We are a family of four in our early 40's. We have two sons aged 8 and 12. It was their first trip outside of North America. We set off to Buenos Aires from Vancouver, Canada on March 6th. We flew via Toronto on Air Canada and had a great trip down, albeit long. Arriving in Buenos Aires we took a taxi to the apartment that we had rented in Recoletta. We used a company called Buenos Aires Habitat and we were very pleased with them. The apartment was in a lovely area of town, one block away from the Alvear Hotel and three blocks or so from the Cemetery. It was a two bedroom apartment and was bright and airy. The rental company met us as planned and helped us with car services, etc. We were very happy with their professional service. They had left us some lovely snacks and beverages and the apartment was just as described.
The first afternoon we set off for a wander of the neighborhood and to admire the architecture. We then went to Rio Alba (in Palermo)for dinner which was a Parilla that we had read good reviews of on Cruise Critic. The dinner was very nice and the staff firmly advised us that we had ordered far too much food and helped us select an appropriate amount. The next day we had booked a private four hour tour of the city with a guide recommended by another traveler. My husband had been quite concerned about our safety and therefore I had booked the guide as a precaution. He took us around most of the major sights. He was very informative and competent but seemed slightly ruffled that we weren't paying as much attention to all of his details as the kids were our priority. He would have been very well suited to an adult tour. We finished up at the Cemetery and I highly recommend it. Initially I had been puzzled how a Cemetery could be a tourist attraction but once you see it, you will understand. I could have easily spent more time there and even the kids enjoyed it. That afternoon we went to the Zoo to appease the kids. The Zoo was really good despite the fact that in principal I do not believe in zoo's. We had unfortunately chosen to go on a Sunday and it was PACKED. Do go during the week if you have the choice. It is an enormous zoo with practically every animal imaginable. It has some lovely architecture in it and was very reasonably priced. The kids were even free. We finished the day with dinner at a pizza place called Filo that Fodor's had recommended. It is in Retiro and I do not recommend it. While the pizza was good, the staff were indifferent to the point of rudeness.
The next day we took the Buquebus to Colonia. We had booked the tickets prior to our arrival on the Internet. Do book ahead as it is VERY busy. And do arrive an hour in advance, as recommended, as you will need it. The Buquebus in nice and modern. I found the trip to be expensive. I believe we spent over $400 for the four of us to go round trip. Once you arrive in Colonia it is a very pleasant old city, with a more modern one attached to it. It was interesting to see the architecture but I am not sure it was worth the money spent to get there. I must point out that we did not do any museums or anything as it was not worth the hassle with the kids. Also our Spanish is almost nonexistent. People without children might have spent longer looking at museums, etc. The highlight of the day was that we rented a golfcart to get around and it was SO worth it! The funniest part was that the local dogs loved it and chased us round and around for at least two or three miles. Our family was in hysterics giggling and we got some great shots. We drove the golf cart to the beach and spent an hour or two there. It is an unremarkable beach as it is on the river and the water is very brown and not appealing to enter. But the day was gorgeous sunshine and we enjoyed it. We ended up getting restless and went to the ferry terminal to get an earlier return trip. They only had first class space left (which entitled us to slightly nice seats and champagne) so we spent an extra $60 upgrading. I do not think that you need a long time in Colonia and we were definitely ready to leave. That night we had the best dinner of our entire three week trip. We went to a restaurant called Republica in Recoletta. It had received a star from Fodors and it deserved it. We love our food and eat out a lot. It was as good as any meal that I've had in New York, etc. If you enjoy good food, do eat here.
Our final day in Buenos Aires I insisted on doing an open air bus tour. I really enjoy these as I feel they give a good overview of a city and then you can decide where is worthwhile going back to to spend more time. A company called Turistique runs these tours directly in front of the Marriott in Plaza Martin. They have two different city tours (which we did) and a night one (which we did not). The cost was about $30 per person. I enjoyed the tours and it showed us some places that we had not done with our tourguide. It is a fabulous location to take photos from as you are up high with an open top, so nothing obscures your view. I would recommend this tour. After the tour we explored Plaza San Martin, which I really like a lot. I think that the Marriott looked like a great hotel in a great location. There was a huge exhibit in the middle of the square, which added to the attraction. Florida Street is close by and we had a stroll and looked at some of the shops. We had lunch at a place called El Palacio de la Papa Frita which is famous for their "souffle" french fries. Being french fry connoisseurs, we could not resist. The french fries were great but the rest of the food was very average! Tired out from out day we had a casual dinner at El Sanjuanino, an empanada place in Recolleta that had received good reviews. It was cheap and popular. We then packed our bags for our flight to Santiago the next day.
