We look at the ports of call of this particular cruise: Buenos Aires (Argentina), Montevideo (Uruguay), Stanley (Falklands), Punta Arenas (Chile), Ushuaia (Argentina), Puerto Montt (Chile), and Valparaiso (Chile). We also look at some of the scenic cruising in waterways like the Straits of Magellan, The Beagle Channel with Glacier Alley, the Fjords of Chile as well as sailing around Cape Horn.
We saw tango, penguins, glaciers, volcanoes, beaches, street art, cemeteries, buskers, barbecue, wine, and llamas. This cruise provides some of the scenic beauty of an Alaskan cruise but with added bonus of the flavor of South America.
We also look at what there is to do on a cruise ship during a day at sea and talk about some things you should know about cruising on the Zaandam or any cruise ship. Come with us as we follow in the path of explorers.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guides – One of my favorite guidebook series
Review – Hotel Vitrum – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Falklands Islands Photos
Holland America Zaandam Photos
Guitarist Michale Liebler
Amateur traveler episode 460. Today the amateur traveler talks about glaciers and fjords and also tango as we talk about a cruise from Buenos Aries, Argentina to Santiago, Chile around Cape Horn.
This episode of Amateur Traveler is sponsored by DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. These colorful guidebooks are filled with great information and are one of my favorite guidebooks. I have 25 of them right here on my bookshelf. Learn more at DK.com.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host Chris Christensen. No interview today, but instead we’ll be talking about this cruise that I just got back from which was on Holland America and full and fair disclosure, Holland America did pay for my cruise as well as the flights down there but not for that of my wife as well as for our two traveling companions Kevin and Susan who we have often traveled with who came with us.
I want to break down this episode into three parts. One we’re going to talk about some of the advantages of cruising and then two, we’re going to talk about some of the destinations specifically that we went to and the things that we did. And then three, we’re going to talk about the ship and the cruise experience especially this particular cruise. Because we haven’t talked about cruises for a while on Amateur Traveler. And I know some of you are huge cruise fans and some of you probably couldn’t be caught dead on a cruise ship.
Advantages of Cruising
I think there are three main reasons why people cruise and this cruise exemplified some of that. One is the advantage of going someplace, unpacking once, and not having to re-pack and move hotel rooms and the general convenience and ease of cruising. It is certainly an easy way to travel. And two, is that class of service to which I’d like to become accustomed. And we’ll talk more about that later on. And some of the particular service on this cruise.
And three, this cruise is one of those cruises that there isn’t an alternative if you want to see these sites. If you want to go around Cape Horn, if you want to see some of the fjords of Chile, or you want to see the glaciers of Glacier Alley and the straits of Magellan that is a boat experience. That is something you have to get on a boat and see. And to see some of these, really a cruise ship is your option, similar to going up the inland passage on the way to Alaska. That there isn’t a car or bus experience that’s going to be equivalent.
Buenos Aries, Argentina
This cruise has all three of those elements. As I mentioned, we started in Buenos Aries, Argentina. We actually flew in three days early to see Buenos Aries because we had never been– Actually I’ve never been down to South America until this. We’ve talked about Buenos Aries in detail on this show before as well as the other destinations: Uruguay, the Falklands, and Chile. So I’m not going to get into quite the same detail, but I did want to mention a few things that we did on those three days ahead of time because I would recommend especially if you’ve never been to Buenos Aries, coming in early.
We stayed up in the Palermo and we had a hotel that was provided for us by Buenos Aries Tourism. A very nice boutique hotel and there’s a review of the Hotel Vitrum on the website. We ate beef at a local restaurant just the way you’re supposed to. It was one of our cheapest and best meals of the vacation and that’s mentioned in the hotel review on the website.
The two things, though, that stand out for me with Buenos Aries is I think about our experiences there. One is I think of the music. I think of both Theater Colon that we went to which is the national opera house which is just a gorgeous theater. Definitely worth a visit. And I was very glad we did the tour of that which was arranged through Buenos Aries Tourism. Just a beautiful very classical theater. But I also think of being on the subway. We took the subway around a lot– and also taxis. Both of which are very inexpensive. The subway being very inexpensive. I think 50 cents a ride or something like that. And just street musicians that were entertaining us as we were riding through the city.
[street musicians playing]
But I also think of– We were there for holidays. We were there for Mardi Gras. Not that we saw a lot of Mardi Gras celebrations, but people had a lot of time off so we saw the city in a more relaxed pace. Buenos Aries can be a little kinetic. But we did plan to be on a Sunday down in San Telmo. And Sundays in San Telmo there’s a market in the plaza as well as people practicing their tango dances. Some tango instructors showing members of the crowd how to do tango.
