Just imagine entering into an old colonial neighborhood in downtown Miraflores, Peru. Gas lamps flicker along the narrow street; houses painted in rustic gold and ocher seem to glow in the light. The car stops at the end of cobble-stone street. Walk under the eucalyptus trees toward a wrought-iron gate that leads to twinkling courtyard. Mount the few stairs across the patio and enter an elegant modern restaurant housed in an old, colonial mansion. Escorted to your table before you unfolds a massive pre-Inca ceremonial mound or huaca that is dramatically light to showcase the millions of individual adobe bricks that created this magnificent structure. If that were not enough, the menu is filled with superbly prepared local dishes complimented by an extensive national and international wine.
I had the great fortune of being invited to dine at Huaca Pucllana with two long-time Regent guests, April Herbert and Gordon Grossman. What a treat. I was excited all day and was not disappointed. The setting was perfect; the colonial Spanish juxtaposed against the pre-columbian indigenous ruins right in the heart of the modern city. The huaca was built about 400 AD and was at the heart of an ancient coastal people until about 800 AD. Even after it was abandoned it was venerated by preceding cultures as a sacred site. Excavation is ongoing and diners can buy a $5 entrance to walk among the ruins. The feeling is still magical. It is hard to say which was more memorable, the setting or the food which was terrific — it was super fresh and aromatic. It would be a lovely spot for a special occasion or celebration. I envy the local Limeños for having such a wonderful place in their backyard. Thank you again, April and Gordon - that was a treat I hope others will one day enjoy. ” />
Located on the Bay of Paracas surrounded by miles and miles of pristine desert coastline the new Hotel Paracas is indeed one of the most luxurious resorts in South America. Just outside of the Paracas National Ecological Reserve, the hotel is the perfect starting point for a trip to the Ballestas Islands, the Inca ruins of Tambo Colorado or an overflight of the enigmatic Nazca lines. However with so many wonderful features to enjoy on property it might be hard to pull yourself away.
Let me back-up; I say the “new” Hotel Paracas because for years there was the original hotel located on the same spot. It was a lovely little jumble of white-washed, two-storied buildings punctuated by cascades of pink and fuchsia bougainvillea contrasted against the bright blue sky. Known for its good restaurant featuring local seafood it was a charming spot. Well in 2008 the entire region was rocked by a large earthquake centered not too far from the town of Pisco. The hotel was badly damaged. During that time ownership changed hands and this new hotel was born. The Peruvian Libertador Hotel chain partnered with Westin Hotels to create a truly lovely resort.
I took a look at the lovely restaurants, the two elegant pools and the spa. The configuration of the rooms and the old growth bougainvilla make me think some original construction was used; but all the rooms are beautifully appointed with local materials in colors that reflect the sea and desert sand. The hotel is one of three new properties in the area; the Doubletree/Hilton and Las Brisas. Were I looking for a spot to relax and explore all that southern Peru has to offer I would love to stay at the Hotel Paracas!
Brazil has 4,650 miles of beautiful white sand beaches. It is no wonder that 80% of the 201 million people in Brazil live along the coast! For years the beaches of well-known cities like Rio de Janeiro have attracted international travelers to popular spots like Ipanema and Copacabana. But beyond those areas lie thousands of miles of beaches in cities, towns and sexy little villages that have been, up until now, the secret haunts of Europe and South America’s, “beautiful people.” You may recall that actress Brigitte Bardot fell in love with the beauty of Buzios where she enjoyed freedom in her anonymity - until she was discovered by the paparazzi! Buzio is still lovely, filled with chic shops and trendy boutique resorts now catering to visitors from all over the world.
Most of these out-of-the-way destinations have had limited access; some only by road, others by private plane or yacht. Now more and more cruise lines are stopping in what is being called, “The Brazilian Riviera.” Costa Cruises devotes several ships exclusively to Brazil’s coast; though most of the passenegrs are Brazilians and Argentines you will see people from all over the world from Japan to Great Britian. Other companies like Pullmantur and Fred Olsen also have ships in Brazil; some starting in Bridgetown, Barbados others in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero. The cruise terminal in Rio has recentlyy been expanded to accommodate the growing domestic market.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises is also now including more ports in Brazil; this month the Mariner had inaugural calls in Vitoria, Buzios and Recife. In February, she will return for the last segment of the South America cruise with stops planned in Rio Grande, Santos (for São Paulo), Parati, Ilha Grande as well as Buzios, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador da Bahia, and Fortaleza before making her way up the Amazon to Manaus.
