Trip Report for cruise on the MS Veendam from 11/26/10 to 12/08/10.
Bottom Line Up Front: Good cruise overall on the MS Veendam. Enjoyed the food, the service, the entertainment and the company. Coffee was not good. The bed in the stateroom was the best we've experienced on a cruise. The ports of call were very good. We transited through some beautiful areas. Very worthwhile to get off the ship and tour the local countryside. Santiago, Montevideo and Buenos Aires were all lovely cities worth visiting. We spent additional time in both Santiago and Buenos Aires. We did not take any of the ship's tours.
Santiago: We arrived two days early in Santiago. At both Santiago and Buenos Aires you will end up paying a $140/person fee to enter the country. Apparently this is a reciprocal fee for charging their citizens that much to enter the U.S. Several other countries have to pay that fee also. You have to pay the fee before going through Chilean customs. We stayed at the Casa Bonita (e-mail: email@example.com), a European style Bed & Breakfast place in the central-western part of Santiago. The owners, Dennis and Carolina are trying to replicate the kind of B&B you would likely find in any large city in Europe that provides a clean, reasonably priced place to sleep with a good breakfast. The B&B is very convenient to the metro stop, about one block away. The metro is cheap and easy to use. It is located in a university section of town. I would recommend this place to any seasoned traveler. You can find further reviews in TripAdvisor.com. Dennis is Dutch, speaks English well and will help with any arrangements you need in Santiago. I strongly recommend a couple of days in Santiago. It is a lovely city which seems to be coming into its own. We took a free tour which lasted about four hours with a short lunch stop thrown in. The tour and the guide were quite good. Tips were expected at the end. The tour met at 1100 in the Plaza de Armas in front of the Cathedral. The guide wore a red shirt with "free tours" on the front.
Tours: We booked our transfer from Santiago to Valparaiso with South Excursions who provide tours that parallel the ship tours (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) . I made three tour arrangements through South Excursions. I dealt with Javier Zahn. They are not cheap, but they were cheaper than the ship's tours. We connected to other people through Cruise Critic and were able to keep our tour sizes from 4-6 people and expenses down. The people from South Excursion met us at the pier, spoke English well and were professional. I was able to make all of my tour arrangements through e-mail. I paid for the tours at the end of each tour. You can make cheaper arrangements at times by hooking up with other passengers and booking a taxi or minvan at the piers when the ship pulls in. I was willing to pay more for the security of having a booked tour.
Santiago, Vina del Mar and Valparaiso Tour: Alvaro Ramirez was our tour guide. He grew up in the U.S. and later moved to Chile. Good knowledge of the area. The wine tour consisted only of sampling the wines from a vineyard. No tour of the winemaking process. Not sure that this was worth the cost.
Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas and Petrohue Falls: Jamie Librecht was our guide. Spoke English well. Probably the most enjoyable tour. Definitely worthwhile. Great scenery and weather while we were there. Jaime took us to a lunch spot for a "typical" meal from the area. You can defer if you don't want to eat out.
Punta Arenas, Otway Sound Penguin Colony: Misael Perez was our guide. English was good. It is a long drive to the Otway Sound colony. Almost an hour. This is followed by a significant hike into the Penguin colony. Not recommended for people with mobility issues. It was VERY windy at the Penguin colony and cold. Dress warmly. We got some great pictures of the penguins who come up right next to the walkways. Misael was going to return us to the ship at the end of the 3rd hour of our 4 hour tour. I insisted on him driving us to Punta Arenas for a tour of the town before returning us to the ship. Several individuals who took the ship tour to one of the islands containing penguins ended up with sand clogging their cameras.
Ushuaia: We did not use South Excursions here, but a tour guide named Mario Nelson Miraglia (e-mail: Mariomiraglia@hotmail.com) recommended by previous CruiseCritics. Mario charged a very reasonable $35/person plus the cost of the entry into the national park (approx. $17). Mario speaks English well, not perfectly. He is personable and drove us to the national park and several areas around the city of Ushuaia. This is a worthwhile tour. Dress warmly. The day we were there, it rained, snowed and the sun shone.
Falklands: We weren't planning on a tour in the Falklands which was just as well since the weather was too bad to land there.
