Number of Cruises: NOT
Cruise Line: Celebrity
Sailing Date: March 3rd, 2002
Itinerary: South America
Pre-boarding arrangements – We provided our own air transportation, but made hotel arrangements through Celebrity. Most guests stayed at the Sheraton Resort and Conference Center in Santiago, but it was fully booked and the overflow hotel was the Sheraton Four Points hotel nearby. The rooms there were adequate, but nothing to write home about…..the best feature was the location only a block from Avenida Provincia and the subway station and there was also a sizable pedestrian entertainment district behind the hotel with many restaurants and bars with live music in an outdoor café setting. The other Sheraton guests said they felt more isolated although the rooms were better. We rode the subway which is modern and seemed very safe to the main shopping area and Plaza de Armas. The Celebrity Hostess also met us at the hotel and had a list of recommended restaurants, one of which we tried and enjoyed. We walked around some of the nearby parks as well. We felt safe at all times and the Chilean people were extremely friendly, but we did hear of someone that had a camera stolen from them in the shopping district.
Embarkation – The bus ride to Valparaiso is 2 hours long, but goes through several scenic valleys including some of the wine-producing ones. Due to limited dock space check-in was at the jockey club at Vina del Mar (which is a pretty town) and then you were bused over to the ship. Check-in seemed efficient and snacks and drinks were provided. We got to the ship around 1:30 and had some time to kill so we looked around Valparaiso. There is not much to see near the dock, but there are some rickety old inclines going up the hills nearby and we walked a few blocks and rode one up. The view was impressive and there were some sidewalk vendors at the top. Would definitely recommend it.
Stateroom – We had an inside stateroom on the Plaza Deck (5). It was very adequate for our needs with plenty of storage and it was tastefully designed and decorated.
Ship Public Spaces – I read a few complaints about the lack of a huge lobby area like some larger ships. The Grand Foyer did offer a nice accent though without sacrificing the amount of usable deck space on the ship. Overall the public areas had an understated elegance that seemed to appeal to me. I preferred the Tastings lounge. Although the ship was 88% occupied, there was plenty of room throughout the ship and it never seemed to be crowded.
Food – I’ll have to admit that I was slightly disappointed in this area….possibly because my expectations had been set too high by Condè Nast Traveler and other publications that touted the food. The food was good overall, but not much better than what I experienced 2 years ago on Carnival’s Jubilee…..in fact I thought the dining room lunches on Carnival were better. Celebrity has a big edge though in the buffet area.
Entertainment – Overall a good job here. The only “fair” show was the production show “Bond Voyage” based on music from James Bond movies. It was kind of goofy. I thought the production show “On Broadway” was excellent, and the others were good, but not as memorable. Individual performers included Lindsey Hamilton who had lead roles in West End productions of Evita and Les Miserables. She was outstanding and the crowd enjoyed her. Another was an Argentinean group called “The Pampas Devils” who did some ethnic dances one night and a Tango show the night before Buenos Aires and were very good. An interesting performer was Ian Finkle and his Xylophone….really an amazing and talented performer who was also much appreciated by the crowd. My wife attended a classical piano concert by one of the performers that she said was very good. The Celebrity Orchestra did a great job as well in backing up most of the performances.
Crew – Overall an excellent job. Our cabin steward was unobtrusive, but always greeted us when we saw him in the hallway. Once he brought my wife some hot tea when she mentioned to him that she was cold from being outside. Our waiter was friendly and both he and his assistant did a professional job. All other encounters with the crew were positive.
Spa Facilities – Definitely a plus for this ship. Our Carnival ship hardly had anything in the way of a spa, but the Mercury had a complete facility with competent people running it. My wife indulged in several services and was satisfied with all of them. The Thalassotherapy pool is a little hyped and at $10 a session a little expensive, but it is a pleasant setting to indulge yourself in. The exercise room was adequate and had space for yoga and kickboxing classes.
Ports of Call and Shore Excursions
Puerto Montt – A pleasant town. Tendering was required to get off the ship. We took the Chilean Lake District tour which featured several beautiful lakes and the Orsono volcano. This was an all day affair and a nice lunch at a small restaurant was included. Some time was allowed for shopping in a couple of spots.
