We were very excited to be going to the Antarctica and had some 18 months or so to plan our trip from when we first booked it. We decided to take advantage of several "must see" areas of South America and left home on 9th December 2010 for Santiago Chile (LAN flight).
After a couple of days in Santiago, we headed up to Cusco for 5 days, then an 8 day cruise around the Galapagos Islands, a few days at Iguazu Falls followed by several days in Buenos Aires prior to boarding the Star Princess.
The days leading up to the cruise went by quickly and it seemed that in no time at all, we were queued up at the Marriot Hotel for pre-cruise check in. While this process took some time due to the number of people trying to take advantage of it, it did save time at the terminal. The following morning, we met up with our friends and boarded a bus to take us to the cruise terminal which I thought was miles away. It was actually only a 10 minute ride from the Marriott at the San Martin end of Florida Street/Avenue which is actually a Mall.
The terminal in Buenos Aires is a commercial one so after going through security and the X-ray machine ("is that a gun in there?" "no", "ok, go on" - what the??) we sat down and waited for a bus to transfer us to the ship. By 12 noon we were on board in our balcony cabin and headed off to familiarise ourselves with the ship. If you've been on a Princess ship, then the layout is pretty similar for all of them so you feel "at home" more or less straight away. Actually a good way to familiarise yourself with the ship is to take part in the "treasure hunt" which requires you to collect stamps from various parts of the ship such as the boutiques, Sabatini's restaurant, the casino, the Spa /Gym area (which is huge BTW). Once you've got all the stamps, drop it in the box and the following day, vouchers are given out as prizes for those whose cards are drawn out.
About the ship ...
The Piazza area on Deck 5 is really popular and lots of people towards the end of the cruise were eating a light breakfast there. During the day, many passengers meet there and basically sit around having a cocktail or drinking coffee or the eating yummy "cookies" which are available after 11.30am - they go very quickly !! There is now a dedicated coffee machine (as in a large one you'd find in a cafe/restaurant) in the Piazza area as well as a coffee machine in the bar area. However when waiter takes your coffee order they get made at the dedicated coffee area rather with than the bar staff who only make coffees or hot chocolates if you order directly with them ... well that's what I noticed. We always buy a coffee card as they are good value for money - $24 + 15% gratuity entitles you to 15 coffees such as cappuccino or lattes, and free hot chocolate or specialty teas at any time. I think complimentary filtered coffee is available all the time but we prefer lattes.
I also noticed that "Vines" was well patronised. I'm sure not many people realise you can have complimentary Tapas there and you can sample three different wines for around $US10. There's now a Godiva's shop next to Vines but it didn't seem to be open very much - I think they should turn that into another lounge area as seating in the Atrium / Piazza area is at a premium.
Internet connection was quite slow - it's best to ask the Manager when the connection is at it's fastest. Around Antarctica, it was fastest in the morning before 10am and I think that held for most of the cruise actually. One of the reasons it's slow is due to all the independent WiFi-ers so while there may be computer free on Deck 5, every man and his dog may be accessing the Internet from elsewhere on the ship. Apparently there are limited numbers of laptops you can hire too.
The Crown Grill offered an English Pub Lunch on a couple of the 17 days we cruised and they looked really popular but we were still full from breakfast or just wanted something light for lunch rather than a fully fledged meal so we gave it a miss. Our friends travelling with us went to the Pub lunch both times it was offered and they loved it.
What I noticed about the menu in the dining room (we had a fixed time dining) was that they not only have the vegetarian option and the standard menu on the "Port side" as our friends said, but they also have "light" meals indicated by the Lotus Spa logo as well as one "home style" meal option, eg Meatloaf or Goulash (served with mashed potatoes rather than other style of potatoes) - both dishes were very nice.
Our friends are very regular cruises and to make the meals a little different, they asked one of the Head Waiters if he could arrange to have something different each night for the table as an appetiser. So each night we had some additional food (as if we needed it) such as an Antipasto platter or additional vegetables with our meal, etc. It was very nice and each night was a "surprise".
