Thursday, March 29, 2007

Update from M/V Golden Princess

It has been a very long while since I posted here, so this will be a lengthy post with a fairly major update. Before I get into the details, though, I should say a few things in advance, by way of explanation.

One of the dirty little secrets about my posts here is that I tend to use the Internet to check things like spelling of proper names, correct accentuation of foreign vowels, historical facts, and that sort of thing. Because I am typing this entire post off-line, and will have to up-load it without benefit of all that checking, it may include quite a number of such mistakes. Also, things that I would normally make into hot-links will remain plain text. Once we are back in the states, as time permits, I will try to come back to this post and fix any errors and/or insert some links. In addition, we have photos to go with some of this text, but at $0.50 per minute (for a very slow connection), it is prohibitive to upload them here aboard ship, so we will also add those in upon our return. I'll post a note and a back-link here in the blog when this post gets updated.

As long as I am on the subject, I'll say a few words about accessing the internet. Here aboard ship, access is available through the ship's satellite system. This works much like our own system aboard Odyssey, except it is a larger dish, on a gyroscopically stabilized platform. The throughput is affected by the ship's position as well as weather (just as our system is), and it is also being shared by the entire ship, including the cruise line's own administrative traffic. This makes the connection painfully slow most of the time -- think regular dial modem speeds. WiFi access to this system is available in a handful of spots around the ship, at a flat rate of $0.50 per minute.

The ship also has a couple dozen public computers for access, at $0.75 per minute. Since moving into a higher-category stateroom in Valparaiso, access through these computers has been included in our fare. Unfortunately, they are set up such that only basic web browsing is available, with no access to files of any kind. So I can't, for example, copy this post onto a memory card or disk, and then upload it through the public computers. (The machines do have memory card readers, but they can only be used to attach photos to emails using a dedicated built-in program.)

From Buenos Aires to Valparaiso, we made extensive use of internet storefronts in each port. The most we paid was US$4 per hour in the Falklands, with rates of about US$1 per hour common in Latin American countries. Phone calls from these stores were also quite reasonable, with US$0.10 to US$0.50 per minute being the range for calls to the US (by contrast, satellite calls from the ship run $8.95 per minute -- yipes!).

Let's move on to what we've been up to these last three weeks. I've tried to keep a few notes on what we've done at each port visit or at-sea day, which I will relate here briefly. Whereas the blog displays in most-recent-first format, I will share these items in chronological order from the top down, starting where we left off in:

Buenos Aires

The afternoon after my last post, we went on a tour of the Parana River delta. We left the hotel by bus, where our guide pointed out various neighborhoods of the city. We passed many interesting residential districts whose names I no longer recall, save one, the Olivos district, where we passed the presidential residence (not to be confused with the Pink House, which is strictly an office). Eventually, the bus dropped us at the beginning of the coast railroad line, which is now essentially a tourist train using light-rail type equipment. The line runs along the west bank of the Rio De La Plata, which is really a very wide estuary that forms the border between Argentina and Uruguay.

We got off the train at San Ysidro, where the station adjoins a modern shopping plaza. We opted for a light lunch rather than shopping, after which our bus picked us up and shuttled us over to the canals, where we embarked our launch.

The tour through the canals and river system that make up the delta was quite interesting, showcasing an eclectic mix of structures from the summer homes of the fabulously wealthy to the shacks of subsistence fishermen. The area reminded me of the Louisiana bayou country, with everything from mail to groceries to gasoline being delivered by boat. A very different side of the Buenos Aires ex-urbs that we are very glad to have seen.

The next morning found the four of us crammed in to a tiny Renault with a driver/guide for a city tour. Louise's folks had asked for a large car, and they promised to send one which would accommodate six -- I guess the average Argentinian is a lot thinner than the average American. Nevertheless, other than being squeezed in, it was a nice tour. It was raining and we mostly stayed in the car and rode around through the various parts of the city, seeing the Pink House (although the infamous balcony was covered over due to renovations), the Cabildo, the Colon Theater (also partly covered, as well as closed, due to extensive renovations), the Obelisk, and the upscale waterfront neighborhoods. We stopped at the Recoletta, where we did get out to walk through the famous old cemetery with its ornate tombs. (And, yes, we did see the tomb of Evita Peron, which was festooned with fresh flowers.)

