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.