Sunday December 19, 2010:
The day started with a call from Duncan at 5:00 AM stating that their flights had been cancelled since Europe was under snow. They tried to rebook a flight that would get them to Rio on Tuesday prior to sailing, however, I don't have my hopes up too high.
Mary and I got to O'Hare airport at 3:30 PM for a 6:15 U.S Airways flight to Charlotte, NC, which left on time, arrived in Charlotte on time, and had us walking a half mile between terminals to catch the connecting flight to Rio. The flight was delayed as we waited on 11 passengers on an inbound flight from San Francisco. We were also told that the plane would be making a stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, since they needed to refuel, due to the weight load on the plane from cargo. The planned 20 minute stop at 2:30 AM lasted almost two hours.
Monday December 20, 2010
We were one hour late arriving in Rio De Jenairo. Princess had the transfer folks waiting for us. This was nice. We had a pleasant ride to the docks, check-in was smooth, and we were on the ship by 3:30 PM. We immediately signed up for a $175 internet package, and had a terrible time connecting, just to look if we had email from Duncan and Jenny. After much frustration, we got the bad news that they couldn't get out of the UK, and we were on our own for this adventure of a lifetime.
Mary and I ate at the Horizon Court buffet for a quick meal. We then went to our cabin and rested a while, I notified the family that we arrived okay, and then went upstairs and made a cup of Starbucks via...the first good cup of coffee we had in 48 hrs. We met a nice couple from Jacksonville, MaryLou and Bill, both used to work for Eastern Airlines. It was a pleasant conversation, but didn't have quite the wit and humor I was anticipating.....it should have been Duncan and Jenny.
We had our muster drill at 7:30 PM, and then Mary and I went back to the cabin and prepared for dinner. I ran up on Deck 14 to do some night time photography, and Mary met me. A wonderful full moon on the port side of the ship reflecting off the harbor. There's supposed to be a full lunar eclipse tonight, but I don't think we'll be up to enjoy it.
We ate dinner at the Crowne Grille restaurant on the ship. $20 cover per person, but a wonderful combination of gourmet appetizers (Crab Cakes and Asparagus for Mary, Sea Scallops, Apples, and Faux Gras for me), followed by Filet Mignon for Mary and Rib eye for me. Mary had some excellent sautEed mushrooms with her entree, and I had a loaded baked potato. Both of us were pleasantly surprised by the flavor of the beef. Mary went back to the room, and I roamed the deck, dealing with my depression over Duncan and Jenny. I went back to the room, dropped off the camera, and went back out to claim a double Jim Beam on the rocks as a night cap. The alarm is set for 6:15 AM since we have the morning excursion to Christ the Redeemer statue, the symbol of Rio. They recommend we bring our own water. The temperatures are in the 90's here, as summer gets into full swing.
Tuesday December 21, 2010
Woke up early. The Internet was much better. I bet that everyone was still sleeping. Since I am an early riser, if the connection is this good early in the morning, I will have no problems keeping in touch with friends and family. Reading work email has been ruled out as a precautionary measure to maintain sanity on this well deserved three week holiday.
We ordered room service for breakfast. We met our tour group in theater for the trip to Christ the Redeemer statue. We had a wonderful tour guide, Patricia, a local native, and a very proud native. The view from top of Corcovado Mountain is spectacular. Bonus: We had 1 hr left of tour time, so Patricia took us for a drive through the Copacabana and Impenema beach neighborhoods and along the beachfronts . Several topless women, and lots of butt floss filled the sand.
We ate a light burger lunch, and went back to room for a mid-afternoon rest.
The boat set sail from Rio at around 5:50, a little late, since we had to wait for a busload of passengers from the Sugar Loaf Mountain tour that were stuck in traffic.
The sail-out from Rio was beautiful, as the sun was starting to set, the city was silhouetted on several sides. The two notable points were seeing Corcovado Mountain and the statue in silhouette against a backdrop of puffy clouds. The second gorgeous vista was the close sail by of Sugarloaf Mountain.
Mary and I ate a light dinner at the Horizon Court buffet, then a quick stop at a horrible ONE NIGHT ONLY show in the theater, which was Frank the cruise director selling you everything about Princess.
We stopped at the casino and I won $60, and Mary won $5.
Wednesday December 22, 2010
Out in the south Atlantic all day, calm seas, and no land. Mary commented that it was amazing how the horizon is circular around you, as if you were the stake in the ground holding a measuring rope to draw the circle.
Dinner was the first formal night, and the Captain's Champagne Waterfall event in the Atrium. We ate by ourselves this night. I had an appetizer of Kiwi, Grapefruit and a Raspberry sauce, a bowl of chicken won ton soup, and medallions of tenderloin with mixed vegetables and a potato Almond croquette. Mary had a Crab Cake, a Cesar Salad, and a very nice piece of Halibut. Desert was decadent chocolate pudding cake with flaked dark chocolate and fresh sweet whipped cream. Can you say sugar coma?
The rest of the evening was spent going to the various venues and sampling some of the entertainment. We stopped at the casino again, and Mary started with $20, and ended up with $56. Way to go Mary, as I returned the $60 won the previous night.
Thursday December 23, 2010
At sea all day, as we steamed towards Montevideo, Uruguay to pick up fuel and supplies.
I got a good early morning internet connection and sent mail to Duncan and Jenny to see what their status was. We were hoping, since the captain announced that over 60 passengers from the UK would be joining us in Montevideo, that Duncan and Jenny would be amongst them. I received a return mail from Duncan stating that they couldn't get out of the UK, and to enjoy ourselves. I am heartbroken.