[Tango music playing]
And then as we walked up a very long street market that headed up north from San Telmo, there were street performers just every few feet playing a variety of music. And so, I have this memory of Buenos Aries as a very musical city, but I also have this memory of Buenos Aries as a very colorful city. Now some of you have seen pictures of La Boca, which is this very colorful neighborhood. The old port neighborhood where one building may not even be painted all the same color in this very traditional fashion.
But we also had a chance again through Buenos Aries Tourism to go through a graffiti tour. And this was the Graffiti Mundo tour and I highly recommend this tour. I have a new-found love over the last couple of years of street art. Now, not of graffiti. Not of tagging. Of just putting your initials on somebody’s building. That still to me just looks like vandalism. But when it turns into just whole murals being painted on someone’s building, preferably with their permission, there’s some wonderful street art there and this tour took us to see some of it including some neighborhoods where they wouldn’t let us get out of the van because they didn’t think it quite as safe. So we probably wouldn’t have seen that.
Also, art we wouldn’t have found but then told us the story of street art. And told us the story of street art in Buenos Aries as it relates to the relatively new democracy in Buenos Aries. As well as to some of the old political roots. So I’ve got an article on the website that talks about that experience so check that out.
We boarded the cruise, as a I said, in Buenos Aries. The first day was a day in port. So the first night and the second night we spent both in Buenos Aries. And that is something that has happening more commonly on some cruise ships so take a look at that on your itinerary. And that’s so you can have a chance to actually see the city so we went back in and we did not do a short excursion that day. We just hopped off and explored on our own. Of course we were very comfortable with the city by that point. Went to the cemetery where Evita is buried for instance.
We also did a day trip the day before to Colonia del Sacramento, which is a UNESCO world heritage site across the river in Uruguay. Which is beautiful although I would not say spectacular. But quite enjoyable. Our second stop, our second port of call was Montevideo in Uruguay. Or Uruguay. And we did not do a shore excursion that day and I think that I would recommend that you do. We took mature excursions.
When you book a cruise, my rule of thumb is that for 50% to 100%, of what you pay for the cruise, expect to pay that for shore excursions. It’s going to depend a lot on which ones you choose. There were some shore excursions on this cruise that we did not do because they were, to us, prohibitively expensive. But don’t go on a cruise where your entire budget is that line item that you see advertised for the cruise. Save some money for the shore excursions because I think you’ll get a better experience. Whether you do them through the ship or not and we’ll talk about a combination of those.
But we just did the walking tour. There’s a walking tour map that you get. Went down to the old presidential palace and saw the museum there. But afterwards, we heard some of the options that we could have done and I think they sounded better. And we heard that from our table mates at dinner. One of the best choices we made on this particular cruise, we went as I mentioned with a group of four, and we were originally supposed to be at a table of four. But we opted for a table of eight so we could meet other people. and we met some wonderful people that we had a great time with for two weeks.
Gary and Dee from Ireland and Glenn and Margaret from Vancouver. And they had done some, I think some better options that day. Glenn and Margaret had gone off to a winery, one of the wineries of Uruguay and had a good time. And I think Gary and Dee did a private driver and a guided tour. They often arrange things with another couple through the cruise critic discussion boards, so that’s something to keep in mind.
Montevideo. Beautiful city, a little more laid-back than Buenos Aries. But probably not the highlight of the cruise to me. If you’re a fan of meat, and especially of barbecued meats, you definitely want to check out the local market. The central market which is very close to the cruise terminal there and see just a large smoke-filled room with lots of meat grilling. We ate at one of the restaurants near there.
We then had a day at sea. There were quite a few days at sea on this particular cruise some of them being scenic cruising where you’re going through the fjords, but this first one just being out in the open ocean. Some 14,000 feet of water below you. As we headed off to the Falkland Islands.
And the Falklands Islands was probably one of my favorite shore excursions. The four couples did two different shore excursions and everyone liked what they did best. We did the bluff cove penguin experience. Which involved getting in a van and riding– going to the end of the road, getting in some land rovers and doing some very rough driving for 15, 20 minutes down to this cove to see penguins. Predominantly Gentoo penguins although it’s also some king penguins. Just a very wonderful experience down there. As we enjoyed the penguins there was some of the young penguins learning to swim as we enjoyed the penguins playing in the surf, too, which is a very strange experience because we’re not in a snowy landscape as I expect to see penguins in.
