Sunday, December 28, 2008

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - the Grande Finale!

Dec. 20 & 21, 2008 – When you get down to the last few days of a fairly long (14 day) cruise – it’s hard to believe how fast the time went – or how many books you thought you would read – or activities you would participate in – that never materialized. However, you are probably the most relaxed you’ve been in a long time, and amazed at the variety of the sights you’ve seen and in such comfort. It also gets you thinking of your favorite memories and what locations you would like to come back to for a repeat visit in the future. And of course it’s always hard to say farewell to the cabin stewards and waiters that endlessly spoil you and anticipate all of your needs.
Dec. 22, 2008 – The port calls on this trip were so spectacular that it would not be fair to say we saved the ‘best for last’ – but Rio de Janeiro, Brasil could easily fit this description. The photos you often see of ‘Christ the Redeemer’ and ‘Sugarloaf’ mountain, and the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema cannot capture the truly exotic setting of this vibrant city. If you can sail into Rio during the daylight hours as we did then you are in for a treat as the silhouettes of the mountain ranges and islands come into view. The ancient volcanic landscape is somewhat reminiscent of Hawaii or the islands of the south pacific. Then you start to see the outlines of the skyscrapers and beaches and can start to make out ‘Christ the Redeemer’ on the hilltop. The city sprawls for miles over this volcanic landscape and can look daunting at first. So the best way to start to uncover the real ‘gems’ of Rio is to visit the Christ the Redeemer statue, high on Corcovado mountain, which was completed in 1931. It was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Brasil’s independence, but took six extra years to finish. The statue is over 30 meters high. You can reach the top of the mountain via a winding road or a train. You wind through the heart of the city and enter the Tijuca Tropical Rainforest Reserve – which incredibly goes on for acres in the midst of this large, throbbing city. Once you make it to the top you’ll see the remarkable statue – up close and personal – and panoramic views of the city that will enthrall you and help you to find your bearings and learn the layout of this metropolis. Hopefully you’ll have a clear, sunny day as we did to enjoy this. Then, the next ‘must see’ sight is the famed ‘Sugarloaf’ mountain. The summit of Sugarloaf is reached via two sets of cable cars – operating since 1912. Again, the views are stupendous and since you’re almost out on an island in the bay you’ll have lovely sea breezes to cool you off on a hot day. It’s a great way to see the layout of the city and all the world famous beaches. And speaking of beaches, many neighborhoods of Rio have their own ‘neighborhood beach’ – each with its own character and flavor. Most visitors flock to Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon beaches where you’ll find many of the fine hotels, restaurants and shopping areas. The beaches are fairly wide and filled with soft sand. Locals and visitors mingle from the early morning hours until late in the evening. A city with so many beaches makes Rio a very ‘fun’ and ‘casual’ city. Their largest celebrations are ‘Carnival’ – held right before Lent - usually in February and New Year’s Eve. Perhaps larger than New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations – the city and many of its citizens spend much of the year preparing for these special events. Food and drink are also key ingredients in the Rio de Janeiro culture – and there’s no better way to experience this than by dining at a local Churrascaria. This is an ‘all you can eat’ Brazilian Steakhouse where it is best to bring your appetite. Along with a bountiful buffet of many types of salads, soups and seafood, the main attraction is the large quantity and excellent quality of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, sausages and more. These excellent cuts of meat are brought directly to your tables on skewers by waiters who will keep the food coming until you put up your ‘stop’ sign. Accompany this with some of the excellent South American wines and you’ll have an enjoyable gastronomic memory to sustain you and think back on.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Dec. 19, 2008 – When we arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina this morning, so had summer - with abundant sunshine the afternoon temperature reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily the tour we had chosen for part of the day started fairly early in the morning. We chose a ‘highlights of Buenos Aires’ tour combined with an authentic Tango Show and lunch. Our guide spoke excellent English and we first traveled to the famed Recoleta Cemetery. This is located in an upscale ‘old money’ neighborhood of Buenos Aires that has become an important sight for tourists because Eva Duarte Peron - “Evita” - is currently layed to rest 18 feet below the Duarte family’s black marble mausoleum. Despite her short but controversial life and her death over fifty years ago – she has been the most important woman in Argentina’s history to date – and fresh flowers are still left as daily mementos. This cemetery dates from 1822 and the sheer size of the cemetery and diversity and ornateness of many of the mausoleums makes it an interesting sight. (It recalls similarities with the above ground cemeteries in New Orleans.) Buenos Aires is often called the ‘Paris of South America’ and the many apartment and government buildings decorated in Parisian style with the ornate iron grill work attest to this. As does the grand and wide ‘Avenue de 9 de Julio’ boulevard and with its many parks and obelisk – recalling the Champs de Elysees in Paris. As the city and environs have grown to approximately 12 million – traffic is a ‘headache’ and you must allow adequate time to travel even short distances within the city. Despite the traffic we were able to see many of the historic and impressive government buildings including the Casa Rosada. This is the ‘Pink House’ which holds the offices and residential quarters for Argentina’s president – currently a woman – Christina Kirchener - who recently succeeded her husband in office. La Boca was another very ‘colorful’ neighborhood – both literally and culturally - that we visited. Many of the original immigrants in this area were from Italy and they built inexpensive housing and other structures from corrugated iron that they then colorfully painted. There is an interesting selection of cafes, shops and street markets for tourists to enjoy here. We also passed by the old – but newly renovated – port area – Port Madreo. It was the old, neglected port area of the city which had been completely abandoned and run down - but which now features many of the city’s best restaurants, hotels and international corporation headquarters. We then proceeded to the highlight of our tour – a Tango Show and luncheon at ‘La Ventana’ in the San Telmo neighborhood. Tango shows and ‘culture’ have experienced quite a revival in Buenos Aires over the last 20 years – and locals and visitors have a wide variety of shows to experience most evenings. Tango shows during the daytime are not normal, however the cruise line arranged for one of the most popular shows to conduct an afternoon performance for a limited number of guests – it ‘sold out’ to a full house. A hearty lunch was followed by an hour show with a full ‘Tango’ band, complete with the important accordion section, both male and female Tango singers, and four of the best Tango couples you’ll ever see. The intensity and fancy footwork is an incredible sight to see up close and personal – and highly recommended. Then before heading back to the ship, we and others interested in shopping and soaking up more of the local culture were dropped off at the famed ‘Calle Florida’ pedestrian shopping street. Many of the best and most popular buys were leather coats, purses, ‘gaucho related’ and woolen items. The street goes on for about four miles and is somewhat reminiscent of ‘Las Ramblas’ in Barcelona with the eclectic mix of street performers. The variety of stores is wide with upscale jewelry, leather goods and clothing stores side by side with less expensive souvenir shops. A grand old building from the 19th century was coverted into a large mall with many world class boutiques – ‘Gallerias Pacificos’. We then had plenty of time to return to the ship before it’s 8:30 pm departure. It was certainly a port with a lot to offer and we hope to return again for further exploration in the future.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Uruguay and 'at sea'

