Editor's Picks: Best South America Cruises

As a cruising destination, South America is exotic in a way that other regions simply can't touch, blending touches of the fjords of Norway and Alaska, the cosmopolitan cities of Europe and the vast stretches of rugged terrain in Australia (not to mention a fantastic wine-growing culture).

The Chilean fjords' snow-capped volcanoes and spectacular frosty glaciers are certainly dramatic highlights -- as is sophisticated and sassy Buenos Aires, South America's Paris, which seduces the senses with sultry tango and fragrant Argentinean cuisine. The planet's fourth largest continent covers thousands of miles from the equatorial tropics to the sub-Arctic. Better yet? You'll find no trace of cruise ship congestion -- whether sailing around Cape Horn, anchoring in Antarctica or docking in lively Rio de Janeiro.

Considering the immensity of the continent -- and the resulting variety of climes and vistas -- it's no surprise there are a few tried and true cruise routes within the realm of South American cruises.

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Round-the-horn cruises that sail between Buenos Aires and Valparaiso (for Santiago) are the most popular and usually last 12 nights or more. The "horn" is the infamous Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the southernmost continent -- just 1,000 miles north of Antarctica. The highlight of this cruise is without a doubt a glimpse at the Chilean fjords, but scenic ports abound, including Puerto Madryn, the Falkland Islands' Port Stanley, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia and Puerto Montt.

Some mainstream ships visit the Amazon River as part of longer Caribbean and South America itineraries, and typically begin or end in Manaus. These voyages focus primarily on Brazil; ports could include Santarem, Parintins, Alter do Chao, Recife and Devil's Island. The most adventurous Amazon River cruises travel the Upper Amazon River by expedition vessel.

All-Brazil cruises along the "Brazilian Riviera" are a relatively new offering. These trips cruise along the Atlantic coast, visiting ports that range from to the golden beaches of Fortaleza to the colonial churches of Salvador de Bahia. Costa Cruises is particularly known for offering these shorter, more concentrated itineraries.

Some lines combine cruises along either the Pacific or Atlantic coasts of South America with a Panama Canal transit or a jaunt through the Caribbean. These typically sail between Florida and South America, and are great for travelers who want to experience multiple destinations in once vacation.

Antarctica can be explored in two ways. Sometimes that frozen continent is a destination in its own right, with ships departing from Ushuaia, Argentina's southernmost port. Others, usually longer in length, blend calls at South American ports with stops in Antarctica. Ships visiting Antarctica come in four distinct varieties: small icebreakers, small expedition ships with ice-hardened hulls, medium-size ships and large cruise ships. And we offer this caveat: Some cruises -- typically the big-ship variety -- list Antarctica as a place they visit when they actually don't allow people to disembark the ship at all (it's a viewing moment, not an experiential one). Check the itinerary on offer very carefully.

Also, another note: Some cruise lines sailing around the horn that don't visit Antarctica will offer (very pricey) shore excursions -- day trips -- to that continent when they call at ports like Ushuaia. A helicopter or plane ride is involved, and the excursions can easily be called off due to weather or lack of participants.

Lindblad, the premier expedition cruise line, and Celebrity Cruises' unique and eco-oriented Celebrity Xpedition have expanded the appeal of a Galapagos cruise to more traditional cruise travelers. The islands consist of an archipelago of 19 isles and 42 islets off the Ecuadorian coast, and are home to 607 species of plants, 29 species of land birds, 19 species of sea birds and 484 species of fish.

While South America has long been a staple of cruise lines during the North American winter, what's really interesting right now is that cruise lines are expanding offerings from smaller, older ships with longer itineraries to include larger, more amenity-laden vessels offering shorter trips. The latter option is especially appropriate for the younger traveler who most likely is still in the workforce and needs to limit vacations to fewer than two weeks.

As a result, we've seen some nifty new developments over the past few years -- even if you've already traveled South America before, you'll want to return!

Princess Cruises offers two very different cruise options. The 700-passenger Royal Princess cruises the Amazon and the exotic Caribbean on 14-night, one-way voyages. The much larger Star Princess offers round-the-horn trips of varying lengths -- and the ship offers many more amenities, from Personal Choice Dining to kids' facilities.

Royal Caribbean and Costa Cruises are offering short cruises, ranging from three to eight nights, perfect for families or travelers who want to tack on a sailing to a land-based vacation in South America.

