We anticipated this 'trip of a life time' with eagerness, and now that it is over we are still awe inspired by this southernmost continent: Antarctica. So little is known by many of us, that when we think COLD, it is the Arctic North Pole which first comes to mind; however, actually it is Antarctica and the South Pole where the coldest temperatures are recorded (-112 to -130 degrees F. in the winter and 41-59 degrees F. in the summer). Don't forget that the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere. Antarctica is a frozen desert with hardly any precipitation. Then why go there? Actually less than 20,000 people have visited it. But, those of us who have, can now relate the beauty of the snow covered mountains, the stunning variety of icebergs seen in "Iceberg Alley" and the various wildlife (whales [9 varieties], seals [3 types], penguins [5 varieties] and the many other birds like albatross, petrels, cormorants, etc.).
Now let us go back to the beginning -- We flew American Airlines from Miami, FL on Feb. 17th. Flight #909 was set for a 8:15 pm departure and we boarded on time. Then we sat on the tarmac for two hours while baggage handlers searched for a passenger's luggage in order to remove it, since this person had opted to be paid to make a latter departure. In the waiting areas, it was obvious that AA had over booked several flights and enticed passengers to give up their seats for money plus free hotel rooms and meals etc. We left two hours late, but the time was made up in flight and we arrived on schedule in Buenos Aires, Argentina the next morning. We spent overnight with Vincent's family and embarkation was Feb. 19, 2008 at noon.
EMBARKATION Embarkation was chaotic to say the least. In port were the MS Symphonia and other ships. There were no baggage carts and very few handlers to take luggage. Vincent with the help of his cousin Fabian found someone to help with the wheelchair, but there were huge potholes and we didn't get far. Out of the blue, the taxi driver from yesterday at the airport appeared: Giorgio! He came straight to us and said,"Signora! May I help you." Problem solved. When Vincent returned and heard about it he said,"nothing like tipping well." We had done pre boarding at a downtown hotel the day before and received cream colored boarding cards. Thus, we moved straight ahead to buses and the ship's gangway. It all seemed well, but we were told we still needed boarding cards which were supposed to be on the pier. After a mix up, where our passports were sent back to the pier, Jr. Asst. Purser Suzanna Romano got our boarding passes from the ship. She assured us our passports were safe with the ship's personnel. And they were, because all passports were collected, so that clearance for each country we entered was done on board in each country we visited.
SHIP The Star Princess was built by Fincantieri in Monfalcone, Italy and launched in January 2002. Her length is 950.1 feet; Breadth is 118.1 feet and she has a draft 27.7 feet. Her total passenger capacity is 3,100 and she sails with a crew of 1,120. She is propelled by six diesel electric engines. Her cruising speed is 21 knots and maximum speed 23.3 knots.
The Star Princess is beautiful both inside and out. We have already done a deck by deck description of this ship, published in 2005, when we first cruised on her in the Caribbean. So this review will center on the Ports and the gorgeous natural vistas offered by Antarctica. There were over 1,800 Princess Captain's Circle Members on board and Captain Bob Oliver of Harwich, England hosted four cocktail parties in order to accommodate us all. We had a fantastic Bridge Tour with Capt. Oliver and his 3rd Officer Raffaele Ansanti. We learned of the many ship's components all linked to the LIPS joystick giving terrific maneuverability to this huge 109,000 ton ship. This was soon to be appreciated as the very able Captain threaded our way among icebergs.
Overall the ship's decorations are in exceptionally good taste. There is simplicity and elegance rather than neon and gaudiness. We found the ship to be in excellent condition and well kept.
CABINS Our wheelchair accessible cabin #E304 on Emerald Deck 8 is centrally located near the forward elevators. It has a wide entrance which is necessary for a wheelchair. On the left is an excellent large bathroom with safety rails all around. There is a fold away seat in the 5'x5' shower. There are also two large shelves for toiletries above the single sink.
There are two low dressers flanking the king size bed with the "de rigor" heavy white puff, but, for the first time, since we were travelling to the South Pole, this puff was necessary. When entering on the right there is a parking space for the wheel chair. Next, there is a triple armoire with hangers in, two sections and shelves and a private safe in the third section. There s a TV, bar and refrigerator,and a long desk/vanity with a lighted mirror and four drawers. The back wall has a huge window which was partially obstructed by a life boat. Our view was "letterbox", just as when viewing an old Vista Vision film on TV. Top and bottom are cut off, but the panoramic sweep is wonderful. We had an excellent view of the continental shelf from our cabin.
