Crystal Harmony February 1998 South American Cruise
When we advanced booked a cruise on the Crystal Harmony up the east coast of South America in 1997 we had no idea that I would be offered a consulting "opportunity" in connection with the privatization of the Brazilian government-owned telephone company, Telebras. As a result, I spent most of the time from August 1997 through June 1998 in Brazil. Therefore the cruise in February 1998, our sixth on Crystal, turned out to be a true vacation from work and an occasion for getting reacquainted with my ever-so-patient wife who had remained home in California.
She flew from San Francisco and I from Brasilia to Buenos Aires, Argentina and despite her missed connections in Miami and therefore a brief detour via Santiago, Chile we both arrived in Buenos Aires the same day. So much for logistics. The Hotel Park Hyatt was selected by Crystal Cruises for their pre-cruise accommodations. It was first class in every respect with the biggest bathtub and bath towels we had ever seen.
Buenos Aires is a very European city - neither of us had eaten lunch and we almost starved to death by the time the Argentineans got around to opening restaurants for dinner (7:30PM is very, very early to eat in South America). The city has wide boulevards, many parks and the usual monuments of generals on horseback who look like they are just about to be thrown. We were impressed with how clean we found Buenos Aires. The city tour was heavily laced with Peron memorabilia (Evita's tomb, the balcony where she addressed the workers, etc.) but it was also quite comprehensive and provided an opportunity to see the entire city. On foot the city is a little more difficult - it is not laid out completely logically on a grid and some streets meet at odd angles and one we found ended in a wall but started again a block further. But the Argentineans proved to be very helpful; one young business man went way out of his way to deliver us to the address we couldn't find on our own. Nearly everyone speaks English if you don't feel up to remembering your high school Spanish.
Shopping in Buenos Aires is a must - prices are quite reasonable for leather products made in Argentina. If you have ever lusted after a leather jacket or coat, this is the place to purchase it. Excellent quality, wide selection and outstanding prices ($250-$300 for a men's or women's hip length jacket). If you make a major purchase use your credit card and you'll get the best exchange rate. The food is great (Argentine beef is all range fed and billed as low fat(?), water is safe from the tap, the streets are clear of the typical South American panhandlers, didn't hear of anyone having their pockets picked. We had found the jewel of South America.
Crystal pre-boarded us at the hotel so our arrival at the ship was merely a matter of walking on board and going to our stateroom. The luggage was in the room and ready for our unpacking (how do they do that!). Our stewardess arrived at the door almost immediately to inquire if there was anything that we wanted, needed, or couldn't do without. Crystal has really got embarking and debarking down to a science.
The Crystal Ships are owned by the Japanese NKD shipping line and operated by Crystal Cruises - a Los Angeles based U.S. firm. The Officers are Norwegian, the deck crew is U.S. and Philippine, the Dining Room staff is European, the stateroom stewardess' are all Scandinavian , and the Front Desk is manned by Americans. It all comes together beautifully!
Our departure was delayed several hours while the ship waited for some air connections that were running late. Maybe we are too conservative but flying over 5000 miles to arrive the same day as the ship departs is a little too adventurous for us. Besides you miss the opportunity of seeing the departure city and adjusting to the correct time zone.
The shipping route from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, Uruguay (our first port of call) is through a rather narrow dredged channel through the Rio de la Plata. It is also a shallow channel only 30 feet deep at high tide. A number of times during the night we could feel and hear the Crystal Harmony (draft 25') lightly scrape the bottom or sides of the channel where they had missed a spot when dredging.
Montevideo is a city frozen in time: 1920-1930s. Approaching the harbor, we threaded our way past the buoys marking the grave of the W.W.II German pocket battleship the Graf Spee. From the dock we could see from our verandah a number of ships just outside the breakwater that rusted out and had settled to the bottom. We drove through the city of Montevideo to Punta del Este, the "French Riviera" of the South Atlantic. The city center square in Montevideo is right out of the Victorian era. Ornate Hotels and civic buildings - you almost expect to see men in high starched collars and chauffeur driven Hispano-Suiza town cars driving by. Punt del Este is where we found all the money in Uruguay. Beautiful homes, fancy hotels, expensive cars - definitely an international upscale resort area. Uruguay has very well made embroidered T-shirts and sweatshirts and the prices are quite reasonable for the quality. The selection on the main street of Punt del Este was particularly good and reasonably priced. Be sure and get rid of any Uruguay money before you leave as Brazil won't take it nor will American Express when you get home. Shop keepers take American dollars but give change in Uruguay pesos.
