Occupation:Retired city attorney
Number of Cruises: 15
Cruise Line: Oceania
Sailing Date: March 1st, 2005
Itinerary: South America
My name is Phil Haggerty and my wife is Edith Goble. I am a retired city attorney and Edith is a homemaker and former health services provider. We live in Phoenix, Arizona and this would be our 15th cruise. Our prior sailings have been on Carnival’s Elation to the Mexican Riviera; on the now defunct Commodore Line’s Enchanted Isle to the Caribbean for 11 days; a 7 day cruise, also in the Caribbean on Celebrity’s Galaxy; followed by marvelous cruise from Santiago to Buenos Aires on Mercury, also a Celebrity vessel. We then did our Alaskan cruise on Sun Princess, followed by another 7 day Caribbean trip aboard Norwegian Sun and a trans-canal on Celebrity’s Infinity.
We then sailed on Millennium for a Mediterranean
cruise in May 2003, followed by a Baltic cruise tour on Regal Princess later
that year. We then went to Hawaii for the first time on Infinity in November
2003 and did our first HAL on Veendam in the Caribbean the next spring. In March
2004 we took Galaxy from Baltimore to Rome, and returned to the Caribbean in
October on Zaandam. A few months before this cruise we went back to the Mexican
Riviera on Diamond Princess. All except the first two cruises have been reviewed
WHY THIS CRUISE?
We had heard good things about Oceania from a friend who had sailed on Regatta twice. The size of the ship was intriguing, also. But most of all, the concept of an Amazon cruise was very appealing. This did not promise to be your standard Caribbean float-around; or a European sail-sprint from historic site to museum to palace to exhausted collapse on your stateroom bed. And it lived up to our expectation of being very different, from its unusual itinerary to the elegance of the ship and the dedication of the crew to making it a very enjoyable experience.
PLANNING THE CRUISE
Our cruise was the final leg of a voyage that had taken Insignia from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal, down the west coast of South America, around Cape Horn and eventually to Manaus from Rio de Janeiro. Perhaps Oceania felt it might be difficult to find people willing to go to Manaus to start a cruise; so their offer included air fare and a reduced price. This meant that Oceania provided all air travel and an overnight hotel in Miami. We did pay a deviation charge to stay two extra days in Barbados, but it was nice not to be concerned about air connections.
We did have some concerns over clothing. Oceania does not have formal nights on any of its cruises, but describes their dress code as “country club casual”. This can be subject to interpretation, so we did bring some “nice” clothes as well as a fair selection of clothing we felt would be suited to the tropics and somewhat rough excursions. As usual, there were some choices that might have been better, but on the whole we did fairly well.
Because we were traveling in malaria country, we took malaria pills, and in fact are still taking them since every form of this medication (and there are several options) involves starting before you arrive and continuing after you leave. See your doctor for recommendations. Brazil also requires a yellow fever vaccination (fairly expensive); and a visa. This latter can be a problem if you do not allow enough time. If you live in a city with a Brazilian consulate (see the Brazilian Embassy website for locations) it will not be a problem. Otherwise you best use a service (ask your travel agent about one) and allow at least four weeks before you leave. Do not rely on Oceania to do this. They failed to get visas for one couple, and they were not allowed to start the cruise. The visas run about $120.00 each plus the service charge if you have to use a service.
Since Oceania was paying the airfare, we did as they told us and flew to Miami the day before our departure to Brazil. This type of arrangement is a virtual necessity for west to east flights given the time zone changes. At the airport there were several Oceania representatives meeting passengers from all over the country, and directing us to buses with our luggage. Our accommodations, again provided by Oceania, were at a Marriott Fairfield Inn near the airport. The rooms were adequate, but many complained about the long lines for check-in since our cruise people occupied most of the hotel. The baggage arrangements called for us to wait for delivery to our room. We found out that we could pick up our bags in the main ballroom, and did so since our room was on the ground floor. We were told to leave our bags (with special tags indicating which flight we were on) outside our rooms at 3:00 A.M.; but we were loathe to do this. We found out that our bus did not leave for the airport until 6:15, and we therefore were able to bring our bags to the loading area at 5:30, before a continental buffet breakfast.
We boarded the bus, and after driving a while,
realized the driver was apparently heading for the Port of Miami, and persuaded
him to turn around and go to Miami International Airport. There were three
charter flights supposed to depart about a half hour apart, starting fairly
early. There was a long delay for the first charter, operated by Varig Air
Lines, but less for the next two, operated by Miami Air. We were on the final
flight, which left at 10:00, was reasonably comfortable and took about five air
hours to Manaus. There is no direct flight provided by any carrier from the US
to Manaus; travelers must go to Sao Paolo or Rio. As we started to descend we
became aware of the vast stretches of rain forest below us. There was simply
nothing but green, broken up only by an occasional river, stretching out as far
as we could see. We then saw a dark river, which I incorrectly thought was the
Amazon, it was so wide, which led into Manaus. This actually was the Rio Negro,
a main tributary.
