Buenos Aires to Valparaiso
December 11, 2003
By Bob Benton
Ever since our first sailing on the Silver Cloud, not long after the beginning of Silversea Cruises, and most impressed by the excellent service and caring touches the line extended to its passengers, we have been trying to return for another cruise. It's taken longer than we expected.
We chose New Zealand for a cruise in December of 2001, and September 11th happened, so the cruise was cancelled. We tried again the next year, but the Silver Wind was pulled from service and the Cloud, our ship of choice for that trip, replaced the Wind in Europe on her itineraries. Finally, we selected this trip, now on the newly-renovated and upgraded Wind and, passage documents firmly in hand, set out from Chicago on a foggy and rainy afternoon for Miami and a solidly booked flight to Buenos Aires. It was summer in the city, quite different from the winter we'd left in Chicago and we did our sightseeing in short sleeves and summer clothes. The city had come on hard times, but it was a bonanza for foreign visitors as prices of leather, always a great purchase, and wonderful meals including the always excellent Argentine beef. On the day after arrival, we headed for the dock area to board our ship, which had arrived the previous day to offer an overnight stay to those on the preceding cruise (from Rio) and a chance to see this marvelous city.
Boarding on Silversea is always an easy and stress-free experience. Here we had to pass a brief identification and then go through Argentine immigration and customs (on this sailing we were leaving the country for our first port of Montevideo, Uruguay. We'd be back and forth between different countries often, but that's something we'll talk about later.) and inspection, then board a bus for the ride past the working cargo area to pierside. Once at the ship, however, it was typical of the relaxed boarding process. We walked up the gangplank and were welcomed and directed to registration. At the table, with no waiting, we handed in our passage document and smiled as the hostesses snapped a digital photo of each of us. The next stop, virtually seconds later, produced a laminated boarding pass with our photo and a magnetic strip, to be swiped every time we left or boarded the ship so that the boarding officer could not only count us in but could see an image on the screen so that we matched the photo on the card, not only verifying our identities but counting us so that the staff could tell just who was missing at sailing times. This was put into a soft leather key case with our room key card and we were aboard, in not more than two minutes at most and had our welcome glass of champagne in hand.
We declined the escort to our suite (accommodations on all Silversea
ships are all-suite) since we were familiar with the layout, and there found our lovely room and our cabin stewardess ready to explain exactly what we had available to us and how things worked. She also took our request for extra hangers and an extra pillow and towel. Adrianna was a veteran of two other lines, but told us
Silversea was the best because of the passengers and the itineraries. We found that high praise indeed, and it underscored our own ratings of the line. Silversea had stocked the cabinet and refrigerator precisely as we'd requested on the passenger request forms received a month prior, and the welcome champagne, the ship's chosen brand, was chilled in the ice bucket. Over three-quarters of the suites have verandahs, as did ours, and we had requested the starboard side to be along the coast where it was visible on our itinerary.
We were anxious to see just how the renovation had turned out (and the Cloud was now in drydock undergoing the same process) so once we were unpacked, we set out for our regular tour before the boat drill and departure. Starting from the top, we found a new gym and fitness center, with a wonderful assortment of machines, on Deck Nine, where the woefully underutilized observation deck lounge had been in the past. On Deck Eight, a Champagne and Cigar Room had replaced the library, now relocated, to
add the attraction the newer and slightly larger Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper had brought to the line upon their debuts. The Panorama Lounge was as warm and inviting as we'd remembered it with the comfortable deep chairs, piano, and bar. On Deck Seven, the Terrace Cafe was also as we remembered it, but a new dimension had been added wherein "theme dinners" were served as an alternative venue for almost every night of the trip. These, which we'll cover later, were listed on our first issue of "Chronicles," the ship's daily paper, and included, among others, Italian, French, Asian, Indian, Treasures of the Sea, and interestingly enough, Chef's Choice.
A Relaxation Area had been placed on the starboard side opposite the port side's Beauty Salon (and Mandara Spa) where the gym and fitness center had once been located. One deck below, the lobby, with reception and tour desks, as well as a desk for the on-board travel consultant, remained constant from the initial design. A card room and conference room (with movable partition) served for all types of occasions, including on our cruise, Christmas and Chanukah services, each conducted by a member of the respective clergies aboard for the holidays. At the aft section was the Parisian Show Lounge, also a multi-usage facility, for movies,
entertainment, port lectures, and enrichment lectures and discussions. On Deck Five was the small casino, the
Bvlgari boutique with some lovely and exclusive jewelry, watches and accessories, and across the hall, the ship's boutique with branded and general apparel as well as more popularly priced watches and jewelry and a selection of sundries. Finally, The Bar, always a friendly and hospitable place to spend pre- or post-dinner times, usually with a piano or small combo and dancing, welcomed passenger warmly.
