Number of Cruises: 4
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: November 20th, 2005
Itinerary: South American Explorer
This was our fourth Holland America cruise, and the longest and most exotic yet.
We booked our trip in May, 2005 through a concierge service offered by our financial advisor. They were able to secure a verandah suite for us and also found us round trip business class airfares at very reasonable prices. I hate to imagine what we would have felt like squeezed into small coach seats on a trip that long. (I'm 6ft 6in tall and a size extra large.)
Arrival in Rio was painless. We took a "Radio Taxi" from the Airport to the Hotel. The trip was pre-paid to the dispatcher avoiding any potential hassles with the driver. The driver turned out to be a very talkative and pleasant guy. He spoke virtually no English and my Portugese isn't much better but we both knew Spanish so we had a nice "guided tour" on the way to the hotel. I translated for my wife and everyone was happy.
The pre-cruise hotel is the Sheraton Rio. It is a nice property right on the beach front in Leblon. The beach is "semi-private". The only drawback to the location is that the hotel is pretty much isolated, leaving you no dining/shopping alternatives within walking distance. This was the main assembly point for the cruise and both the hotel and Holland America staff were very courteous and helpful. The rooms were large, spacious and spotless.
Two of the elevators were out of service for our entitre stay, leaving only four working which caused some problems and long waits.
The dining room staff must have been overwhelmed that first night because the service was really slow. I actually fell asleep sitting up at the table sometime after waiting over 15 minutes for my check. Things got back on track after that and we ate all our meals in there or at the poolside restaurant the rest of the stay and had no further problems.
We signed up for a city tour in Rio through Grey Line (they had a desk next to HAL's). Nice tour that included a ride up the Sugar Loaf in the cable cars. The weather turned nasty while we were on the way up and we got up front and personal with a thunderstorm that actually shut down the aerial cars for a while. Our guide was great and really knew the city well. He even serenaded us with a nice rendition of the "Girl from Ipenema".
Embarkation day was warm, humid and mostly cloudy. Luggage pickup was smooth and we got another "city tour" on the way to the dock. This tour went a different route than either our ride in from the airport or the Grey Line route and between the three we got to see most every section of Rio worth seeing. I really liked the city and would love to go back some day.
The check-in and boarding process was the smoothest and best run we have seen in our four HAL cruises. It is a really good operation. Even more impressive was that the ship had just arrived that morning from Lisbon and Africa and they had most of us aboard in time for lunch. All luggage was in our cabin by 3:00PM.
The Verandah Suite was fabulous. Our cabin was just slightly larger than some of the others in its class as it was a "3 person room" located on the starboard side, aft, right around the corner from the rear elevator bank. Great location. The suites have alot more storage than the outside cabins and we used virtually all of it. Our balcony, though a bit small, was a real nice plus and we spent some time on it almost every day.
Our cabin steward, "Mui", was on the last trip of his contract and looking forward to going home after almost a year away. He was a true "prince among men" and easily our best cabin steward ever. (He ended up volunteering to stay aboard for one more cruise due to one of his fellow stewards being given emergency leave at the end of our trip.) Mui went out of his way to find ways to help us and we became good friends. We looked forward to his nightly "towel animals" each night when we returned to our suite.
Our travel agent/concierge service had arranged for some wonderful gifts we found in our cabin when we arrived. There were two complimentary HAL heavy terrycloth robes, a dinner for two at the Pinnacle Grill and four very nice bottles of wine. Another gift "from you travel agent" showed up a few days later but I am drawing a blank as to what it was.
The Rotterdam had been through the HAL upgrade/renovation program since we were last aboard in 2002. We liked all of the changes and the ship continues to be our favorite. It is just the right size and the layout is easy to learn and remember. It did extremely well in the one day of rough seas and high winds we encoutered.
The food on this trip gets an A+++, even for HAL. It was far and away the best we had ever had. The executive chef was a real master and his menus and recipes were unbelievable. I had one complaint early in the trib about Blue Marlin being the fish entree one evening. I took my complaint to the head chef when I saw him in the Lido the next afternoon. I explained to him how marlin are becoming a dangerously exploited sport fish that needs to be released when caught, not put on the dinner table. He listened politely and assured me that he had been unaware of the situation and would avoid purchasing it in the future. He sounded sincere and I believe he will keep his word.
Our two dining room stewards were first class. Our dining room steward, Irman from West Java, was on the final cruise of his contract and looking forward to his trip home very much. His assistant, Gede from Bali, was quite senior as assistants go and ready for promotion to dining room steward status. We all gave him high marks on our comment cards and hope he will get his well deserved promotion soon. We were seated at a nice 6 seat table on the lower deck, just out from the corner, next to the rear picture window. We had great views every night. Our dining companions were a couple from California and another from Arizona - all of us retired. I enjoyed them very much.
