In addition, some of cruising's newest big ships are heading south for winter (including, for the first time ever -- Carnival!), which means that cruise travelers interested in a "lighter" version of a South American experience can dip in the proverbial toe, without getting wet. As well, the increased influx of bigger ships -- many with state-of-the-art contemporary amenities -- means that pricing is more competitive than ever.
Also interesting is that smaller-ship lines offering rugged immersion (albeit with luxurious touches like five-star cuisine and 700-count linens) are also ramping up, offering more cruises and more off-the-track itineraries.
Some of the best fresh options we've seen of late are:
Because demand was so high, Regent Seven Seas Cruises has added four extra Antarctica cruises to its lineup for late 2007 and early 2008. After selling out initial departures (January 21 and February 1, 2008) of its Explorer II, RSSC added November 8, 2007; November 24, 2007; December 20, 2007 and February 25, 2008. The four voyages are 16-nighters roundtrip from Ushuaia and include calls at Stanley, South Georgia, the Antarctic Peninsula and Drake Passage.
As mentioned, Carnival Splendor, that line's next-to-launch, debuts in northern Europe next summer. After crossing the Atlantic, Splendor will head west, to its winter home in Los Angeles. But -- because the ship is too big to pass through the Panama Canal, it will have to go 'round the tip of South America. And this means? A handful of opportunities to experience South America in "fun ship" way for the first time.
Hapag-Lloyd, the Germany-based line which operates Europa, one of cruising's nicest luxury ships, also is a stand-out in the exploration mileau. It will offer expedition trips on its 180-passenger Bremen, certified to the highest ice class standards so that it can pass through pack ice -- and even cross the Antarctic Circle! A series of six voyages kicks off on November 30 and continues into March 2008; trips begin in Ushuaia (guests are flown via charter from Buenos Aires), visiting the Falkland Islands, South Orkney Islands, South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula and Melchior Islands.
Royal Caribbean will reposition its Splendour of the Seas from Europe to South America for the 2007/2008 season; this will be the first time since 2002 the line will have a presence in South America. Royal Caribbean has cooked up a series of unique itineraries roundtrip from Sao Paulo with a heavy emphasis on Brazilian ports such as Portobelo, Salvador de Bahia, Buzios, Florianopolis, Rio de Janeiro, Ilheus and the up-and-coming Ilhabela. Look for Radiance of the Seas there in 2008/2009.
Also, Royal Caribbean will deploy Mariner of the Seas in the Pacific beginning February 2009. Prior to beginning its season in the Mexican Riviera, Mariner of the Seas will cruise from the East Coast around South America though details about specifics -- dates, itineraries -- have not been released.
Azamara Journey, the flagship of Celebrity's brand-new premium line, will spend its first winter season -- 2007/2008 -- sailing 12- and 18-night South America and Antarctica cruises. Starting and ending points vary among Buenos Aires, Santiago (Valparaiso), Sao Paulo in Brazil and Miami; unusual port stops include Itajai, Parati and Porto Belo (in Brazil) among mainstays like Montevideo, Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas.
Looking ahead to the 2008/2009 season, will dedicate an unprecedented three ships in South America compared to just one (Regal Princess this past winter, and Star Princess for the upcoming season; Regal leaves the fleet this August). During the 2008/2009 winter season, Princess will offer 21 departures on six different itineraries. Star Princess will continue its round-the-horn cruises and Andes and Antarctic sailings, adding a new Cape Horn itinerary between Rio de Janeiro and Santiago (Valparaiso). Pacific Princess will explore the Amazon rainforest, and Royal Princess will sail 12-night voyages between Ft. Lauderdale and Guayaquil, Ecuador, with optional cruisetours to the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu.
Other cruise lines with a presence in South America include Celebrity, Oceania, MSC Cruises, NCL, Holland America, Seabourn and Silversea; Norwegian Coastal Voyage remains a major player in Antarctica, as does Voyages of Discovery.
Want to know more about this burgeoning cruise region? Check out our South America/Antarctica page, featuring My First Cruise to South America and our South America virtual cruise.
--by Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor