Veendam Cruise Review by 1aCruise4wks: More Than A Cruise... It's An Adventure
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More Than A Cruise... It's An Adventure
Be forewarned, this is a lengthy, detailed review. I always find that detailed reviews are most valuable to me so I want to contribute the same for others. First, a brief overview for those that prefer to not read the details.
We are addicted to cruising. This was our 44th cruise (28th on Holland America). We've been cruising since 1983, experiencing the many changes that the cruise industry has gone through. We are a 60-ish couple, married for over 38 years. We enjoy being on the ocean, relaxing, eating good food, being entertained, with all the details being taken off (aka service). Enough about us.
Overview - Planning this cruise was more challenging than we expected and more expensive. The Brazilian Visa was probably the most challenging (worrisome?) - the added cost included the visa, the entry to Chile, and the tours. We added the pre-cruise stay in Santiago and the post-cruise stay in Rio de Janeiro. We booked our own air. HAL met us at the airport and got More us to the Santiago Marriott Hotel (very nice). HAL's meet and greet plus hotel transfer was excellent. We did our own walking tour in downtown Santiago that PM. The next day, we took the Winery Tour which included some sightseeing downtown. Overall, the tour was good. The next day, HAL transported us to Valparaiso (the port). The transfer and check-in process were very smooth. The cabins weren't ready when we boarded so we went to the Lido Restaurant, had lunch, and enjoyed being on board. We had a verandah cabin on the back of the ship - a very nice cabin and a spacious verandah. The Veendam is one of the older HAL ships. But many changes were recently made to it. The ship was reasonably clean but needed some work. They painted a lot during our cruise which greatly improved the appearance of the outside deck areas. Apparently there was a problem with Norovirus on the previous cruise so they were operating under certain sanitation rules (mostly that passengers couldn't serve themselves). This creates many long lines. I was a bit disappointed with the service on the Veendam compared to my other HAL cruises. The food onboard was absolutely excellent! The fresh fruit and the beef were the most impressive. The entertainment on this cruise was the best I've seen on HAL for many years. It was hard to pack for this cruise because it starts out with hot weather, goes to cold weather, and ends up with hot weather. Our weather was excellent, especially on port days - we didn't miss any. The scenic cruising (fjords and glaciers) was awesome and the Veendam is an excellent ship for scenic cruising (the Crow's Nest Lounge is perfect!). We took shore excursions at every port and, overall, we were satisfied - some were better than others. We primarily chose penguin watching and city tours. We enjoyed each of the ports but the mosquitoes in Montevideo and Buenos Aires were a real pain. Although we had a few days of moderate seas (considered rough by some people), the cruise was pretty smooth, even going around Cape Horn. Disembarkation in Rio de Janeiro was challenging - I think HAL could have done a much better job. Upon disembarking, we got on a bus for a tour of Sugar Loaf then to the Intercontinental Rio Hotel (nice). The next day, we toured Corcovado (Christ, the Redeemer). The tours were good but not great. In the evening, we went to dinner at a Churrascaria then to a Samba Show which was really a Brazilian Folkloric show. The dinner was okay; the show was a bit boring. Transfer to the airport was smooth.
Planning/Preparations - We've wanted to do South America for many years but it takes three weeks to do it right which is a lot of vacation. So, this became our "retirement cruise". We booked it over a year in advance when it was scheduled to sail from Rio de Janeiro to Valparaiso on the Oosterdam. The pre-cruise and post-cruise tours were not yet available for booking. As time went on, HAL informed us of the change from the Oosterdam to the Veendam. We had booked a verandah cabin on the back of the Oosterdam but, when the change was made to the Veendam, it didn't have verandah cabins on the back deck. So, HAL substituted a verandah cabin on the side and gave us a shipboard credit. Late in 2009, the Veendam underwent a major renovation and verandah cabins were added to the back of the ship. We read about this and contacted our travel agent (Pavlus Travel) who then contacted HAL and managed to satisfy our original request for a verandah on the back of the ship. Booking the pre- and post-cruise packages was very challenging. HAL was not very forthcoming with information on the available packages and, even after we booked them, we got practically no info from HAL concerning what we bought - even when we got our boarding documents. Then we learned about the need for a Brazilian Visa. We've gotten visas in the past and it wasn't too challenging. When we looked into getting the visa for Brazil, we found that the process was much more challenging. Visas for our area were processed in New York. They only accept requests within a limited timeframe each day. If people are still in line to submit a request, they are turned away. It typically takes at least 24 hours for the request to be processed and the visa issued. By the way, it costs $130 per person for a visa (the first hidden cost). The timing is also critical - once you get the visa, you must use it within 90 days. Our original plan was to go to New York City overnight... get the visa and see a show. But, we couldn't be sure to have the visa available overnight. And, staying in New York City isn't cheap. We couldn't get our visa until after December 11th because we weren't sailing into Rio until March 11th. We ended up using the document processing service available through HAL, a company named ZVS. It cost us over $500 for our two visas - it could have been cheaper but we requested that we receive the visas at least 2 weeks before our departure. This incurred an added charge but we had no idea how long it would take and didn't want to be in a panic at the last minute. It turned out that the process via ZVS took only 2 weeks. Another expense is the entry fee to Chile which is $131 per person that must be paid at the airport. HAL didn't open the booking for shore excursions until close to the cruise. When we went on a Mediterranean cruise, we were able to book shore excursions almost a year in advance. Finally, they opened bookings and we booked ours in October. One tour at the Falklands was waitlisted. It was the one we wanted and is apparently very popular but has a limited capacity. We put ourselves on the waitlist but booked a different tour so that we would have at least something. We made the mistake of not putting ourselves on the waitlist as a "group". Consequently, one seat opened on the tour and HAL alerted me to go online and book it. But, by booking that tour, I needed to cancel the other tour, which resulted in us being booked on different tours. HAL advised us that it is likely that another seat would open on the waitlisted tour so we should do it. We did - it didn't. We panicked in January and gave up on the waitlisted tour, re-booking me on the first tour. Finally, all the plans were in place and we downloaded our documents. HAL has these download-able luggage tags... who dreams this stuff up?! You print this on a plain sheet of paper then fold it up to look like a luggage tag. Then, you are expected to staple or tape this tag onto your luggage prior to embarkation. We printed them, took them along with a tape dispenser. Luckily, when we got to our hotel in Santiago, the HAL reps had "real" luggage tags for the Veendam. Finally it was time to pack. It seemed that we were packing everything we owned - from swimsuits to winter jackets. I actually couldn't get our last piece of luggage closed and had to remove a some clothes.
Santiago - Our flight was out of Philadelphia; we parked at Colonial Airport Parking. We've used them before and always got good service for a reasonable price ($8/day - with coupon). Our connecting flight was in Miami. The flight to Santiago was over eight hours. We got dinner about an hour into the flight and breakfast in the morning. We arrived in Santiago at 10:30 AM local time (8:30 AM EST). It was a long walk from the arrival gate to the immigration facilities. The first place we came to was an area to pay the arrival fee. It wasn't set up in a way that you had to stop there so many people passed by it. I recommend that you stop at this first opportunity to pay the fee. The line was reasonably short. If you don't do it there, then you must do it at an area right next to the Passport Control area. The line there was much longer. Apparently, some people didn't realize that they had to pay the fee. They waited in line at the Passport Control area only to be turned away at Passport Control and told to pay the fee. HAL reps met us immediately after we cleared Passport Control and told us where to claim our luggage and how to get through Chilean Customs. As soon as we exited Chilean Customs, the HAL rep met us and had a porter take our luggage. He escorted us to a mini-bus which took us to our hotel. The whole entry process, from arrival to getting on the mini-bus, took us about 45 minutes. I was amazed how quick and efficient the process was. HAL reps met our mini-bus at the Santiago Marriott Hotel and took us to a special room for check-in where they had pastries and beverages while we waited. We didn't have much time to enjoy that because we were checked in within 15 minutes. The luggage was totally handled by HAL via the hotel and arrived at our room shortly after we got there. The Santiago Marriott Hotel seems to be a fairly new hotel and is very modern. Our room had several 110 Volt outlets so we didn't need to use our electricity converter. Our room was on the 14th floor with a gorgeous view of northern Santiago and the Andes - very comfortable. HAL had a reception desk in the lobby where we got our tour tickets, our transfers for Valparaiso, and decent luggage tags.