After returning to our respective hotels, we grabbed our bags and made our way to the pier by taxis. Embarkation was quite chaotic -- there were three ships in port all at once, and I think the passenger facilities were overwhelmed. In addition to our own vessel, Golden Princess, Holland America's Rotterdam and the MSC Sinfonia were also tied up, which meant over 5,000 passengers moving through a terminal facility that could handle less than half that number comfortably. Once we got our baggage checked into the screening system, things moved along more smoothly, and we were on board our ship and in our stateroom in less than an hour. We had our luggage shortly thereafter, but others were not so lucky. We cast off a full two hours late due to port delays involving the luggage, and some folks didn't see their bags until midnight.

On board M/V Golden Princess

Rather than diving into a long explanation of our ship and its amenities and staterooms, I will come back here and put in some links to the Princess site and maybe Cruise Critic (or you can surf over there yourself). Suffice it to say this is the biggest ship we've ever embarked, and it took us a day or two to get familiar with it. We ended up with a great stateroom location, amidships on the starboard side, just a few steps from the elevator and stairs, and just one deck down from the pools and the buffet.

It also took us a couple days to get our dining arrangements squared away. We had originally requested "traditional" dining, which means a fixed seating time and an assigned table. Now, we are accustomed to dining alone, just the two of us, and so we had also requested a table for two. Little did we know that since unveiling "Anytime Dining" a few years ago, Princess no longer provides any two-tops in its traditional dining venues. We ended up at a table for eight, with several very nice Brits. But this was not at all what we wanted, and we switched the very next night to Anytime Dining, with the result being that the Brits needled us, in a good-humored sort of way, every time we ran into them for the next week.

The upside to Anytime Dining is that, just as it says, you can show up any time. Also, on those handful of nights when we might want to join my in-laws for dinner, it's a simple matter to show up as a foursome instead of the two of us. The downside is that you have, potentially, a different waiter and assistant waiter every night, and the consistency of traditional dining, whereby the waiters have figured out by the third day or so what you like to drink, how you like your steak, and how you take your coffee, is lost. Also, two-tops are popular and limited, so there is often a wait for one, involving those vibrating pagers that one finds at, say, Olive Garden.

After a day or two of bouncing around the various dining rooms (and receiving, I must say, some of the worst service I have experienced on the high seas, a close second only to NCL America), we discovered quite by accident that it is actually possible (though unadvertised and kept very low key) to request a fixed table assignment in the Anytime Dining room, particularly for the less popular later seating times. So we've had a dedicated table for two with a very good waiter since about our fourth day, and it has been quite nice. Everyone from the assistant waiter all the way up to the Maitre d' knows us by sight and sometimes by name, and the service has been decent since.

Montevideo, Uruguay

The cruise from Buenos Aires to Montevideo involved "merely" crossing the Rio de la Plata. Easier said than done, as the entire trip was in a narrow buoyed channel dredged into the shallow estuary. In fact, we were an hour late, between the departure delay and the restrictive channel. Upon arriving, the captain announced that some tours would also be delayed or detoured because none other than US President George Bush was scheduled to arrived that afternoon, and the city was gearing up for widespread demonstrations.

In fact, our city tour rolled into the main square just before the barricades went up, and so we had no trouble seeing all the sights, including the old walled city center, a remnant of the old wall and gate, the legislative palace complete with color guards around the founding documents and beautiful stained glass windows and frescoes, and an interesting mix of old and new architecture throughout the city center. After the city proper, our tour continued into the countryside where we had lunch and wine tasting at the Juanico winery. We bought several bottles of Merlot for ourselves (long since gone), and a couple of bottles of Tanat, a varietal of French origin that is not grown in the states, to give as gifts.

