World Cruise 2002 - Rio de Janerio to Ft. Lauderdale In the aftermath of 9/11 much has changed, including many cruise ship itineraries. Radisson, which had planned the Inaugural World Cruise of it's 490 passenger Seven Seas Navigator to go through the Suez and Mediterranean, altered its itinerary to go around the Cape of Good Hope instead. As a result, in its later segments after Cape Town, the ship was less than sold out, to put it mildly. In March, they offered past Radisson guests price concessions, a complementary pre- cruise tour, low-cost business class air upgrades, and perhaps most intriguing to us, an invitation to join the shake-down cruise of Radisson's new Seven Seas Voyager, scheduled to be completed in Genoa next March, 2003. My wife Pat and I were definitely interested!
Since we had earlier booked the inaugural transatlantic cruise of Holland American's Prisendam (the former Royal Viking Sun) plus the following two segments in Western Europe and the Baltic (a total of 37 days), we didn't feel we could take the full trip from Cape Town, including a pre-cruise safari in South Africa. Instead, we opted for the shorter 14 day Rio to Ft. Lauderdale segment, preceded by the tour to Iguaçu Falls. According to Brazilian sources, Iguaçu is the world's largest waterfalls. Although tricky to get to and see, the Falls are truly magnificent! Iguaçu is much larger than Niagara, and is said to be taller than Angel Falls in Venezuela. The falls are inland on the Argentina/Brazil border. After a bit of a run-around concerning our flight arrangements (resolved by a cooperative Radisson air rep and our very competent agent, Vicki) we arrived at the Tampa airport early, only to discover the Delta flight scheduled to take us to Atlanta to connect with their flight to Rio was late. Initially the Delta agent (supervisor?) was adamant there was no problem, until the earlier flight to Atlanta, leaving from the gate next to us, had closed up. Then she listened, looked at our tickets, and realized the problem.
Eventually, after a big hassle, we were re-routed on an American Airlines flight from Miami, but had to reclaim our bags in Tampa, go through security again, and have bags hand-searched, luckily by a nice, helpful American Airlines porter/security guard(?). And, with no two seats together; we were assigned seats on either side of someone sitting in the middle seat of a 2-3-2 business class row on a Boeing 777. This turned out to be a ploy to get the whole row to himself; when faced with reality, he moved to an aisle seat, so my wife and I were able to sit together, even if not in the most desirable place.
Generally, we avoid domestic airlines for international flights when possible, but I must admit that the American Airlines "extra room" tactic certainly gave us room to stretch out. And their service was pretty good, too. Radisson had flown us in business class on a Continental 777 from Newark to Rome in the fall of 2000, and we found it to be very good as well, although the AA flight had more leg room I think. In our opinion, the Boeing 777 is superior to anything else flying commercially today.
We had spoken with Radisson reps during the rearrangement of flights, and sure enough, their agent in Rio was expecting us. Things went quite smoothly, and although the security for our bags in notorious Rio seemed casual, everything arrived promptly and safely. Radisson had booked us in the LeMeridien Hotel, directly across Avenue Atlântica from Copacobana Beach. Our room for that night was available, without additional charge, upon check-in about 10 AM. We were in a ocean-front room on the 36th floor, so high the people on the beach looked like ants. So much for girl- (or boy-) watching. After a quiet, security-conscious day and night in Rio (we had an bad experience there earlier), we flew next morning via San Paulo to the city of Foz do Iguaçu, where we were taken by bus to the Iguaçu Falls National Park. The flights, on Varig, the Brazilian airline, were delightful. Attractive, sharp, well-dressed and -groomed flight attendants. Fast, cheerful service. Quick turn- arounds in San Paulo. The stewardesses served drinks and a snack on the forty-five minute flight to San Paulo, and lunch and drinks on the one hour flight from there to Foz do Iguaçu! Ditto on the return. Remember how nice air travel used to be in the U.S.? How special it seemed? In Brazil, it still is.
