Monday, December 19, 2011

December 19th – Final Day!

So, after 60 days at sea, 37 lectures on 32 different ports, today it was time for my final lecture.

We fly home tomorrow for just 16 days, before we fly back to Fort Lauderdale for the World Cruise beginning the 7th January on the Silver Whisper.

Have a great Christmas, and I'll see you all in January.

December 18th – Puerto Montt

As we sailed into Puerto Montt's vast natural harbour, overlooked by snow-capped mountains, it was obvious that this again was a place where natural sights were a higher priority than urban sights. It is quite a large town (160,000 people live here), but it was almost totally flattened in a huge earthquake in 1960, so there's very little history that's survived here.

So, I went on a tour to the Ayaltue Park – a private park that's only been open a couple of years, that endeavours to show off the various environments in the area, and to introduce you to the local culture of the native peoples, and the settlers who took over their lands. It's all on a small scale, but a lot of thought has gone into it, and it's done with imagination and an endearing enthusiasm.

The woodland was very unspoilt and again the air felt so incredibly pure – so it was a nice way to end off a lovely cruise around Chile. One of the best bits was the food – some fantastic smoked salmon (Puerto Montt claims to be the Number 1 salmon-producing town in the world), washed down with some lovely wine too.

After the tour, Tracy and I went to the Angelmo Craft Market, which was brimming with arts and crafts (loads of woollen stuff and carved souvenirs), but we're now running out of space in our suitcases, so we didn't go overboard; while the fish market was full of smoked salmon which would have been great to bring back for Christmas if only we were allowed to bring it onboard.

A very nice final port to end the cruise.

December 17th – Puerto Chacabuco

Someone described Puerto Chacabuco, in beautiful Chilean Patagonia, as a one horse town that even the horse had left – which is a little unkind, but there certainly wasn't much going on here on a sleepy Saturday afternoon.

So, it was a good thing that we were doing a tour to the beautiful Aiken del Sur Park, because it's for the natural sights rather than the local culture that everyone comes here. In a misty green environment, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and picturesque fjords, the air here is incredibly clean and fresh.

Our tour consisted of a gentle hike through the verdant countryside, past a twinkling river to a bubbling waterfall – accompanied by the background music of bird song and kingfisher calls. On a rare sunny day like today it felt like paradise, but with over 200 days of rain a year, we were pretty lucky to be enjoying the best of the region's weather.

At the end of our hike, we were treated to a folkloric show of traditional singing and dancing – with much waving of hankies and gentle movements, it was like a Hispanic version of morris dancing, although the entertainment factor increased proportionately to the number of super-strong pisco sours consumed by the audience, some of whom felt emboldened enough to join in (I stationed myself right at the back, and had the excuse of the shrapnel in my knee from the first Iraq War playing up, just in case I was asked to dance).

Dec 16th – On The Ice at Laguna San Rafael

After two days of sailing in amongst the beautiful Chilean fjords (looking not too dissimilar to the Norwegian fjords), we arrived at Laguna San Rafael for our chance to sail up to the San Valentin Glacier, to get up close and personal with this vast river of ice.

We transferred onto a Catamaran that would take us down the narrow channel to the Laguna; and as we sailed towards the ice field, we were treated to champagne and caviar on the boat – a surreal experience to be sailing through such a barren environment in such luxurious circumstances. As we got closer, we began passing small lumps of ice floating in the water, the excitement mounting as the icebergs gradually increased in size. The most remarkable thing about the ice is that it's so ridiculously blue – everything tells us that ice should be white, not blue; but here, the ice absorbs most of the light and only leaves the blue.

The cobalt blue icebergs were spectacular enough, but nothing can prepare you for the sight of the vast wall of ice of the glacier when you come face-to-face with it. The glacier is over a mile wide as it meets the sea, the ice in various shades of blue, with vast chunks of it periodically breaking away and crashing into the water – a process called "calving".

The previous excursion had apparently seen very little calving, but as soon as we arrived, as if to order, the glacier began to calve all over the place. It's an amazing experience to witness – there's a distant crack, then a deep rumble like thunder, and then big chunks spontaneously break away and thud into the soupy water – it's difficult to explain why it's so exciting, but there was a real adrenalin rush that went around the boat.