Our experiences with the stewards seemed to be quite typical of the entire ship. I never heard a single complaint from any of the other passengers.
Our itinerary took us first to Montevideo, Uruguay. We opted for a combination city tour and visit to a world famous winery out at the edge of the city. The winery part of the tour was very interesting and included wine tasting, lunch and a tango show. We felt we made a good choice of tours here.
We were in Buenos Aires two days and one night (Thanksgiving back in the US). "BA" is a big, cosmopolitan, hectic city that we both liked. We did a comprehensive city tour, a dinner/tango-show evening excusion and then another wine tasting tour on the second day. All three were excellent choices. The Tango Show was worthy of some additional verbage. There are quite a few of these venues in the city but we sensed that this one was different. It was housed in a very old theater that had been visited by visiting European royalty to take in the show. In addition to the dancers there was an outstanding vocalist and a real good group of Argentine musicians that played traditonal music on some rather extraordinary instruments (including a guitar made out of an armadillo.) This was another city we would like to return to.
Our next stop was a nice surprise. We didn't expect to see much of interest at the Falkland Islands but they were really lovely. We did the standard tour of the Stanley area and it made a lot of nice stops. Our guide, a gal from Scotland, had a lovely lilt in her voice and gave the place an even nicer feel. Stanly was very picturesque and all the people we met were very friendly. It was sunny but a bit chilly weather wise.
The first of our "scenic cruising" events was next with a turn "around the horn". Cape Horn had one of its few nice days weather wise and we got some nice pictures of literally the end of the world. My camcorder had gone "kaput" earlier in the trip so unfortunately I didn't get some of the video footage I would have liked to have shot. I'm hoping the ship's stock footage on the cruise video will fill in the gaps.
The weather continued good as we sailed into Ushuaia, Argentina the next day. Too bad we were only there a half day. We went to see the Penguins and weren't able to see the city and the surrounding area. This turned out to be the best of the three places to see the Penguins (as well as sea lions and a varity of sea birds). The catamaran was able to ease its bow onto the beach where the penguins were congregated and it didn't seem to bother them in the least. My wife especially enjoyed getting that close to penguins in the wild. This was probably my favorite shore excursion of the whole trip. The Catamaran was brand new, clean, fast and the crew delightful.
Next up was Punta Arenas - a place I had been twice before aboard a "ship with a big gun on the front of it". It was nice to see the changes in the city over a course of 30 something years. A highlight was revisiting the statue of Magellan and rubbing the "Indian's toe" again (which local legends say will cause you to return one day to Punta Arenas. It worked for me the first two times.) The only disappontment here was that the Maritime Museum was closed for renovations and I wasn't able to see the exhibit about Shackleton's Rescue. We took a private car/tour with our own guide and driver. They were excellent and we asked the guide to have lunch with us at a restaurant that was supposed to be the best in town (it certainly was that in our opinion). We chose the private tour option as we wanted to see alot of things not on the normal tour routes and it worked out superb. On our way back to the dock the wind came up suddenly and what had been a gentle breeze turned into a raging gale. Folks going ashore on afternoon tours got buffeted pretty badly.
During the night after leaving Punta Arenas the weather worsened as we entered the open Pacific. Seas were running 14-18 feet in the 50 plus knot gale. The ship was doing a little rolling and pitching. As we are both long time boaters it didn't bother us at all but an awful lot of our fellow passengers had a bout with "mal de' mer". No problem getting a good seat at the Lido restaurant that morning. The weather gradually subsided over the next 24 hours and it was pleasant by the time we entered the Chilean fjords on our way toward the glaciers and Puerto Montt.
Puerto Montt, along with Puerto Varras and Fruitillar are a very pretty section in the near south region of Chile. The area has a definite German flavor to it and was one of the most colorful and picturesque of the trip. We again lucked out with a really good guide in contrast with some of our shipmates that voiced their displeasure with theirs. Some showers rolled in from time to time but it was mostly sunny and still just a little cool. We actually had four season in one day with warm sunshine, cold cloudy weather, rain and finally sleet.
Our last day at sea was spent packing, listening to the disembarkation process lecture and saying alot of "goodbyes".
We arrived in Valparaiso the final morning and ran into the only part of the entire trip that wasn't "first class". For whatever reason the disembarkation process got a very late start and we weren't off the ship until after 11:15. Once ashore it was a madhouse with no one giving directions or telling us what to do next. We were herded onto a bus, driven to some nondescript building and told to get out. Then the real confusion started as to what each group needed to do about their luggage and transportation. I finally found someone who knew what the procedure was and got her to explain what we needed to do. We were finally able to find the bus for "Green-5" that would do tours of Valparaiso, Vina del Mar and end up at the Sheraton in Santiago. The tours were nice but alot of us were getting hungry and uncomfortable with "mother-nature" before we finally pulled in to our lunch/rest stop at 2:15PM. We staged a minor mutiny and insisted that we be allowed 45 minutes for the stop and the guide relented from his original 25 minute plan. Lunch was good and we were on the final leg to Santiago.
