We started our trip in Alaska (lat. 62N, -22F) and spent a week touring Cusco (11,000 ft altitude) and Machu Picchu before reaching the ship. With an apartment in Santiago's Providencia neighborhood, we had easy access to shopping and restaurants. Three days there allowed us to decompress and enjoy a bit of southern hemisphere summer.
Getting to Valparaiso was easy because I booked a wine tour with Al Ramirez's Boutique Wine Tours who I found through www.TourGuidesChile.com. (He designs his tours to meet your interests -- he recommended wineries specializing in white wines for us.) They picked us up in Santiago with a van big enough to handle the three of us plus our six bags. We visited two wineries (complete with tastings), had a picnic lunch on a patio next to the vineyards, and then they delivered us directly to our B&B in Valparaiso. In one of my e-mails I'd asked about touring Valparaiso, so Al himself stopped by after work to give us a walking tour of the old city. Now that's service. This was our best day in Chile!
Our B&B in Valparaiso was just up the hill from the port... we watched cargo operations Friday evening and woke Saturday morning to see two cruise ships. Check-in was a breeze even with 2 ships in port -- it took less than 15 minutes. You check in at the passenger terminal, then board a bus to the ship while your luggage goes onto a truck. For us it was funny to have to take a taxi into town only to be taken back to where we started.
Star's departure was delayed 6 hours, waiting for a Princess cruise tour group from Machu Picchu to arrive. (When they advertize that booking with their tours means that they will take care of you, they mean it! This was a group of 50 that had been fogged in at the Lima airport.) The delay did mean that we were able to load ALL the provisions -- we'd been watching loading from our balcony, and there were still 2 trucks and 50+ pallets an hour before departure and we were wondering how they were going to make it.
The day after we left was Super Bowl Sunday. Kudos to Princess for recognizing the importance of the game. They arranged for the game to be shown on the Movies Under the Stars screen on the top deck... plus they had plenty of blankets for the hearty fans who toughed it out for the whole game. (For the wimps, they also added an indoor venue.)
The first two sea days we encountered a big Pacific storm. With winds across the deck reaching 59 knots, the ship secured portions of the Promenade deck, moved lectures from the theater (forward) to the Vista lounge (aft) due to the crashing sounds of waves on the bow, closed the swimming pools and hot tubs, and cancelled one of the shows. The movement created some loud noises -- up in the solarium (pool with roof closed) it was so bad the area was unusable.
Weather got a little better once we started cruising the Magellanic passages and Beagle Channel, and the onboard narrator described as our actual rounding the Horn as "the best weather he'd seen in 100 times making the trip." Once we turned northward on the Atlantic side, the weather improved, as did the opportunities to use the pools & sun decks. We were finally able to shed the parkas and gloves and break out the shorts and swimsuits.
Our stateroom was the last balcony aft on our deck, so it was actually a double in size. (We picked it because of that, having seen it on our previous cruise.) The speed the ship was making to cover the distances between ports made the balcony unusable some days, but we did get to enjoy it once the weather warmed up. Our steward was great, always available, and responsive to our requests.
We visited five ports before reaching Rio. We took ship's shore excursions in all but Port Stanley, where we had arranged our own Volunteer Point penguin tour through Patrick Watts. Best ship tour was the "Drive to the End of the Road" in Ushuaia... a nice blend of wildlife and views... but nothing could compare with the Falklands where we got both penguins and military history. Overall, the choices of tours in all the ports were somewhat limited, and generally the tours tended to take longer than advertized. Big problems occurred when the ship arrived in Rio on day two of Carnaval. The immigration officials were late in arriving due to Carnaval traffic, so disembarkation was delayed and tours & airport transfers were impacted.
We ate in the Amalfi dining room for all but one of the evening meals. (We were loosely associated with a group of 50 that had five tables at second seating.) The food was good, but nothing spectacular. Staff were friendly and competent, but we didn't get any "special" treatment (like remembering what you liked and having it ready before you asked). We lunched in different venues -- looking for variety. For breakfast, we tried the buffet, dining room and room service. I liked the buffet for their made-to-order omelets. We did have one bad experience with room service: the egg on their ham & egg sandwich was so undercooked that the yolk leaked all over him when my husband bit into it.
The bar staff was adequate, but could have used some additional training. For the big events such as the Captain's welcome party and the Captain's Circle party we found that they didn't circulate much, so you had to pick where to stand to get a drink or be aggressive in flagging down a waiter. Getting a canape was even more challenging. Our group (of 50) met in a section of the Wheelhouse Bar every evening before dinner. That bar staff was excellent, remembering our preferred drinks and ensuring that we had snacks.
There were a few good things we enjoyed:
-lectures about the Falklands, Antarctica and the areas we were visiting
-ship-wide narration provided during the Beagle Channel transit and around Cape Horn
-a tour of the bridge
-Princess' no smoking policy (other cruises we were downwind of smokers; no smoking on balconies is a real plus for us)
There were a few things we found disappointing:
-library -- This was the least well-stocked library I have seen aboard in 16 cruises.