Viewing Iguaçu Falls requires a lot of walking and climbing, some of it challenging. The first day, we went by bus, jeep and, after a treacherous climb on steep, un-guarded stairs, zodiac boat up the river right to the base of the falls, getting wet but not soaked. Another, more daring group went right under part of the falls, but it appeared they were prepared, having stripped to the waist or to bikini tops.
After a good meal and a long night in hard beds in the Spanish Colonial style hotel in the park, the next morning we crossed the Argentine border by bus, where we caught two trains and then took a hike to the catwalks which extend out over the river 1100 meters to the very edge of the most dramatic part of Iguaçu Falls, the Devil's Throat. This is a horseshoe shaped section which appeared to be 300 or 400 yards across and perhaps half a mile long. What a marvelous sight! On the way, we passed the "ruins" of the old catwalk, which collapsed a couple of years earlier. Ah, well. That evening we dined in Paul Bocuse's restaurant atop the hotel. A good meal, high but not outrageously priced, but nothing spectacular. It had a great view of the lights of Copacobana. This time we had a ocean-front room on the 14th floor, so we could actually see the people on the beach. Lovely.
At the concierge's suggestion, we went to the Hippy Market in Ipanema Sunday morning. Held in a park several blocks in from the famous beach, this weekly open air market specializes in local art, crafts and jewelry, with clothing and souvenirs also available. I got Pat a huge topaz and silver necklace. We also bought a very nice modern sculpture, as well as a couple of small limited- edition prints, all exceptionally easy on the pocketbook. We had a great time. If you're in Rio on Sunday, don't miss it!
Back at the hotel, we just had time to collect the luggage from our room and grab a drink before catching the bus to the ship. Boarding a Radisson ship is a delightful experience, you are welcomed with a glass of Champagne, and the formalities are handled quickly, efficiently and pleasantly. The only downside here was that the passenger ship terminal in Rio is a long building. They drop you at one end, forcing you to walk quite a distance carrying your hand luggage past yet another gauntlet of hucksters for the inevitable jewelry and other duty-free shops in order to reach the greeting area and gangway. Once there, you're in Radisson's friendly, competent hands, but till then, you're on your own.
Because of our other cruise plans, we had asked for the lowest cost cabin available. On Radisson's Seven Seas ships, all suites are at least 300 sq. ft., and most have balconies. In this case, we got a suite on six deck, port side, without a balcony. Instead, each morning we had seamen outside on a walkway, hosing down and cleaning up. The first morning, a passenger wandered back and forth, lost we presume, but that happened only once. We learned to close the drape before retiring. Cabins on the Seven Seas Navigator are really terrific; spacious, well-furnished and -equipped, exceptionally comfortable. The baths are perhaps the best afloat, with separate tub and shower and a spacious vanity. We don't miss the double sinks some folks favor, having consciously left them off the plans of the last two houses we've built. Everything else was there in abundance, especially large, absorbent towels and bath-sheets and even pool towels! Our cabin stewardess and her helper were just delightful, cheerful, prompt, nice. Actually, that goes for everyone on board the Navigator. We've never been on a friendlier ship. Or heard of one. The entire crew seems to go out of their way to be nice, to greet you, to get whatever you want or need. May sound exaggerated, but isn't. Try it, you'll see.
Knowing passengers joining the ship may not have had lunch, they kept the informal dining room on ten deck, the Portofino, open late. Thoughtful! Lunch was delicious, a nice buffet plus carving and pasta stations, while out on deck, a grill offered hamburgers, hot dogs, etc. On most days, there were two grills outside during lunch, the second with at least four or five choices, including a grilled fish and some kind of steak. They also offered fruit, cheese and other deserts. More than enough; too much, really.
That first day our waitress seemed to have a large, busy station, part of which was outside on deck, but we didn't wait overly long for anything. We soon learned to sit on the other side of the room, in Ann Marie's area. She's a very efficient, friendly English girl who seemed to anticipate our needs after only a couple of days. Throughout the cruise, service in all of the dining rooms was excellent to outstanding.
