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Azamara Journey
South America/Antarctica-Round Trip Buenos Aires

by Patrick and Harriette Regan

Part Two

Our first stop after leaving Buenos Aires: Port Stanley, the capital of the Falklands. Rough seas and bad weather got us there late, then we waited for clearance and after the people who had purchased excursion tickets were tendered, we managed to get off around 3:30PM. The last tender back was changed to 7:15 PM making for a very short time in a unique place. The sun came out and we wandered around in short sleeves.

We checked with the visitors' center about seeing some penguins and were told about the penguin bus (the sign on the minibus says Penguin Travel) that stops right at the parking lot of the center. Ten dollars US per person for a round trip, 15 minute each way, van ride to Gypsy Cove, where we saw many penguins.

The penguins are in an area that is cordoned off, because there might still be some Argentine land mines from the 1982 war on the beautiful beach. (They thought the British might land troops there. Didn't happen.) The area was swept for mines after the war but the possibility remains that they were not all found, so the area is restricted by signs and fencing. A group of several hundred penguins were gathered, sunning themselves on the beach, others of them swimming around close to shore, and smaller groups were up in the scrubby dunes between the walking trail and the beach. They were cute and plentiful, and some of them walked up so close to the observation point where we were that we got some excellent photos of these dear little birds.

The other penguin excursions (from the ship) were very expensive (as much as $200 dollars) and required bone shaking rides of 60 to 90 minutes to see a different type of penguins. Some cruisers expressed the thought that those less accessible birds were indeed "better." This price disparity brought to mind the high priced Alaska excursions to glaciers versus taking the city bus in Juneau for a couple of bucks to the edge of Mendenhall Glacier. There are always options, even in a place as small as the Falklands, population around 3,000.

Our driver, Fiona, gave us a nice ride to the penguins and told us a bit about the Falklands. Children born here have the option at age 16 to leave for more secondary and university education, anywhere they wish, that is at least partly paid for by the Falklands government. Now that's a government truly in action. The kids do not even have to repay the kindness with a few years of social service, they have only to develop themselves as they wish and graduate! Across the harbor is a monument on the low hills with the names of the British protector ships that won the Falklands war, and even now there is always a British warship anchored in the harbor or patrolling the area.

We listened to expert Niki Sepsas relate the story of the harrowing adventure of the Shackelton expedition. The captain sailed us back and forth slowly past Elephant Island, giving everyone a chance to take a good look and get an excellent photo opportunity. It's starkly beautiful here, very much like Alaska. There are interestingly shaped icebergs floating near us as we get a close up view of the island. One of the icebergs has penguins sunning themselves with a few swimming and diving near the iceberg as the Journey passes by. This penguin sighting was announced by the captain as he brought the Journey as close as he safely could. Thank you, Captain Karlsson.

In the late afternoon after leaving Elephant Island we arrived in Iceberg Alley. There were Penguin colonies on some of the 'bergs. Some of the icebergs have interesting rectangular or pie shaped geometric shapes. We photographed the busy penguins lolling in the sun and cavorting in the water. Some were skittering down the last 6 feet of solid ice into the water, while there were always just as many other penguins trying incessantly to clamber back up.

We arrived in the Looking Glass lounge, at the bow of the ship on Deck 10, at around 3PM. We had believed the captain when he announced that the beauty of this part of the Antarctic Sound was such that we'll remember it for the rest of our lives.

We sat enthralled by the scenery, which was already revealing itself prior to our entering the strait, and we were rather amused--well, maybe half annoyed--at the music playing on the sound system. It was quite appropriate for the night club venue that this room becomes much later, but it seemed to add nothing at all to the spectacular vistas opening in front of us. It would have seemed more appropriate to have softer music to enhance the feelings of awe we were experiencing, rather than music which seems designed to elicit a nervous twitch.

Then, at 3:30PM, when we were entering the Strait, what did we find ourselves in the middle of but the start of a game called "The Battle of the Sexes Trivia"! Well named. Who, taking enjoyment from this game, would need or even appreciate this spectacular scenery as a backdrop while they were busy with their competition? Could this use of the Looking Glass lounge, with floor to ceiling windows, really take precedence over the enjoyment of the cruisers who were relaxing with each other while experiencing this once-in-a-lifetime sight, the raison d'être of the cruise?