We finally came out of open seas near San Carlos, passed a lighthouse and took some hazy photos of the shore. About two hours later, we entered the Rio De La Plata and into Montevideo harbor, the busiest sea port in South America. The key for the ship was so narrow, and it's amazing how the pilot can use the thrusters to slowly manipulate the ship into port.
Dinner: I had a shrimp cocktail, a salad and Duck L'Orange. I forget what Mary had.
We retired to our room which is on the starboard side of the ship facing the dock. We watched, as workers unloaded 7 full shipping containers, and 2 semi-trucks worth of produce and non-perishables, stage them on the dock, have them inspected for explosives, then fork lifted on to the ship. All was completed by around 12:30 AM, and at 1:00 AM the pilot fired up the thrusters and inched us out of port. Right below my balcony, a huge tugboat came and pushed us around our axis to turn the ship 180 degrees so we could head out back to the Rio De La Plata and out into the Atlantic again for our 1500 mile journey to the Falkland islands. I didn't get to bed until after 2 AM since this sail away from Montevideo was too awesome to miss and I just had to watch.
Friday December 24, 2010
We watched a presentation by Captain Edward Perrin, Joe May, and an Ice Captain, detailing the navigational charts of where we will be sailing to in Antarctica. We were prepared by the captain, that the weather is totally unpredictable, and can change within minutes, and the only thing certain was uncertainty. They also spoke about how they double man the bridge to navigate through the ice in the channels of the South Shetland Islands.
I went up on deck around 10:30 AM to join Mary. We both ate brunch, and read our books until about 1 PM.
At 3:30 PM, Mary and I attended the Maitre D's Sommelier's wine club tasting. The tasting features 6 wines, 1 champagne, 2 chardonnays, Jack London Cab Sav, Opus 1, and another Cab. All 6 wines were fantastic, and paired with a platter of CanapEs...after all, a sommelier's job is to know the wine and how to pair it with food. A new wine trick we learned....if it has oak, bring out the smoke. Basically, a California Chardonnay has lower acidity than its French counter parts, is more complex, and pairs well with smoked fish, or lightly smoked barbecued meats. We stopped at Vines, the wine bar, and purchased a bottle of the Jack London Cab Sav, and a bottle of the Cuvaison chardonnay.
Dinner: I had a duck pâtE appetizer, a dry Caesar salad, and a roasted shrimp kabob. Mary had baked calamari, which was tender and perfect, a Caesar salad and the shrimp kabobs. For desert, I had a Pineapple sorbet and some pistachio ice cream. Mary had an apple strudel with vanilla ice cream on a bed of vanilla sauce.
It was 9 PM when we finished dinner, and we went to the casino to try our luck. We were both playing a 10X 3 coin quarter machine. Mary was up and down, and I hit two 10X single bars, which was 300 coins or $75 each. By the end of the night, I was up $200.
As we headed back to the cabin, we noticed the sunset on the starboard side. It was about 9:45 PM and the colors were fantastic. We quickly went back to the room and grabbed the cameras. The sun had just settled below the horizon, and the colors were changing by the minute. I stood on the balcony and fired off about 100 pictures over the next 15-20 minutes, until the color was gone from the sky. I now understand why the photographers consider the 30 minutes after sunset "The Sweet Spot."
We went up to the buffet to pick up "Denny's" late night snack and two coffee cups for our morning Starbucks Via. What a wonderful invention, and we're probably the envy of all American coffee drinkers on board, since the coffee on the boat borders between bad and horrible. Our little Proctor Silex electric kettle is a wonderful accessory to travel with for making hot water very fast.
We returned to the room and opened the wine, had a couple of glasses, and settled down for the night.
Saturday December 25, 2010.
Merry Christmas. Overnight we cruised to the southwest, so we went back a time zone. Supposedly, that gets you an extra hour of sleep, however, you really just wake up an hour earlier. I awoke at 5 AM to the sounds of the ship's foghorn, and as the sun came up, it quickly burned off the fog. The temperature outside is a cool 56 degrees, a big contrast to the 80's and 90's experienced in Rio and Montevideo.
The seas are still relatively calm, with waves 1-4 feet, however, there is a low pressure system moving in.
I am trying to figure out this time zone thing. I think that Brazil sticks out so far to the east on the South American Continent, that it pushed those folks two hours ahead of NY, and being in summer, and observing daylight savings time, they are 3 hrs ahead of NY, 4 ahead of Chicago. As you head down the east coast of South America, you are actually heading southwest, so you move back into another time zone. Port Stanley is 3 hrs ahead of Chicago.
Sunday December 26, 2010
Sunday was spent in Stanly, Falkland Islands. With a population of just over 3000 inhabitants total throughout the Falklands, when a cruise boat docks, the population doubles for a day. The local folks were wonderful, and Stanly has a rich history savored by the people. It was about 45 degrees, and very windy, however, Mary and I were dressed for it, in layers. and didn't mind the wind at all.
After tendering to shore, we explored the town, and of course, in the Falklands, you can get all four seasons in one day. The sky covered itself with clouds, and we had a light rain, followed by even stronger winds. It's funny to watch the tourists battle the elements, all bundled up, and the locals walking around in nothing but hooded sweatshirts.
Mary spend the early afternoon shopping, and I went on my Gentoo Penguin tour, which consisted of a 10 mile drive in a mini-bus past the extensive mine fields that are marked for your safety. According to our guide, both the British and Argentinean governments are still actively clearing mines from the 1982 conflict, but lack funding to complete the job. While there have been no human casualties due to land mines since 1982, it has taken a big toll on the cattle and sheep that graze those fields. We then met our 4x4 driver and had the most awesome time going off road in the rocky and muddy fields for about 7-8 miles down to Bluff Cove to walk amongst the colony of about 2000 penguins. This was one of the greatest thrills of my life. The chicks were already hatched and about 2 months old, so they were about 2/3 the size of the adults. The Gentoo are the species that builds their nests of little pebbles and sticks, but constantly steal pebbles from neighboring nests until the victimized male starts chasing the thief. It's hilarious to watch. The sun hid behind a big black cloud, making photography a bit difficult, but there were several times the sun shone brightly, and I took hundreds of shots. Another bonus was that a small colony of King Penguins was starting to inch their way into the Bluff Cove area, as well as some Rock Hoppers.