Touring Santiago - I planned a downtown Santiago walking tour so we went to the Concierge to find out about getting downtown and the safety of our planned walk. He indicated that the downtown area is relatively safe but recommended not wearing any jewelry, being careful of our handbags/wallets and not taking our video camera. He said my DSLR camera was okay - that didn't make a lot of sense because it is worth more than our video camera but we followed his advice. The Concierge recommended that we exchange currency at the bank next door to the hotel because many places in Santiago do not accept US dollars. It was Sunday, so the bank wasn't open but the ATM machine lobby was open. You had to insert your ATM card in a slot by the door to get the lobby door open. The ATM was in Spanish but it had a menu option for Foreigners which led to an English menu. The conversion rate was 500 pesos per US dollar so I got 100,000 Chilean Pesos (US$ 200). That actually ended up being enough to carry me through all our stops in Chile (I did use a credit card for several purchases). The Concierge recommended we use a "hotel taxi" to go downtown. The "hotel taxis" are waiting at the hotel and will take you almost anywhere. You can charge the cost of the taxi to your hotel room just by signing the receipt for the driver. Their cars are very comfortable and the hotel vouches for the safety/security of the driver. We followed his advice and took the taxi downtown to Cerro Santa Lucia. The driver only spoke a little English but he pointed out several sights along the way. He drove us right to the top of Cerro Santa Lucia - it took about 15 minutes to get there and cost 10,000 Pesos ($20 US). When I laid out our walking tour, I planned to start on Cerro Santa Lucia because of its location. I didn't realize how much there was to see atop Cerro Santa Lucia so we spent a lot more time there than I planned. There is a plaza where the taxis drop off passengers. There are refreshment stands there and great views of Santiago. You can then follow walking paths (and steps) to get more great views of Santiago. At the very top, you have a 360 degree view of the city. The pathways and the stairs are not easy to walk. But, just walking around the plaza area is very easy; walking down from Cerro Santa Lucia to the city is a paved sidewalk but is a bit steep. As you walk down from the top of Cerro Santa Lucia you pass by Castle Hidalga and some gardens. Being Sunday, there were a lot of families walking about and young lovers romancing on the benches. We felt totally safe there but I've read that it can be dangerous after dark. Near the bottom of Cerro Santa Lucia is Neptune's Terrace with water fountains and statues, very scenic. From Neptune's Terrace (there are restrooms there), you can exit the park onto the Alameda (officially titled, Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins). Across the Alameda from Cerro Santa Lucia is a handicrafts market. As you walk down the Alameda, you can see the National Library and the Church of San Francisco, both picturesque. Behind the Church of San Francisco is the Paris-Londres Neighborhood, just a couple of blocks of very interesting architecture. We walked down the Alameda to the University of Chile then crossed the Alameda to Calle Nueva York where you can see several picturesque buildings including the Stock Exchange of Chile and the Union Club. Nearby is the Church of St. Augustine where we wanted to go to see a famous statue of Christ. The church was closed for vacation! I didn't think churches ever closed - very disappointed. A block or so east is a pedestrian walk named, Paseo Ahumada, that you can follow north to Plaza de Armas (the main square). The walkway is lined with shops, cafes, and ice cream stands. There's another pedestrian walkway a few blocks over that runs parallel to Paseo Ahumada. I think it is called Estada and it's very similar. We chose to walk up Calle San Antonio to view the architecture. By the time we got to Calle Merced, we were beat (we had been at it for three hours at this point). I had a lot more walking tour planned but there was no way we could finish it. Plus, we wanted to take in some of the local color. So, on Merced, we headed to the Plaza de Armas. On the southwest corner of the square, we found a cafe named, Marco Polo which had a large tent outside with tables. We plopped there, had a couple of beers, watched the people, and enjoyed the remaining summer afternoon. They had a nice menu and a good selection of beers from throughout the world. We should have eaten dinner there but didn't. We sat at a table along the square. A number of panhandlers stopped by looking for a handout. It was sometimes bothersome but I would choose the same table if I were to do it again. We had 2 beers each and it cost 10,000 pesos (incl. tip). We then walked around Plaza de Armas, stopping in at the Cathedral and checking out the neat buildings that surround the plaza (Post Office, Museum of History, etc.). There was a band playing in the plaza and plenty of people milling about - a nice evening. Again, we felt safe throughout our walk downtown (in daylight). At 7:15 PM, we decided head back to the hotel. There were plenty of taxis in front of the Post Office along the plaza. I asked a driver for the cost to go to the Santiago Marriott. He estimated 6,000 or 7,000 Pesos. We hopped in, 15 minutes later he dropped us at the hotel - the price was 5,500 Pesos. After cleaning up, we went to dinner. I had planned on eating at a restaurant at the end of our walking tour in Belavista but we were too tired to catch a taxi back down there. So, we had dinner in the hotel. The food was good; it was expensive; and the service was terrible. Breakfasts were included in our package so the next morning we headed to the hotel restaurant. The breakfast buffet was very nice; they had everything you could want. Service was a little slow but better than the night before. At 9 AM, we boarded our bus for the Winery Tour. The morning was overcast and chilly. I guess these tours have a planned route and they have to follow it no matter what. Our first stop was a scenic overlook where we got off the bus for pictures. But, given the fog, you couldn't see any scenic sight. Next, we went to Cerro San Cristobal, the highest hill in Santiago. The view from atop this hill is supposed to be the best. But, because of the fog and the low cloud cover, we had no scenic view of Santiago and couldn't begin to see the Andes. What surprised me is that we didn't stop to see the statue of the Virgin of San Cristobal. This is a very famous statue and, because of its location, it can be seen from all over Santiago. We headed out of Santiago to the Concho y Toro Winery, one of the largest wineries in Chile. By the time we got there (almost a two-hour ride), the sun was burning through the fog. We watched a corporate video introducing the company and its products, walked to the Manor House built by the owner, went to the vineyards and tasted some grapes, toured the wine cellars (including the scary Casillera del Diablo), sampled both red and white wines, and stopped in the gift shop. They gave us wine glasses to sample the wines and let us keep them (they provided containers for us to carry them home). The gift shop was very nice and I wish we would have had more time there. I'm not a shopper, especially when I'm on tour. But, there was a number of interesting items there and we ended up buy several... rushing to pay for them as our tour group was leaving. We went down the road a couple of miles to a restaurant called, La Vaquita Echa. We ate outdoors on a huge, covered porch. We had our choice of steak or salmon. We also had our choice of drinks including white wine or red wine (and they kept refilling your glass). The food was excellent, as was the service. Throughout the lunch there were two guitarists strolling around. At one point, a couple came and performed a number of dances. This was probably the best tour lunch I've ever had - excellent food, excellent service, and excellent entertainment! Then back to Santiago. Once we arrived downtown Santiago, we stopped in at the Pre-Columbian Museum which was opened especially for us (normally closed on Mondays) - very interesting. Next stop, the Plaza de Armas. We spent 10 minutes going into the Cathedral. Then drove a few blocks to the Moneda Palace where we stopped for 10 minutes to take pictures. Lastly, we drove by the oldest race track in Chile that was built to look like the Aston track in England. The bus dropped us at the hotel at 6:40 PM - a long day. After washing up, we stopped in the hotel bar to plan our evening - had a beer - the service was atrocious. The tour guide told us there was a shopping mall nearby that had plenty of restaurants. We decided that was the best plan for dinner and walked there (an easy, safe, 5-minute walk). They had plenty of restaurants there but we were hungry for pizza. Fortunately, we spotted a restaurant called Santa Pizza - if you like thin-crust pizza, this is your place! We got a salami pizza that was easily one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten.
