EXPLORER & ANTARCTICA EXPERIENCE CRUISE - DECEMBER 15, 2008 - JANUARY 4, 2009 (VALPARAISO TO RIO)
DH and I are both 50 and this was our fifth HAL cruise. We have also sailed on Princess and Norwegian. We chose HAL as 10 years prior we sailed on the old Noordam from Rio to Valparaiso on our honeymoon. We were excited to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary (New Year's Eve) by doing this itinerary again. The added bonus of Antarctica, which had always been a dream for us, made this a cruise we'll never forget.
AIR - HAL arranged the air from Vancouver to Valparaiso, and Rio back to Vancouver. We were booked on Air Canada flights from Vancouver to Toronto and then Toronto to Santiago. It snowed the night before we left Vancouver which caused several flight delays. We were extremely lucky our flights were not delayed at all.
We landed in sunny warm Santiago on time at 12:30 PM, a 5 hour time difference from home. We went through two separate lineups - one to pay the $132 US each reciprocity (airport) fee and then through customs. A HAL rep greeted us in the luggage claim, checked off our names and then guided us to another HAL rep to a waiting bus. Our checked luggage was put on a truck that went to the ship and was delivered directly to our stateroom. It took about an hour from landing in Santiago until we were on the bus. The drive to Valparaiso was 1.5 hours. After check-in at the terminal we bought 2 bottles of wine which were free to take on board on embarkation day. We then went through security and onto another bus which drove to the ship. We arrived too late for our embarkation picture to be taken however we were able to get one made up with a picture taken later in the cruise. We just had enough time to drop our bags in our stateroom, freshen up and grab our life jackets for the lifeboat drill. It was 1 hour before sailing - which to us was cutting it way too close!
SHIP The ship was decorated throughout with colourful Christmas trees. The front office was decorated with fresh flowers and poinsettias which looked quite festive. The tree lighting ceremony took place at 7:30 PM the first night and Christmas carols were sung. There was a nativity scene on the lower promenade level atrium and a few Christmas trees with white lights which were quite pretty. The lower atrium had a mirrored wall reflecting millions of colours. The main dining room was decorated with stars hanging from the ceiling and white poinsettia garlands around the upper inside.
STATEROOM Our stateroom was 3345 - just steps away from the lower promenade atrium (and right beside the self-service laundry). This was the quietest stateroom we'd ever been in and we never heard any noise from the adjoining staterooms, above, below or the laundry room at all. The stateroom was quite spacious with 2 large twins put together, a love-seat and chair. We each had our own closet space as well as a closet for coats, shoes etc. There was storage space under the bed for our luggage. We were surprised to see that we didn't have a mini refrigerator. The washroom was average size with adequate storage space for our personal toiletries. The wall-mounted hair dryer got too hot after 20 seconds. Luckily there was a portable hair dryer (in HAL bag) in one of the dresser drawers to use instead.
We were somewhat disappointed that we only received one canvas HAL bag this cruise. On the Explorer cruise we took 10 years ago, we each received one HAL canvas bag, rain poncho, small Spanish dictionary, small South America guidebook, mini binoculars, journal and wooden pen.
SERVICE Outstanding. Our stateroom was attended to by Agus and Ikhwan who were quite efficient and not intrusive. HAL seems to have cut their staff as they seemed to be responsible for a great many staterooms. The same also seemed to apply in the dining room.
DINING - We chose second seating dining at 8 PM at a table for two. We opted for formal dining as it was a holiday cruise. DH grumbled at first at the thought of bringing a suit, shoes etc. but next time will consider renting a tux, not to mention the extra luggage space that will be saved.
Our waiter was Paul and his assistant was Theodor. Our wine steward was Dino and his assistant was Joseph. All men were quite pleasant the entire cruise and never stopped smiling. The maitre'd always stopped by our table each night, called us by name and would inquire how our day and meal was (how he remembered everyone's names we don't know.) The meals were excellent and nicely prepared. We enjoyed the chilled soups whenever they were on the menus. A latte, cappuccino or hot chocolate could be ordered after dinner at no extra charge.
It was disappointing to note that some men and women wore jeans on formal and smart casual evenings (obviously they hadn't read their Welcome Aboard literature which clearly stated no jeans). Anyone paying this amount of money on a cruise can at least afford a pair of dark pants don't you think. The maitre d' should have gently reminded these people to either change or suggest eating in the Lido Cafe instead, but it seemed he didn't want to rock the boat.