The wandering albatross, with a wingspan of about 11 feet was the predominant avian species in the sky, and I did spot several arctic terns, as well as other various sea birds.
Mary and I have also spotted several pods of dolphins off the starboard side of the boat, and one whale so far.
We left Stanley about 6:15 PM, and are now headed southwest to the Antarctic Peninsula. We should be crossing the Antarctic Convergence, the area of the ocean where the colder Antarctic water goes beneath the warmer ocean waters of the south Atlantic. This churns up the food supply for the cetaceans and we should be seeing many whales during the day today. I don't need to say anything more about the food on board, since 99% of it is yummy.
Monday, December 27, 2010
We entered the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica around 7 AM in the morning. The Drake Passage has the world's roughest navigable waters, and thousands of ships have been lost during the glory of the whaling era, however, our entry into the passage was met with sunshine and calm seas. Around Noon we passed across the Antarctic Convergence. That is where the colder waters from below the 60th parallel undercut the warmer waters from the south Atlantic. This churns up the food that many sea birds and cetacean (whales and dolphins for you non-biologist) thrive on.
The first signs of Antarctic wild life made their presence known. They are Snowy Albatross, Wandering Albatross, Petrels, and Prions. All were photographed in flight and I have quite a few good shots. I do have a birds and mammals guide for Antarctica that I picked up in Stanley, so this came in handy to identify the exact species by their markings.
Mary and I had lunch in one of the main dining rooms today, she had a tuna melt and I had a Beef London Broil in a mushroom gravy topped with shitake mushrooms, with a side of fresh peas and carrots....yum! I topped off my meal with some chocolate bread pudding. I thought I wasn't going to talk about the food any more. I guess I slipped.
Well, the Drake Passage is starting to live up to its reputation, for after lunch the seas went from slight, to moderate, with about 10 foot swells. The barometer is falling, so a low pressure system is moving in, which means wind, wind, and more wind....they are expecting about 25 foot swells come mid-evening. I find the rocking of the boat very soothing.
We were informed several times today by the ship's crew, that there are special rules we have to observe for our 4 days sailing the Antarctic continent, like no food or smoking on the balconies or open decks, not to wear ball caps, don't expect clean towels, etc. The loose clothing and smoking & eating ban on the open decks is because they want nothing to blow into the water so the Antarctic Peninsula can remain a pristine environment. The clean towel, no laundry rules are because the ship can only carry so much "gray water" (toilet flushes, waste water from showers, cooking, etc) and we can only dump this gray water in certain locations in the ocean. Antarctica restricts this dumping, so we have to hold on to it for the four days. So to conserve our capacity to hold this water, the rules are enforced by international treaty. I am a firm believer in "leave nothing but your footprints, take nothing but your memories" and about a 1000 pictures.
We are expected to arrive at Elephant Island by 6 AM. The sun is setting here around 10:30 PM and rising around 4 AM, so there's not much full darkness. Elephant Island is where Ernest Shackleton left the crew of the Endeavor and made his way 800 miles north to South Georgia Island and came back to rescue them a year later. The crew survived on penguin, and anything else they could catch and lived beneath a wooden life boat for a year.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Traveling across the Drake Passage is like a never ending ride at Disney World. Compounding the problem was 90 knot winds. 90 knots is about 120 MPH. Air temperature was 33 degrees F, and with the wind chill, it was 18 below zero. Mary and I dressed in several layers: Silk long johns, shirt, fleece sweatshirt, wind proof jacket, and an over jacked with fleece. We were perfectly warm throughout, and when we got to Elephant Island, the first island in the South Shetland islands of Antarctica, it was snowing, and foggy, and 20 foot swells. The captain parked the boat to ride out the wind and snow. He said Elephant Island was 1/2 mile to starboard, but we couldn't see a thing. He turned the boat and started heading back the way we came to see if we could escape the weather. While he was turning, we had a 95 MPH gust and associated squall. The boat listed about 10 degrees to port. It was a weird feeling, but only lasted about 2 minutes and we were stable again.
Mary and I ventured up on deck just to see what it was like to stand in a 90 MPH wind. It was almost impossible to stand, and we sought shelter with the rest of the 2500 passengers. Around 11 AM, the fog started to lift a bit and we had a hazy view of Elephant Island. It was then I realized the true mystery of Antarctica, and the lure it has on adventurers. You see, the ship can get you there, however the continent only reveals itself to you when it wants to, and then, only enough to make you want more.
The ship then proceeded to the south portion of the island, where the Endurance Glacier is. This glacier is about 2 miles across, and about 100 feet high at its calving edge. It was so overcast, that photography was near impossible, however, the sun did shine through and I have some fantastic pictures. The ship stayed by this glacier for about 2 hours. The sun came out full as we headed out to sea. We are currently heading for Antarctic Sound, which is also known as Iceberg Alley. This should be interesting.