I had been in Santiago once before and was amazed at how much it has grown. It is as modern now as many North American or Western European cities. The Chileanos are a warm, friendly people and I continue to rate this county as one of my favorites. Would love to return again.
The Sheraton in Santiago was a very poor choice, unfortunately. There were a long list of bad reports from the restaurants, the baggage handling, the front desk, the facilities, etc. I had a poor experience in the restaurant where I was served the wrong meal and the waiter argued with me about it. My problems were nothing compared to most of the diners around me. It was so bad it was one of only 3 or 4 times in my life I refused to tip a waiter. My wife compiled a 2 or 3 page list of complaints that she intends to forward to both HAL and Sheraton hoping that they will work to correct the problems.
On the plus side there were nice fashion shows both evenings around the pool. The pretty Chileanas in their high fashions and beach wear made me forget some of my "issues" with the hotel.
It is another location quite isolated from alternative dining/entertainment/shopping choices that kind of locks you in unless you want to venture off in a taxi.
We opted for a private van to the airport which proved to be a good idea, given the amount of luggage we had. Our driver was prompt, courteous and the van quite new and clean. Airport check-in was smooth once the Delta reps made it to their stations (they were delayed slightly by some unexplained circumstance).
We were extended Crown-Room privileges during the almost three hour wait for boarding which was a welcome event. The elevator to the Crown Room was out when we got there but an airport supervisor offered to help us get our luggage down the stairs. The lift was fixed by the time we left for the gate.
The trip home was uneventful. We arrived Atlanta on time were able to switch flights to one of the single class 737-800s that left in 90 minutes instead of waiting the six hours for our 757 with first class seats.
Some observations and relections...
The Cruise Director - Bruce Allen Scudder was the best I've ever run into. He was personable as you would expect but always business like in a very positive manner. His staff, led by Senior Assistant Billy Rogers, were the best we had encuntered in all of our trips. We interracted quite a bit with them at various events and got to know them all quite well. They were a fabulous group that made the trip more enjoyable.
The nightly entertainment in the Queen's Lounge was unfortunately below HALs normal high standards. The one wonderful exception was Heather, the lead female vocalist in the Cast of the Rotterdam. She had one of the best voices I have ever heard aboard ship or ashore. The rest of the Cast was just not up to what we have come to expect from HAL's entertainment. Ditto on most of the other acts.
The Casino was the best run one we have ever visited. Casino Manager Beata and Slots Manager Dinu really knew how to make their guests feel welcome. Dinu remembered me from a previos HAL cruise and treated me like his long lost Romanian uncle. All of the dealers and even the cashiers were friendly, outgoing, helpful - a far cry from some of our previous cruises. We were both quite lucky this trip despite very active play. I actually won a fair amount thanks to some luck with the slots, black jack and the roulette wheel. My wife won first place in the first Slot Machine tournament and I was a finalist in the second one.
We both like bingo and played most of the games. Again the luck of the Irish was with us and we won a total of 5 games, each with nice cash prizes. They also had a raffle one day for a "goody bag" with close to $2,000 worth of ship's services and merchandise. You guessed it - we won that, too. Now if we only could have won the "win a cruise" raffle as well...
We claimed the Guinness Book of Records entry for the most T-shirts won on a cruise at 15. Billy, the Sr. ACD confirmed it was the most he'd ever heard of.
We were truly lucky to have not one but two outstanding guest lecturers. Dr Jay Wolff is a noted lecturer on South American history and his morning talks were always SRO. Dr. Bernard Stonehouse, a Brit who has spent more time at the poles than the UK, lectured on Southern Hemisphere wildlife and Antarctic history and geography. He and I became well acquainted after I told him of my Antarctic experiences and we discovered that we knew some of the same oceanographers and polar scientists. Both of these men were brilliant. They provided guest commentary during our scenic cruising events such as going "round the horn" and our glacier passings. They were both immensely popular.
Everyone in the ship's complement was highly visible and approachable. I had several extended discussions with the Chief Officer about our route through the straits and the fjords, curious how many I had seen before and which were going to be new. He was a real pleasure to interact with. The same was true for so many other members of the ships company that I just can't name.
The Shore Excursions staff, Port Lecturere, Future Cruise Consultant, Spa and Salon personnel - all were just great. There was something on this cruise that you could feel in the air. It was a happy ship with a happy crew and staff. As you might expect that translates into happy passengers.
We are already looking forward to our next HAL trip but I doubt that it will be able to top this one.