With the appalling weather in the UK and the 2006 Business Travel Show history (plus his football team not doing that well either) the editor decided that it was time to take off to somewhere different, somewhere new to a much travelled man (and wife) where the chances of finding sensible temperatures and agreeable costs were at least obtainable.
So it was off to South America.
”Chile, and for that matter Argentina, are not the most accessible countries from London. Nobody flies non-stop from London to the Chilean capital Santiago, which is a great pity since the British, in spite of poor air connections, have leapt to second place as the leading European tourist generator to South America. Oneworld partner Lan Chile, a carrier with an excellent reputation, does operate direct from Frankfurt and would be an ideal candidate for a service, say from Gatwick. Sadly British Airways has virtually withdrawn from South America with but a single daily 747 flight to Sao Paulo which splits four days a week to Buenos Aires and three times to Rio. It went 777, and is now back to a 747, and with all carriers operating virtually full the southern part of South America is crying out for more capacity. In fact we chose another Oneworld partner, Iberia, for the journey, seated in its excellent business class on the way down to Madrid. It is two plus two, one of the best in Europe but if you want your hot meal early ask for a seat at the back of the cabin ” that”s where the cabin crew start working from.
And into Madrid”s fine new Terminal 4. The London flights do not use an airbridge as yet and the signage within the airport is much less than it should be, but these are teething troubles which should be quickly sorted out. The Iberia VIP lounge (J class) is one of the best and even has a small restaurant with a limited menu for those connecting to long distance flights. Live TV hasn”t arrived and on the night in question Arsenal were playing some local team. Most infuriating when just down the road a great match was unfolding. The lounge does have courtesy broadband internet and via the BBC British sports fans could at least follow the action. The Spanish did not seem interested. Travellers should note that the baggage system seems to work in both directions. Your bags do come through!
The plan was simple. A few days in Santiago, on to the Regal Princess cruise ship at Valparaiso, followed by a leisurely two weeks at sea rounding Cape Horn, via The Falklands and finishing up at Buenos Aires.
Santiago (above), the pretty capital of Chile, sits on the Mapocho River which threads its way through its centre. 1,700 feet above sea level (and about 70 motorway miles from its seaport Valparaiso) it is surround by the snow capped Andes to the east and the coastal hills to the west thus making it susceptible to the type of smog found in northern Los Angles. On a clear day, we are told, the combination of pretty gardens, fine modern and colonial buildings, makes for a very pleasant environment. On pollution days it is not so. Founded in 1541 is the home of the Chilean Congress in a magnificent building open free of charge to the public. The Presidential Palace, built in the early 19th century is also complimentary to all. Well worth the struggle is the climb up to the fortress of Santa Luc”a, set in magnificent parkland, again near the centre of the city. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency in one of the quality suburbs of the city within a short walk of some excellent restaurants and a modern shopping mall. The hotel features lovely grounds, swimming pools and fountains surrounded by eating areas and the views from the rooms are fabulous (above). Taxis are cheap and the metro system is a couple of blocks away. The average temperature during our stay was 27C.
Make sure you find time to visit a vineyard either outside Santiago or just off the motorway to Valparaiso. Chilean wines are superb and a tasting (and purchase) should be on the itinerary.
Regal Princess (seen here at Glacier Pio XI) was one of the first really modern cruise ships, built in 1991, 70,000 tons, 1,500 passengers, with plenty of balcony cabins. It perhaps shows its age in some respects and will be joining Princess Australia at the end of next year, but it does have a dedicated theatre, as friendly a crew as you could possibly wish for, sensible size swimming pools and plenty of deck space for lazing out. It is not too big, the food offerings (24 hours) are more than ample with plenty of choice, and providing you do not spend too much with the on-board photography people and in the spa, exceptional value. We liked it. Easy to get around and with some of the best stage shows afloat. The non-chargeable specialist restaurants never got that busy. Bingo and art auctions are very much in evidence but unless you are interested it is very easy to keep away and ignore. Likewise the casino. The golf putting competition was cancelled around Cape Horn! Half the passengers were from North America. Of the rest Brazil supplied some 200 noisy guests, the UK 150, followed in smaller numbers by Germany, others from South America and the inevitable Japanese.
Puerto Montt is a full day”s steaming from Valparaiso in a benign Pacific at a steady 18.5 knots. It is a tender port, good practice for Stanley later on in the cruise. Princess, and for that matter most competitors, have got their act together very well with disembarkation on the emergency evacuation craft (lifeboats to you and me). You can buy the ship”s tours (which does guarantee they will wait for you if it goes wrong), purchase something similar from a local operator who will most certainly be on the quayside, or negotiate with an (authorised) taxi company, the route usually taken by yours truly. Of course at some places the port itself is ideal for an unaccompanied walking tour. Puerto Montt is the gateway to Chile”s magnificent Lake District, a city quite large by Chilean standards with a population of 130,000 with a fishing port and market plus a cathedral built of wood. It is a bustling place and like everywhere we went to in South America Spanish speaking (only Brazil is Portuguese) the people friendly and only too keen to try their (sometimes struggling) English. We chose a tour that took in the "German Village" of Frutillar, Puerto Varas the "City of Roses" on Lake Llanquihue (yahn-key-way), the fourth largest lake in South America covering 350 square miles, and the spectacular waterfalls of the Petrohue River, the backdrop Mount Osorno, Chile”s version of Japan”s Fuji (above). You can get much higher than we did but a four-wheel drive vehicle is required. We would like to go back to Chile”s lake district.
For the next 24 hours the world”s largest ocean was far from friendly, both pools closed and a lack of guests in the restaurant for evening dining. Regal Princess handled the 30-foot waves very well. At last into the Chilean fjords complex and an early morning arrival at the Pio XI glacier. Simply amazing and surrounded by massive forests and huge rock outcrops. Regal Princess stood well off a ship”s tender to allow the ever-enthusiastic professional photographers to capture the scene. No other ships and no human inhabitations. A far cry from Alaska.
Next the Straights of Magallan and Puerto Arenas, the most southernmost city on the South American mainland. Up to the time of the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 it was an extremely prosperous port of call, the Sara Braun Palace, now a museum, typifying a bygone age. Today it flourishes as an important trading centre for the wool, hides, mutton, and timber produced in southern Chile, the city has sawmills, tanneries and facilities for freezing meat and canning fish. It is also the supply base for the oil industry on the nearby archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. 35 miles to the northwest the Otway Sound penguin colony proved to be an outstanding visit, even for one not that interested in animals and their habitats. Regal Princess docked at Puerto Arenas, the city a 30-minute walk with an interesting diversion, a simply amazing multi-denominational cemetery.
Next stop Ushuaia, Argentina ”at the end of the World”. And then Cape Horn (Chile). How brave the 16th century sea captains must have been. We will be reporting on the second half of our splendid journey, including The Falklands, in a subsequent issue.