Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Photos - Puerto Chacabuco, Coyhaique and the Simpson Valley

These photos may convey why Puerto Chacabuco is known as the place where "the Andes fall into the ocean"

This shot through the window of the bus provides a sense of the chilly, rainy weather we encountered on our trip to Coyhaique and the Simpson Valley

A somewhat soaked BJB leans on the statue we dubbed "Pachamama" of Peruvian fame, a feature of the lovely park in the center of Coyhaique

We trouped through the rain to view this interesting statuary of a herdsman and his dog leading his sheep

The Regional Museum of Patagonia in Coyhaique included
this stuffed Condor (a lot closer view than we had in the
Colca Valley in peru) and the first computer in this part of
of Chile (that photo, as have many others, migrated to who
knows where when I tried to format the blog!)

Among the interesting sights along the way were the only operating windmills in Chile and a lovely waterfall tumbling down right next to the road

We were led along the Simpson River by our guide who pointed out the flora and fauna

After the NCL crowd riding with us on Bus #2 totally and
completely decimated the buffet table (including all of the
Pisco sours and wine) at our luncheon restaurant, our
almost drowned guide calls us back to the bus!

It cleared up a bit on our return trip through the Simpson Valley back to Puerto Chacabuco

A wet and bedraggled group of tourists eagerly line up to get back on the Crown!

Commentary - Puerto Montt – Entrance to the Chilean Lake District

Even after a relaxing day at sea, we weren’t quite ready to explore our first landing in Chile – Puerto Montt, the entrance to the Chilean Lake District. We consider ourselves experienced travelers with a significant number of cruises under our belts. Rarely do we ever book an excursion with the cruise line, knowing that the company charges well above market for the short day trips they sponsor in each port (indeed, excursions are a huge profit center for the cruise industry) and that they cram passengers into buses like sardines in a can on their group outings. Instead, at a fraction of the ship’s price, we usually engage a local tour guide who provides a truly personal experience for our family or small group. I go on the Internet before any trip – land based or cruise – and “interview” several tour guides in places we plan to visit before engaging the one who seems the most knowledgeable and interesting. So far, we’ve had fantastic good luck. Alas, this time my usual approach didn’t produce the results I’ve come to expect. In the seven ports the Crown visited on our cruise, I could find few if any tour guides listed on the Internet (I did find a Chilean tour company that operated in most of the ports but its prices were as or more expensive than NCL!). Several travelers had posted info about some of the ports but in most cases it was quite vague (“you should find taxis at the end of the pier that you can engage by the hour”). We also found one helpful Website – PortReviews.com (www.portreviews.com ) and its South American subsite (click on each port listed on the lower left of the page at www.southamericaportreviews.com) – with detailed and, as we confirmed, accurate information provided by Nancy Norris (you can try emailing her at PortSideTrvl@aol.com ) for each of the ports. But we still were missing any specific tour guide info.

We decided to take a chance of finding a guide “at the end of the pier” in the first port, Puerto Montt, but to pre-book excursions online with NCL for the other ports to be sure we got to see what we thought was the “don’t miss” destination at each venue. We planned to cancel these tours if we thought we could do better on our own (the ones we pre-booked cost $750). Puerto Montt was our “test port” because it was the first stop and because NCL wanted about $100 each to visit Petrohue Falls and Lake Esmeralda, the “must see” attractions. As it turned out, despite our success in Puerto Montt, we didn’t cancel our other NCL tours. First, we encountered some ugly weather in our next three ports and we were skeptical about the availability of locals, bargaining with them in rain and cold, and about them getting us back to the ship on time (we’ve heard horror stories about local tour guides missing the ship’s departure time and we didn’t want to be stuck at the end of the world!). And at the last three ports, in order, there was no worthwhile tour (Falkland Islands), a tour we couldn’t chance missing (the penguin reserve at Puerto Madryn), and a ship’s tour that was as cheap and as good as anything we’d find locally (Montevideo).

When we got to the end of the Puerto Montt pier we found a local tour operator trying to get folks to form a small group (three couples at $25 per person) to take the seven to eight hour roundtrip tour to Petrohue Falls and Lake Esmeraldo. We joined him in enticing others from our ship but those who hadn’t booked NCL tours decided to spend their time in town (there was a recommended Craft Market along the nine blocks walk into town but we had “been there, done that” when it came to handicrafts). We eventually agreed to pay $100 for the two of us (about half the NCL price but that included lunch!) with a private driver. Our driver turned out to be a college kid (according to Barbara, the spitting image of Cupas, the assistant wrestling coach at the University School in the early days of the boys’ athletic careers) who was studying to be a civil engineer. He was from Puerto Montt but studying at the University in Santiago and home for the summer to earn money to pay for school.