The sad thing is that this is a sight that might not be available to watch for much longer – due to global warming, the glacier is retreating by over 100 metres every year. And so, in a few years time, the ice may not come down to the sea any more. Maybe it was this fact, and the feeling that we were so incredibly privileged to be witnessing it, that made this one of the real highlights of the cruise. Fantastic!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

December 13th – Windswept in Punta Arenas

In summer, Punta Arenas is just about liveable – if you ignored the cold winds constantly blowing up from the Antarctic, this low-rise town overlooking the Magellan Straits is quite attractive, while daylight keeps going till about 11 at night. In winter, it must be pretty bleak down here at the end of the world, in the planet's most Southern city – they have a couple of days of sunlight, everything's covered in snow, and those winds just get stronger and colder. From walking around the town's shops, the clothes on offer tell you all you need to know about the weather here – fleeces and woolly hats are everywhere, scarcely a t-shirt or flip flop is on offer.

At the turn of the century, incredibly, this was one of the world's boom towns, as this was one of the major stopping off points on the world trading routes (the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 put a stop to that), and the region's enormous sheep farms brought in huge amounts of cash for their wool (which was so valuable back then, that it was known as "white gold").

As a result, Punta Arenas has a surprising array of grand mansions and commercial institutions, built in opulent belle epoch style that don't quite fit into the town's overall frontier atmosphere. We visited the grandest of the lot, the Palacio Sara Braun, which wouldn't have looked out of place in Paris. We also visited the town's atmospheric cemetery (a kind of mini-version of La Recoleta in Buenos Aires), where the size of the mausoleums and tombs with a view on offer, again showed how rich the town was at the turn of the century. It was also striking to see how many graves were of people who came here from Britain and Croatia – the town feels very Hispanic nowadays, but it must have been a very cosmopolitan place 100 years ago.

December 12th – It Ain’t Antarctica!

It's hard to over-state how excited I was this morning. I was to be taking a three hour flight on a 7-seater plane to a whole new continent for me – to the frozen wonderland of Antarctica.

But could you believe it? The weather in Antarctica was too bad for us to fly there! It wasn't the 40mph winds blowing in Punta Arenas, the pilots are used to that – apparently there was a thick bank of fog hanging over the airstrip on King George Island where we were due to fly in, and without a visual of the landing strip, they won't fly in.

When our guide met us off the ship and told us we only had a 20% chance of getting there, we initially thought she was joking – trying to raise the sense of anticipation. At the airport, it became increasingly obvious that this was not going to happen – somehow, no-one in our deflated party burst into tears (I must have been close).

So, we turned to Plan B. And it turned out that Plan B was pretty special.

Our pilot took us north on a bumpy flight to the spectacular Torres del Paine (pronounced Pine-ay), a breathtaking National Park of jagged mountains covered in glaciers, shimmering lakes, wild winds, and lots of wildlife. The succession of fabulous vistas was almost too much for the eye to take in.

We saw hundreds of Guanacos (llama-like creatures) undertaking various activities from feeding, to running aimlessly, to mating vigorously; enormous condors soaring effortlessly overhead; rheas (the South American version of the Ostrich); and various other birds pointed out by our enthusiastic guide who wasn't prepared to let us get miserable about missing out on Antarctica.

Perhaps the most amazing thing was the array of colours of the lakes in the shadow of the mountains, which ranged from bright navy blue, to milky turquoise, to green – it was a breathtaking session of vistas.

It wasn't Antarctica, but it wasn't a bad consolation prize.

December 10th – A Tantalising Glimpse of the Falklands

As we sailed down the notoriously unpredictable South Atlantic, it seemed like the weather gods were with us, because the seas weren't too rough – just 3 metre high waves (which is a lot less than we had sailing down to Puerto Madryn).

I've been obsessed by the Falklands since I first heard of them during the Falklands War in 1982, as a 12 year old schoolboy. I listened to every news bulletin, bought every magazine and book about the war; and I even decided I was going to join the Royal Navy – until lack of prowess at science and a lack of stomach for a fight meant that this wasn't going to be a viable career path.

Our plan for the day was perfect – we were going to hire bikes, cycle around Port Stanley and whizz over to Gypsy Cove to see the penguin colony there. So, I was a little over-excited about our visit this morning – waking up ridiculously early to check out the weather. It looked promising – cloudy and misty, but flat seas as we slowly made our way into the sound outside Port Stanley's harbour. However, the harbour is too small and treacherous (there's plenty of shipwrecks littering the harbour to remind you of the dangers) to let cruise ships in, so we'd have to get the ship's tenders in.

Literally, just as we were about to let down the anchor, some 40 mph winds swept in and buggered up my day. The prospect of us trying to get on a very bumpy tender was just too dangerous (never mind not being able to get back on the ship, and being stranded in Stanley), meant that the Captain had to cancel our call here. The sense of disappointment on the ship was palpable, but, as the winds picked up even more, you couldn't blame the Captain for his decision.

The only thing that has stopped me crying, is that I'm going to be going to fly on a trip to Antarctica in two days, when we get to Punta Arenas – I'm even more excited about that than going to Stanley!