Background This was our sixth cruise and our third with Holland America. It was our first experience with one of the longer "Grand Voyages." We are both 60, but in good physical shape and consider ourselves open-minded and willing to try just about anything once. At 68 days, this cruise was three times as long as anything we'd done before. Within the "cruising community," that makes us relative "neophytes" but we are more eclectic in our travels and don't concentrate solely on cruising. But even though we consider ourselves "well-traveled," we were awed by the travel experience of most of our fellow passengers on Prinsendam. Many had logged 20 or 30 cruises and a surprising number had done HAL's Grand World Cruise more than once. (Clearly they have a bigger travel budget than we do!) We were pleasantly surprised to find that, rather than making them more critical and more likely to find fault with things, the vast majority of our fellow passengers had learned that everything can't be perfect all the time and sometimes you just need to exercise a bit of patience and understanding. We were pleasantly surprised at how few smokers there were. I'd estimate there were fewer than 10 total, out of a group of about 700!
Getting There & Back One of the big advantages of the "Grand Voyages" is the round-trip format. No long international flights! We had a routine flight from SEA to FLL and back. The check-in procedure was quick and painless. The was some kind of "communication problem" between HAL, our travel agent, and us which kept us from being able to ship bags in advance. This may have been a blessing in disguise as we met quite a few people whose bags didn't catch up with them until we got to Lima! On the way home, we did use the service and it worked perfectly.
Yes, they collected our passports, which made us a bit nervous until we figured out the reason. We hadn't realized that the Customs people actually came aboard and stamped every single passport. And we were halfway through the cruise before we found out that, once the officials were finished with them, we could "check out" our passports and take them ashore with us. In some countries, money exchanges required the passport (not a copy) in order change even minimal amounts of money.
The Ship We liked the smaller size of Prinsendam. Don't think that having 700 passengers versus 1500 or 2000 on larger ships is going to make the ship's common areas less crowded because, of course, those common areas are proportionally smaller as well. But we never found this to be a big problem. There were times when the Lido restaurant or the gym were quite full, but you simply learned when those "crunch times" occurred and avoided them. We really noticed the smaller size was when the ship arrived in the various ports. In those places where we didn't book shore excursions, we found that everyone dispersed quickly and we often wandered the town for hours without seeing any of our fellow passengers.
It did seem that Prinsendam is showing her age just a bit, despite her 2007 refit. Examples include stains on the carpet here and there, elevators that broke down a lot, and the closet in our stateroom that had come apart and been sort of "jury-rigged" back together. But none of those sort of things in any way caused us discomfort or difficulty. The only thing that did cause some grief was a temperamental air conditioning system that quit working a couple of times. But the maintenance people responded with reasonable promptness and got it fixed. HAL even gave us an extra $200 shipboard credit by way of apology. Certainly we couldn't complain about that!
Dining I'm always amused by reviews in which the writers complain endlessly about how horrible the food was. Apparently these people employ their own gourmet chefs and formal wait staff at home and consider anything else to be beneath them. We saw a few of them on the ship, including one lady at a nearby table who routinely sent her entire dinner back because it wasn't prepared to her standards. She even sent her coffee back! Give me a break! We found the food, both in the main dining room and in the Lido, to be, at worst, "good" and, at best, "excellent." There are always going to be situations where you don't like what you ordered. But it's not the chef's fault that you don't like squash!
We did get a bit tired of the formal dinners, even though they reduced the number from the publicized 19 down 12. On a week-long cruise, you don't mind dressing up once or twice. When you have to do it a dozen or more times, it gets old. It's the 21st century. How much longer do we have to pretend we're all the Astors and Guggenheims sailing on Titanic during the Gilded Age? (Look what happened to them!)
I'm quite surprised at the number of reviewers who say they really enjoy dressing for dinner and that formal nights are their favorite times. I suspect these are women. I talked to very few men who thought stuffing themselves into a tux or a wool suit and strangling themselves with a tie in tropical heat and humidity was the best way to enjoy dinner. And in most cases, the menu wasn't any different just because the dress code said "formal," including one night where spaghetti was on the menu. Getting into a tux to eat spaghetti? A lot of our fellow passengers seemed to agree with us. Dining room attendance dropped off noticeably on formal nights toward the end of the cruise and the Lido became more crowded. We are VERY pleased to see that HAL has finally been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern age and is now offering the "As You Wish" dining option. We don't begrudge the folks their "dress up dinners,' if that's their thing, but we dislike having it forced on us.
