coast is apparently very much like Alaska's Inside Passage, with islands, islets, islandettes, tiny protuberances of ground above the water, shoals, and shallows. Some bits of land even looked incongruously tropical. I could infer a little about the route's complexity by the way the color of the water kept changing between green (shallow) and blue (deep), and was having fun trying to guess what route the boat was going to take, which opening between land-bits it was going to use, how wide a loop it would have to make, and so on. Usually my guess was wrong, but it helped pass the time during the hour-long approach to the Laguna proper. The entrance to the lagoon itself was quite narrow, reminding me of quasi-secret entrances to canyons in a desert, and suddenly we were in an imposing bay, full of chunks of ice in a wide range of sizes, variously colored in blues and greens, and shaped in an assortment of configurations.
Although there was a lot of seating inside on the two decks of the catamaran, there wasn't a great deal of outside space. So when the sights became interesting there was a goodly amount of jostling among people with cameras trying to get to the rail or to shoot pictures over other people. I had wisely staked out a spot early in the voyage and am a pretty immovable object, so was largely immune to these skirmishes as we gradually approached the glacier. The catamaran eventually got up fairly close to its snout and remained there for around thirty minutes, but no calving occurred, at least on the trip I was on. Taking photos was rather a challenge due to the many different scenic elements involved--green hills, snowy mountains, big white glacier, multicolored sky, etc. I have an insanely complicated digital camera that I still haven't fully mastered, so was messing around with various settings for such arcana as white balance and shooting-mode. Fortunately I could just delete the shots that resembled nothing on this planet, but it remains to be seen whether any of the surviving ones look all that accurate, let alone good. As it turned out, a few shots did look interestingly dramatic.
The temperature was fairly cool, but a quilted flannel shirt and a vest lined with something fuzzy took care of that issue. Also I tested out my new fleece hat. This is a light but warm close-fitting affair, with ear-flaps that end in a chinstrap. It does not cover the front of the face as a balaclava does, but my head remained snug and cozy, just as a bear likes it. I had forgotten, though, how strong even a hazy sun can be, and much of my face turned red, except for the areas covered by the cap, including forehead and strips down both cheeks in front of my ears, making for a rather comical effect over the next few days.
Finally tiring of being outside, I went inside for some snacks (pastries, hot dogs, finger sandwiches). Finding a seat could have been somewhat of a challenge, because place-hogging had occurred, with coats and camera cases and other detritus occupying seats while their true occupants were wandering around outside for unpredictable periods of time. Fortunately such discourteous attempts at intimidation have no effect on a bear, so I simply plopped myself down somewhere close to the food. All in all, a most pleasant excursion, definitely worth more than its price. We got back to the ship around 3:00 p.m., too late for lunch, thus forcing me to order my second consecutive room service meal--French onion soup (including a nice amount of gooey cheese), a grilled ham and cheese sandwich (with what looked like Pringle's potato chips but of course couldn't possibly have been such a thing on a Silversea ship), and a vanilla crème brûlée (with a top that was crunchy rather than solid). Shortly after this late lunch an unexpected tragedy occurred: after three consecutive victories, our team came in second at Team Trivia. Two of our members were on the late catamaran excursion, and some of the questions were fairly bizarre. For example, on what day of the year does "Burns Night" (some sort of celebration in honor of the Scottish poet) occur? I had never even heard of the blasted thing, and I have heard of many highly obscure things in my wanderings. After the game I asked a Scottish passenger, and he didn't know either. He knew it was an occasion for him to get drunk every year, but could not recall the exact date. There may be a causal connection between these two facts. Anyway, for the hopelessly curious, the date is January 25th. Another similar question was for the date of Anzac Day, which turned out to be April 25th, commemorating the beginning of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in World War I. On the other hand, I was the only person who knew how many letters the Greek alphabet comprises, so the session wasn't a total downer.
How did I spend the rest of my time, between Trivia and dinner, and after dinner? I'm not the kind of cruise passenger who frantically dashes from activity to activity, and I need a certain amount of pure alone-time. I took pictures of the nautical chart (displayed under reflective glass, unfortunately) showing the incredibly complex coastline, got one more pretty shot of the terrain through which we were passing (as well as a shot of three of the lovelier staff members), watched part of [i]Chicago[/i] on my television, made another pass through my 211-page camera reference manual, trying to figure out how to make the beast behave, downloaded the Laguna pictures to my laptop, deleting the 80% or so that were unworthy of preservation, and wrote the above. Oh yeah, and I continued my unending project of trying to catch up on my reading of all the books and magazines that keep arriving at my house. I've nearly finished the 10/24/02 (not a misprint) issue of [i]The New York Review of Books[/i], but a 972-page Library of America volume of early Henry James short stories is clamoring for attention as well. It's a challenging regimen, but I'm a pretty tough bear.
After such a late lunch I had a fairly light dinner of Sautéed Potatoes and Duck "Confit" with Melted Reblochon Cheese and Assorted Baby Greens, a Refreshing Peach Daiquiri Sorbet, something again involving lobster (which I can't categorize precisely because it was a late substitution not listed on the menu left in our suites, from which I've been quoting verbatim), and a Vanilla Bavarian Cream with Freshly Baked Madeleines. I hope I can survive until morning after such a meager repast. 1/2/04
After the past several days of intense and frenetic activity, it was nice to have a totally low-key day at sea, traveling along inside channels rather than out in the open Pacific. I reverted to my preferred cruising routine of getting up around 11:00 a.m. and had lunch in the buffet because they were featuring some of my favorite Spanish delicacies--gazpacho and paella--in which I indulged along with some marvelously fat mussels and a dessert of several chocolate items plus a small square of green Jello (which, as is well known, totally neutralizes the deleterious effects of any amount of chocolate). The buffet area is now totally enclosed, which I don't remember being the case on the [i]Cloud[/i] three years ago. So either that's another drydock design improvement or else the relevant neurons in my brain have died off. Then it was up to the open deck to continue trying to compel my camera to take decent pictures of the landscape--variously sized hilly or mountainous islands covered with green vegetation or, at higher elevations, with snow and ice, with a number of small waterfalls running down to the sea, very reminiscent of what I saw two years ago in the Faroe Islands. The sky was totally overcast, but somehow it didn't feel depressing or threatening, but rather had created a soft and mild ambience instead, a not unpleasant experience.
