Saturday, February 26, 2011

Saturday (2/26/11) – Montevideo, Uruguay

Last night, after the lecture that we had earlier in the day about the southern stars, the speaker from the Smithsonian invited us to go up to deck 12 above the Constellation lounge and see if we could see the Southern Cross at 10:15.  We got there early and it was clear as day.  Plus, we saw alpha centuri and beta centuri.  In addition, we saw orion, but it was upside down.  This was quite fascinating to us.
We arrived at about 7:30am.  It was an absolutely gorgeous day – clear and warm.  Today we had arranged to go with several other cruise critic folks on a winery tour.  We were to meet at 10am.  So, we got up and did parts of our packing, had breakfast and wandered down to the gangway to meet the others (there were 12 of us total).  They had arranged a car to drive us out to the winery, the driver would wait while we had our tour (at 11am) and then drive us back.  Everything worked smoothly.  The driver met us and ferried us out in the country to the winery called La Bouza Bodega.  We had about half an hour to wait until the tour, so we wandered the grounds.  It was well very well kept including various farm animals and a small river area.
At 11, we gathered for the tour.  We visited some of the lots that were growing grapes.  They have roughly 13 hectares of land growing grapes split between where we were and another property about 10 km away.  In Feb/Mar time they do the harvesting.  They had just completed the harvest of the chardonnay batch and were starting on their red wines.  Our guide went through the process of wine-making.  They use only oak barrels to age the wine and they age it for between 6 and 18 months.  Their winery produces about 100,000 bottles annually.  The two wines that we knew about where chardonnay and merlot.  They made a few other types, but the grapes were foreign to us.

The tour completed with a visit to the owner’s old car museum.  It was filled with about 20 old cars and old motorcycles.  All of which are fully operational.  They ran from old Model T’s up through Chevrolet’s from the 30’s. 
After the tour, we went into their restaurant and did a wine tasting.  We tried four different wines.  They were served with wonderful cheeses and breads.  The merlot was Julie and my favorite. 
We then returned back to Montevideo and were going to wander the downtown – old district.  We first visited the Mercado which is this amazing indoor space with tons of businesses selling grilled food.  It was so alive and active that it was quite exciting.  After that, we went and wandered the streets and eventually returned to the ship.

This evening we have a final show and then finish packing and get up to leave tomorrow.  The show was the Omar, the guy who plays a zillion instruments and Claude, the rat pack guy.  We were bored with both of them, so left early.  We went out on deck and were able to see the southern cross quite clearly.
BTW – tonight we get our hour back.
Tomorrow,we are going on a tour that will visit some parts of BA that we already visited, and then heads out to an estancia to see some gauchos and have lunch.  We then return to the airport and have a 9:30pm night flight.

Friday (2/25/11) - Last Day at Sea

Well, the trip is almost over.  This is our last day at sea as we head for Montevideo, Uruguay.  One painful thing is we had to put our watches forward an hour for tomorrow (and will then move them back an hour when we arrive in Buenos Aires on Sunday).  There was one lecture, by the guy from the Smithsonian.  He talked about stars and such, kind of a view of the night sky from the perspectives of someone who lives in the northern hemisphere who is visiting the southern hemisphere.  Importantly, he said that everyone should go out on deck 12 and find the Southern Cross, which points to the celestial south pole.
BTW – we had very calm seas today and temps in the upper 60’s.  It was quite a beautiful day.
We played our first (and last) game of bingo, going after the big accumulation of snowball jackpot.  Unfortunately we didn’t win.  Also, it was a fairly small pot, only worth $1000.  Also, we did team trivia and did ok, but didn’t win again.  Tonight is formal night and is the final production show.
The production show was about “international travels” and essentially showed things from around the world.  Bob especially liked the Irish dancing.  Overall, he felt that it was the worst of the three productions, but Julie liked it a lot.