Punta Arenas – The Magdalena Island Penguin Reserve is the tour to be on here. There is only room for about 250 people for the 2 hour ferry ride and we had people bribing us for our tickets. Basically it is a small island in the Straits of Magellan covered with penguins. Certainly this was a highlight of the trip for us. The town itself was nice and we enjoyed lunch in a casual restaurant. Once again, tendering was required, but the tender service was very efficient although a bit crowded.
Ushuaia, Argentina – Wish we had had more time to explore the town, but we double dipped and did two excursions. The first was a minor disappointment. The “Train Ride to the End of the World” really didn’t amount to much and although the bus ride afterwards was more interesting, I can’t say that Tierra del Fuego National Park was particularly interesting. The second tour (Beagle Channel Catamaran Cruise) was much better. A nice new boat with an excellent and very informative guide who took us out to several small islands for viewing Sea Lions, Fur Seals and other wildlife. The town looked interesting, but we really didn’t see much of it. A Russian icebreaker used for Antarctic cruising was tied up next to us. This was the only other cruise ship we saw on the entire trip.
Puerto Madryn – Not much to the city according to the people that went into the town. The Peninsula Valdes tour was probably the thing to do here. Although the brochure talked of dusty bumpy roads and un-air-conditioned buses, I found the trip to be pretty comfortable. Only the Elephant Seal pups were on the beach, but they were interesting to look at. We saw other wildlife including penguins, rheas, and Guanaco (llama like animal) along the way. It was worth it, but the best viewing is probably earlier in the season.
Buenos Aires – We skipped the formal tours here and went on our own. Taxi drivers were friendly and honest. Ricoleta cemetery is a must see including Evita Peron’s grave. A tour of the opera house (Teatro Colin) is also a must, but have pesos available (5 each) as they don’t accept dollars. Dollars were welcome just about everywhere else though. The currency crisis didn’t seem to be putting a damper on things to the casual observer. Buenos Aires is a good city to walk in though and seemed to be relatively safe. Leather is a popular thing to buy and there are plenty of leather stores on Avenida Florida which is the main shopping district.
Rio de Janeiro – The end of the cruise…..Disembarkation was fairly well organized, but we were among the last to get off the ship and that took about 2.5 hours. We made our own arrangements in Rio at the Hotel Debret on Copacabana Beach on the south end. The hotel was inexpensive (about $65 for an ocean view room), but clean with a friendly staff who arranged some tours for us including a Samba show and tour to the Christ the Redeemer statue, both of which were inexpensive and well worth the time. We were somewhat concerned about safety based on things we had read, especially on Copacabana Beach. The beaches were very crowded Sunday and our hotel is not far from the Shantytowns and I am sure that some of the kids on the beach were from that area, but there was a heavy police presence and as long as you are cautious and keep valuables out of site, you should be just fine. We even walked through an area of street vendors after midnight and felt safe. The beach was less crowded Monday and even carrying a couple cameras didn’t seem to be too risky. Once again there were plenty of police in the area and you were rarely out of site of them.
Other Cruise comments – The sailing through the Straits of Magellan, the Chilean Fjords and Beagle Channel are very similar to Alaska sailing with glaciers and mountains…..very scenic and enjoyable, but also a little wet and cold at times if you were outside. We rounded Cape Horn with 50mph winds and 15ft seas with some snowflakes.
Not surprisingly the average age for the passengers was probably close to 60-65 and we are in our 40’s. Most had cruised many times…a surprising number were surprised at how cold it got and didn’t have any appropriate clothing. Our dining room tablemates were great though and probably included the youngest USA couple on the ship and a diverse age group overall. Although the majority of passengers were from the USA or Canada, Brazilians were also a major group and there were also quite a few Europeans and just a few other South Americans.
Based on the overall experience I would certainly recommend Celebrity and the Mercury. The South American itinerary was interesting, probably not for everyone, but it was nice going to places which are off the beaten path.