This morning's adventures marked the end of our three days in Antarctica. We saw ruined huts of past scientific expeditions, and an abandoned station whose country needs its money for more immediately practical matters. This was a volcanic area, in which during times of eruption the sea actually boils. Today there was steam rising as we cruised past. Our last view before heading to open waters was a large colony of chinstrap penguins whose rookery was along the shoreline. The birds were too far away to see with our eyes but we got some pictures with our 18x zoom lens. It was fun watching smaller groups of them, up to a hundred or so, arcing through the water like small dolphins as they headed away from the ship, presumably back to the colony. Capt. Leif Karlsson said that the three-day cruise through Antarctica, his first time, is the highlight of his sailing career, and he hoped it was that for us as well. The ice pilot, Capt. Ulrich Demel, said that he suspected that the Capt. would be very happy once the ship had successfully passed through the narrow, rock lined exit, Neptune's Bellows. We saw Capt. Karlsson at the Cova coffee bar shortly after we got back out into open sea and he had a big, satisfied grin on his face. We mentioned to him later that he looked like he had won the lottery and he said that's about how he felt getting back to open sea.

is breathtaking. We rounded Cape Horn in the late afternoon, and by doing so we each officially became a "Cape Horner" complete with a certificate signed by Capt. Karlsson.

is known by the locals as "fin del mundo," the end of the world. A lovely town surrounded by snow capped peaks and close to Pargue Nacional Tierra del Fuego (156,000 acres) with its bays, lakes, rivers and high mountain peaks. There is abundant bird life there. The parque is 11 miles west of Ushuaia. Cab drivers are waiting at the end of the pier and will take you to the parque at a very fair price.

This is a busy commercial port, dangerous (large forklifts moving containers being set down by cranes. Trucks moving supplies for the various ships, etc.), for cruise passengers to walk through, even worse for the physically challenged passenger, and with a strong smell of diesel fuel.

The walk to the end of the pier here from the ship is about a kilometer. When we berthed on other cruises at Mazatlan, or Puerto Limon, etc. in the commercial port area, we were shuttled through the working area in jitneys, mini vans, etc., to keep us safe from the vehicles working on the pier at the various berths we had to pass to get to the shore.

We had to be very careful walking here, because the port crews, truck drivers and giant forklift drivers are not very mindful of pedestrians. There were no Azamara crew members directing the path to take and no pathway painted or cordoned off. Cruisers had to keep their eyes open and walk sometimes on both sides of the pier depending on the irregular vehicle movement. Poor planning on the part of Azamara Cruise lines! Not premium in any way. It's not just a comfort issue but a serious safety issue.

We spoke to the Hotel Director, Niyazi Korkmaz, and he said there was nothing he could do; it was up to the "authorities." We believe that it is the Hotel Director's and corporate Azamara's job to deal with the authorities by working with the local chamber of commerce and Government Tourist Agency to obtain the proper permits for the pier and find drivers who have a pier security clearances to drive rented mini vans or similar vehicles. Since the ship can bring transportation vehicles to the ships' gangway to send passengers off on excursions, then they can shuttle passengers through this dangerous working port.

We had a nice lunch at Tia Elvira; cannelloni and spaghetti for two, with soft drinks and tip for only $20.00 US, well below the tourist prices found at some of the local bistros. We found a nearby internet cafe one block north of the pier on Ave. San Martin and checked our email, etc. If you walk a couple of blocks, there are excellent bargains and souvenirs to be had. We even found a new halter for our broodmare, Ruby of the Amazon, including a lead shank for $21.00 US. at El Faro, a large shop of much variety, a block from the pier. There is a lot of horse equipment for sale here in Argentina. You never know what you will find to buy on a cruise vacation. We love this kind of surprise.

We visited a few shops along the pier on our way back to the ship. At Huellas del Sur, Harriette got a beautiful pashima scarf to round out her cruise wardrobe, for 96 pesos at 3.20 pesos to the US dollar (about $32 US). It is woven in pinks going on purple with some electric blue in there, and the weave makes it reminiscent of the tweed of a Chanel jacket. Everything in the shop was of high quality, most of it silk or wool. The ambience here reminds us of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Here again our access from the ship to the foot of the pier and the town has been lacking in ground transportation or a safely marked pathway.