They had a lovely little cafe there where we had cake and it was a wonderful experience. The other two couples did a more expensive experience, a much more difficult experience because instead of a 20 minute or 15 minutes that we spent in the land rover over bone-jarring terrain, they did like an hour and a half. They were still bruised for a couple of days afterwards, but then they were down in an area where they had more penguins. The more king penguins. And just thoroughly enjoyed that experience as well. So I don’t think there is one right shore excursion option for everyone but I definitely would recommend when you’re in Falklands go out and see the penguins. Wonderful experience there. And we were fortunate that we had a chance to do any shore excursions. If it had been as rough in the morning as it was when we were getting back into the boat in the afternoon the captain told us that we would not have gone ashore.
And that happened on the previous cruise. It certainly can happen in that area and it can happen on any cruise and that’s something you need to be aware of is that weather or other factors can change the ports of call. One of the cruises they had last year they go people on shore but then 500 people got stranded on shore overnight. And the Falklands is not a big area. So they were calling up different families and putting people up in private homes so they could spend the night there and then they went back to the boat in the morning. Just something to be aware of.
Let’s take a break here and talk about our sponsor who is DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. One thing that I didn’t mention when we were talking about the Top 10 Buenos Aries travel guide that we used when we were in Buenos Aries is that in the back of the book there’s also suggested days. And I like that in a guide book. It’s not like I’m going to do that exactly, but it gives me some idea of timing. And so for instance there’s a suggestion for a day in San Telmo and La Boca. Start your day with a strong coffee at San Telmo’s bar Plaza Domingo and then go to this particular theater and then explore the subterranean tunnels and ruins at El Zanjon. Go to this particular plaza, go to this particular park and I like that idea because it gets down to the details of take the number 29 bus from San Telmo and hop off at the end of the line at La Boca. And it gives you a nice suggestion of a day in a particular neighborhood or a day in a particular theme. And it has multiple ones like that in the book. For more information about DK Eyewitness Travel Guides go to DK.com.
Punta Arenas, Chile
Our next port of call was in Chile. It was Punta Arenas, Chile. We did not do a shore excursion on that, although I did talk to someone did one of the more expensive shore excursions on the boat and this is somebody who did the $1,000 per person shore excursion to fly to the national park in Chile Torres del Paine. And that is someplace I would really like to see, but I just made plans that I will see it on another trip rather than paying for that expensive shore excursion. Her thinking was that she would never get back to South America again and so she did this rather expensive shore excursion and loved it. It was the highlight of the cruise for her. And so, it’s just something that you need to make that decision. It wasn’t the most expensive shore excursion. That one I’ll mention later. But we just walked around Punta Arenas. I think we would have been better served doing a shore excursion, but we did enjoy the vendors and the town square as well as a drumming group that was raising money to do a trip.
And we walked to the local cemetery but having done the cemetery in Buenos Aries, it’s not as spectacular. Glenn and Margaret who had done the longer of the two penguin trips in Falklands did yet another penguin trip on this, but it didn’t measure up to the one with the king penguins in the Falklands in their minds so that wasn’t their favorite shore excursion of the ones that they did. But remember this particular cruise is not just about shore excursions. The next day we were sailing in the Straits of Magellan. And that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do this cruise. And part of the Straits of Magellan is Glacier Alley. There are six glaciers in a row over the course of, oh I’d say half an hour to an hour that you pass by.
We had decent weather that day. It was a little overcast but you’re in Patagonia. And Patagonia certainly can be rainy at any time. Even with this being summer, it felt more like fall as we were down in the Patagonia area. Or in the Tierra del Fuego area. And that’s where we were sailing to. We were sailing that day to Ushuaia, Argentina through the Beagle Channel.
The first thing we noticed about Ushuaia, Argentina is that it is a gorgeous city. At least as you’re looking at it from the port. My wife Joan thought it easily could have been in Switzerland or someplace in Europe as it has these snow-capped mountains and comes right down to the water there. And we had a similar reaction to Tierra del Fuego. We did get a chance to go out into the national park. The Argentinian national park, Tierra del Fuego. We did a shore excursion there that was supposed to be a two-parter. We were supposed to do a bus tour through the national park and then join a boat and sail that back in the Beagle Channel. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate with that. The boat trip got canceled unfortunately for the people who were on the boat there was another group that was sailing on the boat and they were going to do the national park. They ran into rough seas and they had to turn around and go back and didn’t get to see Tierra del Fuego national park.
