Ray and Janet Zegarski
Occupation:Human Resources Manager
Number of Cruises: 24
Cruise Line: Orient
Ship: Marco Polo
Sailing Date: January 31st, 2003
Itinerary: Antarctic Peninsula
Pre Pre-Cruise: Orient Cruise Line did a wonderful job of keeping us informed of various aspects of the cruise that we might not have anticipated on our own. They sent out a very specific list of suggested "essential" gear that would make the trip more comfortable, and a suggested reading list to help us appreciate what we would experience. They did not just say waterproof boots, but made certain you knew that you might have to step out of the Zodiac into 10 inches of water. When ordering the size for your expedition parka (that you keep after the cruise), they remind you that you may want to wear it over a jacket or heavy sweater. They also included a list of some outfitters that provide the type gear one might need to procure. Living in New England that wasn’t a problem for us, but we could see where it might be for someone living in a year around temperate climate. This was the first cruise where we had to send in a form certifying that we were physically able (more about this later) to cruise. It was almost like going away to summer camp. Orient also had an e-mail contact person that would answer specific questions, usually within 24 hours.
Pre-Cruise Wednesday, January 28-30, 2003: With the itinerary totally in cities/countries with which we were not familiar, we opted to book Orient’s Air Add-on, which included two nights in Buenos Aires, rather than attempting the transfers and intra-country flights. Looking back, we think this was a good choice. A few last minute errands; lunch, to clean out refrigerator; limousine ride to airport (no traffic); through security in less than 15 minutes; things are looking well.. We flew from Boston to Washington DC and through to Buenos Aires on United Airlines; a long flight. Janet managed to get some sleep and I caught a few cat-naps, while listening to music and watching movies. Upon arrival in Buenos Aires (BA), at about 10:00 AM, we checked through immigration, changed some dollars for pesos, claimed our luggage. Orient had greeters at the luggage area and directed us to an area near the doorway where porters took our luggage, to load on a truck for shipment directly to hotel; another greeter showed us to our bus and we were on our way to the hotel within a half hour from exiting plane. On the 45 minute ride from the airport, a guide gave us an short overview of the city and its history. Some on our bus were staying at the Sheraton Hotel and the rest of us at the Park Tower Hotel. Actually, both hotels are part of the same hotel/convention center complex. Orient assigns hotels based on the level of cruise cabin booked. Since we are NCL Latitude members, when we booked we were afforded Polo Club (Orient’s repeat passenger club) member benefits (NCL owns Orient Line). Our travel agent made sure that we received the two category upgrade and the "better" hotel. The Park Tower is one of the Starwood Chains Luxury properties. There is no front desk, as such. There are a series of three Queen Ann type desks and chairs along the lobby walkway. Rather than make us stand around the lobby waiting to check in, we were ushered to the lobby lounge, and seated at tables. We were served complimentary orange juice, while hotel staff were going from table to table checking names and distributing registration forms. As guests completed their registration they were given their room keys and welcomed to BA. All rooms were ready despite the "official" check-in time being 3:00 PM. We were in our room by Noon, and what a room! The room measured about 35x20 feet overall; the all marble bath, with full tub and double pedestal sink, was about 12x12 feet; the shower alone was 5x5 feet; another compartment housed the commode and bidet and measured 5x7 feet. Two sliding door closets, with full-length mirrors, flanked the refrigerator and mini bar, equipped with crystal glasses and goblets; on the night stand was a crystal (psuedo) and gold alarm clock; next to the bed was a control center for all the lights in the room as well as a switch to illuminate the "do not disturb" notification on the room’s doorbell. The entertainment center housed a stereo radio/CD player, an interactive TV; and wireless remote Internet access keyboard. In addition to the sofa, there was a coffee table, with a Persian rug under it, there was also a marble topped desk. Of course, there was also 24 hour/day personal butler service which included: assistance in unpacking; complimentary pressing of two garments per person upon arrival; personal wake up call, with morning beverage of choice; complimentary shoe shine service; an English version of the BA herald, and FAX digest of New York Times; packing assistance on departure. I’m beginning to think Holiday Inn just won’t cut it after this. Maybe we should just stay here instead of going on cruise ... NOT!!
We set out to walk about exploring the area, starting from San Martin Park. There are two pedestrian-only shopping streets which each run about 10 blocks, downtown Buenos Aires. We found one immediately (Florida Street) and also a large (for central city) multi-level shopping Galleria. Both areas seemed to be predominately locals (portenos) versus tourists. Shopping was not our intent, but a cursory look at prices showed that you could find some mighty fine buys, if that was your intent. We then headed back to the hotel to hook up with our included city tour. During the tour we drove through most of the barrios (neighborhoods) that were of tourist interest. This gave us some ideas of what we might want to return to, on our own. We passed on the optional Tango Show/Dinner tour, offered by Orient’s BA travel partner, since the expected time of arrival back to the hotel was to be after mid-night, and we were at about 40+ hours of "on-the-go" at that point, excluding nap time on the plane ride down. Instead, we opted for an early, especially by BA standards, dinner at a nearby parrilla (steak house), where the grilling is done over open wood fires in the restaurant (no, it is not smoky in the eating area). I had a very good tenderloin, and Janet had a somewhat "chewy" T-bone, bread and butter, large salads, and an excellent Argentine wine recommended by the owner (higher end of the price list), and coffee for Janet. The bill came to 106.00 pesos, including tip (about $33.00 US), the wine being almost half of the total. A bit expensive for a non-tour related meal, but we viewed it as a celebration of our first meal south of the equator (not counting breakfast on the plane). Can we find an excuse to celebrate, or what? A note about tipping. When paying by credit card, it is customary to leave the tip in cash on the table; the same goes for meals/drinks charged to your hotel room, tip server in cash.