Thursday (2/24/11) – My God, Look at All of the Penguins

We had an early day, so arranged to have room service delivered at 6am.  They have an amazing room service menu for everything from omelets through pancakes and everything in between.  It arrived at 5:50.  The ship arrived in Puerto Madryn at about 6:30.  We were to go on an excursion arranged by a Cruise Critic member to Punta Tombo to see the very large penguin colony.  We had 17 people that went in a small van.  The tour guide (Martin and driver) met us on the dock right at 7am and we were the first bus to leave.  It was a 2.5 hour drive down to Punta Tombo.  We drove most of the time on Route 3 – the same route that we saw the end of down in Tierro del Fuego National Park (part of the Pan-American Highway).  After about an hour, we stopped for a short break to use the restrooms and grab a cup of coffee if one was so inclined.  We then continued south.
The area is all part of Patagonia, which is essentially the lower big triangle of Argentina.  There are no trees because there is very little rain. Plus there is a lot of wind.  He told us that on average they get about 200 mm of rain every year.  He did mention that they had a very unusual storm two days early that came up from Antarctica and dumped a ton of water on them.  So, there were still signs of standing water all over the place.  I guess we know which storm that was.
On the bus ride, we learned a lot about penguins.  They come to Punta Tombo every year in November to breed.  The have “nests” that they burrow in the ground, often under trees.  A male returns to the same nest every year.  They are monogamous per breeding season, but not necessarily for life.  The best nests are closer to the shoreline because it reduces the time that a parent has to walk on land with food for the chick.  Anyway, they breed and produce two eggs.  The male sits on the nest first and then they alternate every week or so.  When the chicks hatch, they then take turns protecting the young and also going out and feeding themselves and their chicks (through a regurgitation process).
Eventually they molt, during which there is no eating because they can’t go into the water (they haven’t got the dense feathers and oil to protect themselves).  Once the molting period is over, they then head out and migrate north toward the middle of Brazil.  They go that way because the fish that they eat migrates that way toward warmer water.  The type of penguins in this rookery is the Magellanic penguin, the same kind that we saw in the Falklands.
On the way down we saw some guanacos, which is related to the llama which are all related to the humpless camels. 

We arrived at the reserve, paid our $10 admission fee and entered the reserve.  It was actually pretty cool, with temperatures of around 50 degrees, and pretty windy.  There was a 3 kilometer walk down a path.  As soon as we got there, we saw penguin nests right near where the buses parked.  BTW – we were the first bus there, which was a great thing because it got REALLY crowded once all of the ship’s tours started showing up.  There were zillions of penguins (they estimate roughly a million of them). 

They were in various phases of molting as you can see from the pictures.  Also, the young ones did not have the stripes of the adults yet.  In general, you just walk along the path and there they are, either wandering around, fooling with their burrows, or just sitting around and sleeping.  They made this weird honking like sound (kind of like a goose that we did capture in video format).  It was very loud from all of the penguin noises.  It also smelled pretty bad (not as bad as the sea lions, but still unpleasant). 
Some of them were fairly aggressive.  One chased Bob, while we later learned that three of the 17 people were bit (mostly the bit pant legs and not people).  They were amazingly cute and also, just plain cool.  These pictures try to give you a feeling for what it looked like.  It was totally impressive and a great trip.

Doing that noise thing:

Love the smile!!!

Two babies:

The beach area with a ton of them swimming and hanging out at the beach:
The way home was a reverse of the way down.  One scary part happened while we were on the first 1.5 hour leg to the gas station rest stop.  One of the German passengers noticed that the driver was nodding off to sleep.  They told the tour guide, who helped remedy the situation.  Everyone was pretty much snoozing at that time, so it was good that she noticed it.  We arrived back in port at about 2:45, with the ship scheduled to leave at 4pm.
We did trivia with our friends from England again and still did not win again.  It turns out that the team that wins an awful lot of them has one guy that actually appeared on Jeopardy.  Definitely a ringer.  But we had a lot of fun.  For example, did you know that in 1963 Winston Churchill was given an honorary US citizenship and was the first person to ever receive US citizenship honorarily?
The evening show was a guy named Peter Rock.  He was billed as this famous rocker type who had been around for a long time in Chile and Germany.  We thought he was terrible (kind of like watching the Who at the Super Bowl – a bunch of really really old dudes trying to rock). For being an “amazing” rocker, he only sang covers of things like Elvis and other artists.  Just a lounge lizard if you ask us.  We left after 15 minutes of the show.

Wednesday (2/23/11) - Lazy day at sea

We sailed our second day from Cape Horn toward Puerto Madryn.  The day was filled with lectures.  We heard about Andes and Chile and its amazing set of volcanos.  We then heard a talk on ships navigation.  That talk was only ok, but ended great when someone asked the speaker (who is part of the bridge crew) what the decision process was with deciding that we needed to bail on Antarctica.  He said that they happened to have a Chilean Pilot on board who contacted Chile’s station in Paradise Bay where we were headed.  They told them that conditions were just awful down there.  Absolutely zero visibility.  So, even if we got there, there would be nothing to see.  Plus the worse part was the huge storm approaching from the west that was in the Drake Passage.  It was going to make extremely rough seas for our trip to Ushuaia. They felt the storm could put the guests in danger (because the ship would be rocking and rolling so badly).  Thus, they decided to leave.  Also, he mentioned that the Prince Albert II expedition ship that we saw in Ushuaia had also abandoned its trip to Paradise Bay because of the storm.  I think that this explanation made us all feel a lot better.
In the third talk we learned about the migratory patterns of birds.  Some even fly nearly 10,000 miles in about 20 days.  The final talk, by the physicist, was supposed to be a talk about the colonization of South America.  He ended up giving a brief account of world history starting at the end of the 1400’s going through modern time.  It was an ok talk, but kind of random.
The evening show was Cesarios, a guitar player from South America.  He was quite good and put on a nice show.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tuesday (2/22/11) Cape Horn

