The film "Flying Down to Rio" aired March 11, 2010 on TCM (Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers' first film together) and that same evening we flew American Airlines to Rio de Janeiro. We took it as a good omen, and our trip was a sensational one. For months we had been telling everyone we were flying down to Rio -- something we had been wanting to say for most of our lives. The glamour, the natural beauty, and the excitement of Rio are unparalleled in South America. Vincent bartered and dickered for weeks for a non-stop flight; finally, he changed the date of our departure and this gave us four days in Rio and meant we only had to load our wheelchair and scooter once. He didn't want to take any chances with our equipment. The flight from Miami was overnight from 11:00pm to 9:30am Rio Time. Not bad, we went business class with good food and drinks and a comfortable seat which reclined for sleeping --- all this TLC made the time fly.
In Rio, Vincent had arranged for a mini van to aid our transfer to the Hotel Windsor Asturias. The van was actually a tiny station wagon, so Vincent took another taxi too, and we got to the hotel in separate cars, but with everything in one piece and accounted for. Now, we were truly ready for our Brazilian Adventure. After dinner we went to the 22nd floor Terrace to see Rio. Fantastic! From our hotel we could see most of Rio: Sugar Loaf Mountain with its cable car and Mt. Corcovado with the 125 foot tall statue of Christ the Redeemer whose arms are out stretched embracing the city. It was very exciting seeing the Copa Cabana beach and the famous Maracana` Soccer Stadium. We took a tour to Corcovado to see the Cristos and it was awe inspiring. The face and hands were sculpted in France, but the huge body was constructed in Rio of local sandstone, a soft porous stone which requires frequent upkeep. Unfortunately, at present, there is a chain link scaffold over the statue during this resurfacing. Although the purity of line was marred, the majesty and enormity of the work was still evident.
However, this was one of the few times in all of our world travels that we visited a country in which we could not understand the language at all and very few people we encountered could speak English. Portugese is actually worse than Greek to us, since Vincent understands a bit of Greek. Just ordering dinner was an adventure, we thought that whatever came would be a surprise; so we went with the flow and life was very enjoyable. Our hotel was centrally located and the guests were international. Very interesting.
EMBARKATION Once again Vincent had arranged for a special van to transfer us to the ship. One showed up on time with seats for twelve passengers, but no space for luggage or the wheelchair and scooter. A second call was made and a Mercedes van showed up and we were off to the Port, a distance of about one mile at a cost of $100. A bit expensive but the transfer was a relief to us. Check in was simple, since the ship was staying overnight and there was no specific rush hour or crowds during this time. We were delighted to be back on the Star Princess for the third time.
THE SHIP The Star Princess is Hull #6051 built by the Fincantieri Monfalcone Shipyards of Italy and launched in 2002 at a cost of $450 million. Like her sister ships in the Grand Class, Grand, Golden and Sapphire Princesses, she has the distinctive "spoiler" in the upper stern, which holds the Skywalker Nightclub. She is 951 feet long with a beam of 159 feet (including the Bridge Wing) and a gross tonnage of 109,000 with a draft of a mere 26 feet. Her maximum speed is 24 knots and her registry is Hamilton, Bermuda. Average passenger capacity is 2,600 and her crew numbers 1,150 -- an excellent passenger to crew ratio.
She has 28 wheelchair-accessible cabins, which are not reserved for wheelchair only guests. It is a pity to see physically challenged people struggling with equipment, while able bodied passengers are using facilities they do not need. The ADA needs to be made aware of this. Our Travel Agent Skyscraper Tours keep medical certificates on hand in order to avoid this very dilemma -- all agents should be required to do so.
In our review of our first sailing on the Star Princess 2005, we did a detailed deck-by-deck description of the Star, so we refer the reader to this same site for that. Here, we will note some tricks to getting around the Star. Vincent's Scooter got hung up on several too steep entrances and exits-- for example the nearest route to the Lido Deck 14 could not be used. However, if we took the elevator down to Promenade Deck 7, then went aft to the central lifts (elevators) and then up to Deck 14 and voila` there was no obstruction. The Promenade is also too difficult to enter because of sharply angled ramps. Mary's wheelchair could handle them, but it was a bumpy ride (don't try this while carrying a drink or food!)