Service Service was up to the standards we've come to expect from HAL. The crew was invariably friendly, courteous, and helpful. Naturally, the length of the cruise meant that we got to know many of them and they us. Though we tried to keep our onboard bill down by not ordering too many bar drinks, the bartender in the Crow's Nest quickly learned not only our names, but what our favorite drinks were. By the end of the second week, half the servers in the Lido knew us by name.
Stateroom We booked an outside cabin without a balcony (Category FF). We'd had this category on our Panama Canal cruise and found it more than adequate for our needs at that time. On shorter cruises, we never felt a balcony was worth the added expense. The least expensive balcony cabin on this Grand Voyage would have cost us an additional $20,000 and we just could not justify that expense. But oh, do we wish we could have! Our cabin was comfortable and large enough for our needs, but... The most annoying problem (don't laugh) was that the salt spray on the window made it difficult to see out much of the time! It certainly wasn't worth another $20K to have clean windows, but being able to open a slider and get some fresh air would have been really nice.
Fitness Facilities The gym was a minor problem at times. As a devout runner, I was a member of a very small minority on this cruise. The ¼ mile Promenade Deck was off limits to runners, ostensibly because of the staterooms located directly below. The "running track' was located on the exposed top deck and, in my opinion, virtually useless. Besides being a scant 1/10 mile per lap, there were bocci ball courts, putting greens, etc. that had to be negotiated—perfect for tripping or turning an ankle. And, of course, there was always the potential for coming around a blind corner and encountering an oblivious octogenarian tottering along right in front of you. That left the treadmills in the gym, of which there were only five. At certain times, it was difficult to get on a machine because the walkers had them tied up. Yes, I know they had just as much right to use them as I did, but sometimes it got frustrating. After all, THEY could go out and walk the Promenade Deck in nice weather. I had no choice but to use the treadmills. But as I said, a minor problem overall, usually solved by getting up a few minutes earlier.
HAL "Gifts" An established tradition on HAL's longer cruises is "gifts," which appear in your stateroom at random times. On this Grand Voyage, some of these were pretty big items, including parkas, suitcases, binoculars, Delft dishes, etc. This became a source of controversy as everything tended to be in the "official cruise color" which was lavender. Lavender parkas? Great for the ladies and gay men. Not so exciting for us straight guys! Also, we had brought parkas and binoculars with us and getting additional ones just meant more stuff to pack home. Same goes for the suitcases. With some airlines now allowing only ONE checked bag, another suitcase was more of a hindrance than a help. It seemed somehow "unkind" to complain, but a lot of us would rather have the price of the cruise reduced and forego the gifts.
Entertainment HAL offered an eclectic mix of acts, ranging from classical pianists to jugglers. On a cruise of this length there's bound to be a range of quality but there were only a couple of shows that we thought were "duds." Sure there were some we enjoyed more than others, but that's just a question of personal taste. Some of the acts we didn't particularly care for received raves from others and vice-versa. The ship's orchestra was a phenomenally talented group. We talked the cruise director into setting up a couple of shows that just featured them. All were established professionals in their own right, and we were amazed to discover that they'd never played together before this cruise. Overall, we thought the entertainment was excellent. Shore Excursions In reading reviews on this site, I've noticed that people tend to skimp on information related to their shore excursions. This is always the biggest gamble on any cruise and I'd like to devote a little extra space to it.
One significant complaint we had right off the top was the on-board video descriptions of the shore excursions. On other ships, these have included video of the actual excursion. On Prinsendam, all we got was one still image with narration--the voice of the shore excursion director reading the written descriptions straight out of the printed brochure. To make matters worse, she was a poor reader, routinely stumbling over words and mispronouncing the Spanish names. It was painful!
But we've become pretty adept at "reading between the lines" of the descriptions and, for the most part, picked some pretty good trips. So here we'll present a short description of our impressions of the various ports and our critiques of the shore excursions we chose. It's pretty long because this was, after all, a 68-day itinerary. For the shore excursions, I've included a "star rating," with 1 being "Don't Waste Your Money" and 5 indicating "Outstanding," along with the length of the excursion, and the cost.