We arrived about 3:30 Brazilian time, and as one might expect, there was not a lot of traffic at the Manaus Airport. We pulled up to the terminal, walked down the stairs, no jet ways here, and into the terminal. We had been given two Brazilian forms, one for their agriculture people, and one for customs. We walked through the airport, handed one form to an official standing there and proceeded directly to the bus for boarding in less than five minutes without further official processing. This was truly amazing; especially since we had heard that Brazil photographs and fingerprints arriving Americans in retaliation for our post 9/11 incoming visitor procedures. Perhaps nobody in Manaus got the word. It was a nice bus but a fairly long ride of about 40 minutes to the pier. Manaus appears to be a somewhat grungy city. After a short delay waiting to get off at the pier, we were processed fairly quickly and boarded Insignia before 6:00.
MS INSIGNIA - THE SHIP
This is a quite beautiful, elegant, mid-size vessel. It is measured at 30,000 tons, with a length of 593 feet and beam of 83 feet. It carries 680 passengers with a crew of 387. There is much dark wood, brass fixtures and cream walls everywhere. Our cabin was number 6065. It measured 8.5 feet wide by 20 feet deep, with a verandah the same width and about 5 feet deep, for 212 square feet overall. It had a small love seat and an upholstered stool at the desk rather than a chair, which made for a little more room. The bathroom was a typical shower only affair; rather small, but with adequate shelving. There was one painting above the bed with a large mirror opposite. The lighting controls were appropriate and the thermostat actually worked to control the temperature. The cabinets and desk were dark wood, with a mirror above the desk. The walls were covered with a beige fabric patterned wallpaper and the carpet had a pleasant dark pattern. The doors were bright blue with matte brass hardware. There are patterned full drapes with a gauze liner on the verandah sliding door/window. The verandah furniture consisted of two aluminum chairs slung with nylon fabric and a small table. The verandah deck was teak, with a dark wood railing and bars beneath for an open effect. The partitions between our veranda and our neighbors’ was not full, and light and sound passed over readily. The amenities included a pen, clock, envelopes, note pad and notepaper as well as a thermos for ice which was regularly replenished.
Bathrobes, slippers, shoe horn, shoe shine mitt,
sewing kit and a large umbrella were also provided. There is the usual in-cabin
TV, without a VCR, and safe. The closet and drawer space was as usual on board
ship. more than spacious enough for all our clothes, and enough nice wooden
hangers were provided. The bed was quite comfortable, which was not a surprise
since we have always found ship’s beds to be quite nice. The bedding includes
very high quality sheets and a duvet. Although not large, it was as attractive a
cabin as any we have had in a comparable price range.
The passenger space on Insignia runs from Deck 3, with a few window cabins and tender access, to Deck 10, with an open sun Deck 11 forward. It has two stair/elevator wells, and we were three doors back from the aft stairwell. Deck 4 has picture window cabins and medical center forward. Midships is occupied by the reception desk, excursion desk and two seating areas with a concierge desk, plus a “grand” staircase to Deck 5. This next deck has the Insignia Lounge with a dance floor and small stage for the orchestra forward. Proceeding aft you go through a small casino with 32 slot machines, one roulette wheel and four blackjack tables. Aft of this on one side is the photo shop and gallery and on the other the Martini Lounge with a piano. Proceeding to the stern you pass two boutique stores on either side before coming to an open “Upper Hall” with cocktail tables and side chairs. Then, down the starboard side you enter the Grand Bar which leads into the Grand Dining Room; the principal dining venue. Deck 6 is almost all verandah cabins except for two large suites forward and two aft. Deck 7 is the same. Deck 8 has the verandah suites, which basically are staterooms about 40% larger than the regular verandah cabins, or about the same size as Celebrity Sky Suites. Deck 8 forward is occupied by the bridge and officers quarters, and it also has two large suites aft. There are about 20 interior cabins on Decks 7 and 8 and 18 window cabins overlooking the lifeboats on Deck 6. Deck 9 has the spa and gym forward, the pool and teak pool deck with two jacuzzis amidships and the Terrace Cafe buffet with its aft outside terrace completing this deck. Deck 10 consists of the Horizon Lounge forward, a rubberized fitness track around both sides leading to the aft section which houses the library and the two specialty restaurants, Toscana and the Polo Grill. The Sun Deck on Deck 11 has a golf net and shuffleboard.
The walls in the public areas are normally dark brown, with matte brass lighting fixtures, well upholstered furniture and nicely patterned carpeting. The Toscana Grill has cream walls with Doric half columns and prints of Roman scenes. The Polo Grill has medium dark brown walls with photos of Hollywood stars from Charlie Chaplin to Paul Newman.