The Star's unique Centrum (Decks 5, 6, and 7) is a hub of activity, due to neatly clustered venues. Deck 5 is the lovely Piazza with its mosaic floor, on which the Argentinian Tango dancers Fernando and Cecilia executed their precise and fluid movements. This was not just a series of poses like on "Dancing With the Stars;" rather this was delightfully staccato and rhythmic steps. Bravissimi! So beautiful that Mary went to see them daily at 1, 2 and 3pm.
Deck 5 also has the Internet Cafe` and the Library, Vines Shop and Bar (with wine tastings and cheese pairings. Most important of all, here is located the International Cafe` serving wonderful coffees, espresso, pastries, delicate sandwiches, bigne and doughnuts. Starting at 11:00am they also have hot cookies for which passengers line up. The Centrum on Deck 5 is a busy place.
On Deck 6 are the Boutiques, the Passenger Services Desk and the Grand Casino. On Deck 7 are the Wheelhouse Bar, the Explorers Lounge, the Vista Lounge, the Tour Office and the Wedding Chapel. The Centrum is the Hub of many activities and a great meeting place.
Our old friend Hotel General Manager Gianfranco Sampiero told us of the logistical inconveniences which occurred at Valparaiso because of the Chilean Earthquake. There were passengers with travel problems and difficulties loading supplies. But, all were accommodated with patience. Of course, there are always those people unwilling to allow an act of nature to cause them inconvenience. We say go with the flow and everyone will be happier. Under Sampiero the ship is run beautifully and she remains lovely. Captain Edward Perrin keeps to his schedule. At one time he was First Officer of the Love Boat, what a recommendation!
FOOD & SERVICE Captain Perrin's cocktail parties are well attended and during this cruise there were three formal nights to remember. Service on board always filters down from above and Captain Perrin has set a high standard for all to follow. Service is top notch.
Food is where Princess excels; whenever we are asked which cruise line we prefer, we always respond that for food we suggest Princess, because most of her Executive Chefs are Italian and now we will add that the Corporate Culinary Ambassador and Master Chef is Commendatore Alfredo Marzi; His resume mentions that he has directed and supervised official banquets in honor of many famous guests including the following: Queen Elizabeth II, Diana, Princess of Wales, Former King Umberto of Italy, U.S. President George Bush, Italian President Ciampi, etc. --- (How's that for name dropping?)
As a graduate of L'Ecole Culinare Francaise August Escoffier, Marzi is esteemed world wide and sets all the menus and recipes for the Princess ships. He is the original "Love Boat" Chef and now visits all the Princess ships in rotation. We were lucky that he was on board this cruise. His potato gnocchi are incredibly light and served in a delicate cheese sauce.
The Star Princess' Executive Chef is Paolo Merio, a jovial master chef who apprenticed under Senior Exec. Chef Antonio Cereda and it shows. Born in Como, Italy, he is the product of a family steeped in fine food for generations. He attended the Hotel School of Bellaggio and began his Princess career at the age of 17, as the youngest employee in the Princess Fleet. From galley helper in 1986 to Executive Chef in 2000 - a 14-year meteoric rise.
Enough about personalities, now the food.
The Chef's Dinner: Quail & venison terrine with mesclun salad; Twice baked goat's cheese Souffle` with garlic Sabayon; Wild mushroom cream soup with Madeira sun-blushed tomatoes; Boston bib lettuce salad with shallot dressing; Palate cleanser of strawberry and thyme infused lemon Sorbet.
Choice of Entree: Griddled sea bass with Champagne risotto; Seared scallops in citrus butter, red bliss potatoes and vegetables Julienne; Pork tenderloin with cocoa spice rub, natural au jus and ratatouille; Pink roasted superior rack of lamb with rosemary and Boulangere potatoes; or Vegan English Stilton with crisp leek hay and Port wine glaze.