On our way to the Pan American highway, we stopped in a park at the edge of the city where we had a wonderful view of the town and the bay, with volcanoes dimly seen in the hazy distance. The advantage of having our own guide was the freedom to stop and see what seemed to be interesting. So when we asked about an interesting looking church on a hill off to our left, our young driver exited and took us to see Sagrada Corazon, a church built by German immigrants, with a lovely interior of contrasting blue and light wood. We couldn’t avoid, however, some of the mandatory stops, including the handicraft market in Puerto Varas, where our college guide found time to chat with an attractive young lady who obviously was his friend!

Most of the ride to the falls and the lake was taken up with “oh, gosh” spectacular views of three snow-capped volcanoes – Orsorno, Calbuco and Hornopiren – and the stunning beauty of the shores along Lake Llanquihue. It seemed as if every time we turned a bend or came out from behind a row of trees we had another unparalleled scene mixing water, mountains, clouds and snow. On top of those views, there were lovely homes, small resorts and rental cottages to consider. I hope the photos we’ve attached provide some sense of the lush and idyllic countryside we traveled on our way to Petrohue Falls.

Our guide shared with us that an unusual drop in rainfall and snow runoff from the mountains meant that the water was low in the lakes and the rivers (he attributed this and all other environmental problems to global warming). As a result, he warned us that Petrohue Falls would be less impressive than normal. That may have been true but the falls certainly caught our full attention! Unlike waterfalls that tumble over a high cliff and plunge far down to a deep pool below, Pertohue Falls is composed of fast driving water rushing through black volcanic rock formations that twist through a number of narrow but wild cascades and culminate in swirling and brilliant blue-green pools. Be assured that there are very special sights and sounds at Petrohue Falls!

Not far away from the Falls, along the Petrohue glacial river (with Class III-IV rapids in some parts), lies Lake Todos los Santos, better known as Lake Esmeraldo, one of the featured bodies of water in the Chilean lake district. We got to spend a half hour walking along the shores of the lake with cloud-shrouded mountains in the backdrop. The azure color of the water is striking and it’s easy to see why Chileans and tourists seek to spend time at the resorts and campsites that dot the shoreline.

The return drive to Puerto Montt was more of the same beautiful scenery. We truly couldn’t get enough of the combination of the sun striking off of dancing lake waters and sparkling snow-studded mountains. We ended up back at the ship after driving through a seemingly prosperous and attractive downtown Puerto Montt. We thanked our young guide (and added a tip that both surprised and pleased him – we have to support kids going through college!) for a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the lake district of Chile. On to cocktails at the Lido Bar where we watched the mountains that surround Puerto Montt fade into a slowly rising haze!

Photos of Puerto Montt, Petrohue Falls and Lake Esmeralda

Our young guide began our tour
by taking us to a lookout on a hill on the other side of the Puerto Montt bay, overlooking the town

Sagrada Corazon was one of the stops on our
excursion to the Lake District

Given our time in Ecuador and Peru, the handicraft market in the small town of Puerto Varas didn't entice us to add to our collection of trinkets

An "emuzing emu" at a farm/ranch/restaurant along the way to Petrohue Falls

As you can tell by Barbara's reaction, we're always amazed by snow-capped peaks, especially volcanoes!

Cattle and cyclists - companions
along this stretch of the Pan
American highway between
Puerto Montt and Lake Esmeralda

Several views of Petrohue Falls;
we were told that the water table
was low and the falls were less
powerful than normal; couldn't
tell by us!

On the shores of beautiful Lake
Todos los Santos, better known
as Lake Esmeralda because of
the vivid blue-green color that
isn't as apparent in our photo!

On our return along Lake
Llanquihue, we had several
views of snow capped volcanoes -
Osorno, Calbuco and Hornopiren,
though we never were sure which
was which!

As we return from our excursion to Petrohue Falls and Lake Esmeralda, we have a clear view of Puerto Montt with our ship docked in the background

Copper mining is a major industry in
the Puerto Montt area. The cathedral
on the central plaza exemplifies its
importance. Look closely and you will
see that copper plays a significant role
in the construction of the church - from
the massive doors to the bell cupola to
the decorative art (alas, the full photo
of the church disappeared!)

