ALBATROSS Reaches for the SUN
Rambling notes recall the high and a (very) few low lights on a happy ship that sailed March 1/09 from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso. Inclement weather is often a factor on this Cape Horn run but the Norwegian Sun must have had contacts with the other sun as we had but one day of serious rain. The Sun was great, and so was the weather. The ports and en route sights, remarkable. What's left to say? I'll try to be brief and note please, that my observations are naturally subjective. B.A. Arrived four days early and the city needs that as the sights and size are seemingly endless. Stayed at the Hilton in the new "old port." Excellent value. Victor and Charles at the concierge desk were uber helpful. Take the ninth floor facing the city for skyline views. Being a photographer I'll dwell on angles. Break up a hot day with a dip in the rooftop pool. The hotel to Plaza Mayo (center) is a 10 minute stroll. We did the bus tour day one and Victor arranged a reasonably priced private car to take us back to our preferred areas on day two though taxis (radio cab) are very cheap. Saturday the locals go to the the Delta (train) and take tours on the canals in lovely old wood planked tour boats. Pictures at every turn. I recommend a compact camera with both HD video and 10x zoom such as the Panasonic Lumix. I also used more professional gear but in B.A. Valparaiso and Santiago the risk of theft is high, especially for women. Spoke to a tourist who was in a "safe" area of Valparaiso when robbed. She fell to the ground and her husband coming to her aid tripped on a cobblestone and cracked his shoulder blade. Avoid jewelry, carry only funds needed, a credit card and a copy of your passport. At start and ending ports you have to take a transit by bus but things flowed smoothly.
Our first port, Montevideo, just across the wide LaPlatte Riverwas (for us) a small version of Buenos Aires with the addition of a stretch of parkland lining a sandy beach on a bay. For touring in general there are three routes. NCI excursions at a premium but usually fail safe. Mini bus/van tours you book on the web or sign up for as you exit the ship at generally half or less the ship price or gambling on finding a cabbie with a grasp of english. We'd find a compatible couple to share the cost 4 ways and always found a reasonably bilingual cabbie. The benefit was you could stop where and when you wanted and if the weather was inclement scuttle the trip without cost. Carnivores should try the indoor resto market near the dock for cold beer and mounds of colorful atmosphere. Then came a sea day and time to explore the Sun and her offerings. The first came on the balcony of our cabin 9265 in the form of a sociable albatross who happily rested in one of our deck chairs. Julio (as we called him) didn't want to leave even when we raised his chair to rail level. Eventually the environmental officer took him to the bow of the ship where he flew off that night. To his knowledge this was the first time the Sun played host to an albatross. The cabin was well arranged and my wife who packs what we need then doubles that, found a home for everything. The mattress was a tad on the firm side and the "huggable" pillows were anything but. Our room stewards, au contraire, were very huggable. We tried the buffet breakfast and discovered what others have mentioned. It's a feeding frenzy, morning, noon and night. Gratuitous gluttony unleashed, albeit tasty if you can find a seat. We normally opted for the traditional dining rooms where the wait staff created a more leisurely experience. Go for the fresh pressed OJ, the free alternative contains water and some questionable coloring. Puerto Madryn in Patagonia seasonally offers penguins and/or whales. Wales on the other hand is an all season event if you go to Gaiman settled by the Welsh in the 19th century with many traditions and tea houses intact. We visited the Punta Tombo rookery with more magellan penguins then you can toss a kipper at. It's a 2.5 hour trek each way over vegetation challenged scrub land that rises and falls in plains. For the sake of comfort make it a bus not a mini-van which you are often shoe-horned into. Another relaxing sea day followed. Compared to other ships, we noted the casino was, hey, a casino The shops were, well, shops. The spa (such indulgence) comes with a caveat. Prices are steep and the 25% discount card in our cabin for the first visit , extended to only one person. I got the discount and my wife who had double the treatments and costs got the full tab. Plus they'll gently (be fore- warned) recommend post spa essentials. Having been delivered of a deep body massage by arguably the worlds most stunningly beautiful masseuse how could I say no to a potpourri care package of eco friendly lotions and sprays guaranteed to remove all the wrinkles and bulges in my wallet. Welcome to Port Stanley and the Falkland Islands. WARNING. If there is one expensive ship tour to take. Take note. It's here. Don't worry about the limp state of your post masseuse wallet. This tour you'll have booked BEFORE you've left home. It's the King Penguin tour and sells out fast. How expensive? It'll cost more than that 10x compact leica lens camera I recommended and be worth every King of it. Beside the Kings, the magellans and gentoos are mere foot notes. But when walking they all have notable feet. Think Charlie Chaplin exiting the scene.