GOOD THINGS ABOUT BUENOS AIRES:
The architecture is beautiful!!!! But it is a South American city and is covered in graffiti and garbage. This drove my husband crazy. Taxi's are plentiful and inexpensive. You will have no problem at all finding one at any time. Lots of people speak English which made things easy. I would have loved to have had more time to explore the culture and museums. Maybe another time! I loved the Plaza San Martin, Ave 9 de Julio, all the beautiful green areas and parks and the cafes. I wish that we spoke Spanish as I always think it is rude to go to another country and expect them to speak your language.
BAD THINGS ABOUT BUENOS AIRES:
While I never felt unsafe, apparently there is a lot of crime as I heard firsthand from people on the cruise. I did not take any jewelry or expensive purses along, and my husband was always careful with our camera, etc. I did not find the food to be as amazing as I had read, with the exception of Republica. While the food was quite reasonably priced by North American standards, I thought most other things were more expensive than I might have expected. I did not like the shopping at all and felt that most of the shoes and clothing were dated by North American standards. We bought lots of souvenirs for the kids, but that was it.
We flew to Santiago via LAN and it was a very pleasant experience. It had been VERY difficult to book the flights from Canada and I was quite concerned about the flight, thinking that everything would go wrong. LAN was very good and all went well.
We stayed at the Sheraton Santiago and I was pleased with the hotel. Again the weather was amazing and we made good use of the pool. They upgraded our two rooms to the Executive floor and we enjoyed the appetizers, etc. We had to book two rooms everywhere we went as the maximum number of people to a room in South America appears to be 3.
We enjoyed Santiago, finding the people to be very warm and kind. We again did the zoo, which was a little decrepit but the kids enjoyed it. We took the funicular and cablecar to the top of the San Cristobal and went to the large pool up there. It was remarkably expensive to get into (I think about $35 US for the four of us) and our older son promptly felt ill and we only spent about 20 minutes there. It would be great on a hot, sticky day although. The next day we did a bus tour. This one left directly from infront of our hotel and had about nine stops that you could hop on and off. There is not as much to see in Santiago and the architecture is not as interesting. But we still enjoyed it and felt more relaxed there then we had in Buenos Aires. We had one nice dinner at a restaurant called Enoteca on San Crisobal. Not as good as we had been led to believe but with a beautiful view. Taxis were abundant and inexpensive.
We then rented a car and drove to Vina Del Mar. We got upgraded to a nice new Audi. The cars were noticeably nicer in Santiago than BA, and the city seemed to be less run down and have more money. The drive to Vina Del Mar was simple and the highway system very good. We passed through some lovely scenery that in turns reminded us of Palm Desert and Napa Valley. The vineyards looked beautiful although we did not stop. I'd love to go back!
We arrived at the Sheraton in Vina and our rooms were great. All the rooms have ocean views and they were amazing. We drove up the coast in search of Humbolt penguins but unfortunately did not see any. Toured some little towns and explored.
That night we ate in the hotel and had a dreadful dining experience where everything went wrong. We complained and the hotel was amazing and went out of there way to fix things! I can not compliment the Sheraton highly enough. To begin with, they totally comped the entire meal. Then we arrived at our room to discover they had sent us deserts and beverages on the house. And then they insisted on treating the four of us and the more formal restaurant the next evening for dinner, including wine. We were most impressed with the service that we received from the Manager, Luis San Martin.
The next day was glorious sunshine and we relaxed by the pool all day and enjoyed our dinner from the hotel.
Finally the day of our cruise had arrived and we took a taxi to the Port. This was the one and only time we got scammed. We had organized a car through the hotel but they forgot so had to call us a taxi. We jumped in the taxi and went the six minute drive to the Pier. The taxi driver demanded $40 US which we knew was far too much. But hey, that was our biggest complaint of the trip so far!
We arrived to relative chaos. It would have been nice if NCL had more ground staff telling people the routine, or gave you the info ahead of time so that you knew what to expect. We finally figured out that we were to leave our luggage in an area (once it had been tagged) and then proceed inside. We were then given numbers which indicated which bus you were to go on when your number was called. I was slightly confused as I knew that being in a suite we got priority embarkation, but did not know where and when it began. We waited roughly 20 minutes and our number was called. We went through security and boarded the bus. For those interested, we heard from people carrying alcohol that they were able to bring it on without any hassle from this security checkpoint. One fellow brought on a case of wine.