The sun sets at 11:30 PM or so, and then sunrise is as 2:30 AM. It doesn't really set, as the sky is fairly light for being night time, sort of like a dusk to dawn with no dark in between.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
I awoke at 6:45 AM and we were smack dab in the middle of "Iceberg Alley" in Antarctic Sound. The weather was mostly foggy with visibility of about 1 mile. The Captain slowed to boat down to 2 knots, as the ice pilot navigated his way through aircraft carrier sized pieces of ice. We were making our way to Esperonza Station, an Argentine observation post, one of the first in Antarctica. The fog got so bad, the Captain had to use only the thrusters to move the ship. After about 1.5 hrs of waiting, the decision was made to abandon our attempts for the trip to Esperonza Station, turn the ship around and head back to the Bransfield Strait, just south west of the South Shetlands, to make our way to our second destination, Admiralty Bay. On the way out, the weather cleared just enough to behold some of the biggest pieces of floating ice in the Antarctic Sound. Many of the icebergs had chinstrap penguins and Adelie Penguins hitching rides across the Sound. There was even a single Adelie Penguin on a small iceberg that became a meal for a lone Leopard Seal.
The sun broke through the fog at around 10:30 AM, and the Bransfield Strait was full of marine wildlife. Mary and I watched a pair of humpback whales spout and breach on the Starboard side of the ship. I believe I caught a few of the blows with the camera, and maybe the head of one of the humpbacks. Of course, the weather changes quicker than a blink of the eye here, and within 30 minutes or so, we were back in fog, and had some more snow on deck.
We made the entrance to Admiralty Bay as the sun dramatically broke through the clouds. The ship made a nice pass of Pieter J. Lenie, a U.S. summer scientific station, and north to Shag Point, home of the Polish Arctowski station, which a year round scientific station. There, the ship stopped to disembark 4 Polish scientists that we picked up during our service call in Montevideo. They will be there for 6 months. Two zodiac rafts launched from the Arctowski station came along starboard, picked up the scientists, and they quickly made their short trip back to the station.
Between the American and Polish stations were two huge colonies of penguins, one Adelie, one Chinstrap. I would estimate about 10,000 individuals in the colony. To the left of the Arctowski station, were a pair of humpback whales hanging out at the surface, fin slapping the water for at least an hour. Another humpback was spotted starboard aft, and was spouting the breaching. I caught a great, although slightly out of focus shot of the fluke.
The naturalist answered some questions about the wild life and the actual area we are in.
The water depth in Admiralty Bay is 16Km (10 mile) deep, as it is part of a deep Antarctic trench.
During the slow sail out of Admiralty Bay we were only 1/2 mile from the coast of the islands, and we gazed upon fantastic vistas of glacier upon glacier, upon glacier. I thought I was in heaven when I saw my first glacier in Alaska . All Alaska was in reality, was an appetizer to the main course.
We are below parallel 63 now, and by international treaty, we cannot sail below 65, so tomorrow, we will be spending the day in the Neumayer Channel, going to about 64.8 degrees south, then finally, on 12/31/2010, head out of Antarctic waters with a quick stop at Deception Island, a caldera (sunken volcano), before crossing the Drake Passage north to Cape Horn.
Sunset tonight is at 12:45 AM, and sunrise is a 2:15 PM. I have a nice suntan already, even though the sun is only out for about 5 hrs a day and hides behind those pale gray clouds the rest of the time.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
I woke up around 6:45 AM to nothing but fog. Mary popped her head up and inquired as to what was outside the window, to which I said, "Nothing but fog," but as soon as the words left my lips, the fog lifted and we were in the Gerlache Strait, with tremendous 6000 foot spiked snow covered peaks all around the ship. I made some coffee, but couldn't really finish it, and grabbed the camera, bundled up and ran up on deck 16 to see. I thought it would be cold, since the air temperature was only 32 degrees, however it was quite comfortable. I didn't know where to look, it was sensory overload.
The incessant recurring clouds and fog make it difficult to photograph the scenery in the distance, however, when we made the turn into the Nuemayer Channel, the sun came out to reveal a wonderful blue sky and the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula....stupendous. We sailed all the way into Neumayer Channel, seeing Crabeater Seals and Gentoo Penguins, all hitching rides on the ice flows. We also saw numerous Humpback whales, however, they were too far off to photograph. We officially made it to the 64.8 degrees south, as far south as we are allowed to travel in a heavy fuel vessel. It is sad that the big ships will not be able to travel to this wonderful land anymore, but I fully embrace the necessity to ban the travel due to the risk of damaging the fragile ecosystem down here. Small ships carrying less than 250 passengers that consume diesel fuel will still be allowed south of the 60th parallel. My soul tells me that I will return here one day on one of those vessels.
One of the day's highlights, was how the captain and his bridge crew navigated through a brash ice field. Brash ice is little tiny pieces of ice that are the last remnants of an iceberg. They are not so little. This was like navigating a mine field, or passing through the meteor belts that surround earth. We watched as the ship made its way through this ice....crunching around the sheer weight of the ship. They used their thrusters to push the ice away when it got too thick. This is the kind of ice that the old whaling vessels dreaded, since it can gather around your ship quickly and refreeze, trapping your ship. One of the most spectacular things of the day was when one pickup truck sized chunk of ice completely came out of the water and flipped over on itself with a thunderous crash....right in front of our balcony. Mary was filming video of the brash ice, when I heard her say, "OH MY GOD!!! Look at that," and you think she would have turned the camera towards it, but no.
The ship pivoted on its axis and sailed out of the Nuemayer Channel, and the captain made a quick stop in Paradise Harbor. This place was pristine. Calm, glassy deep water, and towering mountains with the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf in the near distance. It was here where a humpback whale decided to breach in front of our balcony. Of course, I didn't have camera in hand, and missed a golden opportunity. We stayed in Paradise Harbor for about two hours, then headed back out to sea, on our way to Deception Island for an early morning arrival tomorrow. This will be the last views of Antarctica before we set out to re-cross the Drake Passage and steam towards Cape Horn.