Dec. 16 & 17, 2008 – We enjoyed two more relaxing sea days as we sailed northwest from the Falkland Islands to the middle of South American’s east coast. Our daylight grew a bit shorter each day, but this was offset by welcome warmer temperatures. We continued to have very calm seas fell into the comfortable ‘sea day’ rhythm of doing as much or as little as you want. We also learned that the passengers on our cruise represented 46 different countries – even more diverse than our crew – truly a unique experience for all of us. English continued to be the main language, but a few announcements were also made in Spanish and Portuguese.
Dec. 18, 2008 – A beautiful sunrise greeted us as we arrived at Montevideo this morning, the capital of Uruguay. This is the second smallest country in South America and most of the three million inhabitants are of Spanish or Italian descent. Montevideo is located on the very wide Rio de Plato – just a bit north of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The capital is an eclectic mix of older and very ‘European’ looking buildings along with more modern ones. A Spanish sailor is said to have given the name to the city when he spotted a nearby mountain from the Crow’s Nest and shouted “I see a mountain” – “Monte vejo eu”. There were numerous tour options to choose from today that concentrated on Montevideo or visits to estancias in the countryside to sample the highly acclaimed Uruguay wines and beef. However, we chose a tour that headed two hours east to the Atlantic Coast to visit the international beach resort of Punte del Este. This area was a small fishing village until the 1950’s and 60’s when visionaries realized its potential as a world class resort. It is most popular with Brazilians and Argentineans. The small resort city is well situated where the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio de Plato meet. It is a combination of high rise condominiums, casinos, restaurants, boutiques, yacht harbors and private homes and museums. It appears to be a very pleasant and safe place where a nice holiday could be enjoyed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

