About three days into the cruise my wife said I was going to have to find something to complain about if I expect to write a review for Cruise Critic. Well, the weather wasn't always the best, a couple of nights the seas were rough and the restrooms ashore weren't up to par. But that's part of the charm of a trip to the farthest reaches of the continent. We've been on 10 or 11 cruises and I always say my favorite ship is the one I'm on or just got off of. So the Sun reigns as my favorite at least until our next cruise.
Pre-Cruise/Embarkation: After the normal airline headaches we arrived in Buenos Aires Saturday, the day before the cruise. We had booked everything through NCL so an NCL host was waiting for us at the terminal. We were driven by bus to the Marriott Hotel. This is an old hotel that has been refurbished, and we found it to be quite nice. The only watch-out we would offer is to handicapped patrons. The elevators are up or down a flight of stairs from the lobby. Handicapped access is via an old freight elevator located down a short ramp (6-8 steps) from the lobby. An NCL courtesy desk is staffed most of the day.
After an (included) full breakfast we were transported to the pier. NCL must have read the stinging reviews from the previous cruise as they had made significant changes in the embarkation procedure. Clearing immigration was a breeze and then we were seated in groups for a brief wait for a bus to take us to the ship. We entered through a gangway and were offered drinks and directed to the Four Seasons Restaurant where twenty or more tables were set up for a fast and smooth registration. We were registered and seated in Seven Seasons for lunch before 12:45.
The Ship: Our last trip was on the Jade and we found we like the Sun better. The Sun is somewhat smaller, easier to navigate and more tastefully decorated (the Jade was decorated for the Hawaii market and seemed somewhat out of place in the Mediterranean). We had a balcony cabin on each and the Sun's seemed roomier. We had more than enough room for the all-season wardrobe required for our trip "around the Horn". What we missed from the Jade was the Blue Lagoon 24-hour short-order restaurant. There's no equivalent on the Sun.
English-speaking guests were definitely in the minority on this cruise. It's summer vacation time in the southern hemisphere and there were many family groups from all over Central and South America. There were also a surprising (to me) number of German guests. Andrea, the Cruise Director, speaks about eight languages and all the announcements were made in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and German.
The predominance of South Americans made a big difference in the dining experience. They traditionally eat late so the main dining room was practically empty in the 6 to 8 pm time slot. We ate in Seven Seasons every night and several days at lunch time. There was never a wait and many times there seemed to be more waiters that guests. We usually were given a window table. The downside is we were never asked if we wanted to share so we dined alone every night. When the first show let out around 8:30 there would be a surge, but still no line. I understand the crunch came around 9:30 to 10 PM when large families started piling in.
We don't do buffets at home and certainly not on a cruise when there are so many better choices. We walked through the buffet a few times and it was like feeding time in a shark tank. It's attraction eludes me. With the variety of meals, quality and service in the main restaurants we didn't see the need to spend extra money on the premium restaurants; can't report on them.
One point on which I agree with previous reviewers is that the breakfast "orange juice cocktail" tastes terrible. The second morning at Seven Seasons we ordered real orange juice at $2.50 a glass. It took them a while to get it from the 11th floor, but I think we started a trend. A couple of days later they were carrying it through Seven Seasons on a tray offering it for $2.50.
Ports/Excursions: A little background on us. We are mid-60's retirees and have some problems with a lot of walking and particularly with stairs. We try to do an excursion at every port after all, that's why we chose this cruise (definitely not a cruise to spend sitting around the pool). We use the NCL excursions because we have had good luck with them in the past and they're worry-free. We stick with "level 1" excursions wherever possible and prefer half-day trips which let us get back early or sleep late when we can schedule afternoon trips.
Buenos Aires: After our plane trip we were too tired for a city tour but planned to book a dinner and tango show on our own. However, we found that the NCL desk offered a package for $65 which sounded like a good deal. We were picked up at the hotel and taken to La Ventana. There were 15-20 NCL guests from the Marriott and Sheraton for the dinner and show, so we got acquainted with several people we would see many times over the next two weeks. The steaks were delicious as was the chocolate amaretto dessert, and the show was good. Overall a good value and a lot simpler than doing it ourselves. Some of the guests asked if we could go by the "flower" sculpture at night. The guide graciously agreed and treated us to an impromptu midnight city tour.
Montevideo: Weather was sunny and warm, around 80F. The ship docked at the pier very near the town. We did the "City Highlights" tour which we enjoyed and gave us a feel for the city. We toured business and residential areas and finished with a view of the city and coast from a hilltop.