Embarkation - The next morning we had to put luggage out by 8 AM. We got up early, ate breakfast in the hotel - it was a zoo! The place was packed and, with the slow pace of service, it became more congested. The HAL rep warned about long lines to check out of the hotel so we checked out at 8:40 AM - only a short line. We had tickets for Bus #2 - I'm not sure how many buses there were in total. We were scheduled to leave at 9:15 AM but were held up waiting for one passenger who was stuck in the check-out line. The bus left at 9:30 AM. We had one rest stop before arriving at the Valparaiso Passenger Terminal at 11:35 AM. Given the number of cruises we've taken on HAL, we can use the Preferred Check-in line so we had our Shipboard ID/Room Key in hand and were on the pier shuttle 20 minutes later. The passenger terminal is on the opposite side of the harbor from where the cruise ships dock so they need to shuttle passengers to the ship. The shuttle only takes about 5 minutes to make the trip but they wait until the shuttle fills up before departing. So, it took us about 10 minutes to get to the ship. No line for boarding - we got right on. Cabins were not yet ready so we went to the Lido Pool area, had lunch, and relaxed. The cabins weren't available until 2 PM. The previous cruise encountered very rough weather for several days as well as an outbreak of the Norovirus - so the crew was sanitizing the cabins and the hallways. I was fine with that - I was on board and you couldn't wipe the smile off my face.
The Veendam - This was our 1st cruise on the Veendam though we've sailed on its sister-ship, the Statendam, numerous times. We toured the Veendam many years ago when we were on the Statendam and docked next door to it. You can imagine how long ago that was... when they would allow "visitors" on board from another ship. So, I know that, originally, the Veendam layout looked much like the Statendam. But, somewhere along the line, they've made a lot of changes in the layout of the Veendam - most of them good. The Piano Bar Lounge is now opened up. The Casino Bar was renamed the Mix Lounge and no longer overlooks the Casino. Instead, it almost blends into the Piano Bar. The walls of the shops along those lounges have been eliminated. So, the result is that the two lounges, the hallway, and the shops all blend into one big open area. You can find yourself accidentally walking into the shop when you are just passing through (Hmmm... I wonder if that is on purpose?). Although I don't think the Casino has been changed, it seemed to have an awful lot of open space. I was surprised that they didn't at least fill the space with slot machines. They've extended the cabins on two decks to go all the way to the back of the ship and have cabins with verandahs on the back of the ship - that is where our cabin was located. Cabins on the back of the ship are noisy, have vibrations, and move around a bit - but we love it! The back of Lido Deck is now called The Retreat and has a bar on starboard and a pizza kitchen on port side. The pool on the back deck has been converted to a "sunning pool" - the main wall outlines what looks like a pool but it isn't deep and is divided into three sections. The center is like a river of water and to each side of that "river" is a very shallow pool (4-6 inches?) that contains lounge chairs. For people who like to sit around a pool and dangle their feet in the water, this is excellent. There is also a big screen television on the back deck. It isn't anywhere near as big as the screens on Princess ships. They apparently show movies on this screen but the climate on this cruise wasn't conducive to outdoor movie watching. In the Lido Restaurant, they've taken a corner of it and converted it to the Canaletto Restaurant (a premium Italian restaurant). It is only open for dinner so that space is available for use as part of the Lido during breakfast and lunch. The show lounge has been renamed Show Lounge At Sea. I think it is mostly the same but there is a dance floor right in front of the stage which they fill with tables and chairs for shows. It doesn't seem like an efficient use of space but there always seemed to be enough seats available for the shows so I guess it works. The Explorer Lounge has been dramatically reduced in size from the original layout. Part of it is now taken by the Pinnacle Grill (premium steak restaurant) and part is taken by some kind of a high-end jewelry store. An Exploration Cafe has been added, I think they have one on every HAL ship now. I believe that was done awhile ago. That's the place where you can BUY coffee - my how cruising has changed! Overall, for its age, the Veendam is in pretty good shape - of course it just came out of dry-dock last fall. There is some surprising wear and tear that they didn't fix... like woodwork in the elevators which is totally beat up. The exterior of the ship needed paint in many areas and the crew got to it during our cruise. The most disappointing thing for me was how debris on the floor seemed to be ignored for hours, and in some cases days. In my experience with HAL, that just doesn't happen. On previous HAL cruises, each crew member, regardless of job title, took it upon themselves to make sure that the ship was spotless. If something got discarded on the floor, the first crew member to come near it would clean it up. That wasn't true on this ship - maybe HAL is slipping on all of its ships in this regard. It's been a few years since our last cruise on HAL. I'd be interested in knowing if other long-time HAL cruisers are seeing this happen on other HAL ships. Overall, I'm sure most people sailing on the Veendam were totally satisfied with the condition of the ship, especially if they are used to cruising on other cruise lines. The Crow's Nest, which is the lounge on the upper deck on the front of the ship, is one of our favorite lounges on any HAL ship. It is especially great for cruises with "scenic cruising". You can sit up there, protected from the weather, with a wonderful view of scenery to the front and sides of the ship. When at sea, it's a great place to sit, enjoy a refreshment, and watch for sea life (dolphins, whales, etc.). Another place we enjoy on HAL ships is the steamer chairs on the walkaround deck (Lower Promenade on the Veendam). But, I was disappointed to find that they've converted the cabins on Lower Promenade to "Lanai" cabins with a door that opens onto the deck. That part is okay - the part I hate is that they have "Reserved" steamer chairs for each of the "Lanai" cabins. Out of 58 steamer chairs on each side of the ship with open railing, only 22 are not reserved. The other 36 are "Reserved". On warm weather cruises, we spend almost all of our days on the side deck steamer chairs. Consequently, we won't be booking any warm-weather cruises on any of the HAL ships that have these "Lanai" cabins with the reserved steamer chairs.
Shipboard Life - We noticed an orchestrated change in life aboard the Veendam. I'm not sure if this is a recent change and it may not be on all HAL ships. The most noticeable part of this change is the daily program. Our daily program was organized into four categories: 1) Explorations; 2) Culinary Arts; 3) Digital Workshop; and, 4) Mind, Body, Spirit. All the daily activities (except entertainment) were categorized into one of these four areas. Each area is listed chronologically for the day. There is no single list of activities in time-of-day sequence. We found this very difficult to follow. If you were looking for a specific activity, you had to look in each of the columns trying to find it. The Cruise Staff also seemed to be organized according to these categories. There was Spencer Brown on Explorations; Party Planner Jen on Culinary Arts; Tech Guy Ryan on the Digital Workshop; and Fitness Guy Tim on the Mind, Body, and Spirit. Our Cruise Director was Michael Heada. Some things apparently didn't categorize easily so they were listed on the bottom of page 3, under the heading of "Let's Get Together". This included things like Catholic Mass, Bridge Play, Friends of Bill W, Singles Meet & Greet, etc. The front page of the program was mostly consumed by the listing of entertainment in the various lounges. The listing for the Showroom At Sea was often cryptic - one day it listed the show as Juan & Eileen Los Gauchos, indicating that they were world famous and performed for the Queen of England. It didn't say anything about what they did - were they Jugglers, Magicians, Dancers, Singers, or what? I asked one of the waiters and he thought that they were singers. It ended up that they were dancers. The program didn't give a lot of information. We weren't impressed. The Casino was rather small - they had a variety of slot machines and about a half-dozen table games (no Craps table). There was a lot of empty space in the Casino. The Casino slots are cash-less. You have to use your cruise card to cash out of the machines. You can put paper money into the machine or use credit from your cruise card. The Casino was closed 4 nights because of being in Chilean waters.