The walls in the passenger area are a soft cream and have framed prints. As noted, the cabin doors are royal blue with brass hardware on the outside also. The carpeting is patterned. The stairwells have soft brass railings with glass side panels containing a black outline floral design. The art in the stair wells is from the art auction supply, and some pieces were changed en route. The library is very large for a ship of this size, stretching across almost the entire width of the ship, with a number of comfortable sofas and chairs, and a false fireplace completing the illusion of a country house library.
It is by far the nicest library we have ever seen.
The selection of books was quite good for a small ship with fewer than 700
passengers. The library check out system is entirely on one’s honor. The
Insignia Lounge is not a true theater, since the stage can only house the 8
piece orchestra, so the entertainers perform on the dance floor with tables and
chairs seating about 350 on all three sides. The chairs are nicely upholstered
armchairs, and move freely, but most of the tables are fixed. At the back of the
room there are some high, bar like tables with four or five high stools.
As someone explained, the design calls for entertainment forward and food aft. The result was a ship that was the most user friendly we have ever encountered. We could get anywhere from our cabin very quickly, and used the stairs almost exclusively throughout the entire trip. I do not like to abuse the word “elegant”; but that truly epitomizes Insignia. It is a delight to the eye, convenient as a ship can be, and as pleasant a venue for 14 days as can be imagined.
We found the purser’s office personnel at the Reception Desk uniformly friendly and
efficient. We heard of confusion over whether or not passengers could disembark at Anavilhanas Island without purchasing a tour. Apparently someone at Reception said they could, but in fact they were not allowed to get on the excursion boat without a purchased ticket. This was the only glitch mentioned. The ship provides a fairly complete daily news sheet in a normal format. A four page New York Times world news sheet was available on most days at the reception desk. At each port we had a special sheet describing the local area. The next days ship’s paper was delivered to the cabins quite early, normally being available immediately after dinner. The ship’s TV had CNN; a map showing the ship’s location; the normal port information talks; a replay of the lectures and some shows, and a number of movies and old TV shows as well as weather information. Except for the life boat drill announcement, the limited public announcements were not broadcast into the cabins.
E-mail was available at $2.00 per session, which also meant you are charged $2.00 for each incoming message. Cruise-long packages are available. There are two e-mail set-ups in the library in addition to the Cyber Space room, which was often crowded with very popular computer classes. The room steward service was fine; but a little slower than on most lines. I imagine this was attributable to a smaller staff. A couple of requests to Housekeeping were promptly answered. Our telephone voice mail was inoperative for about the middle eight or nine days, but I do not think we missed any messages. With as few passengers as we had, we could count on running into anybody we needed to talk to sometime during the day.
This is what everyone reads reviews for. The Grand Dining Room is attractive. As has been noted on some comments, the center section can be noisy, but the outer tables are fine. The service is generally excellent. This is an open dining system, and sometimes the service is a little rushed; while at other times more leisurely. We normally do not like “free style” dining, preferring the traditional fixed table, fixed waiters, fixed companions arrangement; but this time we had no complaints. We always requested “shared” seating, and met a lot of very nice people with only one or two duplications. The dinners were uniformly excellent. The menus are typical of all cruise menus, with daily changes and three “Jacques Pepin” specialties always available. The dining room lunches were very good also, although, as on other cruises, the portions seem a little large and some selections on the heavy side. Edith thought the vegetarian offerings were generally fine, with a few being spiced a trifle strongly for her taste. We had breakfast in the main dining room only once, on debarkation day, and it was fine. The Terrace Grill buffet had a better than average breakfast and a great deal of variety in their lunch offerings. This grill is changed into “Tapas on the Terrace” for dinner. We ate there twice and found it pretty good, but not a true tapas experience. After all, we have had the real stuff in Barcelona! All three meals in the specialty restaurants were excellent, and with very nice service. We did hear that on one of the early evenings, the service at one table was extremely slow and the waiter seemed inexperienced, but we had no trouble. The rules on the specialty restaurants are that you can make two reservations at each in the beginning of the trip, the reservations being accepted at the Maitre'd station at the Terrace Cafe. In fact some people were able to do more than this because of vacancies, or in one case, because the main dining room was full when they showed up. The Terrace Cafe tables are set up with place mats, cloth napkins, cutlery and glasses, and you are served on good hotel china. The tables themselves, either cultured marble or corian, are very nice, as are the upholstered chairs. At Tapas on the Terrace dinners the service is on modern Villeroy and Boch china, and the same nice china is used in the specialty restaurants. Coffee service in the buffet is excellent and the coffee itself not bad. There is a pizza station and an ice cream cart operating at lunch. and omelet station for breakfast. There is a most delightful afternoon tea every day, and a casual pastry set up each morning until 10:00, both in the Horizon Lounge. Room service is available at all times, although we never used it. There are no late evening buffets, so there is no food served, other than through room service, after dinner. Coffee and tea are available at all times in the Terrace Cafe.