Georgetown, Cayman Islands We found Georgetown less than impressive. We'd seen it in '03 and it hadn't changed much. Lots of the typical "cruise-ship-backed jewelry stores" and the usual souvenir shops. We spent a couple of hours ashore and went back to the ship to go swimming. No doubt the rest of the island(s) are beautiful but I suspect that if you want to visit the Caymans, you should go there for a week, not a six-hour stop on a cruise ship.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica "San Jose Town and Country" (*** , 9 ½ hours, $89 pp) This was a nine-hour bus trip to the national capital. A lot of folks wouldn't want to deal with the long bus ride, but we sort of enjoy just watching the countryside go by and seeing how folks live in other countries. In San Jose, we visited the Teatro Nacional and the National Museum. Both were interesting, but we didn't have enough time at either. We also had a quick stop at an area of artisan shops where we could buy locally-made handicrafts. We were literally the last ones back aboard ship. They were pulling in the gangway behind us.
Panama City, Panama The Panama Railway - Domed Car (*** ½ , 3 ¼ hrs., $199 pp) After transiting the Canal, the ship spent the night anchored off Port Amidor, giving us the chance to go back and see the Canal from the shore side perspective and some of the country. We opted for the more expensive dome car seats, which we felt were worth the $70 pp extra cost. The train ride was about an hour long, taking us back along the Canal to Colon, where we visited the Gatun Locks. Seeing the locking operation from the shore side was entertaining and interesting.. The trip ended with a 90-minute bus trip back to the ship. Overall, we felt we got our money's worth.
Manta, Ecuador No shore excursion. We just wandered the streets and a couple of local mercados. Typical of many such stops, free shuttle buses were provided to take us from the port area to the middle of town. This early in the trip, the mercados were fascinating and seemed to offer more local handicrafts. Later, most notably in Brazil, we got a bit tired of them and they seemed to be filled with a bewildering and incomprehensible mass of "stuff." More on that later.
Guayaquil, Ecuador No shore excursion. A longer bus ride into town—half an hour or so. The ride gives you a good chance to see the outlying areas, which are decidedly "third-world" looking compared to the more prosperous downtown. Guayaquil is located quite some distance up the Guayas River and the riverfront is attractive and interesting. There were surprisingly few people down there. Most everyone seemed to be crammed into a huge indoor mercado where most stalls appeared to be selling cheap Chinese-made knockoffs of popular American brands of clothing and shoes.
Salaverry/Trujillo, Peru We arrived here in thick fog which, we understand, is fairly common along this section of coast because of the proximity of the cold Humboldt Current offshore. Salaverry is the port for Trujillo. The dock area was surrounded by miles of flat sand. From certain vantage points on the ship, it looked like we were stranded in the middle of a desert! Some local vendors set up kiosks right on the dock, but we found them expensive and not particularly interested in bargaining. Again, free shuttles were provided to transport us into Trujillo. Trujillo has an attractive central plaza and we found the locals to be friendly and more than happy to talk to the turistas. Few spoke much English and I'm far from fluent in Spanish, but everyone was patient and seemed to enjoy the challenge of communicating.
Callao/Lima, Peru "Lima Highlights" ( ***, 3 ½ hrs., $47 pp) Some might argue with my "three-star" rating above, but part of what I'm rating is "bang for the buck." This was a short and comparatively inexpensive tour and I felt the content was reasonable considering the low cost. It was accurately described as being primarily a bus tour. The main stop was at the Plaza Mejor, the city's central square. There, we toured the huge cathedral designed by Pizarro and in which Pizarro is entombed, and had a chance to watch the changing of the guard at the government palace. We also visited an old monastery. There was nothing particularly dramatic or spectacular, but it didn't cost much, either.
Callao was the end of the first phase of the cruise so the ship stayed overnight. A few people got off; a few got on. The second day, we visited the upscale beachfront suburb of Miraflores. While this cruise didn't push jewelry like others we've been on, the H. Stern Company was much in evidence from this point on. They routinely provided shuttle service from the ship to their stores and, to be fair, we must note that there was no pressure whatever to buy anything from them. It was the "Stern Shuttle" that took us to Miraflores. This is a nice area which, we are sure, is NOT typical of Peru in general. We saw all the "usual" American establishments, e.g. TGIFridays, McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks, etc. It reminded us a bit of the ocean front south of the Cliff House in San Francisco.