After a while, however, it started to rain lightly, driving me back inside just in time for my usual late afternoon amusement, although I wasn't in time for the first session of a two-day workshop on Scarf Tying. Harmony was restored to the Team Trivia universe and we won again. In fact we would have finished with a perfect score except that the Trivial Pursuit card, which is arbitrarily assumed to be infallible (in order to prevent arguments and disagreements), incorrectly claimed that Botox was an abbreviation for "botulism toxin" rather than, as an urban Californian like me knows, "botulinum toxin." This is not as egregious an error as the claim in an early edition of the game that Aldous Huxley coined the phrase "brave new world," but it was a bit frustrating nonetheless.
I had dinner with a couple of lawyers and their wives. Today's delicacies were a Wild Mushroom Quiche with Tarragon Sauce, Steamed Tiger Prawns and Chicken Dumpling "Chinese Style" with Sweet Chili and Soya Dipping Sauces, a Refreshing Pear Sour Cream Sorbet, Australian Kobé Beef "Pot au Feu" Style with Ginger and Herb Relish as well as Leek and Potato Bouillon, and Floating Island with Vanilla Sauce. The ostensible Kobé Beef was an absolute horror: apparently "Pot au Feu" is French for "dry, stringy, and tasteless." Or perhaps in Australia "Kobé Beef" is what they call koala meat. In retrospect I have absolutely no idea why I didn't send it back and get something else, like my tablemate's Crisp Long Island Duckling with Orange Sauce, Marinated Red Cabbage, Broccoli, and Almond Croquettes. I think I must have been suffering from shock-induced paralysis. There was a bright side to chewing my koala meat, though: It gave me plenty of time to think of, for the first occasion in quite a while, an old hiking friend who lived in a small town near Death Valley and every year would invite all his Sierra Club cohorts to come up and join him in consuming the results of a Burro Bake. At least the petits fours were good.
My tablemates were going to the post-dinner show and, feeling atypically sociable, I tagged along. Tonight's presentation was "The Magic and Comedy of Des & Cherry King." He told bawdily corny or cornily bawdy British jokes, she did a few dance routines (looking like a cross between a kewpie doll and Coppélia), and together they did several traditional illusions, including surviving sharp sticks through the box, disconnected head, and escape from the trunk. It must have been a pretty entertaining hour, because I never even came close to falling asleep during it.
Another day at sea, continuing to meander through inner channels. I took photos of the coastline as shown in a [i]National Geographic[/i] atlas. There was a bit more variety than yesterday with regard to terrain and weather conditions. Some peaks were pointy, others were more rounded. Some islets were tall, others were low-lying. There were whitecaps on the water. The weather was constantly cycling through conditions of partly cloudy, fully overcast, light rain, heavy rain, mist, fog, and hazy sun. Different settings on my camera made identical terrain look very different. A few small seabirds were even noticeable for the first time, dipping and soaring and swooping around the boat. I could only tolerate all this sensory overload for a few minutes at a time, but it's amazing how much attention you can give to your surroundings when you lose television reception. We came in third at Trivia today. There must be a disturbance in The Force.
Tonight's dinner was all-French, and probably the best meal overall so far. I started with Terrine of Squab and Prunes on Chilled Celery-Pistachio Sauce, followed by Gratinated Burgundy Escargots in Garlic Herb Butter (so tasty that I ordered a second portion), a Refreshing Red Wine Sorbet, and a perfectly done Roasted Herb Crust Rack of Lamb with Natural Gravy, Ratatouille Niçoise and Fried Semolina Gnocchi. For dessert, while one of my tablemates ordered something very decorative, I just could not decide between a Chocolate Soufflé with Grand-Marnier Sauce and a Tarte Tatin, so ordered one of each. The bear was content.
Meanwhile the terrain had been subtly changing. There were more barren outcroppings and islets of pure rock, while the channel was widening. One craggily majestic grouping particularly attracted me, reminding me strongly of Brünnhilde's Rock, complete with glow from the protective Magic Fire.
Had to awaken in the middle of the night (6:30 a.m.) for the "Exploring the End of the World" tour from Ushuaia, the southernmost major town in the world, in a very lovely location. It was another overcast day that again fortunately never turned to rain. This tour started out with a two-hour catamaran ride to a nearby rocky islet, on which were perched around forty bears cunningly disguised as sea lions. They were divided into harems of one male, several females, and multiple pups, preening, snuggling, and emitting a variety of low-pitched guttural vocalizations, sounding very much like a Russian Orthodox choir. Most of them seemed to prefer hanging out on the island to venturing into the frigid waters. Sharing the island were a few Imperial Cormorants, whose coloring makes them look very much like flying penguins. The cormorants had another nearby islet exclusively to themselves. Given the amount of diverse gunk in the adjacent water, it is probably fortunate that none of them flew directly over our boat.