If you are a beach person you will find plenty of sea and sand to delight you in every port - you just need to know where to look. Remember that in Brazil, cities are enormous and sometimes require a taxi to get to away from the port to a beach. The most popular urban beaches are usually crowded; in Rio de Janiero there can literally be a million people on the various beaches at one time. If you are looking for quaint, the small crescent shaped bays that scallop the bay of Buzios will be your cup of tea. It is something out of a movie.
For those of you, who like me, are not beach goers many of these “new ports” offer a chance to experience cities that are perhaps more authentic than those that have been catering for years to tourists. I enjoyed Vitoria very much and was charmed by the examples of beautifully restored Portuguese colonial architecture not too far from the port. People were very friendly and still curious about the cruise ship in town.
I am very happy to announce that at long last, Handre Potgieter has been promoted to Cruise Director for Seabourn Cruises. His first major assignment will be to take the Odyssey from Los Angeles around South America on her 72 day voyage. I am sure you all join me in wishing Handre great luck in his new position. Yogi! Yogi! Yogi!
The long awaited decision has been made, starting August 2011 ships burning heavy fuel will no longer be allowed in Antarctic waters. This ban will affect most cruise ships in Antarctica; and all cruise ship carrying more than 500 passengers.
Heavy fuel is the sludgy dregs that remain after diesel is refined. It burns less efficiently than pure diesel or gasoline and produces pollutants harmful to the fragile Antarctic ecosystem. Large cruise ships are built to use heavy fuel as it is less expensive than pure diesel or gasoline. Investment in conversion to lighter fuels would be prohibitive due to the high cost and the limited season – some ships call on Antarctica only once a year. The decision to ban ships carrying heavy fuel was made by the International Maritime Organization citing environmental factors. The decision will affect Princess, Holland-America, and Regent. Small expeditionary ships that burn a mixture of diesel, gasoline and oil will still operate. Steve Wellmeier, Executive Director of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators said in a statement to the press, “Largely, it will be the large cruise-only vessels that are affected, rather than the smaller expedition ships that most people think of as Antarctic cruising.”
Though the ban will reduce the numbers of visitors arriving by cruise ship from over 15,000 to 6,000, environmentalists are not convinced the White Continent is sufficiently protected. Small ships do burn cleaner fuel but their smaller passenger load requires more departures to move the same amount of people that would arrive on one large ship thereby contributing more pollutants to the environment albeit cleaner pollutants. The other factor of small ships is a double-edged sword — landings. Ships carrying more than 400 passengers have never been allowed to lower boats of any kind, no guests ever went ashore. Small ships do lower landing craft; trips by zodiac including shore landings where guests can walk among thousands of penguins or bath in beach-side thermal pools are a major selling point of these cruises. Biologists do not know what affect this human contact is having on the wildlife and the fragile ecology.
In the end, this ban is all about safety. Were a large ship to spill heavy fuel in Antarctica the effects would be catastrophic. Isolation and climatic extremes would make clean-up equipment hard to find and clean-up efforts even harder to implement. The fact is large cruise ships are more vulnerable, their hulls have been built for the Caribbean not Antarctica. Unlike small ships, they are not ice hardened nor do they carry survival suits, those bright red-orange, insulated and weatherproof jacket/suits seen in photos of Antarctic expeditions. Survival suits are warm and easily detected in case of emergency. As someone who has sailed around South America 37 times, I know that every cruise has passengers who come unprepared for the cold weather including Antarctica.
The Antarctic experience is like no other in the world and I hope everyone who wants to go will get the chance. It looks like the best way to keep that option available will be smaller ships with better prepared guests on ice hardened ships, burning more environmentally friendly fuel while visiting more regulated regions.