So again, you have to be a little bit flexible. We did of course get our money back for the second half of the trip that we didn’t get to do. But the national park was gorgeous. It’s a very pretty area down there. Some place I’d like to get back to with a little more time. And I think that’s one of the ways that I look at a cruise too. It’s really more of a sampling. And I wouldn’t really say I have done all of Buenos Aries or done all of Argentina by any means. I think there’s another trip in our future sometime to go down to Buenos Aries and then go to the wine region probably. And then down into Patagonia again. Going down to Torres del Paine, for instance. But this was a great sample for it.
For the next three days, we did scenic cruising. And the first thing that we did was sail around Cape Horn as we came out of Ushuaia. Cape Horn is again in Chile so you go from Argentina to Chile to Argentina and then back to Chile here again on this particular cruise. And Cape Horn, I always thought of as being the southernmost point of the South American continent and it isn’t in the sense that it is an island. You’re actually sailing around a cape on the island of Horn. And the island of Horn being named after a city in the Netherlands by the discoverer who was from that city.
As you’re sailing there, this is an area that is known for rough seas. We didn’t have as rough as they often have it, but still you could hear the sound of the waves and that was just in the pool.
Fjords in Chile
The boat really did start rocking when you left the protected areas of the Beagle Channel. When you left the Straits of Magellan or when you left the fjords in Chile where we were sailing to next. And you got onto the open ocean, you could feel it. You could feel the difference. Now we didn’t get seasick at any time and really nobody from our table who we were interacting with got seasick. But there were certainly a few people who were feeling the motion of the boat. But as I say, for the next couple days we were sailing through the fjords of Chile. Including over one spot where the boat only had about a three-foot clearance beneath it so we had to time that right with the tides. We sailed past a shipwreck. That always gives you some pause and right up to a glacier. and in fact we were there as the glacier was calving. We didn’t catch it on camera but it was still pretty amazing to see.
And I think sailing up to that glacier was probably the prettiest spot that we had on the whole trip. With some exceptions of portions of Buenos Aries which were also very beautiful. But just a really spectacular thing and one of the reasons that I compare this particular cruise to an inland passage cruise in Alaska except that when you’re on shore you’re in international cities and that I think for me is a little more special, but then again I haven’t done the Alaska cruise. I am doing one later this year.
We did have three days in a row at sea and I think that as we thought about doing this cruise one of our biggest hesitations was what to do with all the days at sea. I did a fair amount of work and we’ll talk about in later on, some of the things to do on the ship in the section that looks more on cruising and on this particular cruise.
Porto Monte in Chile
The next port of call that we had was Porto Monte in Chile. And Porto Monte was an interesting place. We did a tour up to the lake region of Porto Monte. We didn’t have the best weather. Again, in Patagonia it is likely that you will see some rain. One of the interesting things about Porto Monte is that there is a large German-speaking community in the area. And so our guide, for instance, was a fifth generation resident of Chile of Porto Monte and yet her family speaks German at home.
And one of the things that happened is they brought in German immigrants. There were German immigrants who were Catholic and there were those who were Lutheran. And the Catholics could attend the local Catholic church and so they assimilated fairly rapidly, but the Protestants or the Lutherans actually didn’t assimilate as much. They stayed more to themselves and so therefore they had maintained a lot of that culture and there’s still German speaking schools and such in Porto Monte.
Porto Monte is a very beautiful area. I wish we had more views of the volcanoes as we went up there into the lake region. There is a volcano there that looks very much like Mt Fuji although we had a little trouble seeing the top the day that we were there because of clouds and rain. I think they said there are 84 volcanoes in Chile that are either active or dormant. So these are not extinct volcanoes, but volcanoes that have erupted sometime relatively recently from a geological point of view. So it has quite a spectacular landscape. And of course it’s a very thin country. It’s only like 100 miles roughly from the sea to the Andes. Oh, one thing that I missed in Ushuaia is that was the place for the most expensive shore excursion you could have done on this trip, and that was a shore excursion from Ushuaia flying down to Antarctica. It was $3,000 per person, we chose not to do it on this particular trip.
Porto Monte was a pretty city. We didn’t get to see that much of the city itself because of the shore excursion we did. I’d love to get back. There’s a number of different artists’ markets and things that would have been fun to see, but we just ran out of time. Just all the more reason to get back to Chile and I would have to say that this trip did really have that impact for me. I don’t think that I need to get back to the Falklands. I think I got the basic idea there even though we enjoyed it. But I would desire especially to get back to Argentina and Chile after having been exposed to them in this little sample that we got through this trip.
