Disembarkation was a low-stress experience. For one thing, Azamara Journey is a small ship, and that makes the logistics simpler and the queues shorter. For another, there was little time pressure -- at least for North Americans -- as virtually all flights to the States leave late in the evening. However, that big block of open time created its own issues; we were to be off the ship between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., but the first flights back to the U.S.A. didn't depart till after 9 p.m., leaving a 12-hour hole in the day. What to do with one's self, much less one's luggage?
Azamara offered several options. One choice was to transfer to a local hotel where a large public space would accommodate passengers and where refreshments would be offered. A second, for a reasonable charge of about $100, would provide guests with a private day room as well. The last two options were shore excursions, each of which would conclude at the airport. The first of the two excursions was a five-hour highlights tour of Buenos Aires; the second, lasting nine hours, was a similar city tour which would culminate with a visit to another estancia, this one on the Argentine Pampas. For me, the choice was simple; I went for the longer tour. I had 13 hours before my flight left, so the more time I spent on tour, the less I spent on Naugahyde airport chairs, and visiting an Argentinean estancia would be an interesting contrast to yesterday's tour in Uruguay, especially when it came to the "meat" of the issue.
It is said of Argentinean gauchos that the only part of the cow they don't eat is the moo. That means that I could expect some additions of some pretty challenging and unfamiliar cuts of meat to my "Carnivore's Quest." I nearly always leap at the opportunity to have a taste of the exotic -- first because it's always an experience you can't get at your neighborhood Applebee's and second because a single bite never killed anyone. But, in my experience, some of the things I least expected to be able to tolerate in the past turned out to be pretty darn palate-pleasing in the final analysis. I am old enough to remember the early 1970's when, hard as it may be to believe, Americans were nauseated at the thought of eating raw fish. In Los Angeles, in those days, you had to go down to Little Tokyo, the Japanese section of the city, to even find a restaurant with a sushi bar. I went with an Asian friend on a dare and expected to need to force myself to swallow the stuff -- but I found out I really liked it. I had the same experience in China with starfish on a stick, jellyfish and preserved duck egg. So I had much to look forward to at this new estancia.
Before driving to the Pampas, there were three parts of Buenos Aires I had skipped exploring on my pre-cruise stay since I knew they were included in this final tour. They included Plaza de Mayo (May Square) and the government house, Casa Rosada (Pink House); La Recoleta, a neighborhood including, most notably, the cemetery in which stands Eva Peron's mausoleum; and the neighborhood of La Boca, one of Buenos Aires' poorest -- but most colorful -- districts, home in the past to sailors, dockworkers and other early immigrants.
In May Square, I looked forward to standing at the foot of the balcony of Casa Rosada and looking up to where Eva Peron addressed masses of her supporters. The balcony was actually used as a location in the film version of "Evita." It was on this balcony that Madonna sang "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." Unfortunately, our guide chose to show us the square as a drive by -- no stopping, no photography. Likewise we just drove through La Recoleta, without stopping to visit the cemetery.
Fortunately, we were given 15 minutes to explore La Boca on foot. La Boca is one of Buenos Aires' most recognizable icons. The streets of this poor neighborhood are fronted by wood and corrugated iron shacks painted in every conceivable color.
Once, La Boca was the port of Buenos Aires, and the poor immigrants who worked the port scavenged building materials wherever they could. For paint, they used whatever marine paints were left over at their job sites, regardless of color, resulting in the melange of hues that is the defining characteristic of La Boca. Fifteen minutes was ample time to shoot photos, but the clouds were moving in again, and we had only brief windows where the sunlight did justice to the bold colors.
Then it was off for a 90-minute bus ride -- through increasing rain (AGAIN!) -- to the estancia. Compared to our experience yesterday, this was a real disappointment (though those passengers who hadn't taken the Uruguayan estancia excursion seemed to enjoy themselves). The music, dancing and other acts were amateur by comparison, and the only redeeming addition to the entertainment was that gaucho troupe members encouraged guests to dance with them. Most disappointing of all was the food. Instead of the exotic tastes of an Argentinean asado I had expected, we were served a nondescript cut of beef, a hunk of chicken and a couple of beef ribs, and rather than having it forked onto our plate directly from the wood pit grill, dishes were brought out, lukewarm at best, by waiters carrying huge platters. The steak was way overcooked and rubbery; the ribs were dry; and the chicken was moist but flavorless.