Our overall conclusion is that Insignia provided us with the best overall dining experience we have ever enjoyed. Given our strong admiration of Celebrity, this is saying a lot. Where Celebrity is surpassed is primarily in the Terrace Cafe. The selection and imagination at lunch, and the physical set-up with its preset tables and overall quality of the furnishings are the main reason for this. We also thought the fruit selection at breakfast was better on Insignia, and they supply a “toast” person who makes sure you get hot toast, bagels, or english muffins. Both lines offer excellent service, but the coffee people on Insignia are faster in their service. Celebrity’s specialty restaurants on Infinity and Millennium, (we have not sailed on Constellation or Summit) are a touch above those on Insignia. But it must be remembered that there is a charge on Celebrity, while there is no extra charge on Oceania ships for these venues. It is a close call, but Insignia wins by a nose. To continue the horse race metaphor, both are a couple of lengths ahead of Holland American, while the rest of the field are also-rans.
We suspect that we probably enjoyed the entertainment more than most people; although we heard no complaints. Oceania cannot, due to the physical limitations of the Insignia Lounge, put on the glitzy Las Vegas type shows now common on all the larger ships. What they do manage are nice, comparatively low key shows stressing music. The Cruise Director Shani Reay was also at one time a full time entertainer in her own right. In addition there were four other singers, two men and two ladies, who also functioned as Shani’s Cruise Staff. They put on several shows which basically were the staff, either individually or in a group, singing, with the orchestra playing the music. There was a surprisingly amusing duo of two older gentlemen; both of whom had “civilian” occupations, one a mechanical engineer and the other a college professor; who had been doing a song and comedy routine together for years with great success. Then we had a classical pianist who, while not up to the Andre Watts level, was quite good. The first night there was no show, but the second night, while we were still in Manaus, we had a local folkloric show, which was highlighted by the cast getting a number of the audience, including yours truly, to participate in the dancing. I simply could not disappoint one of the very cute young lady dancers who asked me to join her. We must support a good neighbor policy, right? This was funny and fun. There also was another comic who played the ukulele and sang, and who gave a knowledgeable lecture on coffee, based on his years of ownership of a coffee shop near Atlanta.
But the entertainment highlight of the trip for us was the Impreza String Quartet. This group of young men from Eastern Europe, two violins, a viola and a cello; played every day at tea time; two or three sets around dinner time in the Upper Hall on Deck 5, and a full concert for a regular evening Horizon Lounge Show. We felt that this quartet provided a truly fine level of sophistication and elegance, raising the quality of the cruise to a level noticeably above the normal. We had enjoyed an excellent string quartet on two different Celebrity cruises, and Amanda the harpist on Millennium; but the Impreza group played more often and at more convenient times.
On all sea, or perhaps we should say river, days there were two lecturers, one, Geoff Morgan, spoke on naturalist topics and was very pleasant and enlightening. The other speaker, Richard Tallboys, a former British Ambassador to Vietnam, lectured on historical and political issues involving South America. He was also quite knowledgeable and worth hearing. As I mentioned, there was a cocktail pianist in the Martini Lounge every evening; once being joined in song by Shani.
There were the usual Trivia games, art auctions; a large and active bridge group, an enthusiastic needlepoint class, and one afternoon tea dance with the quartet.
Almost every day a delightful tea with a full service of tea sandwiches and pastries, was served in the Horizon Lounge to the accompaniment of the string quartet. This lounge took advantage of the small size of the ship. From many of the seats you can
see, not only forward, but out both sides. It never seemed to be crowded, although it holds a number of people. Tea time was a delightful break in the day and a reminder that perhaps the most civilized times are the quiet times like this. I particularly remember one tea time as we sailed away from Devil’s Island. The contrast between my sitting in comfort, being served delightful food by white gloved waiters, listening to lovely classical selections by the quartet, and floating quietly out to sea; and the misery and horror facing Captain Dreyfus and thousands of others (mostly guilty even though he was not) as they landed on these tiny prison islands facing a lifetime of suffering, was very moving. I was strongly reminded of how fortunate we were to be where we were, and under the circumstances in which were traveling.
THE ITINERARY AND PORTS OF CALL
We flew to Manaus on Tuesday, March 1, and boarded the ship as reported. The next day was spent in Manaus, affording us a full day to see this city of about 1.5 million people. We opted to take a free tour provided by one of the high end jewelry stores. The trip involved our guide, the two of us and a very pleasant gentlemen who turned out to be the naturalist lecturer, Geoff Morgan. We first went to the fish market, which occupies a huge shed, even larger than the massive food market on La Rambla in Barcelona. We have never seen, or imagined, the variety of fish presented for sale.