Our steward was Luis and he was very efficient. Thanks. SERVICE & FOOD Service is overseen by Passenger Services Director (PSD) Claudio Mazzoni, who was extremely helpful in answering our many questions. The ship service is excellent, Asst. Purser Suzanna facilitated boarding, assessed delays and took control. How nice it feels when it seems everything is mixed up and someone can take control and ameliorate the situation.
We were leery about taking this trip so far away from home with a wheel chair etc. Mary has a distinct fear of falling, since she broke her leg that way last October. However, Dr. Marguerite Bozian, our travelling companion, was the one who slipped and broke her arm. Princess' Dr. Stewart Buchanan and nurse Vina came to the rescue: they expertly cared for her and sent her home with a write up, DVD, X rays and a history of the whole matter. All of which her husband Dr. Richard Bozian termed as "not only efficient, but accurate and sensitive....the whole matter was impeccable" and a credit to Princess Cruises. Thus, we learned about the medical service on board through our friends, and it is comforting to know that the quality is excellent.
Of course, it is in the dining rooms where service reaches its apex. The suave Maitre D'Hotel Daniele Saredi secured for us a table for six near the entrance to the Capri Dining Room. We don't like to disturb diners with our walker or wheel chair. We had sixteen happy evenings with our travelling companions the Drs. Bozian and the Drs. Chen. Our Waiter Emmanuel and his Asst. Waiter Ariel were spot on. The Head Waiters Silvio and Angelito always charmed us with Executive Chef Francesco La Forgia's marvelous food! We can still smell the wonderful Limoncella cake served in an artisan crafted chocolate bowl. How delicious!
The best way to describe the food is to start at the beginning; each morning we were served continental breakfast in our cabin by the very prompt and efficient Elena. Her smiles and her bouncy curtsies were a delightful way to start off the day. The meal consisted of Cappuccino, hot chocolate, croissants, and brioches with fresh fruit plates and marmalades along with cereals. Excellent!
At lunch we mostly dined in the Portofino Dining Room where Maitre D' Vincenzo outdid himself with excellent tables near the windows. The lunch menu was terrific. Some of the selections were Mozzarella in Carrozza , fried calamari, Monte Cristo sandwich (ham & cheese on French toast) and crispy English style fish & chips. So many choices, so many decisions. When the weather was nice, we went up to the Horizon Court Buffet or to Prego Pizza and the Trident Grill, for Hamburgers, Chicken Sandwiches, Hot Dogs or German sausages, which were served with the lightest French Fries afloat.
Dinner was the best time for our group, because we all got together after going our separate ways during the day. We talked of the ports, the Antarctic scenes, the photos we took, the gigantic tabular icebergs, the wildlife and the wonderful food. Appetizers were Pate', shrimp, pineapple boats, etc.... Soups included Lobster Bisque, clam chowder, cream of wild mushrooms, clear broths with tortellini, or refreshing cold slurry style soups of pineapple or mangos --- so nice.
Entrees of many types were offered, plus a pasta course. Try the Fettuccine Alfredo served in a Parmigiano Reggiano cheese bowl, or spaghetti alle vongole or primavera. The main entrees included succulent and tender beef Prime Rib; fillet Mignon; veal, lamb or pork chops; and seafood such as salmon, Chilean bass, shrimp, lobster, etc.... Desserts were many and varied pies -- lemon, apple, pecan, etc.; profiteroles; souffle`, cheese cakes and mousses -- plus a large selection of ice creams and sorbets. Our hats are off to Chef Francesco La Forgia. When he strolls through the dining room, you can't miss him-- 6'2" with a 10" chef's toque, he's easily spotted.