Entertainment - The entertainment on this ship was probably the best that I've experienced on HAL since they stopped hiring their own singers and dancers (many years ago). I wish they would have better publicized the names of the performers. The show cast consisted of four guys and two girls (I think). I'm not sure because they never all performed at the same time. I think the names were: Crystal __, Adrian Hicks (sp?), Brad Preddy (sp?), E. Jay Day (from American Idol Season 1), Andrew __, and ?? (don't know first or last name). There were two dancers and I didn't catch their names when they were introduced. The cast did several shows including: Bob Mackie's Broadway (show tunes), Street Singin' (the guys doing Doo-wop), Live from the Stardust Lounge (music from the Rat Pack), and Encore! (music classics). All of the singers were great but I have to make special mention of Brad Preddy - the guy has one awesome voice and makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck when he sings. The show titled, Encore!, featuring Brad Preddy and Adrian Hicks, was truly memorable. The music for all the shows was provided by the Veendam Orchestra (aka HAL Cats), sometimes the Adagio Strings joined in. It was great to hear so much live music instead of the digital/pre-recorded music on most ships. Jodie and the HAL Cats (female singer backed by the Veendam Orchestra) played at Sail Away Parties, the Deck Party, and the Mardi Gras Party. They played a lot of golden oldies and party songs - very enjoyable! Matt Murphy played guitar and sang almost every evening in the Crow's Nest - he played a nice mix of songs from the 60's through today's hits. He had his 5-page song list available for passengers to make requests. We spent most evenings before dinner in the Crow's Nest and really looked forward to hearing him. The Neptunes, a small dance band, played in the Ocean Bar. We didn't spend any time there but they always sounded good when we passed by. The Adagio Strings, a three-piece strings ensemble, played in the Explorer's Lounge, as well as joining the Veendam Orchestra to provide music for a show or a headliner. They are very talented and added a lot to the shows they performed in. Last, but not least, was Piano Man Steve. We always tried to find time to stop in the Piano Bar to listen to Steve and sing along with him. He was amazing - people would ask him to play a specific song or a specific artist and he would just start playing. On rare occasion, he would refer to his "stack" of music but, usually, he could play from memory. It was a real pleasure hanging out with him. Then there were the individual performers, the headline acts. Including Rikki Jay, Comedian; Kaitlyn Carr, Singer, Juan & Eileen Los Gauchos, Dance Act; Don Bryan, Ventriloquist; Juan Pablo Subirana, Pianist; and, Justin Miller, Guitar Wizard. All the musical acts were backed up by the Veendam Orchestra and sometimes included the Adagio Strings. All the acts were very entertaining but I must make special mention of Justin Miller. His guitar playing was nothing short of awesome and the backup music of the Veendam Orchestra with the Adagio Strings made the performance. Justin got a huge applause from the audience and, after he left the stage, most of the audience stayed and gave a huge applause to the Veendam Orchestra and the Adagio Strings - a memorable performance. And, I must not forget to mention the Indonesian Crew Show and the Filipino Crew Show, each put on by the respective crew - very entertaining. One night, they had a Mardi Gras Party in the Showroom At Sea. Cruise staff passed out masks, horns, and glow sticks - there was an opportunity during the day to make your own mask, which some did. Jodie and the HAL Cats performed throughout the party and received background vocals from Crystal and E. Jay Day. During the party, each of the cast singers came out to perform a song - Brad Preddy sang a song titled, "I Just Call You Mine", which practically brought a tear to your eye. The Cruise Staff gave out door prizes (ship stuff) during the party and were dancing with the passengers. It was a great party! The Lido Pool Party was held in the Lido Pool area. Jodie and the HAL Cats performed. It was a fun party for the time we were there - the mosquitoes were attacking us, so we finally left early. This apparently was affecting a lot of people because there always seemed to be an open table due to people leaving. I'm wondering if the entertainment on board all of the HAL ships is this good.
Dining - Our dining reservations were for "Anytime Dining" - no assigned table/time. We chose this because we like the freedom of choosing when to have dinner. We do miss having the same waiters and wine steward. About half the evenings when we went to dinner, we had to wait for a table. We always asked for a table for two. The wait was never very long - even when they said it would be 30 minutes, it ended up being about 10 minutes. We found it difficult to reserve a table if you are calling on the day you want the reservation. The food on the Veendam was EXCELLENT! The menu selections were great - I often couldn't decide what to order. And the soups on this ship were dynamite! The dessert menu was a little sparse but the selections were very tasty. We didn't eat breakfast or lunch in the Dining Room. Breakfast in the Lido Restaurant was okay. They seemed to have the same things every morning. Of course, they had about every breakfast food you could imagine. But, they always had the same potatoes and the same scrambled eggs. They always had Eggs Benedict which were horrible! They poach a huge number of eggs and have them sitting in a big pan of hot water. When you get the egg, it is essentially hard-boiled. The sauce is sitting on the side in a pan and it is practically mush instead of a sauce. The baked goods were always fresh and very tasty - I especially loved the donuts and the cinnamon rolls. Lunch in the Lido Restaurant had a broad selection and the food was very good, especially the fruit. They had a sandwich deli where they would make a sandwich to order. They also had three special sandwiches each day. The only problem was that, occasionally, they would run out of one of the ingredients for a special sandwich in the middle of lunch. I had that happen to me twice. They always had a great selection of desserts in the Lido Restaurant and the Ice Cream Stand was open almost all day. The ice cream is FREE and they almost always have Vanilla and Chocolate. The Veendam has a Pizza Kitchen called Slice on the back deck. I'm a pizza lover and was really looking forward to this. What a disappointment! The pizza was horrible. It appears that they are using pre-made pizza crusts and baking those using pans (in a pizza oven). They seemed to skimp on the sauce and cheese, too. There is a grill in the Lido Pool area that makes hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, etc. They did an excellent job. The burgers and fries were always freshly cooked and they had a wide variety of condiments/toppings. Once we were clear of the sanitation rules for Norovirus, the grill area would have a Taco/Nacho Stand set up. They had nacho chips and hard/soft taco shells with all the fixin's. One thing I've always liked about HAL is the hors d'oeuvres served in the bars/lounges before dinner. Many years ago, they always offered three different hors d'oeuvres plus crudites with dip - the hors d'oeuvres varied each day. A number of years ago, they discontinued the crudites. On this cruise, it appears that they cut back to only two hors d'oeuvres, one of which was always something a waiter called Dim Sum. To me, it looked like left over vegetables ground up, wrapped in dough, and deep fried. This is a disappointing change. On previous HAL cruises, you could often find sandwiches late at night in the Lido. Not on this ship - after Midnight there was no food to be found. We went to the premium restaurant, the Pinnacle Grill, one night. The food was excellent but the service was very slow. We were seated at 8 PM and didn't get our first course until 8:50 PM. Then, another lengthy wait for our entree. After finishing our entree, we waited 20 minutes to get our dessert. As a result of these delays, we missed most of the show (which started at 10 PM).
Service - HAL has always been known for its excellent service - a service that is personal and sincere. By the end of the cruise, you always felt like you were leaving friends when you disembarked. Then, boarding the next cruise, you felt like you were coming home, often meeting many crew members from previous cruises. On almost every HAL cruise that we've taken, we've run into crew members that remember sailing with us in the past (and we remembered them). This cruise was no different - one day while eating lunch, a Wine Steward stopped by, said hello and indicated that he sailed with us in the past. He looked familiar and, as soon as I looked at his name tag, the memory clicked. He was a Bar Waiter that took good care of us on a few cruises over 10 years ago! For the most part, the service on the Veendam was very similar. But, there are gaps appearing which I'll explain in a moment. First, let me say that we had some great service both in the Dining Room and the Bars/Lounges. Most of the crew really seemed to care about you and made sure you enjoyed your cruise. In the Dining Room, we experienced the service of 28 different waiters (16 nights, 14 different tables). We only experienced poor service on one night (our first night). We had that table/wait staff later in the cruise and thought, "Oh, no". But, the service that night was fine. At all the other tables, the service was great. It was sometimes slow in getting Wine Steward service - I think the cruise line is cutting staffing which creates delays. A few nights we ended up just drinking water because the food started arriving before we were able to order a wine. Service in the Lido was okay. Following all the sanitation rules early in the cruise really hurt the service level because all of the staff are busy dishing out the food. As the rules relaxed, the service improved. Service in the Bars and Lounges was excellent. We spent most of our time in the Crow's Nest and were always well-cared for - even when the place was packed. My only complaint about the beverage service was in the Casino. There were never any bar waiters offering service to people in the Casino. Every night I would have to wave down a Casino employee who would then call for beverage service. A bar waiter would come, take my order, bring me the drinks, and never return. I submitted a comment card regarding this problem twice and wasn't corrected. I think HAL pretty much eliminated Deck Stewards. The deck stewards would always put the pads on the steamer chairs in the morning and then put them away at night. Not on this cruise. Passengers had to find the stack of chair pads and drag a couple of them to the steamer chair. Also, in the Lido Pool area, there were several days where the water was spilling out from the pool/hot tubs onto the floor (due to rough seas). No one was there to mop up the water. Passengers and crew members were throwing towels onto the floor to control the water. The crew put out yellow cones warning about wet floors. But you have to walk through the area and many passengers were slipping. One day, an officer came into the area to get something from the grill. He slipped. All of a sudden, there were plenty of crew members there mopping up the water where he slipped. But, afterwards, they disappeared again, and the water puddles returned. Last gripe... bottled water in the cabin. On past cruises, bottled water was always part of the beverage service in the cabin. We had a refrigerator in the cabin. It was stocked with beer, soda, and wine - there was also red wine and bottled water on a shelf. On previous cruises, whenever we would use any of these items, they would charge our account for the purchase and replace the item. Not this time - we used the bottled water and they didn't replace it. Our Cabin Steward said that he would have it replaced but if we needed it right away we could call Room Service. We called Room Service and we had to wait in our cabin until they delivered it. Our Cabin Steward didn't come through - no bottled water. I wrote that on a Comment Card - still no bottled water in the cabin. I wrote it a second time on a Comment Card - bottled water started showing up in our cabin - two bottles every day, whether we needed it or not (they charged us for every bottle). We finally had to ask them to stop it completely. I don't want to give the wrong impression. Overall, the service on board the ship was excellent but it fell short of the service level that I've experienced on previous HAL cruises.
