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South America on Azamara Journey
Day 1: Pre-Trip Thoughts
Day 2: Arrival in Buenos Aires
Day 3: Setting Sail
Day 4: Punta del Este, Uruguay
Day 5: Two Sea Days and Santos, Brazil
Day 6: Arrival and First Day in Rio
Day 7: Carnaval in Rio!
Day 8: From Rio to Montevideo
Day 9: Disembarkation in Buenos Aires
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Day 8: Tuesday, From Rio to Montevideo
From Rio to Montevideo
The ship was as quiet as if aliens had abducted the entire passenger load overnight. Of course, half our number had been to the Sambadrome, and the other half had been up late for the onboard Super Bowl festivities. Given that the average age for this sailing is on the high side of middle age, I was surprised at how many of our number had actually stayed the whole night, through all 14 Samba Schools. These night owls were wandering back onboard at about the time I was turning in an omelet order at the Windows Cafe. Tonight the second half of the passengers will experience the Carnaval parades as well.

Having four full days in Rio is a unique aspect of this itinerary. I can't think of any cruise I've been on with this long a port call. Unfortunately, Azamara's corporate shore excursion planning department only put together four choices for our four days in Rio, and none of those was that unique or unusual. Rio would be a perfect choice for independent exploration -- I could see myself spending a whole day on the beaches and sidewalks of Copacabana, but alas, once again it was pouring rain. There was little scheduled onboard, and what activities were scheduled were thinly attended, if at all.

It seemed to be a perfect night to give Aqualina, the Mediterranean specialty restaurant a second try. Since half the ship was off the ship, the restaurant was as quiet as the rest of the vessel. There were a number of choices that seemed tempting, among them osso bucco and sea bass. Another choice that appealed to many cruisers was "Lobster Four Ways," cooked in the shell, as well as three additional preparations. I settled on -- and enjoyed -- a very nice dinner of duck breast, which was perfectly cooked to a medium rare temperature, a sign that it was cooked to order. And, as before, service was excellent.

On the following day, there was a news story on CNN that made me smile. I had mentioned in my blog that, although our Carnaval enrichment lecturer had asserted that nudity was forbidden, I had seen -- and photographed -- a particular samba dancer in the Sao Clemente Samba School who seemed to be breaking the rules flagrantly! Readers more knowledgeable than I asserted that it was an optical illusion, and that, from the distant perch of our seats in Sector Nine, we were unable to see the coverage of body paint. So, here comes this story on CNN that Sao Clemente is penalized points in the competition for violation of Carnaval nudity rules!

I'm happy to say that there was some improvement in the weather as I had planned to take the cable cars up to the top of Sugar Loaf for a view and some photography of Rio. It wasn't exactly sunny, but it wasn't raining either, and if not bright and colorful, the vistas were still spectacular.

The following two sea days were, of course, bright, sunny and warm, since we didn't have to wend our way through destination ports. That great white ball of fire in the sky was like a signal bell to the sun worshipers onboard to throng to the pool and gave me the opportunity to mull over whether Celebrity has accomplished what it set out to do with its new Azamara brand. Azamara was slated to establish a new niche for cruising, dubbed "Deluxe"; a level between "Premium" (e.g., Celebrity) and "Luxury” (Crystal, for instance). Since this is Azamara's inaugural season, it's not unexpected that there will be aspects of the target experience that still require improvement or polishing.

That notwithstanding, I have to give Azamara mixed reviews on its success in this regard. On the plus side of the ledger, the level of personal service passes muster, especially in the areas of passenger accommodations and housekeeping. Each cabin boasts a "butler" (actually sort of like a senior cabin steward in formal livery), teamed with an assistant cabin steward. The team approach makes cabin service so attentive that sometimes passengers may be tempted to put out the "Do Not Disturb" sign to get a breather from having their welfare checked on. Tea is served in suite daily at about 3:30 p.m. to those in their staterooms, followed at 5 p.m. by a knock at the door from the butler bearing freshly made canapes.

The shore excursion staff is very large given the size of the passenger load, and staffers are extremely helpful. Nearly all spoke Portuguese and/or Spanish, and one staff member accompanied guests on every tour bus, so there was always someone from that department to answer questions or assist with interfacing with guides or locals. Ironically, one area I feel Azamara falls short of achieving its "Deluxe" level is in corporate's selection, range and variety of shore excursions offered, which I feel were ordinary and not dissimilar from those on the docket of other cruise lines.

Another area I feel fails to fulfill the "Deluxe" niche promise is cuisine. As mentioned previously the breakfast buffets served in Windows Cafe were superior, but in most other areas, food was very good but not exceptional. I never had a bad meal onboard, but I never walked out of a dinner feeling I'd just had an absolutely incredible dining experience. In short, the menus lacked "wow" factor. When I walk into a restaurant and have an incredible meal I can describe the pairings that made it so. I can't give specific examples of why nothing in the cuisine knocked my socks off except that the fare was fairly standard menu items -- veal chop, rack of lamb -- and it would have been great to see something more inventive.