We eventually landed at Lapataia Bay, just adjacent to the border with Chile (the large island of Tierra del Fuego being divided between them), and transferred to a (toiletless) bus for a brief ride through a sub-Antarctic forest along a well-maintained dirt road that would have been the southern end of the Pan-American Highway if that project had ever been completed. Given the cold climate, what few species of trees there are here grow very slowly. A number of them have fallen as well, due both to a local fungus and to beavers (a non-native species, originating from twenty-five pairs of the beasts released into the wild after their fur proved commercially unsatisfactory). Rabbits are another non-native species, but they are kept in check via the introduction of the mixomatosis virus. There are about 200 species of birds in the area, including the Patagonian Gray Goose, but few native land animals other than guanacos, foxes, and the seldom-seen Patagonian Bear.
The bus took us to, somewhat surprisingly, a train terminus. I immediately ran off into the woods, which, among other benefits, provided an opportunity to examine tiny white orchids closely. Some of you may be asking what a train station is doing here. The answer is fairly interesting. During the first half of the last century there was a prison here. An island surrounded by hypothermia-inducing ocean is a good place for a maximum-security prison, Alcatraz having been similarly situated. The prisoners were kept busy by felling trees, which provided heating for both the prison and for the inhabitants of the town of Ushuaia. The train-route was used to transport them to the lumbering areas. Now the narrow-gauge track is used by a cute little steam-engine pulling somewhat clautrophobic carriages to take tourists on a brief excursion through the terrain, with horses grazing amongst the stumps of felled trees, the usual higher mountains in the background, and a river running through it. This experience felt very much like a Disney ride.
The train-ride ended at The Station at the End of the World (not to be confused with The Restaurant at the End of the Universe), with its touch of corporate branding, whence we reboarded our buses for the ride back to Ushuaia. Something I never knew was that rugby is very popular in Argentina, there being, for example, three rugby clubs in this town that has a population of only 45,000. By the time I got back to the ship, after poking around town a bit, luncheon was no longer being served in The Restaurant, so I had to make do with a meager room-service repast of Chilled Jumbo Prawns with Cocktail Sauce, Grilled Black Angus Beef Tenderloin with Herb Butter and Steamed Fresh Vegetables, and Cheese Cake with Caramel Sauce. I finished lunch just in time for Team Trivia, which we only barely won, the day's collection of questions including several really inane ones (i.e., ones that I could not answer). I forgot to take my camera to dinner, so will not frustrate you by providing the names of unphotographed items.
The phrase "End of the World" is very popular down here. But sometime during the day I had a sort of contradictory insight. To me the surroundings were more reminiscent of the beginning of a world--various small chunks of land before they coalesced into larger components, predominantly homogeneous terrain before it burst into the wildly variegated heterogeneity which we now take for granted. Simplicity precedes complexity. No doubt entropy will eventually return complexity to simplicity, but we aren't there yet. Metaphorical musings such as these are not generally productive, but they are a pleasant bit of mind-stretching, and tend to arise in few contexts other than a cruise, where the mind does not have to spend much time worrying about quotidian concerns and can meander along seldom-trodden paths instead.
We are scheduled to reach Cape Horn tomorrow morning around 6:00 a.m., so I sank into the arms of Morpheus at an earlier hour than usual.
When my wakeup call came at 5:30 a.m. I thought to myself, "Soon we will be at Cape Horn. How interesting." And went back to sleep. So you'll have to find photographs of it somewhere else. Anyway, all Cape Horn is is the southernmost point of the southernmost island that is near the South American mainland. It's not part of the mainland itself. Norway's North Cape is also on an island, for that matter. I'm not even sure why ships kept sailing around Cape Horn after the much less treacherous Beagle Channel and Magellan Strait had been discovered farther north.
Today's post-breakfast amusement was doing laundry. There are only three washer-dryer pairs available to passengers, and one of them is presently out of commission. So there's a certain amount of competition for access, with people removing other people's washing after completion of the cycle and dumping it on the floor, pulling other people's loads out of dryers before the clothes are fully dry, and so on. People who don't come back to check on their loads in a timely manner are part of the problem as well. It would help if cycle-times were listed. I had to growl at several interlopers to protect my interests.
For lunch today I had Chicken Ballotine with Fresh Herb Stuffing and a Spinach and Roasted Garlic Sauce, Chilled Cream of Pineapple Soup with Toasted Coconut, Enchiladas Meson Santa Rosa (Spiced Chicken Strips in Stuffed Corn Tortillas with Guacamole, Refried Beans, and Bell Peppers (I was curious to see a six-star presentation of a basically peasant dish)), and Churos[[i]sic[/i]] with Kahlua Sauce. Then up on deck for more terrain photos, including one configuration that reminded me of an ice cream parfait. We came in last in Team Trivia, the proportion of inane questions apparently increasing.
Dinner: Grilled Marinated Oyster Mushrooms with Fried Spiedini, Veal Sweetbread and Wild Mushrooms Spring Roll with Parsnips Mousseline and Balsamic Jus (the first appetizer I've had served in what I consider an adequately sized portion), Refreshing Melon Portwine Sherbet, Chilean Fish Filet Topped with Hazelnut and Rosemary Crust with Crushed Potatoes and Zucchini, and Brittany "Sablé" Tart with Apricots and Strawberry on a Light Pastry Cream. The modernistic Christmas trees were being disassembled tonight, so I snapped one in its final moments.
