Cruise Review - Veendam Feb. 11 sailing from Buenos Aires around Cape Horn to Valparaiso
Background: This was my first ocean cruise although I am an experienced river cruiser. I chose it for the natural beauty, esoteric scenery, and general off-the-beaten-path adventure itinerary. For a non-Spanish speaker not primarily interested in the local culture, it seemed like a relatively safe as well as luxurious way to go. (On these bases, it didn't disappoint). If you want to visit Patagonia with less weather risk, speak Spanish, and don't need luxury, you should consider land-based alternatives and stay longer, but I didn't seriously consider that option; I wanted to try ocean cruising. I wasn't into this trip for the social life (you should take your own companions) or the kick-back vacation aspects (you could find more relaxing venues with more sun). Cruisecritic.com helped me a lot in knowing what to expect, so I'm writing to "give back" and to cover some details I'd like to have known about.
Pre-cruise Travel: I arrived in Buenos Aires two nights early, in hopes that my luggage and I would both arrive by embarkation day. That strategy worked. Some passengers leaving the northeast in the midst of a snowstorm wished they had done the same. I stayed at the Dazzler Liberdad hotel; it was excellent and well located with extraordinarily helpful English-speaking staff and free internet access which I used to confirm arrival to those at home. On the pre-cruise day I flew to Iguazu Falls and back -- spectacular! The highlight of the trip, it turns out. I stayed on the Argentine side; it will cost you a Brazil visa to go to the Brazil side and shots to stay overnight. I'm told the mosquitoes that carry yellow fever and malaria come out at night. Arrangements in Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls, including a great "dinner theatre" tango show at Tango Porteno, were made through Analia at Eureka Travel: http://eurekatravel.net/travel_info.htm. I highly recommend her services.
Embarkation: What I wish I had known was that there were luggage carts just inside the terminal, as the airline (Thanks, American Airlines!) had broken the pull handle on my heavy suitcase and I could barely lift it. I was dropped off in the street outside the terminal; the entry drive, although backed up, would have been preferable. Once I got to them, HAL employees were efficient and professional. Tips were encouraged to be put into a box at luggage dropoff; I was surprised when a tip was also expected when luggage was delivered onboard.
Stateroom: Great room, "F", with window, on lowest level (4 of 13 decks). Great storage, comfortable beds, foam pillows (oh, well!). Nice tub with shower, No ventilation of the bath was evident. Air conditioning in our part of the ship didn't function, although service people showed up to try to fix it. Fortunately it was needed only for the first three days. Room lighting ceased to function at one point too, but they fixed that. Service was unobtrusive and the cabin was cleaned up every time it was left, it seemed. The bathroom was kept very clean. For some reason - I suspect the vacuum cleaner was near its end of life - the nooks and crannies of the cabin never got thoroughly cleaned -- I kept my eye on a piece of (not my) dental floss near the doorstop, which was still there when I left, even though I reported it on the mid-cruise "how can we improve your experience" questionnaire.
Ship: A-rating. Wonderful ship, overall. Clean, generally well maintained, good facilities, pleasant staff.
Food & dining: A++! Terrific dining room with unbelievably good dinners in sensible portions and outstanding staff. The casual Lido was fine for breakfasts and lunches.
Theatre: A-rated. Excellent performers, generally "Las Vegas" style (which isn't my preference, but they did what they do, well). Outstanding vocalists, decent (aye, and dressed) dancers, good band, mediocre comedian. Seating wasn't all comfortable, and upstairs had to look through (clean) transparent barriers, but I didn't have trouble finding seats downstairs that were comfortable. This may have been because I had chosen the slightly less popular early (5:45pm) seating for dinner which allowed going to the 8pm show instead of the 10 pm show. The theatre seats half the passengers at a time.
Special programs: There was a series of art lectures that any university would be proud of; I credit it with my first understanding of why people like Warhol. Presented by a very articulate and perceptive young lady, the series rates an A++. Not so the ports of call lectures, which didn't say anything I hadn't already read and heavily promoted signing up for excursions. HAL, you could do better: I'd really have liked professional quality history and culture orientations of a quality consistent with the art lectures. On that theme: readers, if you cruise this itinerary, before you go, if you read only one book, choose "Rounding the Horn" by Dallas Murphy.
Bars: B. Several, all competent, good variety, two having dance floors, another a piano, one table games. Decent service, no pressure but not quick. Typical drink with tip automatically added: $8USD. The Crow's nest had the best views while you relaxed. The loud band in one bar seemed to play Mac the Knife every ten minutes. The guy at the piano bar had a terrific repertoire, although not perfect pitch. There was also a non-bar lounge with a really nice string quartet. And a coffee bar with the only decent coffee on the ship: hint to HAL: you're based in Seattle -- made a deal with Seattle's Best and serve it in your dining room!