Stained glass window from the Legislature building in Montevideo

After departing Uruguay and clearing the estuary and into the open sea, we had two very relaxing days at sea where we allowed ourselves to just unwind and finish recovering from the jet lag. A wonderful, if pricey, couples massage helped with that process. By the end of the second sea day, however, I had the makings of a terrible cold, caught, no doubt, on the airplane. That did not stop the young, perky entertainment staff from tricking both of us into participating in the Tina Turner look-alike contest. This involved putting on a Tina Turner wig and a sparkly mini-dress (over our clothes), going out on stage in front of about a hundred people, and lip-synching to Proud Mary while holding a banana standing in for a microphone. The contest was totally rigged, with three female participants and myself, where beard and all I won hands down by audience "vote." People I had never met were greeting me in the corridors for a week as "Tina." Our only regret is that Louise was also in the contest, and so was not able to photograph the public humiliation for posterity. I'm sure someone has photos of me in a Tina Turner outfit, but we haven't met them.

Port Stanley, The Falkland Islands

No one had ever even heard of this remote outpost until Argentina invaded it in 1982, precipitating a naval war with Great Britain that was front page news for weeks. (Even back then it was a factor for the cruise industry, as Her Majesty's Navy immediately commandeered RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 for use as a troop ship.) Today it is peacefully back in British control, although Argentina still maintains a sovereignty claim. Unexploded ordnance and land mines still dot the countryside and there are large areas cordoned off, though we saw none.

It turns out that M/S Rotterdam was following us move-for-move on this itinerary, and both ships anchoring off Stanley, along with the M/V Hanseatic, made for 5,000 or so people flooding the port, twice again the local population. The three ships vied for the eleven (!) buses and two dozen taxis on the entire island. The lucky few who booked early managed tours by four-wheel-drive out to one of the penguin rookeries on the island, spotting Emperor and Magellanic penguins. We settled for walking around the town, which is easily accomplished in an hour or so, seeing the post office, Christchurch Cathedral, and the lone grocery/general store where I bought cough drops for my developing cold. Interestingly, I could not get my international phone cards to work anywhere on the island, whereas I had no problem in Latin America.

Sean attempts a phone call in Port Stanley. Oh, the British-ness of it all. (Sorry I couldn't get this to load right-side up!)

Cape Horn

Cape Horn, or Cabo de Hornos, is an island. Nevertheless it is considered the southernmost point on the South American continent. It's a small island, and we circumnavigated it in about 45 minutes. Rotterdam did so as well, but we chose opposite directions, so we passed her mid-circle with horn-blowing and fanfare. It is impossible to land here, but from the ship we saw the small military weather station, the huge Chilean flag, and the Albatross sculpture that is billed as the southermost monument in the world.

While "rounding the Horn" is generally associated with violent seas, they were dead calm on the day we circumnavigated, and we are told that they have generally been calm for several years.

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

From Cape Horn we made our way to the Beagle Channel which separates the large island of Tierra del Fuego from the group of smaller islands (including Cape Horn) to the south, and along the channel to the lone city thereupon, Ushuaia. Tierra del Fuego is divided between Chile and Argentina, and Ushuaia is just east of the line, in Argentina. Ushuaia has the distinction of being the southernmost city in the world. Before 1914 and the opening of the Panama Canal, it was a thriving seaport, vying with Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan for traffic passing between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Here we took a cruise on a small launch along the Beagle Channel to view wildlife on several small islands. We saw huge numbers of Imperial cormorants, South American sea lions, and several varieties of terns and gulls.

Pile o' sea lions in the Beagle Channel. Yep, they smell bad.

Our short cruise left us some time to walk around town, and we took advantage of cheap internet and good phone rates to catch up. The theme of the entire town is "Fin del Mundo," the end of the world.

