STAR PRINCESS: RIO TO VALPARAISO January 2012
FLIGHTS: We flew from JFK non-stop to Rio on TAM, the Brazilian Airline. Booking through OneTravel.com, we got a great deal, and had no problems. After booking I phoned TAM and got our seats. TAM was very easy to deal with--got English-speaking agents more quickly than with US airlines. Our return, from Santiago (nice airport) required a long stopover in Sao Paolo. Luckily we had United Club passes--which gave us a pleasant hangout with drinks of every kind and even quails eggs. The actual waiting area in Sao Paolo was terribly crowded and unpleasant, with inadequate seating and the need for buses to take us to the jumbo jet.
TIP - VISAS: If you're spending even a day in Rio, you'll need a fairly expensive Visas affixed into your passports. (This is because the US makes Brazilians get an expensive Visa.) Allow enough time to get the Visa--either in person of by mail.
RIO - TAXI: From other entries on this site, we were expecting to pay 40 reals (about $25) to take us to the Sheraton Hotel in Leblon. Luckily we had gotten 60 reals from money changers at JFK because that's what the metered taxi actually cost. Others paid 80 reals for a pre-paid taxi.
HOTEL: We were very pleased with the Sheraton Rio, a resort property (not much else within walking distance). We got a great AAA rate. (Bring the AAA card with you.) I asked for a lovely view and got one--on a high floor from which we could see the pools, the ocean, distant Ipanema beach, and a neighboring hillside favela. The included breakfast buffet is a fine one.
TOUR: Via the roll call, we connected on line with 3 other cc's interested in a private tour with guide/driver Daniel Cabral: [rio4visitors.com] Daniel is a highly professional young guide with perfect English, a love of his city, and caring attention to the interests of his customers.We chose to see: Corcovado (with the Christ statue), the Santa Teresa Favela (had a terrific local lunch), and the Lapa aqueduct and the new cathedral. We could also have chosen Sugar Loaf or other things. We also booked our transfer from the hotel to the ship through Daniel's company.
THE STAR PRINCESS: We loved this ship, and especially its attentive staff (steward, wait staff, front desk staff, excursion, etc.). It has a lovely vibe. We've enjoyed 9 NCL cruises before this one, and were very pleased with the Princess ambience. Others can say more about the ship and onboard experience, I want to focus on our port experiences.
MONTEVIDEO: We chose to walk from the ship through the Old Town (Ciudad Vieja) area--notable for its crumbling, once stunning, old world facades. Many buildings are abandoned and the posters and graffiti on them are fascinating. (Free maps are available just beyond the dock.) We first had to walk through a thronged area full of trinket sellers, but then proceeded on to spiffy Plaza Independencia (with a fragment of the old city wall and world-class designer shops), stopping along the way at the interesting cathedral; Plaza Constitucion (full of flea marketers); and Plaza Zabala (full of parrots). On our way back, we stopped in a wine shop and ran into some other cc's having a wine-tasting there. They had booked a tour guide to take them to a vineyard, but he said because other ships were in port, the vineyard couldn't accommodate them. (I hope they got their money back!)
TIP - WINE: Princess allows each passenger to bring a bottle of wine on board from every port. We liked the Chilean especially.
ARGENTINA - TOUR: With 2 other cc's, we took an inexpensive cab ride to the Palacio del Congresso (their Congress) for the free morning walking tour [bafreetour.com] that begins there at 11. Meet on the street on the right side of the park (when facing the building.) Our tour guide was Virginia, an effusive, entertaining and knowledgeable young woman, with a particular interest in Argentina's dramatic political history. Our 3-hour tour took us in a straight line to the Casa Rosada (their White House, which is pink). On the way we passed the (former) widest avenue in the world; a famous cafe; a neon likeness of Evita on a tall building, and the Plaza de Mayo, made famous by the mothers and grandmothers of "the Disappeared." After tipping our guide, the four of us explored the Cathedral, then headed toward San Telmo, hoping to see Tango dancing in the streets. (We realized it's only on weekends. But no problem, there was a fabulous Tango duet on board with us with days.) Tired, we took a cab to the Recoleta Cemetery to see where the real Evita rests. Some of the more ornate mausoleums near the entrance were far more interesting. A short cab ride took us back at the ship. Shops in the terminal were expensive.
