South America/Antarctica - December 15- Jan. 9 on HAL’s Zaandam
I just got back today from a fabulous cruise on the Zaandam. This truly was the trip of a lifetime. I got same great pictures of Antarctica. We avoided the deep freeze back at home and had almost 24 hours of daylight. We experienced some other cultures that we may never had experienced. We had wonderful tablemates and enjoyed dinner with them immensely.
Our family consists of me, Cathy, semi-retired age 50, ds18, dd15, ds8. Everyone loved the cruise. DS8 cried on the last night and has been constantly bugging me for the past several days about when our next cruise is. He is also convinced that I should get a job on a cruise ship so that he can sail with me.
We booked the cruise about 4 months in advance. We had sailed on the Nieuw Amsterdam in July, 2012 for a 24 night Med cruise, so we were well prepared for the 21 night South America cruise.
Originally, I was going to post this as a semi-live report, but the Zaandam’s internet was not up to the task. My apologies for the length of the review.
Our ship’s itinerary
Dec. 18-19 Rio de Janeiro
Dec. 22-23 Buenos Aires
Dec. 24 Montevideo
Dec. 27 Stanley, Falkland Islands
Dec. 28-Jan. 1 Cruising Antarctica
Jan. 2 Ushuaia
Jan. 3 Punta Arenas
Jan. 6 Puerto Montt
Jan. 8 Valparaiso (end of cruise)
Pre- cruise Toronto to Iguassu Falls
Our cruise left from Rio de Janeiro. We flew in 2 days ahead for a visit at Iguassu Falls. The journey was scheduled to last 21 hours from Toronto. Our flight from Toronto to Washington, DC was on time, but our flight from DC to Sao Paulo was delayed 2.5 hours which took up most of our connection time. Although the United flight attendants said that there would be a gate agent to help us with the connections, there wasn’t anyone in the jetway or gate area except for several people who looked like they were on break. At Sao Paulo, we had to go through immigration, collect our luggage,and recheck the luggage for a domestic flight to IGU. This was very quick, but we still missed our connecting flight with TAM. TAM had no clue what to do about our missed connection and said to talk to United. There was no one at the United desk, and I was told there wouldn’t be for another 4.5 hours. Uggh. We had already been travelling for almost 24 hours. My next strategy was to try to find the local number for United online. Good news - GRU has free internet. Bad news- it is abysmally slow, so I was doubtful that I would be able to connect. After 20 minutes of trying, I was able to connect to the airport’s wifi, bring up the United website and find the local phone number for the airline. Luckily, the local phone number had a selection for English and I was connected to a United agent who spoke English. She told me we were booked on a flight that left in 1.5 hours with GOL. Great! But it would have been better if the there had been someone at the airport to tell me this. Other people who flew out of Toronto on my flight, didn’t get their connection to Rio until midnight. Another lady I met from Vancouver, had her first flight from Toronto cancelled due to a snowstorm, then missed her connection in Sao Paulo. She was 2 days late getting into Rio. Luckily, she had planned for 4 days in Rio.
Pre-cruise Iguassu Falls
In Iguassu Falls, we stayed at Iguassu Resort. This was convenient to the airport and the National Park. The resort had a lovely main pool area, with live music that played in the evenings. The restaurants onsite were very expensive - 52 reals ($26 US) for the buffet. And no, the buffet was not all that great - it looked like a $10 buffet. We opted for the Asian restaurant and left hungry. I also left with with tummy trouble that lasted until I broke down and took the levaquin that my travel medicine doctor had prescribed, 5 days later. When we got back to the room, we discovered that the room service menu was significantly cheaper and ordered from there from then on.
The National Park was very nice, very well run. Our taxi dropped us off and there was someone there to direct us to the cashier. After the cashier, we got on a very nice double decker bus that took us to the beginning of the main trail. This trail starts right in front of Hotel das Cataratas, the only hotel in the park. Since there were four of us, we would have needed 2 rooms at this hotel, instead of one at Iguassu Resort. If there had been two of us, I would definitely have stayed at Hotel das Cataratas which would have given us the opportunity to visit the falls whenever we liked. The main trail was 1.5 km long, along a boardwalk. There are quite a few stairs on this walk, it’s not handicapped friendly. It took us about 1.5 hours to do the entire walk at a slow pace.
Our flight to Rio was uneventful. The IGU airport is very new and nice. It is also very small which was a good thing. We did not have any trouble speaking English - or my attempts at Portuguese in Foz do Iguacu. The taxi booths at Rio are right next to the baggage claim, and in case you miss those, there is one about 50 feet directly in front of the doors from baggage claim. They take reals or dollars or credit cards. They gave me a quote in USD that was better than the exchange rate my bank gave me, but because I had quite a few reals left over, I used those. Once we passed the booths, my son, who was 10 feet ahead of me, was approached by a gypsy cab person, but he quickly backed off when he saw my chit for the taxi. The English/Portuguese started to break down when we reached the actual taxi stand and in the taxi itself. The name for the cruiseport is Praca Maua. My first attempt at pronouncing this was bad. Correct pronounciation is prahssah mao-ah. Even then, the cab driver wanted to discuss exactly where we wanted to be left off. He finally used hand signals and we agreed that I was getting on a ship there.
Baggage dropoff was very quick - too quick. They had taken two of our 5 bags before they understood that, yes, I did have the luggage tags on me, even though they weren’t attached. So, two bags got whisked away without luggage tags. Don’t worry, they said, they’ll use the name tags on the luggage, except they never actually verified that there were name tags on the luggage. I am a little paranoid about this as on my very first cruise (on a different cruise line) my one and only piece of luggage was given to ship’s personnel at the transfer to the ship and was not seen again for 7 days. I had taken pictures at the Rio airport of each piece of luggage, so I wasn’t tooo concerned.
We entered the terminal. There are sundry shops in the terminal, so it would be a good place to pick up things you had forgotten to pack. They have us a number (14), the health questionnaire and asked us to sit. Two minutes later, they told us to get in line. The lines were not well marked, and we almost boarded a different ship. We finally joined the looong line for checkin. After a few minutes, I started musing about how I wished we had priority checkin. Our line hadn’t moved at all. Wait! We did have priority checkin! We were in a suite! Out of that line, and into another line, which was even less well signed. Here, there were agents who were twiddling their thumbs. The agent took our passports, and said we’d get them at the end of the cruise. They also took or checked our Argentinian reciprocity fee receipts. Pictures taken, we headed for the ship.
The stateroom - Originally, I had booked an oceanview for the 4 of us. None of the balcony staterooms on the ship sleep 4. So, it was an oceanview or a suite for 3 1/2 times the price. Ummm, I’ll take the oceanview. Two weeks prior to the cruise, I was emailed with an upsell and I took it. This is our first time in a suite on any of our cruises. We are in cabin 7022 which is directly across the hall from the Neptune Lounge. Although the food selection at breakfast is not large in the lounge, it had some of my favourite foods including smoked salmon and bagels, fruit, pastries, tea, coffee, cappucino. Unfortunately the cabin was under the Lido, and I could never quite figure out why, but every morning, starting around 5 am, there was something being dragged or pushed above our cabin. It sounded like we were underneath a bowling alley. One of the very first nights, something was not secured and every time the ship rolled, something above us would roll, rumble, rumble, rumble and then BAAANG! when it reached a wall. As I said, just like a bowling alley.
The ship - Zaandam came out of drydock about 6 weeks ago. The carpeting throughout the ship has been changed. The air conditioning works well as does the plumbing. In our suite, the upholstery on the chairs and sofa as well as the curtains all look new. Towards the end of the cruise, I noticed that some of the chair upholstery had detached from the rest of the chair. The bathtub, tiling, and counters in the bathroom look old. Everything is very clean. About halfway through the cruise, one of my dd’s friends balcony cabins was flooded. On our first day in Antarctica, the potable water was shut down for a few minutes because of a flood in the Lido restaurant. Our tablemates got a picture of the flooding - a water main had broken and there was a waterfall coming out of the ceiling through a light fixture. On one of the last sea days, the dreaded 7 short blasts followed by a long one sounded at 7:20 am. An electrical fire in a light fixture on deck 1 was detected just a few cabins down from our originally booked cabin. At 7:32 am, the captain announced the light fixture had been removed and ordered emergency response teams to stand down.
Demographics. Most of the passengers are in their 50’s and 60’s. I have met more teachers - mostly retired- on this cruise. This includes the 4 other people at our dining table, people on our shore excursion and others. That’s fine with me - I’m a teacher too.
Club HAL and the Loft At the beginning of the cruise, there were about 30 kids, including 20 teenagers. About 5 more teenagers and 4 more 8-12 year olds got on Buenos Aires. DD15 easily found 2 other 15 year old girls to pal around with. DS8 is happy to have a few other kids, a couple of counsellors and a Wii and an Xbox in the kids club. Like other ships he has been on, he wants to be there every minute that the kids club is open.
Club HAL on the Zaandam is not particularly handicapped friendly. The aft elevator does not go up to deck 9 where Club HAL is. You either have to walk up the stairs outside the Lido on deck 8 or take different elevators, go outside, and skirt through the tennis or basketball court on the sports deck.
One of the things I liked best about our first cruise on HAL, in 2012, on the Nieuw Amsterdam, was the food, especially the desserts. While the Zaandam has the same menu, the food was not quite the same. The descriptions on the menu often did not match what was served. For example, the lettuce wraps were not wrapped in lettuce. My favourite on Nieuw Amsterdam had been the fruit crisps. On Zaandam, they consisted of mostly crisp and hardly any fruit. The worst example was the Black Forest cake. It had neither chocolate nor cherries, nor was very cake like. It was a white gelatinous mousse. The fruit pies were equally bad - very very little fruit and lots of starch or gelatin to hold the jelly like filling together. On Christmas Day, my stomach was feeling bad, but Maine lobster was on the menu - can’t miss that. Well, I should have. It was “lobster thermidor”, which was a grey paste with a couple of miniscule pieces of lobster served in a lobster shell. Gross. There was a dessert extravaganza on one of the last sea days. None of the cakes were labelled. The chefs served DS8 two pieces of desserts. After he ate 80% of one of them, I tried it - it was dripping with rum!
December 19 - 4x4 to Tijuca Forest
Tijuca is pronounced tee-zhooo-ca. The 4x4’s were old army-style trucks which we boarded at the port. Ten of us sat in the back on 2 benches. I think the truck had a top speed of 40 mph. Unfortunately, we were on a highway with a 50 mph limit. This was not exactly the fresh air excursion we signed up for. It took 75 minutes to get to the forest. There were 2 stops within the forest for about 20 minutes each. We saw some beautiful waterfalls. There was a short walk through the forest. There were police stationed at the stops within the forest as there has been muggings of tourists recently. There was an additional stop on a beach where we watched the hang gliders land.We did drive past Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. In total, we spent 3 hours crammed in the 4x4. I’d give this shore excursion a 3/5.
December 22 Buenos Aires - Shore Excursion - Markets of Buenos Aires
We were in Buenos Aires for 2 nights. Some passengers got on and some got off. There was no noticeable difference in the numbers on the ship. Temperature was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Our shore excursion was Markets of Buenos Aires. This is a 4 hour excursion. The markets were flea markets. No thanks. The last stop was at Ricoleta cemetary which was much more interesting. DS18 wished we could have stayed longer, but given the temperature, it was way too hot for me. I would give this one a 2/5.
December 24 - Montevideo
We got off the ship, but did not do a shore excursion. None of the ship’s offerings appealed to us. There are shops across the street from the port, but many were closed because it was Christmas Eve. Montevideo has a tradition of spraying people with champagne or other liquids on Christams Eve. They also set off firecrackers in the streets. We attempted to go further into the shopping area, but some firecrackers were set off that prevented this. I saw one passenger that had been hit by liquid. The souvenirs were overpriced in the two shops we saw.
December 27 - Stanley, Falklands Islands
We prebooked a trip to Volunteer Point with Estancia Excursions. HAL let us know that we were going to the Falklands 5 days prior to sailing, although it was always on the itinerary as “weather permitting”. They opened up Falklands shore excursions at the same time. Volunteer Point was $349 pp and sold out before the second day of the cruise.
The tenders started leaving around 7:45 am, but there was no announcement. We just decided to head down to see if we could get off, and we got on about the 4th tender. The ride was about 20 minutes.
Estancia Excursions appeared to be the only private vendor at the dock. They were swamped by people trying to book last minute. They took out probably 12-16 4x4s. The trip out was an adventure in itself. Volunteer Point was excellent and would be well worth the price of admission on the ship’s excursion.
The drive to Volunteer Point was incredible. The first 50 minutes or so were on paved and then gravel road. The last 70 minutes were on peat.
At Volunteer Point, there were both King penguins and Magellan penguins. The King penguins were very handsome birds and outshone the Magellans. The scenery was great as well.
I rate this excursion as a 5/5.
December 28 Sea Day
This was the day I wished I were home. The seas were quite bad - about 20 feet. I was terribly seasick. I took ginger plus meclizine which put me to sleep, but still left my stomach feeling awful.
December 29-31 Antarctica
Fabulous otherworldly scenery. This was the whole point of the cruise for me. There were 3 Antarctic experts on board and they did lectures on sea days throughout the cruise, which were fabulous. We were supposed to have workers from Palmer station come on board to give a talk as well, but the weather was not agreeable to boarding them.
January 1 Drake Passage
More heavy seas, but not as bad as the crossing to the south. We circumnavigated Hornus Island which is the island containing Cape Horn. It is part of Chile. I saw a Chilean naval vessel close by to starboard as we started our circumnavigation. The horn saluted them as they dropped off. IMO, it appears that HAL has solved the problem of how to get from Argentina to the Falklands and back to Argentina - they inserted Uruguay before the Falklands, and then got the Chilean government to admit them to Chile when they circumnavigated Hornus Island - before going to Ushuaia.
Jan. 2 Ushuaia Drive to Tierra del Fuego national park
It was rainy and cold in Ushuaia. There were about 8 large buses that did this excursion. You can do it yourself - if you are confident in your Spanish as the taxi drivers did not speak any English.The best scenery was right at the dock. After Antarctica, the scenery on the shore excursion was nothing great. Rating 3/5.
Jan. 3 Punta Arenas Off the Beaten Track shore excursion
Three of us went on this shore excursion. It involved a short bus ride to the ferry and a 2 hour ferry ride each way to Magdalena Island. A snack and lunch pack was provided with 2 sandwiches, chocolate bar, cereal bar, large bottle of water and a large juice pak. Magdalena Island was covered with Magellan penguins. We were told there were 200,000 penguins. Even on the ferry you were extremely close to the penguins. We had seen the Magellan penguins at Volunteer Point though. So, while I got some great pictures, having been to the Falklands, it would have been better to save the money. This shore excursion was also sold out. Rating 4/5.
Jan. 5 Puerto Montt - Private excursion with GV Tours
I have struggled with what to write about this one. This was a tender port. Nineteen people (including 3 of my family) had signed up for the excursion on our roll call. Three people did not show. This got us off to a bad start because with that large of a group, the pricing for the shore excursion was a fixed amount, not a per person rate. So, all of a sudden, I’m on the hook for the fare for 3 more people. Luckily Veronica found one person at the pier and put her on our bus. I still had to hit up everyone else for $10 more.
Secondly, although I asked the Neptune concierge for early tender tickets, they kept putting me off and finally left a message at 9 pm the night before that they couldn’t do it. Most of my group showed up early and left to get tender tickets, 10 minutes after tickets were announced. I took them an hour and a half to get to shore. Even though I left half an hour after them (waiting for the no-shows), because I had priority tendering which meant I didn’t need tickets, I was waiting on the pier for at least half an hour. So, it was 9:30 by the time we all arrived and got going on the tour.
Thirdly, we almost missed the ship as we arrived at the pier 10 minutes after the final tender time. I really didn’t want to write that last part, but I don’t feel that it would be fair to my fellow cruise critic members to leave that out. Luckily, some of the ship’s excursions were late and the final tender didn’t actually occur until about 90 minutes later.
Lesson learned - if I ever feel that I want to organize a group shore excursion again, it would have to save me at least 50% above the ship’s shore excursion. I would also ask for payment in advance before the sailing. Ratings: 5/5 for lunch, tour guide’s commentary, the bus and Petrohue rapids. Timeliness back to the port, tendering experience, failure of participants to show up and concierge helpfulness were epic fails.