Ushuaia's port

Punta Arenas, Patagonia, Chile

After departing Ushuaia we sailed west along the Beagle Channel and past several large glaciers, then continued overnight through the western part of the Beagle Channel, nearly into the Pacific, then north through the Canal Cockburn and Chilean fjords to the Strait of Magellan and Punta Arenas.

After tendering ashore in Punta Arenas we took a bus tour to a penguin colony, where thousands of Magellanic penguins (also known as jackass penguins) come seasonally to molt. This was the very end of the season, and so the number of penguins was somewhat smaller than at the peak of the molting, but still we saw hundreds. We also spotted some ostrich-like birds which were possibly rheas or maybe emu, and, surprisingly, a number of very pink flamingos.

Chilean Fjords

After departing Punta Arenas we sailed west through the Strait of Magellan and back into the Pacific overnight, then proceeding north parallel to the Chilean coast. Sometime in the morning the winds whipped up to over 100mph, hurricane force, giving our very tall ship quite a bit of heel to starboard, and a bumpy ride as well in the 15-18' seas. Our scheduled route had us come back into the relative protection of the fjords around midday, which provided some relief, but we were then to proceed north through the fjords and back out into the open ocean late in the afternoon. The captain decided to wait out more of the storm in protected waters, and so we were treated to a spectacular unscheduled detour down the Estero Peel to El Brujo glacier. This tidewater glacier rivaled many we have seen in Alaska, and we even witnessed some minor calving. With the ship more or less stationary at Ventisquero Brujo, the MOB (Man Over Board) fast rescue boat was launched with a photographer and videographer aboard to get some dramatic shots of Golden Princess in front of this breathtaking glacier.

After the surprise sightseeing detour, we continued north through the fjords and back out into the open ocean just before midnight, with mostly calm seas and little evidence of the storm that had pummeled us in the morning. We sailed north parallel to the coast overnight and most of the next day, entering again into the fjords at dinner time.

Puerto Montt, Chile

Morning found us anchored in the Bahia Puerto Montt off the Golfo Ancud. We tendered in to the town of Puerto Montt, which is something of a local resort area. From here we took a bus ride out past Llanquihue Lake and the resort of Puerto Varas, with views of the Osorno volcano (bearing a striking resemblance to Fuji) on our way to the Petrohue river. Here we had a whitewater rafting trip down the river, which was billed as Class III but I would judge as Class IV- or III++ at the water level on the day we did it. Quite an adventure, and one of the real highlights of the entire trip so far.

At the end of our raft trip, we were served a small snack that included a Pisco Sour, the local fire-water of choice throughout Chile. Pisco is a type of brandy made locally (Chile being quite renowned for wine grape production) and a Pisco Sour is just what it sounds like, Pisco and sour mix. We later discovered in the grocery store that there are actually many flavors of bottled mixes involving Pisco. Tons of the stuff is bottled, but almost none is exported.

A Chilean submarine was in the anchorage as our departure approached, and I was surprised to hear them hail us on the radio (I was monitoring the marine channels on my amateur handheld). The conversation was entirely in Spanish, presumably with our Chilean pilot, and I could not make out much, but I at least heard them ask where we were going. Golden Princess is the largest passenger ship ever to visit many of these ports, and locals, tourists, and authorities alike have been fascinated by our presence almost everywhere.

Valparaiso, Chile

After another full day at sea off the Chilean coast, we docked at Valparaiso, which was technically the terminating port of our first cruise. As in-transit passengers, we did not have to leave the ship, and we enjoyed a nearly empty ship for a good part of the day. We did change staterooms between cruises, so we spent part of the morning waiting for the accommodations department to come move our things. All our hanging garments were moved en masse on a trolley, so we did not have to fully re-pack and unpack our suitcases for the move.

Valparaiso is an industrial port city, with not much in the way of tourist activity.

We did have the option to visit Santiago, but it was three hours each way by bus (not including the three hours or so of tour), and we decided that nothing worth seeing in Santiago could entice us to spend nine hours in a tour bus. Talk about a busman's holiday.