A word here about the Machu Picchu trips. We chose not to do this, based mainly on the cost, but talked to several others who did take them. When all was said and done, we were glad we didn't do this one. The first problem was the transportation system. One of our dining tablemates booked the multi-day trip, which departed from Manta and rejoined the ship in Callao. He reported his flight was some four hours late at one point, with no explanation as to why. He had paid for "deluxe" train accommodations later in the trip and the delays ultimately resulted in his being placed in "standard" seats. I never heard whether or not he got any refund. But the biggest problem seemed to be the weather. Most everyone reported that, having spent big bucks and enduring a long, difficult trip to get there, they arrived at Machu Picchu to find it completely enveloped in clouds, making it virtually impossible to see the sights they went there to see! Bottom line: these trips are a crapshoot. You might have a great time and clear skies or you may see little or nothing. It's a lot of money to spend to see clouds.
Northern Chile We didn't do any shore excursions at Arica, Coquimbo, or Valparaiso. We found it immediately obvious that Chile is much more prosperous than either Peru or Ecuador. Arica has several streets closed off as pedestrian malls. They were clean and well patrolled by the Policia Turistica. Again, the people were extremely friendly. We stopped into a little restaurant/bar for a beer and found they didn't accept US dollars. But one of the patrons gave us directions to a nearby money exchange and, when we returned for our beer, he and the lady behind the counter welcomed us back and wanted to talk about where we were from, how we got there, etc. When we finished our beers, the gentleman walked down the street with us to introduce us to his wife, who was operating a cart on the street selling various herbal medications. (We had to chuckle over the fact that SHE was out working while he was sitting around drinking beer with the tourists!)
Coquimbo has a wonderful seafood market and an equally fascinating produce market across the street, all within easy walking distance of the ship.
Valparaiso is the country's largest port and the gateway to Santiago. The shore excursion to Santiago would have wiped out the entire day so we made the choice to stay in Valparaiso for the day. They have a very modern rapid transit train that runs past the port and on into the city itself. Like many such systems, it makes perfect sense to the locals, but is virtually incomprehensible to strangers. Then add the complication of a foreign language. Fortunately, one of our fellow passengers, far more fluent in Spanish than I, helped us buy tickets to get us to an area called Vina del Mar and back. But in a scene reminiscent of "Charlie and the MTA," we arrived back at the port to find that our fare card wouldn't let us OUT of the terminal! We ended up paying more money to get through the "exit" turnstile.
Puerto Montt, Chile "Petrohue Falls, Lake Cruise and Chilean Countryside" (****, 8 hrs., $148 pp) The trip began with a hour's bus ride to Lago de Todo Los Santos, where we took a short cruise on one of those big power catamarans. The cruise itself wasn't all that wonderful—it just went out around an island and back, but the scenery was spectacular. (There was another, similar excursion titled "Osorno Volcano & Petrohue Rapids" that appears to be identical but omits the cruise. At $126 pp, it might be a better value.) Next we visited Petrohue Falls. We weren't there at the right time of year to see the falls at their best, but it was still quite beautiful. We stopped for lunch at a German-influenced restaurant on the shore of another lake. They were obviously accustomed to dealing with busloads of tourists because the service was very quick and efficient and the food was excellent. Finally, we stopped at the little resort town of Puerto Varas. Again, the stop wasn't long enough, but hey, you can't do everything on one trip. We both agreed that Puerto Montt and "Lake Country" would be worth a return trip someday.
Puerto Chacabuco, Chile Puerto Chacabuco won't appear on most maps. It's just a tiny village in the midst of the spectacular fjords. A larger town, Puerto Aysen, was about an hour's drive away. The taxis at the port dock wanted $40 each way so we opted to skip that. Walking around Puerto Chacabuco (which has a nice hotel and not much else) we noted a bus which ran to Puerto Aysen and cost about $2. We were tempted but, not knowing anything about the schedule, were nervous about getting stranded and having to fork out the $40 taxi fare to get back. As it turned out, the bus seemed to run every half-hour or so.
The waters between Puerto Chacabuco and Punta Arenas are a mind-boggling stretch of glaciers and fjords. It is reminiscent of Alaska but somehow more rugged and spectacular.