On the bright side, the rain was moving out, and increasing breaks in the clouds resulted in longer and longer periods of sunshine. It was in these conditions, following our meal, that we were able to enjoy watching the one highpoint of the visit; a demonstration of gaucho horsemanship, as they rode full tilt toward a tiny ring suspended by a string from a wooden crossbeam, attempting to spear the ring with a stick about the size of a chopstick.
An hour and a half later, we were deposited at Buenos Aires' Ezeiza Airport right in front of a pile of our luggage. With the help of an army of waiting porters, it was a snap to find our bags, have them stacked on a cart and be accompanied in to the ticketing hall of the airport. At 6 p.m. (an hour later), the check-in windows opened, and a huge line formed. There was no chance of missing my flight -- unless another ticket agent/passenger riot took place as happened last month! -- and the line moved slowly but steadily. Savvy travelers who had experienced this airport before began lining up about 45 minutes before the windows opened and then read books or chatted standing up. Those who started queuing when the windows opened actually spent longer standing in line.
On the flight home, I was able to sort out my impressions of Journey and the cruise, itself. As I mentioned previously, I think the "Deluxe" category concept is a good one and is achievable, but only with improvements and tweaking in specific areas I already described. Beyond that, the best way I can convey a useful overview is to cast the experience in terms of "Who Should" or "Who Should Not" consider this ship.
I think this is a good choice for those who:
Like the experience of a small ship, small passenger load and highly personalized service
Like the idea of a highly knowledgeable shore excursion staff with representatives present on every tour, often one per bus
Are comfortable independently exploring moderately exotic ports of call, especially those they haven't visited before
Like the "casual elegance" dress code concept
Like the open seating, multiple dining choices format
Conversely, this may not be as good a choice for those who:
Like the energy level, multiplicity of activities and physical attributes of a large ship
Want to feel the absolute minimum of motion possible
Enjoy elaborate large-scale production shows
Consider the casino a major focal point of the cruise experience (our casino had no dice table, only a couple of blackjack tables, one three-card poker table)
Like the "conventional" dining format (set seatings, tables, etc.)
Are looking for cutting edge, fusion or otherwise elaborate cuisine
Like having fancy formal nights onboard
As for the journey (small "j") itself, I was left with the following impressions:
I found sub-equatorial South America both seductive and a challenge for North Americans. Emulating Paris with its alternating dense population centers and elegant green space, Buenos Aires took me experientially to Europe. Its proliferation of statuary, plazas and fountains were also like Europe; however, all three of the countries I visited were quick to caution North Americans to be alert at all times to pickpockets, petty thieves and con artists -- I'll never forget the cabby who did a switcheroo on bill denominations during my very first minutes on the ground in Buenos Aires. Other Americans I talked to reported being pick-pocketed at the street fair in San Telmo. These unfortunate circumstances challenged us to remain vigilant at all times, not unlike when tourists in Italy must be wary of bands of gypsies. I also remember being strongly cautioned in Rio to leave the big, fancy camera behind when walking alone, in favor of one that can be slipped into a pocket or purse. In the final analysis, the challenges weren't off putting enough to dim the seduction of these interesting countries.
My "Carnivore's Quest" succeeded in memorability, but my conclusions differed from my expectations. I had highest expectations for dining in a top churrascaria in Rio. I knew that this type of Brazilian steakhouse was becoming ubiquitous in the United States, but I expected that the quality and authenticity of the cuts of meat would be different in the place the type of cuisine was born. Surprisingly, I found that both the quality and unique cuts of meat found in domestic churrascarias rivaled the Brazilian "real deal." While I expected a great steak dinner in Argentina, I did not expect the variety of unusual cuts of beef, nor did I expect to be "wowed" by the tenderness and flavor. And though I see churrascarias advertised wherever I travel in the States (in flight magazines, billboards, local in suite hotel city guides, etc.), I did not anticipate that Argentinean parillas would be as easy to find here. A quick check with Zagat.com located two parillas within a half-hour of my home here in the San Francisco Bay Area. So, the quest continues on the other side of the equator.
And last, but by no means least, Carnaval! I love New Orleans. I've been to Mardi Gras there twice. I didn't think anything could beat NOLA in the "Fat Tuesday" party department. But I'm a convert! I loved Carnaval in Rio, and sitting in the stands of the Sambadrome, I felt safer than standing along the parade routes in New Orleans. There is no way to describe the gargantuan moving works of art of the floats, the spirit of the dancers -- much less of the revelers in the stands -- and now that I know that anyone can march, not just watch (an option visitors to Mardi Gras can't access), I plan on returning -- maybe next year.
In fact I'm starting to stockpile No-Doz today!