Right before leaving for dinner, a pod of three humpback whales breached in front of the balcony. This created the perfect ending for the perfect day....at least that is what I thought.
At dinner, the ship's sommelier gave Mary and I personalized service for about 45 minutes. We had attended his wine tasting on the 3rd day of the cruise, and he was wonderful....now we had him at our table, expertly pairing a wine with our selected dinner choice. The marvelous thing about having the sommelier tend to you, is that you get to find out what he has hidden in the wine cellar that is not on the wine list. Mary and I has a superb 2000 Robert Mondovi Merlot. The sommelier decanted the wine so slowly, with a high intensity halogen pen light to make sure no sediment entered the decanter. What an experience.
The sun will not set until 1:20 AM, and will rise again at 2:30 AM....so this is coming close to no true dark hours.
Friday, December 31, 2010
As the old year comes to an end today, so does our Antarctic adventure. I rose at 7:15 AM, looked out the window to our balcony, and saw hundreds of Chinstrap Penguins breaching through the calm waters. We were only about 5 miles from Deception Island, a caldera in the South Shetland islands. The last eruption of this volcano was in 1972, and destroyed a British and an Brazilian research base inside the perimeter of the caldera. It was extremely foggy, but the fog lifted enough to make out the outline of Deception Island and its volcanic ash beaches. The air smelled from Penguin and from sulfur.
Deception Island is home to the world's largest Chinstrap Penguin colonies, with over 300,000 nesting pairs. I think most of these pairs were in the water this morning.
The ship stopped for a bit so we could view the sites, then circumnavigated the island, turned around and headed back out to sea to begin our 1.5 day crossing of the western Drake passage. A low pressure system is moving into the area, indicating an infamous South Atlantic summer storm, and it's expected to be a rough crossing. The captain came on the PA and informed us to store all valuables in a drawer, or to leave them on the deck (the nautical term for the floor), since if they are on the deck, they can't fall any further.
Tonight is New Years eve on the Star Princess. They have hung a huge net from the ceiling of the atrium, and are beginning to fill it up with balloons for a midnight drop to ring in the new year. It is also the second of our formal dinners. The naturalist on board tried to make a joke that we needed to sail away from Deception Island, since with everyone dressed in tuxedos tonight, the Chinstraps would think that we were a big floating penguin colony.
The New Year's Eve party was fantastic.
If you can imagine about 2600 people gathered on three decks around the atrium, a great band playing good old time rock and roll and then the balloon drop at midnight...it was AWESOME!
Overnight, we had to secure everything, as we made our way back across the Drake Passage. We have 20 foot swells and 60 MPH winds....the ship is doing its own version of Rock and Roll.
Tomorrow around 4 PM, we will circle Cape Horn, the most southern tip of South America, and then make our way into the Beagle Channel on our way for a very early morning docking in Ushuaia, Argentina on Sunday, 1/2/2011. Mary and I have a full day of shore excursions there. The following day, 1/3/2011 we will dock in Punta Arenas, Chile, and have some fun things to do there after we tender to shore.
Saturday January 1, 2011
The Drake Passage crossing was extremely rough with 25-30 foot swells. We awoke around 8:15 AM to the boat listing back and forth. Mary wasn't doing so well and looked a little green around the gills. We went for a 10 AM presentation by Joe May, a port lecturer in the Princess theater at the front of the ship. The boat was bouncing pretty good. Mary was too sea sick to eat breakfast, and after the lecture we returned to our cabin and Mary slept most of the early afternoon. The captain announced that the seas and winds were too harsh to embark our Chilean pilot to circumnavigate Cape Horn, however, we'd still do a sail by about 3 PM.
The view was spectacular, as we were met with the cliffs of Cape Horn, as well as many albatross and petrels. Cape Horn was shrouded in cloud, but as soon as we sailed past it on the Atlantic ocean side, the seas calmed, and Mary started to feel better.
About two hours later, as the sun burned off the clouds and we were presented with blue skies as we entered the Beagle Channel, so named for the vessel that was captained by Fitzroy, and carried a young twenty six year old naturalist named Charles Darwin.
Mary and I ate dinner in the main dining room, which was unusually empty. I think too many people were nursing hangovers from the night before, or recovering from sea sickness from the morning's rock and roll revival.
After dinner, we watched as our Argentine pilot come on board, from an Argentine Navy vessel with huge 50 caliber machine gun mounted on the bow.
The sun began to set on the port side of the boat, and I grabbed the camera and went to the Sports Deck on level 16 of the ship, however, the ship went into a hard left hand turn in the channel that put the sunset over the Argentine hills on the starboard side of the ship. I ran back to the cabin, and waited patiently to capture the sunset in the southern most part of South America. As soon as the sun dips below the horizon, or in this case, behind the mountains, the sky becomes ablaze. It is hard to describe, and even though the camera can accurately capture the colors, it's just a narrow view of the sky, not what you take in 360 degrees around you.
Sunday, January 2, 2011
We arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina around 5:30 AM, about 1.5 hours ahead of schedule. Due to only 1/2 hour between tours that we had booked, we were able to cancel our mountain drive in the morning, and Mary and I were free to roam the streets of this town at "Fin Del Mundo" the "End of The World." We started by stopping at the post office and mailing 20 postcards to everyone we love. We did a little gift shopping, then strolled the streets. We went back to the ship around 11:30 AM, ate a quick lunch, and got ready to disembark for our Beagle Channel Catamaran tour.