The other thing that was new and offered to Platinum and Elite passengers was that at Skywalkers at 5pm, they had hors doeuvres - usually different cheese etc and a cocktail of the day - cocktail of the day was $2.95 (plus 15%) whereas in the Bars, they are from $6.95 plus 15%. We didn't go to it and our friends went just once and they said it was well attended and the cheeses and other offerings were good.
We didn't go to any shows apart from one comedy show which was good for the simple reason that we were on the second seating for dining and usually finished in the dining room around 10-10.15pm (we were tired by then) and in addition, for all the ports we went to, we had private shore excursions arranged and each had an early start, eg meet at one of the lounges around 6.45am - 7.00am. Talk about boot camp!!
The lecturers on board were interesting (a naturalist and a person who had an 18 month stint in Antarctica). The port lecturer, Joe May was very good too.
About the itinerary...
We set sail around 8.30pm with Captain William Kent in command. Our itinerary was as follows:
Jan 9th - Buenos Aires
Jan 10th - at sea (Cruise Critic meet and greet)
Jan 11th - at sea
Jan 12th - Stanley (The Falkland Islands) (tender)
Jan 13th - at sea
Jan 14th - Elephant Island (scenic cruising)
Jan 15th - Admiralty Bay / Esperanza Station (scenic cruising)
Jan 16th - Neumayer Glacier (scenic cruising)
Jan 17th - Deception Island (scenic cruising)
Jan 18th - Cape Horn (scenic cruising)
Jan 19th - Ushuaia
Jan 20th - Punta Arenas (tender)
Jan 21st - at sea
Jan 22nd - at sea
Jan 23rd - Chacabuco (tender)
Jan 24th - Puerto Montt (tender)
Jan 25th - at sea (Cruise Critic meet and greet)
Jan 26th - Valparaiso
About the cruise and the shore excursions...
Our friends had arranged private shore excursions at each port (but not Valparaiso) - all with Portcompass apart from the excursion in Stanley.
At Stanley, we were lucky enough to secure a booking with Patrick Watts who took dozens of us in 4WD in convoy form for our 2 hour + trip to Voyager Point to see three different types of Penguin colonies - the highlight for us was the King Penguins - so majestic - but the Gentoo and Magellanics are just as loveable. Unfortunately it poured with rain when we arrived and if you didn't have wet weather gear (we didn't) you got thoroughly soaked (we did). We did manage to get several good shots of the different penguins prior to taking to shelter for most of the rest of our stay at Voyager Point. Regardless it was still "worth it" for us to see those magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. Once back in Stanley, we wandered back to the tender area with a few stops for photos and shopping along the way.
We had good weather at sea for most of our cruise - no huge waves or storms although there were some days when the wind was up but not enough to make me sea sick. But on the sea day after Stanley I developed a cough - I guess that's to be expected after getting soaked to my skin and sitting in dripping wet clothes for hours. We saw Albatross, penguins and whales during some of our sea days from BA to Elephant Island. As my Notepad died earlier on in our trip, I didn't keep a trip diary and can't recall where the ship was when we saw them.
On Jan 14th, we reached Elephant Island, however it was shrouded in fog so we didn't see it at all. Not feeling well, I hit the sack around 12-ish and stayed in bed for the rest of the day as well as the following day. I did manage to get out of bed to see the Polish Research Station, Arctowski. The ship stopped to allow people from the station to come on board and others to disembark for their stint at the Station. Some fresh provisions were also loaded on to the boats. But after that, I hit the sack again and missed "Iceberg Alley".
Luckily I felt better on Jan 16th - the weather was perfect - clear waters, no wind, blue skies. We spent the whole day marvelling at the beauty of the glaciers, ice / snow. We saw penguins and seals on icebergs as they floated by, and various birds of course. I felt very lucky that I was able to witness this amazing scenery - pictures of it really don't do it justice IMO. It was cold, 1 deg C, but that was much warmer than some of the cities in Europe and North America were experiencing.