Montevideo: We did not use a tour company in Montevideo, but wandered through the city on our own. The ship docks close to the downtown area and it is a very easy walk to the major tourist sites. It was an enjoyable walk in much appreciated warm weather after several cold days. We probably missed some of the highlights that a tour guide can provide. The tourist agency passes out maps to all the passengers and there are pedestrian ways from the piers to the center of town.
MS Veendam: This is a smaller ship (1300 passengers) and is representative of HALs ships. They appear to target those who are not interested in the mega-ship cruises. The processing to get on and off was efficient, although our bags were beaten up some on arrival. They kept our passports the whole time which made me a little uncomfortable, but they claimed it eliminated the need to have everyone process through Chilean and Argentinian customs each time we pulled into a port. Most of the dEcor was tastefully done and did not appear to be worn. This was definitely not a young people's cruise. Most of the passengers appeared to be retired and in their late 50s and 60s, some older. While primarily U.S., there were large contingents of Canadians, Germans, Belgians and Australians. A good mix of folks. The entertainment was geared toward a mature crowd. The singers were very good. The Gaucho couple seemed almost as old as some of the passengers. The magician was a comedian also, but quite good. The Cruise Director, Patty, was very personable, approachable (she ate her meals in the buffet dining area) and enthusiastic. The weather was hot, cold and hot again, so you have to pack for both warm and colder temperatures. Lots of daylight. It didn't get dark until 2200. It rained, sleeted and snowed for several of the transit days which made some picture taking of the channels a little bleak. The seas were rough several days. 20-25+ foot waves on the day we left Cape Horn. Take either Bonine or Dramamine with you just in case. The ship will sell you Dramamine tablets for $5/ea. We chose to eat most of our main meals in the primary dining room in the more formal setting. We tended to meet more people that way. We had open dining and didn't have problems eating when we wanted. We did not eat in the fine dining room (extra $20/person) nor the free Italian restaurant. Several people who ate at the fine dining were enthusiastic about the experience. Others not so much. We really didn't hear any feedback on the Italian restaurant. I brought several bottles of wine on board and drank them in my stateroom. There was a $20 corkage fee for wine brought to the dining room. The one bottle that I received from my travel agent they allowed me to open without a corkage fee. Wine bottles ran in the $20+ range. If you bought a bottle, they would keep whatever wasn't finished. Sodas were an additional charge. You could buy a card to make them less expensive. I don't know where they bought their coffee, but I didn't like it and I wasn't alone in that regard. They have a cafe where you can buy real coffee.
Buenos Aires: We spent an extra two nights in Buenos Aires. We stayed at the Hotel RendezVous in the Palermo Hollywood section of Buenos Aires (email@example.com). There is also a web site and additional reviews on Tripadvisor.com. It cost us $15 to take a cab from the pier to the hotel. Very nice place. The owner, Frederic, is French, speaks English well and is very hospitable. The room was modern and comfortable. The breakfasts were good. 10% discount for paying in cash. The location is close to several highly recommended restaurants in the guide books. The metro (Subte) is a brisk 20-30 minute walk away. Nearest stop is Palermo. The Subte is cheap, about $.35/ride and fairly easy to navigate. Taxis were reasonable for trips downtown. The city is definitely worthwhile visiting. Very large with imposing buildings that could come out of any European city. We took advantage of some free tours that were offered (bafreetour.com) which were quite good. Two different tours were offered; the city center at 1100 and Retiro and Ricoleta areas at 1700. The tour guide spoke English fairly well and did a nice job. Tips are expected at the end. The amount is up to you. As in any big city, you need to be aware of potential pickpockets and scammers. Three days was probably just scratching the surface of this imposing city and I recommend experiencing it while you are there.
Miscellaneous thoughts: ATMs in both Chile and Argentina charged almost $5 per use, so be very careful with the number of times you use the ATM. I tried several different banks and the results were always the same. We pulled out money once in each country, trying to estimate how much we would need. We were able to pay for many items with U.S. dollars. All of the tours companies accept only CASH, so make sure you have enough with you when you leave. We generally don't like to travel with a lot of cash, but credit cards are still not a way of life in South America. The ship staterooms and the hotels had safes we could leave money and passports in. I found the reviews from other previous passengers very helpful and have tried to be as complete as possible.