Thursday, January 30, 2003: Breakfast was included with the hotel stay at the Crystal Terrace overlooking the boulevard on the side of the hotel. After a very satisfying breakfast, we checked in at the hospitality desk to pick up ribbons to ID our luggage and verify our flight times for the next morning (there were three charter flights from BA to Ushuaia - we were on the first). Through the concierge, we made arrangements to attend a Tango Show/Dinner for this evening; the price was about the same as the previous night’s tour, but we were to have a private car to/from the show, rather than a bus, and preferred seating and expanded menu, including wine.
We had also arranged for an afternoon tour to Tigre, a town on the river delta area north of BA where some of the more affluent Argentines own river homes that they use to escape the heat of the city. Before the tour, we decided to do some more exploring on our own. We walked to the Teatro Colon (Colon Theater), BA’s prime venue for Opera, Ballet, Orchestra. The acoustics are reported to be among the top five in the world. We were treated to a tour and history of the facility; we even got to sit in the President’s box. Unfortunately, since we were there out of season, the fire screen was in place, thus we could not tour the stage area, which is larger than the audience area. We also were not able to visit the workshops (three different levels below the theater. For me this was a real downer, I had really hoped to visit this area where, at times, there are up to 500 people working on sets, costumes, etc. Also, the air conditioning was not in use through most of the building (outside temperature about 90 degrees, with 85% humidity). Whew! After exploring more of the Central District, we went back to Florida Street to find some of BA’s famous helado (sort of like ice cream) purported to be better than Rome’s gelato. We finally found a Confiteria (sandwich shop) that offered helado; we grabbed an outside table and ordered two. We sat under a large canopy and watched the hustle and bustle of the traffic on one side and the pedestrians on the other. The "bill" came written on a napkin, which made for an interesting souvenir. After a quick stop at an ATM (Bank Boston ATM’s have various language options, if you don’t speak Spanish) for more pesos, and it was back to the hotel for our Tigre tour.
The Tigre tour started with a 45 minute bus ride through some other areas, commercial and residential, of the city of BA, and other towns in the province of BA. At Tigre, we boarded our river boat, a low slung boat carrying about 40 passengers. These boats were similar to those one might find plying the rivers/harbors of cities like London, Paris, Copenhagen, and such. The boat ride lasted about 1 ½ hours and we saw river homes that ranged from fishing shacks to ones that were almost opulent, sometimes almost side-by-side. The residents were quite friendly; smiling and waving to us as we passed and even posing for pictures. The marked difference between the temperatures in the city to those experienced on the river made it easy to see why the city dwellers are anxious to spend as much of the summers at the river homes. Sadly, we had to return to the steamy city, but we needed to get ready for our Tango Show/Dinner.
The venue for our show was a club founded by Carlos Gardel, considered by many as the most famous Tango singer, and the father of Tango in Buenos Aires. Our driver picked us up at the agreed upon time and after a short and exciting ride through BA traffic dropped at the front door of the club. There were a number of busses and vans unloading , and a short line in the lobby. When the hostesses and maitre d’ heard we were from the Park Tower, we were immediately taken from the line, asked our room number, and escorted to a table in the first row of the balcony, just about dead center. It was a table for four, but set for just the two of us. The downstairs seating was at long tables running from stage to back with patrons seated elbow to elbow. At these types of shows, we do not expect first class cuisine; we were pleasantly surprised with the quality and amount of the food. The service was a bit uneven, but I think the staff did as well as they could considering the number of guests each had responsibility to serve. During dinner, there were two films, one produced by the Argentine Tourism Bureau and a second film about the history of Tango, the music, the song, the dance, the culture. Very interesting. The show lasted a little over 1 ½ hours (seemed much shorter), was very fast paced and extremely entertaining. After the show, we thought that finding our driver "right here" where he dropped us off would be impossible with everyone leaving at the same time. However, as we got to the front door we saw him with a group of about five drivers, each holding a sign board with their customers’ names. The street alongside the club was blocked off for the private cars and those of the cast, so we exited the street at the other end of the block, avoiding the congestion of the busses/vans, and were back at our hotel after a short ride. Only four hours until we needed to be up again for our trip to Ushuaia, and the ship.
Embarkation Day, Friday 31 January, 2003: An early breakfast since we were scheduled to be on the first charter flight to Ushuaia, and were to leave the hotel at 0630. Our luggage had been picked up last evening to be taken by truck to the airport this morning. When we arrived at the airport, an airline representative came aboard the bus and handed out our boarding passes and gave us instructions. We had to enter the terminal building and point out our luggage to the porters who placed a new tag on each piece as we identified them. We would next see the bags in our cabin on the ship. Our flight was scheduled for 0800 and then pushed back to 0830. The flight was on an old Boeing 727 that had been converted to a 737, but still old and cramped. The four flight attendants tried very hard to make the ride as comfortable as possible, but the deck was stacked against them. We were all instructed at the hotels that the planes would be very crowded and storage space is very limited. We were told to limit ourselves to one carry-on each , and less than 4 kilos (8.8 pounds). Of course some passengers insisted that they couldn’t survive a four hour flight without their 24 inch roll-on bag, plus a flight bag , plus a large camera bag, each! Upon arriving in Ushuaia, we were met by an Orient Line’s agent who directed us to our waiting bus. After a 10-15 minute ride, we were on the pier, alongside the ship. A member of the cruise staff came aboard the bus and collected our passports and cruise tickets; Orient had sent us our cruise ID cards with our cruise documents. Off the bus, stop for "Welcome Aboard" photo, or not; up the gangway, swipe the ID card through the security scanner, and we were then escorted to our cabin; Janet was presented with a lovely carnation, and there was even a vase in the cabin to hold it. We were the sixth and seventh passengers to board.