The next two days were spent "Sailing up to Rio" de Janeiro (from the song of the same name). The weather was perfect. The air was mild and it was a great time to relax before the excitement of Rio. One evening was our first formal dinner - tuxes or dark suits for the men, party or cocktail dresses for the ladies. I would say 70% of the men wore tuxes and the rest dark suits.
A word about the food on Crystal Cruises. It is every bit as good as you would find in any fine restaurant anywhere in the world - with flashes of real genius! How they manage this quality at a mass feeding is a credit to the kitchen staff and the design that went into the kitchen. The mushroom soup is to die for! The beef is superior (I understand it is prime Harris Ranch beef flown in refrigerated containers to the ports where the ships provision). Sauces are light and well presented. Pastas are as good as any in Italy. And the dessert variety is challenging - they will give you two or more if you can't decide which one you want. Portions are appropriately sized for passengers who are eating five times a day. If you want a bigger offering, just let your waiter know. If nothing on the menu appeals to you (I find that difficult to conceive) you can always special order a filet steak or fish of the day. Should you elect to eat in your stateroom, the menu is the same as in the main dining room during normal dinner hours.
Crystal offers a "Healthy Fare" choice on all their menus. These are for those cruisers with a guilt complex. We are of the school that believes ..... better to lose a few pounds before the cruise and then lose it over again after the cruise. Meanwhile enjoy! Crystal offers two alternative resturants (reservations required). One is Italian - try the Lamb Shanks but pass on the Ceasar salad. The other is Asian offering a variety of Japanese and Chinese dishes.
We glided past Sugar Loaf and entered the harbor of Rio at dawn. We docked just ahead of a ship of another major cruise line (black hull - white superstructure). We had selected this particular Crystal cruise of South America because it would be in Rio during Carnival. Our neighbors departed the following day - just hours before the Carnival started!
Rio is a visual treat no matter what direction you look. Sugar Loaf offers the best and most spectacular views of the city, beaches, harbor and the land to the north. The cable car to the summit is in two stages and best taken in the morning before the crowds build and the wait grows. Also the sun is still at your back when you take pictures of the city and Corcovado in the background.
The following day we boarded the cog wheel trains to climb Corcovado (higher than Sugar Loaf) to see the statue of Christ the Redeemer with arms outstretched and the city from that vantage point. One of the cog wheel trains had been held up "wild west style" the preceding week so every car was guarded by a "Federal" (national police) carrying an Uzi. Unfortunately, between the time we left sea level and reached the summit, the fog had arrived (or come in, down or up - whatever fog does). It was eerie - the ground below was invisible. I did get a striking picture of Christ's arm sticking out of a cloud! But on the off chance that you do hit Corcovado on a clear day, try to go in the afternoon so the sun is at your back as you see and photograph the city of Rio, the harbor, beaches and Sugar Loaf in the background.
There are slums glued to the sides of the hills and the conditions in them are terrible. There is no running water and therefore the lower down you live in these areas, the better, as you don't have to carry the water jugs as far. However, those at the bottom also get everything those above throw out the window. I guess it is a trade off. The Brazilian government is attempting to clean out these areas but there is so much to do in Brazil to improve the overall national standard of living and so far the funds are limited. Brazil is only a few years away from an inflation rate of 20% a month!
Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking country that speaks a version called Brazilian-Portuguese. As I said earlier I worked there for almost a year and, try as I might, I never mastered more than the words required for creature comforts. It is a difficult language and spoken very rapidly with much inflection and body language. Most of the people educated at the last two years of high school or college level speak English. Don't try your Spanish. Some words look the same but don't necessarily mean the same and it could prove embarrassing to both you and the Brazilian who is trying to understand you.
