South America - Thank You NCL!!
My wife and I, a Canadian couple in our mid 50's, took the two week South American cruise on the NCL Sun leaving Buenos Aires March 29th. WOW! It was our third NCL cruise in two years and second on the Sun (same cabin, in fact).
We spent 3 nights at the Buenos Aires Wilton Hotel ($75US/night including a light breakfast) located near Recoleta (corner of Callao and Santa Fe), a modest hotel with a fantastic location. On Sunday afternoon, after a short cab ride and long line-up, we boarded the ship.
Previous reviews have noted (some extensively) issues relating to inconsistent service, food and long cafeteria line-ups. So, yes, not everything will be perfect. However, our overall impression was very favorable. NCL got us to some GREAT ports of call, managed to get to every stop (including the Falklands where the Captain waited out some bad weather to allow us the visit) and offered room and board for a pretty reasonable price. The scenery itself (volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls - gee NCL even showed us a rainbow while going round the Horn) was breathtaking enough to overshadow complaints about slow service or iffy meals.
When an issue did come up with us, most were resolved by one of the ship's 3 Stars (sorry but we're Canadian and used to picking 3 stars after each hockey game), Rebecca Burns (Assistant Maitre'd), Yaharaira Fernandez (Group Services Manager) and Errol Bailey (Food and Beverage Manager) who took a sincere interest in providing effective customer service. These folks were top notch!
EMBARKATION - the one area that could be easily improved upon is to park the buses 5 or 10 feet further away from the buildings. People and their LUGGAGE are getting out of buses and taxis to get into a line-up for leaving the luggage. If there is a line-up and someone gets out on the wrong side of the busses, it means anxious people with luggage are trying to get by (in the opposite direction) people with luggage in the line. With the busses parked close to the building, it made that aspect more of a struggle than necessary. Otherwise, we arrived at the port around 12:30 and by 2:00 were changed, sitting by the pool and server Wendell had provided a cold bucket of beer. Life was good!
Note: one of the reasons this cruise was soooo good was we had an active Roll Call Cruise Critics group. In the weeks leading up to the cruise, no less than 6 private excursions were organized and individuals had made arrangements to share cabs in several other ports. We arranged to meet our first CC passengers on the plane to Buenos Aires, met others on BA tours (pre-arranged) so by the Meet + Greet, already knew a dozen from the group we would be spending quite a bit of time with. Much better than showing up cold.
Montevideo: we had pre-arranged to get a city tour with another CC couple. Our driver, Ricardo Wall ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) was waiting when we got off the ship (7:45) and went well beyond the agreed 5 ½ hours (at no extra charge). He drove us around the city, to the naval museum (remember the Graf Spee was scuttled in the waters off Uruguay), to a winery outside the city, numerous neighborhoods and then walked us through shopping areas and a local market. He stayed with us until almost 2:00. The cost was $37.50US pp (and well worth it). He made sure we were in a safe area several blocks from the ship and ensured we knew the way back (as we all wanted to take another stroll through the shopping area).
Puerto Madryn: we had organized a day long van tour for 12 to Peninsula Valdes with Nievemar Tours ( www.nievemartours.com.ar ). They provided the van (which met us at the gangway), a driver and an English speaking guide (Roger) for the day tour at a cost of $45US pp. We paid the admission fee to the Peninsula ($45 Argentinean pesos - roughly $12US) ourselves. The tour was GREAT!! The office person, Andrea, was very good to deal with, the guide knew his stuff and the driver seemed to know exactly where the wildlife was. The tour was fantastic. The only drawback was the owner's policy of demanding 100%, non-refundable payment up front. He also expected (unreasonably, in my view) me to send copies of my credit card (both sides) and passport by non-secure e-mail. We ended up using Western Union (which added a $3pp cost). We got lucky - paid upfront and everything worked. Still, we didn't like the owner's approach.
TIP: if you are taking a private group tour, it is easier to meet on the ship so you leave as a group.
Falkland Islands: Thank you Captain Myra!! We had rough seas and high winds on the way to Port Stanley. Most of the passengers didn't expect to be able to get off the ship. However, the Captain, rather than abort, waited in the ocean for the weather to improve and, despite arriving an hour late, we set foot on the Falklands around 10:30. It was a dark, cloudy day with showers. We had nothing pre-arranged so we ended up sharing a cab (the driver was a native Falklander) with another couple for a two hour tour - cost $20US pp. Because of the short time and weather (which restricted visibility), we were only 10 or so miles outside of Port Stanley but it was interesting to see what sites we could. Then back to Port Stanley (light rain by then) for some souvenir shopping. We were pleased we got there and pleasantly surprised to find any type of tour.
