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South America: Around Cape Horn on Regal Princess
Day 1: Pre-Cruise Stay in Buenos Aires
Day 2: Embarkation, Cruising the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo
Day 3: At Sea
Day 4: Valentine's Day in Puerto Madryn
Day 5: Port Stanley
Day 6: Rounding Cape Horn
Day 7: Ushuaia
Day 8: Punta Arenas
Day 9: At Sea/Amalia Glacier
Day 10: Puerto Montt
Day 11: Disembarkation in Valparaiso, Post-Cruise Stay in Santiago
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Day 2: Wednesday, Embarkation, Cruising the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo
Embarkation, Cruising the Rio de la Plata to MontevideoChecking out of our hotel this morning was almost surreal (didn't we just get here?). The ship wasn't scheduled to depart until 5 p.m., so we decided to avoid embarkation rush and spend the morning and early afternoon in Buenos Aires instead of waiting on long lines.

After I dragged Mike out shopping (I did not find the perfect leather handbag, but I did buy a cashmere twinset at Uru, a cashmere and leather shop with a location downtown and another in Recoleta), we decided to stop for lunch. We walked around the Recoleta neighborhood for a bit, until Mike spotted a place called Buller Brewery (on what's considered "restaurant row" near the corner of Ortiz and Junin). Good call on his part -- you just can't beat comfort food and cold beer, with outdoor seating to boot. Buller Brewing Company brews several kinds of beer including a creamy pale ale and an Indian Pale Ale, or IPA. Mike and I both had the IPA, which was crisp and refreshing, but looking back I wish I'd ordered the tasting, which comes with small samples of each brew. We each had steak sandwiches, with thin, flavorful slices of meat, and shared empanaditas (mini-empanadas).

Heading over to the ship at 3 p.m. was bittersweet. Leaving Buenos Aires after just one night felt devastating in a way -- once-doubtful Mike couldn't stop talking about how amazing it was being in this city, and in a foreign country -- but we were obviously excited about our upcoming cruise around Cape Horn. As we'd hoped, check-in and immigration were fast and smooth this late in the day, and we were onboard within 15 minutes. One surprise, though: The plastic key card we were expecting to be handed was neither key nor card. We got a piece of paper tucked inside a rectangular plastic pouch that would serve as our identification and for charging onboard purchases. Our actual room keys were waiting for us in our cabin -- one in the door, one on the desk -- the old-fashioned hard plastic kind with the series of holes poked in the top.

Indeed, Regal Princess is in many ways an old-fashioned ship -- and certainly an older one, launched in 1991. I've been on older cruise ships before that show their wear and tear, and in some cases date themselves with then-in decor (and color schemes that now look like something out of "Miami Vice"). But something noteworthy about Regal, aside from the clearly conscientious upkeep through the last decade and a half (tables are free of scratches, carpets not frayed), is that cabins and public areas are classic and timeless -- simple color schemes, clean lines and wooden accents simply don't end up looking washed out and outdated.

I have gotten really spoiled, having had verandahs on my most recent vacations, but this time I wasn't able to snag one. In its heyday Regal Princess was actually a pathfinder, one of the first ships to offer a high ratio of balcony cabins at an affordable price point. These days, however, Regal Princess has a comparatively lower number of them -- and they go quickly, particularly on this voyage, which was a sell-out. Yet our cabin, an oceanview on Deck 9 (Caribe), was a pleasant surprise. It was actually quite spacious, with a large, clean picture window behind drapes in caramel-colored stripes, and a wide wooden desk for doing makeup and writing postcards. I might not unleash the wrath of claustrophobia on my poor roommate after all!

Our luggage arrived shortly after we did. It felt stranger than usual to unpack our clothes and place them in foreign drawers and on hangers that weren't our own, because this was actually going to be our honest-to-goodness home for the next 13 nights -- nearly two weeks! I really wanted to take a nap (I didn't sleep well the night before; the Art Hotel was cozy enough, but I suffered from the kind of overtiredness that makes it hard to sleep), but we simply couldn't miss the sailaway from the city we couldn't wait to return to. We walked up to the Lido Deck to watch Regal depart along the Rio de le Plata.

The Rio de la Plata, or Plate River, runs between southern Uruguay and Argentina, and its skirts Buenos Aires' entire coastline. In fact, it's important to note that while docked in Buenos Aires and en route to Montevideo in Uruguay, Regal Princess is very much a river ship. We won't be on the Atlantic Ocean proper until after we leave Montevideo for Puerto Madryn.

