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Copyright © 1995-2002 
Linda Coffman

Celebrity Cruises' MERCURY
South America
Christmas and New Year's 2001    

Christmas Holidays in South America
By Bruce Baldwin

This was our 30th cruise vacation. It was great! Our cruise took us from Valparaiso, Chile to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We flew to Santiago, Chile the day before the cruise, rented a car at the airport, and drove to Valparaiso where we would meet the ship. The charming old town of Valparaiso is built on the side of a mountain. We booked a hotel in the center of town; it offered free parking and free breakfast, a nice room with a window looking onto a cliff wall. We spent the early afternoon driving around the winding back roads of town and its sister city of Vina del Mar. ‘Vina’ as the natives call it is similar to Ft. Lauderdale in climate and appearance. Many Chileans and Europeans use Vina as a summer vacation locale.

The embarkation process was unusual. We took a taxi to the pier entrance.  We saw the ship at dockside just around the corner from the entrance. We boarded a bus but instead of going to the ship, we went in the other direction. Holy Cow, had we got on the wrong bus? The driver’s assistant told us that we were on our way to the Jockey Club in the next town [Vina] to check in. This seemed really unusual but only a few cruise ships begin or end cruises in Valparaiso each year; the pier is not set up for passenger processing. The old town of Valparaiso doesn’t have facilities for processing and transporting 1900 people in a short period of time so off we went to the Jockey Club. Tuxedoed, white gloved waiters served finger food and drinks in an elegant setting as we completed our check-in. We returned to the ship on the same bus; our luggage was off-loaded and we went aboard.

We were on the Mercury in 1998 when she was almost new. The Mercury has been well maintained during the past 3 years. The ship was sold out for this itinerary. There were 1946 passengers aboard; only 700+ were from the U.S. or Canada. There were over 600 Brazilians aboard. There were about 350 Mexicans. The remainder was from all over the world. There were 202 children aboard, most of them Latinos. Several of the passengers were nannies for these kids. The international composition of the passengers added some confusion and misunderstandings on the cruise. Surprisingly, the majority of these Latin passengers spoke some English when they wanted to. About 750 of the passengers were repeat passengers of Celebrity.

This cruise turned out to be especially memorable for us. The morning after boarding we happened to meet Ray Carr, the Cruise Director. He was the Cruise Director on Holland America ships during 3 of our cruises on that line. We knew Ray had moved to Celebrity and we were happy to meet up with him again. Ray shocked us when he told us that he remembered us and rattled off 2 of the cruises we had been on together. It was like meeting our nephew again. At the young age of 35, Ray has already visited 136 countries around the world. Ray has been one of our favorite cruise directors. We enjoyed talking with Ray and hearing of his unusual challenges with an international passenger mix. He has a multilingual staff so that everyone can understand what’s going on.

We always enjoy meeting cruise ship staff. They are a most interesting lot and come from all over the globe. For example, Sandra McLay, the Social Hostess on the Mercury is from Vancouver. She has served as Cruise Director on some of the Windjammer ships and enjoys a very different experience on this ‘mega-ship’ as well. At the end of her current contract she plans on leaving cruise ships to move to New Zealand for a few years. She has family in the TV production business in Canada and plans on filming in New Zealand with a friend. She would like to document the preparation for the 2002 World Cup. We also had an opportunity to visit with Captain Adamidis and his wife, Joyce Gleeson Adamidis. Joyce used to work on cruise ships. She shared some of her great experiences with us and in fact has written a book, Under the Captain’s Table: If I Were Not Upon the Sea. Joyce spends most of the year aboard with the Captain and their 5 year old son.

New Year’s Eve was pandemonium aboard the Mercury from about 7 pm [midnight in Great Britain] until almost dawn New Year’s Day [5:21 am]. The Latinos aboard certainly know how to celebrate. We had been invited to the Captain’s table at second seating so we went to the early show before supper. It was a cast show and we didn’t want to miss it. We sat close to the front so I could see the singers and dancers. One of the numbers featured ‘Marilyn Monroe’ [Madeleine Spratt]. She came into the audience and danced with me while she sang. Wow!!! What a New Year’s Eve beginning.

Then, among the guests sitting at the Captain’s table was Keeley Sims. She was traveling alone on this cruise. She is a former model [Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair], off-Broadway performer, and sports enthusiast. She was spending 3 days in Rio at the end of the cruise, booked at the same hotel where we spent a night. Hummm. It sure was fun talking with her. She has traveled a good part of the world while modeling and performing.