On March 5, 2010, I had the privilege of attending a meeting between Jean Michel Cousteau and Eduardo Braga, Governor of the State of Amazonas, largest state in Brazil. Governor Braga is a staunch supporter of tropical conservation and the development of sustainable rain-forestmanagement. The meeting was a follow-up to their previous meetings in Monaco and the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Also in attendance was Omar Aziz, Vice Governor who will succeed Governor Braga when he leaves office, Nadia d’Avila Ferreira, Secretary of the Environment and Leda Bozaciyan, Executive Director of Ocean Futures Society Brazil.
Governor Braga will be making a run for the Brazilian Senate where he hopes to expand his call for environmental reform. Later this month California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Director James Cameron, and Jean Michel Cousteau will be in Manaus to discuss how they can help spread awareness about global climate concerns. Tourism and the increase in cruise arrivals is an important part of the educational campaign.
In December 2009, after doing my talk on coffee in Brazil, guests on the Seven Seas Voyager asked me if I had heard of Jacú coffee? No, I had not. Neither had they but friends in Belgium asked them to look for it while in Brazil because it was supposed to be the most expensive coffee in the world. I told them I would keep an eye out but in every port from Rio to Belem, I found no Jacú coffee.
Not to be discouraged I looked-up Jacú coffee. It does exist. It does come from Brazil. And it is the most expensive coffee in the world. What is Jacú coffee? Well, essentially, it’s bird poop coffee. Yup, bird poop coffee! Seems the Jacú bird is endemic to the area of what is now Minas Gerais, Brazil. They eat ripe coffee berries which are digested leaving behind only the pit or “bean.” The naturally processed beans are gathered, washed and roasted in what is supposed to be the most delicious and expensive coffee in the world. Having a cup of Jacú coffee was also among the must-do things featured in the movie, “The Bucket List.” During my next trip to Brazil I was determined to find Jacú coffee. I thought it would be fun to share it with our guests.
Upon arrival in Rio I asked my friends to help me find Jacú coffee. They, as true-blue Brazilians love coffee and drink lots of it. They had never heard of Jacú. We called coffee shop after coffee shop, no one carried Jacú coffee. Finally we found a company that used to supply Jacú to some specialty stores. They said they no longer carried it because it is too doggone expensive; no one buys it locally. Most of the Jacú coffee produced in Brazil is shipped to Saudi Arabia! He gave us a few numbers and after more phone calls we found one shop that had one can of Jacú coffee.
I suffered the heat and midday traffic in Rio to go across town to find the small shop. There was the gold can with the Jacú bird on the label. “How much?” I asked. “Seventy five dollars,” the cashier said. I eagerly said I’d take it, thinking the can was full of coffee. The cashier started to ring it up. I picked up the can. It felt empty. I looked at the label. The can held twelve sachets of ground Jacú coffee, each sachet made only one shot of coffee! Seventy five dollars for twelve shots of coffee! I hemmed and hawed trying to rationalize seventy five dollars for twelve demitasse shots of coffee. I knew I would not be re-reimbursed for it but I thought, what the heck? When else is anyone ever going to get to try once-in-a lifetime, bird poop coffee?
When I got back to the ship I decided I would raffle off ten shots of Jacú coffee, winners would pay $20 for the chance to sample the world’s most expensive coffee. Proceeds would repay me, the rest would go to crew welfare. To make the tasting more of an event, the captain, Felice Patruno agreed to be the barista in exchange for one shot of Jacú. I would treat myself with the other.
The event was great fun. Captain Patruno made all the coffees which were accompanied by bittersweet chocolate truffles. The consensus was the coffee was good, some said excellent but was it worthy of the title, “most expensive coffee in the world?” I’d have to say no, but it is fun to tell my coffee-culture friends in Seattle that I have tasted the illusive Jacú coffee!
One of the most historic and beautiful cities in Brazil, Salvador da Bahia is a favorite with tourists. However, those arriving by cruise ship are assaulted by a congested and run down port area that is a turn off to many people. It is a shame; many of the seventeenth century colonial buildings are sprouting trees and weeds in the middle of this historic commercial area. One must pass through the Cidade Baixa or Lower City is get to the recently restored Pelourinho, the historic Old City designated a UNESCO Patrimonial Center.