Though the river is extremely wide at some points -- up to 200 miles -- this particular part is narrow, and because Regal Princess has priority over other vessels in the area, a local catamaran had to wait for us to leave before they could proceed to the dock. The water is brown and muddy (not for swimming), and shallow -- Regal has to maintain a slow speed to keep from running aground. According to an announcement from the bridge, it will take Regal Princess until 7 a.m. tomorrow to sail the 100 or so nautical miles from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, while the catamaran can do it in just over two hours at speeds to 60 knots! As we continued down the Rio de le Plata this evening, we would pass by cargo ships so closely you could almost see the wrinkles on the old sailors' faces.

After the taller commerce buildings (like Microsoft) on Buenos Aires' skyline shrunk down to Lego size, Mike grew tired of snapping photographs and we got ready for dinner. We sat alone this first night, at a six-person table on a window overlooking the ship's wake. We didn't mind the peace and quiet -- especially Mike, who's a bit more shy than me (ok, a lot more shy; I'll talk to anyone who'll stand still long enough to listen) -- but really we did hope to meet some new people on our cruise. The maitre d', who'd earlier switched us from the first to the second seating, assured us that he'd be placing four fun folks at our table the following night -- and he came through on that promise! But more on that later.

After dinner we bypassed the Welcome Aboard show to finally do a little exploring. The ship was an utter ghost town -- everyone had either gone to the show or gone to bed. I should have taken a hint from the latter group, but Mike and I pressed on. After one cocktail in the Bengal Bar -- a swank lounge midship, with an exotic feel due to breezy ceiling fans and a bronze tiger sculpture -- we grew tired of hearing the same three canned songs over and over again (though we realized too late there was live piano right next door in Adagio), and decided to check out the Dome Casino placed unusually high atop the ship on Deck 14. The casino, too, was oddly quiet. We put a few $20's into the quarter slot machines, won most of them back, and finally returned to our cabin.

A dreadful discovery awaited us: A little card on my pillow that read: "Turn clocks ahead one hour." Ahead?!

***

When I drew back the curtains at 6:30 a.m. in Montevideo, it may as well have still been midnight. The sky was as black as tar. I was still exhausted, not to mention a little shaken up -- the volume on our phone's ringer was ear-piercing, and our wakeup call just about sent me flying into our neighbor's cabin. There didn't seem to be a way to adjust it.

We met our group at 7:10 a.m. in the International Show Lounge for our first excursion of the trip. We weren't the only sleepy-eyed souls waiting in the two-deck main theater -- the tours, particularly ours, were packed. It turned out to be well worth the early start and the lost hour of shut-eye. The tour, A Taste of Uruguay, promised a day of local gaucho at a working "estancia," or ranch (the gauchos are essentially the cowboys of Argentina and Uruguay's "Pampas," or grassy plains) -- and thus far, it's one of the best excursions I've ever taken.

Many locals flee the city during these summer months to relax and party in Punta del Este, a seaside resort on the coast of Uruguay that faces the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Plate River. So at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday, Montevideo is pretty dead -- except for the street leading into what's considered the "old city," where locals were just starting to trickle out of the nightclubs! We spotted one guy, ahem, relieving himself in a corner. Our tour guide Claudia looked as if she was ready to die of embarrassment, but let's be honest -- we've all seen worse back home. It sure broke the ice, and after a good chuckle everyone was finally wide awake. Further down the road, a flea market was being set up in Constitution Square.

In the "new city," just down the road and within walking distance of the old city, we were able to leave the bus for a quick stroll around the square and a few photo ops. Montevideo was founded in the 18th century by the Spanish, and over the years its citizens fought against the British, Spanish and Portuguese for independence, as well as neighboring Argentineans and Brazilians. This main square was once a citadel, and one gate has been left standing to mark the division between the old and new parts of the city. We also stopped at the Congressional building, which was erected in gorgeous marble in 1925 to commemorate 100 years of independence from the Spanish. Claudia tells us that tours are available, but not on Sundays (interesting, though, that they make an exception to open the flea market to cruise passengers on Sundays ... priorities, priorities).

