by Chuck Palm
December 22, 2002
Exploring South America has been a dream of mine for many years. This passion was probably inspired by my first one-day experience in South America, visiting Cartagena, by cruise ship, many years ago, on a cruise which began and ended in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
This year we took the plunge and booked a fourteen night cruise out of Buenos Aires.We would have liked to visit Rio but the timing on this Celebrity Zenith cruise was perfect for my holiday vacation schedule.The other advantage of this cruise was that it began with an overnight stay in Buenos Aires, which we enjoyed greatly.
The Ship: The Zenith was inaugerated about ten years ago.She is a beautiful ship of moderate size and clean lines. Outwardly she is nearly spotless and in good shape for her age, but there are some plumbing and air conditioning problems in some of the cabins, particularly on the fourth floor.I particularly liked the cascading decks with multiple public spaces on the rear or aft of the ship.
Embarkation:Our plane arrived shortly after 9:00 A.M. but our friends Val and Mike were coming on the American Airlines flight that arrived about one hour after ours. We had booked our own ground transportation and were sharing a van with them.This was less expensive than ground transfers offered by Celebrity and far more comfortable than a bus ride.
Our admittance onto the ship was very fast and well organized. We are Captains Club members, and were quickly wisked on board with almost mo waiting.Upon entering the ship, using Celebrity's early boarding policy, we were asked to wait in a cafe upstairs for a few minutes and our rooms would be ready about 1:00 P.M. We had a cup of tea, waited for the buffet court to open at 1:00 P.M., had a nice lunch and then went directly to our outside cabin on the ninth floor.
Taking a shower and a nap were the first agenda items. This was early afternoon on Sunday and we had been traveling since Friday night at midnight, when we had left Portland, Oregon.After three flights and an all-day layover, Saturday, in Miami, tired doesn't quite express how we felt.
The room seemed very comfortable and most of all the shower was great and the bed was very comfortable.It was already made up as a queen-size and oh it felt soooo good!
We awakened around 6:00 P.M. so that we could go outside the cruise terminal to make arrangements to go see the "Senior Tango" tango show in downtown Buenos Aires. Several of our friends had said that this was the very best tango show.(They were not wrong!) We negotiated a price of $50 p.p. including transportation to and from the show.The vendors said to be at their booth at 8:00 P.M. and they would take us at that time.
At 8:00 P.M. we were taken to the most beautiful old theater that looked like our stereotype of a twenties French cabaret theater. It was magnificent.We were given a private box for our viewing of the show. Plus an adjacent table was ours for dinner. It was beautifully set and ready for a wonderful Argentine steak dinner.A gorgeous manum of cabernet was sitting on the table waiting for our first toast to this great city.The ribeye steaks were huge (nearly two pounds I would guess) and extremely well prepared. A beautiful salad, pate, vegetables and breads were also included. What a fantastic meal it was.(Way too much food!)
Just as we were finishing our supper, the show began.We moved over to our box seats to an amazing display of Fog, lights, horses, amazing dancers, two different orchestras, singers.I could go on and on. This show was like nothing I have ever seen. It kept getting better and better. At midnight they brought us fantastic desserts that are a traditional treat in Argentina. Plus they brought everyone a delicious glass of champagne. People from the audience were introduced from all over the world. This was followed by the entire audience making a toast to world peace! Wow is all I can say to describe it. Strangely, I was a little sad because I knew this was probably one of the major highlights of our trip and it had ended. At 12:30 the show was over and we were taken back to the ship. We were more than ready for a long winter's (Argentine Summer) nap!
Day Two: We hired a private guide. He was a graduate student named Rodriguez.He was bright and a charmer. He took us to all of the beautiful sights in Buenos Aires. The highlights were the magnificent architecture, the Catholic churches, and the cemetary where Eva Peron is burried. This grave yard is more like a midieval city than a cemetary. I could have stayed there all day looking at the large house-like monuments built for and by the various families, in which to bury their loved ones.The cemetary seemed like a little village.We had a fabulous lunch at a restaurant our tour guide recommended. There were only locals there,(no tourists other than us), and the food was very good.
We arrived back at the ship at 4:00 P.M. just in time for the life boat drill followed by the sailaway party. The skies were clear. The ship was ready to sail. Our only regrets were that we could not stay several more days in this amazing city filled with charm and passion.
Day Three: The ship visited Montevideo, Uruguay. We shuttled into town.We did a self-guided walking tour of the city.We shopped at a flea market in the beautiful town square.Oddly, we purchased several pieces of antique depression glass that were very inexpensive by our standards.We had a nice lunch in an Italian restaurant.We took a taxi back to the ship because we were a bit tight on time.Montevideo was enjoyable but not particularly special.The leather stores were not as wonderful as we had hoped.