Good news for the Lower City, the city block across the street from the historic Modelo Market is being turned into a Hilton Hotel. According to local developers the hotel will make use of portions of the existing, colonial building which will be gutted for the new hotel. Work is already underway and is set to be complete in time for the 2014 World Cup hosted by Brazil.
This new hotel will be the cornerstone of the revitalization of the Lower City. Additional projects are under discussion.
The excitement mounted as we made our way into the port of Ushuaia. The wind blew a cold, stiff breeze from the south that put everyone in the Antarctic mood; everyone but the passengers on the Celebrity Infinity that was back in port after an aborted attempt at the same itinerary as ours. They said they hit bad weather and had to turn back. This was not their only missed port and the passengers were “mutinous” as one person put it. They were going to follow us out that afternoon and try again.
Those guests that did not bring adequate clothing shopped for hats, gloves and yes, long underwear. I can see now why the economy in Ushuaia is booming.
In Ushuaia, Capt. Goran Blomqvist joined the ship as the official Ice Pilot. He was captain aboard the Marco Polo for many years and knows the area intimately. A no-nonsense Swede, he was an imposing figure on the bridge.
Day One – Drake Passage
Ah, the Drake Passage lived up to its reputation – it was awful. The moment we left the Beagle Channel we were hit by a wall of wind. Though there was momentary hope that we would have been able to do Cape Horn en route to the Antarctica Peninsula, it was obvious that was not going to happen as the seas were against us. We tossed about all night and day in gales that reached 75 mph (Category 1 - hurricane strength.) The open decks were closed and the outside doors were barred shut. It certainly made us appreciate the fortitude of the early explorers who ventured into similar conditions in small, wooden sailing ships.
As part of our requirements by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) and the Antarctic Treaty, I gave the guests their briefing on the official Visitor’s Guidelines along with an explanation of our intended itinerary. As this was our first time in Antarctic waters the officers on the bridge contacted all others vessels in the area to let them know our proposed course and ask for any relevant information on conditions.
Day Two – Our first proposed stop was Deception Island, a circular island that is the remnant of a volcanic caldera. We had hoped to enter into Port Foster, the sheltered bay in the middle of the island where you can see thousands of chinstrap penguins on the rocks and beaches steaming from geothermal springs. Unfortunately, the clouds were low and the wind was still very high; huge growlers (pieces of ice bergs) were bobbing up and down in the tumultuous sea like socks in a washer. I was on the bridge trying to find something to say, visibility was very bad. I could see growlers hurtling toward us at very high speed. Looming on the horizon we saw our first tabular icebergs – the huge, flat bergs that can be up to 180 miles long! Captain Blomqvist estimated that these were about two miles long. In the high seas waves crashed against their 200 foot walls forming arching waves of spray. Some waves were so high they crested over the top of these immense bergs. It was impressive. Unfortunately, the wind and waves kept us far from Deception Island. Though we were in the shelter of the Antarctic Peninsula to the east and the South Shetlands, including Deception Island, to the west, we were still being bounced around. I used the lack of visibility as a good time to invite everyone into the theater for a talk on the geologic make-up of Antarctica.
By late morning the decision was made to head north and motor until the afternoon when we would try Deception Island again. The weather in Antarctica changes by the hour. It was not inconceivable that by afternoon it would change in our favor, but it didn’t. With nothing to see and nowhere to go, the Captain Felice Patruno chose to wait out the evening outside of the South Shetlands where there was less threat of ice and see what the weather would be like in the morning.
Day Two – The weather did not improve. There was a low pressure right above us that Captain Blomqvist described as “unusually stubborn.” Normally it would have moved on by now, but it did not. We motored up and down the west coast of Livingston Island while Captain Patruno communicated with other ships in the area. The Star Princess went south to Paradise Bay, our next intended stop. She reported that she was going sideways more than straight ahead due to the wind and that she encountered a lot of ice. The decision was made that it would not be wise to attempt Paradise Bay or Half Moon Island, so we moved on to our designated alternative in the event no other destination could be reached – Elephant Island.