Pulling up at the La Rabida, the estancia, we were greeted by young gaucho children galloping on horses along both sides of the three buses of tourists, wearing white pants and blouses, leather belts, and big sturdy boots. This estancia is a family business; we were greeted warmly by the granddaughter (by marriage) of the man who bought the ranch in 1940, and a gaggle of gaucho children -- cousins, offspring, etc. -- lined up in height order like the Von Trapps in "The Sound of Music."

A barbecue gaucho lunch is generally offered on the estancia tour, but due to our early arrival in port we were given a gaucho breakfast instead. Low tables were set with china plates and coffee cups in a barn, with bales of hay for chairs. A bar, also constructed with hay, was lined with pitchers of freshly squeezed juices (strawberry, peach, orange, grapefruit) and fruit-milk smoothies. Just-baked breads were piled high on another table, and sweet pastries, bowls of fruit, and slices of meats and cheeses on others. At a roaring fire, a gaucho cooked up sausages and bacon. Everything was delicious -- I'd never eaten thick, home-cured bacon cooked on a skewer over an open fire before, that's for sure.

While we finished up breakfast, six young girls and guys in black gaucho uniforms and red flowing dresses performed local folk dances and songs, stomping their feet rhythmically on wooden boards, banging on drums and twirling each other about. Two of the gauchos worked their bolo skills into the mix (bolos are the gaucho equivalent of a lariat, hard balls on a rope that are used to bring down wayward calves). The bolos were being swung at their sides; the rope was a blur, and the balls tapped the wooden boards in rapid succession. The most captivated members of the audience? A young American boy (one of the very few children on our cruise) and a little gaucho girl with pigtails who had become fast friends, laying at the foot of the stage, dirtying their clothes and laughing. Mike pointed out that these kids couldn't have come from more different backgrounds ... yet deep down they're the same. I'm constantly amazed by what children can teach us.

A sheep was sheared and guests were given an opportunity to remove some of the soft wool from the animal. I was afraid I'd slice the poor thing open (I'm a bit of a klutz), so I passed on that, but I did try my hand at milking a cow. I readied myself on a tiny wooden bench next to a massive black and white Holstein. The gaucho girl with pigtails brought me an empty glass, and the littlest of the cowboys showed me how to hold the udders. "Grab like this. Hard." The cow didn't seem too amused as I did all I could to not poke her with my fingernails. The udder felt like a stress ball covered in warm leather. Ew! I yanked and sure enough a modest stream of milk came out. I was pretty impressed with myself, so I kept going at it ... until the cow let out such a startling "MOO" that I nearly fell off my bench. Of course, everyone laughed. I even got talked into tasting the milk. It was warm, but otherwise not much different from what you'd get at the supermarket. (This particular ranch is mainly a dairy one; they have over 1,500 cows and a contract with Parmalat).

We finished the day with a hayride around the 3,000-acre property. Mike and I were handed straw hats as we climbed onto the hay truck, pulled by shiny green John Deere tractors. Meanwhile, visitors that were quicker on their feet got to lead the pack on the other end of the spectrum, in two classic cars including a 1929 Model T Ford and horse-drawn carriages. Cows lined up along the side of the road as our motley parade passed, cocking their heads as they stared, more curious about us than we were about them. Our final stop was the beach -- again, not on the ocean but the Rio de la Plata -- which we accessed via a cobblestone hill. It's not a place to tan or swim, just a place to walk, observe and soak up some sun before heading back to the ranch to board the buses. Just over 20 groups, only 1,000 - 1,500 people, visit this ranch each year, so I felt really privileged to have seen this side of Uruguay.

At dinner, we met our new tablemates: Steve and Diane, and Ray (his wife Elaine wouldn't join us until tomorrow -- she was laid up with seasickness). Both couples had retired to Boca Raton, Florida but lived at least part of their lives in our neck of the woods (Manhattan, Long Island, etc.). As soon as we sat down, Steve began cracking jokes, and soon enough we were talking about politics, theater and everything in between. We were so relieved to know we'd be spending the rest of our cruise dining with them -- they were down-to-earth, interesting, not at all pretentious and just plain fun. We spent so much time chatting, in fact, we almost missed tonight's production show, "Piano Man," songs and dances to the music of Elton John, Liberace, Barry Manilow and -- of course -- Billy Joel.

We turned in for the night, exhausted and looking forward to our first full day at sea.
Day 1: Pre-Cruise Stay in Buenos Aires red arrow Day 3: At Sea

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