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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 7: Wednesday, Ushuaia
UshuaiaIt's hard to believe that just one week ago, we were in balmy Buenos Aires. Regal Princess arrived in Ushuaia at 5 a.m. -- you read that right! -- to bitter cold and pitch-black skies. We were among the first passengers off the ship, at around 7 a.m., when the first light was creeping into the sky, shedding a pink hue on the snow-capped mountains in the distance and portside hills dotted with tiny houses. Ushuaia is often referred to as "Argentine Switzerland" or the "Switzerland of South America" because of its architecture (stone and wood houses) and beautiful but frigid lakes, forests and mountains.

The part of our day we were most looking forward to was actually a few hours off: lunch. Just as I'd done in preparing for our visit to Buenos Aires, I'd swapped e-mails with Joyce Gleeson-Adimidis about Ushuaia, one of her all-time favorite ports. After reading her accounts of delicious food and breathtaking views at a restaurant high on a Ushuaian hillside, I felt compelled to make reservations for a romantic lunch for two. We were already impressed with the hospitality of the Vivians, the family that runs Kaupe -- after expressing concerns about timing (our ship is only docked in town until 2 p.m.) the proprietors offered to open the restaurant a half-hour early for us.

In the meantime, I was eager to try something active (there'd been no time to visit the gym, and quite frankly the facility itself is a bit of an afterthought tucked down below the medical center) and Mike was eager to keep honing his nature photography skills, so we decided to do some light hiking in Ushuaia's famed Tierra del Fuego National Park. The problem is, the park is actually quite large -- 63,000 hectares, over 150,000 acres -- with harder trails taking as long as four hours to complete, time we simply did not have. Hoping to fit in a visit before our lunch reservations, we made a three-hour arrangement with a taxi driver on the pier named Daniel in our broken Spanish and his broken English: He'd drive us to the park (it's about 20 minutes from the port by car) and show us some of the important sites we wouldn't have time to walk to, but also allow us to go off afterwards and explore some of the lighter trails and footpaths -- he'd park and wait for us, then return us into town.

We spent about as much money as fellow shipmates that took Princess' tour, and saw most of the same sights (the beaver dam, Lake Roca), but going it alone meant we could make our own schedule. We arrived before anyone else and in many cases had the viewpoints and footpaths pretty much to ourselves. Often we'd be leaving one part of the park just as the massive tour buses began rolling in. One such example is the Green Lagoon that gets its name and distinctive color from an abundance of algae. It was amazingly still and silent. I shouldn't have been shocked to still see the moon at this early hour, but there it was, hovering above the water.

Along the way we spotted some interesting trees among the lush, green foliage known unscientifically as "old man's beard": a beard-like fuzz hangs from its branches. Another life form in abundance in the park is the European rabbit. As their name hints, the rabbits are not native to Argentina, but were introduced by early settlers. The rabbits have multiplied and are actually a bit of a problem, according to Daniel. They are literally all over the place, running through the forest and around and across vehicular roads menacingly. They threaten the flora and fauna, and there are no natural predators here to keep the population in check (though the lack of predators is a pro for many of the nature lovers that frequent the park's campsites, fishing areas and hiking trails!).

Another scenic viewpoint we ventured to involved climbing a series of rickety wooden stairs up the side of a hill. From the top, between branches and leaves, we had a gorgeous view of the snow-capped mountains and a tiny island bulging out of clear blue water. The end of our visit was at the end of the road -- literally. The very last point on Route 3, which begins in Buenos Aires, is Lapataia Bay, where the waters from the Beagle Channel and Lake Roca come together. A scenic pathway in a lenga forest leads to a lookout point over the bay and the borderline between the restricted and non-restricted areas of the park. I stood in front of the kitschy wooden sign that essentially marks the end of the world for an obligatory snapshot; at this point, the sign reads, Buenos Aires is 3,063 kilometers (1,903 miles) away and Alaska a whopping 17,848 kilometers (11,090 miles).

We were back in town just after 10 (we're still in bed at this time most Saturdays) and did a little strolling and shopping before our lunch. The town is slightly reminiscent of Alaska, and it should be -- it is on the same latitude as Sitka, and the two cities mirror each other in climate (wind and rain) and landscape (ice-capped mountains). Ushuaia is also the most touristy of all the ports we've visited thus far, at least in terms of what you find within city limits. Merchants have really capitalized on Ushuaia's geographical distinction, selling all sorts of goods bearing "Fin del Munde" or "End of the World," even though many are not made in Argentina but rather in China or Taiwan. We sent some postcards, and did find one sweet souvenir for our home office -- a small handmade wooden plaque of two penguins, signed on the bottom by the artist (it also says, natch, "Fin del Munde"). Mike found a photography store, where a very knowledgeable, English-speaking salesman helped him pick out a UV lens for his camera and a new memory card (he means business on the trip, boy, we've already exhausted 1.5 gigs -- almost 400 pictures!).