To appreciate our visit to Elephant Island it is important to know the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men. Elephant Island is the rocky outcrop that was where Shackleton and his 27 men made landfall after their ship The Endurance was crushed by pack ice. Though the men were happy to set foot on land after 497 days on the ice, Elephant Island was no paradise. Its steep hillsides are covered by glaciers that produce bitterly cold winds that rip across the narrow, rocky beaches. Twenty-two men stayed on the island for five months while Shackleton took the remaining five to seek help by sailing the 22 ½ foot lifeboat The James Caird across the north Weddell Sea to South Georgia Island, some 800 miles away! I wanted everyone to hear this story so we announced an impromptu lecture in the theater.
We passed Outlook Point, it was raining and snowing. We approached closer into the shelter of the bay and sat among towering tabular bergs. True to form, within minutes of being there strong winds blew in snow and sleet and just as quickly blew out the clouds to reveal magnificent, ice covered mountains. Snow swirled badly around the tops of the peaks like ghosts flying out of a haunted house. The clouds opened up to the east and Clarence Island miraculously appeared. Though it is twice as tall as Elephant Island it was completely hidden by the clouds. As the sun sank lower it cast an ever-changing palette of color on the ice covered mountains. It was so beautiful (and calm) the captain decided to stay the night in the shelter of Elephant, Cornwallis and Clarence Islands. It was beautiful.
Day three – The hope was that if the weather was good we could see the north side of Elephant Island, the place where Shackleton’s men made their five month camp. But, the weather predictably changed, this time for the worse. Our obstinate low pressure was joined by two other low pressures that guaranteed more of the same.
Since the low pressures would also bring rough seas, we used the time to proceed slowly toward The Falkland’s minimizing any onboard discomfort, as we had had enough, thank you very much. Our reduced speed allowed us to see a pod of humpback whales lunge feeding and four very curious fin whales. Fin whales are the second largest whale in the world next to blue whale and we estimated these guys were about 70 feet. One whale came us and looked at us, turned around and came back to look at us and them turned around to join his pod. It was the first time in all my years of whale watching that I have ever seen a whale look at us – that was pretty cool.
We had an easy crossing to The Falkland’s where we had a perfect day. Though I can understand the disappointment of not seeing all that we had hoped to see, our time near Elephant Island did give us a chance to have a real “Antarctic Experience.” We were able to stay long enough in one place to see the landscape is transformed morning till night by snow, wind, clouds and even an occasional burst of bright sunshine. For me those few hours transfixed on those islands was worth the trip.
Antarctica is not a country and therefore has no government to enforce laws. The continent contains the most pristine environment in the world making it the one place that would benefit most from enforceable regulation. In many ways it is similar to the Amazon, rich in resources scattered over thousands of miles of inhospitable land with no means of policing its vast area. Antarctica has only its Treaty to protect it, a continent larger than Australia.
Cruise ship arrivals to Antarctica have more than doubled in the past five years. The increase comes not just from more small expeditionary vessels but large cruise ships which account for the vast increase in annual visitors. Proponents of the big ships argue that they have less environmental impact because they carry more people per sailing thereby reducing the amount of pollution generated compared to the number of sailings required by a small ship to carry a similar number of people. Ships over 500 passengers are also prohibited from making landings.
Members of the Consultative Nations of the Antarctic Treaty are not convinced. They have grave concerns about larger ships in Antarctica. They say traditional cruise ships are not ice hardened, nor do they carry survival suits or gear onboard appropriate for the extreme weather were the ship to experience an emergency, and ships with external propulsion systems (azipods) are also more vulnerable to ice increasing the possibility of an accident. Were such an accident to happen the potential loss of life and environmental damage would be monumental.
This May, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) will meet to decide whether or not to prohibit cruise ships that burn heavy fuel from entering into Antarctic waters. That would eliminate all big ships and even some smaller ships as the burning of cleaner gas and diesel mixture would be too expensive. By approaching the issue this way, not only are heavy fuel pollutants eliminated but also the vessels that produce them along with all their inherent issues.
Going back to the opening remark, Antarctica is not a country and has no government to enforce laws. Participating member countries of the Antarctic Treaty uphold its guidelines; but they are only guidelines. Forty-seven countries have signed the treaty, but what about the rest of the non-member countries? Antarctica is like no other place on the planet and requires the cooperation of every country for its conservation and protection; I hope the international cruise industry agrees and will support whatever decision the IAATO makes in May.