This was our third cruise on Mariner (Alaska and Panama Canal before) and fifth on RSSC (Voyager in the Baltic, plus Rome to Ft Lauderdale) but our first since the all-inclusive policy went into effect, and since the up-grading of the ship in drydock.
We live in Switzerland and chose to fly via KLM/AF so first went to Amsterdam where we spent the night, taking the 1000 flight the next day to Lima. At Schipol we stayed at the Airport Sheraton which was excellent, quiet and located about 20m from the main airport concourse. Our flight to Lima was on time and we were met at the Lima airport by a rep. from Lima Tours. (We had decided to plan our own pre- and post-cruise programmes using a London travel agency and their land operator in Peru was Lima tours.) We were taken to a mini van (three of us were travelling - myself and my husband and a friend) and it took about 45 minutes to get to San Isidro and the Country Club Hotel. The hotel is lovely to look at from the outside, but in serious need of re-decorating in the rooms, especially the bathrooms. Nonetheless with a room overlooking the golf course we had a nice view! Lima tours set up a private sightseeing for us in Lima, with an excellent guide (Betty) who took us to the old town and also to Miraflores. The next day we were on our own for the day and went back to Miraflores for lunch at the Rosa Nautica. If I were to go to Lima again I think I would book a hotel in Miraflores as there is heaps more to see and do there than in San Isidro, which is mostly residential.
Unfortunately I got a bad dose of food poisoning either at the lunch or that evening at the hotel. I don't know which. I was unable to travel to Cusco the next day as planned and Lima tours came up trumps! They booked us at the Country Club for an additional night, and arranged for our friend to travel alone to Cusco and then Machu Picchu. Once I felt better they organized a flight for us to Cusco (at no additional cost!) and three nights at the Monasterio instead of two. They also set up a full day sightseeing with private car and driver to the Sacred Valley of the Incas for us while we waited for our friend to return from Machu Picchu. Our guide in Cusco, Luis, was superb. he also took us to the Sacred Valley. I think Lima tours is just the best local operator I have ever encountered!!
We spent the last night before the cruise in Lima, back at the Country Club but this time in a room overlooking the pool of the "real" country club. This was very very noisy in January and I would recommend asking for a room overlooking the golf course. Lima tours then transferred us to Callao and the Mariner.
We left the hotel at noon and were on board by 12.30, glass of sparkling wine in hand (RSSC says champagne - but it is Cremant de la Loire. Not bad, but not champagne!) At the check in we were astounded to run into people from Geneva we have known for years! Having them on board made for an even greater cruise. We went up to la Veranda for lunch and then settled down to wait in the Observation Lounge until 2.30 for our suite to be ready. To our surprise after about 10 minutes someone came to fetch us and to bring us to the suite!! Our suitcases were already on the bed, waiting to be unpacked. How smooth is that??
Our butler -Pritam - and stewardess Ann came by to say hello. Ann was terrific, but Pritam is simply the best! He went out of his way to make our cruise wonderful and nothing was a problem for him. I wanted to take him home with me at the end!!
I really like the re-decoration of the suite. Without too many changes it seemed "smoother" and more modern than before. And the space in the PH suites on Mariner is fabulous. The Voyager PH suites are far smaller though their bathrooms are better and closets larger. Sadly the flat screen TV had not yet materialized!
The first evening we had a cocktail party in Stars Nightclub for the members of our Circle of Interest - The Falklands Conflict, led by Commodore Jamie Miller and his lovely wife Linda. Jamie was simply a terrific leader and getting to know him and Linda was great fun. We had a nice dinner in Compass Rose that night. We love the Compass Rose's offers of "tried and true dishes" if you happen not to want anything on the menu. My husband is particularly partial to Bearnaise sauce so we "treated" ourselves to the filet mignon with Bearnaise the first night. The new all-inclusive policy is just great. We had many more cocktails in the various bars than in our suite, and it made getting to know other people very nice indeed.
The first port was Pisco. I choose to skip the excursion since I was still feeling tired from the illness in Lima. However my husband and our friend went to the Ballesteros Islands and had a great time. Leaving Pisco our Captain (Alfredo Romeo aka as "me from the bridge"!!) took the ship on a different course so we could all see the famous "Candelabra" etched into the hillside. Very impressive.
Our first sea day (I love sea days!) introduced us to the lecturers we would have for the rest of the voyage: Terry Breen - yippee! - being her usual wonderful self and telling us all about the countries, peoples and customs as we went along. Dr. Sheldon Simon from Arizona, speaking on US NAtional Security issues - absolutely excellent!, and a "ports" lecturer, John Tabbut-McCarthy, who was very competent and I think "told it like it is" so you knew exactly what to expect. The other lecturers - Edwina Currie, speaking on British politics and Jean-Michel Cousteau speaking on supposedly the sea but actually anything that he wanted to - started their series later. We are really disappointed with Jean-Michel Cousteau. he never talked about the topic that had been announced and he plugged his foundation unmercifully. It was particularly hard for us because someone from his foundation had spoken on our Panama Canal cruise in 2005 and she had been excellent! Well, there you go - win some, loose some!
We tend not to go to the evening shows very often, but except for one (which was too loud for me!) those we did go to, we enjoyed.
