On December 30th my thoughts usually turn to plans for New Year's Eve. This date in 2009, however, found me leaning over the rail of Crystal Symphony's promenade deck, waving goodbye to Paul Queior and his colleagues from the US Palmer Research Station as they sped back to their icy home in Antarctica in their zodiac. It had been fascinating to talk to them earlier about their work (and play) in their remote workplace. I had learned, for instance, that every year the South Pole moves around 30o - that's how fast the glacier it's on is moving - so every year the geographical South Pole is measured, and repositioned, in a ceremony held on New Year's Eve.
Unusually for me, I had been up, dressed and out on deck by 7.30, witnessing the breathtaking scenery as we passed through the Neumayer Channel, with great views on either side, followed by Port Loch Roy and Anvers Island. I was ready for the welcoming complimentary glass of gluwein when I returned inside, several hours later. That day we sailed to 65o South Latitude and experienced 22 hours of daylight. The previous day Captain Ralf Zander had navigated the Symphony along "Iceberg Alley" to Deception Island and the day before that we'd sailed past Elephant Island, and the marker that indicated the point where Ernest Shackleton's men were rescued to South Shetland Islands. Throughout the voyage the sun had shone and the seas remained calm; even "rounding the horn" had proved an anticlimax as the legendary huge waves had failed to materialise.
The voyage through Antarctica had been the real draw of this cruise for me, but I knew that, with Crystal, I would witness the grandeur while being cocooned in the lap of luxury and not have to endure the rigours of zodiac landings, which suited me perfectly; my days of roughing it have passed. The cruise had commenced in Buenos Aires, so I took advantage of a pre-cruise trip to Iguazu Falls, which everybody had told me is a "must". I was not disappointed, although I did become the main course for the mosquito population.
Back in Buenos Aires, I was able to take advantage of an Argentine Tango lesson + milonga, and invested in two new pairs of tango shoes - at half the UK price. Our first port of call was Montevideo, where I attended a performance of a play specially commissioned for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate. The next port was Puerto Madryn, where I took a bus out to the Eco Centre and looked around the pretty little town. After a day at sea we arrived at the Falkland Islands where I took a trip out to Volunteer Point to see the largest colony of King Penguins. They were a source of constant amusement and waddled right up to us; some hobbling along, encumbered with a large egg under their skirts. Our ex-Liverpudlian guide, Dave, had married a local girl and was living there during the war, so had many tales to tell. The mine-clearing programme is progressing slowly and there are still many no-go areas. It was very sad to see the war memorial in Stanley.
The new year commenced with an overnight stay in Ushuaia, so were able to sample dinner in a typical local restaurant. The following day was spent in the National Park, followed by a chairlift to the Martial Glacier. I had nothing planned for Punta Arenas, so took the shuttle bus into the main square, Plaza des Armes. Suddenly I was surrounded by TV cameras and photographers. Had my fame swept so far south, I thought to myself? Eventually the crowd parted and I saw that it was not I who was the object of interest, but former President Eduardo Frei, who was seeking re-election as President after an absence of 10 years. He seemed to have quite a following, judging by the reaction of the crowd in the square, but, as I couldn't understand what the Christian Democrat Party were promising, I retreated to a local hotel. Much to my surprise, he turned up there shortly afterwards, followed by the media frenzy. I hastily returned to the ship and relaxed as we cruised the Chilean Fjords for the next two days.
Puerto Montt was a delightful port. I took a full day tour, driving around Lake Llanquihue to the attractive Bavarian-style town of Frutillar, then on to Puerto Varas for a pit-stop. On to view some llamas, then a delicious lunch of locally caught wild salmon, washed down with several pisco sours (I had been acquiring a taste for this local brew over the last few days in Chile). After lunch I drove to some magnificent falls at Petrohue, on Lake Todos los Santos, and a sleepy drive back to the ship. One more lovely sea day and we arrived at our final destination, Valparaiso, where Santiago Airport beckoned.
During this amazing cruise, I was lucky enough to attend lectures which enhanced the experience considerably. Crystal prides itself on engaging the very best speakers, and this is one of its strengths. The Destination Lecturer on this cruise was Professor David Drewry who had served as Director of the British Antarctic Survey and Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute and had led scientific expeditions in both the Arctic and Antarctic. He also proved to be a very amusing and entertaining tablemate; the first I've had who has a mountain and a glacier named after him. The Special Interest Lecturer was Rex Ziak - what he didn't know about James Cook wasn't worth knowing. Dr Bridget Buxton, deputy director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography told riveting tales of the numerous underwater sites she had excavated, unfazed by the fact that all her luggage had failed to turn up on the ship. As a contrast, we also heard stories from Tom DeFrank, an award-winning journalist who has covered the White House since the Nixon administration, and Herb Keyser, who related entertaining stories about the lives and music of geniuses of the American musical theatre.
Add to this the extensive Crystal Creative Learning Institute, and there's no excuse to be bored on a Crystal cruise. I'm already looking forward to my next, with a Big Band theme....maybe I'll get a chance to practice my Argentine tango moves?