I am becoming less and less happy with the level of service in The Restaurant. The only water I ever drink at Silversea meals is San Pellegrino, but there seems to be absolutely no member of the waitstaff capable of remembering this fact. I always have to stop them from pouring still water, or Chilean sparkling water, or Perrier. I know that with open seating you don't get the same staff every night, but there must be someone who has served me more than once. I arrived for dinner this evening a few minutes later than my three tablemates, so they had already been offered and served bread and rolls. After waiting for a while, I had to ask for the basket to be brought around again for my sake. And you'd better take as many pieces as you want the first time they're offered, because you're never going to see the bread basket again. Tonight I wasn't even offered any Pellegrino refills during the entire duration of the meal. The Bear is starting to get distinctly grumpy.
Tomorrow is going to be another early day, with an 8:15 a.m. departure for a 13-hour one-day trip from Punta Arenas, Chile to Torres del Paine National Park. These "torres" (towers) are a group of absolutely magnificent sheer rock pinnacles, equalled for grandeur nowhere else in the world other than by the Trango Towers in Pakistan, which I was fortunate enough to see back in 1977 while toiling up the Baltoro Glacier on the way to the base of K-2. They look best against a background of sunny blue sky, but the forecast is again for overcast skies and intermittent light rain. If the weather turns out to be really rotten, it is even possible that the tour will be completely cancelled because the planes we've chartered to avoid an overnight trip will be unable to fly. We shall see.
Another early arising in preparation for an 8:15 a.m. departure (which turned into a 9:00 a.m. departure). We started out by driving twenty minutes through Punta Arenas to the local airport. Punta Arenas is a city of about 120,000 people, whose glory days as a resupply port started in the mid-19th century when shipping around the Horn increased (mainly due to the California Gold Rush) and ended with the completion of the Panama Canal. There was a lot of wealth in the place, and a lot of the older buildings and homes reflect this. Sorry I didn't get a chance to take any pictures around town. At the airport the group squeezed into four small chartered airplanes of various sizes. I was in a Twin Otter DHC-6, a twenty-passenger two-propeller plane chartered from DAP Airways, which had seats but little else. Fortunately the flight lasted for only forty-five minutes, landing us in the town of Puerto Natales, about 150 miles northwest of Punta Arenas. We then boarded another couple of buses for a two-hour drive along well-maintained dirt roads to Torres del Paine National Park.
Much of the initial terrain was pretty featureless steppe/plain/prairie, reminding me of eastern Montana, through which Miarsus the Miata and I once drove on the way to finding out whether North Dakota really existed. (It does.) Patagonia has pretty mild winters, with an average temperature around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Its main problem is that its summers are not that much warmer, with an average temperature around 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Cereal crops like wheat and corn, unfortunately, need an average temperature of at least around 52 degrees Fahrenheit in order to grow, which tends to limit the agricultural potential of the area, as well as the diversity of flora and fauna in general. Pretty much the only trees around are Southern beech trees, which, due to the cold, take an entire century to grow to maturity. The wind in Patagonia is virtually constant. This is because it is the only warm(ish) region for a long way around, and warm air attracts cold air in the form of wind from places like Antarctica and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
On the subject of fauna, we did see a few rhea, which are the flightless birds of South America. Something the guide mentioned that had never occurred to me before was that flightless birds are found only in the Southern Hemisphere--rhea, ostrich, kiwi, emu, and penguin. Can anyone think of any northern counterexamples? We also saw a number of guanacos, which are one of the four species of American cameloids. The domestic ones are the llama and alpaca, while the wild ones are the guanaco and vicuña, the latter being found only at altitudes of at least 12,000 feet. Guanacos are found only (or maybe it's mainly) in Argentina and Chile. They are protected in Chile, but fair game in Argentina. I flashed on an image of the more intelligent Argentinian guanacos streaming west into Chile like Jean Gabin and Marcel Dalio escaping Erich von Stroheim's prison camp and crossing the border into Switzerland in Jean Renoir's [i]Grande Illusion[/i].
Returning to our bus after photographing the cutest group of guanacos we could find (they look much more dainty than llamas, almost seductive in fact), we discovered that a number of flies had joined us. They are not completely regarded as pests down here, though, because, in the absence of bees, flies join birds as pollinators of flowers. As the terrain became more hilly and various groups of mountains peeked out in the distance from the prevailing overcast, we finally entered Torres del Paine National Park. I was a bit surprised to learn that the towers were not named after anyone named Paine, Thomas or otherwise. "Paine" (pronounced like pie-nay) actually means "blue" in the Araucanian language of the original Tehuelche inhabitants of the area. The air in the region of the park is completely free of pollution. All possible nearby urban pollution sources (i.e., Latin American cities) are downwind from Patagonia. In fact the only upwind potential pollution source is somewhere in New Zealand, which is too far away for any of the gunk to reach here. At one of our photo stops, I posed for an ad to demonstrate the beneficial effects of the Silversea Diet.
Finally the towers that had attracted me for so many years came into view. Sort of. The day remained primarily overcast, with the towers and surrounding mountaintops only sporadically peeking out to an only partial extent from the clouds, fog, and mist. Having a camera with only a 3x zoom didn't help matters either. Fortunately a search of the Web turned up photos of them taken in better weather or closer proximity, such as here, here, here, here, and here. According to our guide, we should have been grateful for being able to see anything at all, since on many days the area is totally socked in and/or rainy. So apparently it could have been a lot worse. I heard no one demainding refunds, onboard credits, or free cruises in compensation for not getting an absolutely clear view of everything. We also saw, rather more distinctly, another formation known as [i]Los Cuernos del Paine[/i]. These are multicolored horn-shaped towers, with bases of granite but darker sedimentary rock on top. Climbing them did not look as if it would be particularly pleasant. They gave off a very hostile and unwelcoming ambience, an excellent reminder that Nature is not always benevolently inclined toward us.