At the lowest passenger deck, the focal point of most days at sea, The Restaurant, beckoned to us. We immediately noticed an addition since our last visit on board, however, with La Saletta, a new premium dining room, dressed formally in draped chairs, a spectacular display of crystal, cutlery and napery sparkling at each table and a menu at the door. Here, a noted chef and restaurant owner from Spain had worked out menus which were displayed for two days each for any passengers who might choose this deluxe option. The area, we recalled, was merely an alcove used for larger groups in its previous iteration and looked perfect here. There were six courses shown on each menu with only the choice of meat or fish for the main entree, and the headwaiter told us that there were at least two more, termed in French amuse bouches, or "surprises to the mouth," which the chef added each night. It was available, with reservations, to any passenger and there was only one condition. Any wine ordered at the dinner were required to come from their list of non-included wines (on Silversea, there is a selection of complimentary wines and spirits available at each meal). Passengers could choose not to have wine with their meal and no charges would be added, but if wines were selected, that proviso was necessary. The wines suggested on the menu, and those on the list, however, spanned a wide
price range, but many of the wines carried very reasonable prices and were quite lovely. A very nice California red, for example, was only $28.00, very well priced and quite pleasant. We dined there twice on the cruise and found it an excellent experience. The Restaurant was every bit as lovely as we remembered, and we looked forward to our experience.
Two suites were removed to add the Library and the new Internet Point, the location for terminals where passengers could connect with the Internet or use the ship's E-mail service to keep in contact with those at home. Both of these services are at modest cost and a swipe of your boarding card and password provides the contact. With the exception of periods during two days, Internet service worked well during the cruise The other feature on this deck, quite far forward, was the free launderette, of which I made good use during the trip.
Boat drill was held about a half hour before sailing, and for the first time that I could remember, passengers assembled in the Panorama Lounge when the alarms were sounded. Our safety officer explained that, with a passenger complement of only about half of capacity, they thought (and we agreed) that being inside on a hot day and being able to use the audio equipment, it was much more comfortable to undertake the lecture portion than to stand out on the deck. After the explanations, we were taken to our respective lifeboats and the remainder of the drill was concluded, in time for us to replace our life jackets and watch the ship's sailing.
We found our entertainment on this trip to be excellent. Unlike the mega-ships currently in service, the smaller ships (and I include other lines in that category as well) emphasize individual artists rather than "production reviews" to interest and amuse their passengers, and Silver Wind on this trip was no exception. From Colin Brown, our peripatetic cruise director, who was also an accomplished concert pianist, to Shirley Dettmar, our talented Australian assistant cruise director, who not only was gifted with a beautiful soprano voice and extensive musical experience, but was also educated as an accountant, the ship's cruise department was extremely able. To these staff people were added Operatif, two singers from Australia, a mezzo and a soprano, and a baritone and a pianist, both from England, who sang often at shows and at dinners. Add to this Byron Nease, a veteran of Broadway musicals, Key Breeze, a young married flutist and pianist duo, Des and Cherry King, a British magician and his assistant, who is also his wife, and the ship's musicians, a four piece combo and another pianist and you have the makings of a number of wonderful combinations for each evening.
The cruise offered yet another rarity, especially in today's environment, repeated three times on our seventeen day trip, dinner dances in The Restaurant where tables framed the wood dance floor and pauses were made between the courses for the type of music which allowed actual "touch dancing," or what most of us grew up with, most delightful.
From Buenos Aires it was a relatively short sail up the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo, Uruguay, our first port. The line offers as wide a variety of shore tours as the port and surrounding area may allow, and in addition, the tour department and the ship's concierge will assist in booking individual cars and drivers for any type and/or length of tour that a passenger might prefer. Tours do bring a cost, but it has been our experience that the better lines will be more discerning about the quality of the tours they offer. If, as in the case of some of the smaller ports, there are caveats as to the quality of the vehicles, guides, roads or other concerns, the port lectures given by the director of the tour department will spell all of them out in detail, as well as the hazard or difficulties of each tour such as walking or physical demands so that passengers can make an informed decision about what they choose to purchase.
We were on a separate tour in Montevideo, but found the area of great interest. Uruguay, wedged between Argentina and Brazil, has carved our a unique niche, and has been an island of stability amongst the often-explosive politics of the area. Government change in the country is carried out solely by petition; enough signatures will bring about the requested change without party confrontations, arms or chaos. We toured the city and beautiful shore line and finished at a winery where we watched the methode champagnoise by which good champagnes are fermented in the bottle, then had lunch and a show of Uruguayan dance and music. It was a lovely and entertaining day.