With all this variety -- we offer our picks for which ships are best for different types of cruises and travelers. Be sure to check out our other features on South America and Antarctica.

Best for Seniors: Holland America's Veendam or Rotterdam

Why: We love Holland America's elegant ships in South America because they teeter on the line between classic and modern. While Veendam and Rotterdam offer contemporary amenities and comforts such as verandahs and alternative restaurants, they also offer a mostly traditional experience with typical HAL service. An added bonus: Both ships have received Holland America's Signatures of Excellence upgrades, including enhanced in-cabin features such as pillow-top mattresses and duvets, as well as the quite fabulous Explorations Cafe (a superb library/coffee bar/Internet cafe). Another highlight is the Culinary Arts Center, a television-style test kitchen hosting cooking demos and entertaining workshops. The ongoing, multi-year effort to revamp its ships continues; by the end of 2009, both ships received a host of new additions, such as spa cabins, lanai cabins (pictured) that open directly onto the Promenade deck, a modern bar complex, the Retreat resort-style pool area and the no-fee Italian restaurant, Canaletto.

Itineraries: In 2010 and 2011, Veendam will offer a range of itineraries and lengths, including 12- to 30-night round-the-horn cruises from Valparaiso to Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires; 7- to 14-night cruises to Brazil and Argentina; and longer cruises (up to 45 nights) between Florida and ports on either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts of South America. Rotterdam sails 15- to 35-night "Incan Empires" cruises that combine ports on the west coasts of Central and South America.

Best for Adventure Seekers: Lindblad Expeditions

Why: These expedition ships offer the essential creature comforts, but the real focus is on enrichment, onboard and onshore, and visits to offbeat ports in South America. The line's itineraries in Antarctica are outstanding as well. The hallmark of its trips is a staff of topflight naturalists, historians, undersea specialists and expedition leaders that accompany each of its trips as guides and lecturers. Trip developers carefully research and plan each itinerary to provide the optimum experience. And once on the water, itineraries depend on weather and wildlife sightings to dictate activities and schedules. On just about every itinerary, Zodiacs and kayaks permit passengers to explore nature up close, even in Antarctica.

Itineraries: In 2010, National Geographic Endeavor and National Geographic Islander will focus on the Galapagos, with calls at places like Floreana, Isabela, Fernandina and Santa Cruz. National Geographic Explorer will handle the Antarctica itineraries in the Southern Hemisphere's summer months in 2010 and 2011.

Best for Big-Ship Cruisers: Princess Cruises' Star Princess

Why: The 109,000-ton, 2,600-passenger Star Princess has nearly every amenity a cruise traveler could want: an adults-only Sanctuary sun deck; the Piazza, a gathering space featuring live entertainment, a bakery, Internet cafe, and wine and sushi bar; two specialty restaurants offering Italian and steakhouse fare; a spa with a thermal suite; a nine-hole golf putting course; and Movies Under the Stars, the line's signature giant movie screen by the main pool. Princess ships cater to cruisers of all ages, and its South America itineraries include shorter seven- to 12-night cruises, better for families and working adults, and longer sailings (up to 32 nights) for retirees or travelers with lots of vacation time.

Itineraries: Star Princess offers a variety of cruises in 2010 and 2011 including round-the-horn trips, Antarctica cruises (scenic cruising only, no landings) and Brazilian adventures up the Atlantic Coast to Florida.

Best for Luxury: RSSC's Seven Seas Mariner

Why: If you want to explore virtually every nook and cranny of South America's round-the-horn route -- with a transit through the Panama Canal and a journey into the Amazon thrown in for good measure -- Regent Seven Seas Cruises annually offers a months-long "Circle South America" cruise. You'll enjoy the adventure in total comfort: Seven Seas Mariner is genuinely one of the nicest cruise ships afloat. The 50,000-ton ship carries just 700 passengers, offers all-suite accommodations (all with balconies and gorgeous bathrooms), includes all drinks in the cruise fare and features all-open-seating dining for ultimate flexibility.

Itineraries: You can actually try all of the major itineraries at once on the full sailing (65 nights in 2010, 71 nights in 2011) or opt for shorter segments ranging from 11 to 44 nights. Added bonus: The 2011 cruise includes scenic cruising through the Drake Passage to the South Shetland Island and Paradise Bay in West Antarctica.