Purto Montt combines the old and the new. Above is the recently constructed Paris department store with, according to our young guide, everything that's available in Santiago!

As we leave Puerto Montt, a haze blurs the surrounding hills and gives notice of weather to come!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Cruising Around Cape Horn – Comments on NCL’s Crown

Working our way around Cape Horn was a major goal of this trip. Both of us had romantic recollections of sailing tales about this exotic part of the world – Magellan and other explorers and the sea captains who followed them, creating new lucrative trade routes! What could be more exciting? Indeed, rounding the Cape was so important to us that we planned the entire itinerary by backing up from the cruise departure date. We knew Ecuador and Peru had to be visited on land. Chile and Argentina, on the other hand, could have been toured by land or sea. Based on the wear and tear we expected from the first three-plus weeks spent mostly hiking around, we opted for cruising rather than walking the Horn. We also decided to position the cruise at the end of our six week adventure (we could have done it the other way – beginning the cruise in Buenos Aires and reversing the trip) on the theory that we would be ready to plotz on board and to not pack, unpack and schlep every day or so. It turned out to be a great decision!

The Crown was the perfect ship for this more relaxed portion of our journey. To start, we enjoy the independence that comes with NCL’s “free style cruising,” an approach that allows the passengers to choose when and where they want to eat instead of being locked into, for example, the second seating at a particular table in the main dining room. The Crown also is much smaller than today’s mega ships – 1,000 passengers and 500 crew instead of 3,000-plus and who knows how many staff – which made the ship feel more intimate and much easier to get around. Finally, the ship’s size allowed us to see sights larger vessels are forced to miss – the Chilean fjords, for example (we were in two ports with a much bigger Celebrity ship that we never saw in those tighter venues) – and to anchor at the dock and simply walk off the ship in port (we only had to tender to shore in one port).

We also had a wonderful stateroom for this particular cruise. Sharon Smith of Cruise.com (http://www.cruise.com/ – send her an email before booking your next cruise!) nudged us to select a mini-suite, a step up from the more typical outside cabin. With a king bed, full bath with tub and shower and a sitting area with a love seat, two comfortable chairs and a large window, the stateroom was large enough so we didn’t feel claustrophobic over the extended 14 day period. Susan also thought to place us at the end of a quiet corridor, port side forward on the Lido deck (the eighth level). This allowed us to enjoy many interesting sights from the comfort of our cabin as we passed down the west coast of South America and then up the east coast to Buenos Aires.

Lido turned out to be a terrific deck on which to be located. It was on the same level as the Library (we used that space several times), Le Bistro, the most interesting of the alternative restaurants (we ate there four times, twice at the Pasta Café and once at Chopsticks, the Asian cuisine restaurant), and the Lido Bar, our usual evening cocktail spot aft (Johnny Walker Black on the rocks for BJB; Bombay dirty martini up with olives for JDH) overlooking the pool. Lido was just above Odyssey Deck (the Yacht Club, the buffet restaurant (occasionally for breakfast or lunch), the Casino, shops and the Stardust Theatre), and only two above the Marina Deck (Seven Seas, the main restaurant, as well as the Reception and Shore Excursion desks). On this small ship, we felt we were in the middle of everything.

Just beyond our cabin was “officer country,” the door with restricted entrance sign that led to the quarters for the Captain, the Executive Captain and the Hotel Manager, the three most senior members of the ship’s staff. Normally this would be of little moment, but Barbara and I received a special invitation “to join Captain Berg in his quarters for cocktails" early in the voyage. Having cruised on NCL a number of times (we think six or eight going back to our honeymoon!), we are Silver Latitudes members (well, I am; BJB isn’t so listed even though she’s been with me on every trip!) and apparently we were among the five most “loyal” customer couples on board for this cruise (I note that the other four were much older!). It turned out to be an interesting and informative hour or so. The quarters are quite lovely – a living-dining room combination (full table seating six), office area with a bar, and full bedroom, all dominated by dark wood, eclectic art emphasizing things nautical, and soft lighting with wide windows looking forward. Berg is the youngest captain with whom we’ve sailed (guess, mid-40s) and most personable. He spent 20 minutes or more chatting with the two of us and we learned he’s married (to a former ship’s doctor), lives in South Africa (though he’s Swedish), and has a young daughter (with whom he communicates daily via email). We also learned that the Crown has been sold to a British firm (turn over will be next November). Berg seemed to like the ship quite a bit (because he can take it places the larger vessels cannot go) but he understands it doesn’t fit NCL’s “Free Style Cruising” mantra (there isn’t sufficient space for enough alternative restaurants) and the bigger ships are more economical. We also spent time with the Hotel Manager, a woman from the Netherlands who worked herself up from being a clerk at the Reception desk to be the second most important person on the ship, in charge of all non-sailing/engineering aspects of each voyage, from all food and housekeeping services to entertainment and excursions. While she appeared to love her job she clearly was thinking about how much longer she was willing to do it and what her next career would be. All in all, it was an enjoyable cocktail hour (top shelf liquor, not the swill served at the usual captain’s reception!), the first of its kind we’ve experienced.