Glenn and Margaret did a little more adventurous shore excursion that they really enjoyed and that was whitewater rafting in the area. As it turns out on a rainy day that might have been a smarter choice. And then our final port of call was Valparaiso which is the port just near Santiago, Chile. I say “just near,” it’s more than an hour’s drive from the port over to the airport for instance where we were flying out of in Chile. What we did for a shore excursion for Valparaiso, and Valparaiso is a very beautiful city. It has a lot of different colored buildings. It goes up very quickly up the mountains from the ocean right there, from the port. There are funiculars that go up the very steep hills here. It reminds me a little bit of San Francisco. Someone else said Lisbon who had been there.
Colorful city, lots of street art on the walls as well. And the city is also a UNESCO world heritage site. I wish we’d had more time to spend in Chile, either in Valparaiso in the nearby beach city or in the wine region between there and Santiago especially. But what we did is we did a day tour so the eight people from our table, who weren’t sick of each other and were enjoying hanging out rented a van. We rented that for roughly $100 a person and that came with both a driver and a guide for the day. A transfer to the airport, I think directly would have cost about $84 and we would have had hours and hours waiting at the airport and so instead we spent the day driving around Valparaiso as well as going to the city a little further up the bay which is Vina del Mar which is more of a beach city. Valparaiso being more of a working-class neighborhood and Vina del Mar being a little more upscale. Had a nice lunch at the beach.
We were supposed to ride a funicular, but the funicular that we went to get on broke down right when we were there. They’re having a little trouble getting some of them to run. They’re putting some back in service after the earthquake that they had relatively recently. But we got a walking tour of both cities. And then also we picked that we wanted to stop at one of the wineries and so we stopped at one of the wineries in between and did a wine tasting of Chilean wines. And as you’ll hear later on when we talk of the ship, we did a fair amount of wine tasting of Chilean wines and Argentinian wines on this particular trip. And enjoyed both although I have to say I was little more partial to the malbecs and the Argentinian wines.
That’s the ports of call and that’s what we, did but let’s talk about the experience. I wanted to talk about some of the things to do on the ship and one of the ways I thought that I’d do that is I would read you a sample schedule that we had from just one of the days I picked at random that gives you some idea what sort of things are going on. And my expectation is not that you will find all of these interesting and I don’t know that there would be anybody who possibly would find all of them interesting. They’re aimed at a diverse set of people. But that maybe you might find something interesting and if not, then you know that if you want to do this cruise you want to bring a few more books.
So I grabbed a particular day which was Saturday February 21st, and this was a day at sea. This was our first day at sea sailing towards Port Stanley. And I know that not all of you will be interested in this list so what I’m going to do is I’m going to sweeten the pot here that I’m going to read the list as Simon the bandonlinan player is playing in the background. And Simon was on the cruise, and he plays the style of music that would be behind a tango dance or Milonga.
[Bandolin music playing]
- Sometime between 7:00 and 10:00 the schedule said we’d be greeted by our cruise director, Linda, who would give us the highlights of the day on the loudspeaker.
- The fitness center had a morning stretch at 7:00 and a pathway to yoga at 9:00 for $12.
- There was a digital workshop at 9:30 on creating movies and slideshows with Movie Maker. The digital workshops were sponsored by Microsoft, so there was using Microsoft technology. At 9:30 there was also a seminar on acupuncture. I did not go to that.
- At 10:00, a shore excursion highlights, telling us a little more about what was going to be happening the next day.
- At 10:00 also a lecture on bridge, that is the card game bridge.
- Also at 10:00 a salon seminar on updating your hairstyle. Didn’t go to that one either. And also a body sculpting boot camp. Should have gone to that, did not.
- At 10:30 there was a behind-the-scenes kitchen tour which Kevin and Susan, our traveling companions did and we had done a similar one on the sister ship the Van Dammes so we didn’t do this one.
- At 10:30, you could learn windows 8.1 basics in the digital workshop.
- At 10:30 also there was a bean bag toss with show host Mike and
- 11:00 something in the culinary arts center on the flavors of South America.
- At 11:00 a health seminar and detox for health and weight loss.
- Also at 11:00 you could learn to dance tango in the lounge. There was a series of dance classes that are associated with Dancing with the Stars and a competition where you could win a chance to come back and compete on a cruise.
- At 11:00 there was a tanzanite seminar at the jewelry design center.
- At 11:00 also the art of collecting art seminar from the on-board art gallery.
- At 11:30 edit your photos like a pro again another digital workshop.
- At 12:00 a ping-pong tournament.
- At 12:00 a mini-organ concert.
- Also at noon a singles and solo meet for lunch.
- At 1:00 the flavors of Zaandam at the culinary arts center.
- At 1:00 p.m. an international beer tasting.
- Also at 1:00 a $10 slot tournament in the casino.
- At 1:30 a team trivia challenge.