Punta Arenas, Chile "Patagonian Experience - Otway Sound & Penguin Reserve" (****, 4 hrs. $79 pp) This was another example of a not-too-expensive shore excursion that, we felt, delivered pretty good value. The bus ride through the pampas was interesting and the penguin rookery lived up to the descriptions. These were Magellanic Penguins, one of the smallest species. They nest in burrows, sometimes quite far from the water. Humans were confined to wooden boardwalks and, at the beach, to a sort of "viewing blind." While you couldn't get pictures of yourself surrounded by hundreds of penguins, you could get close enough to get some good shots. The trip left us enough time to visit the city itself. It was a Sunday so most of the shops were closed. Apparently the arrival of several hundred tourists on a cruise ship wasn't sufficient incentive to violate the Sabbath in the interests of making money, but there were a few open and a number of craft stalls set up in the central plaza.
We talked to folks who did the "Antarctica Flyover." This was too pricey for us at $1755 per person, but those that forked out the bucks said it was spectacular. Everyone got a window seat on the chartered 737 and they got down to a low enough altitude that you could really see a lot.
Ushuaia, Argentina Ushuaia is a fun place. It reminded us of a bit of Juneau and of ski resort towns we've visited with the added feature of a marine waterfront. It was blowing 50-60 knots which, we gathered, is pretty common. It was also surprisingly dry and dusty. Despite the area's reputation for foul weather, they apparently don't get a lot of precipitation, at least in the summer.
One of the more interesting examples of bureaucracy in action took place after we left Ushuaia. Ushuaia is in Argentina, Cape Horn is back in Chile. We were required to stop at Puerto Williams, Chile, and anchor while the Chilean authorities cleared the ship BACK into Chile and the Chilean pilots came aboard. This despite the fact that we were only sailing past Cape Horn, not going ashore. We have little doubt that the most important thing that occurred during this stop was the payment of some type of fee.
Next morning, it came out that the pilots had decided it was too rough out at The Horn for them to transfer back into their small boat for the trip back to Puerto Williams. As a result, we had no pilots aboard and were therefore required to maintain a minimum of three miles distance from Cape Horn itself. I don't imagine that HAL received any refund of whatever fees they paid! The weather was pretty bad and the wind was screaming so few people ventured on deck anyway.
Antarctica Once we left The Horn, we had incredibly benign weather for the trip across Drake Passage and, indeed, our entire time in Antarctica. Two of our three days there featured clear skies and sunshine. Oh, yes, it was cold. Temperatures were in the low- to mid-thirties plus wind chill, but that didn't stop anyone from being out on deck. The tiny bit of Antarctica we saw was beyond description. Our only regret is that we couldn't go ashore. There is a treaty that prohibits ships above a certain size from landing passengers. We'd love to go back on one of the myriad of smaller ships that are allowed to take people ashore.
South Georgia Island. South Georgia is important historically. It was a major center for the South Atlantic whaling industry and figured prominently in the legendary voyage of Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton himself is buried there. Access ashore is strictly controlled and we were only allowed ashore in tightly monitored groups. It sounds restrictive, but really wasn't. We saw everything we wanted to see. There was one rather irritating disappointment at South Georgia. We landed at Grytviken, leaving there about 4:00 p.m. and cruising past some of the other bays and abandoned whaling stations. Dinner came along and we dutifully reported to our assigned seat at the assigned time. It was then that we realized that the commentary that was being broadcast through the ship's common areas was NOT being piped into the main dining room. (Can't interrupt people's dinner with something as trivial as information about what's going by outside!) It was only when I saw lots of people running around outside with cameras that it dawned on me that we were approaching Stromness, the station that was an integral part of the Shackleton story. I left dinner to run back and get a coat and a camera and, by the time I got out on deck, I'd missed much of the commentary about the place.
The Falkland Islands "Falkland Battlefields" ( ** ½, 4 hrs, $89 pp) We were one of the few ships that made it to the Falklands during the summer of 2008. The anchorage, such as it is, is wide-open and exposed and the wind blows unceasingly. But we did get there, thanks to the superb seamanship of Prinsendam's captain and crew. The Falklands are a pretty stark and desolate place. We had booked the shore excursion to the Volunteer Point penguin rookery to see King Penguins (8 hrs. $349 pp), but we were delayed in anchoring due to the wind conditions and the trip was cancelled because there wouldn't have been enough time to get there and back. We substituted the "Falklands Battlefields" tour. I had studied the history of the 1982 war prior to leaving home and choosing between the battlefields tour and the penguins had been a real dilemma. In some ways, it was a relief to have the choice made for me.
