After a cruise on Holland America’s ms Veendam around Cape Horn, Gill Charlton was finally converted to cruising.
The shape of Cape Horn, the end of a continent Photo: Alamy
Even for a veteran traveller like myself, there’s a frisson of excitement on the quayside in Buenos Aires as we hand over luggage and passports. Plastic smartcard in hand, I mount the gangway with some trepidation. Two friends have persuaded me to go on a Holland America cruise despite my qualms at being holed up with 1,600 others and seeing only fleeting glimpses of ports of call.
However, 12-day cruises around Cape Horn, from Argentina to Chile via the Falkland Islands, is a journey that should be done by sea. The ms Veendam plies this route every winter. A mid-size ship by modern standards, she retains a sense of tradition: lots of polished brass, formal dining with black-tie nights and wooden steamer chairs on her wraparound promenade deck. Museum-quality antiques and artwork are all over the ship.
My Lanai stateroom is spacious and comfortable: a king-size bed, sofa and small desk. The bathroom has a short shallow bath and a powerful shower. Best of all, a sliding-glass door opens on to the lower promenade deck. The glass has been treated, so I can watch the ocean lying in bed but nobody can look in at me.
The red-plush Rotterdam dining room occupies the stern of the ship. We have been assigned table 23 beside a large window on the upper balcony. Guests can choose free seating or reserve tables for two, four or more. It means there is no chance of getting stuck with the very dull. (For those who prefer not to dress for dinner there is a bright, buzzy self-service restaurant.)
The cheerful, attentive waiters are from Java, supervised by Raj from Bangalore, who has a no-problem-can’t-be-solved attitude. He trained with Taj Hotels and, after discovering our love of India, invites us one evening to try a fiery curry cooked by his personal chef.
Holland America’s ms Veendam, a mid-size ship by modern standards, with a sense of tradition
The cheapest wines – $22 (£13.73) a bottle – are uninspiring choices from Australia and California. Instead, we pick up Argentinian and Chilean vintages in our ports of call and pay the $18 corkage.
Overnight we cross the River Plate to Montevideo, capital of Uruguay. It is Saturday and the colonial centre is deserted; even the museums are closed. A flea market selling silver plate, second-hand books and clothes draws in a few locals, who walk along sucking maté tea through silver straws, a Thermos tucked under an arm for refills. This sour-tasting brew made from the holly leaf is a national obsession.
There’s a strong South American and Spanish presence on the ship, couples and multi-generation families, plus a few parties of French and more British than I had expected. Americans and Canadians still dominate, but the age profile is younger than on many cruises, probably because the seas can be rougher.
It soon dawns that there are two kinds of passenger on board and that their paths rarely cross. The majority like to lie around the pool, eat in the self-service restaurant, play the slot machines and take coach excursions. The minority read in the excellent library, drink cocktails in the Crow’s Nest bar and listen to talks on how to make your own way in the next landfall. Nowhere on board seems crowded.
Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands Photo: Alamy
Up on Deck 12, we are the only ones pounding the boardwalk (13 laps to a mile) as we sail towards the Falkland Islands. The sky is blue and streaked with horsetails, the wind still warm. Sleek black skuas follow in our wake.
We take all our meals in the main dining room: silver-service breakfast with dishes from around the world, Japanese miso soup to perfect eggs Benedict, Indonesian nasi goreng for lunch and a proper high tea. The dinner menu changes daily: crab bisque, interesting salads, home-made ravioli, perfectly cooked steaks and slipper lobster, creamy puddings. Low-calorie choices are helpfully asterisked.
The high quality of the food comes as a surprise. Given that most passengers are paying about £80 a day full board for this cruise (which includes a big chunk for fuel), I had not expected such fine dining.
It takes 60 hours to reach the Falklands. There’s a moderate swell that thuds against the prow and sends some to their beds. Black- browed albatross fly alongside us, gliding inches above the waves. With a seven-foot wingspan and white torpedo-shaped bodies, they are the Concorde of the avian world and spend their lives fishing for squid and shrimp. They sleep on the wing and return to the Falklands to breed only after a decade at sea.
It’s a warm February morning when we arrive in Port Stanley and anchor outside the harbour. Many passengers have signed up for the long bumpy ride to a king penguin colony. Only eight of us join Ledda, a Yorkshire-born retired GP, for a four-hour nature trek.
A noxious smell gives away a colony of Magellanic penguins. The young are almost as tall as their mothers, brown fur moulting to uncover sleek oiled pelts.
One of the landing points was Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay Photo: Alamy
A Typhoon fighter jet drowns out the song of the red-breasted meadow lark. It’s a new addition to the islands’ air defence, says Ledda.