Since it was still only about 1300, and we had lunch on the plane (at least that is what they said it was), we decided to walk into town (10 minute stroll) to look around, despite the fact that we would have another full day in Ushuaia, at the end of the cruise, if the weather gods cooperated. Weather today is mostly sunny, about 63 degrees, and breezy. We finally found helado that was noteworthy, actually quite good. I still give the gelato, near the Trevi Fountain in Rome, the edge, but it is close. There is another cruise ship in port, the Nordnorge (a Norwegian ship). We needed to be back on board by 1730 for the Emergency Muster Drill. Just prior to the drill, we went to our cabin to get our lifejackets. Our luggage, minus one piece has been delivered. Arnold, our cabin steward stopped by to introduce himself and give us a quick run down on how everything in the cabin operates. He asked if this was all our luggage, and then asked for a description of the missing piece, when we replied "No". He assured us that he would locate and deliver it to us. Shortly after the drill Arnold knocked on our cabin door and gave us the missing bag. Apparently, someone at the hotel had written our hotel room number on the tag, and when the bag reached the ship it was delivered to cabin 655 instead of 487. So we had everything prior to sailing; always a good feeling. Arnold also delivered our parkas. Orient Lines provides each passenger on their Antarctica cruises with a red expedition parka, which is to be worn on all the Zodiac excursions. The parkas are yours to keep at the end of the cruise. We had requested late seating and were assigned to a table for six, next to the Captain’s Table. All of our table mates seemed to "click" right off, and we had a great time the whole cruise. As is our normal routine, we skipped the first evening’s show, instead using the time to finish unpacking and checking out the public rooms, bars, lounges. Turned in around midnight.
Saturday, 01 February, 2003: About 0200 I was awakened by a bit of rolling by the ship – The Drake Passage. I looked out the window at moderate seas and winds. Although impossible to gauge accurately through the window, I estimated ~15 feet waves and a brisk wind, causing a large amount of spray to be visible. Having completed my reporter’s task, I went back to sleep. By morning the movement had markedly subsided; Janet had not noticed the rolling through the night. Most of the passengers that we talked to have cruised extensively, and most agreed that the movement was a non-factor, even though the "barf bags" were still prominently displayed about the ship. We can only wait to see what Captain Drake may have in store for our next meeting.
This is a sea day, on our way to Deception Island, a still active volcano whose caldera has been breached by the sea, creating a large natural harbor. Unfortunately, this voyage we will not land here, so we will not have the opportunity to swim/wade in the lava heated pool. Maybe that isn’t all bad. There are no structures at the pool. One merely strips down to swim wear and enters the pool; upon exiting the pool you dry off as best as you can and climb back into your cold weather gear. Some of us might have been fool-hearted enough to give it a try. We attended a lecture on the history of the exploration of Antarctica, and another on using Zodiacs for landings and shuttling ship-to-shore; both were very interesting and informative. Tonight is formal night, and at the Captain’s Welcome Cocktail Party we were served real cocktails of your choice and not watered down imitations, to wash down the delicious hors d’oeuvres. At dinner, we were joined by Jacques LeTallec, the Hotel Director. We were not at the captain’s table, but we seemed to be having more fun. We passed on the evening show. As with last night, there is only one performance, making choice seats difficult to come by for late seating diners. With an early arrival tomorrow morning we turned in before midnight.
Sunday, 02 February, 2003: We arrived at Deception Island at about 0700 with a large number of passengers already on deck, despite the 39 degree temperature and brisk wind. We entered the caldera via Neptune’s Bellows, whose width is only a bit more that twice the beam of the ship. Just inside the caldera are the remnants of a former whaling station, complete with a partial fuselage of an airplane. There is also a hut that is sometimes used by a Chilean scientific party. We cruised in the caldera for about two hours and saw a small rookery of Chinstrap penguins and a variety of sea birds. The cliffs and walls are multi colored due the various volcanic eruptions. While inside the caldera, a small boat approached the ship. The captain announced that the boat was from a Spanish research station that had apparently run out of film. We were playing delivery boy; I wonder who gets to keep the tip?
After leaving Deception Island we set course for Cuverville Island, and our first Zodiac excursion. Cuverville Island is home to the largest known colony of Gentoo Penguins (~5000 nesting pairs). This cruise marked the first time that the Marco Polo’s Zodiacs completely circumnavigated the island. I think our Zodiac driver was only partially kidding when he said he hoped we’d make it without getting hung up or trapped in the ice, since they only had some rough ideas of the best route to take, obtained from the helicopter photos. Besides the Gentoos, the island is home to at least seven different species of birds, and three species of seals can often be seen here, along with the occasional Minke or Humpback whale. We saw a Leopard seal and Fur seals; our table mates also saw an Elephant seal.
The Zodiacs are a remarkable craft, providing a smooth and stable ride, with a 360 degree view. They are very maneuverable and can ride in very shallow water, and can even be run up on to the beach for landings. The Marco Polo has a very good system of rotating Zodiac departures at each excursion site. Each person is given a large colored (5 different colors) circular tag with a letter (A, B, or C) on it and departure times are scheduled according to color ,and then letter. The color that goes first one time, then goes last on the next excursion; the same with the letters within each color group. This thwarts the process of sending one person to get 20 "prime time tender tickets" and then holding up the works because everyone isn’t there on time. The Zodiacs leave at their assigned times, if you aren’t there, they will attempt to put you on a later group. The tags are worn in view on your parka. Once ashore you are allotted a period of time, usually one hour, before returning to the ship. However, you are free to return at any time if there is space in the Zodiac. Time from ship to landing is usually 5-10 minutes. Earlier, I mentioned that we had to certify that we were physically able to handle the various aspect of the cruise and excursions. There were some passengers that you were sure would not be able to get into or out of the Zodiacs. However, for anyone that wanted to go, the crew found a way to make sure they went, in a safe manner. No challenge seemed to be too daunting to this crew and the Zodiac drivers, who are all professional boat captains, this is not something they do in addition to their "real job" on the ship.