It was an astounding place. The market also sold a
great deal of other local products,
herbs, local food such as manioc, and other items. This was strictly a local market with no emphasis on tourists because Manaus gets only a small tourist trade. We then went to the famous Opera House, built with rubber trade dollars in 1896. The tour was not until the afternoon. Our trip then took us to the Tropical Hotel, an “eco” resort hotel about 10 km outside town up the Rio Negro. Here there were several stores, including of course the jewelry store which sponsored our tour. There was no pressure to buy, although the selection was very nice and the prices reasonable. The hotel also has a working ATM designed for American or European use, and I bought 50 reales. Our guide, Sergio, spoke fairly good English and was quite interesting when he spoke about bringing clothing and books to the Indians in the jungle. Geoff had to get back to the ship so we returned for lunch. After lunch we walked to the Opera House; exactly 1½ miles and slightly uphill, so it presented no problem. Admission was US $5.00 each. Our guide spoke excellent English. This is a fascinating building. It was constructed as a small scale 19th Century European Opera House, with a flat orchestra floor for audience seating, with four levels of single seat deep box seats forming a U shape around the hall. It holds a total of 750 people. The audience seats were individual arm chairs of dark local jacaranda wood. The paneling and floors throughout the building are local hard woods; while the glass lamps were brought from Murano, and other decorative touches from England and other European locations. After been virtually abandoned after the collapse of the rubber industry in Brazil around 1910, the house has recently opened again for music and a short Opera season in May and June each year. It is a true jewel of a building. We walked back to the ship through the main commercial part of town, which was quite busy, but entirely with local customers, no tourists. Edith thinks Manaus is a nicer town than I do. Apart from the Opera House, there is not too much there. As far as tourism is concerned, it is the jumping off spot for serious Amazon jungle tours.
This area is actually upstream from Manaus, but only a few miles. As I mentioned above, the only way to see this area is to buy one of two ship’s tours. One went to the Ariau Jungle Hotel with canopy walk, but we opted for the “jungle exploration.” This involved getting aboard a typical Amazon boat, a small canoe holding about 9 passengers, the guide and the outboard motor operator. The boat had a roof but was open at the sides and the heavy rain got in anyway. We wore ponchos which were moderately effective in the boat. We then landed and sloshed through jungle, wading small streams, with water up to our knees at times, until we came to a small “demonstration” group of Indians and a small thatched hut. We had a chance to eat a bite of fish and manioc, which Edith declined but I tried. It was not bad, and certainly fresh. We then trudged once more through the jungle, not getting any wetter because it was not possible to get any wetter than we already were, and re-boarded our boat. We then went to a regular Amazon village, occupied by about 50 families. We visited their pride, a small medical clinic with a nurse and doctor, the local soccer field, a small store and restaurant and a canoe building operation. Our guide had once lived there and knew most of the people before he moved to Manaus so his children could attend high school. He showed us a rubber tree and cut into it so we could see and feel the white latex sap. We then went back to the ship. We did not see any wildlife except a few birds and a brief glimpse of a river dolphin at some distance. Everything was soaked and muddy and we could only hope that things would dry some day. We enjoyed a view of the area at tea. Although we were in the Rio Negro, it is so wide it looks more like a large lake. Edith went to the Captain’s Reception which she enjoyed. We had run into him the day before just standing near the Reception Desk and chatted briefly with him. He is Italian with a strong accent, but he did say, in response to my question, that this was the first time Oceania, Insignia or he had ever sailed up the Amazon. We also saw him around and about the ship quite often, on occasion chatting with passengers. This is always a nice touch.
TO BOCA DE VALERIA
The next day was a “river” day, in the true Amazon, which is a cafe’ au lait brown with lots of greenery floating on it. We soon arrived at a small village called Boca de Valeria. This did not involve any paid excursions. We were tendered ashore to a small village which appears designed mostly to extract money from tourists. There were many crafts for sale and children offering to guide you, pose with birds etc., all for “one dollar.” The blatant commercialism of this stop was not pleasant. We returned to the ship in time for lunch. At the show that night I won a prize for knowing that the song “Johnny One Note” came from the musical “Babes in Arms”. Well, I am impressed.