Best Off-the-Track Cruises: Costa Magica and Costa Victoria

Why: Offering a range of itineraries that focus primarily (though not necessarily exclusively) on Brazil, Costa's two ships offer itineraries that blend marquee ports with really off-beat ones (its third ship in the region, Costa Magica, sticks to the big-name destinations). Expect fellow passengers to hail from many other countries and since Costa markets very aggressively to Brazilian-based travelers, the onboard ambience, in many cases, will be almost as festive as Rio de Janeiro's Carnival.

Itineraries: In 2010, Costa Concordia sails three- to seven-night all-Brazil trips out of Santos -- visiting Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Ilheus, and Ilhabela. Costa Victoria offers Buenos Aires-based trips that spend most of the week in Brazil (along with a stop at Uruguay's glamorous Punta del Este). Costa Magica offers nine-night, multi-country cruises out of Santos, which visit Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires (with an overnight), Punta del Este and Portobelo.

Best for U.K. Cruisers: Fred. Olsen's Black Watch

Why: The distance between the U.K. and South America is massive -- nearly 7,000 miles to be exact -- so it's no surprise to learn that many U.K. lines don't venture across the pond to this intriguing region. However, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines does have a trip to South America that is perfect for British travelers -- a roundtrip 73-night journey aboard Black Watch that begins and ends in Southampton. As well, with its cozy ambience, passengers looking for traditional cruise elements will feel right at home aboard the 28,000-ton, 798-passenger ship. And another plus -- 90 percent of the ship's cabins are outside -- so you have a great chance of getting a wonderful view.

Itineraries: Black Watch's mammoth 73-night journey in 2010 quite literally sails "around" South America. It heads along the east coast of the country then farther south to cruise round-the-horn (with a call in the Falkland Islands). It will then cruise north along the west coast of South America before making a transit through the Panama Canal and heading back to Blighty. Black Watch returns to Southampton just in time for spring. The 2011 trip is 77 nights long.

Best for Penny Pinchers: Celebrity Cruises' Infinity

Why: Book far enough in advance, and we've seen fares for a cabin on Celebrity Infinity's 14-night South America itineraries for as low as $1,299 -- that's $93 a night. That's pretty affordable for a premium cruise ship with bells and whistles like multiple dining venues (including an excellent main restaurant, spa cafe, a grill and pizzeria, and a gourmet alternative restaurant), a spa featuring a thalassotherapy pool and thermal suite, and a three-tiered theater. (Note: Royal Caribbean, a sister cruise line, offers even cheaper deals -- we've seen fares as low as $364 for a four-night cruise and $474 for seven-night sailings in 2010 -- but its ship, Vision of the Seas, is not quite as contemporary as Infinity. Also, Royal Caribbean tends to market heavily to a Brazil-based traveler so the onboard experience is more internationally influenced.)

Itineraries: Infinity's 14-night cruises in 2010 and 2011 include round-the-horn sailings between Buenos Aires and Valparaiso, Antarctica cruises roundtrip from Buenos Aires, and Pacific Coast and Panama Canal voyages between Valparaiso and Florida.

Best for a Taste of Brazilian Culture: Royal Caribbean's Splendour and Vision of the Seas

Why: Royal Caribbean's three- to eight-night cruises to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are a great way to get a glimpse of South America on a rare short cruise. But these cruises are also a crash course in Brazilian culture for any Americans or Brits who book them, as they are among Royal Caribbean's "immersion cruises." This means that the cruise is marketed primarily to local Brazilians (the drive-to market for the homeport of Sao Paulo) and Portuguese is the main language spoken onboard (though English-language assistance is available). Meals and beverages are geared toward the cultural preferences of the region; for example, Brazilians are famously late risers, so the ships offer a daily brunch starting at 11 a.m. These cruises are the perfect opportunity for anyone who has ever complained that cruising keeps travelers from truly experiencing the culture of the cruise destination; however, you may find yourself missing out on announcements or unable to chat with your dinnermates.

Itineraries: In 2010, Splendour of the Seas sails six- to eight-night cruises out of Sao Paulo. Itineraries are either all Brazilian ports or a highlights tour including Buenos Aires, Argentina; Montevideo and Punta Del Este, Uruguay; and -- on longer trips -- Ilhabela, Brazil. Vision of the Seas offers three- to seven-night sailings exclusively to Brazilian ports.

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