Monday, 03 February, 2003: This morning we are scheduled to arrive at the LeMaire Channel at about 0700. In some publications, the LeMaire Channel has been called "The Kodak Channel", because of its beauty and photogenic qualities, consisting of narrow channel lined with soaring steep rock walls, some capped with glaciers. The plan is to cruise the seven mile channel in one direction and after exiting, turn about in an adjoining bay and traverse the channel in the opposite direction. As always, "ice conditions permitting". Besides the sheer walls and glaciers, many icebergs are usually visible in the channel, often times these serve as transportation to various types of seals. The cruise gods are smiling on us as weather and ice conditions remain favorable and we proceed without difficulty. Whales and seals are sighted frequently.
After cruising LeMaire, we head for Port Lockroy for our next landing. This landing is also home to another Gentoo penguin colony (only ~1,600 nesting pairs), and several species of birds. Seals can always be found in the area. There is also a small (two person) station here funded by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust, studying the effects of tourism on the penguin population (none detected in five years), and gathering of data on climate changes, and also examining the feasibility of opening Antarctic waters to fishing, and what effect that may have on the wildlife. The two staff members from the station came on board the ship to give a talk on their projects/activities, and answered passenger questions. We were scheduled to remain at Port Lockroy overnight, but changing weather conditions prompted the captain to leave earlier toward our next destination. The winds increased rapidly and the sea swelled making this look like a prudent decision. It is amazing just how quickly the weather can change. We watched as the Zodiac took the British station members back to their site and returned to the ship. It definitely did not look like a ride for the faint of heart. We were able to skirt most of the heavy weather on our trip to Paradise Harbor.
Tuesday, 04 February, 2003: Due to the Captain’s revised itinerary, we spent a pleasant evening/night cruising to Paradise Harbor, after clearing the storm that was arriving at Port Lockroy. The morning began overcast, and then a bit of a pleasant (?, for some) surprise. Snow! Large wet flakes that reduced visibility to less than ½ mile. The snow was coming down so heavy that it was coating the Zodiacs as quickly as the crew would clean them off. The first group was scheduled to go ashore at 0900, but there was about a 35 minute delay getting set up primarily because a small iceberg (about 20x40 ft x 4-5 ft above the water) crashed into and lodged under the Zodiac loading platform. The crew was able to move it slightly by pushing it with the Zodiacs, but eventually the captain had to use the thrusters and prop wash to dislodge it and wash it away from the ship. Between that bit of excitement and the early snow, operations got further behind schedule. The excursions were shortened to 45 minutes instead of 60 minutes. At this stop there is a another Gentoo penguin rookery, actually a number of small rookeries; there is also a Chilean station here manned by members of Chile’s Air Force and Navy. In addition to their research studies, they man a small souvenir stand, when ship’s visit. Shopping survives, even in Antarctica. We went ashore at 11:55 and the snow was sporadic at that time. By the time the last groups left the ship , the snow had stopped and the sun was shining brightly. When we started for Half Moon Island, we were on deck wearing only sweaters. Some crew members had constructed a snow penguin on the splash guard around the pool. This penguin was not long for this world, once the sun came out.
The next travel leg of our journey, to Half Moon Island, takes us through an area where whales are frequently sighted. We spent the rest of the afternoon on deck watching a constant parade of beautiful and interesting icebergs, some with seals or penguins hitching a ride. There were also the continuing groups of penguins "porpoising" through the water while feeding; it was difficult for one not to see a group within any 15 minute span. True to the Captain’s prediction, we saw more than a dozen whales; some passengers claim to have seen more than twenty. On top of all this, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset, at 2211 (eleven minutes after 10 PM). What a wonderful conclusion to dinner.
Wednesday 05, February, 2003: Half Moon Island - This is to be our last Zodiac landing. The island was once home to a large seal hunting operation, where tens of thousands of seals were killed. Today, all wildlife in Antarctica is protected. The latest survey, in 1995, found more than 3,300 pairs of Chinstrap penguins on this island. I do believe the number is still growing. This was probably the most difficult landing. We had to swing our feet over the side of the Zodiac and step off into the water, about 6-10 inches deep, depending on timing of wave; the bottom was small stones, marble size to golf ball size. Fortunately there were crew members out in the water (wearing waders) to help with the endeavor. To their credit, we did not see anyone fall.
Besides the Chinstrap penguins, this island is home to at least six species of birds. Three species of seals are often seen on the beaches. While the Gentoo penguins are mildly inquisitive, the Chinstraps seem fearless. When they are heading for the sea, they just travel a straight line, and fully expect those big things in red parkas to get out of their way. While not running into to you they will pass within a couple feet., unless they perceive you making threatening motions (moving toward them). At each of the landings, before entering the Zodiac to go back to the ship, you had to have your boots cleaned. I think the worst crew job on the ship is boot cleaner. These poor guys are standing either in, or near the cold water with stiff brushes to clean the penguin guano from our boots, and there is a LOT of guano on the ground. By the end of the cruise, we could tell if the penguins had been eating krill or fish, from the different types of guano. Kind of made the whole trip worthwhile. Once back on the ship, there was another area where the crew had set up a row of chairs. You picked out a chair and a crew member removed your boots and he, or another, crew member would place them in plastic bags before you returned to your cabin. They also had plastic and paper coverings on the carpeted area leading to the cabins.
While we were on the island the sun was shining, and the wind began to pick up. Within a half hour’s time, the ship, drifting less than ¼ mile offshore, was not to be seen, due to fog that had materialized. After we boarded the Zodiac, our driver told us he could "probably" find the ship, if the Captain hadn’t moved it as a prank. With that, he pulled out a pocket compass and took a reading and set a course. About half way to the ship, you could just start to make out a faint outline; fortunately, you could also still make out the outlines of the island. About an hour later it was clear again. As soon as the last passengers were back on board, and the Zodiacs stowed on board, we would set course for Ushuaia, again crossing the Drake Passage. How would the weather gods look upon us this time? Again with a smile or will we pay for our earlier good fortune?