Ships such as the Star Princess are not allowed to cruise beyond 65 deg and we went south to 64 º 50.2 S - the furthest south that any ship of this type has been. The ship was turned around and we slowly made our way out of this pristine part of the world and headed towards Deception Island.
We started cruising past Deception Island around 8am and once again the weather was fantastic. The colours of the rocks in part of the island were red and ochre in colour and made a wonderful contrast to the deep blue sea and parts of the island that was covered with ice. Although we couldn't see them without the help of some good binoculars, we passed by a breeding colony of penguins estimated to be around 300,000 in total.
While the weather at sea was good, it did "turn" a little prior to reaching Cape Horn but again, not enough to make me seasick. Once we reached Ushuaia the next morning, we set foot on land for the first time in a week. Our shore excursion was called the "Tierra Del Fuego National Park highlights" and it all looked beautiful and fresh in through the light rain. We made three stops in the Park prior to heading back to the city where we wandered around the shops before boarding the ship around 3pm. Unfortunately there was another bus load of people that arrived before us at the Post Office at "the end of the World" so sending a postcard from there was impossible to arrange in the 20 minutes we had there.
On Jan 20th, we arrived in Punta Arenas to good weather and we boarded a bus for our drive to Otway Sound to see a colony of Magellenic Penguins. It was very windy at the Sound and the 1 mile walk to the colony was a bit of a struggle but worth it - some of the penguins were curious about us and stopped their march to the sea to look at us ... so funny. We saw Reas (like a small emu), condors and lamas on our bus drive as well as a gaucho (Chileans have a different name but I can't recall it) and some very big rams. Once back in the city, we had a walk around some of the streets to the main square where there was a handicraft market and then we headed back to the ship - we were hungry and there wasn't much open as it was a Sunday.
The following two days were a little rough so the Captain took us out from the Fjords to sea. The Fjords are stunning so it was a shame we couldn't see more of them.
On an 23rd, we arrived in a beautiful bay at the town of Chacabuco. This was the first time Princess had been there and we were glad that we went there - the weather was perfect and the scenery was very pretty, particularly along the Simpson River and from the Lookout along the road to Coyhaique.
When we left Chacabuco, we cruised through the beautiful fjords and then on to Puerto Montt. At Puerto Montt, we had another early start for full day shore excursion to the Petrohue Falls and the Chilean Lake District. We left Puerto Montt on the Pan-American Highway and headed towards the lakes passing many houses which clearly reflect the influence of the many settlers from Germany. We reached the Emerald Lake (Lagos Esmerelda) which was a gorgeous green/blue colour and the ice capped volcanoes made a perfect backdrop. After that we headed back to the Petrohue Falls where there were many bus loads of passengers from the Star Princess who like us had taken a private shore excursion but there were also many more who were on a Princess shore excursion. There were so many coaches that I couldn't count them all. We stopped for an hour in the pretty town of Puerto Varas on the shores of the vast Lagos Llanquihue before heading back to Puerto Montt.
We had one more sea day before our final destination, Valparaiso where we docked at a commercial port and were bussed to the terminal.
We decided to take a Princess debark tour around Valparaiso, Vina Del Mar with lunch at Olmue and a city tour of Santiago - we had stops at Vina Del Mar and Santiago with time for either a quick visit to a museum in Vina Del Mar or a handicraft store and a couple of stops at Santiago too. We then dropped a few passengers at their hotel before going to the airport for our long flight home.
We thought that this debark tour offered great value for money at $US119 as it commenced around 8.45 and finished at Santiago airport around 5 - 5.30pm. Our lunch which included Pisco Sours or soft drinks / juices as well as wine and soft drink / water on the table was terrific. There was so much food that we simply could not eat it all. During lunch we were entertained by Chilean folk music and dancing which was very enjoyable.