-internet service -- This was by far the SLOWEST internet we have seen on any cruise, particularly in the southernmost regions. (The internet cafe manager did credit back time lost due to frequent crashes and connection delays.)
-no computer classes -- On my last Princess cruise I was able to take a Photoshop class. A friend was eager to do the same, but we were told that their instructor had just left the ship.
-hot tubs -- the jets were not strong and the water was only warm, not hot.
-Promenade Deck -- Our biggest pet peeve about Grand-class ships is the Promenade. We like to start our day with a walk, and on this class, you have to go up one deck forward & come back down to do a complete lap. Due to the weather, they closed this area (understandably), but they also kept it closed it off on mornings with good weather. There also is no plaque anywhere on the deck to let you know how many laps it is to the mile.
There were four ships in port and the passenger terminal was pure chaos. Trying to find our way through the building to get to our tour was a challenge.
We took the ship's "Tigre River Delta Cruise" tour mostly because the other ship tours focused primarily on Recoleta cemetery and the tango, neither of which interested us. This went out to the suburbs, along tree-lined streets and stopped to visit one cathedral before heading to the ferry terminal. The tour boat took us along narrow canals and inlets. The covered boat protected us from the strong tropical sun, but it did make picture taking difficult when most of the things being pointed out were on the other side of the boat.
As we returned to the ship, the tour guide recommended avoiding the main plaza downtown because there were protests occurring and police activity. Nothing is located near the port...to get into town you have to take a taxi who we were told would not take US$. These two factors caused us to decide not to try to go into the main city.
We were more than an hour late leaving Buenos Aires because of the port congestion.
The port was crowded with three ships, but getting into town was a breeze compared to Buenos Aires. You come off the pier and walk across a plaza and you are on the main street. Across that street is the Port Market, where some of the best beef restaurants are located. The open flames of the wood-fires flavor the whole atmosphere in the Market.
We found some nice artisan scarves at one of the shops in the Market. In the blocks around the market there are a few additional shopping opportunities. We walked around a bit.
In the afternoon, we took a City Tour that covered the main plaza (new government buildings), the parliament building, the soccer stadium, some historic sculptures, the beach neighborhood and a drive along the embarcadero. The guide was a school teacher and was very knowledgeable. She made this a pretty good tour.
The City Drive Tour was OK - not much to see, and the guide was hard to understand. The Mansion is under rennovation, and the simultaneous arrival of two busloads of tourists and a group of soldiers was overwhelming. Guide did not provide much detail inside the mansion, and few of the displays had English translations. The stop at the Magellan monument/City Plaza was too long -- small numbers of vendors selling mostly the same stuff.
The Otaway Penguin tour was more interesting... the guide provided more of the area history and identified wildlife, including rheas and upland geese. There were only a small number of penguins, but we were able to observe them on the beach, in the water and in their burrows.
Some people go to Rio specifically for Carnaval. We are not those people. Our experience in Rio was definitely impacted by Carnaval, and not for the better.
To begin with, the immigration officials were an hour and half late getting to the ship due to "being delayed by Carnaval traffic." The ship had scheduled everyone to report to the Vista Lounge to clear immigration at specific times. Ours was 6:30 (the schedule started at 6), and, as we approached, the line wound from the lounge to the Atrium, more than 400 ft forward on the ship. After about 10 minutes in line, it was clear that the line was not moving at all. Finally, staff members started going down the line, providing info. They told all guests with transfers and tours to get out of line, get all our belongings and go to the Princess Theater (that we would clear immigration as we picked up our tour). Finally, about 7:15 they began to make announcements that immigration was not yet aboard.
After more than an hour in the theater, they finally announced they had begun clearing the ship. Our half-day tour, which was to have left before 8 am finally pulled out of the cruise terminal around 9:15.
After announcing that we were heading for Sugarloaf first, the bus wandered around the downtown area where we saw some of the Carnaval festivities. They subsequently announced we were headed instead for the cathedral, and we wandered some more. People onboard were beginning to make snide comments when we made two passes down the same street -- then on the third pass by the cathedral our guide said that we would not be going in because it was closed due to Carnaval. (Later in the day we heard from others on Princess Tours they had gone inside -- it wasn't closed; our tour guide was wrong.)
So it was off to Sugarloaf...again. Just as we got in line for the tram, they announced there was a problem -- that the officials had closed it down. After 20 min standing in 95° tropical heat, the guide and his coordinator, Noel, decided to put us back on the bus and go to Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Right as we got aboard it looked like they got the tram operating again. We'd already lost our place at the front of the line, so they decided to go to the beach. We got back to Sugarloaf about 45 minutes later (about 11:30). We had made it clear to both our guide and his coordinator that we needed to keep to the original schedule to get to the airport. The coordinator had told us in the earlier discussions that there would be time to go to the first level and back, but probably not to go all the way to the top.