We sailed from Valparaiso, Chile to Rio de Janeiro with scenic cruising and port calls along the way. I'll detail both the scenic cruising and the ports.
Puerto Montt We anchored at Puerto Montt near Tenglo Island. The tenders docked right across from the island. It was pretty far from downtown but I think you could walk to the market at Angelmo. Exiting the dock was very steep and the walkway was very slippery. They checked our bags for food before we could exit the dock area. We took the "Petrohue Cascades & The City of Roses" tour leaving at 8:30 AM. We rode in a full-size tour bus, clean and comfortable. They drove us through the downtown area pointing out the different sights. They let us get out of the bus downtown but I don't think that is really part of the tour. Someone missed the bus at the pier and they were catching up to the bus via taxi. So, we had a chance to take some pictures. Then, we had a one hour and 15 minute bus ride to the Petrohue Cascades. We did stop along the way to take pictures of the Osorno Volcano across Lake Llanquihue. It was a bright, clear, sunny day and the view of the volcano was excellent. We were told that you usually can't see the top of the volcano because of fog and/or cloud cover - but we saw it clearly. We had 45 minutes at the Petrohue Park. You follow a path to the cascades. Along the way, there is a gift shop, restrooms and, right near the cascades, is a snack bar/gift shop. The pathway is mostly dirt and reasonably walk-able until you get to the rapids. Then, the path is very rocky. With the water flowing nearby, the rocks get wet and slippery. The cascades were very picturesque and the view of the Osorno Volcano was dynamite! There were several spots from which to view the cascades and take pictures. From some spots you could view both the volcano and the cascades - very pretty. We drove back to Puerta Varas (The City of Roses), which we had passed on our way to the Petrohue. We had 30 minutes for this stop. The bus parked right in front of a craft market. The market was made up of about eight shops that varied in size. There were several tour buses parked there so the market was packed with people. We walked a block to the lake and took pictures. Puerta Varas is a tourist town and I believe it was founded by the Germans. A lot of the buildings had a Bavarian look. You could see the Osorno Volcano and the Calbuco Volcano across the lake - very pretty. We got back to the ship at about 1:15 PM. Our tour guide was Carolina. She spoke very good English and told us all kinds of information about life in Chile (Education, Economy, Taxes, Health Care, border issues with Bolivia & Argentina, etc.) as well as explaining the sights and scenery along the way. The tour was worth the $74 pp we paid.
Jodie and the HAL Cats provided music at the Sail Away Party. The views of Osorno Volcano and Calbuco Volcano as we sailed away were awesome.
Darwin Channel - We entered the Darwin Channel around 7 AM. We ordered breakfast delivered to our room and watched the scenic cruising from our verandah on the back of the ship. The Travel Guide, Spencer Brown provided commentary which was broadcast on the TV. So, we were able to listen to that from our cabin, as well. The scenery was awesome - plenty of snow-covered mountains - I think I took a hundred pictures or so. The ship exited the channel around 10:30 AM. Later that afternoon, it got really foggy... I mean REALLY foggy. The ship started blowing its horn every two minutes. It was really eerie. Amalia Glacier - The ship was scheduled to be at the face of the glacier between 8:30 and 9 AM. We were up on the Sports Deck (outside the Crow's Nest) at 8 AM to watch the sail in. We then went to the top deck (above the Crow's Nest) for a different view. When we arrived at the glacier, we went down to the front deck of the ship. You get there via a glass enclosed stairway on the Lower Promenade Deck Forward. There are two of these stairways and there are two doors out onto the front deck (one port side; one starboard side). The view of the Amalia Glacier from the front deck was great. The ship turned every which way so that all verandah cabins had a good chance to view the glacier. Spencer Brown provided commentary about the glacier via speakers on the outside decks areas. At 9:30 AM, the ship departed the glacier. We headed into the Crow's Nest where they were serving (selling) special coffees - a great way to warm up. My guess is that the temperature out on deck was in the 30's (F). We had our winter coats, gloves, and hats on - we were comfortable out there. Sometime after leaving the glacier, the Captain informed us about the earthquake that hit Chile. He indicated that they didn't expect any adverse affect on the ship or our itinerary. We never noticed a thing on board the Veendam or at any of the ports.
Punta Arenas - We docked in Punta Arenas around 6 AM at an industrial dock which is pretty far from downtown. There were taxis available to go downtown but I'm not sure of the cost. We had an 8 AM tour, "Otway Sound & Penguin Reserve" ($89 pp). As we were preparing to disembark the ship, they warned us to hold our hats because of the strong winds on the dock. They weren't kidding! The winds there were tremendous. It felt like the wind was constantly blowing at about 50 mph. CONSTANTLY! It never let up. As soon as we got off the ship it almost blew us off the dock. Our bus left at 8 AM and we made a brief stop at the Classic Auto Museum. I'm not sure why we stopped because we weren't allowed to get off the bus. At about 9:10 AM, we arrived at Otway Sound. The bus was modern and comfortable; the roads were mostly gravel-based. We got out of the bus and the wind was still the same... strong & constant. We were the first bus to arrive - the stop was scheduled for one hour. At the bus parking area was a little gift shop and restrooms. We walked the long path to the Penguin Reserve. The main path leads to a shed that is about 25 feet wide and four feet deep. There is an opening in the wall that you can look through to see the Penguins along the shoreline. Everybody wants a spot against the wall so they can look through the opening and see the Penguins but everybody can't fit at the same time. As our group was finishing up at the shed, other groups from other buses began arriving. Jockeying for a spot at the wall of the shed became a real challenge. Nearby the shed, along the pathway, you can see the burrows built by the Penguins and we saw a number of Penguins peeking up from the holes in the ground. As you follow the path back, you can choose to return the same path or take a path that loops the area, passing by 2 towers. Most people, including us, took the looping path. That basically provided more opportunities to see the burrows and penguins peeking up from them. At the towers, only 3 people were allowed on the tower at one time. They were pretty small and a bit shaky. From atop the tower, you just got a different view of the same surroundings - nothing fantastic. The whole time, the wind continued to blow... absolutely unbelievable! By the time we got back to the bus, we were exhausted from fighting our way through the wind. When we got to the bus there were about a half dozen more buses already parked there - I can't imagine what a zoo that shed must be when all those people get there and fight for a spot. At the parking area, we stopped at the gift shop. You couldn't go into the shop. There was a window where a few people served the customers who lined up outside. It was a bit of a free-for-all with people pressing to get to the counter to buy something. They accepted both US dollars and Chilean Pesos. We bought several plush penguins - I think they were about $5 each. Then, back on the bus for another hour and 15 minute ride back to the ship. Again, on the return trip, we stopped at the Classic Car Museum but couldn't get off the bus. There were Llamas there and we got pictures of them from on the bus. We were back onboard the Veendam at 11:30 AM. Our camera lenses were an absolute mess despite my effort to protect them by constantly putting the lens cap on. For anyone using a DSLR, I'd recommend you bring along an extra UV Filter and change them after this tour. I'm not sure I ever really got my lenses clean after this tour.