Christmas eve was quite special on the ship and included a beautiful midnight buffet that was nicer than any I have ever seen.
Day Four: We were at sea on Christmas Day. We were thankful for a day without schedules and promises to keep. We sleeped-in until almost 11:00A.M.That was a treat we had needed for several days. We played T.V. tunes trivia in one of the lounges at 11:30 A.M.. (We did not win, but it was quite fun.) Then we had lunch in the main dining room. The luncheon food was quite acceptable, but nothing memorable. We then went to the corny art auction and drank some free champagne.
Since this was an "At-Sea" day. I'll use this space to review the ship's food.In general the food was fairly good.We learned quickly not to order seafood because it was often dry and or greasy, salty and/or flavorless.The only seafood we found acceptable was the shrimp cocktails, which were quite good.The prime rib, chicken, duck, and lamb dishes were all generally quite fine at dinner.Food was cooked to order in most cases.Our servers were quite excellent and we were very well taken care of at the dinner hour.The semollier for our section was excellent, knowledgeable, and very enjoyable to meet. She had quite a good sense of humor.
Day Five:We visited Puerto Madryn. This is not much of a city and the sights here are limited.We opted for a ship's tour. The penguins were our major passion at this port, so we took the tour to Punto Tombo penguin rookery.The terrain from the ship to where the penguins dwell is flat, stark, and very boring. The bus ride is three hours each direction, mostly on a dirt road.The only thing to photograph along the way was one telephone pole that we took ten shots of just to get the angles right.We wanted to be sure to have photos of all of the highlights. The lunch provided by Celebrity Cruises was awful and included an unopened can of tuna, a paper cup full of frozen mixed vegetables, "Birdseye style", and a baggie full of fruit cake crumbs.(I'm not kidding!)Pack your own lunch from the breakfast buffet, if you take this tour.
The penguins were wonderful to see in their native surroundings. I loved watching them swim and interact with one another on the shore. We were able to get many incredible photos.I couldn't believe how close we were able to get, literally inches away from nests with eggs and/or chicks and their parents.We wanted to touch them, but were, of course, not allowed to do so.There are thousands of penguins. We were quite pleased with this part of the tour.
After the long bus ride back to the ship, we ordered room service. We were hungry because we hadn't eaten the lunch that had been provided.
The next three days were "at sea" days. We sailed around Cape Horn, and slowly motored through the Tierra del Fuego region. These were wonderful days with great weather, all be it a little chilly.
Day Nine: We chose the National Park and Catamaran tour here. It was a beautiful sunny day. The Andes mountains were a magnificent backdrop for the fjords and other beautiful scenery. We saw sea lion colonies, living on rocky islands, as well as huge flocks of cormerants. It was a wonderful day, except we all four got sunburned despite the coolish temperatures.
Day Ten: We stopped in Punta Arenas.We took the Magdalena Island tour to yet another penguin rookery. The tour books say that the Punto Tombo rookery has more penguins but we found more penguins at this location.Getting to the island was almost painful. One must take a bus to the ferry. Then you stay on the bus on the ferry for about 21/2 hours each direction.The island was beautiful and the Magellan Penuins were worth the trouble.The return trip was even more annoying because the barge was traveling in the backwards direction.This could make some people seasick.Lunch here was terrible, as well.
Two more "at sea" days were spent cruising the Straight of Magellan and the Chilean Fjords. The many glaciers we saw throughout this region were magnificent and reminded us greatly of Alaska.
Our last port before debarkation was Puerto Montt, Chile.Here we hired a guide to drive us through the lake district, waterfalls, and to see the volcanoes. It was beautiful and looked, strangely enough, a lot like Oregon and Washington, where we live.
One last day at sea was spent relaxing, playing cards,reflecting, packing, mourning the end of our cruise, paying tips, etc.
Debarkation on Sunday went very quickly and we were off the ship before 9:00 A.M. We had hired a private tour guide to take us on tours of Valparaiso, Vina del Mar, The Wine Country and Santiago, all in one very long 12 hour day. It was a very busy but wonderful day. Our lady tour guide, Paulina, was outstanding as was our driver, Jose.
I cannot say anything but praises for the South American people. They were always kind, under- standing, helpful, and often quite funny.We plan on keeping in touch with several people we met.
OOOps, I almost forgot, New Years on the ship was a huge party. Many of the passengers were from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and other Latin American countries.We had a great time.There was dancing, drinking, and food everywhere.
Overall we loved our cruise. The ship has some flaws, but that fact is overcome by a fantastic crew and staff that are highly professional and well-trained.I would gladly go back tomorrow.Too bad I can't afford to.