A word about taxis. There are a lot of them and they are far preferable to cramming yourself onto a city bus. The taxis are all "compacts" and have mostly been flogged to death by their frustrated Grand Prix drivers. Taxis generally slow down at Red Lights and do not give way to anything other than a bus, truck or larger taxi. Taxi drivers do not speak English, so have a Brazilian tell them where you are going (they will be happy to oblige). Fares are reasonable and the meters are accurate (+/- 10% is allowable). Don't tip! You will ruin it for the Brazilians. But do round up to the next dollar when paying. Try to have a supply of Brazilian currency in small bills as it has never occurred to a Brazilian taxi driver to have any change. A Portuguese phrase you might wish to remember is "Muste Devarga!". This is best shouted at your taxi driver with much emotion, it means: "If it would not be too much trouble, would you mind slowing down, I am not in that much of a hurry and would like to arrive at my destination alive." Incidentally, pedestrians do not have the right of way and extra points are awarded for nailing a tourist (bonus points after dark!), so be careful when crossing the street and don't be upset if a taxi appears to veer towards you, just jump out of the way - it is the only entertainment many of the taxi drivers get.
We saw Cococabana Beach (colorful) and Ipanema (better). Didn't have time to go swimming, and unless you have already had all the bugs you can catch, I wouldn't suggest even sticking your big toe in the unfortunately polluted water. The bathing suits are as brief as advertised - on the beach - Brazilian cultural morals have the girls putting skirts on the minute they step off the sand. Staring is OK - obvious photographing is frowned upon. You might wish to aim your camera at the wide and very ornate black and white tile sidewalks ...... with a bikini in the background.
Our evening at the Carnival was worth the whole trip. Crystal had arranged for buses right from the dock to the back of the permanent grandstand section where our reserved seats were located. It couldn't have been easier and we avoided the packed streets and wild party strewn sidewalks both going and coming from the ship.
The Carnival parades are held in a six block long elongated stadium called the Samba Drome, especially constructed for the events. The parade participants are members of various samba clubs of up to 5000 members who work all year long on their costumes and multiple floats. Each club has one hour to pass through the Samba Drome. They are judged on a number of criteria and the winners then appear the following week in the semifinals and then in the finals. The costumes are breathtakingly beautiful, the floats are huge, very ornate and all have dancers at various levels on them. They are pushed by 15-20 club members as gasoline motors are not allowed. Think of the Pasadena Rose Parade multiplied fifty-fold and with nudes! The noise level is deafening. Each club has its own Samba tune composed especially for the event and many of the street level spectators join in the wild abandon of the parade dancing - those in the grandstand just thrash in place. We had been forwarned about the amplification by coworkers in Brazil and had brought our airline earplugs which reduced the volume to a tolerable level.
The activities get under way at 7:30PM. We saw four Samba Clubs and snuck back to the ship at midnight. Some of our fellow passengers stayed until the bitter end (dawn).
If you plan on photographing the Carnival, a few suggestions. First, use high speed film. I used 1000 speed and exposed at 1/200 at f4.5. Second try to "spot meter" (if your camera is so equipped) on the samba dancers or floats. The arc lights used for illumination will really throw your exposure off if your exposure meter picks them up. A lens hood is also a good idea as the arc lights caused a flare in the corner of the lens without it. Use a "warming filter" - the arc lights throw everything into the blue spectrum. I used a "1A" and it seemed just about right. Also, a zoom lens, out to at least 200mm, enables you to get closeups of the floats and dancers from the grandstand. If this all seems like too much trouble, the Crystal photo team took excellent shots and sold albums of the Carnival from the photo studio on board.
An interesting sidelight to the Carnival, as we entered the grandstand everyone was handed a plastic bag which contained a program, advertising souvenirs from Brazilian firms, and a square packet that contained an embroidered head band and a string to wear the packet (which contained a condom) around your neck(many Carnival goers have no pockets or anything to put a pocket into). It was amazing the number of fellow passengers who that night and the following day wore the headbands which proudly spelled out, in Portuguese, "I practice Safe Sex!"
Shopping in Rio consists of the typical tourist stuff. An ashtray with a miniature statue of "Christ the Redeemer" with arms outstretched over the bowl was a memorable sight. For those who want a little more quality, Brazilian gemstones are an excellent buy. Brazilian Aquamarine is the finest in the world. Due to a quirk in the U.S. Law, it can be imported into the U.S. without any duty (!) regardless of price. Just be sure to have the seller stamp the sales certificate with the statement that 85% of the jewelry or more is Brazilian made.