Thursday, 06 February, 2003: A day at sea enroute to Ushuaia, Argentina. Once again, the weather gods have chosen to smile on us. Last night and this morning the seas are relatively calm, except for about an hour or two as we passed the Southern Convergence, where the relatively warm waters of the southern oceans meet and mix with the much colder waters of the Arctic Ocean. Even then the motion while noticeable was not discomforting. Later in the afternoon, clouds began to build on the horizon in the direction we were heading. As we came within sight of Cape Horn, the captain announced that a very severe rain cell was directly in our path to the Horn. He was going to try and swing around behind it and provide us with a better view of Cape Horn. It became very windy, and the seas rose to about 15-18 feet, and the rain came in sheets. Fortunately, we were on a covered section of deck at the stern of the ship. It was a great place to watch the sea, and very few passengers were even aware that is was there. During the cruise, until that last day, I don’t think I had seen more than eight different people back there, and never more that three at a time. This time it was crowded, there must have been twelve of us, maybe a few more. I was watching the wake off the stern and it was quite obvious we were making a large circle. As the seas subsided somewhat (to perhaps 8-10 feet), the rain stopped and the wind diminished, the captain made an announcement that the quick moving rain cell had passed as we made , "what our American friends call a Ubie". He had skirted around the fringe of the cell and allowed the storm to pass and came in toward Cape Horn from the opposite direction, thus allowing those interested a somewhat clear view (some mist remained) of the Horn. We would then set course for the Beagle Channel and head for Ushuaia, planning to arrive about midnight when the winds and tides should be more favorable, than early tomorrow morning. We had to get ready for the Captain’s Reception of the Polo Club Members (Orient Line’s repeater distinction). As NCL Latitude members, we were afforded Polo Club privileges. The Captain recognized a couple who had sailed on the Marco Polo a total of 89 (I think) times. However, the captain then introduced a gentleman who has sailed on every Antarctic cruise the Marco Polo has done over the years, and others for a total of 118 cruises on this ship. The captain opined that he thinks this man has sailed more Antarctic cruises than anyone else, as a paying customer.
Friday, 07 February, 2003: Port day in Ushuaia Argentina. The ship offered a number of tours for those interested, also a movie in the Ambassador Lounge. The shops and casino were closed due to local regulations. We decided to walk into town and pick up some souvenirs that we had seen prior to the cruise. It was amusing to see the number of red parkas being worn; also sobering to see just what an impact even a portion of the 550 (some were on tour, and others not wearing their parkas) made on the town of 45,000 population. Red parkas seemed to be everywhere. We returned to the ship for lunch and decided to start the (at least for me) dreaded chore of packing, right after a nap (shopping and eating is tiring). After packing for a while we went up for our afternoon/pre-dinner martini break, before completing the packing and getting ready for dinner. Luggage had to be out in the hallway by midnight (Boo!).
At his point, I’d like to switch gears. Before detailing our Disembarkation and recapping the cruise in general, I’d like to share our impression of the ship, and various facets of the cruise.
Ship Overview: This ship started as the Alexander Pushkin in 1965, sailing in the Russian Far East, and later on the St. Petersburg to Montreal run. It was designed for long distance sailing and has an ice strengthened hull, ideal for sailing in Arctic and Antarctic waters. Orient lines purchased her in 1991 and spent $75 million to do a complete interior rebuild; she was renamed the Marco Polo and set sail in November 1993. She is 578 feet long; the Gross Tonnage is 22,080; there are eight passenger decks; she has a double occupancy capacity of 826 in 425 cabins, 70% of which have outside views; there are two handicapped accessible cabins. For the Antarctic cruises the passenger load is usually kept below 500, however we sailed with 550. The normal crew complement is 350; not sure how many were aboard for our cruise. I know it was enough to meet all our needs.
The ship seemed to be in an excellent state of repair; with hardly any sensation of vibration, except on a few occasions. I did not see anything that was not working, except for a few things that crew members were already working on. I did hear one complaint that the elevators were slow, but cannot verify that. From our cabin location everything was only a couple of decks away, so we used the stairs. Another advantage of a smaller ship. The level of cleanliness on this ship was top notch, and yet there were always crew members cleaning something; and despite the cool weather, the crew were on deck touching up paint/varnish whenever possible.
Shore Excursions/Ports of Call: This was probably already covered in more detail than you were looking for.
Cabin 487, Main Deck: We had booked the cruise via our very competent travel agent; we originally were looking at category C, but George got us into a category B for the same price. As Latitude members, we were entitled to amenities usually only offered to Polo Club members; our travel agent told us we were out of categories to move up , so he negotiated a price reduction for the category we were already in , which also entitled us to the upgraded hotel mentioned earlier. It pays to have a travel agent that knows his/her stuff. Not all the cabins on the Marco Polo allow for the two beds to be pushed together to form a queen size bed; most category B and C do provide this feature. If it is important to you, be sure to ask. The cabin, I am told is 162 sq. ft. It seemed a bit larger, but I never got around to checking it out. We had more than enough storage space even though this itinerary prompted lots of different articles of clothing, and we are not light packers to begin with. This category has two large windows, with deep recessed sills handy for keeping camera and binoculars at the ready. The bathroom is small , but not cramped; the same can be said for the shower, but I would have liked a bit less friendly shower curtain It can’t be that I am too large above "average". The toilet was an interesting design; sort of a hybrid from the old water siphon type and the modern vacuum type. The flush "handle" is a large (approx. 8 inch x 8 inch) metal square on the wall that releases a large volume of water before the familiar whoosh. It seems to work very well. The air conditioning/heating unit worked as expected, but a bit slow to respond to large manual changes. The cabins are equipped with a hairdryer, that Janet says was adequate. There is a TV that has two ship’s channels, plus a bridge cam, and three movie channels. There are reading lamps built into the walls that work well and do not protrude to cause a possible injury; if one is in use, the other person is not disturbed, unless they are extremely sensitive to light. There is a make-up vanity and stool; Janet said the lighting could be a little brighter. Our location was a very convenient one. We were one deck up from the dining room and one deck down from Belvedere Deck where most of the public rooms are located . There was a safe in one of the closets that you programmed with your own four digit code. However, if you left the door open for more than five minutes, you had to repeat the reprogramming sequence; if you closed and turned it to lock before reprogramming, you need to have security come to open the safe so you can reprogram it. They are quick to respond, we tried it. Speaking of security, the door locks utilize a metal key rather than a magnetically programmed card, which means you have to carry a key with you. Another minor nuisance is that you have to use the key to lock the door when leaving; of course that means you cannot lock yourself out. A few reviews that we read prior to the trip talked about the paper thin walls and lack of sound proofing. I wouldn’t say that they are that bad, but we did hear sounds from the cabin on one side of us, but not the other. We did not find this to be a problem, Also we were directly below a busy area of the Belvedere Deck and never heard anything from above us. We will request this same cabin the next time we sail on the Marco Polo.