The Horn: Okay, this isn't a stop but has to be one of the reasons people take this cruise. Boy, were we lucky. Smooth seas, clouds giving way to sun, breezy but not a gale and (YES, we're telling the truth) a rainbow that seemed to end just off the aft of the ship. It was INCREDIBLE!!! Almost unbelievable, particularly as it was the last NCL South American cruise of this season.
Ushuaia: This is a very short stop - 7:00 to 2:00 (meaning back on ship by 1:30). We had originally signed up for the $79 NCL tour to visit Tierra del Fuego park. However, because the tour didn't get underway until after 8:00, leaving no time to explore the city, we cancelled and made arrangements with a number of the CC folks to leave as soon as the ship cleared, visit the park and still have time to explore Ushuaia. So, in the dark, just after 7:00, fourteen of us were the first off the ship and by 7:30, were in a convoy of cabs ($30US pp) headed for a three hour tour. In fact, we were at Tierra del Fuego so early that we got in before they began charging admission. We were back in time to tour the Maritime Museum (which houses the prison) and have an hour to shop.
Glacier Cruising: The reason for the early departure is to allow early time to see several glaciers while daylight. AMAZING!!
Punta Arenas: we had pre-arranged a day long tour in Punta Arenas with Francesca Baldecchi (who also was our tour guide) of Patagonia-Trips (email@example.com) for $45US pp. In the morning, we visited Fort Bulnes (the first Chilean settlement in southern Chile) along with some surrounding areas. Lunch was on our own and the afternoon was a tour of the city including the cemetery (which showed mausoleums of the various ethnic groups settled there). We also had time to visit a public market. Francesca was FANTASTIC.
Tip: if you are doing a private group tour in a tendered port, see if the Group Services Managers will get you tender tickets so everyone can meet on ship and leave on the same tender.
Puerto Chacabuco: this is a tendered port and a short stop. We took the $99 5 ½ hour NCL tour to Simpson Valley and Coyhaique. The scenery was great, the city was interesting and the snack (including pisco sours and wine) was tasty. Some CC roll call folks found 3 hour tours for $30 pp so there definitely were private options. Regardless, NCL did a fine job with this one.
Puerto Montt: every stop was different. A large CC group took GV Tours ( www.gvtours.com ) at $75US pp. Well, put together 4 volcanoes, a lake, waterfall AND the nicest day of the season and you have an incredible time. In addition, they offered to take those who wanted to stay on instead of the port, an extra hour to visit the fish and craft market. We got off at the port, found an internet place ($1/hr) then shopped the stores near the port.
Entertainment: we didn't see all the shows. A few were good (thin German juggler, Jean Ann Ryan productions), some were huge stinkers (the Italian magician) and some we left. Most of the time, many of the seats were empty, there were very few people standing to applaud at the end and, with a few exceptions, the applause was barely polite. NCL needs to improve this aspect - otherwise passenger spontaneous talent nights would outstrip most of the ship's entertainment offerings. Where's Chuck Barris when you need him??
Lectures: maybe the presenters know the contents but they sure were dry. I've heard eulogies delivered with more enthusiasm. Please NCL, if the presenters can't present, give someone else the free cruise!
Food + Service: I'll be brief. When it was good, it was very good. Servers like Candito and Madelina set the bar high. Most times, the meal and service was fine. The few times it was bad, it made McDonald's look like a specialty restaurant (incidentally, Le Bistro was fantastic). Fortunately, there were more good times than bad. And I was very pleased with how Rebecca and Errol (remember the 3 stars) followed up each time.
Tip: learn the different breakfast and lunch places so you can avoid the crowds in the Garden Cafe. For example, at lunch, Los Ramblas was a quiet - and not crowded - soup and sandwich spot.
Disembarkation: very smooth unless you're trying to smuggle fruit. We (a group of 12) had arranged with Christian (firstname.lastname@example.org) AKA the VAN MAN to pick us up, give us an area tour and take us to Santiago for a short tour and then either the airport or Hotel Orly. Cost $60US pp. The next day, he picked up those of us staying at the Orly, gave us a fantastic city tour and then took us to the airport. $40US pp. He didn't drop us in the parking lot - he walked us to the gate.
So, bottom line, while there were some service issues, this was the cruise of our lives. NCL took us to the end of the world to amazing places we had only dreamed of. Had NCL not made the cruise affordable, we would not have been to Argentina, the Falklands, Chile and, above all, around the Horn. Thank you, NCL!! We purchased the NCL Cruise Rewards Certificate and can't wait to find another adventure.
David and Cheryl