Instead we enjoyed having the ship mostly to ourselves, and we also disembarked just long enough to walk across the street to the local mega-supermarket, Jumbo/Easy. Jumbo is best described as a cross between a Wal-Mart supercenter and a high-end supermarket, while Easy is a cross between Home Depot and Best Buy. Aside from the lack of any English signage, we could have been standing in any megastore in the US. But we were here on a mission: wine. The Uruguayan Merlot had only lasted to Puerto Montt, and we needed reinforcements.

We purchased a range of Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and blended reds, with none more than about US$4 and a couple of Merlots that were about US$1.65 each. We came away with seven bottles of wine for less than $20. (At this writing, we've consumed all but one, and, frankly, the $1.65 Merlot has been the best of the lot -- we should have bought a whole case worth.) In hindsight, I'm sorry we didn't also buy a bottle or two of Pisco Sour (or Pisco-something), since there was a whole aisle dedicated to it, and some could be had for as little as US$3 a bottle. At any rate, a serious wine lover could get hooked on this country.

Coquimbo, Chile

After embarking some 2,200 new passengers in Valparaiso (400 of us continued on from the first cruise), we sailed overnight to the port of Coquimbo. Coquimbo adjoins the city of La Serena, and they have essentially grown together into one city. Here we took another bus tour, out to a national preserve containing 1,000+ year old petroglyphs. The cultures that created these were wiped out long ago, along with their history, so not much is known about the origin or meaning of the symbols (as far as we could make out from the tour).

We also toured another local winery in the Limari valley. On the way out of and back into town, we could see the enormous Cross of the Third Millenium, as well as a very large and modern mosque. Our guide told us that there is almost no Muslim population here, but a mayor interested in ecumenical outreach had convinced someone to donate the money for its construction. The same mayor was in the process of doing the same thing for a synagogue when he was indicted on unrelated corruption charges, thus ending his grandiose outreach program. We later learned that the King of Morocco was either in town or just about to arrive for the dedication of the mosque, suggesting that the money came from that realm.

Arica, Chile

After yet another relaxing full day at sea, we arrived in Arica, the driest city on earth. This part of Chile is in the Atacama desert, with average yearly rainfall of less than three millimeters.

The city is dominated by El Morro, a large hill right next to the port. Atop the hill is a military museum, and a large statue of Jesus, dedicated to peace. Arica once belonged to Peru, and was ceded to Chile in the War of the Pacific, a subject of some sensitivity to Peruvians even today. One of the stipulations of the peace treaty called for this statue to be erected on this spot, with one arm outstretched to Chile and one to Peru.

We once again had a bus tour here, which included a visit to the top of El Morro, along with the site of some geoglyphs (large icons drawn onto hillsides with contrasting rocks), and a museum containing relatively recently discovered mummies as well as other native artifacts.

At the geoglyph site, we also had an up-close and personal visit with an alpaca that was fetching tips for an enterprising local.

Our tour ended with a visit to the local cathedral, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Tower and Liberty fame), prefabricated in Europe, and erected on the site. It turned out, unsurprisingly, to be identical to the church of the same provenance that we had visited in Santa Rosalia, Mexico.

I also had a chance to walk the broad paseo, or pedestrian plaza, downtown. The entire town was hopping, as our visit just happened to coincide with that of the Chilean president, in town to bestow upon the city a status as its own "region," Region XV, a status roughly akin to statehood. Consequently, the day was declared a holiday, and the entire population, it seemed, was downtown to witness the presidential speech and the attendant parade and other festivities. It lent quite a festive atmosphere to our visit.

Puerto General San Martin, Peru

After yet another full day at sea, we docked at a pier quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Puerto General San Martin (named after a general, not a saint) is a deepwater port surrounded by desolate and forbidding landscape. The nearest city of any size, Pisco, is 45 minutes away. We opted to skip Pisco, and instead took another wildlife cruise, which departed from the small hamlet of Paracas, a 20 minute drive around the bay from our berth. Ironically, the speedboats passed within a hundred yards of Golden Princess on their way to our destination, Islas Ballestas.