Stanley also abounds in ancient ship wrecks, fish n chip shops, battle sites from the 1982 war for the Falklands with Argentina and pints of ye olde england at the pubs. Pick up a copy of the local paper, the Penguin News. The deal at Stanley is that the cruise lines have corralled the limited guides and 4x4's available. So damn the cost here. See the kings and leave feeling like a king. A tip. One gig cards are inexpensive and there are so many photo highlights on this trip that this way you can switch cards mid stream and not be at a loss if one card is lost or damaged. Another sea day meant more exploration of the Sun. If they mention a jazz brunch in the Bistro (sur charge ) go early , grab a window seat near the trio, and order a kir royale. The music, the sea, the spirits; pure ambrosia. There is a somewhat repetitive daily newsletter. Keep the eyes peeled for the small mention of the chocoholic buffet. I didn't and both my stomach and camera missed out. For the mind, the library and game room was popular. For the body the fitness center garnered its due and you could top that off with three circuits to a mile on the walking/ jogging deck that circled the Sun. Alas, most of my walking was confined to the ice cream stand on Deck 11. Sunset brought us to Cape Horn. There are two reasons to having a starboard balcony on this east to west trip; the Cape and the glaciers of Beagle Channel. Why? Open deck winds or if sheltered by glass, reflections. Cameras like neither. Looking north to the cape in these truculent waters the strength of the mind is unleashed. There is an overpowering sense of place that grips the imagination. In this mariners graveyard the pacific meets the atlantic and you are the fulcrum. To the left lies Vancouver to the right New York.You are at the bottom. All is up. Converging winds and currents slap the waves into a stuttering two-step that seems to keep rhythm with the booming loud speakers narrating info from the bridge..."the Cape was first founded...." Moisture laden air cloaked the cape in translucent veils as the setting sun threw shafts of fading light at it. I recalled the lines in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, At length did cross an albatross, Thorough the fog it came; As if it had been a christian soul, We hailed it in God's name. Where in God's domain was Julio I wondered. The Sun then circled the Cape to the north and we passed into the night.
Ushuaia bills itself as the end of the world.Regardless , our cabbie, Daniel Saladino, made it feel like the beginning. The weather continued its blessing and there was no need for the "layered clothing," all the guides recommended. Here's the routine. Exit a pier and spot the gaggle of cab and van drivers. "Hola, who speaks english?" "Daniel, Senor, I do." Then get a rate for X hours leaving time for a stroll later. On average it was $120-140 for 6-8 hours. Add a tip and you've an avg of $40 pp. We always asked for more than the standard drive-by tour which is how we came to visit the wreck of the tall ship Lord Lonsdale in Puerto Arenas after we scrubbed the Ottway Rookery tour having been told there were only 40 odd penguins still there. Daniel took us to Tierra del Fuego National Park where we photographed the departure of the tourist steam train on its four mile run. An option is to take the train and have your cabbie pick you up at the end. Later we went to a vantage point high above Ushuaia to photograph the town and the Beagle Channel below. Reading material. Pick up a paperback of Charles Darwins, Voyage of the Beagle 1831-36, which was the genesis of his theory On the Origin of the Species. From Buenos Aires to Valparaiso his fascinating insights will be your guide. On the Sun, purchase Logbook-Val to B.A. $25, at the info desk. Due to its size the Sun doesn't take all the inland channels shown but for the two coast days at sea it does a fair amount of inter-coastal travel.
