Longtime traveler’s reactions to his first cruise

By Albert Podell
This item appears on page 24 of the May 2018 issue.
Young Limeños dancing in a square in Lima, Peru. Photos by Albert Podell

After having visited every country in the world by air, train, bus, car, bicycle or camel, I finally, at age 80, took my first cruise. In 60 years of traveling, I had steadfastly resisted cruising because of my concern about getting bored, fat or seasick. 

When I decided to give cruising a try, I resolved that, at the very least, I had to find an itinerary that would take me somewhere I’d never been, which is not easy if you think you’ve been everywhere. But I found it on a once-a-year, 15-day Norwegian Sun “repositioning” cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line (866/234-7350, www.ncl.com) that would enable me to visit the far-southernmost quadrant of South America. (I had previously only driven as far south as Puerto Montt in Chile.)

This voyage, April 10-25, 2017, would take me to the Falkland Islands, into the Beagle Channel (and to such remote places as Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego and Punta Arenas), around the Horn, through the Straits of Magellan, into the lovely Chilean fjords and up along the Pacific all the way to Santiago.

This would be immediately followed by a second, 20-day cruise on the same ship up to San Francisco, April 25-May 15. 

I was also attracted to what Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) calls its “Free at Sea” deal, which allows one to avoid the formality of fixed dining times, assigned tables and fancy dress.

I enjoyed most of my voyage hugely, though I did gain 10 pounds from the abundance of truly delicious food on board. But this old traveler was in for a few surprises.

Palacio Salvo in Plaza Independencia — Montevideo, Uruguay.

I had naively assumed there would be no mishaps or adventures on a large, stable ship traveling to peaceful countries, but two days before we were due to dock in Valparaíso, the port for Chile’s capital of Santiago, the dockworkers went on strike.

NCL did an excellent job of improvising in the short time they had, and our ship docked at the unglamorous freight-and-fishing port of San Antonio, becoming reportedly the first cruise ship to ever dock there. The offloading and Customs procedures went smoothly, and NCL arranged free shuttle service to Valparaíso. 

Also, before we docked in Salaverry (the port for Trujillo, the third-largest city in Peru), months of rain caused landslides and flooding that destroyed 14,000 homes, killed more than 100 people and left 150,000 homeless across the country. When we arrived in Salaverry, its Plaza Major was still partly flooded. I sought to see the mudslide area for myself by taxi, but it was entirely cordoned off by the local authorities.

I must confess that I somehow managed to sleep through what other passengers described as a frightening heeling over of the ship one night at around 1 a.m., when the Sun exited the relative protection of the Beagle Channel for the open ocean and got blasted by a treacherous williwaw wind. When I walked around the next morning, I saw that many of the bottles and much of the stemware in the bars were smashed.

I also had naively assumed that traveling on a ship was somehow socially different than other kinds of traveling. I assumed — probably from my memory of elegant old Cunard posters from the golden age of ocean liners of my youth — that the other passengers and I would be treated as honored guests. Instead, it felt as though we were captive consumers.

I felt trapped while in the noisy nautical shopping mall — not my idea of a vacation. And there was a relentless, never-ending selling atmosphere aboard the ship, including repeated public-address announcements exhorting us to buy stuff. 

There were advertisements for liquor, perfume and crystal in all of the elevators. There were also pretty spa workers hovering around the elevator door on the 11th deck trying to talk us into buying acupunc­ture, Botox, Restylane and ionithermie slimming treatments, massages, footprint analysis, procollagen facials, keratin therapy and full-body exfoliations.

When we disembarked to visit a port, we were confronted by crew members costumed as colorful animals waiting at the bottom of the gangplank to wrap their arms around us for a photo — a print that we could purchase that very night for only $24. 

Internet access cost 50¢ to 95¢ a minute, laundry service cost $19.99 for a small bag, and beverage packages cost $79 per person per day. Discounts were offered if you purchased three or four shore excursions at one time. We could prepay for future NCL cruises. 

Iglesia de la Merced, on the pedestrian street Jirón de la Unión, in Lima, Peru.

There was a newsletter announcing six or seven types of sales each day and an art gallery with raffles, auctions and various offerings. 

We could also buy liquor, tobacco, emeralds, cognacs, cubic zirconia, watches, binoculars, cameras, charm bracelets, lottery tickets, bingo cards and casino chips as well as souvenir maps signed by the captain.

I might have found these sales pushes tolerable if the ship were offering real bargains on the merchandise, but, in my opinion, they were not.

On several days, the atrium was lined with tables festooned with signs reading “75% Off” on watches. I asked the crew member in charge of the sale if the price tags affixed to the watches were the true retail prices, and he assured me they were, so I happily paid $229 for an Invicta Pro Diver that carried a tag of $916. 

When I got home, I found the identical watch offered all over the Internet for $150. I wrote to NCL to complain, and they replied that they outsourced the sales to a firm and had no control over the prices. I wrote that firm and received no answer.

As for shore excursions, on day seven I purchased a shore excursion for $219 to see the Magellanic penguins in their nesting grounds at the Península Valdés wildlife sanctuary. 

It was a 3-hour drive each way in a crowded minivan across the most monotonous plains in Patagonia, relieved only here and there by the sight of a guanaco or Patagonian hare in the bush, a black turkey vulture atop an electric pole, a few white lesser rheas in the distance and a solitary sooty shearwater flying overhead as we neared the beach.

When we finally reached the wildlife sanctuary, we discovered that the NCL agent selling this excursion had failed to inform us that almost all of the Magellanic penguins had migrated north to warmer weather in Brazil. Only a few couples were left, waiting to finish their molting and recover their waterproofing feathers before joining the colony.

I took only one more guided shore tour, paying NCL $109 for a 90-minute ride to Magellan Strait Park, on a hill overlooking the waterway. The driver/guide on our bus was fair but nothing special, and he used a microphone that was often unintelligible in the rear of the bus.

More experienced and, I feel, wiser passengers had hopped into waiting taxis just outside the port at $35 a head for the identical trip with English-speaking drivers.

Participant at a Sunday festival in Lima, Peru.

From that experience, I learned that by walking to the port gates, I could find dozens of vans and taxis willing to take me to tourist spots for about one-quarter of the price charged by the ship for an excursion.

In addition, in a taxi with just three other passengers, there was ample opportunity to ask the driver as many questions as came to mind. Furthermore, I observed that passengers often gave tips to the taxi drivers, which gave them added incentive to provide scintillating commentary.

The only exceptions to this general availability of taxi drivers as English-speaking guides occurred when the trip being made was from the ship to a major city, such as Lima or León. In those cases, the drivers waiting for us spoke Spanish exclusively and only provided transit to the city. Passengers did not expect them to serve as guides.

Ultimately, the constant selling did not quench my newfound enthusiasm for the comfort, convenience and camaraderie of cruising.

New York, NY

Norwegian Cruise Line was sent a copy of what Mr. Podell wrote, and, in a phone call, a representative told ITN, “Mr. Podell’s letter had both positive and negative things to say about his cruise… . Guests are entitled to their opinions.”