This tour wasn't nearly as comprehensive as I would have hoped, but it wasn't terribly expensive, either. I would have liked to have seen the area where the British forces landed, near San Carlos, but we couldn't do that for the good and simple reason that there are no roads that go there! The tour we did take consisted of a trip out to Fitzroy, to the inlet where two anchored British supply ships were bombed by the Argentines, then a retracing of the route the British commandos took from there as they attacked the Argentine forces in the "mountains" south of Stanley.
Buenos Aires, Argentina "Iguazu Falls" (* ½ , 12 hrs, $989 pp) Our biggest (i.e. most expensive) shore excursion was the trip to Iguazu Falls. It also proved to be one of the biggest flops. There was some unexplained delay in getting the ship cleared by Argentine customs, resulting in our being something over an hour late leaving the ship. It was clear that, from that point on, the main objective was to make up that time and we knew right away that they were going to do it by cutting our time at the Falls.
It's a 90-minute flight from BA to Iguazu. Far from being out in the wilds, Iguazu is now a huge tourist attraction. It has its own airport and several large luxury hotels. There are no private cars allowed in the park itself. You are transported to the various points of interest on a narrow-gauge railway. And you won't be alone. There were literally thousands of others hiking across the metal catwalks to the "Devil's Throat" and, once there, jostling for position to get a picture of themselves and the Falls. There are commercial photographers there, too, who kept telling the rest of us to move so we weren't in their shots. Very annoying. Lunch was included and it was pure chaos. The restaurant was poorly organized for dealing with large crowds. The "salad bar," such as it was, was ROUND. Wherever you tried to get to it, people complained that you were "crowding in." But there was no way to form a line and take turns. Like I said, chaotic and stressful. After lunch, we were told we'd have "about an hour" to see the upper part of the falls, which was within walking distance. But after walking through the first section of the trail, which took maybe 15 minutes, we were directed back to the bus! Had to make up time, remember! They carted us back to the airport, where we sat cooling our heels for over an hour! Time that could have been spent seeing the rest of the falls. All in all, we didn't feel this one gave a very good return for the amount of money it cost.
"Buenos Aires Highlights" (***, 3 ½ hrs, $53 pp) Buenos Aires was an overnight stop so we were able to do this basic city tour the second day. This was a good, general tour of the city which included the Ricoleta Cemetery (mausoleum of Eva Peron) and "La Boca," the older part of the city. It did not stop at the Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace, but we had time to walk back there later in the afternoon.
Montevideo, Uruguay Easy walk to the center of this interesting city. Many of the buildings seemed somewhat run down, but the businesses in them were thriving. We heard a rumor that tax rates were based on the exterior of the buildings, which would provide little or no incentive for maintaining the facades.
Rio De Janeiro Brazil Corcovado & Rio City Tour (*** ½, 4 hrs, $72 pp) Rio is huge, sprawling all over the place, and we had no decent map. It was confusing trying to figure out exactly where the ship was relative to downtown, Corcovado, and the famous beaches at Copacabana and Ipanema. This tour took us by bus to the base of the funicular railway that ascends Corcovado. Visibility at the top was poor, which we understand is not unusual. The tour description accurately indicated the possibility of long lines and crowds. Overall, about what we expected and a reasonable value.
The H. Stern people provided transportation to their store in Lincoln Town Cars and we used them to get out to Ipanema on our second day. Nice area with lots of people and lots of shops and restaurants.
Salvador and Recife, Brazil No shore excursions. In Salvador, the shuttle from the port took us to the Pelourhino district—a zillion little shops and restaurants. We walked back to the ship since it was downhill, using the Lacerda Elevator to do most of the descent.
Recife is an attractive city, known as the "Venice of South America" because of the many waterways and bridges. We might have gotten a better look at it via one of the few shore excursions, but we had to draw the financial line somewhere.