Islas Ballestas is sometimes known as a poor-man's Galapagos. We saw thousands of cormorants -- guanico, common, and red-footed -- as well as Inca terns and boobies (but not the blue-footed kind). We also saw hundreds of sea lions, including a large beach full of nursing young. We even saw penguins, even though we were now in the tropics and thought we had seen our last pengin in Punta Arenas. The Humbolt penguin is tropical and makes its home here. The islands are entirely covered in guano, which is commercially harvested under government supervision every three years or so.

Tourists in their warm-weather plumage

Inca terns

Flat top of this island is black with thousands of cormorants.

Humboldt penguins

Sea lion up close and personal

Sea lion nursery

On the way out to the islands we saw the candelabra geoglyph, a rock carving some 180 meters tall and 55 meters wide of unknown age and origin, resembling a candelabra.

Callao/Lima, Peru

Our last call in Peru was the port of Callao, now seamlessly intertwined with Lima. We did not take a tour here, opting instead to travel by taxi to a handful of interesting spots. We saw the high-rent district, Miraflores, complete with high-end shopping mall, the Larco Mar, that was indistinguishable from any high-end mall in the US. Right down to the branded restaurants, including Hooters. We also stopped at Plaza San Martin (again, named for the general), and walked along a broad paseo lined with shops. This neighborhood caters to visitors, but the Peruvian kind, not us. We did muddle our way through buying some aspirin in a local pharmacy, and sampled Inka Kola, a local soft drink that gave Coke such a run for its money that Nestle took notice and bought them out. It's yellow in color, with a flavor that I can't possibly describe here.

Zoom in to see Sean waving from our balcony, second row down, just port of midships.

This was an overnight stop for us, mostly to wait for the return of a handful of passengers that opted for the three-day trip to Machu Pichu. We mostly stayed on board after our three-hour jaunt into town. Apparently, some of the crew took shore leave after their long work day was over, and partied well into the night. Our waiter was among them, and was struggling through the day when we saw him at dinner time.

On to Ecuador

At this writing, we are at sea, en route to Manta, Ecuador. After that, we will have a line crossing ceremony, whereupon Louise and I will trade our pollywog status for that of shellback after some as-yet unknown form of hazing. But, hey, I lived through the Tina Turner contest. Stay tuned.


  1. Great post, Sean, really enjoyed reading about your trip so far. We are in Oklahoma, heading east to Key West for some treasure diving. Stopped in Nevada on our way through and bought a new motorhome, an 07 Beaver Patriot Thunder. Hope to run across you guys again in the not too distant future. Spyderman

  2. that was a nice trip down memory lane. I'd totally forgotten about Pisco Sour. And in the Xmas time, Cola de Mono is a wonderful Chillean drink. Memories...

    I spent 1987-90 travelling around South America and spend a good deal of time in the areas you've just been through.

    We're on the Carribean right now, having crossed into Mexico Jan 1st.

  3. Sean & Louise,
    I've been enjoying your blog for quite a while now. Your info about your trip around South America has been very interesting. (Kinda like your recent trip through Mexico.)
    Gotta say that Inka Cola is available here in South Carolina in the local Publix grocery stores. Guess I'll have to try it after your comments.
    Hope I cross paths with you on another DR someday.
    Later, bob

  4. Sean and Louise,

    Hello - found your site while doing an internet search for big rig camping at David Crockett State Park in Tennessee. Looks like you were there in Sept. 05.

    What a great adventure! We just purchased a used '06 Beaver Patriot Thunder at LazyDays RV in Florida, and they had a Neoplan for sale there - guess it was a party bus owned by a sheik. Needs lots of work -- I think they're having a hard time selling it, so if you have any friends that are looking for one, you might let them know about this one.

    If you're ever in Estes Park, Colorado (gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park) please look us up - we have 10 acres and a place you could park with breathtaking views of the Mummy Range out your big front window.

    Safe travels to you,
    Cheryl Klink


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