Farewell Ushuaia, hello euphoria. Hour after hour we ghosted past glaciers. While the bridge rattled off statistics. Keep track on page 99 of the Logbook. The binoculars and camera will earn their keep. Tip. At 10x hold the camera ultra steady. How to end a fab day? Reservations at Le Bistro. On the Sun open seating in the Four Seasons and the Seven Seas is complemented by five cover charge locales. Never disappointed by service, quality or choice in the mainstream spots we decided to splurge on the latter as a sop to the good folks at NCL who were mostly denied our business on the excursions. The verdict. Kudos for the Bistro and East meets West (favorite of the ships officers) and the Ginza Sushi Bar. Acceptable for Il Adagio and the verdicts out on the Teppanyaki as by this time we had frankly reached the limits on what the stomach finds place for. We made a feeble stab at the seared scallops after duly blessing them with a jpeg exposure on our compact. Puerto Arenas. Welcome to Chile. Another cab. Another city stroll. We liked it and I think the affection was returned. The town felt clean and prosperous and the populace disarming. After a tour of the central square and craft hawkers we strolled east on Calle Bories to the Chocolaterie (north side) for sweets, espresso and cafe con leche. While my wife purchased jewelry at Joyeria Rachel (787 Bories) I waited outside and had to smile as dogs chased cars and boys ogled uniformed school girls parading to and fro. P Arenas reminded me of the Sun; a happy place. Do visit the local cemetery. With the landscaping and mix of monumental and homespun in grave markers it makes La Recoleta in Buenos Aires seem second rate.
Another two sea days and more nooks to explore on board and fjords to photograph off our bow. For quiet moments with a view, a book and a drink we chose either the Champagne bar or the Observation Lounge. The combo Windjammer/Havana Bar offered atmosphere and light jazz interludes at night but could be offset by the endless wall of the official photo gallery portraits of passengers posed with or without some dummy dressed dockside in a tired penguin outfit. Irksome also was the use of part of the atrium deck as a portable portrait studio. With backdrop, studio lights and tape on the deck it made a visual eyesore and I never did see anyone being photographed. The open atrium only extended a few decks. The Dazzles Disco had a proto- industrial feel. The main theatre decor was minimalist. Heck, nothing is perfect and these are mere personal observations. For a treat go to Los Ramblas and try the spicy wings washed down with an Alaskan Amber beer. Puerto Chacabuco was an unexpected delight. Here our Hola routine produced Patricio, " a very happy man," who with his spiffy car supports a wife and family by driving contented tourists through a most sublime landscape. With our German friends Tinus and Alexandra, we marvelled at the lushness of this paradise, such a stark contrast to the Patagonian plains. The winding road led past mountains, waterfalls and farms bringing us to Coihaique nestled on a high plain and seemingly what appeared to be the last of the carefree Chilean towns for us. Patricio had a boombox in his trunk and I'll always remember the incongruity of the passing scene while we all sang to the Platters version of My Dream in exaggerated falsettos. Back at the port we had Patricio drive us along the shore to the wreck of the old passenger ship, Vina del Mar. Thanks Patricio. Pato_rubio66@hotmail.com.
Morning heavy rain slapped us back down to earth. Puerto Montt failed our high expectations. The people were more brusque, the infrastructure more haggard and the few sights seen through the rain less than memorable. This was one of our few on-line arranged tours and due to overbooking we ended up in a mini-van with a guide who must have been called in from the bull pen. It's not that he didn't try. He simply threw more balls than strikes. Frutillar and Puerto Varas looked and felt as German as a pennsylvania pretzel. Later we met a couple who hired a cab and drove along the shores of Lake Llanquihue and stopped at inns and homes meeting actual descendants of the 19th century German immigrants and were invited in. Ergo, go smart, go four in a cab. Our last day at sea was one of warming weather and more people took advantage of the heated pools while we realized after two weeks the Sun was still hiding unexplored corners. We watched an art sale disguised as an "auction." They can be informative and entertaining but our philosophy remains, one mans art is another mans name. The Sun serves up music, entertainment, activities and diversions galore. Happy Ship. Happy staff. Valparaiso is a living cultural museum, that needed more than the two days we had. Granted UNESCO heritage status , we were privileged to see some hidden secrets thanks to an extraordinary guide called Michael the German Pirate. Michael comes equipped with patience, insights and pepper spray. If your interests lie in scratching beneath the surface of a city, he is the man and Valparaiso now is the place. But that is another story.