- At 1:30 also a $30 no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em tournament.
- At 2:00 they were also playing duplicate bridge.
- At 2:00 a seminar on relieving back pain and good feet.
- At 2:00 p.m. a lecture by location guide Lance on Port Stanley and the Falkland Islands.
- At 2:00 p.m. a navigator wine tasting. Tasting wines from around the world. At 2:30 a ship-building competition design and construct a ship out of everyday items on board. Later on in the cruise there would be sea trials.
- At 2:30 get ready with photo editing. Again in the digital workshop.
- At 3:00 Dancing with the Stars, ballroom basics with the Zaandam dancers.
- At 3:00 South American mixology class.
- Also at 3:00 a seminar acupuncture for pain management.
- At 3:00 a cupcake tea.
- Also 3:00 ask location guide Lance to get ready for your days ashore.
- 3:30 a scavenger hunt with show host Mike.
- 3:30 learn to use your digital camera at the digital workshop.
- 4:00 an LGBT gathering. 4:00 an indoor cycling class for $12.
- Also at 4:30 Friends of Bill W meet.
- 4:30 Techspert time to answer your questions about Windows 8.
- At 5:00 was a vigil mass.
- At 5:00 was the art of collecting art seminar.
- At 5:00 was a core conditioning Pilates class for $12.
- At 5:00 there was the Sip n Savor with the culinary arts center host Jen.
- At 6:00 a sunset stretch. At 6:00 a martini sampling.
- At 7:00 a pub trivia.
- At 7:45 the captain’s welcome toast.
- 8:00 showtime classique which is a show put on by the singers and dancers on board.
- At 9:00 Milonga South American dance incorporating basic elements to tango, so that was a performance in the ocean bar.
- At 9:00 the audience request and sing-a-long with Jeremy.
- At 9:00 also Texas Hold Em’ cash game.
- At 9:00 karaoke power hour with your show host Mike.
- 9:00 $10 blackjack tournament.
- 10:00 showtime classique again, that’s the second showing in the theater.
- 10:30 golden oldies with your show host Mike
- and 11:30 the party continues with your show host Mike.
In addition to that, almost every day there was a solo guitarist Michael Lieber who played at two different times. Adagio, a pianist was playing at a different times classical music. The Neptunes, which were doing ballroom dancing, and a couple of other music groups, too. We did not do all of those activities. We did do some of the martini tasting, we did some of the wine tasting. We did a few of the trivia challenges. We did a number of the evening performances although we don’t tend to be fans of the song and dance style and so we didn’t do all the ones with the Mondrian dancers and such. Although we heard from our table mates that they were some of the best song and dance they’d ever seen on a cruise ship. We did see one of the two comics. We saw the one I think that we would enjoy. I don’t think the other one was quite our cup of tea.
We enjoyed an evening performance on tango. Another one on Celtic music we enjoyed maybe not quite as much. And we did particularly enjoy Michael Lieber who I mentioned who is the solo guitarist. We went to his performance almost every evening and really enjoyed listening to him. A wonderful repertoire of rock, folk, and pop music. So that’s the kind of things we did. Plus I brought work to do and we brought books to read and of course we worked out a lot in the fitness center because there was a lot of food.
Food and Service
Did I mention there’s food on a cruise ship? I made a couple of references to the dining room. We did the traditional seating in the sense where you have either an early or late. We did the late seating. You could also do open dining. That’s something that you’re seeing more and more on cruise ships. I found the food to be very good in the dining room. I enjoyed everything I ordered I believe. Although I was slightly disappointed by the French onion soup. But really being there for two weeks, had a lot of good meals there. The actual serving sizes were very reasonable, but of course, you could always order more than one. The very first dinner we were at Gary, our table mate, ordered six appetizers and no entree. So you really had a lot of flexibility in terms of what you ordered. My wife was a little disappointed with one particular salad and the chef came out of the kitchen to find out what was wrong with the salad.
So there really was a very personal level of service and I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that yet, but it wasn’t just a personable service but especially being there for two weeks we really had a chance to get to know some of the people who were on the crew. Whether it be our table steward Badaruddin, or our cabin steward Edwin. Edwin was from the Philippines, Badaruddin was from Indonesia. About 50% of the crew was from Indonesia. 34% from the Philippines. They did both an evening where the Filipino crew presented some of the songs and dance from the Philippines as well as an evening where the Indonesian crews did the same: songs and dances and even some interesting instruments from Indonesia.
But we were really quite impressed with all of the crew, not only with how they treated us, but also they seemed to treat each other and how they got along. And I think one of the crew members was saying that they really enjoyed the leadership of this particular ship and how they were treated. And I think that comes across in terms of the level of service that you get on something like this. It’s the level of service that we would like to become accustomed to, I would have to say.