After we left Ushuaia, we headed through the islands of Tierra del Fuego until we came to Cape Horn.  The weather was amazingly calm (in fact, the ship’s officers says that it is the calmest they have ever seen it).  Cape Horn was discovered in 1616.  The reason it was important is that the East India Trading company (Spain) owned the passage of the Magellan Straight and charged great sums of money to anyone who went through it.  [Note, in modern times, the straight is very narrow; big enough for the 300 ton ships, but not modern 90,000 ton cruise liners.]  So, others were motivated to try and find an alternate route. 
Anyway, Le Mehr was born in Antwerp and living in Amsterdam decided to try and find the route for the Dutch.  So, he outfitted two ships (The Unity and the Horn) to try and find it, sending his two sons on the voyage.  Eventually the Horn burned and so it was just the Unity looking for the passage.  They ended up finding Cape Horn (which is just a small island).  It is the southern most point of land in the world (except for the Antarctica continent).  Further south than South Africa and New Zealand.
We sailed around the island and noticed the cathedral rocks.  You can see Cape Horn in the distance on the right.

Eventually we came upon the tip of the island, the official point.  At that point, the bow of the ship was in the Atlantic Ocean and the stern was in the Pacific.

After breakfast, the ship had a Penguin Plunge.  Their ice carver created an ice penguin and they then placed the extra ice into the pool. 

Then they let people jump into the cold water and were given a certificate of accomplishment.  Neither Bob nor Julie were brave enough, but there were a bunch of Australians willing to do it.  Interestingly, there are about 200 or so Aussie’s on the ship and they definitely have a very different outlook on life.  Very laid back.  Very fun loving.  Aussie Aussie Aussie, oiu, oiu, oiu!!!

Throughout the day we attended more talks and then did trivia at 4:30.  Which reminds me.  Three days ago, we played trivia and teamed up with two people from Britain.  It was a great round and our team tied with another team for the win (30 points out of 34 possible).  We were both declared the winner and won the coveted Celebrity tee shirt.  In our second attempt, we only got second 27 out of 31 points.  It is amazing having two people from a different country and how our knowledge supports each other.

It was formal night and the show was the second production show.  The idea was a disco in the 70’s and then lots of songs from that era.  It was another fantastic show.

The Storm

On the television, they placed a weather chart showing the storm that knocked out our plans for Antarctica.  As you can see, it is massive.  The white area is land and the orange is the storm.  The distance between Antarctica and Ushuaia is about 1000 km, so it really was a massive storm.  Pete if you read this, maybe you could use your expert weather skills to interpret what it shows.

Monday (2/11/11) Tierro del Fuego National Park

After the channel tour yesterday, we decided to get on a National Park tour for the next day.  Right when you get off the ship, they had a “Captain Morgan’s Travel” and there was a guy there that was selling tours.  We had talked with him the previous day and he has a van that holds 15 people (the cost is $60 per person and includes the $16 per person park entrance fee).  The guide’s name was Edgar.  Although the tour was supposed to start at 9am, they told us to get there early because once it was full, it was full.  (There are also other private tours available once you get out on the street, but these people ran the channel tour the day before and we had good luck, so decided to stick with them.) We showed up at 8:15 and were numbers 7 and 8 for the tour.  We then hung out while he tried to fill the rest of the van.  Ultimately we had a dozen people and left right at 9.
While we were waiting, we checked out the super private yacht, the Octopus that is owned by Paul Allen.  It is 450 feet long and in pristine condition.  It is one of two that he owns.  It was built in 2003 and at that time was the largest private yacht in the world.  The Octopus has two helicopters and two submarines, one of which can be operated via remote control.  It is an amazing, amazing ship.  It was parked right next to a Silver Seas Expedition ship (the Prince Albert II) and was larger than that commercial ship.  Unfortunately after we returned from our morning trip, it was gone.  Julie was upset (she definitely had some ship envy) – she was hoping to finish up the trip to Buenos Aires on the Octopus.   This picture shows how large the yacht is compared to the Infinity (about 2000 passengers) and the Prince Albert II.