The rest of the ship had the usual amenities and services. The Jean Ann Dancers and Singers (the company owned by the spouse of our NSU Law colleague, Howard Messing) provided the live entertainment nightly. The particular troupe on this voyage was quite good and we generally enjoyed the evening shows. We liked both the Lido Bar (more intimate with a good piano player) and the Top of the Crown (larger, forward with “noisier” entertainers). There was the typical poolside deck area for sunning (when it wasn’t too cold to be on deck at all!) and sipping, just outside the Yacht Club if one needed a quick snack. A nice spa and beauty area was on the upper deck (BJB spent some time there), next to the fitness center (full but alas we didn’t use much!). Other than the fact that no one gambled (when open, the casino was empty; the dealers looked like the Maytag repair man; I lost in the one and only round of the blackjack tournament and we had to scramble to get six of us to enter!), the Crown looked and felt like other good ships on which we’ve sailed.

One service we took advantage of in the very first hours on board was the Medical Center. While in Peru (not sure if we were still in Cusco or had left for Puno), I experienced some tingling in my left hand, extending up the left arm. I thought it was Carpal Tunnel because I was using the damn Blackberry so much for email (not enough connectivity to use the laptop as often as I expected; wireless on board the ship was way too expensive for my pocketbook - $25 per hour was the best deal going!). Then somewhere farther along the way I broke out in several sores with blisters, on my little finger, on the inside of my wrist and other spots up my arm. I changed my diagnosis to a strange Peruvian bug that I suspected, probably while I was asleep, bit its way up or down my arm. The sores were consistently painful and very sensitive, with a discomforting feeling regularly traveling along the arm. However, because it didn’t seem to be getting any worse (but then again, not any better!), we decided to wait until we got onto the ship before seeing a doctor (frankly, I wasn’t sure how to select one in Peru or Chile). When we went down to the infirmary the moment it opened on Sunday, the day we boarded, the doctor immediately and emphatically rejected my self diagnoses. The condition had nothing to do with Carpal Tunnel, he said, and it wasn’t any strange insect – it was Shingles! Yup, some chicken pox viruses had been lurking in my spine for about 60 years or so and decided to awaken and whack me while on this long-awaited trip! So this physician from South Africa set me up with a week’s worth of anti-viral pills and a tiny amount of salve (“Treat this like gold,” he said) and sent me off to recover. The sores slowly got less red, the blisters finally broke and the pain gradually subsided (but I still have numbness in my little finger and the occasional annoying spasm up the nerve in the left arm). I certainly hope this was my one and only Shingles attack!

All in all, we had a grand time on NCL’s Crown. I have posted several photos below that we hope will give you a sense of the ship on which we spent two delightful weeks and that was our base for exploring fascinating spots between Valparaiso and Buenos Aires. More on that aspect of our adventure later!

Photos - On Board NCL's Crown

NCL's Crown was the right size ship with the right itinerary for our trip around the Horn

Stateroom 8005 on the Lido Deck provided a comfortable home for our two-week Cape Horn cruise

We were not alone in a crowded Port Valparaiso!

Food is a big deal on any cruise and this trip on the Crown was no exception. Folks flocked to the main dining room (Seven Seas, left) and the huge buffet (the Yacht Club, right). The food was "cruise average" or slightly above

The Jean Ann Ryan company performed well in the Stardust Theatre

Both the Top of the Crown (left) and the Lido Bar (it was on the right but disappeared when I tried to format!) were comfortable places to relax and read while at sea or to have a quiet cocktail before dinner

As it turned out, we had too few days when we could lounge by the pool - summer in the southern portion of South America is damn chilly and wet!