The bus took a couple of minutes and we arrived at the ship. We entered the atrium and went though a checkpoint. At this point our priority embarkation took place and we were whisked off to a private area where our concierge, Karen, met us and took care of all the details. We were then introduced to our butler, Armando, and taken to our room. This entire process was very enjoyable and swift. There were refreshments available and we avoided all lineups and confusion.
We were booked in the Owner's Suite and it was great. It was quite large and had ample space for storage. You entered into a front hall with a powder room off of it. We stored all of our luggage here. The living room had a pull-out bed where the kids slept, a table with four chairs and desk, tv, bar area, cappucino machine, dvd and ipod docking station, fridge, etc. The master bedroom was a good size and had a seating area and king bed. The bed was VERY comfortable. There was also a tv and drawer space. There was a sizeable walkin closet with a sitdown vanity and hairdryer that I made good use of. The bathroom was very spacious with an enormous bathtub and full shower and two sinks. It was well equipped with body lotion, shampoo and conditioner and body gel. The cabin was the best part about the cruise as our family does not do well in small spaces. There were three sets of sliding doors leading to a very large deck with a table and four chairs and two chaiselongs (sp??) There was also a private hottub. The views were amazing from the deck. It was windy on the deck during crusing but fine during the sheltered areas like the fjords. We LOVED the deck and rarely went to the public deck facilities. We would fill up the hot-tub with cold water as a private dipping pool. The owner's suite was well worth the money and the only way that I would cruise again.
I am so pleased that we had the Owner's Suite. It cost about $1000/day for the four of us and I think that it was good value when you consider that it saved us two hotel rooms a day, plus food and travel expenses. I would only travel with my family in a suite as we are used to a lot of room and my husband would be insufferable otherwise.
I had read lots of negative things on various blogs regarding NCL, its service, its food, its accommodations, etc. I have to say we had pleasant experience all around and our expectations were exceeded.
Our concierge was Karen and she was fabulous. She went out of her way to check in with us several times a day and accommodated all of our needs. She was very professional and got back to us promptly on all occasions. We were delighted with her.
Our butlers were Armando and Ernesto. They brought us our evening treats and our daily beverages. They also brought us the DVD's that we requested. They were always prompt and courteous. Other than those functions, we did not see a lot of them, but I gather from other people who used them a lot more, they were very pleased with them. They were more than generous with replenishing our drinks (pop and water were complimentary) and brought us numerous treats from the treat menu each night. (choc covered strawberries, cheese platters, soft pretzels, chips, nachos, fruit, brownies...) The kids were in heaven!
Our stewards were Jonald and Mario and both were delightful. About four days in we received our first towel animal. After discovering our delight, we then got them daily. They worked very hard and always had a smile on their faces and a happy comment. They replenished my conditioner and moisturizer daily - probably wondering how any one individual could go through as much! Most happy with both of them!
Other than that, all the other crew seemed friendly and warm. We never once had a negative experience.
As mentioned in Buenos Aires, we like our food and are spoilt with our selection of restaurants in Vancouver. With the exception of one evening, we ate in the Pay restaurants every evening.
I LOATHE the garden lounge and refused to enter it. I can understand that people with small rooms enjoyed hanging out there to have more room but I found it painful to even walk through. The people that I saw there were pushy and rude. There was no regard for line-ups and the entire intent seemed to be to pile us much food on your plates as feasible. It was a most unpleasant environment and I wouldn't set foot in there.
We are one evening at the Seven Seas and it was okay. The staff were pleasant and the food was average. We did not need to wait at all and they happily gave the kids's a children's menu. It was all very average.
In terms of specialty restaurants, we ate at the following:
We ate there once and did not particularly enjoy it. I ate Cassoulet which is a challenging dish outside of France, so that was not particularly fair. We head other people say that they had enjoyed it a lot.