We once skipped dinner in the dining room and went to the Lido Cafe - where anything on the menu was the same as the dining room anyway. Then you could see what you wanted to eat in advance.
We ate breakfast in the dining room just once. Several times we ordered in-room dining where the meals were always delivered on the dot. At the Lido Cafe there were a number of make-to-order stations for eggs benedict, waffles, eggs, bacon, sausage. You name it they had it. Some days it was hard to decide what to have.
For lunch in the Lido Cafe there was a great variety of pasta and sauces, wraps, grilled sandwiches and salads to choose from. We tried to avoid eating where people served themselves - not everyone used the hand sanitizer or used the tongs. The pool area had a few kinds of greasy pizza slices; also at the Terrace Grill you could order a hamburger, cheeseburger, chicken burger or hot dog.
PHOTOS Each 8x10 picture cost $14.95 - pretty steep and the price adds up. Many photos were not bought - perhaps many more would have been bought if the price and size was reduced. Almost every night the ship's photographers were set up to do portrait or green screen photos. They were also visible on deck during scenic cruising and at the various ports.
SHOPS Just a few "dam" souvenirs and the usual expensive jewelry. There were few people in the shops the entire cruise. The souvenir South America T-shirts were a bright cayenne pepper colour which we never saw anyone buying. Also for sale were light jackets with an Antarctica patch sewn on and these didn't even have a hood.
CASINO This was one of the smallest casinos we'd ever seen on a cruise ship, and hardly anyone ever in it. There were penny slot machines with no one ever sitting at them. We usually enjoy the slot machine tournaments but there didn't seem to be much interest so we didn't bother.
BINGO We never bothered to check this out.
GYM We never bothered to check this out.
SPA Did not use however DH had his hair cut for $25 and they did a nice job.
ART AUCTION We never bothered to check this out (not even for the free glass of champagne LOL).
LIBRARY We rented a few DVDs ($3 each) to watch in our stateroom on sea days - "Message in a Bottle" and "Pirates of the Caribbean - World's End" which was aired on TV just after we watched it of course.
SHOWS The one and only show we went to in the Queen's Lounge was a comedian named Tom Sutton from Britain. He was one of the worst comedians we'd ever heard. His material was either political or quite dated - references to Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. Some people walked out of the theatre and I wished we had done the same - we should have chosen to do our laundry instead.
DRINKS We purchased a card for $56 which entitled us to 10 cocktails. The frozen (strawberry or lime) margaritas were the best and ended up being $1 cheaper than you would pay individually.
MOVIES Among the movies we saw in the Wajang Theater were the "Dark Knight", "Swing Vote" and "Christmas Vacation". These movies were broadcast on TV the following day.
LAUNDRY $2.00 (8 quarters) for the wash cycle and the dryers were free. We found the best time to do laundry was after dinner otherwise everyone tried to go there at the same time, usually on sea days.
CRAFTS Creative Christmas Crafts class hosted by the party planner who explained that HAL had not hired a crafts person this cruise. She brought a large plastic container filled with construction paper and glue she'd gotten from the children's area! Her suggestions were to either make a wreath out of hand prints (no thanks) or a Santa to hang on our stateroom door. Some ladies walked out at this point (I wished I had) but I stayed, made a lame looking Santa that I would have been embarrassed to hang on our stateroom door. I didn't attend any future crafts sessions.
PORTS We had visited each port on our previous South America cruise. The only shore excursions we took were in Punta Arenas, Falkland Islands and Rio de Janeiro.
Puerto Montt The tender took about 15 minutes and docked near the Angelmo artisan market (about 30 artisan stalls). We walked about a mile to the Paseo Mall. The mall had 3 levels with a food court including KFC and Pizza Hut, and on one level there was a tiny McDonalds kiosk selling ice cream. Ladies take notice - when going to the bano (bathroom) - take your paper first from a giant roll before going into a stall as there was no paper provided inside. The mall also had a large supermarket called Full Fresh where we bought pisco in a dark Easter Island decanter and Artesano pisco sour which was already mixed. We walked back to the Angelmo artisan market selling hand-made woolen caps, scarves, jackets etc. We had bought a lot of this stuff 10 years ago so we only bought a few postcards.