ENTERTAINMENT Cruise Director Frank Castiglione keeps the passengers hopping with the following: Bingo, Trivia (Get some new questions, players are tired of seeing the same back-to-back and round the world cruisers walk off with all the valuable prizes [the real plastic key chains and the Princess logo luggage tags are collectors items!] and No, if you are on the ship nonstop for 76 days, it does not make you smarter than the rest of us, even a parrot could win if it heard the same questions over and over again). There are dances in the Skywalkers Night Club on Sky Deck 17and Casino tournaments. The on board Lectures by Joe May and other University Professors were very well received. The Las Vegas style entertainment each evening was lead by the following: Philippa Healey with her mix of opera and classical songs had a standing ovation, the tenor Vincent Talarico was enjoyed in concert. Maurizio, who played several nights in the Atrium, Plaza Deck, was a sensation in concert one night titled "The Duke of Verona" in the Vista Lounge. The ship has many areas for entertainment and relaxation. We had a wonderfully relaxing time, but of course, it was the itinerary which drew us so far from home. This was a never to be forgotten trip. In view of an article dated March 6, 2008, which detailed the breaking off of a 400 square kilometer ice sheet from the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the SW Antarctica Peninsula and with scientists saying that this is another indication of global warming, we feel that future generations probably will not be as lucky as we have been to enjoy the wonders of Antarctica. Perhaps, these wonders will diminish with the passing of time.
ITINERARY 2-19-08 Buenos Aires, Argentina Sail away. 7:00pm
2-20-08 River Plate out to the Sea headed to the Falkland Islands.
2-21-08 At Sea
2-22-08 Stanley, Falkland Islands Arrive 7:00am Depart 7:20pm Tendering to the on shore pontoon.
2-23-08 At Sea. At 1:15pm we passed over the Antarctic Convergence Zone where the sea temperature falls rapidly due to the constant melting of Antarctic ice into the Southern Ocean. The first look outs for icebergs were put to work on the Bridge.
2-24-08 Elephant Island -- The first pieces of ice were detected on the ship's radar. This island juts out of the ocean. At 4:30am we passed latitude 60 S. and formally headed into Arctic waters. At 9:00am we sighted Elephant Island, numerous icebergs and many penguins. After cruising around the island we headed SW.
2-25-08 We set course toward the Antarctic Sound, but conditions worsened and at 8:24am we turned around and began a slow exit of the Sound and crossed the Bransfield Straight towards Admiralty Bay. This was the first of several stunning days, with the slow movement of the ship affording passengers magnificent views of icebergs and spouting whales. The sun was shining brilliantly and we approached 400 foot high icebergs. Surreal! They were so huge compared to the ones in Alaska.
This was our first glimpse of Antarctica and it was spectacular! The age of an iceberg is told by how low it sits in the water. The blue ice is the oldest and most compact, the white ice is newer and has more air in it. These huge icebergs usually last about 8 years and are eroded by water and air. They turn over in the water and there is a tide line around the bergs. The seals are in the water even in the winter. During the winter, this area is 80% covered in ice and only ice breaker vessels can enter here.
The famous explorer Captain Cook would pull up the smaller icebergs, called "Burgy Bits" and bring them on board as a source of fresh water. On the Port side of the ship we saw part of the ice shelf 100ft. above water and 800ft. below. There were spectacular icebergs every where, with some bigger than the ship. There were tabular perfect rectangles of pure white that looked as if they were sawed off. There were some shaped like ramps which could be used for water skiing. Our first glimpse of Antarctica revealed its pyramid shaped mountains, snow and vertical striations and the ice cap that in some places can be over 5 miles deep.
We sailed through out Admiralty Bay and at 1:15pm the scientists from the Polish Artowski Research Station boarded the Star Princess and gave a short informative talk. They were invited to dinner and left soon after to return to King George Island. Their station has been operating continuously since 1977. We heard of glacial movement and the micro chemistry of their layers which trap pockets of atmosphere. At 6:32pm we passed out into the Bransfield Strait and headed south to the Neumayer channel.
2-26-08 Sunrise 5:55 am and Sunset 9:47 pm gave us an almost 16 hour day -- fantastic, like the white nights of the Baltic! This morning there was a brilliant sunrise. Humpback and orca whales were sighted spouting everywhere, easily spotted by the oil slick they leave on the water. Penguins were also seen. The orca whales work in packs much like wolves; they separate out the weaker prey and attack. Thank heaven, we did not witness them in action. The view from our cabin window is picture perfect.