With our suite we got to eat breakfast and lunch free of charge and took advantage of it nearly daily. I am not fond of crowds and it was a lovely, quiet refuge. The breakfasts were very nice and we would usually start at the cold buffet and then order something off the menu. The lunches were average. I found in general that everything was quite "safe" and unadventurous to please the masses. Even things like bluecheese dressing seemed very bland and watered down, so as to not offend anyone. But again, we like our food. The staff in Adagio were very pleasant and welcomed up by name everyday. The children did not chose to eat lunch or breakfast at Adagio and usually grabbed something from the Garden Cafe (not as fussy as their mother) or room service.
We also ate dinner three or four times at Adagio and I felt it was terrific value for $10!! The Osso Bucco was terrific. I was very impressed. The steak and pizzas were also great and my kids also liked the pasta. I was most pleased.
East Meets West:
We ate here three times or four times and it was my favorite of the restaurants. Incidentally, kids menus are available free of charge at all specialty restaurants and then only charged us half of the fee when the kids ate off of the formal menu. I had prime rib twice and the filet once and both were great. The Cagney's fries are also terrific, but best when very hot. The spinach was also good. At $20 I thought East Meets West to be fair value.
We ate here once and it was good. A little pricey at $25 considering it is about $30 at home. They don't do all the tricks with fire due to safety but they were amusing and personable.
We went once and it was average. We are spoilt in Vancouver with seafood and sushi, so we did not bother again.
We drank wine every evening and felt that the prices charged by NCL were fair and reasonable value. It is a business and they have a right to make a profit. We tipped at all of the specialty restaurants at 20% of the food value, but not on wine and they have already charged 18%.
We unfortunately only used the kid's club the first evening. We had been pleasantly surprised that there were 30 kids on board as it was after Spring Break and also an adult oriented cruise. My 8 year old went to the Kid's Club the first night and really enjoyed it. The staff seemed very pleasant and personable. Unfortunately both my kids got sick the next day (bronchial related - not the fault of NCL!) and my youngest was quite sick for five days and after that was never really himself. I was impressed that we ran into the kid's staff several times after and they remembered his name and inquired after him. That was my one disappointment that my 8 year old didn't enjoy the kids and the kid's club, but again, it was nothing to do with NCL.
The ship was pleasant, smaller than I had expected. A little dated, but clean and easy to navigate. I did not like that the casino was right in the middle of one of the floors as I dislike cigarettes and it stunk. I plugged my nose everytime I had to walk through. I can understand that it is central to encourage people to go through and spend money. I found the shops a little disappointing. I would have preferred a higher end selection of things to buy. There was nothing at all that appealed to me personally. There were ample bars and cafes and areas to sit. We never took advantage of them as we preferred the seclusion of our suite.
I found the photographs to be quite expensive and wonder if NCL wouldn't sell a lot more if they made them less expensive. There were dozens of photos of us, none of which we bought, and all of which they would have destroyed without realizing any profit.
We took advantage of the library. We went to two shows and they were pleasant. There is reserved seating for the suites and we took advantage of that. The kids enjoyed the Pan production.
We did not take advantage of any of the public talks, tastings, information sessions, etc, so I can not comment on those.
We swam in the pool a couple of times and it was a very pleasant temperature. We never had difficulty getting a chair, although it did get quite busy at times. We did prefer in general to stay on our own deck.
THE DOCTOR'S OFFICE:
We used this, more than I would have liked. This was our one negative with NCL. As mentioned, both our sons were ill the second day. Our older son had an ear infection in Buenos Aires so we wanted to sort that out. Our 8 year old woke up with a very sore throat and temperature. $400 later, we had ear infection medication and antibiotics for a throat infection and thrush for the younger one. Our older son healed quickly but our younger one got worse and spent four days in bed. After two days of high temperature and vomiting we took him back to the Dr. to discuss whether or not the antibiotics were helping at all. We determined that actually they were making him vomit and get sicker so they gave him new antibiotics (more cost at Dr.) which then started to clear him up.
I then felt a sore throat coming on so went to the Dr. as the interesting shore excursions were fast approaching. I was given vitamin C, tylenol and an over the counter throat spray, along with a $100 bill. The next day (Punta Arenas) I woke up with raging strep throat and my useless drugs. I bravely went on the tour feeling beyond miserable and went back to the Dr's office that afternoon in tears. I was then given antibiotics and another bill. After two more days my throat was still incredibly painful and went back for yet another kind of antibiotics and another bill. ONLY then did I start to clear up and feel a bit better.
I do know that at home, in general when I go the the Dr and receive antibiotics, I start to feel better within a day. This did not occur for either me or my son and I did not have a lot of faith in the NCL medical clinic. I can only hope that my insurance company pays for some of the $800 I spent at the Dr's during our cruise!