This is a nice town of about 300,000. I had arranged a tour on the internet with a firm called “email@example.com”. We had requested to see two things, the beach at a town called Altar de Chao about 24 miles southwest of Santarem, and a botanical garden called Bosque Santa Anita. We were met at 8:00 by our guide who had a good English vocabulary, but a strong accent. To our surprise, we first went to a small, private zoo where we were the only visitors. There were only about 20 or so exhibits, but we could reach in and touch the spider monkeys, who obviously loved the attention, and even to carefully pet a beautiful margay, a rare jungle cat. We then went to Altar de Chao. This was a Sunday, and there were a number of visitors from Santarem. Our guide located a small room off a restaurant where I could change into my bathing suit and go swimming off a nice white sand beach in what was actually the Rio Tapajos, another clear water tributary of the Amazon. The water was a nice temperature and refreshing. We then went to a local restaurant where we had an excellent, if somewhat filling fish lunch. The bill showed up on my credit card as a grand total of $12.72. If you are ever in Santarem, the restaurant is the Peixaria Piracatu at Avenida Mondea Tortado 17. After lunch we picked up another guide, who I believe was one of the tour company’s managers. We went about 8 miles southeast of town to the Bosque Santa Anita. Once again we were the only visitors. We saw a small room displaying a wide variety of local woods; all beautiful hardwoods and many found exclusively in the Amazon region. We then walked through the woods on jungle trails while our new guide pointed out a variety of trees and fruits. We saw several spider monkeys. Then as we neared the end of the trail, our guide was very excited to point out for a quick glimpse, a pair of howler monkeys. As their name indicates, they can make a lot of noise, but our guide explained that close to people they are silent and shy, and rarely seen. We returned to the ship after a quick drive around Santarem, which was very quiet since it was a Sunday. At one point we stopped by the side of the Rio Tapajos and could see out about 1000 yards where the brown Amazon ran side by side with the dark Tapajos, the dividing line being very clear and distinct. The full day cost us $60.00 per person plus tip; a great bargain for a personally conducted tour of the entire area with the zoo added in. The van was new and comfortable, and the roads, which are rare enough in the Amazon, were fairly good. Once again booking our own tour over the internet paid off very well.
The next day was a sea day marked with the crossing of the Equator. There was an amusing initiation of the Polliwogs, those crossing the Equator for the first time. The following day we arrived at the three small islands known collectively as Devil’s Island. They are about 10 miles off the coast of French Guiana, and are very much part of France with the Euro as the official currency and French as the official language. We tendered into Isle Royale, the largest of the three, which has a small dock and a harbor containing eight or ten small boats. Two seemed to be catamarans which had brought tourists over from the mainland. This island was the headquarters of the infamous prison colony, which was used in that capacity from 1852 to 1946. It housed the main prison buildings, the administrative offices, warders quarters, hospital and insane asylum. The whole island is not very large and can be circumnavigated in little more than an hour. The jungle did not appear too dense, and the island has a large hill in the center. Breezes made it relatively cool and pleasant. At one end, in a wooded area, we ran into four young French people who were camping out. There is a small hotel, and some of the warders cottages have been turned into guest houses. A small store and a restaurant afford a view of the actual Devil’s Island about 400 yards off Isle Royale. This island apparently has only ruins and no visible beach access. The third island, Isle St. Joseph, is about 300 yards off Isle Royale, has a small landing area, and was being visited by a few small boats. We saw lots of agouti, a small creature looking like a long legged dark rabbit, numerous monkeys who appeared quite tame, several iguana and lots of birds. We also, in our walk back to the pier on a trail near the water’s edge, saw several sea turtles. Everyone was impressed by the small cemetery, reserved for warders and their families, with headstones containing the names of children who had died there. It is not possible to actually enter the cell blocks, but you can look inside. There also is a swimming pool, built by convicts for their use, near the sea on one side. The waters around the islands are very dangerous, and there is no way one can indulge in ocean swimming. Despite its history of misery and death, the area now has a peaceful and pleasant aspect, although there would not be much to do if one wanted to spend a few days there. The entire island can be explored in a few hours and it was a very worthwhile experience.
After a sea day and then part of a full day sailing up the Orinoco River, we arrived in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela at about 2:00 in the afternoon. We looked out the prow to see a large bridge. To our starboard was a pier occupied by an ore freighter engaged in loading iron ore from a huge ore processing site. We then backed up and moved directly sideways to fit into the pier behind the ore ship. There was very little room. The pier side was slightly above Deck 5. The crew had to construct steps up and down from a small gangway which was fitted over the railing on Deck 5. This took over 2 hours. We heard that this was not the pier originally anticipated to be used, but that the scheduled pier was still under construction. I got off the ship to explore how we would meet our tour people to following day. In addition to ourselves, we had found Ronnie, a lady from Hilton Head, and two couples from New York who wanted to join us. I took a shuttle bus through the huge ore loading complex towards town. It turned out that the destination was the Intercontinental Hotel, about two miles away and still several miles from town. I borrowed a computer from a travel agency inside the hotel, and described our location by e-mail sent to our tour operator. We agreed that we would take the shuttle to the hotel the next morning. I then returned to the ship and we discovered that iron ore dust from the loading operation was covering our balcony and railing. This was the least attractive pier location we had ever experienced.