I had a chance to sit down with Simon Tanner, who is the hotel director and remember this is a floating hotel at sea. It’s really interesting when you sail into some of the ports like Ushuaia, you couldn’t help noticing that you were on the largest building in town, but you had just sailed it into the harbor. So not just the largest hotel, but also the largest building period. And it was interesting talking to him about the expectations that they’re trying to set on this particular ship. On this particular cruise line, Holland America, they’re targeting being a premium line but not a 5-star line. They’re trying to set appropriate expectations. One of the stories that he told me that was interesting is when he got there he changed the language on the menus because it was very flowery language. Everything was “bathed in a sauce of whatever,” which was very poetic language, but the problem was it didn’t set the expectation correctly for the dinner and they found when they made the language more descriptive and less poetic they actually had higher ratings for how the food was.
The other thing he mentioned was just how much easier it is sometimes on Holland America, on a cruise in the Caribbean for instance where almost 95% of the people will be from the US. And so you’ll have much more consistency in customer expectations then you’d have on a cruise like this where you have people from all over the place. There was quite a few Americans but we were maybe 33% of the passengers on the ship if I had to guess, 40% possibly. But people were also from all over South America and from Europe as well. And you have just different expectations that in the US for instance, good service is “Can I help you? Can I get you something?” It’s very pro-active. While good service in Europe is very hands-off. And so trying to find a delicate balance of what is good service and also even just the expectation of tipping where we in the US are used to tipping and so it’s not a problem for instance that the recommended tip was eleven and a half dollars per person per day. And that seems normal to someone from North America. They have people from other parts of the world who have difficulty with that. An interesting thing running a hotel at sea and then also running a hotel at sea for a very diverse clientele and trying to set the appropriate expectations. But I have to say the level of service really did exceed our expectations.
I think of Leo in the Crow’s Nest bar, I think of the wine steward Rod. We got to know some of these people and know where they were from and had a chance to talk to them and we definitely felt like they were looking out for us.
There is also a library on this ship. We didn’t take a whole lot of advantage of that on this particular thing which has games as well as books as well as computers that you can use for the internet. The internet is still one of those challenges on a ship. The internet is fairly expensive and fairly slow. Fortunately for me, they gave me 500 minutes and of course I can use up 500 minutes in a couple days. But what you found is we went on a shore excursion for instance in Porto Monte and the restaurant had WiFi. They actually had decent WiFi and all conversation around the table just stopped because people were craving good internet. So you’d also see us hanging out at several of the ports. They had some WiFi in the port terminal. Usually overwhelmed by the number of people who were trying to use it. Internet is still one of those places that could use some improvement. And one of the things to be aware of is: be very careful with your internet minutes that you log off.
What I found is when I just shut off my computer that it sometimes didn’t figure out for a number of minutes that I had logged off and so I think that’s really a bug that needs to be fixed, but be careful to log off every time you’re done with your internet. There is a great fitness center which we used since we were doing all of that eating. It isn’t quite like it used to be. There is no midnight buffet and I didn’t really feel like we were overeating quite as much as we could have but I gained a few pounds even with going to the fitness center or walking 10,000 steps almost every day. I didn’t use the spa and you know, that’s just a me thing. I actually had spa credit, but I’m not a spa guy. But I know a number of people would truly enjoy that. And also for me the art gallery on board, the casino, the jewelry shops, some other shops, those aren’t things that necessarily appeal to me. Of course if they put an apple store on or a camera store, then I might be spending a whole lot more money on a cruise.
I sort of figure there’s two possibilities. Either you really are drawn to the art gallery, the casino, the jewelry store on board, or somebody else is helping subsidize your cruise. So that’s not a bad thing either. We had a chance to talk to one of the people who worked for the art gallery. All those things are actually subcontracted by the cruise line. And so this is somebody who had worked for them five years and we said “You know, I can’t really picture going on a ship to buy art.” He said “You’d be surprised how often he hears that from somebody who’s writing a check for a $20,000 piece of art.” And he’s right, I would be.
But his theory was that they did a number of seminars at sea on art. Not on the art they were trying to sell but really just on getting you exposed to art and art appreciation. There are a number of bars on the ship and there are a number of drink plans that you can buy into. One thing to be aware of is that you are allowed to bring, I believe, it’s one bottle of wine per person as you get on the cruise, but if you bring on wine during the middle of the cruise you can either just have them store it for you and pick it up later on. Or if you want to drink it on the cruise, there’s a corkage fee. So there’s a fee that you get charged for that. Just something to be aware of. But there are happy hours. There are deals. There are some wonderful wine tastings where we did a South American wine tasting out on the Lito deck by the pool on one of the days when it was sailing back into warmer weather which was quite enjoyable.