Glacier Avenue - The Captain indicated that we would be sailing along Glacier Avenue around 9 to 9:30 AM and that it would be on the starboard side of the ship. We weren't sure what to expect so we went to the Lido Restaurant to eat breakfast and sat on the starboard side of the ship by the windows. We figured that, if the scenery was really neat, we could go out on deck to get pictures. We sat there until about 10:15 AM and didn't really see much more than some snow-capped mountains... maybe a bit of a glacier way up on the mountain. Then we heard people coming back in from the outside deck talking about how awesome it was. We apparently missed the whole thing... it sounded like the really scenic stuff was on port side. (We later found out how awesome it was because we got a copy of the Cruise Video (sold by the Photography Shop) and it included footage from the Glacier Avenue. There were actually a number of glaciers and there was extensive calving of one of them as the ship passed by - and we missed it! DARN!)
Beagle Channel - To get to Ushuaia, we sailed through the Beagle Channel. This was right after Glacier Avenue. We watched this scenic sailing from our verandah for about two hours. Again, plenty of snow-capped mountains and little waterways. Beautiful scenery - it was overcast but the sun was trying to break through. At one point it created a gorgeous rainbow behind the ship - there went another hundred pictures!
Ushuaia - We arrived around 2 PM. It was not windy here - thank heavens! We boarded a full-size, modern and comfortable bus. Our tour guide was Deborah. She spoke English but pronounced many of the words using the Spanish pronunciation of vowels and syllables. This made it very difficult to understand her. Our tour was called, "National Park and Beagle Channel". The bus took us to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. We went to a small pier overlooking Lapataia Bay with a view of Redonda Island. Then, we drove through the camping areas in the park and stopped at Lapataia Lake - very scenic. The bus then dropped us at The Confiteria which housed a snack bar, gift shops, and the ever-valuable restrooms. We stopped there for about 30 minutes. Then, we stopped and took a short hike to see the Beaver Dam. It is no longer active because they killed the beavers. The bus then took us to meet the Catamaran in Lapataia Bay. By this time, the tour had lasted 3 hours. The Catamaran had booths that seated four persons. They served refreshments and had restroom facilities. We sailed through Lapataia Bay by Redonda Island, seeing the small pier that we visited early via bus. Exiting Lapataia Bay, we came into Beagle Channel sailing east. We passed the Ushuaia airport and continued on to several small islands. Many people on the tour wanted to go back to the ship as we sailed past Ushuaia. They seemed to think that the tour was too long and they were tired/bored. I don't know why because the tour clearly stated that it was 6 hours long and included both a bus tour and a catamaran tour. Needless to say, the tour guide paid no attention to the grumbling passengers and we continued sailing the Beagle Channel to several small islands where we saw Kelp Goose, King Cormorant, and Sea Lions. Nearby, we sailed around the Eclaireurs Lighthouse. At each of these places, we were able to get onto the outside deck of the catamaran to take pictures. We then headed back to the Veendam, arriving at about 8:20 PM. The sun had just set. The downtown was a short walk from the dock. The tour was a little long but it was worth the cost of $151 pp.
Cape Horn - We arrived at Cape Horn around 7 AM. It was starting to be a bright, sunny day with a little morning fog. I was hoping for the stormy kind of weather that you always read about when ships are rounding the cape. Not this time - the weather, was absolutely gorgeous! The sun was shining, the wind was light, and the seas were calm. We began watching this scenic crusing from the Crow's Next which was packed. As we got to the southern side of Cape Horn, we went down to our cabin to watch the rest of the rounding from our verandah. It was really something to see - despite the calm weather!
Falkland Islands - Believe it or not, we were able to make our port call in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. From everything I've read, only about 50% of the cruises are able to make this stop due to weather conditions. But, once again, our weather was fantastic! We anchored in the bay and tendered into Port Stanley. Our tour was the Bluff Cove Penguin Rookery. We had no wait for the tender and the tender ride was about 15 minutes. As we came off the dock, we were met by our tour guide, Trudy, and taken to the 16-passenger mini-bus parked nearby. Then, we were on our way. Driving through Port Stanley, Trudy pointed out various buildings and provided background information (as well as some political commentary). The dispute between England and Argentina over the ownership of the Falklands (aka Malvinas), is apparently very stressful to the residents. After about a 25-minute ride, we pulled off the road and were transferred to 4x4 vehicles (aka Range Rovers). We then embarked on an extremely rough, 20-minute ride over hills, rocks, mud pits, and streams. It was four passengers per 4x4 so there were four vehicles in our caravan. One driver took the lead and the others followed him. Apparently the leader could pick his own route because you could see evidence that other vehicles had previously gone different ways (you could see the tire tracks to either side of where we were going). When ships are in port, they do about 8-10 of these caravans. I wondered why they don't clear a reasonably level path. I concluded that the 4x4 trip is part of the "adventure" of the tour. They do warn people who have neck/back problems to not take this tour. It was very rough and we were constantly tossed around inside the vehicle like rag dolls. You really had to hold on. But, we arrived at the rookery in one piece and the driver said he would return to pick us up an hour later. There were plenty of Gentoo Penguins and a few King Penguins at the Rookery. All of them were youngsters. The adults go off in the morning to gather food. They supposedly return in the afternoon to feed the young ones. There was other animal life in the area including Upland Geese, Perendale Sheep, and some cattle. Needless to say, you really had to watch where you were walking because there were plenty of droppings on the ground. There were "park rangers" there to answer your questions and explain what you were seeing. Just over the hill were the Sea Cabbage Cafe and the Bluff Cove Museum. At the cafe, they provided coffee, tea, hot chocolate, cakes, cookies, and pastries for free! Yes, I mean FREE. How often do you see that in a tourist area? And, the food/drink was excellent! There are tables and chairs inside as well as a few picnic tables outside. Inside, there was a lady playing the accordion which gave it a nice atmosphere. The museum was very small - I think it is relatively new. About 20 minutes late, our driver showed up and we joined the caravan of four 4x4's making their way over the rocks, humps, valleys, and streams (I wasn't sure we were going to make it up and out of the stream that we crossed!). After the 20-minute ride, we were met by Trudy and her mini-bus. 25 minutes later we were back downtown in Port Stanley. We walked around the town a bit and stopped in at several gift shops. Then, back to the dock where the tender line was pretty long. We managed to get on the next tender that arrived and 15 minutes later we were back on board. This tour was an excellent opportunity to see penguins (lots of them!) and the 4x4 ride was fun - well worth the cost of $169 pp.
Montevideo - We docked in Montevideo. They claimed you could walk to the downtown area but I wouldn't do it. The area surrounding the dock did not look safe, even in daylight. Our tour was the Montevideo Highlights. At 8:20 AM, we boarded a full-size, modern and comfortable bus to see the sights of Montevideo. This turned out to be one of those tours where almost everything you see is only from the bus. We drove through the downtown area and our tour guide, Mirta, pointed out all of the historic buildings (which you could hardly see because they were right next to the bus). We finally got a chance to get off the bus at a big government building - I believe the Parliament met there. It was really warm in Montevideo - like 80 degrees. So we wore shorts. As we were taking pictures of the building and surrounding area, we were attacked by mosquitoes. We felt something on our legs, looked down, and found our legs covered with small mosquitoes. Everyone headed for the bus. The mosquitoes came on the bus with us and many people spent the next 15 minutes swatting them off the windows (and themselves). The bus made three other stops; all of them were parks (Prado Park, Parque de las Armadas, and some fountain). I would have preferred stopping to see more historical buildings and, apparently, many others on the tour agreed because, when Mirta asked everyone how they like the tour, there was no applause. She indicated that some had complained about not stopping at some other places and asked for written comments to return to her company. Some people gave her the written comments. At the end of the tour, you could get off at the Mario Leather Factory (which looked like a hole in the wall). Only a few took advantage of this. Back on the ship, we heard that the place wasn't really a factory - it was just a place to buy leather goods. Apparently, Mario had a shuttle that would take you back to the ship - at least you didn't have to walk through some very questionable areas. We were back by Noon. This trip was not worth the $69 pp. When we got back to the cabin, we looked out on our Verandah and it was covered with bugs, mostly mosquitoes. We didn't get to use our verandah in Montevideo.