We had lunch at a pretty little inn located on an island in turquoise-colored Lake Pehoe. This would be a good place to stay for a while in order truly to get away from it all. The main feature of the lunch was roast lamb, which was absolutely luscious--tender, juicy, and flavorful. For people who have been raised in the US eating dry, overcooked leg of lamb, the preparations of the meat down here are truly revelatory. I even defied the tradition of organized-tour meals by asking for (and, even better, receiving) a second serving of the delicious young flesh. Most of us napped during much of the bus-ride back to Puerto Natales, and we eventually got back to the ship around 7:00 p.m. (too late for Team Trivia), thus completing a moderately strenuous ten hours of gallivanting around.
A welcome-back note signed by the executive chef and maître d' awaited us in our suites, along with a plate of canapés. These kept up my strength until dinner, which tonight comprised a double order of Crisp Maine Lobster and Porcini Mushroom Parcels, Refreshing Vodka Lime Sorbet, Roasted Wild Boar Rack with Fig Chutney, Saffron Apples, and Prune and Apricot Skewer (actually only two chewy chops), and Crêpes Suzette and Vanilla Ice Cream.
Ho hum, another day, another shore tour. This one left at a fairly rational hour, 9:30 a.m., so I was not forced out from under my warm down duvet and Frette linens too early. Today's jaunt involved a ninety-minute drive WNW from Punta Arenas on another well-maintained dirt road to a 9000-acre [i]estancia[/i] (ranch) in the Rio Verde district. The day was overcast, as usual, but warmer and less windy than some of the other days we've had. By Patagonian standards it could even be called pleasant. This ranch is mainly devoted to the raising of sheep, as well as some cattle and Chilean pedigree horses. Sheep ranches in Patagonia need to be quite extensive because each sheep needs almost 2.5 acres (one hectare) of grazing land in order to derive sufficient nourishment from the edible parts of the sparse vegetation.
There was a low group of hills on one part of the ranch that turned out to be a great deal more interesting than your run-of-the-mill group of hills. It was a condor rookery, home to 60-80 of the huge scavengers. Coming from California, whose condors nearly became extinct before scientists intervened, I was quite glad to see proof that at least the South American variety was still thriving. Most birds need to eat six times their own weight in food every day in order to generate enough energy to keep flapping their wings in order to remain aloft. To maintain this standard a typical 26-pound condor would have to eat a heck of a lot of decaying flesh on a daily basis. Fortunately, for a variety of reasons, they don't have to eat that much. Because they eat meat rather than plant matter, they derive significantly more energy from smaller amounts of nourishment than most birds. And they expend much less energy while flying by gliding and soaring on wind currents rather than by constantly wing-flapping.
After a quick coffee in the semi-enclosed dining area, where we also saw our lunch's main course being cooked, it was off for demonstrations of various farm functions. First came sheepherding, mainly performed by an Australian Kelpie dog. He compressed the sheep into a tight circle and then drove them very close to us. The sheep clearly did not like being so near a bunch of strangers, but the dog left them no choice. Dogs who do this sort of work seem a great deal brighter and more interested in learning than many people I know. Aside from giving signals, the accompanying cowperson, known in Chile as a [i]huaso[/i], had to do very little. Kelpies don't have a great deal of long-range endurance, though, so hitch a ride when being taken to distant flocks.
We then proceeded to the shearing shed to watch, naturally enough, sheepshearing. This was performed upon an older, experienced ewe, who seemed perfectly relaxed and blasé about the entire process. Almost all the wool came off in one piece, which, when laid on a table, seemed a great deal larger than when the sheep was wearing it. Eventually all the loose wool gets baled and sent off to be processed.
The final demonstration took place in a corral, where we saw the Chilean horses put through some of their paces. Like all the various types of horses in South America, this breed is descended from the horses originally brought to the continent by the early Spanish conquistadores. The Chilean ones, in accordance with the Patagonian climate, are somewhat small, but very strong and quick. We watched a single cow being cut out from a "herd" of four cows and then saw a rodeo exercise. The Chilean rodeo seems to involve competition in a single rigidly choreographed routine that involves a pair of men and horses driving a cow around the ring in a certain manner. One horse keeps behind the cow while the other is made to walk sideways (apparently very difficult for a horse to do because it leaves it with only a signle eye to know where it's going), pressing the cow against the outside edge of the ring. Points are awarded and deducted based on how well the horse's chest keeps in contact with which part of the cow. This type of rodeo is apparently a big thing in Chile, with various regional competitions culminating in an annual national championship.
Finally it was time for lunch. We began with an appetizer of [i]empañadas[/i] (meat pies, a Chilean national dish), washed down with a Pisco sour. (I finally found out what Pisco liquor really is. It is made from grapes grown in a particular region that receives nearly year-round sunshine, causing the grapes to develop an extremely high sugar content (hence subsequent alcohol content) that makes them unsuitable for use in wine.) The barbecued whole lambs were then hacked into various chops and other hunks of meat, served along with potatoes and vegetables grown on the ranch as well as rolls baked thereon. Lamb here is apparently usually eaten with a salsa sauce rather than with mint jelly, and it sharpened the meat's natural flavorfulness. A Chilean cabernet was the obvious accompaniment.
The ride back to town was, as usual, pleasantly restful. I somehow survived until dinner, at which I had Marinated Fish Carpaccio with Lemon and Olive Oil, Cream of Forest Mushroom Soup with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Refreshing Banana Coconut Sherbet, Black Pepper Sirloin Steak with Creamy Polenta, Onion Rings, and Pepper-Cognac Sauce, and a couple of portions of Crème brûlée.