The catamaran took us to several small islands inhabited by sea lions and King Cormorants. I was pretty exciting since the boat got us to within about 20 yards from the animals. We also saw a colony of Rock Cormorants that just had their brood. There is advantages to photographing the wild life up close, but there are disadvantages too, number one on the list is the stench. Since I have been around sea lions before, I knew they had an odor, however the Cormorant smell was almost overwhelming, where the sheer concentration of ammonia in their droppings goes through your nostrils and enters the back of your throat where you just can't get rid of it. There were several times I had to enter the ship's main cabin to rid myself of that smell. Mary didn't fair too well with the stench either.
We got back to the Star Princess around 3:30 PM, and we sailed away from Ushuaia around 5 PM going back into the Beagle Channel....Argentina on the starboard side, and Chile on the left. The channel widens a bit, and then you have Chile on both sides. We disembarked our Argentine pilot, picked up two Chilean pilots and proceeded to navigate the fjords of the channel. There were six glaciers, small compared to what we saw on the white continent, but still quite impressive. They were named after countries during the charting of the channel from 1882-1883. They were Holloandia (Holland), Italia (Italy), Francia Nuevo (France, new glacial arm), Francia (France Originally charted glacier) Alamania (Germany), and Romantia (Romania). The last glacier for Romania, was a sad site. The glacier is melting at an incredibly fast rate, and the tallest glacial waterfall I have ever seen was cascading down from the cliffs into the channel, as if it were fed by a river. Climate change is real. It's not a made up thing. The history of this planet shows that it has happened time and time again throughout the ages, only never during the time of man. The changes are drastic, and regardless of what we do, we cannot control it, alter it, or reverse it. The glaciers will disappear, and they may be gone for generations to come, then the climate will change again and recreate what it has taken back.
Monday, January 3, 2011
We pulled into Punta Arenas at 6:00 AM, ahead of schedule and anchored in the harbor. That morning we saw three dolphins off the starboard side just playing in the water. I have a nasty cold, and was not feeling well, but disembarked on the ship's tender to go ashore for our 11:30 City tour. Of course, it was raining, and the bus was 45 minutes late. I realized that if Punta Arenas is representative of Chile, and is the Capital of Patagonia, then Chile is a very poor nation, however, their downtown area is very pretty with architectural elements of England, Spain, and Croatia, the 3 primary European groups that settled the area. The other thing I learned, is that Ferdinand Magellan is as popular as Jesus is in Rome. Everything in this city is dedicated to Magellan.
We toured the Public Cemetery which was very interesting, the Patagonian Institute's collection of items from the Industrial Revolution, as well as a Natural History museum dedicated to the Native peoples, whom the Spanish nearly wiped out along with all traces of their culture. We then went to the town square, to touch the Indian's foot on the Statue of Magellan. It is said that if you touch the foot, you would return to Patagonia. I touched and held the foot. Someday, I will be back here.
Mary and I walked back to the dock, purchased a bottle of wine for Mary at 10,000 pesos ($22), gave the woman $25 U.S. and received $1600 Pesos back. We then re-boarded the Star Princess and rested in our stateroom.
In the evening, we saw a few Sea Lions, and extremely playful Magellanic Penguins in the straits as we sailed out for our 2.5 day journey to Puerto Madryn, Argentina.
Tuesday, January 4, Wednesday January 5, and Thursday January 6, 2011
The sail out from Punta Arenas was uneventful. I was feeling quite under the weather, having picked up a cold from someone on the ship. I wasn't in the mood to do much but sleep, which I did nicely for the next two days, getting a total of about 20 hours between the two sea days. There was not much happening on the ship these two days either. The seas were smooth, and the only wildlife we saw was a pair of sooty albatrosses and a couple of petrels that were following the ship's wake for 2 straight days.
On Wednesday night, there was an incredible sunset. I don't think I have ever seen sunsets as beautiful as I have seen in South America. Another highlight of our two days at sea was Wednesday night in the casino. Somehow, Mary managed to win $80 and I won $700. I call that a very good night.
Princess told us that they would provide shuttles from the dock to the downtown area of Puerto Madryn. When we pulled into port, the sea lions were all around the dock, and all we had to do was look over the balcony. I spent some time photographing them from the balcony, and then again when we disembarked for our day in the city.
I thought that this city was going to be a bust, but found it very delightful. We took the shuttle to the downtown area, and then walked with the son of a woman we met on board, and another couple about 2 miles into the residential area of the city. We were met with quite a few stares from the locals. No one speaks English in Puerto Madryn, and reading a menu was also a challenge, however we managed. The 5 of us had a ton of food and several local beers, and the bill came out to $10 per person.
Mary and I shopped for a few items, found a couple of beautiful scarves which were unbelievably cheap, and then headed back to the ship.
It was the Chef's Dinner tonight. I had a braised rack of lamb, and Mary had some pan seared sea scallops. Both were accompanied by a wonderful bottle of wine, and an awesome desert.
We both headed back to the Casino. I put a $50 bill into the same machine I had played the night before and in less than 15 minutes, had won another $300 and cashed out. The casino is only open for one more night....maybe I can pay for this cruise with the winnings? Well, at least the bar bill.
On Saturday, we will be in Montevideo, Uruguay, our 5th and final country. Princess cancelled my tour of the Synagogue...DUH! It's Saturday! In any case, Mary and I will have the day to roam the city on our own, then we have to get back to the ship and pack, since Sunday 5 AM is disembarkation in Buenos Aires on Sunday. I can't believe three weeks have passed already.
All I can say is what a ride.
Friday, January 7, 2011
Well, I think Mary has my cold now. It's good we have a day at sea on our way to Montevideo, because she can spend it resting.
After dinner we went and gave a little money back to the Casino, after all it was their money. The long and the short of it, we ended up with $1000 winnings....and ownership of the cash has been transferred from Princess to Denny and Mary.
