End of the world
This is the last of a three-part series about a South American vacation.
If this were theater, riotous Rio and bustling Buenos Aires would have been, in the parlance of the playwright, tough acts to follow. But this was reality, so the barren but beautiful stretch of South America’s wind-swept terrain that includes Patagonia, Cape Horn and the Strait of Magellan stole center stage.
After memorable stays in both cities, suddenly we were seafarers again aboard the Silver Wind, welcomed with a flute of champagne and escorted to our stateroom – a luxurious suite with private teak verandah, living area that comfortably seated six, walk-in closet, fully-stocked beverage cabinet, marble bath with tub and shower and personalized stationery. Even a pair of binoculars was included.
This helped explain how Silversea, which operates the Silver Wind and three other comparable vessels, is a perennial winner of the best small ships awards made annually by two prestigious travel magazines.
The Silver Wind carried us over 4,000 nautical miles from Buenos Aires, around Cape Horn and northward along the rugged, isolated west coast of Chile to Valparaiso. The 1,500-mile southernmost portion of Argentina and Chile is an area of 2 million sheep and half a million penguins but only 150,000 humans.
The unspoiled coastline offers an ever-changing panorama of snow-capped mountains, those barren plains, lush vegetation and an occasional rainbow. It’s more than a cliche to say that often four seasons are packaged into just one day.
Rounding Cape Horn
One of those days was the longest in South America, where the seasons are flip-flopped from ours. The seas can often be choppy, or even turbulent, but not this day. Even rounding Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific converge, the waters were atypically calm – so calm, in fact, that the captain sent three crewmen ashore in a dinghy. Their mission: to have each passenger’s passport stamped with a special Cape Horn seal.
For more than three centuries, the Cape has been the site of numerous shipwrecks. In 1741, five of eight English vessels sank in an abortive attempt to surprise the Spanish. The infamous Captain Bligh was thwarted in his attempt to round the Cape in 1788. The first sailor to truly conquer it was Connor O’Brien in 1924-25.
The only way to surpass rounding Cape Horn is to venture farther south to Antarctica. Seventeen fellow passengers did exactly that, flying from Punta Arenas to the smallest continent for a four-hour trek and returning to the Chilean port late the same day. The cost of the Antarctic flight was $2,875 per person.
The Argentine port of Ushuaia (pronounced Us-hwi-ya) is the world’s southernmost city. It’s a fast-growing frontier settlement of 50,000 residents and considerable charm. A shore excursion by catamaran, narrow gauge railroad and motor coach brought us close to jagged mountain peaks, green forests and sea lions, cormorants and other birds that inhabit some of the islands.
Those stateroom binoculars came in handy when the Silver Wind made three unscheduled stops at sea. One was so passengers could ogle a large school of whales cavorting on both sides of the ship. Another was to send a crew into a floating ice field in fresh water to bring a sizable chunk aboard for use in drinks that night. The final occasion was the aforementioned stop at Cape Horn.
Christmas in Chile
Christmas came early for passengers at Laguna San Rafael. They were treated to a complimentary catamaran excursion to the lagoon and a close-up view of an awesome glacier and icebergs of varying sizes, shapes and shades of blue and green. Amid the isolation, no one could explain the sudden appearance of a lone kayaker, destination unknown.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were spent in two ports, Puerto Chacabuco and Puerto Montt. The latter is a modern city best remembered for an earthquake in 1906, the same year as the great San Francisco quake.
First stop on our four-nation cruise was Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. After disembarking in Valparaiso, we were bused 117 miles to Santiago, Chile’s capital. The waterfront suburbs of Montevideo and Valparaiso were impressive, as were the newer sections of Santiago.
Small vs. big ships
Among cruisers, there’s an ongoing debate over the relative merits of small vs. big ships. The largest of the latter carry upwards of 3,000 passengers. Most of our travels, before boarding the 296-passenger Silver Wind, have been on vessels in the 1,200- 1,700-passenger range.
Silversea boasts that it has the industry’s highest percentage of repeat customers. Sixty percent of those on our cruise had sailed previously on the line, many on multiple occasions. Some of the reasons for their loyalty: larger staterooms and less-crowded dining rooms, a show lounge and shore excursions. They like the line’s no-gratuities policy and complimentary drinks.
Silversea, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, has a crew-to-passenger ratio of 1 to 1.34, which the Robb Report says “provides a level of attentive but unobtrusive service” that is unmatched.
Our own observations confirmed many of these points. We never had to wait for a table. Even at a buffet, ship’s personnel were attentive to our needs. We could spend a leisurely two and a half hours at dinner, arrive for the 10:15 p.m. stage production a minute before curtain time, and still find good seats for good shows. There were always extra seats on shore excursion motor coaches. If you wanted to escape the sun, you could usually find shaded seats across the aisle.
Right now Chile is the only country in the western hemisphere where divorce is banned. However, Chileans are anticipating early passage of a law legalizing divorce. Polls show 90 per cent of the population favors the measure.
With memories of vibrant cities, bare plateaus and forceful winds, we boarded the first of our two American Airlines flights that would take us home.
The 15-hour flights were made easier by the frequent flier miles we redeemed for upgrades to business and first class.
For more information, contact Chile Tourism, 1-(866) 937-2445; Silversea Cruises, 1-(877) 215-9986; or American Airlines, 1-(800) 433-7300.
Bob Richelson is a frequent traveler who lives in Lake Wildwood.
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