Buenos Aires - We woke up early for our early morning tour. At breakfast, the Captain announced that we were anchored about 3 hours outside Buenos Aires and couldn't proceed until the Argentine Coast Guard cleared us to dock. Apparently, our ship had experienced some technical problem with the propulsion equipment. We finally got cleared and docked in Buenos Aires around 12:30 PM. All of the morning tours were moved to the afternoon. I'm not sure what they did with afternoon tours and the 12-hour trip to Iguaza Falls. Around 1 PM, we boarded a full-size, modern and comfortable bus. Our guide was Lucas who spoke excellent English. He took us out to Palermo and pointed out significant places. We then stopped at the Recoleto Cemetery for a 30-minute guided tour which included the spot where Eva Peron is buried. The bus then took us through Centro, by the Obelisk and down to Plaza de Mayo. I wish we could have gotten off the bus in the Plaza de Mayo because of all the historic buildings/monuments in that area. But, this is a bus ride. We then drove through San Telmo to La Boca where we stopped for 40 minutes. This is a very colorful section of Buenos Aires and a total tourist location. But, it is kind of neat and we enjoyed walking around. We did have to stay alert because there were a lot of suspicious characters walking around. The tour guide cautioned us about pick-pockets in this area. Back on the bus, we drove by Puerto Madero which is an old port where they converted the warehouses into restaurants. Our tour guide offered to drop people off there is they wanted. He also offered to drop people off at H. Stern (Jewelry Store). H. Stern offered free shuttles to and from the ship. The bus finally got us back to the passenger terminal where we had to get a shuttle to the ship (the shuttle process took about 15 minutes). For $59 per person, I guess I can't complain about this tour. We had an enjoyable time despite seeing most of Buenos Aires through a bus window. We were supposed to leave Buenos Aires the next day at 4 PM so I had planned a walking tour of downtown Buenos Aires to do the following morning. But, our departure was changed to 1 PM, so we canceled the walking tour. Meanwhile, the mosquitoes covered our verandah so that was of no use to us.
Disembarkation - Rio was our disembarkation point. Sailing in to Rio was very picturesque, with a view of Christ, the Redeemer atop Corcovado. The disembarkation process was a mess for us. They had to split up our Disembarkation # which got very confusing. Going through Brazilian Customs was very smooth but the exit was rather stressful. Once we cleared customs, we were led to the gangway and got off the ship. A HAL rep on the dock pointed out what doorway to go to. We had been told that we didn't need to collect our luggage because it would be sent directly to the ship. But, when we walked into the terminal a person was telling everyone to collect their luggage. We found a HAL rep and asked about luggage and she told us not to worry about it. We left the terminal but had no idea where to go. We would walk about 25 yards then see a HAL rep - we'd tell her we were on the post-cruise package - she would point what direction to walk. We'd walk another 25 yards and do the same thing. We were never sure we were going the right way and we had nothing to indicate to any HAL reps who we were and where we should be going. The longer it went on, the more stressful it became. At last, we could see the line of buses in a parking lot and headed for them. A tour guide pointed out our bus and we boarded. This whole process only took about 30 minutes but it seemed like a lifetime! Our post-cruise package included a tour prior to checking in at our hotel in Rio.
Rio de Janeiro: Sugar Loaf Tour - Our tour prior to hotel check in was a trip to Sugar Loaf. Our tour guide was Reginaldo (call me "Reggie"). Reggie spoke excellent English (apparently he had worked as a tour guide in Europe and South Africa). He was a real character and loved to tell funny stories. We found out later that some people didn't like Reggie because they would prefer he talk about Brazilian history than tell funny stories (after that first tour, those people got on a different bus with a different tour guide). Anyway, the bus got underway at 10:30 AM and drove through the downtown area heading for Sugar Loaf. The traffic was extremely heavy - bumper to bumper; creep and crawl. Reggie told his stories and pointed out several historic buildings (but mostly told stories). We got to Sugar Loaf around Noon. Reggie got the tickets for the cable car and handed them out. You go up to Sugar Loaf in two steps - a cable car to the Urca Mountain, where you could look around. Then a cable car to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Reggie gave us a place to meet once atop the Urca Mountain so he could set a meeting time to come down. He did this because there are no reservations for the cable cars. You get in line and get on whichever the next car is. So, the group ends up getting separated and he's not sure in the beginning how long it will take to get everyone up the mountain. Reggie advised us not to stop at the first scenic view we come to once we are on top. Everybody does that and it is crowded. He recommended moving on past that first spot because there are many scenic views - excellent advice. The whole cable car thing ran smoothly. They really packed the cable cars full. It was 90 degrees (F) and the cars were very stuffy. Reggie gave us cardboard fans to help keep cool. We had about 45 minutes on Sugar Loaf. The views were just awesome! At both mountain tops there were concession stands and gift shops (as well as restrooms). On the way to the hotel, we passed Copacabana Beach, Ipanema Beach and Le Blon Beach. The beaches looked really neat - it appeared that there were stands on the beach that rented umbrellas and chairs. Every so often, there was a concession stand at the street edge of the beach where they sold sandwiches, beverages, and frozen treats. It was like that the whole way along all the beaches. The bus dropped us off at the Intercontinental Rio hotel in Sao Conrado at 2:00 PM.
Hotel Check-in - Upon arrival, we were led to a special room to fill out the hotel paperwork (name, address, etc.). Despite the fact that our post-cruise package indicated early check-in, we had to wait until 3 PM to get our room keys. We went to the hotel lobby bar to have a drink and relax. The hotel provided a secure place to check our hand luggage. I should mention that we had the option of staying in the special room where they had coffee and juice available - we chose the bar. I was surprised to find that the hotel lobby bar only served local beer. One would think that an international city like Rio would have a wide variety of beers from throughout the world. About 3:10 PM, I figured that the room key distribution was well underway and I should pick ours up. There was a real fiasco trying to connect room key packets to guests but it didn't take too long to get the room keys. They indicated that our luggage was on the way to our rooms. I bought some Brazilian currency, Reais, at the Front Desk - the exchange rate wasn't great but it was quick and easy. We went to the room and freshened up. We had a small balcony with a nice view of the coast looking north. The room was nice but a little old fashioned - no flat screen TV. There were two double beds whose mattresses have seen their better days. But, it wasn't bad. It took until 5 PM for the luggage to arrive. By this time, we were getting hungry and decided to go to the nearby shopping mall to find a restaurant. The mall was a very short walk from the hotel (5 minutes tops) and safe. We found a restaurant called Alessandro y Frederico at the far end of the mall on the first floor. Being big pizza lovers and not having had a good pizza in weeks, we were attracted to this restaurant because of their brick-oven pizza. So, we had a pizza and a couple of beers for 93 Reais (about $55) - then strolled back to the hotel. Again, I was surprised that they only sold local beer at the restaurant.
