Ideal Itinerary: Cruising in South America

Ideal Itinerary: Cruising in South America

HAL’s Veendam circles Cape Horn By: Ginger Dingus
Glacier Alley can be seen from the deck. // © 2013 Ginger Dingus
Glacier Alley can be seen from the deck. // © 2013 Ginger Dingus

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The Details

Holland America Line

About the Ship

The Veendam was launched in 1996, the last of HAL’s Statendam class, undergoing a radical refurbishment in 2009 as part of Signature of Excellence, with added balcony staterooms in the aft, lanai cabins with sliding-glass doors and spa staterooms as well as The Retreat pool resort area. Public areas were revamped and two new dining venues and a new theater experience were also added. A 2011 refurbishment was less drastic, putting a new polish on the ship.

If variety is the spice of life, a cruise around South America’s tip is downright zesty.

Where else in the world can you enjoy chic city life one day and cruise close to glaciers the next? Only by heading south can you take a shore excursion to an estancia (ranch) and feast on succulent lamb, grilled whole over hot coals. Or, you might choose to hop on a local ferry for penguin spotting. Both tours are offered in a single port.

Our cruise onboard Holland America’s 1,350-passenger Veendam followed a route from Valparaiso, Chile, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Including circling Cape Horn, the 13 days and 3,860 miles were packed with an amazing array of experiences. In Puerto Montt, Chile, I heard a French couple compare the gorgeous scenery of Chile’s Lake District to Switzerland. Picturesque fjords and glaciers near Ushuaia, Argentina, reminded many of Alaska. Patagonia’s sheep ranches were likened to New Zealand (by New Zealanders). And, on a particularly balmy sea day, one cruiser vowed the rugged cliffs en route to sub-tropical Puerto Chacabuco looked remarkably like Hawaii.

The variety of landscapes and onshore adventures make a South America cruise unique. Many sights can be witnessed right from the comfort of the ship’s deck. Veendam’s Captain Bas van Dreumel made a point of easing through a sea of sofa-size icebergs on the way to Brujo Glacier. The spectacle proved a highlight for those witnessing a massive wall of blue ice for the first time. Even more spectacular were the snowy mountain vistas unfolding as we meandered through Glacier Alley before docking at Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city.

Navigating around the notoriously rough Cape Horn was a bucket-list landmark celebrated with personalized certificates awarded to all onboard. As a bonus, our early morning passage was smooth enough for the captain to circle the rocks and the clearly visible end-of-the-world memorial not once, but twice.

The librarian’s log of wildlife seen from the ship included whales, dolphins, seals and sea birds. Clients, however, should be aware that wildlife sightings are fleeting and seldom announced. The best chance of spotting the region’s iconic critters is on a shore excursion. I saw Magellanic penguins appear by the dozens on Punta Arenas’ Otway Bay and lamb barbecue tour. Passengers going instead by ferry to Magdalena Island reported seeing hundreds, including nesting chicks. Sea lions stole the show at Puerto Madryn, a surprisingly delightful and easily walkable bayfront town. This sheltered Argentine port replaced the Falkland Islands, a call often missed due to challenging weather conditions.

The llama-like guanaco put in an appearance near the towering granite peaks of Torres del Paine National Park, an 11-hour excursion departing from Punta Arenas by air.

“It’s a grandiose tour for a small group of 18,” said Jenn van Mackelenbergh, a member of the Veendam’s shore excursion team.

“With just six ports, there are fewer tour choices on this cruise,” she noted. “Most people book something for every port. There are plenty of sea days to recoup.”

One day before the trip’s end, we docked near the heart of Montevideo, Uruguay. Strolling over the cobbled streets, admiring old-world architecture and visiting the city’s intriguing marketplace eased everyone back to civilization after more than a week in the wilderness.

Back onboard, Holland America added to the anticipation of disembarkation in Buenos Aires with a tango show during which a talented local duo combined gaucho music with sensual dance.

The South America cruising season typically begins in November (spring in the southern hemisphere) and runs through April. Pre- and post-stays are recommended, due to both lengthy flights and the opportunity to explore two vibrant cities: Buenos Aires and Santiago, Chile.

Santiago, in particular, is worth extra time. We spent two pre-cruise nights in the seaport of Valparaiso, choosing the newly opened boutique Hotel Palacio Astoreca in the city’s artsy, hillside district. Accessible by funiculars, the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. Clients can also choose the resort town of Vina Del Mar, a sister-city to Sausalito, Calif., and just 15 minutes north of the cruise port.

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