After lunch and a couple of hours unpacking into the very spacious cabin and walk-in closet, we explored the ship. Then we were invited on deck for Champagne, to watch as we sailed out of Rio de Janeiro. It was dark, but the lights were a sight themselves, and Sugar Loaf was silhouetted against them. Then, to dinner. We put ourselves in the hands of the Maître D', Miki, asking him to put us at "a large table with interesting people". On this and every other evening that we didn't make our own arrangements, Miki put us with people we enjoyed. We sat with the Staff Captain the first formal evening, and at the Captain's table twice (the Captain wasn't there when we were -- we sat there when we were with a large group, as it was one of few tables for ten available). Whatever you want, they tried to accommodate you. One night Pat wasn't feeling up to snuff, so we ate in our suite from the dining room menu. They served us in courses as if we were in the Compass Rose restaurant. Classy.
On Radisson ships, wine and drinks with dinner are included; no extra charge. The sommelier and his assistants knew their wine, but more important, they quickly got to know their guests. That first night, both the red and white wines served were Burgundies. I much prefer Burgundy to a Bordeaux, for example. The next night, the white was another Burgundy, but the red was Bordeaux. Having had a pleasant experience earlier on the Seven Seas Mariner, I thought I'd try again, and see what happened. I asked if any of the Burgundy they had served the previous night was available. But of course! Almost without delay, there it was. After that, wherever we sat (remember, the main Compass Rose restaurant holds almost 500 passengers when the ship is full) here comes one of the wine stewards asking if we were having the Burgundy tonight? And several knew us by name. This service is typical of what we experienced throughout the cruise.
One night early on we had dinner with two couples who were "circumnavigators" (i.e., had been on the ship for the entire World Cruise). They were very interesting, talking about the highlights (and the few low spots as well) of the trip to date. One of the men, a digital photography buff, was making an album of the entire cruise, a marvel according to the other couple. Although quite modest, he had been a very senior IBM systems engineer, and had been talked into teaching a three class digital photography and photo album course. I told him I had just bought a digital camera and was interested. One of the drawbacks of cruising on a small ship like the SS Navigator is that there are a limited number of things to do, particularly on sea days, so I welcomed this opportunity Unavoidably, I arrived late for the first class, held in the Stars Lounge outside the large Seven Seas show room. The class was over-subscribed, but we pulled up more chairs and everyone was accommodated. The class itself was very interesting. Ron, the instructor, was a good lecturer, exceptionally knowledgeable about his topic.
For the second class, I arrived early to find Ron with a projector, a table, and his own PC, struggling to rearrange the chairs into a classroom layout, so everyone could hear and see the screen. I helped, as did a couple of other early arrivals. The chairs were heavy and not easy to grab on to, so it was difficult to move them. When I spoke to Ron afterward, he said that after the first classes, support for his efforts was basically limited to announcing the class in the ship's daily newspaper, and providing the projector and screen. Later, I spoke with the officer who ran the computer lab, but he seemed unable to help. When pressed, he suggested I discuss it with the Cruise Director or even the Hotel Director. So I did. This resulted in only real negative in our cruise on the Seven Seas Navigator. I've been a bureaucrat myself, and have dealt with them for much of my career. I know when I'm getting the run- around or a brush-off. These guys didn't even try to hide it. For the only time on board the Navigator, I met with indifference and a defensive, negative attitude. The hotel director explained plans and implied he would get help for the room set-up, but none appeared. Unfortunately for him, the cruise director happened along when we were breaking the room down the second time, and I unloaded on him, but all I got were excuses and B.S. This was out of character for the ship and, in fact, for the whole Radisson line. There may have been something I didn't understand or know about going on, but it seemed to me here was an opportunity to give passengers something useful and desirable to do on a boring sea day, at little or no cost, yet they ignored it at first, and derided it when questioned head on. Certainly not typical or helpful.