After waiting 20+ minutes in line, we made it to the first level. Then our guide started to go on up to the top. We argued that there was not time -- we explained again that we were supposed to be at the airport by 1. There were 8 of us with early flights... the remainder wanted to go on up. The guide told us we could go back down--that his coordinator would get us transportation to the airport. We went down and found Noel. He told us he would not arrange special transportation for us; that we would have to wait for the rest of the group. He told us to wait in the shade (in an area where the military guards told us we could not sit on the wall). We were prepared to get a cab to the airport ourselves, but some of our bags were on the bus. We asked him to bring the bus back to the lot so we could get our gear. He kept telling us that it was only 15 minutes to get to the airport... we'd get there in time... that we really didn't need to be there 3 hours ahead... that 2 hours was plenty of time. He walked away, saying he was getting the bus, then disappeared -- leaving us to stand in the sun for an additional 50 minutes while the rest of the group went to the top.
The bus arrived back to the parking lot about 1:15, the driver telling us he would not take us to the airport (that he had to wait for the others). The four onboard who had elected not to go on the tram told us they had seen the coordinator walking down the street. He never returned to the Sugarloaf parking area. The full group returned from the top, but because of parking restrictions there, it took two passes before we could get everyone on board.
We did not leave Sugarloaf until 1:45, and finally reached the airport at 2:15 -- only to go to first to the international terminal. (All of the people with early flights were at the other terminal.) We finally reached our terminal at 2:40.
We did make it to our TAM flight to Sao Paulo -- barely. The problem was that the tour delays meant we did not have time for lunch or time to complete our check-in for our international flight, and could only check our bags to Sao Paulo. That necessitated picking up our bags there and schlepping everything from the domestic terminal to the international terminal so we could check in with LAN.
The whole misadventure gave us a very negative impression of Rio.
Santiago is easy to get around. We stayed in Providencia and were able to walk everywhere. After being in Peru where almost everyone spoke some English it was surprising how few spoke any English. My Spanish is rusty, but we managed. Best meal we had was at Le Flaubert - their daily-changing menu is written on a blackboard, which the waiter will explain to you, dish by dish.
Transportation to the port of Valparaiso is readily available. (Bus, taxi, van hire, or tours.) We opted for a Casablanca Valley wine tour, since this wine region is located along the main highway to Valpo. We visited Casas del Bosque and Morande wineries, tasting award winning sauvignon blancs and chardonnays. I researched wine tours online -- all were about the same price. From www.TourGuidesChile.com I was put in contact with Al Ramirez Wine Boutique Tours. I chose them because of their focus and their service - he asks what you are interested in and tailors the tour to you. We had a van and driver for the three of us, and door-to-door service, finishing the tour at our B&B in Valparaiso. Our tour guide was a former history teacher who spoke excellent English. (Most of Al's guides are sommeliers.) Al grew up in Brooklyn, and returned to Chile to work in tourism -- he can do all kinds of tours, from walking tours to multi-day adventures.
Valparaiso is described as the "San Francisco" of South America, due to its many hills. We had picked a B&B overlooking the port, near the Naval Museum. In looking at a map, it seemed only a short distance to get to the central area. When we got there, we knew it wouldn't be easy. There is public transportation - bus, taxi and "collectivo" taxis (which have regular routes and lower prices). Al Ramirez came to our rescue! He led us via collectivo and the ciry's oldest acensor (funicular) to one of the historic neighborhoods of the city, even helping us find a good restaurant. Talk about great service!
This was the most incredible stop on the cruise. Dolphins followed the ship into port and we could see penguins on the rocks as we came up the channel. We'd signed up for the Volunteer Point Tour through Patrick Watts. (This is the same tour the ship offers, but for $100 less and we got a photo CD featuring the island wildlife.) Our guide Derek owns his own tour company as well as working for Patrick. (The CD they give out are photos Derek shot, beginning during the two years he and his wife were the wardens at Volunteer Point.) The tour is half an hour on roads, then a bouncy 4X4 trek across a sheep ranch to get to the rookery. But it is worth it. The three penguin species - King, Gentoo and Magellanic - exist side by side on a long white beach. The sight is unbelievable. We had about two hours on-scene with the penguins...
Derek was "captured" by the Argentinians in the Falklands war while working for the phone company. His knowledge of the battlefields is incredible. On the way back from the penguin colony he showed us debris from the war, pointed out where battles occurred and described the whole politico-military situation. It was like getting two tours for the price of one.
He also threw in a quick tour of town...and got us back to the marina well before the last tender left for the ship. It was one incredible day!!!
When Patrick retires Derek will be the go-to guy for tours. Derek's Tours e-mail address is email@example.com
We took the "Drive to the End of the Road" tour to reach the southern end of the Pan-American Highway. (Our goal is also to hit the northern end this year.) The guide was very good -- blending in the history, details about life in Tierra del Fuego, and wildlife sightings. We spotted beaver, black-necked swans, condors, caracaras, and geese. The stop at the Park Visitor Center was way too short, though.
Two other ships were in Ushuaia -- small ships leaving on Antarctic cruises. This is one of the few places from which you can now make the trip. The city is growing... our guide pointed out two new luxury hotels being built.