As we leave port, the typical bon voyage party by the pool includes strange drinks in souvenir glasses, eclectic music by the ship's quartet and strangers dancing on the deck!

Checking our wake as we pull away from Valparaiso, bound for Buenos Aires and 'round the Horn!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Santiago, Chile - Commentary

We tried to sneak out of Peru in the dead of night. Actually, our pick-up at the hotel was at 4:30 am for a 7:00 am flight to Santiago. However, our attempt to leave the country quietly was thwarted at the airport when our combined checked luggage was 16 kilos above our 40 kilo limit. We had been hovering around 44 kilos on our earlier intra-Peru flights but we now were lugging the bag we had stored at the hotel in Lima when we first arrived plus all the stuff we had accumulated along the Peruvian way. To make matters worse, for some reason this second international flight on LAN had a maximum of 20 kilos per person, well below the limit on our LAN flight from Quito to Lima. Despite our protests, the LAN agents insisted we pay a penalty. We did succeed in talking them into charging us for an excess of only 10 kilo which reduced the penalty to US $110. A sour note (no, not a Pisco sour!) on which to end our Peruvian adventure!

This 23rd day of our trip was pretty much invested in travel. Our flight was delayed slightly in Lima (probably because LAN had to load so much excess luggage!) and then we lost more time because of a change in time zones. As a result, we didn’t get to our Santiago hotel, a delightful Best Western in a residential area near the river and close to one of the city’s primary thoroughfares, until after 2 pm. We decided we were entitled to a nap and then an early dinner. Unfortunately, we discovered that Barbara either mislaid her wallet or it was stolen when she was paying for the “official taxi” ticket at the airport. Therefore, the afternoon was spent confirming that the missing wallet was not turned in at the airport and contacting the credit card companies. The latter was complicated by the fact that Liz was on her way to the University of California at Santa Barbara for her Ph.D. program interview and she was using one of Barbara’s credit cards to pay for her rental car, hotel and meals. Imagine Liz’s surprise when upon landing she received a call on her cell from the Bank of America Master Card agent! During the ensuing three-way conference, all was straightened out – BoA assured Liz she wouldn’t be rejected and us that we had a sufficient credit line to get through the rest of our trip. But forget the nap! Later, we took a taxi to a restaurant on Av. Providencia, the main drag, highlighted in the guidebook as a warm, vibrant “in” spot for actors, writers and businesspeople (the desk clerk at the hotel had dismissed it as “just a bar!”). It turns out Frommer’s was bang on correct about Bar Liguria. Although packed with a youngish, mid-week, after work crowd, we were lucky and got a table quickly. While the food was fine and made better by a great Chilean wine, it was the atmosphere that made the meal memorable, It was a beautiful evening, the streets were filled with people strolling and we decided to walk back to the hotel (Barbara was leery of taking an unfamiliar metro), tracing a map provided by the hotel. We turned at exactly the right street to make our way over the Rio Mapocho and, lo and behold, found ourselves in the midst of the Southeast Conference! There on one corner was the Club Alabama, right across the street was the Louisiana River Club and a huge Johnny Walker stood guard above them (see photos)! We allowed ourselves to be enticed into sitting at an outside table, enjoying a Cristal cerveza and soaking up the club scene. When we checked in at the hotel, we linked up with a couple from Australia, Ross and Veronica, also checking in and arranged to join a city tour the next day. All four of us apparently misunderstood the tour pick-up time and the hotel staff had to hustle us from breakfast and our room into the van that was transporting us to the larger bus. Feeling we were the victims of incompetence on the part of the desk clerk had a bonding effect and we hung together on the tour, which was interesting and informative. We began at Castillo Hildalgo, an impressive structure on a hill in the center of the city that provided a panoramic view of downtown (but not the surrounding Andes; they were shrouded in