Tierra del Fuego National Park (TdFNP) is located about 12 km west of the city.  Interestingly, about 6km out, the road turns into a dirt road.  This road is Argentine Route 3, which is Pan American highway which starts in Alaska and ends here.  More on that later.  BTW – before entering the park, we drove by the southern-most golf course in the world.  A little 9 hole course that looked inviting.
Edgar was an excellent guide.  He spoke wonderful English and pretty much talked the entire time showing us the various sites, talking about the flora, and other aspects of the park.  We made several stops.  The first was at a point looking out at the Beagle Channel.  On the pier was the southern most post office in the world.  It was a tiny building where you could buy stamps, have your passport stamped, etc.  The views were quite nice.

On the wildlife front, there are hardly any mammals.  This has caused some problems as both beaver and rabbits were introduced and there are no predators to keep them in check.  The second stop was at lake Logo where the driver let us out and we walked around a corner of the take and then down a river to a coffee shop.  We had some fine local hot chocolate at the shop.

At our next stop, we went out over an overlook of another lake.  An interesting sight was a nest in the middle of the lake.  Unfortunately we don’t remember the type of bird, but basically they build their nests in the middle of lakes.

Our final stop was at the end of the road (the PanAmerican highway).  Edgar let us out about a 25 minute walk from the end that allowed us to wander through the trees and see some more great vistas.  The first is an overlook observing the Beagle Channel.  At this particular location, we are only about a mile from Chile.

We continued down to the end of the road.  From there you can see the snow capped Andes that we saw back on the ship.  These are 2400 meters high (7600 ft) and are part of Chile.  They are extremely striking. 

Finally, we took our picture at the sign showing the end of the highway.  From there it is 17,848 km or 10,709 miles to Alaska.

Finally, we wandered around Ushuaia.  One interesting place was the Irish Pub.

We then returned to the ship.

The ship left port at about 6:30pm.  We stopped in Port Williams, Chile to pick up a pilot for our journey to Cape Horn.  The entertainment was a singer named Claude Eric Brunelle who sang in kind of a rat pack style.  He was excellent.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sunday (2/20/11) Beautiful Downtown Ushuaia

The seas remained rough until about 7pm.  They then started to mellow out a bit (less white caps) and overnight weren’t too bad.  The show last night was the flutist and the opera singer in a double bill.  We skipped it.   We had a nice sunset though.

This morning, we entered the Beagle Channel on our way to Ushuaia.  This is a picture of sunrise on the Beagle Channel.

Tierra del Fuego is a whole bunch of islands in the lower part of South America.  Although as you look at a map, you may think that SA is one big continent, the bottom part (Tierra del Fuego) is really one big huge island (TdF) and then a bunch (and I mean a bunch) of smaller ones.  TdF is divided in half between Chili and Argentina.  Basically the Andes come down and the head eastward on TdF.  So, the border makes a bit of an odd turn in order to evenly split this big island. 
The Beagle Channel is named after the HMS Beagle, the ship that Charles Darwin was on for his second round the world discovery expedition.  It was captained by Captain Robert Fitzroy back in 1832.  It is 150 miles long and connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  Ushuaia is roughly near the middle and was originally a penal colony.  An interesting factoid is that Ushuaia is the only Argentine city on the “West” side of the Andes.  This is a picture of part of Ushuaia.

What sets Ushuaia apart are the amazing mountains. 

Mt. Olivia is foremost in all its craggy glory and is 1400 meters tall.  Most of the mountains have tree lines about 600 meters and glaciers dot many of them. 

In the distance you can see the amazing snow/glacier covered Andes which is part of the Tierra del Fuego National Park.

After docking at about 9:30, we got off the ship and looked for a local tour of the Beagle Channel.  We found one, which was a 2.5 hour tour out to see the lighthouse which was kind of small.

We then visited several bird nesting places including lots of king cormorants.  The first picture is a huge colony of cormorants – notice their nests, which were everywhere.

Lastly, we visited a colony of sea lions.  The male sea lions are HUGE, probably two or more times larger than the females.  The island also stunk big time. 

Near the end, we stopped on Bridges island and we got off and wandered around looking at the amazing vistas.

After the trip was over, we visited beautiful downtown Ushuaia, which although it has a population of 60,000, the town didn’t have a lot to offer.  The main street included a lot of shops and restaurants, although many of them were closed because it is a Sunday.
We then returned to the ship and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon.

After dinner, the cruise line had arranged for a local group to come on board and present a folk and tango show.  It was quite excellent and a very nice enhancement to the trip.