Brazilian gold is more gold in color than we are accustomed to seeing (like Hong Kong gold). It is 18Kt or 20Kt not 14Kt. As a result, it is a little softer metal so be sure the setting is adequate to hold the gemstone(s) firmly. All the major jewelry firms have representatives at the dock and you can't miss tripping over them. I make no recommendation other than that H. Stern is one of the oldest, has stores worldwide and has a good reputation among those Brazilians who can afford to buy jewels. They will give you transportation to (and from) their firm's headquarters in Rio and throw in a mini tour of the city en route. Expect to pay about 55-60% of what you would pay in the H. Stern store in New York or Los Angeles after figuring in the exchange rate (US$1 to Brazilian R$1.18 as of this writing). The Brazilian "Real" is usually expressed as R$. Sometimes they leave the "R" off so be sure and ask if it is Brazilian or U.S. dollars.
The following two days at sea were a welcome spell of relaxation after the whirlwind of Rio. We arrived in Recife (a city of about 1 million right at the tip of the eastern bulge of Brazil) at 8AM the next morning. Recife is like every other Brazilian city of that size I've seen in Brazil and will give you a taste of Brazilian culture, architecture and way of life outside of Rio, Sao Paulo (which is sort of like Los Angeles on steroids) and Brasilia - the nation's very stylish but sterile capital city. Recife is mostly old, a little new, lots of dirt showing and horrible unemployment.
The attraction to Recife(pronounced Ree-see-fee) is the old star shaped three story regional jail that has been converted into an arts and crafts shopping center, the beach - which is clean and swimmable and of course the obligatory cathedral. The nearby hilltop city of Olinda (pronounced O-lean-da), which was the colonial capital of Brazil under Portuguese rule, should not be missed. The view from the cathedral plaza in Olinda over the red tile roofs below is very picturesque.
The best souvenir buys in Recife are around the cathedral plaza on the hilltop in Olinda. Carved wood objects and home knit textiles abound. The most unique souvenir is the sand painting inside of clear glass bottles. This is a local home craft specialty of the northeastern coastal states of Brazil. It is accomplished by filling a bottle very carefully with different colored sand through a funnel and straw, creating a picture in layers until the bottle is full. Then it is corked with molten wax and the sand remains in place because there is no place for it to shift. I've seen it done and it is a very slow delicate process. The authentic ones go for up to R$25 for a pint size bottle. There are imitations which go for much less but the sand painting is on paper and the paper is then inserted in the bottle. You can easily tell the difference by both appearance and weight.
You are very near the equator in Recife, so expect it to be rather hot and humid and the sun to be pretty strong (no smog here to cut the UV) so wear sun screen and a hat if that's your weakness. Another photography tip: Taking your camera out of a cool air-conditioned low humidity stateroom into a hot humid climate can cause the lens to instantly fog over. In some severe cases the fog even extends to the inside of the lens elements and then you are really in trouble. Crystal provides a hair dryer in the cabins for the purpose of warming up your camera for a few minutes before going outside. It works like a charm.
A caution: While ashore in Recife you will find there are a number of vendors around who chop the top off a coconut stick in a straw and sell you a nut full of clear coconut water (the "milk" comes from crushed coconut meat). It is very tasty but it also affects some people with a short-lived and violent internal cleansing action - so be forewarned! Better carry a water bottle from the ship - never, never drink the local water in Brazil - even the locals don't.
Leaving Recife we had five days at sea (it is a big world and mostly water!) on the way to the island of Martinique. This is a bit much for other than the most enthusiastic seafarer so bring several good books you have been wanting to read. Both Crystal ships (Crystal Harmony and Crystal Symphony) have well stocked libraries and a very active schedule of daily activities, so if you get bored it is your own fault. Midway we passed 100 miles to sea from the mouth of the Amazon and the water was still muddy that far from land. We were also offered an extended tour of the bridge. Don't pass it up. The bridge is a masterpiece of technology.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the Crystal Harmony's entertainment. It is on a par with the best of Broadway on tour. I understand they have three casts (each of 10-12 members), one working each ship and one on land in rehearsal or on vacation. The costumes are fabulous - I understand they spend upwards of $500,000 each year on costumes. The shows are all high energy musicals and last about an hour. The stage in the Galaxy theater surpasses that found in most theaters. It raises/lowers, turns, has fog and enough lights for Radio City Music Hall. On show nights there are two performances, one for the early and one for the late diners. Before the show, an eight piece orchestra plays for dancing. On nights when there is not a show there is club type entertainment that is very professional and ranges from humorists and jugglers to concert pianists.