The next day we met out tour at the hotel at about 8:45 as planned. We formed a caravan of two vehicles, Ronnie, Edith and I with Rodrigo in a Fiat, the other two couples with the tour company owner, Ingo Moosmuller, in a van. Ingo’s parents had emigrated from Germany to Venezuela where he was born. He is perfectly fluent in German and Spanish, and very fluent in English. The company is called Full Day Turismo, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. We drove from the hotel onto an excellent road to travel to Ciudad Bolivar. The highway was six lanes divided for a few miles, and four lanes divided the rest of the total of 65 miles. We passed another iron works and an aluminum plant. The countryside was rather flat and uninteresting. Puerto Ordaz was created in the 60’s from two older towns, Ciudad Guayana and San Felix. The new town had lots of high rise apartments and newer single family homes. We saw more of it on our return. Ciudad Bolivar, on the other hand, is an old city, and its original town square has many buildings from the middle 1700s. The day we arrived was also the day it was being visited by the country’s president along with the Premier of Iran (a fellow OPEC member); so there was additional security visible, but no actual inconvenience. We stopped first at the Jesús Soto Museum of Modern Art, named after a locally born artist. It had a number of interesting works of Señor Soto and other artists. We then went to the old center square with its cathedral, and a small but very attractive park. Off the park was a beautifully restored building built in 1776 which had items of historical importance relating to Venezuela’s obtaining its independence in 1817. Simon Bolivar was of course prominent in all this activity as he was the leader of the independence fight. There were also a number of other well restored and preserved buildings in the area. We then went for lunch at a restaurant with its main dining room open on all sides and on the second floor overlooking the Orinoco.
Once again we had fish and the tab, including our
shared purchase of our guides’ lunches, was $20.00 per couple. We then returned
to Puerto Ordaz and drove through the residential part of town with many modern
high rise apartments and a number of very attractive single family residences.
After this we visited two parks on local rivers with striking waterfalls. While
only about 30 feet high, their width was extensive, and they provided all the
hydroelectric power for the area, including the manufacturing establishments.
One of the parks had a number of almost tame monkeys. We went back to the ship
about 4:30 feeling that our cost of $64.00 per couple plus tip and lunch was a
great bargain. Incidentally we found out that gasoline in Venezuela costs $0.11
per gallon for regular and $0.13 per gallon for high test. Ingo admitted that
this was heavily subsidized by the government, and, since most Venezuelan oil
goes to the US, we are paying for their cheap gasoline!
Out documents said we would sail at 8:00 P.M. On arrival this was changed to a midnight departure. Then the Captain came on the PA system about 8:00 and said that since everyone was on board he would sail at 8:00. this was greeted with cheers since we all hated the pier side and the ore loading. However the Cruise Director evidently told the Captain that the show, on Deck 5 in the Insignia Lounge, was the classical pianist, so he delayed the departure so the noise of the side thrusters pushing us away from the dock, and the hawsers being pulled on board would not interrupt the music. I think we actually started down the river about midnight.
Quite a number of people had opted for visits to the famous Angel Falls. Fortunately they had good weather and a clear view. The ship’s tour cost $490.00 per person, but private arrangements can be made on the net for considerably less, and some people did this, while others traveling as a group had their Travel all day trip was US $85.00, less a 5% online booking discount, per person. Lunch was included. Ronnie decided to join us for this adventure, and it was a real adventure. Tobago has a lot of back roads that can only be navigated in a four wheel drive, and our jeep was put to the test more than once. We saw some spectacular ocean views and then went inland through the jungle on a “road” that was scarcely visible at times. We eventually parked and walked about a mile over somewhat rough country, forded a stream twice, and arrived at a small but beautiful waterfall almost hidden from sight. I had worn my bathing suit under my shorts, so I went swimming in the pool beneath the falls. The water was considerably cooler than the Caribbean, but not frigid, and it was a delightful dip. We then returned to the jeep and went for lunch at a roofed but open restaurant built up on one of the islands’ hills next to an old sugar mill which still had its waterwheel and some of its components. Afterwards we went back down to the Caribbean to a small beach, which had a parking area and I could go swimming again to my joy. We drove back through a rain forest preserve and along the coast to the pier. Fabrizio speaks excellent English, having spent some time in Canada. His wife, who he met in Toronto, is from Trinidad, and wanted to go home. Trinidad and Tobago are one country. Since she is a citizen, he was able to start a business without nearly the paperwork that he would have faced otherwise. He was a most informative and excellent guide; but this trip is not for those who would have difficulty walking over rough ground. Fabrizio had to provide help for Ronnie at several points on our trek to and from the waterfall, but her enthusiasm was not dimmed.