Punta Arenas Patagonia Experience - Otway Bay tour (we did this 10 years ago). The bus ride was about an hour and we stopped a few times to see rheas by the road side. The weather was overcast but did get a bit sunny. There was a large parking area (a few people had come in taxis), washrooms, a small cafe and a few souvenir kiosks. It was about a mile walk along roped boardwalks out to the Magellanic penguins. We saw many penguins, which marched in comical lines down to the water. A viewing platform was available to see the penguins in the ocean.
A trailer back on the pier sold woolen hats, sweaters, gloves and souvenirs. I bought a woolen alpaca hat (flannel lined) with ear flaps for $5, a souvenir penguin mug and a book on Antarctica. That alpaca hat was the best $5 purchase I ever made when we cruised in Antarctica!!!
We split the cost of a taxi ride into town for $10 with another couple. In the middle of town was a square with a statue of an Indian with a golden toe - if you touched it legend states you'll return again some day (and here we were!). Around the square were a number of handicraft tables. DH bought a hooded alpaca sweater and a hat.
Ushuaia, Argentina Very picturesque with the snow capped mountains all around. We docked at 1 PM and the wind blew fiercely as we walked off the ship. We went through a security building then out to the town. We walked along San Martin, the main street, with several souvenir shops. We stopped at Laguna Negra, a chocolate shop which had a little cafe in the back where we enjoyed bottles of Cape Horn pale ale.
Cape Horn We were out on deck at 7 AM where it was windy and overcast to witness passing the tip of South America. We thought there was supposed to be a monument with an albatross but we didn't see one.
Antarctica cruising (December 23) It was quite foggy and snowing lightly (how often can you say you've been on a cruise and it snowed?). We could just make out the mountains and the ice made it quite an awesome thing to see. We saw our first penguins far off on land in the distance. People wore an odd assortment of footwear - from flip flops with socks to high heel sandals.
A group of people came on board from Palmer Station to give a slide presentation of the research they do which was quite interesting.
In a corner of the Crow's Nest was a "Base Camp" which was a tent recreating the Shackleton Antarctica adventure. Maps were on display of where we would be cruising in Antarctica. A TV played a DVD of the movie "Shackleton" over and over. DH and I watched the 2 hour movie one afternoon with a tango class in the background so it was hard to hear some parts of the movie. This base camp should have been set up in a small room elsewhere on the ship.
Antarctica cruising (December 24) A beautiful morning with spectacular views of icebergs as we retraced the route we went the day before, which was completely different without all the fog. Many people remarked this was a surreal experience seeing this and it was so awesome to describe. We passed by the Argentina and Chile research stations. In the afternoon we went up on Lido deck aft for the "Penguin Dip" in the pool. It was cold though the pool water was warm. Waiters were ready with cups of hot chocolate as we came out of the pool. Certificates of this event were delivered to our stateroom a few days later.
Antarctica cruising (December 25) We started the day by seeing Adelie penguins on an iceberg! The sky was clear and blue but cold. We stayed out on deck until 10 AM - rushed in to have our pictures taken with Santa in the Queen's Lounge - then went back out on deck. We saw the Esperanza research station belonging to Argentina. About 42 people live there with 2 school teachers, and the children are considered part of the Argentinian school system.
All the dining room staff wore Santa hats and most people dressed formally for dinner. We passed by Elephant Island just before dinner - DH went outside and took pictures but we were not close enough to see any elephant seals. Sundown was 11 PM and sunrise 4 AM.
Stanley, Falkland Islands We had originally planned to do OBT Sparrow Cove and were wait-listed on the Volunteer Point Penguin tour. The night before we got confirmation for Volunteer Point. We got onto the tender at 6:45 AM, and the water was so choppy we almost didn't make it to the dock. If it had been any worse they probably would have discontinued the tender process.
There were 48 people on our tour and we went in groups of 4 in Land Rovers (these are shipped to the FI, but the tires are specially ordered from the UK). Our guide and driver was Neil, born in the UK and now a resident of FI. Apparently he had been waiting since 6:15 AM for us to arrive (we were an hour late), and apologized for not shaving LOL.