South America Cruise - Falkland Islands

Dec. 15, 2008 – As we reached Stanley, in the Falkland Islands, rain was forecast, and the morning started off cloudy. But by 11:00 am the sun broke through and it stayed bright and sunny for the rest of the day. However, despite the bright sunlight, dressing in layers was still necessary for comfort for touring around the island. The Falkland Islands are a protectorate of the United Kingdom and are comprised of about 700 islands, although only the two major islands are inhabited. The total permanent population is now approximately 3,000 and about an additional 2,500 in military and support personnel from the UK live here as well. The islands were first discovered by the Spanish in the 1500’s and Europeans were the first human settlers. It’s sovereignty was transferred back and forth among several European nations until the early 1800’s when British rule solidly took over, and was only temporarily broken during the 3 month long ‘Falkland Islands’ conflict between Argentina and the UK in 1982. In addition to war memorials and first hand stories from the locals that lived here then, one of the most visible remnants from that short conflict are the miles and miles of land that is still totally fenced off and unusable because of the large number of land mines that the Argentians planted. It is sad that there are not enough resources (after more than 25 years) to remove these mines and let this land be useable again. Since most of the land is privately owned, in order to get to most of the island’s penguin colonies or other interesting sights it is required that you do this through an official tour. We decided to take the 3 hour tour to Bluff Cove to see a large colony of over 1,000 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins and also several breeding pairs of King penguins. The first 15 minutes of the tour out of Stanley was conducted on a mini-bus and we then transferred into land rover vehicles for an incredible 30 minute journey across an amazing landscape of rocky outcroppings and peat bogs. It was the first time I was in a four-wheel drive vehicle where all of its functionalities were put to the test. The journey was worth the effort for the amount of quality time we got to spend near the penguin colonies at sea’s edge, and the excellent photo opportunities. After this exciting tour we returned to Stanley and went to the ‘Globe Tavern’ for some very British Fish & Chips. We also had time for some further sightseeing and shopping in town and then had a pleasant tender ride back to our ship.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Southern Patagonia & Cape Horn