Or you may try the roasted Portobello, or fettucine Alfredo which are always available daily, as are shrimp cocktail, classic Caesar's salad, seared salmon, broiled chicken breast au jus, beef medallions with Bearnaise sauce, and southern fried chicken with French fries and coleslaw.
Now for dessert, try the Menage a Trois (Mini raspberry panna cotta, an Opera Gatteau and a Honey hazelnut semifreddo with Nutella Twist), or maybe a sugar free mint chocolate cake, or the "Always Available" Princess Love Boat Dream (Mousse on Brownie), traditional NY cheesecake, fruit or cheese plates, or a variety of homemade ice creams: Amaretto, Butter Toffee, Rum Raisin, Blueberry Sorbet or many others. Coffee or tea with made on board Mignardises. The best dessert was the Chef's concoction of an Amaretto Mousse, with a starfish cookie with strawberries tumbling out and all arranged in front of a spun sugar Red Coral Reef Sea Fan (beautiful to look at and taste).
Dinner on board the Star Princess is always an occasion with Maitre D' Giuseppe "Beppe" Castino orchestrating it. Our Head Waiters Andras and Wolfgang Pauer made meals interesting. They prepared specialities in the Portofino Dining Room tableside such as the following: Pastas, and desserts like Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee and on St. Patrick's Day, Irish Coffee.
Our waiters were Edgar and his Assistant Rodel, who were very attentive and helpful: One evening when Mary was ill, Vincent went down to say we would not dine in the dining room and in five minutes Maitre D`Beppe called our stateroom to say dinner would be brought to our cabin. And what a dinner it was: Soup, baked gnocchi, Chocolate Mousse, sorbets and a bottle of Verdicchio to wash it down!
Every morning we used the Bell Box (Room Service) for Continental Breakfast in our cabin --- it was always on time and coffee and chocolate were hot. Lunch time was always interesting and a special treat, since Chef Merio did many special features poolside on Deck 14 such as the following: Sushi displays, Mexican buffets, Italian trattoria spreads, tapas, etc.... Needless, to say our South America cruise was a gastronomic tour. We try to avoid the buffet because of the wheelchair, but buffet server, Gerry, helped us every time we ventured forth and gave us courage to return.
Two days before Ft. Lauderdale Commendatore Marzi made a spectacular Easter display of huge chocolate eggs (12 t0 24 inches tall) all uniquely decorated. We'll just call him the Michelangelo of Edible Sculpture; he is truly an artist. The huge displays had all the usual suspects: bunnies, chickens, hens, ducks, geese, flowers and even a "Tweetie" bird. We are positive that the cruisers on the next week were flabbergasted by this wonderland of art.
CABIN Stateroom Baja 303 on Deck 11 is wheelchair accessible. When entering on the left is a parking space for the wheelchair; a triple armoire with two sections for hanging and one with a set of shelves and the personal safe. Next, there is a TV, a refrigerator and a long desk/vanity with a lighted mirror and four drawers, a desk chair and an upholstered chair. When entering on the right, there is the large bathroom with 4'X4' shower with a fold-up seat, sink a mirror and nice shelves for amenities. The beds were two cot size bunks. When we asked that they be made into one, the response was that "As singles you will have more room in the cabin." Next time (May 9, 2010 on the Emerald Princess) we will insist on our request, since we were not happy with the configuration!
The far wall had all windows and the sliding door to the balcony, which held a chaise lounge, two other chairs and a large table. Alas, there was no automatic door opener which makes it difficult to enter and exit the cabin. Each time, it was a logistical event.
ENTERTAINMENT Cruise Director J.J. Ullrich has personality, pep and leads the fun aboard the Star with enthusiasm. The best show was the folkloric "Brasileirissimo Samba Show" Costumes were fantastic; featured were Capoeira Maculele and Samba --- WOW! --- This ship had new release movies in several venues: The Princess Theatre, the Vista Lounge and the Pool Deck Gigantic Screen which featured Cirque Du Soleil "Delirium." The production shows in the Theatre were "Ports of Call" and "Cinematastic." The Star Princess had something always going on from the top Deck 17 "Skywalkers" to Deck 5 Piazza. No one should go away bored. There is also the Scholarship at Sea Program: with computer courses, photography, ceramics, ballroom dancing, culinary arts and wine tasting. There are also gym, swimming, golf, trivia, bingo, the Casino tournaments, etc.