The next day was one to relax at sea, one of many to come, and we took full advantage of it to rest up for the formal night to come. While still quite warm, we knew that deck time would be reduced as we traveled south toward Cape Horn, so we took the time to enjoy the sunshine and walked the deck in only a light windbreaker. The following day brought Puerto Madryn, back into Argentina and with the customary customs clearances taken care of by ship staff.
Here we chose a ship's tour to Punta Tombo, a penguin reserve housing nearly 500,00 Magellan penguins who had just returned to lay eggs and raise their chicks during the warm summer weather. People have been visiting this reserve long enough for the penguins to acclimate to them, so the opportunities for interplay among the species were excellent. We thoroughly enjoyed the little guys and we hope they had the same experience. The chicks were just starting to lose their gray fluff and nearly ready to be taken to the sea for their initial swims. To and from the reserve we learned of the people from Wales who came here to settle the place and how these nearby villages retained many of their Welsh names and customs so far from their native country.
Two more sea days followed before our next stop at Punta Arenas, now in Chile. This was an overnight stop to allow those who chose a two day excursion to Torre del Paines National Park, and also provided an option for a flight to the Chilean Antarctic Research Base where passengers could disembark the plane and walk the area for about two hours before returning to Punta Arenas airport. Those who made the trip reported that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We had a separate group trip which provided a tour of this wind-swept but geographically fascinating place and then traveled to an estancia, a Chilean sheep and cattle ranch, this one located on an island across a small channel. Our bus traveled on a small ferry and while at the estancia, we saw eight of the magnificent Chilean condors soaring overhead. We also watched sheep being herded by vasos, the Chilean shepherds on their horses and the talented dogs they train to assist them, as well as a sheep shearing and an excellent broiled lamb lunch cooked at an open pit and accompanied with the ever-present Pisco Sour, the national drink, and Chilean wines.
The second day I chose a ship's tour which highlighted Chilean rodeo, their national sport, which tests horsemanship and horse-rider coordination in moving cattle and stopping them with only the pressure of two horses on the steer. Chilean horses are most valued in this country and were raised from breeding between Spanish and native stock.
The subsequent sailing took us to that most fabled point, Cape Horn, where we were to round the cape heading for Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world and gateway to Antarctica. Cape Horn is the graveyard of hundreds of older ships which foundered among the rocks in the treacherous waters roiled by the winds and storms, and many a cruise ship aborts this portion to take shelter among the channels nearby. Captain Palmieri was very concerned during the trip south as to whether he could make the trip and checked the forecasts and reported to us often. The weather gods were smiling, however, as we reached the Cape in the evening of a calm day in smooth seas. Anchored off the Cape, he sent a rubber boat to the station there with all of our passports to receive a special Cape Horn stamp, and as the boat returned, a magnificent sunset appeared, setting the clouds aflame behind the unmistakable silhouette of the cape and its lighthouse and sculpture. We could not have asked for more.
Pausing once more during the night to again clear customs, we docked the next morning at Ushuaia. At the pier and off shore we saw the expedition ships that take passengers to and around the Antarctic as well as the fishing and cargo ships that ply the South American coast. Since we'd been here on an earlier trip, we choose to take a wider area tour, but since we were the only ones who had booked, the trip was cancelled and we opted instead to revisit the town and do some shopping. It is a surprisingly cosmopolitan place, due no doubt to the array of ships that visit from December to March. The weather on our morning was quite tolerable, gray but with very occasional light rain and light winds. By afternoon when those on the tour returned we were safely back on board, the winds and the rain became quite a bit more insistent and we were glad to be in and warm.
Two more sea days started us north to Laguna San Rafael in the Nacional Parc de la Glacieres where even our ship, as small as it was, had to transfer passengers to a catamaran to visit the face of the glacier. It took two trips to give all of our passengers a view of this spectacular sight, and the surrounding waters were full of cobalt blue icebergs which had calved from the glacier and were en route to the open sea. On the way in, our ship had put out a boat and harvested a small chunk which was brought aboard to flavor our afternoon and evening drinks with thousand year old ice, amazingly dense, which never seemed to melt. The numbers on the rock walls were testimony to the glacier's recession in this age of global warming. As the ship moved into its anchorage and then left it, we felt very much like Glacier Bay in Alaska in terms of the scenery.