Antofagasta was the first Chilean port. We had a terrible tour with a terrible guide and learnt little about the town. Admittedly there is not a whole lot to see, but had a tour been arranged with lectures at a mining company we could have learnt a lot about the copper industry in Chile. My husband now refers to this town as "Antoforgetta".
Valparaiso was lovely. We had our own tour here with car and guide and were able to go where we wished, which included a stop at a lapis lazuli jewelers in Vina del Mar for me!
Getting into Patagonia we stopped in Puerto Montt and took the excursion to the Emerald Lake. The little cruise on this absolutely stunning, green lake was very nice. After that we visited the Petrohue waterfalls. This involved walking around 15 minutes and being literally attacked by very large horse flies who apparently love dark colors. I was wearing a black sweater! If you take this tour be warned - where light colors!! We then had a late (very late) lunch at a nice place situated between two snow-capped volcanoes and looking down to a lake. The lunch was so-so but the Pisco sours great! This tour really gave us an idea of how lovely this part of Patagonia is. It was, however, rather long and most of us wanted to go straight back to the ship after lunch (by then 4pm) but some diehards insisted on a stop at a little town where they could shop. I slept in the bus!
At Puerto Chacabuco we opted for the "Patagonia in Depth" nature walk. We had a fabulous guide and learnt a lot about their plants. I did not realize that this tour also included a BBQ and by the time we had finished the walk I was ready to return to the ship. (My fault - I should have printed the tour description and taken it with me!) I asked the guide if we could call a taxi - we were about 10 minutes drive from the port - and she asked her boss, the director of the park. He then volunteered to drive us back! What kindness! And en route we had a good chance to talk with the guide and learn even more about the area. The rest of the group came back on the last tender at 5.30pm.
At Punta Arenas we chose the Otway Sound penguin reserve tour. This involved around 2 hours each way on dirt roads before arriving at the reserve. When we got there we walked for exactly 1.5km in total, in a loop on a boardwalk and saw quite a few penguins. However our friend went to a penguin reserve on the Falklands and said it was much better - so if one would choose, I would do that in the future rather than Otway. I have to insist on the distance walked because RSSC's publicity says you must walk 2 miles there and 2 miles back. This is not correct. 1.5km all in is around a mile and there were a couple of golf buggies to hire ($25) for people who couldn't do that.
In Ushuaia we took the Beagle Channel cruise. This was really interesting and we certainly saw a lot of sea lions! The cruise was followed by some time in a national park which was only marginally interesting, I thought. Ushuaia is a duty free port and people were stocking up on all sorts of electronic goods at rock bottom prices.
Our cruise around Cape Horn was definitely a experience not to be missed. Captain Romeo took the Mariner between the two islands. He had warned us of high winds and very rough seas but to my glee the wind dropped once we came out of the channel and though the ship was rocking, it was not too bad. The Observation lounge was jam-packed and there was a real buzz up there. We got out on deck and took photos of the Cape as we went by. To put all this in context we had eaten at Signatures that evening, and had a superb dinner - what a contrast to Cape Horn
Because we were in the Falklands Circle of Interest the highlight of all the excursions was our time there. We drove over really bad dirt roads for nearly 3 hours to reach Goose Green and walked over the battlefields with Jamie and our excellent local guide, Patrick, commentating. We then visited the war memorial at San Carlos bay and paid our respects to Col. H Jones who earned a VC in the battle and was killed in Darwin. Lunch was a very "cobbled together" affair put on by a local family. They themselves were absolutely fascinating to talk with and it was interesting to see how people live in these windswept, rainy islands.
Speaking of rain - I have to say that we were enormously lucky with the weather. Aside from a couple of showers in Cusco we had great weather. In fact Terry Breen said several times that she has been to this part of the world over 20 times and had never before this cruise seen the tops of the mountains in Patagonia!!¨
We docked in Buenos Aires on the Sunday evening and did not have to disembark until the Monday morning. Our last night we dined in Signatures again, making it three times in all during the voyage. The quality and choice here are terrific. As I mentioned earlier we also like the Compass Rose, but I am afraid that for me Latitudes, despite great service, has not yet found its niche. We did enjoy the barbecues by the pool grill which were offered most lunchtimes on sea days -- and the single best thing I ate on the whole cruise had to be the barbecued suckling pig with crackling at the last BBQ!!
Aside from the lectures we both spent a great deal of time on the computers. We appreciated the new coffee bar and the quality of the cappuccinos has to be tasted to be believed! There are fewer terminals on Mariner than Voyager though and I think they should remove the Stars nightclub and enlarge both the "Coffee Connection" and the computer lab.
Finally, we became Trivia fanatics and rushed to the Horizon lounge every day at 4pm. On one day I chatted with the Pastry Chef, Kevin Lee, who told me he had been the Pastry Chef at The Ivy (a famous London restaurant). When I told him that his Sticky date pudding served in the Compass Rose the night before was to die for, he said "Yes - it's what Madonna always ordered at the Ivy"!!
All in all a fantastic cruise. Interesting places - none of which we had been to before - much enhanced by the on board lectures and above all the sheer joy of the luxury of the Mariner and RSSC!