My other complaint about the Dr's office is that it is only open between 8:30 - 10:00 and 4:00 - 5:00. Other times they are open to visit you in your room at a cost of $130 versus the $75 charge. During the public hours, there were a lot of NCL staff at all times. I was a little concerned how many sick staff they had! Passengers got priority over staff but I still wondered at all the sick crew.
I would say that the Medical Clinic was the least satisfactory part of the NCL experience.
TENDERING AND DISEMBARKATION:
NCL shore excursions get first priority off the ship. We were given priority passes that could be used anytime after the shore excursions. WE used them in Puerto MOntt where we had a private tour. The tenders were easy to catch back and we never had to wait.
For final embarkation, we told the concierge that we wanted off as late as possible, which as 10:00 a.m. We left our luggage out the night before. She collected us off and led us to the front of the line and we walked off the ship onto a bus. Our luggage was waiting for us and we walked right through security. The entire process took 20 minutes top. Very impressive.
I enjoyed our cruise and so did my two sons. I enjoyed it for its simplicity and relative comfort. There was not much to do on the days at sea and so I read a lot, which I enjoy! My kids enjoyed it for the icecream bar, the butler's treat and the unlimited access to play electronics. My husband, as expected, did not enjoy cruising at all.
I think cruising is great value for sampling an area and deciding if you would go back to see it in greater depth. It would have been very complicated to arrange flights and hotels to all of our ports, so I found that very valuable. Without the cruise I would have never gone to the Falklands which ended up being my favorite port.
I loved not having to pack and unpack. I loved having to not think (very much) about where to eat. Our suite was great.
On the downside, I did not like a lot of my fellow passengers. I found a lot of the Europeans to be VERY rude and pushy. I also found the South Americans to be rude, which I hadn't found on land. It is funny how Americans get such a bad reputation, but they were by FAR the politest nationality on board of the ship. I was astounded at the pushing and shoving, the utter disrespect for line-ups, etc. I also found a lot of the elderly passengers to be very grumpy. Saying that, I also found a lot of them to be charming, so I am certain that is true for all age groups. My husband in general does not enjoy masses of people, so obviously that is difficult to avoid on a cruise.
I do not know if we will ever cruise again. I wouldn't mind trying a Caribbean cruise to test out the area, but think I will find strong opposition from my husband. My kids both say that they would like to do it again.
I know that when I was reading cruise critic, as a novice cruiser, I was most interested in seasickness. We experienced the following. Our second night at sea was extremely rough. I was terrified as I had read about Cape Horn and we weren't nearly there! I could only imagine how terrible it might get! My older son and I stayed in bed as we felt most unsettled. Not seasick, but more just out of control. When we docked the next day, I was dreading getting back on board.
Once back of board, I went to reception and got some seasickness pills. I had spent well over $200 stocking up on medications prior to leaving, but in the end I liked their free stuff the best. We had a rough night the fourth night, but other than not liking the rocking, I did not feel sick at all. The rest of the trip, we had beautiful calm seas, even around Cape Horn. We also had amazing sunshine and great weather the entire trip. We were so fortunate!!
All in all I felt NCL did a very good job. I am sure that a huge part of our enjoyment was based upon our suite. I would not have had nearly as good a time in a smaller cabin. I had read complaints about the constant pressure to buy things. I did not feel this to be a problem. Again they are a business and it is their job to earn money. Just say "no". The food was average and akin to being at a wedding dinner. But in all fairness, it is difficult to cook for 2000 people and please everyone. All in all they did a good job. I was as happy with my steak at East Meets West as I am at any steak restaurant in North America and it was better by far than the steak in Argentina and Chile. I thought the staff were cheerful and positive, despite the very long hours that they work. As we disembarked at 10:00 am, I thought to myself how in a very short three hours, they would be doing it all again, with a smile on their faces. My hat is off to them!
p.s. There is no place to discuss Puerto Chacabuco and Punta Arenas. We did not do Chacabuco as none of the tours appealed and apparently there was not a lot of infrastructure to support independent tours. We lay in the sun that day. Others enjoyed their bus tours.
We did the NCL excursion to Magdalena Island to see the penguins. I was incredibly ill that day but it was still amazing. It was our first view of penguins and there were thousands of them, everywhere. So accessible!! Despite my discomfort, it was great.