A day devoted even more absolutely to total sloth than most days, as we started the two-day cruise out of the bottom of the continent and up the Atlantic coast on the way to Puerto Madryn, Argentina. I wandered up to the pool deck around noon in order to take some pictures, and noticed the poolside light-lunch buffet. Since I had never eaten thereat on any previous Silversea cruises, I decided to try it, so had some hamburgers spiced with Dijon mustard, sides of pasta salad and marinated mushrooms, and a couple of tall glasses of Guinness Stout. Dessert comprised freshly made vanilla ice cream topped with almond liqueur and other appropriate condiments. For those who have never tried various combinations of ice cream flavors and liqueur varieties, Bear highly recommends the experience. The temptation of concluding the meal with a single-malt whiskey was somehow avoided. The remainder of the afternoon was spent in reading and napping. I'm finally on the last issue (12/19/02) of The New York Review of Books that I had brought with me, so can soon start reading something else instead. Reading predictive articles after the fact about events like the war in Iraq is amusing.
Tonight was a formal evening, but I just did not feel like getting all dressed up in my Halloween costume, so remained in my cave and ordered dinner from room service. The service-slip for the day took the form of identical glassware being provided for red wine, white wine, and water. The menu was largely devoted to Italian food, so I had Thin Slices of Raw Beef Tenderloin with Crisp Parmesan, Braised Tomato-Onion Salad and Barley Dressing; Seared Sage and Seafood Kebab with Grapefruit, and Mango Relish; Refreshing Lemon Liquor Sorbet; Roasted Veal in Crispy Sour Cream Dough with Foie Gras Macaroni, Cumin Glazed Carrots, and Sautéed Chanterelles; and Walnut Praline Mousseline with Croquant Coffee Tuiles and Roasted Pine Nuts Sauce.
A very pretty day today, the sky almost entirely cloudless and blue for the first time on the entire cruise. This occurrence is no doubt attributable to the fact that this is an at-sea day, with absolutely nothing to see other than sea and sky. The day at Torres del Paine should have been like this. Grump, grump, grump.
For the first time this cruise I went to the Panorama Lounge at 4:00 p.m. for tea. Had a few mini-sandwiches but, exercising massive self-control, ate absolutely no sweets, even though they were available in abundance and even labeled for one's convenience. This is just about as disciplined as I get. The institution of teatime is very civilized. You get to engage in a bit of desultory conversation with new or old acquaintances, while a pianist softly plays old standards in the background. Or you don't have to talk with anyone, but rather can gaze out to sea while contemplatively sipping. Quiet moments in modern life are getting fewer and far betweener, so should be treasured.
I returned to the Terrace Café tonight for another themed set menu, this one French. The amuse bouche was Panache of Fresh Foie Gras with Mixed Berry Scotch. What, you may ask, is "mixed berry scotch"? I have no idea. Sometimes Silversea's menu descriptions are as impenetrable as the syntax of early Japanese motorcycle manuals, and it is best to let sleeping Scotch berries lie. Then came Mussel and Clams with White Wine Cream Sauce (which was really mussels and clam). The mussels had been freshly acquired in Punta Arenas and were the hugest representatives of their species that I have ever seen. I even had to cut one of them in half, a never-before experience in my life. The fish course was Seabass Filet on a Bed of Lobster-Carrot Mousseline with Crispy Potatoes and "Maitre d'Hotel" Sauce. Very nice--a few bites of delicate fishy flesh offset by the sweetly rich mousseline (belying its unappealing appearance). After the Refreshing Calvados Sherbet came the main course of Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Truffle Sauce and "Sarlat" Potatoes, "My Grandmother Recipe." The menu writer's grandmother apparently only had access to beef that, albeit tender, was dry and flavorless. And the truffle sauce was honored more in the breach than the observance. Matters improved again with the dessert of Warm Chocolate Eiffel Tower with Raspberries and Strawberries, a decadent confection I remembered from a cruise or two ago, as well as a few other sweet munchies. I also snagged what the Head Sommelier claimed was the last bottle of '99 Wente Reserve Cab on board.
Silversea's lawyers, by the way, have been earning their keep. All menus now carry the following warning: "In fulfillment of our responsibilities, we must remind you that the consumption of raw or undercooked food such as meat, eggs, poultry, seafood, or dairy products increases the risk of illness to those persons who may be especially vulnerable." Yum, yum, yum. Break another raw egg over the Caesar salad and dish up that steak tartare!
Penguin Day has arrived at last! It's another largely sunny and warmish day, with the ship docked at Puerto Madryn, Argentina. The Punta Tombo Reserve, about 115 miles south of here, including 75 miles of unpaved road, is the summer home of about 800,000 Magellanic Penguins, the largest species of warm-weather penguins, where they somehow dig burrows with just their feet and beaks, in which to hatch and raise their chicks before migrating north to warmer Brazilian beaches for the winter. So a drive of 2-1/2 hours each way, on a toiletless bus, is required in order to spend one hour frolicking amongst the penguins. Southern Patagonia had at least some sort of grassy material covering virtually all of the ground, but the predominant picture here, about six hundred miles farther north, is quite different. It reminds me a lot of the high desert in California, especially the stretch of US 395 along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Basically chaparral, with creosote-like bushes growing from bare ground. Endlessly flat miles and miles and miles of it.
I noticed that one of the passengers on the bus was reading an eight-page New York Times news summary. Having never seen such a thing before on Silversea, the only news summary ever slipped under my door having been a more generic four-page wire-service one, I asked him how he got it, and learned that one can request it instead at Reception. After we got back to the ship I verified this fact. What Reception could not explain, however, was how one would know to request it, given that its availability is never publicized. A paradox worthy of Zeno. Being an inveterate news-junkie, I was not at all happy to learn about this alternative source only when the cruise was nearly over.