We went to the Princess Theater to see the new production show, "Brittish Invasion" a tribute to all the bands from the 1950's through the present day that have had a profound influence on our music. The show was well staged, the dancing and costuming were fantastic, however, technical sound difficulties detracted from the show. I am sure when they work out the glitches, this show will be enjoyed by thousands.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Mary and I slept until about 8 AM as the ship thrustered its way into the slip at Montevideo. How do they do that with such accuracy? We ate a light breakfast, then disembarked, made our way down the long pier and tried to figure out how to get into the heart of the city. Very little English is spoken in Montevideo. Even the "Tourist Police" which were out in great numbers do not speak English and directions are given with hand gestures.
Although a little on the dirty side, I found Montevideo to be a wonderful city. The neighborhoods are a mix of 18th and 19th century Spanish and other European influenced architecture. I was amazed at the 12 foot tall hand chiseled doors on most of the buildings.
Using a few crude maps, Mary and I made our way to Independence Square, meeting up with a nice couple from England who old us of the tomb below the statue of Artiga in the middle of the square. Mary and I checked it out and were quite moved.
We visited the Montevideo Leather Works, and we amazed at the craftsmanship in the garments, and the relative inexpensive price tags. Although we were very tempted to purchase high quality items at dirt cheap prices, we knew our suitcases would be packed to the gills and we wouldn't have the room.
We strolled down 18th D'Julio avenue, the heart of the Montevideo shopping district for about a mile, saw trash being collected by horse drawn carts, looked in several shops, then headed back towards the square.
By the time we got there, all the sidewalk vendors had their local crafts for display. Mary and I saw some nice artwork, and fancied one of tango dancers which we purchased, as we listened to the artist describe how to pack and get the art home without damage...all in Spanish....all in great detail, without understanding a single word, but for the "mucho gracias" that was said as we paid in American dollars.
Mary and I stopped for lunch at one of the local establishments, with a sidewalk cafe, that actually had a menu with fine print English for the items. Mary had a steak sandwich, and I had what was probably the best sirloin steak in a creamed mushroom sauce that I have ever tasted. Mary had a bottle of Orange Fanta, and I had a Coca-Cola in a real Coca-Cola bottle. Getting the check for $610 was not an episode in sticker shock...it was an exercise in mathematics as I quickly applied the 19.2 Pesos to the dollar conversion, and realized that this fantastic lunch was only $15 per person.
We took a leisurely stroll back to the ship, stopping at the old railroad station for a couple of last minute t-shirt deals, then back up the gangway to our stateroom, where we proceeded to start the arduous task of packing our suitcases. They needed to be placed outside our room prior to leaving for dinner.
After dinner, we had a nightcap, and retired early, since the ship arrives at our disembarkation port of Buenos Aires, Argentina at 5 AM, and we have a 7:15 AM departure for our all day city tour and Estancia Visit.
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Ok, so we get up, get dressed, make sure we're packed, do a room check, and head to the Wheelhouse Bar to meet our tour group. One thing I can say about Princess, is they treat you like royalty when they are taking your money during the cruise, but their haste to get you off their ship leaves a bit to be desired. Disembarkation was disorganized to say the least. It took us so long to get down the gangway, that Mary and I missed our bus for our tour. The tour operator was very understanding, and although we were supposed to be on bus 2, they allowed us on bus 4. I guess there was a lot of shifting around since people were missing the buses.
We had a nice drive through Buenos Aries proper, then off to the cemetery to see the grave of Eva Peron, then a drive to the Pampas and the working Estancia.
We were greeted at the bus by the gauchos, serving empanadas and wine. A few folks on the tour group did not like these yummy empanadas, and just took a small bite and tossed them into the wicker baskets set around the main house as trash cans. A few of the young gauchos and their lady friends did several folk dances for the crowd, then randomly selected folks from the audience to participate. After the crowd cleared to go horseback riding and explore the estancia, one of the huge hound dogs on the ranch quickly ran to the wicker baskets and found all the uneaten empanadas and filled his belly. The funny thing was that the empanadas were wrapped in paper napkins, and the dog was able to get the treat out, but the paper napkin was left hanging in his mouth.
Several people went horseback riding, took hay rides and sat in the shade. Mary and I wondered the grounds, looked at the rooms in the main house, enjoyed listening to and watching the peacocks crow and display their feathers, and took a gander at the barbeque that was being prepared for the large tour group.
The gauchos put on a display of horsemanship where a small ring was placed on a ribbon in an arch in the middle of a field. A small stick, the size of a common chop stick was used to try and snag the ring as the gauchos rode full gallop through the arch. If the gaucho caught the ring, he'd give it to a lady in the audience in exchange for a kiss. Rumor had it that if the gaucho gave the ring to a man, the man would have to kiss the horse.
We were then mustered to the main dining hall. In a smaller ante room to the dining hall, was a craft store, with hand woven items made from alpaca fur. Mary bought a very pretty poncho and three scarves.
Lunch was more than any one person could possibly eat, and we all felt obligated to get into the Guinness Book of Records, at least sampling everything that was served to us. Sirloin steak, Chicken, Lamb, Beef Ribs, Potato Salad, regular salad, all the wine you could drink, desert. I think the gauchos were fattening us all with intentions of serving us to the next tour group.
We then boarded the bus for the trip back to Buenos Aries to pick up our Airport Transfer bus. Everyone peacefully snoozed on a full bellies. I did not nap. I was watching out the window of the bus as we passed from the Pampas back to the city. At one point, close to their main soccer stadium was a neighborhood that was a scene out of Slum Dog Millionaire. Row upon row of 2 and 3 story buildings, most missing the walls or with huge gaping holes in the brickwork, street after street...all filled with the poorest of the poor of Buenos Aries. I was shocked at the level of poverty in this affluent city, and for the first time in 3 weeks, I felt that I was in the middle of a third world country.