Dining rooms: there’s actually two other dining rooms and we were supposed to try both of them but part of the problem was we were having such a good time in the regular dining room and then also the Pinnacle Grill and as much as I enjoyed the food in the main dining room, I was glad we had gone to the Pinnacle Grill because that was a wonderful meal. I had a filet mignon with a Bearnaise sauce and you can get me every time with something like that that is done very well.
One of the other things you might notice on a cruise ship that might take you by surprise is the emphasis on hand-washing. And of course if you’ve heard some of the stories of norovirus, which have gone through some cruise ships with a lot of people getting sick, you can see why they focus quite a lot on hygiene. Why they have hand-washing stations as you go into the dining rooms where they have Purell everywhere. Fortunately that’s relatively rare and we certainly didn’t seem to have a problem with that on our cruise, but they really do focus a lot and I’ve heard that some cruises will even not let you touch any of the food for the first couple of days just to make sure you’re not bringing something on board the ship. They’ll just serve everything to you and then they’ll relax that a bit after you’ve been on the ship for a little bit.
The “Little Ship”
The ship we were on, the Zaandam is about 1,400 passengers and the captain was telling a story that was very interesting about the direction of cruise ships. And cruise ships, as you know, are getting bigger or as you probably know. And he told the story of, they were in Miami at one point and it’s 5:00 at night and seven different cruise ships are trying to leave Miami and they have the pilots. And a pilot is somebody who is affiliated with the port. You need to have a pilot on board for Argentina for instance when you’re traveling in Argentina waters or Miami when you’re traveling in Miami water. And so, they had all these pilots on their radios talking to each other about which ship should go first of the seven trying to leave port at 5:00. And they said “Let the big ship go first” and that was the Zaandam.
And he said three years later it was the same conversation, seven ships leaving and they said “Let the little ship go first” and it was the Zaandam. So the ship had not shrunk in size, but over that period of time it had gone from being one of the larger ships to one of the smaller ships. And certainly as we pulled in behind a Princess cruise ship when we were in Valparaiso, it was startling to see how large some of the ships are. Especially because they’re still trying to be Panamex. They’re still trying to be not so big that they won’t fit in the Panama canal. So they’re just taller without being necessarily that much wider. And Holland America is also heading in that direction somewhat. They’re bringing on board a newer ship that is larger and then taking two of their smaller ships and selling them off next year because it’s difficult for them to make money on a ship this size.
And so that seems to be one of the things that we’re continuing to see is cruise ships getting larger. The other funny thing if you’ve never been on a cruise before is when you come on board the cruise, they take your picture and they put it on a plastic card and that card is everything. That card is your identification to get you on and off the ship, to get you through security on the way into the ship after a shore excursion. That card is what you can charge things on. Don’t lose that card. We didn’t even get our passports back until most of the way through the cruise and so, even though we were going to international ports, we were getting on and off without our passports because they had cleared our passports with the country we were visiting. That’s one of the other things that makes cruising easier and one of the reasons that it’s so popular.
And so that was our cruise experience. An enjoyable one, certainly something I would recommend. Both the particular cruise we did as well as the ship and the cruise line. Again a wonderful experience and especially because of the crew. It’s wonderful to get a chance to meet with the hotel director and to say hello to the captain but really on a day-to-day basis the people who are going to make or break your cruise are going to be your cabin steward, your bartender, they’re going to be your mixologist at the cocktail place. They’re going to be your sommelier, they’re going to be your table steward, and they’re going to be the people who clean your cabins who you never see.
I’m probably not quite as sold on cruising as some people. But we do always enjoy it. I say as some people because one of our table mates knew someone who had 14 different cruises in the future booked. And there was somebody on the cruise who, you get a point for every day at sea you have sailed with Holland America we have now sailed 28 days so we now have 28 points. There was a gentleman on the ship who had sailed for 3,500 days. Basically he had been at sea for about 10 years. I don’t think I’m ever going to be that a big a cruise fan, but again something I can recommend.
And with that I think we’ll end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. I have to get ready for a trip to Thailand. Don’t forget to vote for the Amateur traveler in the podcast awards. Dailypodcastawards.com. If you have questions, send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. The transcript of this podcast will come out in about a month and it’s sponsored by JayWay Travel who are experts in Eastern European travel. You can follow me on Twitter at @chris2x. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.