Public Areas: As mentioned, most of the public rooms are located on Belvedere Deck
· Ambassador Lounge: Located at the very forward part of the ship, this is the main show room for the ship and is also where the Captain’s Reception Cocktail Party is held. On this cruise the most use of this room, besides the evening shows, was the frequent lectures on the history, wildlife, exploration, art inspiration, and other associated topics concerning Antarctica.
· Polo Lounge: Just aft of the Ambassador lounge, this was probably the most popular of the public rooms. During the day, the many leather chairs and sofas near the large picture windows are like magnets for those looking for a place to read and sneak occasional peeks at the scenery, or just watch the sea, without contending with the temperature, or wind. It was also the meeting place for the Zodiac excursions, and some of the Trivia Challenges. In the evening it was a favorite meeting place for pre, or post dinner cocktails, usually with a very good trio (bass, violin, piano), called Cafe Concerto Strings, providing a musical backdrop. It was one of our favorite haunts each afternoon, naps not withstanding. Each day from 1630 to 1715, they ran a Martini Special. Borgy, the Martini Master, would offer samples of four of his special martinis (you pick which four); the samples would each be equivalent of ¼ martini, or a bit more. Then you got to choose one of the four and Borgy would prepare that one for you. You would end up with at least two full martinis for the total price of $5.00 (plus 15%). After satisfying one’s curiosity about some of the concoctions, the plan was to order four samples that you knew you liked and then select the one that best suited your mood for the day. The only flaw with this plan is that it overlapped with the afternoon tea, held in Raffles (see more later).
· The Tour Office and the Purser’s Desk: These are across from one another in a shared lobby just aft of the Polo Lounge. The Tour Office was a pretty quiet place since the only tours available were the few in Ushuaia, at the end of the cruise. The Purser’s Desk usually had some activity, as is to be expected. The Purser’s staff on the Marco Polo were efficient and friendly.
· Boutiques: Located aft of the Main Lobby, on the port side of the ship. They had your normal assortments of jackets shirts hats and souvenirs, as well as sundries , tobacco products and liquors. Of course, there was the requisite jewelry store. All but the tobacco and liquor shops had Antarctic theme merchandise.
· Palm Court: On the starboard side of the ship, opposite the Boutiques, the Palm Court was another favorite place for readers, if there wasn’t bridge lessons, or bridge playing session going on, which seemed to be at least twice a day. Bridge seemed to be a very popular activity on this cruise, unless whales were in the neighborhood. At one end of the Palm Court and across the walkway was the photo display area and purchase desk, also a seemingly popular area, with many people buying and not just looking.
· Le Bar: Located on starboard side of ship, immediately aft of Palm Court, this small Art Deco bar services the Palm Court and casino.
· Casino: Located in the center and port side of ship, aft of Photo Shop and Boutiques. Never was busy, most action was a few die-hard slots players. Worst job on the ship, except maybe the boot cleaners, was probably the Blackjack dealer. She spent a lot of hours standing at an empty table , with lots of folks walking back and forth through the casino, but no one stopping to play. The most action she had was giving gaming lessons a few times, and a few sessions that comprised the Blackjack Tournament. We did see three people playing Roulette one night.
· Library and Card Room: Located aft of Le Bar, was the Library (starboard side) which seemed to be a popular place, usually quite full. There was a decent assortment of books and convenient hours to check them out. Card Room was directly across ship on port side. Small, only four tables, but always seemed to have someone in there either playing cards, or some board game.
· Charleston Club (Promenade Deck, aft): This was home base for a very talented pianist/song stylist named Michael Chio, who played after dinner dance sets until the disco started, usually about 2300. This room is nicely laid out with some areas where small groups can sit and converse comfortably, while others can take advantage of the decent sized dance floor. One wall of the room is floor-to-ceiling windows with a view off the stern of the ship, across a small deck area that also had some tables and chairs.
· Internet Center (Upper Deck, aft): A small area that was open 24 hours/day, with an attendant for 3 hours in morning, 3 hours in afternoon/evening, and 2 hours at night. We didn’t use it (we are on vacation and unreachable, that’s what I told them at work). Our table mates said that it was not usually crowded, and not too expensive if one signed up for the cruise long/set rate package. Sorry I don’t have more pricing details.
· Spa and Beauty Center (Upper Dec, aft): Did not use. From comments heard, it is a typical Mandara Spa set-up (same as NCL). Of course, every day there were flyers, slipped under cabin door, advertising "One Day Only Special Offers".
· Health Club (Upper Deck, aft): This is a modest sized facility that was quite busy. It contained a number of treadmills, stair steppers, a rowing machine , some weight station apparatus, and free weights. There is also a separate aerobics room. Treadmills and stair steppers seemed to always be full (there are sign-up sheets to reserve times, but do it early). There is a nice view off the stern of the ship, so waiting may not be too boring. The Captain was a regular user of the facility. Since this is just aft of the Spa area, there are separate saunas for men and women close by.
· Jacuzzis (Sky Deck, aft): There are three Jacuzzis located just below the helicopter landing area on this the topmost deck. Probably because of the weather these did not seem to get a lot of use. Getting there wasn’t too bad, and it felt great in the hot water. Getting out, trying to dry off some, and then having to hustle down a flight of stairs, and get inside was the soul-trying part. Understandable why they didn’t get more use.