The bus let us off at the downtown Radisson Hotel, and we were directed to the hospitality room, which was nothing more than their ballroom, crowded with people, waiting for the airport bus. The transfer process was totally disorganized. I was shocked at how well things run, like clockwork, when you are on the ship, but as soon as Princess is done with you, you are pretty much treated like cattle, being herded from place to place.
Our bus was supposed to leave for the airport at 5:30 PM for our 9:30 PM flight to Atlanta on Delta airlines. Due to some other tour group arriving at the Radisson, and no parking area for the busses, we were told that it would be safer to just stay where we were. One German speaking fellow, in broken English became irate and started laying into the poor woman who was trying to coordinate people's departures. I felt bad for her, since the situation was way out of her control.
We were finally called at 6:15 PM, boarded the bus, and took the 45 minute ride to the airport. We quickly found our luggage, entered the terminal and were greeted by a line that went a quarter of a mile to check in for the flight. Give me a break people!!! It's a 767 that only seat 241 people. It took us two hours to check in. Then we had to get through security, which was the biggest joke. Put your stuff on the belt, walk through the metal detector. No taking off of shoes, no showing your liquids in a baggy, no removal of laptops or electronics from your bag.
Just when we thought we were off the hook, we see the immigration clearance line, snaking like the line for Magic Mountain at Disney. We had 30 minutes until our flight, the message boards showed the flight as "boarding" and there we were in a line that had several hundred people in it. Someone suggested we speak up and let folks know that we had a flight in 20 minutes. I felt that it would be hopeless, until this wonderful Argentine woman spoke up in Spanish, explained the situation to the folks in line, and like Moses parting the Red Sea, the line opened up and let Mary and I to the front. If you would have tried that move at a U.S. airport, you would have been trampled, stripped of your clothes and valuable, and people would be stepping over your naked body to take their shoes off and place them in the plastic bins.
We got to the gate area where they searched our hand luggage, cleared us, and we got on the plane. Delta is a good airline, much better than the inbound flight on US Airways. At least on Delta, the flight attendants smile at you. The plane took off 1 hour late. We ate dinner, and fell off to sleep for the rest of the flight.
Monday, January 10, 2011
We only had a 1 Hour and 22 minute layover in Atlanta to get through immigration, claim our bags, clear customs, recheck our bags and catch our connecting flight back to Chicago. Lesson number 2: Never let Princess book your air travel. I found out from other passengers who booked their own air from the Chicago area, that we paid almost triple through Princess, and had no flexibility in our flights, and they book the connections too close together.
Well, we got to Atlanta in the middle of the worst snowstorm that Atlanta has ever seen. We waited in line, cleared immigration, however, they put a little stamp on my declarations form, and when we got to customs, Mary was sent on her merry way, and I was singled out and asked to go into this holding room, and they took my passport. When I was finally called twenty minutes later, the customs agent told me I declared the two cartons of duty free cigarettes, one for me, one for Mary, and that you were only allowed one carton each, and to "not do that again." He then told me "Have a nice day." GROWL!!!!
We rechecked our bags, looked at the boards and saw our flight was boarding. Thanks to the snow, everything was delayed, since our flight was supposed to leave at 7:20 AM, and it was now 8:15 AM. Of course, we're in Terminal E, and our flight is leaving from Terminal A. We go down to the train station, where the trains are supposed to run every 3 minutes, and we just missed the train. The timer that counts down until the next train goes down to zero, then a message comes up that says, due to technical issues, the next train will be here in 6 minutes. Mr. Murphy, your laws were in full action.
The train finally comes, and we go through all the other train stops...Terminal D, Terminal C, Terminal B, and finally, A. We hoof it through the terminal, down to gate 5, where I see our Delta plane pushing back from the gate and disappeared around the corner.
The gate agent saw the disappointment in our eyes, and looked for the other flights going to Chicago.....everything was cancelled due to the weather. Just when we thought all hope was lost for getting home on Monday, the desk agent's phone rang and we heard her distinctly say, "You are kidding? You just made two people's Christmas list for next year." She hangs up the phone, looks at us and says, "You're not going to believe this, but they are pulling the plane back to the gate because there is a big delay for de-icing. You're going home." I then realized that there is a God, although he has to mess with you a little before you believe in Him. We got on the plane, sat for two hours, but eventually took off and made it back to Chicago.
God wasn't done messing with us. We made the plane and made it back to Chicago, but our bags didn't. Okay, one more line, file the claim, get the case number and wait a few days until they are delivered. If an airline is going to have lost or delayed luggage, it's always better to have them lose things on your way home. One problem. In Argentina, the temperatures were in the 90's. In Chicago, the temperature was in the single digits. Over my back was nothing more than a wind breaker, in the bags were my wool winter coat.
The wait for our town car wasn't that long, and the car was warm and toasty. We got home, opened the door, and God had just one more trick to play on us.
Somewhere, over the course of the three weeks we were gone, one of our house sitters must have accidentally started the dishwasher cycle, which leaked, on our new hardwood floors that we had just installed in October, and the floor in the kitchen was totally buckled. Although upset, and although I knew the insurance would cover most of the damages, it just felt so good to be back home.
There is nothing like Antarctica on the planet. Not Alaska, not the North Polar regions, nothing. The adventure of getting there, being there, and returning home safely is one that will be emblazoned in my mind for all of my days.
I give Princess a 7 out of 10 for this cruise. They would have had a 10, but I took back 3 points for how they handled disembarkation and airport transfers.