Service on the Mercury continues to be very good. The dining room staff was attentive, efficient, and friendly. The stateroom steward and assistant were always on the job but almost invisible. The ship was nicely decorated for the holiday season and Tracy Agar, the on board floral designer, kept all of the floral arrangements and plants always looking fresh. The youth coordinator did a fine job of keeping the ‘little devils’ occupied on the sea days.

Dining on the Mercury was very adequate. There were a nice variety of dishes at every meal, be it in the dining room or in the Palm Springs Café [buffet]. Dee Dee especially liked the luncheon variety of salads. I loved the many flavors of homemade ice cream. The quality of food has diminished somewhat since our last Celebrity cruises. Suppers were the traditional 2 sittings arrangement with formal, semi-formal, and casual nights. Most of the Latinos preferred the late seating; it was filled to over-capacity. Alternate dining was available in the La Playa Grill evenings but advance reservations were required. Fresh and flavorful pizza was offered daily from 3–6 pm and 10 pm–1 am. One could spend almost full time eating; food or snacks were almost constantly available daily until about 12:30 am when the midnight buffets closed. Then, of course, there was room service.

Internet connectivity is not available on the Mercury. There are about 15 terminals located in a couple of places but the network hardware and software still is not operative. Maybe someday.

We thought the Cast was especially good on this cruise. There were 4 shows with 4 vocalists and 8 dancers. The 2 female vocalists, Nova Hughes and Madeleine Spratt, had superb voices. The young dancers were some of the most energetic we’ve seen. All 4 shows were very enjoyable and the best we have seen on any of our cruises. There were also guest entertainers; a pair of comedians, a violinist, a pianist/magician, two vocalists, and a gaucho group. Some special programs and events were staged for the Latino guests so that they also could enjoy programs in their native languages. There was lots of other musical entertainment aboard too. The Latino crowd kept the Disco jumping until about 4 each morning.

The 14 days aboard the Mercury zipped by. It was a New Year before we knew it. Many thanks to Ray Carr and all of his staff for making this a most memorable and enjoyable cruise. We had great table companions at suppers and we met lots of other nice people from all over the world. We are booked on the Mercury again in May when we will take our kids and granddaughter to see Alaska.

The South American Ports

Puerto Montt was our first port, arriving on Christmas morning after a sea day to get rested from the journey to the ship. This city of about 100,000  is a relatively young South American city, first settled by Germans in the 1850s. The city is located on a bay and is noted for being the starting point to the southern lake district. The snow-capped volcano, Mt. Osorno, can be seen from the pier. The Norwegian Dream was at the pier when we arrived. We elected to enjoy this port on our own.

Right at the end of the pier we noted a local bus stop. We jumped aboard to see where the bus took us. Among the locals there were 8 other tourists aboard. Six were from the Norwegian Dream. We discovered that the bus would pass through town, up the hills through the residential district and then back to the front of the pier. Just think, a 1 ½ hour city tour for less than $1. Puerto Montt is a charming friendly town. Lots of the locals who boarded the bus were on their way to friends or kin with coolers filled with fixings for a Christmas feast. Children were treasuring their Christmas gifts and all were friendly to us ‘Gringos’.

When we returned to the pier we asked the pleasant driver [in Spanish] if he could take us to other interesting spots. We worked a deal for the 10 of us for just $40 to see the sights of the area in his deluxe [but rather ancient] little bus. What a hoot!! Edwin, the bus driver, shared lots of local lore with us. We went to Puerto Varas, known as the Chilean City of Roses. It is beside Lake Llanquihue, Chile’s largest lake, where lots of residents and some tourists were enjoying a swim in the frigid waters with the snow covered mountains in the background. We stopped for lunch at Ensenada. Seafood and fresh fish are the specialties. We all enjoyed our meals. Almost 5 hours later we arrived back at the pier with 10 new friends. Along the way we had picked up the concierge for the suites on the Dream and his associate. It was an unusual and most enjoyable day.

We headed south for two sea days on our way to our next port of Punto Arenas, Chile. The ship rocked through the waves but rolling was kept to a minimum by the huge stabilizers. Lots of activities were offered in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. We entered the Straight of Magellan on the second day and the seas calmed down. The fjords were picturesque but not as spectacular as the Norwegian fjords.