As we passed Barbados, our final port of call, we made an unscheduled stop about ten miles off shore for an ill passenger to be airlifted by helicopter to the hospital in Barbados. Crystal has a physician and nurse on board and very well-equipped medical offices. They also consult with staff physicians on shore via satellite telephone. I know as I was the subject of a satellite conference call from the South China Sea while being examined for the possiblity of a detached retina (fortunately it was not).
The island of Martinique is one of the windward islands and a state of France. This is the opportunity to practice your high school French. However, most of the locals speak a Creole dialect of French which makes the French language incomprehensible to the non-Caribbean trained ear. The big attraction is the town of St. Pierre at the other end of the island from the port city. St. Pierre was destroyed by the nearby volcano Pelee in 1902 and only one person survived - a prisoner in the basement of the jail (everyone on Martinique will tell you this story so be prepared to react as if you had never heard it before). If you can, drive from St. Pierre across the island to the eastern side. It is a good road and a pretty drive through the unspoiled non-tourist part of Martinique. Martinique specializes in French perfume, French China and French frocks. We found no bargains and left empty handed.
Barbados was our final port of call. Barbados is British, with a folk culture of African heritage, so you get a chance to practice your English here. I'm reminded of Churchill's comment that "England and the United States share a common culture and are divided only by a common language!" Barbados is like that. Since gaining its independence in 1966 from the British Empire, Barbados has been struggling to get its economy self-sufficient. They seemed to have zeroed in on sugar cane and tourism. They raise a lot of sugar cane and they have some lovely hotels. We stopped at "The Cliffs" for morning tea, a very relaxed but somehow elegant small resort on top of a cliff overlooking the eastern wide sandy beaches of Barbados. Barbados frequently gets hit by hurricanes so most of what you see in the way of construction is designed for high winds. Shopping in Barbados is for sugar cane souvenirs or English goods - more expensive than in London.
We returned to the states via Miami. The Miami airport was dedicated to the cult of "power walking." It has the friendliest immigration agents and the most intelligence-deprived customs agents in the United States. Spanish is the local language.
Would we recommend this Crystal Cruise - South American Adventure. An unqualified yes, if your interest is in seeing Buenos Aires (go a day or two early), Rio de Janeiro (try to select the cruise that will be in Rio for the Carnival), a rural Brazilian city (Recife) and the enjoyment of a number of smooth days at sea in the warm South Atlantic. Would we recommend Crystal Cruises? We give them the highest of marks (and we have tried Holland America Line in the past). Crystal is classy without being pretentious, the ships are "comfortable," they offer excellent service in an unobtrusive friendly manner and the food is well prepared and presented. If you find anything lacking they will promptly take care of it for you. For example, I like a harder pillow than their very luxurious goose down ones. It took all of ten minutes for our stewardess to come up with one. The filet steak I ordered one night (which wasn't on the menu) was tender and cooked to perfection.
Note: the passengers are mostly in their 50s and 60s - if you are traveling with children they will accommodate you, but Crystal probably wouldn't be your first choice for the kids to have the most enjoyable time.
Although Crystal Cruises is not at the inexpensive end of the scale of cruises, in our opinion they are an excellent value for the cost! You can book early and save. Or book a cabin on the Promenade Deck (without a verandah) and you can save even more. You still have a big picture window looking out above the promenade deck - the stateroom windows are 8' above the deck so you still have privacy. The Crystal Harmony has a few inside cabins, the Crystal Symphony does not.
Richard B (Dick) Griffiths is a very experienced cruiser, an old friend from the CompuServe Cruise Forum and one of last month's Best of the SeaLetter award recipient. Dick can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please