The terrain may look inhospitable to humans, but it is apparently appealing to a penguin. As we approached the entrance to the Reserve, the sight of the first few penguins waddling around in what looked like the middle of a desert struck me as incongruous in the extreme. When I had first heard about the huge number of penguins that summered here, I had an image of them concentrated in a vast single mass, like in Antarctica, but that's apparently not how it works. They are spread out across many miles of coastline, most of it off-limits to humans. We get to walk along only a small number of paths, fenced off on either side, within a subset of the penguinistic horde. The penguins, though, are not similarly restricted. Some of their burrows are even under bushes within "our" area, and they all waddle freely under the fence-wire between the two zones. Most members of this species are quite shy, and will hide in their burrows or flee when humans approach. But the ones here have become habituated to us. Both species share the paths quite hospitably, sometimes even side by side. Unless you get closer than about eighteen inches, they pretty much ignore you. It's like the intersection of two parallel universes.
There were viewing points overlooking a couple of beaches and coves, whence various parents periodically launched themselves into the ocean in order to bring back tasty goodies with which to nourish their offspring, who kept up a perpetual bleating sound, while others were just lying on the beach, seemingly napping. I saw one regurgitating parent surrounded and virtually engulfed by four bleating chicks. Since each couple normally produces only one or two chicks, either this mother had undergone fertility treatments or else some interlopers were in the assemblage. All the chicks looked alike and were frequently exchanging positions in the jumble, so I was unable to tell whether or not the adult recognized its own children and was only feeding them.
The ambience at the site was just very pleasant. People were calmly wandering around; penguins were calmly wandering around. There was no sense of frustration or intrusion on either side. Somehow the penguins looked less awkward on land than they have always appeared to me in nature documentaries. All in all, they were just mellow, tranquil, and dignified little beasties, sometimes even looking positively jaunty. The chicks, in their more generalized gray fluff, simply looked cute and adorable. I am seriously considering elevating them to honorary bearhood.
My dinner this evening was again in the Terrace Café, along with two couples with whom I've spent a goodly amount of pleasant time. Virtually every course was really tasty (probably because none of them included beef). We began with a Truffled Praline of Foie Gras, with White Port Wine Jelly and Brioche. Then came Smoked Salmon Tatar with Sour Cream and Caviar. (I have to wonder whether Tartare was really meant, since the Tatars are well-known only for having been expelled from their homeland by Stalin and shipped off to Central Asia.) The soup was Wild Mushroom Cappuccino with Sun Dried Tomato. Everyone at the table raved about this: the mushroom flavor was very deep and satisfying; being served in a coffee cup with a bit of foam on top was an amusing bit of whimsy. Tonight's palate-cleanser was Champagne Sorbet, not accompanied by its customary Homeric epithet of "Refreshing" and called Sorbet rather than Sherbet for a change. Whoever writes these menus needs both a proofreader and an editor. Thankfully, instead of beef, the main course was Lamb Rack Dijonaise[[i]sic[/i]] with a Ratatouille and Potato Gratin and Sweet Garlic Jus, including four chops rather than the canonical two. Dessert was a Minestrone of Fresh Fruit with Vanilla Ice Cream. I'm going to have to look up the precise meaning of "minestrone," because this sure didn't look or taste like Italian vegetable soup. My determination to finish off the Wente Cab from last night left me feeling benevolent and merciful toward all humankind.
Today being the last sea-day, it was time for the traditional "galley brunch," a massive buffet set up in the galley. It didn't seem quite as opulent or extensive as the ones I've had on the larger Silversea ships, but I guess that is understandable given the disparity in size. There was also a traffic problem with lines going in both directions in a single narrow aisle. I sampled various items, but did not photograph any of them.
I had not originally intended to eat at Saletta, as a protest against this additional degradation of the all-inclusive concept, but gustatory boredom finally necessitated a visit, and I'm rather glad that it did. The service and pacing was a clear cut above that provided in The Restaurant. One trivial example: After I briefly left between courses to go across the corridor to keep my bladder happy, a freshly folded napkin was at my place by the time I returned. This is how things are done in top restaurants. Supposedly the meal started at 7:30 p.m., so I naturally appeared on time, being the only person in the room for a while. Eventually other people filtered in, some as late as 9:30 p.m. (Spaniards, not surprisingly). In fact I think I was the only North American there on this night.
No doubt you all are now saying, "Enough introductory boilerplate. What dishes were served?" So I shall not keep you in suspense any longer. There were three amuses bouches, one mouthful each of beef tartare, salmon with cream cheese, and a roll stuffed with bleu cheese. The primary appetizer was Chilled Cucumber Cappuccino with Smoked Salmon Stripes. Is there suddenly a non-coffee cappuccino craze? This was the second night in a row that I was served one. Frothy cucumbers aren't as interesting as frothy wild mushrooms, though. Then came a slice of Pumpkin Terrine with Lobster. This was interesting as a reminder of how pumpkin really tastes, which bears little relation to the overly sweetened version we get in pies. The fish course was Sake Flavored Sea Bass with Citrus Soya Sauce--contrasting flavors and textures interestingly playing off of each other. The main course was Whole Roasted Veal Tenderloin with Foie Gras Sauce and Mediterranean Couscous. This was very good, particularly after I requested and received an additional portion of the sauce. (I am eagerly awaiting a medical study that proves that all human nutritional requirements can be satisfied by foie gras.) A "pre-dessert" took the form of a few mouthfuls each of chocolate mousse and lemon sorbet, along with some very pretty petits fours. The real dessert was a Nectarine Tart with Kahlua Ice Cream. One seldom sees nectarines these days, but the backyard of the house in which I spent my early cubhood had a nectarine tree, so this treat provided me with a nice little Proustian frisson.
