Star Princess - Valparaiso to Buenos Aires - Jan 5 to 17, 2010 - Comments
I always read what others say about a tour/cruise/timeshare, etc. before offering my own comments. I have to agree with previous reviewers about the sad state of affairs regarding the tendering to shore in Puerto Monte and especially in Ushuaia. More tenders could have been used in Puerto Monte, given the distance they had to travel between the ship and the dock. Since there was a Celebrity ship on the deep side of the pier in Ushuaia and the other side of the pier was too shallow for the Star, tendering was the only option. Apparently only one landing dock was available, thus a line up of tenders waiting to off load and load passengers. Obviously the port lacks the facilities to handle more than one ship.
The solution is simple. When the city of Juneau informed the cruise lines they would be assessing a per passenger landing fee, the cruise lines told the city fathers the cruise ships would by-pass Juneau. Guess what. The landing fee proposal died. One would hope that Princess, together with other cruise lines visiting Ushuaia, would let the city fathers know they need to install additional landing docks/floats or the ships won't stop there. If the Star, carrying 2,500+ spending passengers, by passes Ushuaia, local business owners are not going to be happy. One has to believe additional landing facilities would be installed quickly.
We arrived in Santiago from Seattle on Jan 2nd and took a connecting LAN flight for a 28 minute flight over/around Aconcagua to spend three wonderful days in Mendoza, Argentina wine country. We stayed at a delightful 7 unit lodge, Chacras de Coria Lodge, located south of Mendoza in Lujan de Cuyo. I had hired a local guide, Mauricio Molina (firstname.lastname@example.org), in advance of arrival, to tour us around for two days. The first day, we drove up highway 7 toward the border with Chile to see Aconcagua and visit various sights along the way. We had a clear, sunny, warm day and the mountain was beautiful, albeit different than our Mt. Rainier by its mass as well as its 22,000+ feet. The second day, Mauricio took us to Achaval Ferrer, a small boutique winery with limited production, then to Catena Zapata, an enormous winery French wine makers would refer to as an 'industrial' wine maker and lastly to San Felipe, Bodega Rural. It was there we saw a history of the Mendoza wine industry in their extensive museum. If you're taking a cruise from Valparaiso, put Mendoza in your pre-cruise itinerary. It's not to be missed.
OK, the ship arrived late due to a storm and embarkation was delayed for hours. Such is travel. On our trip though the Canal on the Sun, we hit a storm off Oregon forcing the Captain to slow the ship resulting in our hour and a half late arrival in Seattle. Get over it. Mother Nature rules. The Star had been remodeled since our last cruise on her in the Baltic a couple of years ago. The improvements appear worthwhile although I'm not sure of the value to the passengers of the exclusive 'Sanctuary' which no one appeared to use on this voyage. The other upgrades were nice to see. The slots didn't pay out as well as on our previous voyage on the Star. Still, we like the ship. We never felt there were 2,500+ passengers on board, except when waiting to tender ashore.
Our cabin on the Caribe deck was basically the same as it was the last time on the ship (no updates). We used the balcony for the first and last full days of the cruise, those being the warmest. The other days were cool, mostly overcast or wet, and not conducive to sitting outside in the elements. Jeans, a Polartec vest and windbreaker were the order of the many such days. The balcony did afford us wonderful views as we passed through the Chilean Fjords, the Amalia glacier and a number of other glaciers along the way. We sat at the first seating in the dining room with fun table mates and excellent wait staff. The menus don't appear to have been updated, with most selections the same as before, but still good. We could always find something to satisfy our appetite (?).
This is the first cruise we've taken with so many days at sea which, in itself, wouldn't be so bad if the weather cooperated or we were in the Caribbean. The ports weren't particularly outstanding but interesting in any case. Most excursions were cancelled at Puerto Monte due to the short time in port due to the delayed departure from Valparaiso. We went ashore and wandered the nearby shops and small stands selling handicrafts, Alpaca sweaters, assorted wood products, etc. Had I known how limited and unimpressive the few city sights were, I would not have waited over two hours to get ashore. IMHO, it really wasn't worth going ashore in Puerto Monte unless you go on a tour, most going beyond the town limits.
In Punta Arenas we walked through the downtown area and found a small tour office where we arranged for a driver (someone's grandmother we think) to take the four of us in her car to Seno Otway, the penguin colony about two hours out, mostly by dirt roads. We'd seen penguins in Tasmania and near Dunedin in New Zealand and these were just as much fun to see as they strut past us heading for the water, sitting near the walk way as if to be asking for a handout (forbidden), or preening themselves while their young offspring sat nearby. We arrived between the ships scheduled morning and afternoon tours so didn't have crowds around us. We also had time on our return to visit the cemetery which was interesting, having similar mausoleums like the one we would see later in the Recoleta cemetery in BuA.