After two sunshiny days at sea, our entry into the harbor at Montevideo, Uruguay, was accompanied by ... yep, clouds and rain! It wasn't pouring, but it was a constant, unpleasant drizzle coupled with a brisk, chilly wind. My choice today was a shore excursion titled "A Day in the Countryside," which was an all-day coupling of a brief city tour of Montevideo and a trip to an estancia (ranch) on the outskirts for a guided tour and asado (or barbecue -- yay, another chapter in my "Carnivore's Quest"!) My impressions of Montevideo were similar to those of Santos, Brazil: a commercial port searching for a foothold in the tourism market with only partial success. While there seemed to me to be more green space -- parks, squares and streets lined with trees -- than in Santos, the city gave me the impression of having a crumbling infrastructure: buildings with large portions of outside stucco missing, others sadly in need of major repainting. Part of the problem would appear to be due to less than inspired governmental leadership. In the once-vibrant downtown shopping district, many stores were boarded up or had signs promoting liquidation sales. The reason? The government imposed parking charges for visitors to the district, and the cars of those who don't pay are "booted" (fitted with attachments to the front wheels that prevent moving the car) and towed to a government impound lot. It then costs Uruguayans an arm and a leg to retrieve their vehicles. The result? Folks don't bother going downtown; instead they drive to malls on the city's outskirts where secure parking lots are available free of charge -- and the downtown area continues to deteriorate.

But the city tour was merely the appetizer for what was to come, universally rated among us as the best shore excursion of the trip. A 45-minute drive took us to the entrance to Estancia La Rabida, a 3,500-acre farm belonging to the Uruguayan Rabida family. This estancia is a working ranch/farm producing 10,000 liters of milk a day, potatoes, soybeans, wheat, barley, corn, wool, beef, lamb and ostrich meat. As our bus approached the gate to the ranch, we were greeted by younger family members ranging in age from about 9 to early 20’s on horseback dressed in gaucho regalia, galloping down the road flanking the bus on either side as we approached the main building of the estancia. There we were joined by a family elder bearing the Uruguayan flag. Gathering around us as we climbed down from the bus, they welcomed us and introduced themselves in perfect English. After accepting glasses of wine and empanadas from our hosts, we followed them into the main barn and corral area, trying not to be distracted by the incredible aromas wafting from the meat cooking on the wood burning barbecue pit.

We then piled into rustic vehicles -- tandem hay wagons towed by a 1929 Model A Ford, the open bed of a 1931 Model A pickup, and a horse and buggy -- for a ride down to the farm's beachfront on the Rio de la Plata. The beach had magnificent vistas of the forested cliffs descending to the pristine sandy shores. We took several minutes there to enjoy juice and home-baked cookies, and to snap pictures. We then climbed back into the vehicles for the drive back for our barbecue. This was one of the highpoints of my "Carnivore's Quest." It started with small pieces of hickory-smoked, freshly picked corn on the cob and grilled sausages, and crispy sweetbreads (not everyone's cup of mate). Then we had the choice of perfectly grilled beef, lamb, pork and chicken -- or all of the above -- accompanied by excellent Uruguayan wines, beer, juice or water, followed by freshly cut strawberries or a dulce de leche (a Latin-American caramel) creme brulee and coffee.

As we enjoyed our dessert, a troupe of gaucho dancers performed a short folklorico-type show that featured dancing, drumming, even a flaming bola routine. Following that, there were demonstrations of sheep shearing and cow milking (both of which activities we each had an opportunity to try), and finally horseback riding for those who wished (a leisurely walk around the pasture, sort of like pony rides for grownups).

Sated and tired, we piled into the bus and made our way back to the pier for the dreaded chore of packing.

I always find packing to go home the easiest of the four stages of packing/unpacking. Packing to go is the toughest; there's all that decision-making involved: what to bring, how many changes of clothes, how many of each type of clothing, and, finally, which things to leave behind when you invariably discover that you have packed more than your suitcases can carry. The next toughest is unpacking onboard. Getting everything you stuffed in your suitcase to fit in the closet, drawer and shelf space in your stateroom is a challenge, as is deciding who gets what drawer/hanger bar/bathroom shelf, etc. Unpacking when you get home has the issue of what to do with clean clothes -- those you either never wore or already laundered onboard. They may be clean, but they most likely will come out of the bag wrinkled, so do they go to the cleaners or get hung as is? More decisions. Only packing for disembarkation is issue-free. Pick out a dinner outfit, put it and your walk-off-the-ship clothes at one end of a closet, and stuff everything else like a wild banshee. Hardly any decision-making time or effort required.

Since I was done packing early, and I had a brutally long travel day ahead of me, I opted for an early dinner. Azamara's tipping policy is to charge a daily aggregate gratuity of $12.50 to guests' shipboard accounts. One of the results of this method, coupled with an open-seating dining system, is that there doesn't seem to be degradation in service on the final night, which sometimes occurs on ships with conventional dining schemes and tipping policies. How many times can we recall unsuccessfully trying to get a coffee refill after the tip envelopes have been handed out to waiter and assistant waiter? Tonight, though, service was just as attentive as if I'd just joined the cruise -- the wait staff was always prompt and attentive without hovering, patiently asked questions, and maintained the warm aspects of service I experienced throughout.

Tonight's entertainment was a local tango show brought onboard from Montevideo. Since I had already experienced a full-scale tango show in Buenos Aires, I opted to be entertained by my Frette sheets and comforter.
Day 7: Carnaval in Rio! red arrow Day 9: Disembarkation in Buenos Aires

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