Neil told us about the FI war of 1982 of which there were still land mines in the ground but were roped off. He said when a cruise ship is in, everyone pitches in do driving - lawyer, doctor, dentist etc. All education is free in the FI and tuition and expenses is paid if you further your education in the UK afterward. Medical and dental expenses are also free.
The countryside was pretty bland, bleak and very windy. Part of the way was off-road and quite bumpy in some spots.
At Volunteer Point there was a small portable with toilets and info. Bag lunches were provided consisting of a ham or cheese sandwich, bottle of water, roast chicken chips and an apple.
We had 2 hours to see the penguins. Ground rules were don't run, let anything flap, talk loudly and stay outside the ring of stones which served as a perimeter for the penguins. Inside the ring of stones there were a number of baby penguins still with some of their fluff. Wardens wearing bright green fluorescent vests ensured that everyone obeyed the rules. The king penguins we saw were awesome! They just stood there and posed while we took close-up shots. Down at the beach, the water was a tropical turquoise blue and the sand a very fine white powder like talc. There were king and gentoo penguins here. This was the most incredible experience to see these animals up close. The only other place in the world to see king penguins is on South Georgia Islands.
Our tour guide let us off close to the whale bone arch where we walked back to the tender. We only had 30 minutes so we went into Capstan Gift Shop, a really nice gift shop selling penguin souvenirs, cards, DVDs, glassware and all kinds of things.
Buenos Aires, Argentina We were awakened at about 12:30 AM by the captain announcing over the PA of "bright star, bright star, cabin XXXX" which sounded like an emergency code of some kind. We asked our dining room waiter about this and he said a female passenger had had a heart attack and passed away that morning.
It was sunny and warm. It was mandatory to take a shuttle bus from the ship to the cruise terminal as the ship was docked in an industrial area. We walked up to the Florida pedestrian mall which stretched for 6 blocks and branched off another 6 blocks. We took a taxi to the Recoleta and had lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe and then walked back to the ship.
The Filipino crew show was awesome to watch - we don't know when they ever found the time to practice!
Montevideo, Uruguay The cruise director announced over the PA that docking would be delayed by one hour so all tours would depart an hour later. Some people complained of this as we had only traveled about 87 miles from Buenos Aires the previous evening. The cruise director explained that the appropriate arrangements had to be made so that the husband of the deceased passenger could disembark with her body.
It was overcast and a bit cool. We walked up the street where shops were just opening. Many buildings looked old and rundown, and the streets and sidewalks were uneven. DH collects stamps so at the main post office he bought a first day cover of Ano Polar Internacional canceled with a penguin stamp. The fellow who helped us apologized for dressing so casually - as it was New Year's Eve the custom around mid-day was that people threw their old calendars, day-timers and water from buildings at people below in the street!!! We later watched as a bunch of people getting on and off a bus got drenched with water. We were careful crossing the street but a few seconds later we both got wet - I just looked up, smiled and waved to the people laughing. I looked like something the cat dragged in LOL as we walked back to the ship.
At a small wine store across from where the ship was docked we bought a bottle of Maria Zarranz MEtodo Champenoise Extra Brut wine from Uruguay ($25 US) which we used to bring in the New Year that night.
We received a congratulatory card from the captain for our 10th anniversary. In the dining room we found New Year hats at our table. The New Year's Eve Gala Dinner included caviar and seafood cocktail and lobster. For dessert there was a chocolate tower filled with mascarpone mousse and crème de cacao and had Happy New Year 2009 in gold lettering. The maitre'd brought a small cake with a candle on it (white icing with chocolate cookie crumbs on the outside and devil's food on the inside) and he and our waiters sang a lively Filipino tune, wishing us a happy anniversary. We had the cake delivered to our stateroom.
All of the public lounges were decorated with paper streamers and sparkly confetti. We went to the Queen's Lounge around 11:30 pm which was already half full at this time. We picked up blowers and noisemakers as we went in. We got a good seat off to the side, and each table had 2 balloons, black top hat and star confetti and paper ribbons. It was quite noisy with everyone blowing their horns and turning their noisemakers. Waiters made the rounds with free champagne 20 minutes before midnight. The stage had been converted to a dance floor with rails at the edge so people wouldn't fall off. Big screen monitors on each side of the lounge counted down the time to midnight. At midnight the whole lounge erupted with noise and a net of balloons was released from the ceiling. What a mess was left on the floors throughout but of course was all gone the next morning.