Ushuaia was wet. We ended up in an Irish Pub on the main shopping street after having contributed to the local economy. They had Guinness and a local beer on tap. It's a funky joint but a nice spot to get out of the weather and talk about the cruise and what we'd seen to that point. They accepted US currency. Although it took forever to leave the ship for shore (over 2 hours of waiting), we lucked out as we were able to depart and return to the ship on a fast catamaran, landing at a different dock that the one the tenders used. Still, the existing docking space needs to be expanded for cruise tenders.
We sailed by but not around Cape Horn due to sea conditions. Our scheduled Falkland Islands visit was cancelled due to 80 knot winds (thank you, captain) so we headed for Puerto Madryn, half way up the Argentinean coast toward BuA. Most of the passengers scheduled to go on a penguin tour in the Falklands were set up to visit a penguin colony about 100 miles south of the port, so it wasn't available to us. We found a dockside tour vendor who set us up to tour the Valdes Peninsula (a UNESCO site) north of town where Jackass penguins, seals and sea lions gather. It was a long drive but we saw Guanacos, Patagonian Cavies (a very large rabbit type animal), Grey foxes, Rheas (similar to an Ostrich) and Turkey Vultures along the way. The Jackass penguins we watched from the top of a cliff where many had burrows dug out of the hillside. It was amusing to see them strut down the steep hillside doing their best to stay erect as they headed for the shoreline. One was digging a new burrow, dirt and sand flying everywhere. Dozens were swimming parallel to the shore as others stood in groups braying their call to others. It was a long ride but worth seeing the antics of the penguins.
Nothing was planned in Montevideo so we walked up the slight hill into town and the main plaza (Independence) using a 'walking tour' map handed to us as we left the port area. We went 7 blocks beyond Plaza Independence along Avida 18 de Julio to Plaza Cagancha to look for Mercado de los Artesands, a shop we'd read about before we left on this trip. We bought a few items for ourselves and our grandkids from the local artisans offering their handicrafts for sale before walking back to the ship. It was a pleasant, warm, and sunny day for a walk.
We said goodbye to the ship in Buenos Aires, having enjoyed the cruise, the new places we visited and the new friends made while on board. I offer a word of warning about getting transportation from the arrival area to your hotel. Taxis are hard to come by with the hundreds of people trying to get one. We went outside the arrival area and waved down a remise. We ended up paying $40usd for a taxi ride to our hotel in Recoleta, a fare that should have cost no more than $10usd, if that. At least we got out of the mass confusion and reached our hotel in ten minutes. Remises don't have meters so one should negotiate a price before traveling. We did but probably could have done better with a taxi, were one available.
We stayed four nights at Ayres de Libertad, a 1+ year old, 21 unit hotel in an upscale neighborhood. It has a great location, friendly English speaking staff, comfortable rooms with Pullman kitchens, air conditioning and 'brought to your room' continental breakfast. Nice spot. We spent one night at Iguazu Falls at the Sheraton in the middle of our stay in BuA, which allowed us to leave our luggage at Ayres de Libertad, taking only a backpack to Iguazu. See Trip Advisor for photos and reviews of each hotel.
During our stay in BuA, we saw many of its tourist sights, i.e. Caminito in La Boca; the open air flea market in San Telmo with its street Tango dancers; the cemetery in Recoleta where Eva Peron is entombed; enjoyed Argentinean BBQ at La Cabrera Grillados & Bar in Palermo (reservations are a must); inexpensive but excellent lunch & dinner at Josephina and Torre Paris respectively, both within three blocks of our hotel; a terrific Tango dinner and show at Almacen in San Telmo; and so on. Taxis were inexpensive providing you get one that has a meter. Be sure to have small denomination peso notes of 20 or less as taxis don't make change for larger notes. It's a great city providing you are careful not to wear expensive/flashy jewelry or have an expensive camera around your neck, making you a target for petty thieves. Also, if you eat outside at a sidewalk cafe, be sure to hold on to your bag/belongings as thieves can pick your belongings off quickly before you know it. If you have much 'stuff', eat inside to be a less likely target.
For future cruisers reading this, I recommend adding Mendoza, Buenos Aires and Iguazu to your itinerary. All are well worth visiting, especially Iguazu Falls. Chao!