Dec. 11, 2008 – We took the Captain’s advice and set our wake-up call for 7:30 am to view the entrance into the Chilean fjords, the Straits of Magellan and the beginning of glacier country. It turns out that we even woke up before our ‘call’ at 6:00 am and enjoyed the journey through balding mountains, some still topped with snow and others with some minor vegetation. Our major destination was the majestic Amalia Glacier in the Southern Patagonia Ice Fields. It reaches the sea at approximately half a mile wide, and 100 feet high. It is a tidewater glacier and at this time of year has lots of calving action and deposits many iceflows and mini icebergs on its march to the sea. In the surrounding mountains a myriad of other hanging glaciers can be seen. Sailing up to a thrilling glacier like this is a special ‘once in a lifetime experience’. It’s somewhat similar to Alaskan glaciers, but nestled in the beautiful Chilean Fjords with ample sea life and bird watching opportunities, it takes on another dimension. Viewing the sights from your balcony with warm clothing, a blanket and hot beverage creates memories that cannot be erased. Scenic sailing and smooth seas were the order of the day.
Dec. 12, 2008 – We joined most passengers and many crew members in rising early to enjoy a day ashore in Punta Arenas, (Sandy Point) Chile. This port city had a quite busy past as a key port of call for ships sailing around South America before the opening of the Panama Canal. Large sheep ranches (estancias) were also developed in the 1800’s and some are still operating today. In fact on our drive to Ottway Bay to see the Magellenic Penguins we were able to witness some gauchos on horseback with their dogs herding their sheep. And yes, a visit to the Penguin colony about 40 miles from Punta Arenas was one of the most popular shore excursion choices. We got to see many of these very ‘social’ penguins coming and going from their burrows, and gathering on the beach and frolicking in the ocean. Another treat was seeing South American Condors flying in the wild. After returning to the city center we then found a restaurant by the harbor for Russ to sample several variations of the local King Crab – ‘centolla’ – it passed his quality control with high marks. We also enjoyed seeing many of the historic Victorian style buildings and a lovely town square where many local craftsmen were selling their wares.
Dec. 13, 2008 – The fantastic scenery of the Chilean and Argentinian Fjords has been non-stop. Daylight (before 6:00 am) brought a continuation of the beautiful snow-capped mountain scenery as our ship threaded through the fjords and then entered the famous Beagle Channel. ‘Beagle’ was the name of the ship that Charles Darwin sailed on for several years during his South America explorations. Numerous alpine hanging glaciers were seen and many tidewater and melting glaciers as well as waterfalls. Most of these glaciers are named after various countries. We then arrived at Ushuaia, Argentina around noon. This small city is nestled on a large harbor and sheltered by the mountains and glaciers. Many tour opportunities were offered and we chose to take a three hour tour to ‘Tierra Del Fuego National Park’ where we were treated to splendid views across the Beagle Channel, the scenic and wave-crested Roco Lake and other areas of interest. We then enjoyed time for shopping, sightseeing and dining in this town which claims to be at the ‘end of the world – where life begins’. Russ again was happy to sample the local ‘Centolla’ – King Crab and Susan enjoyed the famed Argentian beef steak and local Malbec wine. Ushuaia also has a fairly large airport and is the ‘jumping off point’ for many tourist and scientific expeditions to Antarctica, and to the southern regions of wild Patagonia. The buildings and houses are quite an eclectic mix of many styles – some reminiscent of the Swiss Alps – although many built from corrugated iron in many colors – but complete with ‘gingerbread’ type decorations.
Dec. 14, 2008 – Although not a port day, this morning was certainly one of the highlights of the cruise, and another ‘world class geographic landmark’ – sailing around ‘Cape Horn’. Cape Horn is the southern most point of South America and originally named after the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands by Dutch sailors. (All passengers and crew are now ‘mossbacks’ after making this passage.) It’s the northern most point of the Drake Passage and just a few hundred miles from Antarctica. At certain times of year these waters can be rough and hazardous, but on a late Spring morning like this the waters were very calm and only a light breeze was blowing. The partial cloudiness also broke into bright sunshine and it was a great morning to take photos from your balcony or the upper decks. Our port lecturer gave pertinent commentary for about an hour and a half during our circumnavigation of the Cape Horn island. The rocky island is partially covered by grasses and mosses and some amazing rock formations are situated at the island’s edges. On such a clear day the ‘Albatross’ monument erected to the memory of sailors who have lost their lives was also very visible. After this glorious morning, we began sailing in a northeasternly direction toward the Falkland Islands.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Southern Chile - Dec. 2008

Dec. 9 & 10, 2009 – Two sea days traveling south off the Chilean coast, most of the time not in sight of land until the latter part of the second day, allowed time for relaxation and getting to know the comforts of the ship. We enjoyed visits to the health club, attending port and naturalist lectures, meeting an interesting mix of other ‘international’ passengers, and of course the delicious and bountiful food – available 24 hours a day. On a two-week voyage like this it is such a treat to get fully unpacked and settle in to your ‘home away from home’ and find your favorite places on the ship. Our ship, the Star Princess, features three swimming pools, multiple hot tubs, a variety of theatres and lounges, several dining rooms and restaurants, library, internet cafĂ©, a health club and spa, the innovative ‘Skywalkers Lounge’ (set like a ‘spoiler on the back of Deck 17 reached via a glass enclosed moving sidewalk), and the new ‘movies under the stars’, and so on. As we journeyed south our sunny and clear days grew increasingly longer with daylight lasting until about 11:00 pm. The temperatures also started to decline and winds picked up at times too, but the seas remained relatively calm.
Dec. 11, 2009 – We took the Captain’s advice and set our wake-up call for 7:30 am to view the entrance into the Chilean fjords, the Straits of Magellan and the beginning of glacier country. It turns out that we even woke up before our ‘call’ at 6:00 am and enjoyed the journey through balding mountains, some still topped with snow and others with some minor vegetation. Our major destination was the majestic Amalia Glacier in the Southern Patagonia Ice Fields. It reaches the sea at approximately half a mile wide, and 100 feet high. It is a tidewater glacier and at this time of year has lots of calving action and deposits many iceflows and mini icebergs on its march to the sea. In the surrounding mountains a myriad of other hanging glaciers can be seen. Sailing up to a thrilling glacier like this is a special ‘once in a lifetime experience’. It’s somewhat similar to Alaskan glaciers, but nestled in the beautiful Chilean Fjords with ample sea life and bird watching opportunities, it takes on another dimension. Viewing the sights from your balcony with warm clothing, a blanket and hot beverage creates memories that cannot be erased. Scenic sailing and smooth seas were the order of the day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