Santiago’s almost perpetual smog). An interesting side bar: on the grounds is a statue of a native leader wearing a feathered headdress – of course, the Chilean “Indians” didn’t wear such headgear! We made the required stop at the Plaza de Armas and the ever present Metropolitan Cathedral. At the latter, we learned to facts relating to my favorite order, the Jesuits. First, the Jebbies carved the tremendous cypress doors that open onto three naves; and second, in the third nave is the statue of St. Alberto Hurtando, S.J., the only Jesuit saint (other than the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola) mentioned our travels despite the powerful influence they had in South America. For me, the highlight occurred during the tour of the Plaza Constitucion area, particularly the stunning neoclassical Palacio de la Moneda, originally the royal mint but now the president’s offices, where we caught the tail end of the changing of the guard (both men and women are on duty). From the palace courtyard we saw the open window of the actual office where the President of Chile, a woman, works. We also saw the closed window of the office where the body of ex-President Allende was found after the infamous 1973 Pinochet-led coup. In pointing out the window, our guide commented derisively that the “official” cause of Allende’s death was suicide, making it clear that he and many others don’t believe the “official” story. The tour concluded at the Mercado Central, a huge market similar to those in Barcelona where fishmongers gleefully gut all manner of fish and greengrocers and butchers display their wares. The Mercado is home to a number of well-regarded restaurants with lunch menus filled with local delicacies. Unfortunately, the four of us succumbed to the advice of our guide who obviously was shilling for place where we ended up eating. While the fare was good, it came at a remarkably high price. Even more unfortunate, as we learned later, Veronica had her purse pick pocketed; in addition to credit cards, she lost several hundred dollars and a set of earring purchased that morning in an upscale shop. We believe the snatch was made in the market, not in the metro we later took back to the hotel. The metro, by the way, is terrific way to get about the city and the stations have some very interesting art! That night the four of us took David Cohen’s very strong recommendation to dine at Astrid y Gaston. It was a spectacular meal, beautifully presented and accompanied by another great Chilean wine (and we choose it well; as we left the restaurant we were presented with a bottle of Jim Beam Black; it seems there was a promotion going on!). Ross and Veronica, who are in their ‘70s, regaled us with stories of their adventure travel. For example, just a couple of years ago they were the clear seniors in a group that climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and they earlier had traipsed through many of the jungles and mountains of South America. This excursion they were on a six-month round the world trip (the second couple we met on this schedule!) taking them everywhere. And they weren’t just strolling around – for example, the next day they schedule a trip to the highest elevation in South America and second highest in the world after the Himalayas! They are our heroes and we hope to visit them in Melbourne! A more pedestrian (no pun intended) plan lay ahead of us. I had reserved a car with Rosselot, a local agency recommended by Frommer’s (at a price far less than Hertz, Avis or any known brand) to allow us to drive from Santiago to Viña del Mar, the resort town on the Pacific, next to Valparaiso, the embarkation point for our cruise. The next morning the same remises driver who drove us to dinner the first night took me to the auto rental agency (he plans on coming to South Florida in the next six months and he wanted to know what it would be like to be an illegal!). When we arrived, the manager apologized because the car reserved for us had mechanical problems and it would be at least three hours (yeah, I believed that estimate!) before it would be available for us. He had, however, an alternative – a five-passenger Mitsubishi pick-up truck with air (but diesel, not regular gas)! Given the alternatives, including our interest in visiting vineyards on our way to the coast, I selected the pick-up. To learn how well we fared in our red pick-up, check our next posting on Viña del Mar and Valparaiso!