Puerto Madryn: Beautiful weather, 70F and windy. Again we were at the dock. The scenery during the 2 hour bus trip reminded us of New Mexico. The bus was comfortable and the roads were good until the last few miles. At the parking area we observed the people taking private tours packed like sardines in the small taxis they had enlisted3 people crammed in the back seat of a Chevy Aveo for 4 hours round-trip. It made us appreciate our comfortable bus. The observation trail is a long walk up and down small hills, at least 1-½ miles I would guess. They suggest you walk to the end and gradually work your way back. We turned around about half way there but still saw thousands of penguins "up close and personal". You can see plenty of them just yards from the parking area. The visit to Punta Tombo was a highlight of the trip.
Stanley: Another beautiful day, light clouds, 50-55F, fairly calm seas. The crew said it was the best weather they had ever had at Stanley. The tenders drop you off at a pier right downtown. We took the $20 bus to Gypsy Cove where we saw a few penguins. A big letdown after Punta Tombo, but those who hadn't seen penguins at Puerto Madryn were impressed.
Around the Horn: True to tradition the weather made a turn for the worse. It was cold, cloudy, hazy, raining and very windy it would be disappointing to have good weather for the Horn but the seas were calm enough that the captain was able to make a complete circle around Cape Horn Island. I tried to go out on the deck in front of the Observation Lounge to take photos, but it was like the TV weathercasters in a hurricane; you had to hold onto the rail with one hand to stay upright, and it was impossible to hold the camera still. I retreated to the relative protection of deck 6 for a few photos and then to Seven Seas where we dined and watched in luxury at a table next to the port side window as we completed circling the Horn.
Ushuaia: Returned to beautiful weather, partly sunny, cooler at 50F. From the Sun's berth at the downtown pier we took the NCL excursion to Tierra del Fuego National Park. I had my picture taken at the southern terminus of the "highway" that runs 17,838 km. from Fairbanks, AL to Ushuaia. It's an expedition I'd like to make if I were younger. The scenery is gorgeous. This is a place I could see myself living.
Beagle Channel/Glaciers: By the time we got to the glaciers (5:30 PM) the weather had turned cloudy and the higher peaks were shrouded in clouds. Still lots of daylight left it's 17 hours from sunup to sundown in mid-January. We watched the glaciers go by from the comfort of our starboard balcony room. You can't beat that.
Punta Arenas: Sunny, still, low 60'sF. This is a tender port for ships the size of the Sun. We had scheduled the NCL Magdalena Island excursion, but it was canceled for lack of interest, a disappointment but not too bad as we had seen plenty of penguins at Puerto Madryn. In its place we settled for the City Highlights tour. The tour was OK, we got a feel for the city and we could have spent a lot more time at the museum.
Magellan Strait: Weather was foggy, rainy and overcast, 55F. Not much to see. The sea turned rough in the evening (I've experienced worse). Barf bags were placed at all the stairways. The captain slowed to 8 knots, then decided to change route overnight to an inward passage to get out of the rough seas. This meant we had to bypass some of the fjords the next day top make up time, but we couldn't have seen much anyway due to the fog and haze.
Puerto Chacabuco: Rainy, very windy, 50F. Tenders again here and at Puerto Montt. We took the NCL bus tour to Coyhaique. The weather was better as we got away from the coast. Beautiful scenery and a wonderful guide, Michelle, who was a 20-year old university senior majoring in English Literature and composition. We had free time in Coyhaique for shopping at a craft mall. I sat on a bench in the square and watched the cab drivers compete to see how many tourists they could pack into a minivan. The answer is quite a few if they sit twisted sideways. The rear springs sag until the frame is almost resting on the rear axle. Sound like fun? On the way back we (and 4 other bus loads of tourists) were treated to a delicious snack at a restaurant near the Virgin Falls; empanadas, etc. local wines and pisco sours, very good.
Puerto Montt: Cool, rainy, foggy, 55F. We took an afternoon tour to Puerto Varas and Fruitillar. Again, the weather cleared as the day progressed. We spent a little time in Fruitillar, a quaint town with an Alpine feel. The view of the volcanoes across the lake was obscured by clouds, but it's obvious it would be very picturesque on a clear day. This was the only bus we found without air conditioning actually it had AC but it was not working. Hot and muggy in town, too chilly on the highway with the roof vents open. Overall a mediocre excursion.
Disembarkation: Since our flight wasn't scheduled until 10:30 PM we opted to take a 9-hour bus tour instead of spending 12 hours at the airport. After a tour of Valparaiso, Vina del Mar and Santiago (including a ride up the funicular and lunch at San Cristobal Hill) we were dropped off at the airport around 6 PM. The luggage was taken directly to the airport where it was waiting for us, already separated and on a cart. (Contrast with the irate Celebrity Infinity passengers who were searching high and low for their luggage which was all in one "pile"). Unfortunately, there was already a long, snaking line at the Delta counter which wasn't scheduled to open until 7:30 PM.
The worst part of the trip was the journey home. My wife fell ill on the plane and was miserable for the remainder of the trip. But she's better now and back to looking at the cruise brochures. Let's see... maybe a river cruise next!