The main attraction in Punta Arenas for us was access to the Penguin Caves and the National Penguin Reserve. We hired a taxi, saw the city sights, and then traveled 50 miles through the sandy countryside to the Penguin Caves. The taxi waited for us as we walked the 2 mile circuit. There were penguins, penguins. They come to this location to nest and hatch their young. These are the little Magellan penguins with the white bellies and striped backs. They were not at all afraid of us so we watched them in and out of their nests. The day was partly sunny but the cold winds howled. It’s a wonder those little fellas weren’t blown over.

After Punta Arenas we headed for Ushuaya, Argentina. Some say this is the end of the world. Ushuaya is the capital of the Province of Tierra del Fuego [land of fire], Antarctica. When Magellan discovered this area, he saw fires at night from the shore. That is how the province got its name. The fires were lit each night to guide the Indian fishermen back to their homes. The town was best known for its prison from 1884 to 1947. We saw the prison that is now a museum. It is one of the most inhospitable places one could imagine. Some might have considered a sentence there worse than the death penalty.

The Mercury was the first cruise ship to dock in Ushuaya this season. The Royal Princess and the Norwegian Dream had both visited here in prior days but neither could get close enough to the pier to tie up. The port is shallow and narrow. The winds were too strong to enter safely. We were fortunate, however. The winds died down and we could enter and tie up. About midday the winds picked up again and the force of the wind against the ship caused it to pull loose 3 of the pilings holding us to the pier. The gangway slipped into the water and it was 45 minutes before the Captain could get the ship back alongside, tied up, and the gangway reset. Fortunately no one was injured.

The next morning we cruised around Cape Horn. Ray Carr invited us to see the Cape from the Bridge. It was a truly memorable experience. We could track our approach from the radar and GPS screens. Then we saw the big rock. There is a tiny weather station on the rock and we heard the Captain on the radio with its sole inhabitant. We were fortunate that the skies were mostly clear and the seas were only moderate for this part of the world. After circling the Cape we headed north into the Atlantic and back toward Argentina. The weather continued beautiful but cold considering this is the South American summer. Don’t forget to bring warm clothing when you travel to this part of the world.

New Year’s Eve was spent at sea. It was formal night with a special supper and entertainment for every nationality throughout the ship. There was free champagne for all at the stroke of midnight. The parties went on and on through the wee hours of the morning.

New Year’s Day found us at  Puerto Madryn, Argentina. This small town is noted for its commercial squid fishing, aluminum refining, and tourism. Madryn is in a bay with nice beaches. Nearby cliffs are home to sea lions, penguins, and lots of birds. We hired a taxi at the pier and visited the town [nothing, but nothing was open on New Year’s Day] and went out to Punta Loma and the national park to see the sea lions and cormorants. We returned to the pier just in time to board for the sail away party and another day at sea as we headed for Buenos Aires.

Our visit to Buenos Aires was in doubt for a while. The economic upheaval resulted in riots during the previous days. Celebrity personnel had Montevideo as a back up but tensions had lessened by the time we got to Buenos Aires so we visited as scheduled. We docked at 9 am and stayed until 9 pm. We took a city tour in a private car with another couple and had a fabulous time. We saw the Casa Rosada where Evita addressed her countrymen. We also visited the cemetery and saw her mausoleum. We drove by numerous government buildings that had been recently battered by rioters. We saw most of the foreign embassies including the U.S. Embassy and the Ambassador’s residence. Both were heavily guarded by National police as well as a substantial Marine contingent. Buenos Aires is a beautiful city with wide avenues and many parks. We passed by their great Zoo and some of the grand churches. There are lots of cultural and sports facilities. Most all of the people were friendly toward us Americans. Most are really scared about their economic futures. Our U.S. dollars were very welcomed. Lots of passengers elected to spend the evening ashore visiting one of the many tango taverns and enjoying some Argentinean beef but we returned to the ship before dark.

We finally arrived in Rio after two additional sea days. The ports were varied and interesting. There wasn’t a lot to see at some of the ports but we knew that when we selected this cruise. We enjoyed spending the Christmas holidays in South America but we think we will not travel on cruise ships during future holidays; too many port facilities are closed during the holidays; too many unruly kids travel during the holidays and I believe lots of the staff are homesick during that period. 

Nevertheless, the Celebrity Mercury cruise and the ports were great!

Photo Courtesy Celebrity Cruises