· Raffles Restaurant (Belvedere Deck): This is the Marco Polo’s casual eating venue, located all the way aft, except for the swimming pool. There was a Continental Breakfast early each morning, followed by a Breakfast Buffet, the Lunch Buffet, usual venue for Afternoon Tea (cookies to die for!), and most evenings a Bistro Dinner. On two nights the Bistro Dinner was replaced by an optional (special fee) Oriental Dinner. We only had a few meals there (no dinners), since Janet does not care for buffets. When we did eat there, the buffet choices were plentiful and the food hot. At breakfast there is a make to order omelet station that is replaced by a pasta station at lunch. The waitstaff is very attentive in bringing, and refilling beverages. One note of caution. Because of the camber of the deck and the slight vibration, being at the stern of the ship, dishes, cups, utensils can slide on, or off, the metal tables. Not all the tables are prone to this; it seemed mostly those in the middle of the room, closest to the main walkways. A quick remedy is to take a couple of extra napkins and place one under each item. Space was not an issue on this cruise, but may be with a full passenger load. There are additional tables directly aft (outside around the pool) that can be used in nice weather. We saw them in use even on this cruise.
· Seven Seas Restaurant (Bali Deck): This is the primary dining venue. During breakfast and lunch there is open seating; dinner has two sittings. Main Sitting was listed for 1815 and Late Sitting was listed for 2015 each evening, with the doors closing 15 minutes later. This was one of the few flaws I could find with Orient’s handling of people flow, and since we had Late Sitting it did not effect us as much. On some nights they would ring the chimes summoning Main Sitting at the listed time of 1815, other nights the chimes would sound at 1800, or 1830. We were never sure if our sitting time would change in accordance with that of Main Sitting. As it turned out, if we came down at 2020 each evening we would be fine; sometimes we just had to wait a few minutes until they opened the doors. The menu is not extensive, but there were at least three choices of appetizer (hot/cold), entree, dessert; soup was the exception there were usually only two soup choices. In addition there were vegetarian choices and some additional healthy choices; also available each evening were salmon filet, grilled chicken breast, baked potato. Our Head Waiter also told us that if there was anything special we wanted, he would arrange it for us. Portions were not overly large, but I never left hungry, and I am not a small eater; all courses were very nicely presented. Overall, I think desserts were the weakest part of the menu. The ambiance of the room is quite enjoyable. The walls on either side are all large windows, and on this cruise, even at Late Sitting it was still light out. Through the effective placement of alcoves around the perimeter of the room, noise from serving stations is kept to a minimum. Due to the popularity of Raffles’ breakfast and lunch buffets, getting a window side table in the Seven Seas was not usually difficult. Not sure that would be true with a full passenger load.
· Afternoon Tea: Each afternoon, from 1600 to 1700, afternoon tea was served. Actually, tea was served, if you wanted sandwiches, pastries, or wonderful fresh baked cookies, you needed to go through a buffet, or have one of your companions take pity on you and get something for you.
· Late Night Snacks: No late night buffets. There were small trolleys set up with late night snacks in both the Palm Court and Charleston Club, just about every night around mid-night.
· Room Service:
The only room service available was a continental breakfast.
Entertainment: This is not a big part of why we go on cruises, but this is the first time that we did not go to any of the headlined shows. Because of the reduced passenger load on the Antarctic cruises, there is only one show each evening, at 2200. We were usually still at our dinner table conversing at that time. The Ambassador Lounge is set up that as you enter, you are along side the stage facing the audience; arriving right at show time, or a little later, means passing those already seated to find seats toward the back of the room. We did not think that fair or considerate of those already seated, so we went for a walk on deck and then to one of the lounges for a night-cap. From what we heard in conversations with other passengers the shows were fine, nothing spectacular, but not bad. One evening there was a presentation of a Filipino Folkloric Show, put on by the Filipino crew members; we missed this one, but fortunately it was replayed on one of the ship’s TV channels.
On a few evenings, there were cabaret type shows in the Charleston Club, starting at about 2300. We did attend the Jazz show featuring Shani Reay, who is also the Social Hostess, with music by the Gennadi Orchestra.. This show was excellent.
Service: This is one facet of the cruise experience that can make this "The Cruise to Remember" either fondly, or poorly. We found the service first class. Arnold, our cabin steward, was the best that I can recall from any of our cruises. From the moment when he introduced himself, he asked about the proper pronunciation of our name, tried it a couple of times and never got it wrong the rest of the cruise. Every time we saw him it was always, "Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening Mr. And Mrs. Zegarski, how are you?", and he said it with an engaging smile. He didn’t make towel animals, but I’m sure he would have if we asked him to. Nothing was ever a problem for him; if we asked for something we got it immediately. He really gave the impression that he was there just to satisfy our needs, and enjoyed doing it. Our waiter, Nelson, and his assistant, Benjamin, did not quite meet the same standard. I cannot say that either was the best I’ve seen at their job; that does not imply that they were poor at their jobs, just not great. Nelson tried hard and usually got things right, and if he didn’t he readily admitted that he was at fault, apologized and fixed the error. With some additional seasoning, and a bit more polish, I think he will be an outstanding waiter. Benjamin did an excellent job and was probably further along his learning curve than Nelson is his. Benjamin immediately picked up each person’s preferences and got it right despite our group always sitting someplace different at the table each night. Our head waiter stopped by the table each night to make sure everything was going well. Even at open seating meals he would stop and ask us if everything was OK, always greeting us by name. One night he prepared Bananas Foster in the dining room and another night it was Crepe Suzette. That night as we were leaving the dining room, one of the last groups as usual, he was making another batch of Crepe Suzette. I jokingly said that we didn’t want any more, as good as they were; he replied that he was making them for his waiters and assistant waiters. I thought that was classy.