My wife and I had planned a cruise from (or to) Australia and New Zealand, either on the Navigator this fall or on the Mariner next winter, but our experience this trip and on a longer cruise since have caused us to re-think our plans. This cruise was 13 days, calling at four ports: Salvidor de Bahia and Fortaliza in Brazil, Bridgetown, Barbados, and San Juan, PR on the way to Ft. Lauderdale. That left nine sea days. We don't play bridge, and are spoiled by our 45' lap pool at home. The casino crew went out of their way to drum up interest, running classes for neophytes early on and blackjack tournaments later. We enjoyed that. The library is pretty good, and there are enough computers when the ship has 350+ guests. Just upgrade memory and fix the charge- back software before the next long cruise, please. There were some good speakers, particularly former Attorney General and PA Governor Dick Thornburg (although his wife cut off informal conversation after the lecture, and little or no time was provided for questions.) Prof. Michael Mendelsohn, who talked on a variety of topics, was also quite interesting. But that doesn't begin to fill up nine days! Now think about expanding that to 45 days, with 19-22 at sea. Gives you something to pause about, doesn't it. It has us, I'm afraid. A few other observations: We never missed a meal, and the food was good to excellent. Perhaps not as good as the Signatures dining room on the Mariner, maybe even not as good as the Mariner overall. We both gained weight, not a lot but some. Pat wished for more variety in the on-board shops. We met quite a few very nice people. In fact, on every Radisson ship we seem to meet nice people. As for entertainment, the Peter Grey Terhune company are attractive, talented, energetic, and they sing and dance well. The concert pianist was excellent, although we missed her first (best?) show, unavoidably. Larry Hagman was on board and turned out to be rather entertaining speaker, although I never did care for either Dallas or I Dream of Jeanie. All in all, for a smaller ship, we found the entertainment surprisingly good.
The ports visited after Rio were less than inspired, in our opinion. We would have liked to cruise up the Amazon a way, or perhaps stop at Devil's Island. We did go ashore in each of the four ports, but took a tour only in Barbados. That was sponsored by our travel agent's Voyager Club, but we didn't think much of it. Of course, we've seen a lot of islands. "Free" tours are often worth just what you pay for them.
Next year the Mariner's World Cruise is scheduled to skip Rio, going directly from Ascension Island to Fortaleza. That certainly will be exciting! (NOT!) We've compared Radisson's port selections with some of its competitor's; in our opinion, we find them sorely lacking. Who plans these trips, anyway, the bookkeeping department? Of course, if you don't like the itinerary, you don't have to go. On this cruise, the hospitality and excellence of the ship itself, the excursion to Iguaçu, and the time in Rio made the whole thing worthwhile for us. Open single seating in the dining room is a major plus. It puts a real handicap on Crystal, which has two sittings for dinner. Seabourn and Silversea use smaller ships, and you do pay for their "all inclusive" approach. If you're not a drinker, or don't use the included amenities, you're paying for someone who is/does. Radisson balances this well, we think: drinks with dinner and an initial setup in your room are included, as are non-alcoholic beverages. After that, you pay for what you use. Works for us. All things considered, we'll be aboard Radisson again, but selectively.
Actually, we did book two future cruises while on this one. The first is the inaugural cruise of the new Seven Seas Voyager, which follows the shakedown cruise we've been invited on. Not worth it to fly to Europe for one week. We also booked a Montreal to Palm Beach cruise on the Navigator for the Fall of 2003, itinerary unseen. The initial details and ports of call were just awful, but now that they've made some real changes and expanded it to three trips over 20 days, we've picked up our option. We are looking forward Charleston and Savannah, but will miss Newport. And a first, West Point. Neat. And they listened to past passenger comments, AMAZING!
We do like Radisson, we like it best, in fact, but improvements are still needed in a couple of key areas. Some of the annoyances would be quite easy to fix, we feel. Like more interesting, informative activities on sea days (al la Crystal), and some more customer input and real thought given to itinerary planning.