There is a fear that the discovery of offshore oil will lead to more tension with Argentina. More than 1,700 British soldiers and airmen are still stationed on the islands.
The walk ends above a wide sickle of white sand which, like nearby beaches, is still mined. Occasionally a cow gets blown up, says Ledda, assuring us that the two stray king penguins are safe, even though they dwarf their Magellanic cousins. Their humanoid ways make them hilarious to watch: one flaps up the beach like a child pretending to fly, the other plods after him like a fed- up younger brother.
Back in Port Stanley, a tidy two-street town of low stone buildings with tin roofs, we find our shipmates in the souvenir shops, where penguins stand proud on loo rolls, emery boards, fridge magnets and mouse mats – all made in Britain.
“Some days we get two or three cruise ships in,” a shopkeeper says. “Last week there were over 6,000 people in town and we had to operate a queuing system.” I send a postcard back to Britain for 60p; it arrives before I do.
Last December, the Veendam ploughed through an exceptional storm on her way from the Falklands to Cape Horn, with waves of more than 90ft. It’s good to know the ship is that seaworthy as we head to Tierra del Fuego.
The light is fading as we approach the archipelago that makes up Cape Horn. Despite the fierce wind, the sea is a flat calm. The captain sounds the horn as we round the Cape itself, a great slab of basalt holding back the Southern Ocean.
A king penguin, one of a couple of species that Gill Charlton saw on her cruise around Cape Horn
We wake to find ourselves in Ushuaia, jumping-off point for cruises to Antarctica. It’s a boom town with crazy drivers, giant graffiti and no planning laws. There are glass high-rises next to Tyrolean chalets and garish tin homes.
The most hairy-chested of the organised excursions (canoeing apart) is a four-wheel-drive trip into the tundra and a pleasant walk through a beech forest for a steak lunch cooked over a brazier in a woodman’s hut.
The sociable outing is led by Maria, whose family has lived here for generations. She tells us that the indigenous Yamuna people, who wore no clothes and lit fires in their bark boats to keep warm, are now extinct. In the winter Argentinians come for cross-country skiing and husky sled rides.
A woman is an hour late for the ship. She is slow-clapped on board as we are all impatient to set sail for the Beagle Channel, where glaciers of blue ice tumble down to the sea. After such a warm summer’s day the wind blowing off the glaciers chills us like walking into a deep freeze.
The channel water is a beautiful blue-green. There are sandy beaches, colonies of seals and penguins on rocky headlands, and great tongues of churned ice. Yet we are only 53 degrees south, on a similar latitude to Wales.
Our next landfall, Punta Arenas in Chile, is a much more sophisticated affair thanks to two families, the Brauns and the Hamburgers, who arrived here from Prussia in the 19th century. They made fortunes from sheep-farming and built handsome mansions in the Spanish classical style.
This is where being on a cruise comes into its own. It’s a chance to grab a snapshot of a place, to see whether it warrants a return visit. Punta Arenas is worth a day of anyone’s time, but no more.
As we cruise through the Chilean fjords the weather closes in and the landscape of Patagonia, scrubbed bare by ice, wind and rain, appears the bleakest place on Earth. Only about 40 of us are enjoying the 180- degree view from the Crow’s Nest bar as the Veendam makes her way between the low knobbly islands.
Dolphins arrive to play in our wake as the jumble of blue ice that is the Amelie glacier fans into the sea ahead of us. The Veendam prudently stands off as icebergs the size of small cars float past.
In the evenings, the entertainment director, Patti, introduces an unremarkable succession of cabaret crooners, magic shows and tango dancers. We find better music in the smaller lounges, including a young soul singer who would win The X Factor. That is the pleasure of a ship this size – there really is something for everyone.
Puerto Montt is our final port of call. Puerto Varas, a short taxi ride away, is a pretty lakeside town of larch shingle houses and high-quality craft shops settled by German immigrants in the 1850s. Locals are swimming in the lake against the backdrop of a picture-book snow-capped volcano.
So would I cruise again? The answer is yes. I can absolutely see the appeal of a taster cruise to the Baltic or to Alaska, and sea days are a rare chance to relax completely.
What struck me was how proud the crew are to work on a Holland America ship. It’s clearly like being part of a large family at sea. There’s a real commitment to getting the experience right – for everyone on board. I hadn’t expected that.
- Gill Charlton cruised on Holland America Line’s South America Passage cruise (0845 351 0557; www.hollandamerica.co.uk) on the ms Veendam. Prices for a 15-night package departing from Valparaiso (Santiago) on March 5, 2012 and ending in Buenos Aires, starts from £2,219 per person sharing a twin inside stateroom including return flight from London, pre-cruise hotel night, transfer and full board on the 12-night cruise.
Source : Telegraph UK