TIP: Taxi drivers didn't know much English. We had to pay for one cab in pesos; change is hard to get.
FALKLANDS - TOUR: We arranged on line with 2 other cc's to take Patrick Watts' Penguin Tour to Volunteer Point: [email@example.com] The highlight of the tour is spending two hours with King, Magellenic and Gentoo Penguins, and seeing their breeding habits and a stunning beach. The lesser light is a two-hour (each way) off-road journey over hilly, bumpy, spongy, peat bogs. This is an expensive tour (and not for the comfort-needy), but it was well worth it. (And Patrick charges half what cruise ships do.) We set off in a convoy of heavy-duty jeeps, each holding the driver and 4 passengers. Our driver Leona, the director of the Falklands Museum, was filling in for her husband, so we had hours of interesting answers to our questions about Falkland history. A sandwich and crisps are provided. When we arrived back at Port Stanley, Leona showed us around the small town, and we had time to buy more wine and even some champagne at the supermarkert for our next big sight.
TIP: There are no ATMs in the Falklands.
CAPE HORN -- CRUISING: Sailing around Cape Horn was amazing. By rare luck, we had a beautiful, sunny sailing, without much chop and great photo-ops--all worthy of our champagne.
You don't sail around the Cape to get to the Pacific. You sail around the Cape for the thrill of it, then turn back and up into the Beagle Channel to visit more ports. There was an excellent fact-filled narration by Joe Mays, our onboard travel expert, which was broadcast on our TV and loudspeaker as we approached and rounded the Cape.
TIP: If you can afford a balcony room, book early enough to get a starboard one for best view.
USHUAIA- TIERRA DEL FUEGO TOUR: With five other cc's, we arranged for a tour of Tierra Del Fuego National Park with Edgardo Calaio [firstname.lastname@example.org]Edgardo is a young, highly professional tour guide with a university degree in tourism and particular interests in nature and photography. His tour was an excellent value and a comfortable ride as we rode (literally) to the End of the World. Highlights were: visiting at a small free museum (at a cafe) where we learned about the original inhabitants; getting our passports stamped at the curious Post Office at the End of the World (which hangs over a bay on stilt posts); arriving at the sign marking the end of the Pan American Highway which runs from Northern Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. We arrived at a lucky moment--when an adventurous Danish couple also arrived on motorcycle after riding the 30,000 mile highway for 7 months. After visiting the Park, Edgardo drove us through the town; we loaded up on chocolate, crafts, and, of course, wine.
STRAITS OF MAGELLAN -- CRUISING: While sailing from Ushuaia (Argentina) to Punta Arenas, (Chile) via the Straits of Magellan we were treated to "Glacier Alley": five glaciers with gorgeous blue ice (spread over a distance), including the sad but spectacular melting glacier, Romanche. Again, Joe Mays' fine narration added to our viewing pleasure.
PUNTA ARENAS: With two other cc's, we opted to walk to Plaza de Armas with its famous Magellan statue, fine trees and local vendors, and on to the Cemeterio, notable for a memorial to the Unknown Indian. But aside from some beautifully manicured bell-shaped cedar trees, the cemetery wasn't worth seeing. Tired from walking, we took a cab back to a huge supermarket (with long lines) not far from the port. Yes, we got more wine. Also stopped at a touristy gift shop outside the port-- high prices and poor service. (Local vendors in the port were better.) Maybe we should have taken a tour to see seals or something.
CHILEAN FJORDS -- CRUISING: After leaving Punta Arenas we began a 3-day journey up the Pacific coast to Valparaiso. The first day had a highlight--a detour into a Chilean fjord for an up-close view of a sprawling glacier and a fascinating 360-degree spin around. But it is cold in the southern Pacific, and the second day offered no outdoor pleasures. Our final day brought us warm weather again, and everyone was up on deck, catching the sun and experiencing summer.
DISEMBARKING - VALPARAISO: We had bought ship transfers from our cruise agent before leaving home (same price as on board and no lines). We disembarked easily, found our luggage (very well organized) and got our bus to the airport in Santiago. A pleasant drive.
IF YOU TAKE THIS CRUISE, WE HOPE YOU ENJOY IT AS MUCH AS WE DID!