Fortaleza, Brazil "Cumbuco Beach & Buggy Ride" (***, 5 ½ hrs, $79 pp) By this point, we were burned out on wandering the streets through the shops which seemed to sell mostly flip-flops and kids' backpacks festooned with Disney characters. We decided to try something completely different. The dune buggy ride was much less thrilling than we expected. I think someone told the operators that they had a bunch of decrepit old farts from a Holland America ship coming and to "keep it tame." Consequently, we got the "A Ticket" ride rather than the high-speed "E Ticket" version. That was disappointing in that almost everyone who did this excursion was younger (by HAL standards) and in good physical shape. We'd hoped for a thrill ride and, instead, got a relatively mild trip.
Belem, Brazil "Amazon River System Adventure by Riverboat" (****, 5 ½ hours, $73 pp) We started with a bus ride of about 45 minutes. The bus's air-conditioning didn't work so it was pretty hot and sticky. But, to the credit of our fellow passengers, no one complained. While we were off on our boat trip, the tour company got another bus so the trip back was fine. The riverboat trip was fun, taking us to a small tributary of the Rio Guana where we took a short walk ashore. Some of the locals demonstrated native techniques for climbing trees and showed us some of the native flora and fauna (the latter in the form of a satisfyingly large and horrible-looking, though harmless, spider).
Santarem, Brazil No shore excursions. A relatively small river community that was easy to explore in a relatively short time. More shops selling flip-flops and backpacks.
Boca da Valeria, Brazil I have to editorialize (pontificate?) a little on this stop. Billed as a "sleepy village in the Amazon Basin," we thought it was little more than a pageant for the benefit of tourists. As such, we found it somewhat disturbing. There were a few stalls set up to sell handicrafts, but mostly it was like a sort of "Halloween in reverse." Instead of going out after treats, the treats came to them. As we got off the tenders, the kids were lined up with their hands out, waiting to be handed money (preferably) or whatever else the fabulously rich American tourists had brought ashore for them. We took some t-shirts ashore, hoping to trade them for something. No way. They fully expected us to GIVE them the t-shirts, but the idea of giving us anything in return was clearly foreign to them. They even pointed to the clothes we were wearing and indicated that we should give them those! Kids dressed in "native costumes" lined the path, with parents standing by to collect the expected payment if you took a picture. The kids all spoke exactly ONE English word: "dollar." It was also obvious that people came from miles around to get in on the "booty" whenever a cruise ship stopped. We left feeling that we'd done more harm than good—reinforcing their belief that (a) all Americans are fabulously wealthy and (b) all you had to do was hold out your hand and someone would give you something. Quite the incentive to go do some actual work, huh?
Manaus, Brazil "Alligator Spotting and Piranha Fishing: A Night in the Amazon Overland Adventure." (***** + , 2 days/1 night, $399 ppdo) Far and away the best of all our shore excursions, this one is not to be missed if you have a bit of an adventurous spirit. The destination is the Amazon Village Resort on the Rio Negro, a three-hour boat trip from Manaus. The description warns that there's no hot water or air-conditioning and limited electricity. This was enough to keep the whiners away and the people who did this excursion were a great group that was ready to try anything and everything.
Lunch was ready when we arrived and was the antithesis of "primitive." Food was excellent and plentiful and featured lots of locally-caught fish as well as beef and pork. The piranha-fishing expedition included a stop at the home of one of the resort's neighbors who eked out a living raising manioc root for tapioca. We got to see and hold a small boa, a sloth, and a strange, prehistoric-looking turtle. It poured down rain but no one cared or complained. Piranha are NOT easy to catch. Amid many jokes about "just stick your finger in the water" we only caught a total of four. They tend to "nibble" at the bait (raw meat) rather than just glom onto it. After dinner we went back out on the river in search of alligators (more accurately, "spectacled cayman"). We kidded the guides that they had pet caymans stashed at known spots but, regardless, they DID find a small one. And cruising along the still waters of the river in the pitch darkness was great fun.
The lack of air-conditioning made for a long, hot night but we knew it going in so, again, no one complained. They shut off the battery-powered lights about 11 p.m. and it was DARK. Half an hour later, I tried the "hand in front of the face test" and literally could NOT see it!
