My Antarctic cruise on the ship called the Azamara Journey begins in Buenos Aires. I had traveled there 10 years ago with an introduction from a world-famous architect. Truth is, I had sat next to him a dinner party in New York, and when I arrived in that grand South American city I was feted by the owner of the best hotel, and a bunch of socialites and creative types who took me to dinner and toured me around, assuming I was a good friend of the architect. I felt like the con guy who passed himself off as Sidney Poitier's son in Six Degrees of Separation.
Buenos Aires, I do believe, is South America's most elegant city, with an overlay of European architecture, colorful neighborhoods such as La Boca, wide boulevards, an elaborate opera house, a strange cemetery of little houses including Evita's, and a passion for tea shops as well as tango bars. Its decades of troubles seem to be over.
But I'm off on the 18-day cruise, no time to linger. And here's the first blog of my solo journey to Antarctica:
I board the Azamara Journey, a medium-sized luxury ship, in the afternoon, and -- hurray -- my stateroom is tasteful and comfortable -- for one. Reminds me that cruising with a companion is cramped at best, and 18 days at sea is a long time to be so close, unless you're in love. (And even then you're pushing it.)
At the lifeboat drill, the captain welcomes us aboard the wrong ship, which makes some of us a bit uneasy. Here we are, heading into iceberg country with a captain who may think he's headed for the Brazilian coast. I think of the Titanic.
As we enter the white-capped open waters I enjoy a seven-course tasting menu with paired wines, figuring I may be too queasy to indulge this way later in the voyage. On the walls: David Hockney prints, and throughout the ship, museum-quality art, glass sculptures and photographs. Considering the journey ahead, these artworks make me feel safe. (There's that Titanic thought again.)
I put on my Transderm patch which I'll change every three days as instructed. I relax, read The Audacity of Hope, Obama's book which I borrowed from the ship's library; I'm trying to get the gist of this charismatic man. I do like both Dem candidates and have the audacity of hope they get together on a ticket so I don't have to choose.
Write, nap, and meet fellow passengers at a lecture about The White Continent. Enjoy four courses (sea air!), in the steakhouse dining room with glass-wall views of the Atlantic below. Walk the stairs constantly, and around the pool area as the sun sets (late). Moving is my antidote to chocolate soufflé with crème fraiche.
Listen to a young Israeli pianist interpret Chopin in the literally rocking cabaret before I drift off in my king bed to the slap of the ship, pushing its way through these far southern waters. So far, this is a civilized way to reach the bottom of the globe, enjoying the mix of solitude and companionship.
The water is calmer and the sky bluer than yesterday. I sit on my verandah, slathered in sunscreen, enjoying the cool breeze and hot sun. Floating the seas is a decompression from the hype of the land. So is having a "butler" as well as a steward. Mine's from India. Way to go, Lea.
Join a group at tea time playing a musical trivia game. I have a memory for trivia (unless it's yesterday's) and sure enough I win by knowing the theme from Animal House). I'm rewarded with a book light. Reminds me of when I was a runner up on Jeopardy! as a twenty-something, and was given a carton-full of bubble bath. I'm still bathing in it.
Dine in the main room with three nice couples who cruise frequently, and seem close. One Englishman is a retired pilot who has built his own small plane. About half of the 600 passengers are from outside the US, and the staff of over 400 comes from 52 countries. With a smile and a couple of questions I've been adopted for most meals and activities. Works just fine, as long as I don't spend too much time with any particular couple.
Last night the sea swelled to over 30 feet, The ocean was smeared with whitecaps to the horizon, and the sky, speckled with stars, including the Southern Cross. The ship rolled and shuddered. I felt a bit vulnerable -- but not seasick
First excursion: The Falkland Islands. The last ship that came here couldn't get to port in the rough seas. But we are luckier, I dress in layers, but the weather changes and the temp is about 70 when I board a tender. Mutterings of "global warming."
Dolphins, seals and sea lions live in these waters, and four types of penguins inhabit the Falkland's rocky coves. I choose to see the Rock hoppers, with their yellow highlighted heads that remind me of surfer dudes.
On rutted roads and then off-road over peaty hills we end up staring at fifty or so young penguins, standing around, looking ar the water, waiting for their moms to come back with some fish. I had walked among thousands of penguins on a previous trip to Patagonia, so I'm not sure this bone-crunching ride in the Land Rover was worth it.
The Falklands scene: treeless moors, isolated farms, old lighthouses projecting from the shore, and flocks of sheep; the landscape reminds me of the peaty Burren in Ireland. One recognizable sign: Thatcher Road.
Seems the three thousand islanders here protect their privacy. Word is that the locals decided to leave land mines from the 1982 war with Argentina on the sandy beach to discourage tourists. Penguins may be too light to set these off, but supposedly a cow exploded a mine recently, and the capital, Port Stanley, lost electric power.
Buildings are colorful -- many have red roofs and school-bus yellow walls to fight the drab surroundings. Some are built from wood salvaged from storm-damaged ships. Dozens of battered hulks in the harbor are a legacy of lost battles with fierce South Atlantic storms. (Not looking forward to those two days through the Drake Passage, on return from Antarctica!)
What to buy as a souvenir? Aha: To raise money for education and to send kids to the UK for studies, the locals produced a Full Monty calendar of sheep shearers in the buff. I like Mr. September, but November isn't bad either.
I dine in my stateroom. So cozy. CNN is no longer viewable (yeah) as we head toward Antarctica. I watch in-house videos and The Lake House, a movie I didn't understand the first time I saw it, and which makes less sense the more I see it.
Talk with Captain Leif today. The vibrations that we felt for about an hour last night were caused by a fishing net which was floating on the ocean and caught in the propellers. After great effort, the crew was able to reverse the engines and dispel the netting, but it was a close call. If they had been unable to fix it, the cruise would have been aborted.
Also, the captain explains that he named his previous ship at the lifeboat drill because this is his first time at the helm on this one. This voyage is his first to Antarctica. I meet Ule the German ice pilot, our ship's very own iceberg expert. For fourteen years Ule had been captain on the Explorer, the Canadian ship that had struck an iceberg and sunk in November. Ule was not on that ship when it went down.
The captain says we are currently sailing between four low pressure systems, and there's no way to know how the systems will move. At over 30 thousand tons, the Azamara Journey is probably the largest vessel ever to travel to Antarctica. There's no icebreaker system, so ice pilot Ule will be on the lookout constantly for any stray icebergs, which are 90 percent under the water.
"What if you get sleepy?" I ask.
"Someone will elbow me," he smiles.
He's kidding. I think. Tomorrow morning we'll be at the Antarctic peninsula. Hope Captain Leif and ice pilot Ule get a good night's sleep. Hope I do, too. Will let you know.
Lea Lane is founder/editor of www.sololady.com and author of SoloTraveler: Tales and Tips for Great Trips (Fodor's)