The on board Antarctic specialist says this is a rare clear day here. Port side lets us view the Ice Cap and the Antarctic Peninsula. It is the narrowest point of the peninsula called Paradise Harbor. The other side of the peninsula is the Weddell Sea. The water is incredibly calm and there are Burgy Bits everywhere with penguins on them and pods of whales in the Gerlach Strait (Gerlach was the first explorer to spend a winter here and with him was Armundsen the first man to go to the South Pole). At 11:20am we reached our Southernmost point of this voyage, latitude 64, which places us 3,898 nautical miles south of the equator. The eeriness and quiet of this scene is remarkable, the water is almost glass like, today.
Lion Island is at the head of the Neumaier Channel. It looks like a sphinx with a black face. There is much more snow and ice here, actually, yesterday we saw snow flurries. In 1819 Anvers Island was named by a Belgian Expedition. We sailed northeasterly toward Deception Island.
2-27-08 At 7:45am we approached Deception Island and it was visible from some 10 miles away. All morning we saw minke and humpback whales and then penguin colonies on the shore. The island is actually the remains of a volcano with a caldera similar to Santorini. From here we turned away from the Antarctic and faced patches of fog where visibility was near zero.
2-28-08 We crossed the Drake Passage neared the Pilot Station at Cape Horn. The waters were exceptionally calm, unlike the last time we rounded the Horn. The pilot boat was an hour and a half late and Capt. Oliver circled patiently waiting. Fortunately, the sea was very calm, and we had an excellent view of the Chilean Flag over the weather station and the Albatross Monument dedicated to those sailors who lost their lives in these treacherous waters. There is an old tradition for sailors who round the Horn: they had their ears pierced, got a tattoo and had a drink of rum, which they shared with the sea by pouring some into the ocean.
2-29-08 Ushuaia, Argentina Arrive 6:50am Depart 4:28 pm Many passengers were happy to set foot on terra firma and do some shopping. Magellan called this Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). It was named that because sailors feared it due to the wildness, fierce winds and the rocky shores that literally ate up whaling ships. Today it was 58 F degrees and bright and sunny in the morning. In the afternoon we headed for the Beagle Channel. The Argentinian pilot debarked and the Chilean pilot steered the Star Princess through the Beagle Channel past the European named glaciers. We have seen these glaciers six years ago and we were amazed by how much they have receded: in some of them the ice that once arrived all the way down to the water has been replaced by waterfalls, more evidence of global warming.
3-1-08 Punta Arenas, Chile Arrive 6:48 am Depart 7:50pm This is the southernmost Chilean city which is a center for oil drilling. It has stark snow less mountains and was the turning point of our journey, for today in the rain we headed back east and then north to Uruguay. Our travel companions returned to Sotito's Restaurant where we had dined in 2002. They enjoyed it, but not as much as when we had eaten there before.
3-2-08 At Sea Smooth seas and a sunny day in the open waters of the South Atlantic.
3-3-08 At Sea Sailing Northeasterly in over cast skies.
3-4-08 At Sea Sailing Northeasterly in clear skies.
3-5-08 Montevideo, Uruguay Arrive 7:45am Depart 5:00pm
3-6-08 Buenos Aires, Argentina Arrive 6:00am Debarkation 8:30am
DEBARKATION This was much smoother than embarkation. We had wheelchair assistance from our cabin to the bus only, and then we were stuck until we were moved to luggage pick up. Once more we were on our own until we managed to get a porter. Needless to say, it was not too smooth, and we were happy to see cousin Fabian again, waiting for us outside the terminal.
CONCLUSION Definitely, this has been one of our best cruises ever, considering the itinerary, our traveling friends, Marguerite and Richard Bozian and Yvonne and Alan Chen, the excellent food and service, especially in the restaurants, and our return to the Star Princess. And just think that we almost canceled the booking of this cruise due to Mary's recent knee replacement surgery. We are glad we didn't!
We have booked two future cruises with Princess, one on the Norwegian Cruise Line without specific dates and one in November on the new RCI ship Independence of the Seas. We have not booked a cruise for this spring or summer due to Mary's knee surgery scheduled for April 10th. However, we hope that she will recover fast, so we don't have to wait too long for the next cruise. Happy Cruising!