The next day we were in Puerto Chacabuco, a very small town in Chile, and the tour director had spent a long period of time giving us all of the cautions, which included guides who were enthusiastic but not very polished students and buses which had a good amount of age on them. We weren't put off by the warnings and found it perhaps one of the best of the trip. The area was that of an alpine meadow, with beautiful flowers and impressive waterfalls. At the farthest part of the road, we found the "county seat" for this region, and there was a very busy Christmas craft market which got a good bit of our attention. A roadside stop at a restaurant on the way back provided some of the tastiest snacks we'd had, including some wonderful delicate empanadas.
Puerto Montt followed, a larger town and about midway on our trip north, where we chose a trip combining a catamaran ride on Lake Todo Los Santos (and one which leads Chileans via land and water to the resort of San Carlos de Barilloche in Argentina), lunch after the catamaran at a beautiful and rustic Alpine style hotel and a stop at the falls of the Petrohue River, spectacular cataracts flowing from mountain snowmelt and finally some leisure time, unfortunately in the midst of a very intense rain, at Puerto Varas, a resort town on Lake Llanquihue, Chile's largest lake.
Winery & Valley*
Finally, after our last sea day, we arrived at Valparaiso, the largest port in Chile and serving Santiago, where we would have an overnight stay before our final disembarking on Sunday, December 28th. Here we chose an all-day tour encompassing a short view of the city and then a drive via the incredibly fast and modern toll highway to a Chilean winery, located in a sparkling building high up on a foothill overlooking the grape-growing valley where ocean breezes at night helped to irrigate the white grapes for Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. After a tasting, we went on to a restaurant and rodeo ground where we again viewed the magnificent Chilean horses at their national sport and had the opportunity to learn about, inspect and even to ride these wonderful animals. We concluded the day with a trip to the resort of Vina Del Mar, where the moneyed of Santiago have their summer homes, and the Fonck Museum, home of the most impressive historical exhibits of the area and then a view of the harbor from the impressive hills of Valparaiso.
Disembarkation the next morning was quick and relatively easy, with only the bus ride to the terminal to slow the process, and that was made necessary by the need to traverse the extraordinarily busy and dangerous cargo piers during loading and unloading of freighters at dockside.
While the remoteness of the area does not allow for large cities or ports, those that were featured
offer unique, though limited, opportunities for a variety of scenery and local flora and fauna. It is not an itinerary for those whose passion might be power shopping with the exception of the two origin and destination points, and as the ship makes the turn around the bottom of this continent, it is also not conducive to Caribbean or Mediterranean sunning and swimming. Nonetheless, it does provide for a once-in-a-lifetime voyage and should be considered on that basis.
Silversea has always been known for their degree and level of services, and we were pleased to see that things hadn't declined significantly over the years. Over the duration of the cruise, passengers became known by name (as well as their preferences) by most, if not all of the on-board staff. The finest of cigars, wines, brandies, champagnes and caviars are still available, but now come on a list and
incur extra charges. Those offered complimentary on the ship, however, are more than adequate to
all but the most discriminating palates and for those, the lists can bring them at only a beckon, exactly what they prefer. Your wish is their command, as to brands of liquors and choices of meals, should they not appear on the menu.
Dining is available in five different venues, The Restaurant, The Terrace Cafe, The Pool Grille (lunches when weather permits), La Saletta, and by room service en suite served course by course. We found the food wonderful, and portions moderate, but with each plate beautifully presented and decorated. At the four dinners in the Terrace Cafe, which also featured a set menu, we were also quite pleased with the selections. The Chef's Choice required some faith in what might come along, but after so many days of seeing his craft, we were fully ready to put our trust in him and never had a regret.
We enjoyed two wine-tastings on board and the master
sommelier extremely personable and cooperative. We also had a presentation on wine and food pairing which featured a demonstration on how to cook the two dishes by the executive chef. The enrichment lectures, given by a retired professor on the history of the countries and the area, received high marks from the passengers.
Silversea is, at first blush, among the priciest of cruise lines, but before dismissing it from consideration, one must look carefully at the costs incurred on the cruise. If, for example, you regularly arrive a day ahead at the origin port, a very wise alternative in periods of inclement weather or air cancellations or delays, the overnight stay is already included in their air-sea program as well as airport to hotel and hotel to ship transfers. All gratuities and drinks are also included, so there are no late surprises to pay for (other than those customary charges such as photos, boutique merchandise, ship's dry cleaning and laundry services and spa and beauty shop services). From experience, finding charges for that late evening
cappuccino or espresso can often be somewhat galling and the ability merely to order and enjoy provides a lovely peace of mind. So compare carefully and very often the two totals can be very close indeed. Add to that the incomparable service and the pleasure of a Silversea cruise can become a great and indelible memory.
Bob Benton is the
Associate Publisher of Travel Today, a supplement to
Chicago Sun-Times and New York Newsday
© 2004 Bob Benton
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