Internet cafe: I didn't use it because the cost seemed exorbitant. Nice location for reading. Good lending library. Casino: Such things turn me off, and it smelled like cigarettes, so I avoided it. For those who do need casinos, note: it didn't operate in Chilean waters.
Spa: Rated only a C. Half of the treadmills were broken or had broken features or TVs. A variety of machines, but none for abs -that was left to free weights, which are more dangerous. Staff - pleasant and good-looking if impersonal fitness freaks - were pushing their treatments. As an experiment I signed up for an algae - abs treatment that would "take inches off the potbelly in one session". It was misrepresented: what they did was measure 4 different places before and after: each before measurement was x.5 inches and after was x. The four were added together and they announced 2 inches had been taken off! But my belt still buckled in the same hole. The treatment did include an electrostimulation session for the abs; that was interesting and I believe did contribute to strengthening the abs muscles and better posture, with a lot less agony than doing crunches, so I'm looking into getting my own device now.
Swimming pool: Only was accessible for two days of the trip, due at least partly to weather (see below). I didn't use it or the hot tubs, as I have an undoubtedly more sanitary hot tub at home. The ones on the rear deck were never in operation. The central pool area had a roof that could be opened or closed; this made it a relatively pleasant place to be even in the colder parts of the voyage, provided you didn't mind the odor of chlorine.
Outdoor decks: Deck 6 had a circumferential walking route that was popular - no jogging allowed. Windy and cold on this voyage. I'm glad I didn't have a cabin on deck 6 because of reduced privacy, despite mirrored doors, and noise. I wonder if there was noise in outboard cabins on deck 5; that's probably why jogging was discouraged. On this itinerary, outdoor decks were all windy and cold except for, weather permitting, the first day or two after Buenos Aires and before Valparaiso. The rear deck was pretty pleasant the last day, as we had a "following wind".
Sanitation: Special mention must be made because HAL was concerned about intestinal flu which had apparently been a problem on an earlier sailing. The awareness campaign was prominent and effective. There were hand sanitizer dispensers (just stick you hand under and without touching anything, a glob of goop is put on your hand) at the entrance to every restaurant and public place. Staff were busy all day wiping down handrails. I used the sanitizer and didn't get sick, and I think the same was true of most guests. I appreciated HAL's attention to this. A+!
Weather: On the run from Montevideo to the Falklands, we encountered "12 meter swells and 75 knot headwinds" which made us late and prevented landing at the Falklands. I wasn't too upset because I had read on Cruisecritic.com that this voyage often had weather problems and consequently inaccessible ports. The experience was interesting, however. The ship pitched maybe ten degrees every 10 seconds. Wave crests were visible directly out the cabin window even though it was nominally 20 feet above the water line. The horizontal stabilizers worked; the pitching was fore and aft, which made it easier to keep our footing. However, once in a while one end of the ship would fall into a "hole" in the water or a big wave would slap the ship sideways, and everybody on the dance floor would fall down. Unfortunately one passenger broke a hip in such a fall (and was taken by tender to the hospital in Port Stanley). Although the ship creaked audibly through the pounding, to the point I used earplugs to sleep, I wasn't seasick and was never frightened. This wasn't true of everyone, however. I need to add that when we got to Cape Horn, we had calm seas and fair skies - the best weather the captain said he'd encountered there in two years - and it held through Ushuaia, so I got photos of the Cape and of Tierra del Fuego that are outstanding. I would advise persons considering this cruise that it's more an adventure than a vacation!
Meeting people: It was a pretty old crowd on this ship, median age in 70s, with a lot more obesity and frailty than I would have expected on an "adventure" cruise. Spry, in my 60's, and traveling solo, I didn't find my peer group here. Almost everyone was "coupled up" and many were in multiple-couple groups. There was an afterthought (didn't start for 3 days) "singles & solos" series of meetings in a bar, but fewer than half a dozen attended. There was a GLBT series of meetings announced too, but I can't speak to whether it was attended by many. The moral is: take your own company.
Tipping: Holland America deducted $11/passenger/day, plus 15% for bar service on bar orders, and then didn't beg or push for additional tips. This may well make their staff better paid than their counterparts on other lines that let tipping be wholly voluntary; in any case, judging by the quality of service, it was a good incentive. I did tip cabin stewards and waiters extra because they really earned it.