South America Sojourn - December 2009

South America Sojourn Aboard ‘Star Princess’ – Dec. 6 – 23, 2009

Susan & Russ Rosenberry – Islands in the Sun Cruises & Tours

Dec. 6, 2009 – Flights on Copa Airlines from Miami to Santiago (via Panama City) were punctual and smooth, and with decent service. Chile’s time zone is 2 hours ahead of Eastern Standard time, and at this time of year daylight lasts until after 9:00 pm. Santiago is located in the ‘Central Valley’ in central Chile and views of the (often snowcapped) Andes Mountains provide a picturesque backdrop and easy directional landmark. After clearing customs and immigration our transfer to our Santiago hotel took about 20 minutes. We quickly settled in, and then took a taxi to a nearby restaurant noted for its ‘seafood’ – Porto Fuy – Russ had the best Sea Bass and Mushroom Soup ever, and we enjoyed a crisp Chilean Sauvignon Blanc from the Casablanca Valley. US dollars are widely accepted for tips and taxis, and of course credit cards at other establishments. Most Chileans have very limited English skills accept for those directly involved in tourism or other selected industries.

Dec. 7, 2009 – In late Spring sunrise in Santiago is also early, so after a breakfast buffet at the hotel, our tour guide and driver were ready to show us the highlights of their capital city. Santiago is a collection of many neighborhoods, each with their own government and mayor. It is also a mixture of many historical buildings in various states of renewal or decay, as well as many very modern buildings brought forth during the last decade or so of a fairly robust and stable economy. We first concentrated on the central part of the city, which was founded by Pedro de Valdivia in 1541. Plaza de Armas was the site of the original development and it is still a busy meeting point for locals and visitors. It now contains many trees, including the stately Chilean Palm, fountains, sidewalks and seating areas as well as an imposing statue of the mounted Valdivia. The square is now surrounded by many historical buildings such as the 1747 version of the Santiago Cathedral, the National Historical Museum inaugurated in 1808, and a beautifully restored ‘turn of the century’ Correo Central (1902) which still serves as a post office. Another key landmark nearby is the Presidential Palace, ‘La Moneda’ originally built in 1788. The President of Chile no longer lives in the Palace, but the executive offices are housed there. Every other day a formal ‘changing of the guard’ ceremony takes place here, complete with military marching band, horses, and intricate colorguard formations. The Palace has been restored from being severely destroyed during the military coup of 1973 when the Chilean Airforce actually bombed the Palace to end the leftist government of Salvadore Allende, who then alledgedly committed suicide. Chilean politics has had many other colorful leaders throughout its history, and currently has a woman President (despite Chilean women only having the right to vote since 1949). Many other restored historical buildings in Santiago are now used as buildings for Santiago’s many universities.

Other neighborhoods of interest to tourists highlight include the Mercado Central (Central Market) filled with restaurants and shops, the ‘Bohemian’ neighborhood of Bellavista, and the artisan market in Las Domenicas, and many, many more. And on a sunny and clear day, a visit to the top of Cerro San Cristobal via road, cable car or funicular awards you a beautiful panoramic view of Santiago and the thriving central valley. An imposing statue of the Shrine of the Virgin Mary, built in 1908 reigns over the hillside and is lit up at night. The Catholic Church still plays a strong role in the life of Chile.

Dec. 8, 2009 – A scenic journey from Santiago to the coastal towns of Vino del Mar and Valparaiso is made easy by Chile’s great highway system. Vino del Mar is an upscale beach resort town that is currently booming with many new hotels and condominiums sprouting up. Luxury shopping centers and casinos abound as well. The climate and terrain are very reminiscent of southern California. About 20 minutes south on the coast is the port city of Valparaiso – where cruise ships, container ships, and the Chilean Navy are based. In the 19th century it was named ‘little San Francisco’ and was a thriving port where most ships that rounded Cape Horn made a port call. Then after the Panama Canal was opened in 1914 this business greatly dwindled and the city went into decline. In recent years the tourism industry has begun to help this charmingly situated city regain some of its former stature.

It is a secure and easy port to access, and provides great views for an amazing ‘sailaway’.