Next morning we did a jungle walk. They offered two versions, one easy and one more difficult since, even in our gung-ho group, some were less capable of dealing with uneven trails than others. Once again, a very interesting and educational experience with a guide who had grown up in the area and was a wealth of information about native plants and how the indigenous peoples used them.
Parantins. Brazil The big hype at Parantins was the "Boi Bumba" show. Everyone said it was a "not to be missed" spectacle. We gathered it was a sort of "Carnivale" in a small arena, from which you can deduce that we did NOT attend. Why not? What they didn't mention in all the hype was the cost. How about $101 US per person? Lots of people went anyway. Personally, it would have had to include Kirsten Dunst, Scarlett Johaansen, Jessicas Biel and Alba, and Gillian Anderson all performing stark naked before I'd spend that much money on an unknown show...and maybe not even then. We didn't hear anyone raving about how great it was afterward, either. Perhaps someone who actually attended can post a review?
Devil's Island, French Guiana Trying to figure out just why we stopped here, we concluded that the answer was simply, "Because we could." First of all, you don't go to Devil's Island, you go to its neighbor, Isle Royale. No big deal, just a technical detail. It's interesting and historic so I guess as long as we were in the neighborhood, it made some sense to stop and see it. Be warned: there's a gift shop there that will make the high prices aboard ship seem like absolute bargains. Example: a simple post card cost SIX U.S. DOLLARS!
Barbados "Barbados Turtle Encounter (****, 3 hours/ $59 pp) We went our separate ways here. My wife did this one. She had a great time and felt it was a good value. In addition to swimming with the sea turtles, they had the opportunity to ride various inflatable water toys towed behind a Boston Whaler or some similar fast boat.
"Barbados Yacht Racing Challenge." (* , 2 ¾ hours, $99 pp) The description said, "Go head to head with a full match race to the end. Join experienced crew and be involved as much or as little as you like." I have cruised and raced sailboats most of my life and was looking forward to a "full head-to-head match race." The boats were as advertised: 80-foot maxi boats, veterans of the Whitbread 'Round the World race. The "race" was something else. It was only a race in the sense that there were two boats sailing in relatively close proximity. Yes, it was a nice ride on a big powerful boat, but the "heart pounding, exciting match race," was a joke. As for being involved "as much" as we wanted, four of us were allowed to man the big coffee-grinder winches and mostly we just stood around hoping that we'd get a chance to actually crank them. The rest of the paid guests were simply used as "human ballast." The skipper's instructions for tacking consisted of telling them how to move from one side of the boat to the other. We were never asked how much sailing and/or racing experience we had. They seemed to assume that we didn't know the pointy end from the blunt end. No one but the skipper was ever allowed to touch the helm and the paid crew did all the trimming of sails. And there was precious little of that as the "course" consisted of a beam reach out and back. We had to tack exactly twice to get to the turning mark and then gybed around it. Other than that, we just sat there while the skipper steered the boat, saying nothing and generally giving the impression that he was incredibly bored with the whole enterprise. The "other boat" was "crewed" by guests from a local hotel. They started behind us and to leeward and anyone who knows sailing would know that, from that point on, we should have dominated the "race." Instead, they sailed right through our lee and ended up "winning" by over a minute. The skipper and crew couldn't have cared less.
Overall, this was the most disappointing of our shore excursions and pretty much a waste of a hundred bucks.
Mayaguez, Puerto Rico No shore excursions. A few kiosks on the dock which offered little of interest. Getting to town required a taxi and since we were, technically, back in the US of A, they were expensive.
Half Moon Cay HAL's private island, which we'd visited before. Nice spot to just relax on the beach, but the weather was cool and showery so the most important event of the day was lunch.
Conclusion Overall, this Grand Voyage was an incredible adventure. We like traveling to places that not everyone else has been to and this cruise certainly delivered that. Given the 68-day duration, friends ask if we were "glad to get home." We reply that we weren't so much "glad" as just "ready." We'd had a great time, it was over, and it was just "time to go home." Would we do it again? No, we've already done it. We don't need to do it again. But we would like to go back and revisit Patagonia, Antarctica, and Buenos Aires. Would we recommend it to others? Absolutely and unequivocally. Would we do a similar cruise? Yes, and we've already put a deposit down on the 2010 Grand Asia & Pacific Voyage. By then, we'll be ready for another cruise. Meantime, we have other types of travel in mind.