PORTS OF CALL Day 1. Rio De Janeiro, Brazil Embarkation suggested after 2pm. Overnight in Rio to facilitate tours of this beautiful city. Tours organized by Princess: Best of Rio, visit to Sugarloaf and Christ the Redeemer (8hrs. $199); Christ the Redeemer, visit the 125-ft-tall statue on top of Corcovado Mountain (4hrs. $89).
Day 2. Rio De Janeiro Depart 5:00pm
Day 3. Santos, Brazil Arrive 7:00am Depart 7:00pm Tours by Princess: Highlights Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city with barbecue lunch at a traditional Churrascaria (8hrs. $149); Tour of Santos & Guaruja`, a coastal resort (4hrs. $69).
Days 4. and 5. Sea Days
Day 6. Salvador, Brazil Arrive 8:00am Depart 5:00pm Tours by Princess: Salvador Highlights, bus ride through modern Salvador, visit craft shops, artisan studios and cafes (4hrs. $55); A Walk Through Historic Salvador, a guided tour including two beautiful Baroque churches (4hrs. $45).
Day 7. Sea Day
Day 8. Recife, Brazil Arrive 8am Depart 5:00pm We visited our local friends Alessandra & Eduardo and toured the city by car. We enjoyed Olinda, Brazil's old colonial capital, with the many varicolored houses and historical churches. That morning on the Pier we saw from the ship a group of dancers, in colorful costumes, with small umbrellas, doing the "Frevo", a local characteristic dance. With a very energetic "Crescendo"!
Day 9. Sea Day
Day 10. Fortaleza, Brazil Arrive 7:00am Depart 4:00pm Tours available: Introduction to Fortaleza, a narrated drive through the city with visits to the Neo-Gothic Cathedral, the Central Market, etc. (4 hrs. $49); Cumbuco Beach Tour, a 45-minute drive to this famous beach (4hrs. $79).
Days 11, 12 and 13. At Sea On day 11, on March 26, at 10:30am we crossed the Equator. On that occasion a traditional ceremony was performed by "King Neptune" and his court on Deck 14 (Neptune's Reef & Pool)
Day 14. Barbados Arrive 7:00am Depart 5:00pm A variety of tours are offered by Princess, from snorkeling to sailing and golfing, to scenic rides and safari adventures, etc....
Day 15. Antigua Arrive 9:00am Depart 5:30pm As for Barbados the same can be said for Antigua, more than twenty Tours are offered by Princess. Check the list on Princess' website.
Day 16. St. Thomas, USVI Arrive 7:00am Depart 5:30pm US Passport Check. This island is a great place for tax-free shopping.
Day 17. At Sea
Day 18. At Sea and Captain Perrin's Farewell Cocktail Party
Day 19. Ft. Lauderdale, FL. USA Arrive 7:00am
DEBARKATION This was a simple and speedy affair, since we had already done our passport check in St. Thomas. All those in wheelchairs met in the Casino and were escorted from there to baggage pick up and Customs. We were in our van and headed home on I-95 at 9:45am. Excellent.
SUGGESTIONS We strongly feel that wheelchair cabins should be available to those who need them and not to opportunists. A simple directive to travel agents should be made to inform them that the cruise line's policy will be to move those who ignore the rules to another cabin and it may not be one of their selection. Moreover, the cruise line should not assign the wheelchair accessible cabins to anyone without proper medical documentation until the last days of booking, when all the disabled passengers have been accommodated.
We are ready for another cruise! We have booked our next cruise on the Emerald Princess for May 9, 2010 and look forward to see again our old friends, Hotel Manager Peter Hollinson and Maitre d' Nicola Furlan. Happy Cruising!