Corcovado Tour and Samba Show - Our breakfast was included in the hotel package so we ate in the hotel restaurant. They had a very nice buffet and the coffee was excellent (if you like strong coffee). Our tour departed at 9 AM. Reggie was there - we liked him so we made sure we got on his bus. In no time the bus was pulling in near the train station for Mt. Corcovado. Reggie got the tickets and handed them out. The train tickets were for a specific time going up the mountain - ours was 9:40 AM. You used the same ticket to board a train going down but there was no assigned time for the return trip. Reggie told us that the last train down for us is 10:45 AM. On the way up, there were three stops: first stop was Englishman's Hill; second stop was Paineiras Hotel; and, third stop was Mt. Corcovado. At the second stop, you could see the Paineiras Hotel from the train - it was vacant and run down. Reggie explained that the hotel was there before the area was named a National Park. The government ruled that business couldn't be conducted in a National Park so the hotel had to close. But, another government rule is that buildings built before a certain year were considered monuments and couldn't be modified or destroyed. The Paineiras Hotel fit into that category. So, it couldn't be used but couldn't be torn down - so it decays. It took 20 minutes for the train to make it up to Mt. Corcovado. Upon disembarking, you could choose to take an elevator up to the top or walk the stairs. There was a pretty long line for the elevator and we figured we could use the exercise so we took the stairs. The stairs were made from stone and it was a dry day - the climb wasn't bad. About half way up there was a nice overlook providing some great views of Rio. The stairs were closed just one flight up from where the elevator stopped. So, we turned back, and found that there were escalators to the base of the statue. We took the two escalators to the base of the statue - the place was packed. As you might imagine, everyone was taking pictures of people they were with standing at the base of the statue. The statue is so big, you have to get some distance away from a person to get them in the picture with the whole statue. There are vendors there that will take your picture with whatever background you want and print it immediately (they actually have printer stations right there along the wall). We took the stairs down and found a huge line for the train but one was just loading (the 10:30 train). We easily made it onto the next train. Each train has two cars. Many people line up and wait to get on the first car but you can pass that crowd and move on to the next car. We saw people do that on the way up and used that approach on the way down to get a good seat. Once we go to the bottom, we saw Reggie and he gave us 15 minutes for shopping. There were a number of gift shops there in the station area at the bottom of Mt. Corcovado. Hard Rock Cafe had a small shop located there so I got a t-shirt (very expensive!). We bought a few other souvenirs - they accepted US dollars at a reasonable exchange rate. It was 102 degrees (F) according to the time & temperature sign at the base of Mt. Corcovado. When boarding the bus, Reggie gave out wipes to help everyone freshen up. He passed out water for those who didn't bring any. We then toured the city with Reggie pointing out the historic buildings and providing information about life in Rio and the challenges faced by the country of Brazil. I never thought about it but Brazil has a very diverse population... from the jungles of the Amazon to the city of Rio. Pretty challenging to keep everyone happy. We were allowed off the bus for 15 minutes to see the Cathedral. We finished the city tour and headed back to our hotel along Copacabana, Ipanema, and Le Blon beaches. We arrived back at the hotel at 2 PM. After cleaning up, we decided to go down to the beach in front of our hotel and get some lunch. Reggie told us about the hang gliding from the mountains just south of our hotel. You could see them from the beach. We walked to a concession stand along the beach and ordered hamburguesas and cokes. It didn't take him long to cook up the burgers and we sat at a table by the beach under an umbrella eating our lunch. The hamburguesa was a hamburger with cheese and slice of ham on it. It was excellent - how could it not be when you are sitting at the beach in Rio on a hot summer day! After lunch, we crossed the beach to the water's edge. I expected the sand to be almost too hot to walk on. But, it wasn't - it was actually just barely warm. And, the sand crunched under your feet. At first, I thought it was just my sandals but it made the same sound when I walked in my bare feet. We walked the water's edge back to the front of our hotel - what a gorgeous day.
Dinner was included as part of our tour package. When we left the hotel at about 7 PM, it was 80 degrees (F). We arrived at the Churrascaria Oasis about 30 minutes later (traffic was very heavy). A churrascaria is a restaurant that specializes in grilling the food. On our ride there, Reggie explained how the restaurant serves its food on huge skewers and the sequencing of the food. We got there and were seated at long tables. A bottle of water was included with the meal; any other drinks had to be purchased. Again, they only served local beers. I got a Coke to help me digest what I was about to eat - it was 8 Reais (about $5). We started with the salad bar which was very extensive. Then, the waiters brought out plates of rice, French fries, fried bananas, and "chips" (some kind of Brazilian potato cut up like French fries but crisper). It was served family style (help yourself). Then, waiters came around with big long skewers loaded with sausages. If you wanted one, they would slide one onto your plate. Then came the roast chicken served the same way. This was followed by several kinds of beef, then lamb. Each person had a set of tongs which you used to serve yourself food from the family style bowls and to catch the slices of beef when the waiter carved it right off of the skewer. The sausage and roast chicken was very good - I wasn't impressed with the beef. We had vanilla ice cream for dessert and a free cup of coffee (very small cup). We finished up around 9 PM and drove to Plataforma for the Samba Show. We were seated about midway from the stage to the back of the room - but we could see pretty well (except for the guy in front of us who kept holding up his little camera and taking video of the show). There is no videotaping allowed but the staff didn't police this well. I didn't do any research on this trip in advance so I didn't really know what to expect. We arrived about a half hour before the show. During that time, they had a male and a half-naked female performer from the show walking around taking pictures with customers (not your camera - their camera!). They delivered the print to you during the show. Also before the show, there was a young lady on stage in a soccer uniform. She bounced a soccer ball without ever letting it hit the floor, using only her feet, knees, and head. She did this for at least 15 minutes straight - pretty amazing. Occasionally, the audience would erupt with applause for her. Now for the show... it was a folkloric show. I was expecting people dancing the samba to Latin music. It was Las Vegas style - half naked women (and men), dancing around in colorful costumes. They did a variety of rhythmic dances supposedly native to Brazil. The finale was what they called, "Carnival", in which the women came out dressed in costumes that are used at carnival time in Rio. I thought the show was a bit boring - some of the dances just went on too long. An older gentleman sitting next to us fell asleep midway into the show. But, if you like folkloric shows, I'm sure you would really enjoy this one. The show lasted about an hour and 45 minutes. Reggie asked us to stay seated after the show for 5 minutes so that we wouldn't get lost in the crowds. That was a good strategy. The place was totally packed and when the show ended, people poured out into the street. There were lots of tour buses outside. Reggie was able to form us into a group to leave together. Even with his good planning, we ended up getting separated due to crossing the street. In the dark, it was impossible to figure out where to go - buses everywhere with lights flashing. Reggie tracked everyone down and made sure that we all found our way to the bus. We were back at the hotel at 12:30 AM - that was a long day!
Departure from Rio - Our flight from Rio was scheduled to depart at 8:20 PM so we had a lot of time to kill on departure day. HAL provided luggage handling and transfer from the hotel to the airport. We slept late and had a leisurely breakfast (included with the hotel package). We spent some time outside in the hotel pool area - the weather was again gorgeous. Later, we packed our luggage so that we could put it outside our room by 2:30 PM. Then, headed down to the lobby bar to wait for our bus, scheduled to depart at 4 PM. It took about 40 minutes to get to the airport (it was a Saturday - Reggie indicated that it would take a lot longer on a weekday). HAL took care of getting the bags to the airline check-in counter but we had a bit of a fiasco because our tour guide couldn't get enough porters to handle all of the luggage. So, we ended up having to schlep our smaller bags to the check in counter. The check-in and immigration process was reasonably smooth. First, we were greeted by a security person from the airline. That person checked our ID/ticket and asked us questions about our luggage (who packed it, has it been out of your possession, etc). That was several minutes - they put a colored tag on our luggage and allowed us to get in the check-in line. The check-in was the standard process which took no time at all. They took our bags and put them on the conveyor belt. We walked down to the designated wing of the terminal and entered the security line. It operated just like the security in US airports. Once through that security line, we got into the immigration line where they checked our passports. The whole process, from the arrival at the airport to clearing immigration and getting to our boarding gate took about an hour and a half. Once in the gate area, we were hungry. But, there was only a book stand and a snack stand that sold mostly sodas, candy, and snacks. They did have some pre-packaged sandwiches. So, we got a couple sodas, a bag of chips, and a sandwich - it satisfied our hunger. Boarding the plane was a real circus. The boarding gate doorway didn't lead to a ramp to the plane; it just opened into a long hallway that ran perpendicular to the boarding gate. I'm not sure if they ever announced that we were boarding. An airline agent showed up at the door and let crew members through the door. Then, people started walking up and talking to her. She eventually let some of those people through the door. I think everyone saw this because a crowd formed around her in no time. She shouted that she was boarding Business Class so people stepped back. Then, she called for Zone 1 passengers (not over the intercom - she just called it out to the crowd surrounding her). Moments later, she said, Zones 1, 2, and 3 - we got in line and through the door. We followed the line of folks in the hallway and eventually came to a line of people where we stopped. There were numbered doorways in this hallway but they didn't correspond to the number of our boarding gate. Not more than a minute after we stopped in this line, an airline agent came up, called our flight number, and indicated that we should continue walking down the hallway (wrong line). We continued down the hallway and eventually got to a line of people that was for our boarding gate. We found ourselves waiting for another security check. In fact, we met with the same airline security person that we spoke with before check-in. There were about six stations set up. At the station, they checked inside every one of our carry on bags. Once that was done, we boarded the plane. Eight hours later we landed in Miami. We had to go through immigration - the line for US citizens was very short. Then, we had to claim our luggage and go through Customs. It never fails, there were several lines and we picked the slowest one. After Customs, we followed the colored dots to where we returned our luggage to the airlines for transfer to our destination. Then, we had to go upstairs to the TSA security check to get into the boarding gate area. There were lines but it was a fairly smooth process.
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