Excursions: I must point out that this trip provides some great views without leaving the ship, weather permitting: Cape Horn, the Beagle channel with its glaciers, the strait of Magellan with its Amalia glacier, and somewhat more distant views of the Chilean islands and fjords. Several of the days listed as "at sea" can be pleasantly spent in the Crow's Nest watching all this go by, or bundled up on the rear deck or promenade.
Montevideo: I just walked the tourist route to the center of town, soaking up the local culture, such as it was (almost medieval), and returned via the free shuttle from one of the leather shops. Three different types of police were evident to protect tourists, and it was offputting enough that I chose to forgo walking the promenade, which wasn't on the tourist route. Had I been in a group I would have gone.
Ushuaia: I took the HAL tour to Tierra del Fuego park and then Catamaran ride to islands in the Beagle channel. Due to the great weather the photography was superb -- TDF park is beautiful. A trip highlight. If you don't take a tour, take a taxi, but see it, if the weather is clear.
Punta Arenas: My choice was a very expensive HAL $999 all-day flight and bus tour to Torres del Paine national park, spectacular in the pictures and videos I found online. I didn't find any non-HAL alternatives to visit it from this port of call. The weather made this a poor choice to have made; fog and clouds only began to clear as we left the park, so: no good photos, although we got enough glimpses to grasp the enormity of the scene, and we saw foxes, rheas, flamingos, guanacos, and a variety of birds. The alternative would have been to go see penguins, but I had thought I'd be able to do that in the Falklands. Oh, well.
Puerto Montt: I signed up for a GV tours van that visited Petrohue falls and Puerto Varas. GV tours had been highly rated by other on Cruisecritic.com and I was looking forward to it, along with dozens of others who made the same choice. Unfortunately weather and luck of the draw did not cooperate; the mountains were socked in all day, though visible above the clouds as the cruise ship left port, and I ended up in a van with a student guide with a poor English vocabulary and no sense of what interested us, so it was mostly painful Q&A, aided by a passenger who knew some Spanish. If you use GV tours, ask for Gail or Veronica or their daughter as a guide (although that may mean you're on a bus, not a van). Petrohue falls is a nice cascade; I love such places; but unless you have panoramic or video capabilities, photography without the Osorno volcano in the background won't impress your friends.
Valparaiso: I ordered a van for $114 for the day from HectorTours; another student as guide, but this young man was articulate in English and interesting to talk to. The driver was competent and the car clean. I was pleased with the itinerary I had chosen: Valparaiso viewpoints and funicular, Vina del Mar beaches, the statue from Easter Island, and Casablanca valley wineries. I'd have liked to share the van to bring down the cost, but there was no bulletin board or other way on board to find those who might want to. I should have tried harder on Cruisecritic.com ahead of time. My only complaint was my own failing: at the restaurant selected for lunch, I was told that if I wanted the company of my driver and guide at the table, I'd have to pay for their lunches (otherwise they had a "special menu" for them). I said yes, but the bill for all three came to about $107 - due to extras, twice what I expected. So now I know, and so do you. Anyway it was a good meal, and when it came time to tip, I said, with a smile, "I hope you enjoyed having lunch with me as much as I enjoyed having it with you!". Antarctica (not a port of call, but you should know): This cruise offered only an overflight, and it was canceled for lack of participants. If you really want to see Antarctica, this isn't the cruise to take.
Security and behavior ashore: I didn't have a problem on this trip, but a friend on this cruise was pickpocketed twice in Valparaiso when alone and another had her camera stolen in Puerto Montt. Be aware: they're there, where there are crowds and lots of tourists. Keep your passport and credit cards under your clothes when ashore. On the other hand, once you've developed your security routine, relax, smile, and be friendly. We Americans are paranoid compared to everyone else in the world and while we're richer that that does make us targets, as tourists we are ambassadors and we should care more than we do, what impression we leave our hosts with. Be appreciative of their culture and art and civic pride. Tip generously to anyone who tries to please. They need it more than you do -- endeavor to deserve what you have!
Summary: This is a weather-dependent, adventure itinerary in a vast, empty, remote, pristine wilderness part of the world. A cruise is a great way to see it, without major language difficulties and with serious luxury built in. Holland America did a great job on everything that mattered: clean, professionally managed ship, superb chef and food and servers, good cabins with excellent service, and better entertainment than expected. I was impressed and it added considerably to my confidence and enjoyment that the staff was so professional at virtually everything, including the extraordinary sanitation measures. Was everything perfect? No, and my nits are embedded in the discussion above, but I'm not one of those (you know who you are) who lets minor things ruin their day. I felt this trip was great value for the money.