Viña del Mar and Valparaiso - Commentary

Once we loaded the back seat of our red Mitsubishi pick-up with our luggage, we were ready for our 120 km drive to Viña del Mar, one of Chile’s most fashionable beach resorts. We were a bit nervous about getting out of the city onto the highway heading west (we had observed how folks drive in Santiago with buses traveling at breakneck speed and the reliance seemingly on the horn in place of the brakes!). It turned out to be simple – three turns from our hotel we entered the lengthy cross-town tunnel that makes Boston’s “Big Dig” look like a hole in the ground (and it hasn’t collapsed once!). The tunnel dumped us onto the main road west for a pleasant drive to the coast. Our plan was to visit two recommended wineries, Veramonte and Matetic Vineyards, in the Casablanca Valley, situated between Santiago and Viña del Mar/Valparaiso. The soil in this relatively new winemaking region of Chile is perfect for growing chardonnay and sauvignon blanc grapes and Veramonte and Matetic produced well-regarded whites along with several signature reds (but Barbara prefers white wine). Alas, the guidebook and website directions to these vineyards left much to be desired. For Veramonte, we did have a highway mile marker to help us. However, the numbers changed along the way and we were totally confused. As a result, we zipped by the winery’s only road sign, located right next to the exit, distracted further by an upcoming toll booth. Luckily, after going through the toll there was another exit from which we could see grapes growing off to the right into the distance. Taking a chance, we followed an unmarked road that turned into a single dirt stretch that twisted to a dead end at the rear gate to the Veramonte winery. We convinced the guard we were lost visitors and he let us in, directing us past staff lodging under a beautiful arbor to a soaring rotunda set among grape fields with the mountains in the background. We spent a pleasant half hour in a state of the art tasting room, sampling three terrific wines and chatting with the staff. We left with two bottles of Veramonte’s best chardonnay, determined to smuggle them aboard in violation of ship’s regs and to enjoy them on the cruise. Unfortunately, despite a watchful eye, we never found the Matetic Vineyard and drove straight to Viña del Mar and our hotel, a comfortable Best Western two blocks from the famous Hotel Viña del Mar and the casino. We picked the hotel because it had parking, a premium in Viña during the summer high season when a good portion of Santiago and beyond descends on the beaches. After checking in and dumping the luggage, I had to drive around the block (Viña is a maze of one-way streets) to get to the hotel’s attached parking garage. Unfortunately, my Spanish is so poor I misunderstood the signs about a right hand turn and I went quite a few blocks, taking at least 15 minutes instead of one or two. Barbara and the bell captain were perplexed, to say the least. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening wandering around Viña del Mar, going through the five-star hotel and casino and dining at a lovely tapas-type restaurant overlooking one of the beaches, within site of the “castle” and facing a great sunset. Determined to find the Matetic Vineyard, we got directions (sort of!) from the hotel’s senior remises driver and set off again (after filling up with expensive diesel fuel) on the highway between Viña del Mar and Santiago. We got off at the same exit for the back entrance to Veramonte and turned in the opposite direction. The guidance from the remises driver was to proceed “some kilometers” and the vineyard would be “on the left.” After traveling for quite some kilometers without any sign of Matetic and running into another major limited access road (never mentioned by the remises driver!), we turned around, thinking we could inquire in what looked like a gated winery entrance back a few kilometers. As we came upon the gate we thought was a winery a car was exiting. So we entered only to discover we were in a gated community of homes and the gate closed after we got through! Alas, it wasn’t one of those entrances you can approach to exit and the gate opens; no, to exit you had to punch in a code! So down the only street we went but it looked as if no one was home at any of the eight or so houses. Finally, we saw a man walking his dog inside the gate to his home. Barbara tried to apologize to him in Spanish and tell him in Spanish about our mistake and the need to get back through the gate. Finally, the man asked Barbara in clear English, “What language do you speak?” It turns out he spent some years in the US (“in New York,on Long Island”) and spoke our language far better than we spoke his! He graciously opened the gate for us and provided explicit directions to Matetic, a vineyard he seemed to know well. With guidance in which we had confidence, we found the vineyard in an absolutely glorious setting. Among Matetic’s claims to fame are a first class restaurant and lovely lodging for overnight guests (who wandered about as we did until they stumbled on the place!). We had a marvelous lunch stylishly presented and accompanied by a bottle of their premier sauvignon blanc and served in their restaurant in the round next to a picturesque pond surrounded by roses and other flowers. Awesome! Although we then followed the signs to their bodegas, we never did get to tour the Matetic vineyard. Instead we headed to Valparaiso, Chile’s major port and a captivating town that is the blue-collar sister to the upscale Viña del Mar. We parked near the commercial docks, the main square and an impressive public building. Like San Francisco, Valparaiso is built on hills and one must ride an ascensor (furnicular) to get a sense of the city. At the tourist information office we were directed to Ascensor Artilleria, the city’s longest with the best view of the area. After standing in a long line, we joined about 10 other passengers in an ancient car (scared the crap out of BJB!) for the several minute ride to the top. The view was all it was cracked up to be, enjoyed over a cervesa. From Valparaiso, we headed back to and through Viña del Mar, this time to get a real sense of the beach life on a summer weekend. The traffic would have been maddening if we had been in a rush to get somewhere. Not so committed, it was an enjoyable couple of hours, out to and beyond the high profile and incredibly crowded Reñaca Beach. After stunning views of the Pacific and the upscale apartments and condos, it was back to the hotel, a leisurely Italian dinner and getting ready for boarding ship the next day.