Back on board we heard that the glass bottom boat tour, which was the featured excursion, was not very productive of fish, but I do not suppose one can blame Oceania. In any event, we were once again pleased with our internet excursion shopping for interest, a personalized guide experience and value.
After docking in Barbados we had a leisurely breakfast in the main dining room since we were staying here for two days and had no flight connections to make. Some people were debarked as early as 6:00 A.M. Our baggage code was called about 9:30 and we found our luggage quickly. We priced a cab to our hotel, and it was US $20.00, which, considering the distance involved, was not much. We were in a van with another couple from Pittsburgh who had been on another short island cruise and were returning to their condo in Barbados where they lived in the winter. They recommended a restaurant near their home, Champers, which we tried and enjoyed. It was not cheap, but then nothing in Barbados is. You can multiply stateside prices by 1.5 and come out about right. This is not a hotel review, but we did like the Accra Beach Hotel in Christ Church Parish, south of Bridgetown. The north coast hotels are nicer, we have heard, but priced to match. What we really appreciated was the fact that when we arrived at the hotel about 10:00 A.M. they got our room ready for occupancy in 15 minutes and we were able to unpack and leave for lunch in town by 11:00, giving us almost a full day that we were not sure of having. The hotel backs directly on the beach, which has a decent surf for the Caribbean. A fairly large ocean view room cost US $510.00 for two nights, which is about 60% of the cost of the north shore hotels.
If you go to Barbados, be sure to visit the Graeme Hall Botanic Garden in Christ Church. It was only opened in 2004, was very well designed and constructed by its Canadian benefactor, and is a small delight.
CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS OF THE CRUISE
It seemed to be easier to meet and enjoy our fellow passengers on this cruise than on trips on larger ships. Part of this was due to the shared open dining, but part simply the fact that there were fewer passengers and we ran into each other more often. Most, as always, were American, with a group of about 40 Germans, a couple of Australians, the usual sprinkling of Canadians, and, as far as we knew, the one Brazilian lady. We found one couple making their first cruise. With 14 prior cruises, we had about the average. This was an experienced group of travelers, but that was to be expected given this itinerary.
Some people were disappointed with the Amazon. The reason seemed to be that they expected a much closer encounter with the jungle and its wildlife. However wild animals, who are not stupid, know that they are better off when not in the sight of humans; so they are quite good at avoiding observation. And in thick jungle it is easy to stay unobserved. A cruise ship is not always a good way to experience wildlife; and if this is your goal, careful study is recommended before buying a trip. Research would have told anyone that the Amazon rain forest is inhabited mostly by birds and insects. There are simply not many warm blooded mammals, and these are mostly tree dwellers such as lemurs and monkeys. Unless you camp out in the trees, far from human settlements, and wait patiently for hours or even days, you are not going to see much. The cruise system simply does not allow this.
What we did see was a huge eco system, providing rain for a substantial portion of our entire planet, and dwarfing the human encroachments along its fringes. There is simply nothing else on earth like the Amazon Basin, and it was definitely worth seeing, even though we could actually see and appreciate only a small portion.
What we really enjoyed on this cruise was the ship, its crew, its services and our fellow passengers. Insignia is simply a marvelous vessel, extremely comfortable, very attractive physically, and manned by people who really seem to want to please and to make your trip a pleasure.
We were also amazed when, at one lunch, we looked up and saw Adela, who had been our delightful and marvelous assigned waitress on Infinity for our Hawaii trip. She remembered us, perhaps because our table had thrown her a birthday party, complete with flowers, a gift and cake during dinner on the next to last night on board. She was apparently as pleased to see her former passengers as we were to see her.
At one time I would opine on whether or not we would do this cruise again. This is not really a good measure, because there are many, many places we want to see before repeating even our most enjoyable trips. Would we recommend this cruise? Beyond a question, the answer is, yes. Would we sail on Insignia again. In a New York minute if the itinerary were one we wanted. Insignia is sailing from Istanbul through the Greek Islands, to Dubrovnik and back to Athens this July. Friends of ours are booked on it, and if Insignia does this again next year, we will be on board.
That being said, Oceania needs some upgrading in its administrative system. For example, they told our Travel Agent that Brazil did not require visas. They misinformed people concerning some tours. The tours were overpriced, which is a constant complaint about this line. The 18% “service charge” not only on drinks but on spa and gym services (my wife’s yoga class for example) is too much; and should not be added to classes or spa services at all. The corkage fee of $20.00 is ridiculous. In a cruise line of this level of quality, such “nickel and dimeing” leaves an unnecessarily bad impression. However all these little things do not detract from the fact that Insignia is a marvelous ship, sailed and staffed by very nice people and providing a superior cruise experience.
As always, I will welcome any comments or questions.