Today, on the way from the Journey to the town of Punta Arenas, there was another problem: WIND. El viento. The wind really, really blows at this port, all day long. The walk itself was doable for us, the pier being shorter than that at Ushuaia, but had I lifted both my feet at the same time I might have been swept along with none of the effort of walking at all. Add the salt spray stinging us, and we allowed ourselves to be blown back to the comfort of the ship; after a time the wind died down a little and we made it all the way.

I'm glad we did; we both enjoy empanadas, which are this culture's version of a pot pie crossed with a taco: flaky pastry encloses beef or chicken, with olives and hardboiled egg in this case. We found these at "Happy Hours" cafeteria, along with really delicious strong coffee and a Coke with the original zing, from a glass bottle. Ten dollars US, including the tip.

The cab driver, for a five dollar US flat rate fare, took us to a corner downtown, where there is a square block of tree-shaded park in the center of town. There are many craft vendors set up with prices much lower than the many stores that stock crafts and souvenirs. We acquired 3 small penguins including one in a snow globe for eight dollars US total. This town seems similar to Mazatlan, Mexico.

A lovely place. Nice new pier with no bustling commercial activity. At this port, a shuttle bus and a guide named Teresa who rode the bus with us, gave us much info about the town as we rode to the end of the pier. When we returned she queried us about where we ate and what we shopped for, and how did we like it all. Puerto Madryn is going all out to welcome cruisers. The pier is next to a park overlooking a very broad beach with the business district across the street. We went to the Telecom internet cafe, 3 blocks from the pier, and then to the supermercado, 2 blocks from the pier, to stock up on a few toiletries. We took pictures of some majestically artistic graffiti pieces that were up on some old dilapidated buildings that sit ready for redevelopment next to new properties under construction, and then we strolled back to the pier. This place reminded us of Cabo San Lucas, the old town, in look and ambience.

PUNTA DEL ESTE, URUGUAY (aka Punta del Expensivo)
Upscale pricewise, ala the French Riviera, Beverly Hills etc. The locals tout it as the St. Tropez of South America. A lovely harbor/marina. We tendered in past rows of large yachts docked in the marina. Warm and pretty. Bikinis and shorts were the uniforms of the day along the pedestrian promenade skirting the marina. We walked 3 blocks to the left of the pier and one block up and had a delicious, fresh made, expensive pasta lunch at El Viejo Marino for about $52.00 US, including soft drinks and the tip. Shrimp and spaghetti with a thin red sauce of fresh tomatoes and gentle seasonings. Sublime! We also tried the spinach and ricotta ravioli in a not too heavy cream sauce.

A truly lovely city, very friendly to the cruiser. This is an example of an industrial port that also accommodates us slow walking cruisers in comfortable safety. No shuttle was necessary. There was a clearly defined, green painted walkway edged with a white border and pictographs indicating access for pedestrians and handicapped persons. This green path led us safely to the main (and nearby) tourist center, so that we could not wander into the large trucks which were carrying in loads of logs, etc. On the pier and at street crossings there were uniformed traffic control personnel who politely waved us through when it was safe.

Maybe a hundred meters from the ship was the "Communications Center," a phone and internet center right here inside the port, where we were able to quickly check our email. There were telephones as well, and postal services. The price was a fraction of the cost of using the internet on the ship, and the connection here was at a high speed. We brought our laptop and plugged in. There were also computer stations for rent.

Another short walk through the main gate of the port and you cross the main street and walk a block and you have arrived at the port market, "Mercado del Puerto." There we had lunch (pasta again) at La Marosqueria, and it was delicious and about half the price ($26.00 US) of our lunch yesterday in Punta del Este. There were numerous restaurants, some with very low prices indeed; a grilled sausage sandwich on a fresh baked roll with fries for around for $3.00 US. There was a variety of delicious smelling meats, fish and chicken being grilled, empanada stands and pizza. The place was filled with locals on their lunch hour, always a good sign.

There are shops with beautiful locally made goods of leather, knit garments of wool; silver jewelry with inset gemstones was plentiful also. We did not come across the numerous cheap trinkets for sale at so many cruise stops.

Walking outside the Mercado on neighboring streets, we passed many colorful fruit stands. This neighborhood was very photogenic, in fact. Many buildings are in semi-ruin awaiting renovations. There are architects' signs on buildings in renovation and you can see the gentrification starting to happen. The textures, rusted iron scrollwork, ornate doors and window trimmings, and wildflowers (some might say weeds) that will bloom no matter what made for great photographic backgrounds as well as subjects to feature.