Since I was eating alone, I wanted a single bottle of wine that would fit the entire menu, but my choice of the veal complicated this requirement somewhat. The sommelier and I consulted for several minutes, and finally decided that a mature Chablis would be dry enough to stand up to the calf as well as being suitable for the prior courses, so I drank nearly an entire bottle of 1997 Chablis Grand Cru "Vaudésir" Pierre André. It was a good match. This was one of the more reasonably priced wines on the list at "only" $55. Meanwhile the table of Spaniards near me ordered two bottles of '97 Lafite at $205 per bottle.
The portions were a bit small for my taste, perhaps more suitable to an eleven-course tasting menu. And the serving-pace, at 2'15", was perhaps a bit brisk for a two-star restaurant. But I still found the experience eminently tolerable. Saletta's headwaiter, Steve Weber, provided service in a manner reminiscent of Silversea pre-9/11. My request for a souvenir menu to keep was fulfilled by one autographed by him and the chef. And he always addressed me by name when we encountered each other thereafter.
Tonight's entertainment was a "farewell" variety show, featuring several of the entertainers doing bits of their acts. Des and Cherry did a few more illusions, interspersed with Des' appealingly corny patter. Shirley Dettmar, the assistant CD, sang several songs, including two operatic chestnuts in which she was accompanied by Colin Brown, the CD, who is a classically trained pianist. She is definitely able to produce a great deal of volume. The flute/piano duo called Key Breeze also tootled away briefly, ending with a medley of American patriotic songs that may have left the European members of the audience rather puzzled and bemused. This was a good way for me to get little tastes of some of the available entertainment rather than having to submit to full doses of any of them.
This is the last full day of the cruise, spent in Punta del Este, Uruguay, a very upscale seaside resort, with a large number of visiting boats and yachts, creating quite a jumble at the piers. The weather was absolutely gorgeous--sunny without being uncomfortably warm. I chose a cruise to Sea Wolf Island as my final excursion. And what are "sea wolves"? They're really sea lions, but in Spanish they're lupine rather than leonine. This is a permanent colony of what looked like several hundred members, so there must be an ample supply of anchovy and squid throughout the entire year. Since the island is now a nature reserve and since it is very rocky near the shore, our boat could not approach really close to the island, so most of the colonists looked more like sea dots, particularly without a decent zoom lens on my camera. But fortunately many of them were swimming out in the ocean, some individually, some in small groups, others in fairly large groups mixed with sea birds. The most surprising sight was a group of about five of them imitating dolphins by leaping out of the water simultaneously. These are definitely very appealing animals, although I'm not wild about the way their Antarctic cousins dine almost exclusively on penguins. On the other hand their Arctic cousins get eaten by my Arctic relations, so everything evens out in the end.
The rest of the day was naturally pretty depressing, mainly devoted to packing, a process interrupted only by a dinner of Grilled Chilean Merluza on a Bed of Buckwheat "Crêpes", Salade Arlésienne (Fried Eggplant, Potato, Red Onion Rings and Tomato with French dressing), and Gambas Risotto with Basil. I was feeling too morose to order dessert.
Disembarkation at Buenos Aires in mid-morning, with a day room on the Executive Floors of the Sheraton. The room is typically ample, although the bathroom is surprisingly small. Leaving for airport at 7:30 p.m., so have several hours to kill. What to do? How about a nice lunch? After the dreadful beef I ate on the ship, I was glad to have landed in a place renowned for its cow-muscle. Right near the hotel was what looked like an older restaurant called Las Nazarenas, which featured meats of various kinds in various sizes. I ordered a 1.1 kilogram T-bone steak with a half-bottle of Malbec. This thing was absolutely monstrous, at least 1-1/4 inches thick. Sorry I didn't have my camera along, but their pictorial menu gives an idea of the dimensions involved. Some of the weight was taken up by the bone and a little by fat, but there was still a massive amount of meat there. I acquitted myself admirably, even managing to resist the temptation to pick up the bone in my paws and gnaw on it as a proper bear should. The steak cost 44 pesos, and the total bill was 86 pesos (everything being a la carte). A few years ago the dollar and peso were at parity, so this would have been a very pricey meal. But then the Argentinian economy collapsed, with there now being 2.9 pesos to the dollar, resulting in this feast costing a mere $29.65. Great for tourists, but the Argentinian middle class has been largely pauperized.
I hope never to fly out of Buenos Aires again. American Airlines has around five evening flights to the US, all leaving within about a two-hour window, so the check-in lines are utterly horrendous. Aggravating the situation are security personnel asking the traditional series of pointless questions about whether you packed your bag yourself, whether it was ever out of your possession, whether you're carrying anything for anyone else, etc. Even the current US government, despite its preference for symbolism over substance in the realm of transportation security, has discontinued subjecting people to this loony litany. So the trip ended on a bit of a down-note, although I doubt whether there is any way of ending a cruise on an up-note, with the possible exception of immediately embarking on another one.
Throughout this report I have made a number of critical remarks about Silversea's current level of service, but it needs to be emphasized and remembered that these are criticisms only in comparison to my previous Silversea experiences. I still had a marvelous time and Silversea is still a fabulous line. Nevertheless this will have probably been my last Silversea cruise for at least a while. Prolonged unemployment obviously has an adverse effect on the extent of one's discretionary income, and my current inclination is to start splurging on expedition-oriented cruises to more remote locales instead. All four of my Silversea cruises will nevertheless always remain treasurable memories.