Energized from our active morning in the park, we decided to brave the steep climb to Kaupe on foot rather than hop into another cab. I half expected to see a San Francisco cable car whiz by! When we finally reached the restaurant, in a house on a hill, we stopped to catch our breath and admire Regal Princess, which was visible from bow to stern in the gleaming Beagle Channel below. We were blessed with the same gorgeous view from our window-side table inside, which also overlooked a small garden. The restaurant itself is like a posh lodge -- there's a fireplace but the interior is painted in fresh bright colors, and embroidered linen cloths dress the tables. It was a pleasure to hear English-language music again, too -- a soundtrack of pop-rock tunes from groups like U2, the Spin Doctors and Duran Duran, many of which Mike actually has back in the States on his iPod, made us feel even more at home.

On the recommendation of our waitress, we ordered a bottle of Argentinean wine, Gascon Malbec from Mendoza, which was at once spicy and smooth, fruity and oaky -- the best wine we've had so far in South America ashore or onboard, including everything we sampled at Princess' wine tasting session. Hot rolls kept arriving at our table as if by magic, with a spread of cream, spinach and herbs. A king crab appetizer was served in delicate crepes and saffron sauce. I ordered tenderloin in plum sauce, which may well be the best steak I've had in my life, melt-in-your-mouth Argentinean beef (Mike ordered tenderloin in a cognac peppercorn sauce, also delicious). What's a romantic lunch without sweets? We dutifully cleaned plates of Crepe Kaupe, prepared warm with bananas and oranges and topped with fresh cream and a strawberry sauce, and Marquise con Dulce de Leche, two soft fudgy triangles of chocolate swimming in caramel. Mike put it best: "If this were my last meal, I'd die a happy man."

Kaupe has been an Ushuaia institution for 15 years, with chef Ernesto Vivian at the helm (he was actually an engineer before deciding he'd rather cook for a living). His wife Tessie stopped by our table before our main entrees arrived, and spoke fondly of Joyce and her family. She retrieved a leather-bound book from a cabinet just behind where Mike was seated; inside were drawings Joyce's son had made in crayon during one of their many visits to Kaupe. The Vivians had saved them all, but we were not surprised -- these are the kind of people that open their doors early for two cruise passengers they've never met and only know as "acquaintances" of a former customer. We were the first and only couple to dine at Kaupe during our lunchtime visit -- which made our experience all the more romantic -- but several people stopped by to make dinner reservations. One couple said they were staying at an inn nearby. I would love to return here someday (not by sea but by air), stay at a B&B, further explore the park and indulge in another tenderloin....

For the sailaway from Beagle Channel, instead of joining the masses on the Lido Deck, we made a right out of our cabin and walked out onto the quiet enclosed balcony aft on our deck. The channel narrowed as we chugged along, and the majestic iced peaks on either side closed in on the ship. A few drops of rain sprinkled down on us, but we didn't care -- soon after, a rainbow appeared on the starboard side, arching out of the water and disappearing into thin air. People started to file out onto our "private" balcony with Handycams, digital cameras and even glasses of wine.

I don't think anybody realized exactly how big the glacier in Beagle Channel would be. Every so often cries of "Wow!" "Holy crap!" and "There it is!" would ring out as another breathtaking scene would pop into view. Mike and I flew over Taku Glacier in Juneau two years ago, and I remember thinking the peaks looked like meringue on a pie. Here, viewing from the side -- and so close -- the "meringue" was sort of floating in the crevices and spilling over the sides, surrounded by mist. All at once the view became even more amazing. The sun broke through, beaming down and illuminating slivers of blue and white in what looked like a lake of glacial ice between two huge mountains.

While hiking and walking earlier today, my three layers (long-sleeved T-shirt, cotton cable sweater and trench coat) were enough. But during the Beagle Channel passage, my hands and face were numb from the cold and wind. Yet there were folks dressed in much less, including two couples in bathing suits, drinking beers in the hot tub, that I passed while shivering all the way to the Lido for a cup of coffee. They skipped their early seating dinner because as one woman put it, "I'll never be here again in my lifetime, and there's always room service!" She kept hopping out of the hot tub to take pictures, and her wet footprints slapped on the teak would steam immediately when hit by the cold air. She and her friends were sharing more than a few brews -- they were sharing an experience.

Our day in Ushuaia is not one I'll soon forget.
Day 6: Rounding Cape Horn red arrow Day 8: Punta Arenas

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