New Year's Day We had New Year's Day brunch at the Pinnacle Grill ($30 each). We'd never eaten at a restaurant on a ship with a cover charge. There were about 25 people who came and we were offered a glass of champagne at the door. The buffet area was set up in the back and consisted of various seafood (jumbo shrimp, crab legs, herring, salmon and caviar), cold cuts and cheese, roast beef and salads. Breakfast items such as omelets were made to order. A dessert tray consisted of assorted squares, pastries and freshly dipped chocolate strawberries. White and red wines were served. DH had 5 servings of caviar. We were so stuffed we went back to our stateroom and rested for the afternoon.
Went to the Dessert Extravaganza at 11:30 PM that was set up on tables around the pool. There were ice sculptures, a chocolate fountain, a few crepes stations and quite an assortment of pastries.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil We were out on deck at 5 AM as we sailed into Rio, past the Corcovado and Sugar Loaf. We chose the 8 hour Rio Extravaganza tour for both days in Rio for these reasons: (1) in case the weather didn't cooperate one day, (2) we were guaranteed seeing the Corcovado and Sugar Loaf and (3) safety - we'd read it wasn't very safe to be roaming around in Rio (even by taxi).
The first day it was about 33 degrees and humid. We drove to Sugar Loaf first. We were glad we were on a tour as we bypassed everyone standing in line for tickets. The tram stopped at one level where you got off, took pictures and then went to the next level. Our tour description stated lunch at a seafood restaurant but was at a barbecue restaurant instead. A number of tour buses were already there and we sat at a table for 10. We helped ourselves to the salad bar. Platters of food were brought to the table like rice, puffy cheese puffs, fried bananas and french fries. Huge skewers of meat (lamb, beef, pork, sausage and chicken) were brought around and were sliced onto your plate with a huge knife (careful not to move LOL!!!) Dishes of vanilla soft serve ice cream with fruit cocktail were served for dessert.
Corcovado. The tram ride was 20 minutes through the Tijuca Forest with lush greenery on both sides. There were chachaka trees with large yellowish hanging fruits. It was quite an amazing incline when we arrived at the station. Again we were glad we were on a tour and bypassed the crowds. We boarded a narrow elevator (only 5 people at a time) then up a few escalators (the highest in the world?). There were a few souvenir shops all selling the same little statues and souvenirs. Back at the bottom of the tram station there was a Hard Rock Cafe kiosk. DH wanted to buy a ball cap but they would not accept US dollars (he bought one later at a HRC kiosk in the terminal where the ship docked). We bought a poster of the Corcovado and Sugar Loaf signed by the photographer for $82 US.
Our bus drove past the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches which were packed.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (disembarkation) We waited in our stateroom for our ticket (luggage) number and colour to be called for our tour. At the end of our tour, we would be dropped off at the airport. It was overcast and cooler which was a bit of a relief. Our tour bus was full and we went to the Corcovado first. It was quite windy and raining slightly when we got there. Once we got up to the top we were told the elevators weren't working as the winds were too high (felt like a hurricane). We walked up the few steps to the Corcovado. It was completely misty in some spots. Our lunch stop was at a different barbecue restaurant where the food was essentially the same as the day before but just as good. Our tour guide phoned ahead to Sugar Loaf in case the trams weren't operating. They were - it was windy with intermittent rain. We drove past the beaches again, completely deserted this time.
We were dropped off at the airport around 5 PM. Everyone's luggage from the ship had been put onto trolleys but not in a totally secure area. Our flight to Miami was not until 10:15 PM but we got in the ONE lineup for international flights anyway. It took 90 minutes to get to the first security desk. An AA rep had our e-ticket printouts. Then we waited another 30 minutes to check in our luggage. We were given boarding passes for all 3 flights (Rio-Miami, Miami-Dallas Ft. Worth and DFW-Vancouver) however for the first flight to Miami we did not have seat assignments and were told to deal with the AA rep at the gate before boarding the plane.
We went through security into a confusing mess of people. Half a dozen other people at our gate were also without seat assignments. We never thought to check our flight status on the Internet on the ship and we could have averted this confusion altogether. We managed to get home safely with all our luggage intact.
Overall, we had an awesome vacation and would do this itinerary (especially Antarctica) again in a heartbeat.