I mentioned the Martini Special each afternoon; our waitress, most of the time was a very pleasant individual named Fely. After the first couple of days, she pretty much knew what we going to order but would spend the time to discuss the various choices with us, and stop by to see how we were enjoying the different selections. At some of the other lounges, the service was not quite at that level, but always at least at an acceptable level, usually higher. I’ve already touched on the service in Raffles at breakfast and lunch buffets.
Starting in 2003, Orient lines went to a policy of including gratuities in the cost of the cruise. So, these crew members already knew what their tips would be, and they still performed their jobs with an enthusiasm that I have not seen on a cruise ship very often. The Marco Polo has found a way to get it right, and at least these two customers appreciate the effort. There is a popular belief among some cruisers that prepayment of gratuities leads to a lesser level of competent service, and after a cruise last year on the Norwegian Dream, I was willing to buy into the belief. The Marco Polo crew diminishes, if not destroys, that belief on my part. In answer to a question put forth to Cruise Director Jonathan Neal, crew members are allowed to accept additional gratuities if a passenger is so inclined. However, there was no suggestion that this was expected by the crew, or the cruise line.
Speaking of Cruise Director Jonathan Neal, at the Polo Club reception he told us that after this contract, he will be leaving Orient Lines and will be the Cruise Director on the Tahitian Princess. We were surprised that he would be openly discussing the fact that he would joining another cruise line. With the Crown Odyssey returning to NCL later this year, and Orient becoming a one ship cruise line again, there doesn’t leave much room for advancement.
Other members of the crew that deserve special mention are those of the Expedition Staff: Expedition Leader; Assistant Expedition Leader/Beach Master; Ice Master; Naturalists; Zodiac Drivers. Without their expertise and commitment to making this cruise all that we were looking for, it wouldn’t have happened.
Disembarkation: The Marco Polo uses the colored baggage tag method of assigning debarkation times. All passengers were asked to vacate their cabins by 0800, and wait in one of the public rooms; breakfast was served from 0600 to 0930. Independent passengers were free to leave anytime after the ship had been cleared by Argentine authorities. There were two travel groups that had early flights and they were the next called. Our package included a tour of a national park, before being transported to the airport for our charter flight to BA. Since we were scheduled on the first of the three charters to BA, we were off the ship early. We did not have to claim our luggage at the pier. After it was picked up at our rooms last night it was sorted and offloaded the ship directly onto trucks to go to the airport and be loaded on to our plane. We would have to claim it when we arrived in BA. The tour was nice, and the weather was wonderful. However the main purpose of the tour was to get us off the ship so the crew could prepare for the next passengers due that afternoon. Since the plane bringing those passengers to Ushuaia would be the same ones that would take us to BA, there were a few hours time to be filled. Orient could have just dropped us at the airport to wait but instead provided the tour. As it turned out, we had a fair wait at the airport any way. One of the reasons we usually book our own air transportation is that we know schedules for charter air flights are approximations, at best. The plane did arrive and we were officially on our way home. On the flight they served a repeat of the mystery lunch, at least they did not run out of red wine, and decent it was. We would have a few hours in BA to get something to eat.
When we arrived at BA, we had to claim our luggage; airport provided complimentary luggage carts. Why don’t U.S. airports do that? Since this was an intra-country flight we arrived at the Domestic Terminal and had to get to the International Terminal for our connecting flight. After collecting our luggage, an Orient Lines representative directed us to leave the terminal and turn right. As we did so, we saw another rep about thirty yards away; as we approached him, he directed us to the next person waiting to send us on to the next. All-in-all, I think there were about eight reps to make sure we got through security and to the ticket check-in area, without getting lost. On ship we had been advised of a new additional departure tax of $18.00 pp that would be collected in BA. The strange thing about this tax is that it had to be paid in U.S. dollars (no pesos, no credit cards). It makes one wonder why Argentine officials would collect an Argentine tax, but not accept the official currency of Argentina. Rather than ask the question, I just paid the tax. You need the receipt from paying this tax when you go through immigration. Financial Tip If you do a lot of shopping in Argentina and want to claim a refund of the IVA (their version of the VAT) at the airport, you need to do it after getting your boarding pass and paying the departure tax, but before you go through immigration. There is a small booth in the back corner of the hall where you go through immigration to do this. After immigration we found a comfortable place to grab a late lunch and relax for a while; also gave us an opportunity to use up the last of our pesos, except the two peso note we kept as a souvenir. When we arrived at our departure gate, we were informed that we could not enter until 45 minutes from that time, and once we entered the gate area we would not be able to leave again, and there are no rest room facilities inside the gate area. As it turned out, that wasn’t exactly correct. Once they started to allow passengers into the gate area, all carry on bags were hand searched and all passengers were "wanded" with portable metal detectors; some passengers were asked to remove their shoes so that they might be examined closer by the security personnel. Once in the gate area, passengers could leave, but had to repeat the security procedure upon return. The flight from BA to Washington DC was uneventful, but long. We had some concern about making our connection in DC, considering we had to claim luggage, clear immigration, go through customs and change terminals in 1 ½ hours. We made it with no problem. Short flight, DC to Boston, a limo ride and we were home again.
Final Thoughts and Recap: Without a doubt, this has been our most memorable cruise, and not just because it is our most recent. Orient Cruise Lines is topnotch, all the way; they provided timely and useful information from well before cruise date, and were extremely responsive to questions, throughout the process. The hotel they provided pre-cruise in Buenos Aires was one of the most luxurious I’ve ever had. They are true masters at moving people efficiently, without them (us) feeling rushed. Almost all the logistics were without a glitch. The one exception might be the charter flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, and even there, I think they are at the mercy of what is available. This was a minor aggravation at most, and more than compensated for by the rest of the experience. The ship, crew, service are outstanding, and we would not hesitate to sail this ship/line again. In fact we are exploring just what itinerary will meet our schedule and needs. Thank you for taking the time to share our experience.
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