In Montevideo we found the shopkeepers to be friendly and helpful. They were quoting an exchange rate of 20 pesos to the US dollar on this day. The port security troops are courteous and helpful. Our limited Spanish and their limited English was a good enough match. We want to return to Uruguay for a longer vacation.

BUENOS AIRES, the return.
We rode from the Azamara to the Emperador Hotel in downtown Buenos Aires in a minivan, and by happy coincidence, we had the same driver who had taxied us from the airport to the ship 18 days ago: Carlos. At first the ride seemed a bit harrowing; the method to progress from one street to another or from one lane to another, etc., is to nudge your vehicle's way in front of whatever conveyance could possibly give way. There were countless near-misses, and even a pedestrian who did not seem to notice that our van began moving forward before he had cleared it! BUT: there were no raised voices; no obscene gestures. No horn honking at all! It was very peaceful chaos!

Seeing the uncomfortable conditions in the holding area Azamara had reserved for our wait, we tried to book a room for the day but there were none available. A knowledgeable staffer confided that they were overbooked. There were a lot of cruise ships at the port; Insignia, Sinfornia, Rotterdam, and the old Zenith, re-branded as Island Cruises. One could relax at a table in this secure, sterile waiting room or wander. We wandered upstairs and had a nice lunch in a light filled room with big windows overlooking a courtyard and garden with ivy covered walls. Birds, fountain, shaded sitting areas; a pretty place. You may purchase wi-fi for the day on the hotel network from the bartender.

Azamara proclaims the following at the bottom of the e-mails I exchanged with the Customer Relations Department: "Smaller ships. Out-of-the-ordinary destinations. Unmatched amenities - this is Azamara."

Well, we loved the small ship. The food was really good, south South America and Antarctica were majestic, but the unmatched amenities were not evident in many ways.

The first of these things was the cabin. Although the space would have permitted ample, easy storage, there was very little, and it wasn't very usable. It was impossible for one cabin mate to stay up reading while the other slept, which could be corrected by installing a retractable drape between the bed and a lighted reading area with adjustable wall lamps above the couch. A very easy thing to do. Celebrity 'M' class ships and HAL's 'Vista' class both excel in "cabin ergonomics," making a comfortable nest for the duration of the cruise.

The lack of shuttle service on two of the piers we stopped at was quite unsafe. Why was it not possible for the Azamara head office to align with local business associations for the benefit of both Azamara's passengers and the port town? This planning was not premium.

The airline travel booked by the cruise line had us coming off the ship after 18 days of relaxing and cruising into a long, long wait for the plane for Miami that leaves at 11:15PM. We expect to leave the ship and a few hours later board a flight home.

We tried to avoid this 13 1/4 hour wait lasting from leaving the ship at 10:00 AM to our flight, departing at 11:15 PM. We obtained permission pre-cruise to leave the ship a day earlier, on our first of 2 days in Buenos Aires, so we could spend the day relaxing on the ship, and after an early dinner, proceed to the airport, arriving there 2 1/2 to 3 hours before our flight. Miami based Azamara Customer Relations warned us that we could be required to clear immigration and customs as early as 9:30 AM that morning, and be required to then leave the ship, and be faced with the same long delay, in a strange city, with our carry-ons in tow, without a secure hotel holding area.

So, we chose not to leave the ship a day early. As it turned out, passengers who had elected to do so were allowed to stay aboard the Azamara Journey until 5:30 PM. No more cruise line booked air for us. We tried to change our flight on our first day back in Buenos Aires but by then the price for the change was triple what we had been offered pre-cruise. To come off an 18-day cruise with that wonderful relaxed feeling, and to spend a long, long day and into the night, 13 ¼ hours waiting for the nearly nine hour red-eye flight, dashed our cruisey feelings and left us thinking that Azamara is not the premium cruise line they have branded themselves as.

When we cruise again we are returning to HAL, Princess, or Celebrity M class. We want more bang for our buck. We're glad we saw Antarctica on a small ship but we are going back to more "popular priced" cruising. When we complete a cruise we usually have the next one already booked, but we are waiting and watching the internet for the exceptional cruise values that have recently been available. We have never seen so many last minute cruise bargains or received so many e-mails from the cruise lines we sail. It's a cruise buyer's market now if your schedule is flexible.

Happy cruising!

Back to --> Azamara Journey, Part One

Story & Photos Copyright © 2008 by Patrick & Harriette Regan

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