Saturday, January 27, 2024

A bargain cruise with nothing to see but the sea

Azamara Onward

Maybe I should change my name to Tom Triton. It (sort of) rhymes with Dryden. And Triton, in Greek mythology, was King of the Seas. 

That’s me. 

Between November 18 and January 20, I spent 28 days on cruise ships. The first was a 12-day cruise from Lisbon to Ft Lauderdale. The second was a 16-day voyage from Buenos Aires to central Chile via Antarctica. 

Halfway through the first cruise, I received an email from longtime friend, Carolyn Worthington, publisher of "Healthy Aging" magazine. I replied we were on a repositioning cruise aboard a top-shelf cruise line, and that it was everything we hoped it would be, and more, at an incredible price to boot. She invited me to write an article explaining the benefits of a repositioning cruise for the January issue of her magazine and, when I got home, I did (see below).

What’s a repositioning cruise? Read this and you’ll find out and learn how you can enjoy a lengthy, luxurious and leisurely sea voyage for as little as (hold on to your hats) $50 a day. That’s cheaper than staying at home (unless, of course, you are incarcerated but it's a safe bet nobody's leaving chocolates on your pillow at night). 


Imagine you are a contestant on America’s longest-running game show as the announcer describes the grand prize on which you are about to bid. “Today’s showcase is … a transatlantic cruise!”  (Oohs, aahs and applause from the audience.)

“That’s right, you and a guest will enjoy a 12-day cruise from Lisbon, Portugal, to Florida aboard a super-luxury ocean liner. Your cruise will include a balcony cabin with twice-daily maid service; three gourmet meals each and every day; unlimited Champagne, wine, cocktails and beer; daily trivia and bridge games; fascinating lectures; afternoon cocktail hours featuring exquisite tapas; a fully equipped fitness center; nightly entertainment; and two days in beautiful Bermuda. All this can be yours (more oohs and aahs) if …. the Price is You-Know-What.” (Applause.)

 What would you bid? Fifteen thousand? Ten thousand?

If so, you would hear the dreaded buzzer indicating you overbid.

The correct bid?  A mere $3,200, which comes out to $133.33 per person, per day, not counting airfare. That’s the price my wife and I paid for the above cruise aboard the Azamara Onward in November. The fare even included staff gratuities, and our travel agent graciously threw in a $300 credit to spend onboard. That’s an incredible value considering that a 12-day Mediterranean cruise in October 2024, on the same ship in the same room, is listed on for $10,320 — $430 per person per day.

It’s no easy feat these days to find a room in a Motel 6 and three fast food meals for $133 per person, so how did we land such a bargain? 

We booked a repositioning cruise.

Twice yearly, the major cruise lines — including MSC, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Princess, Holland-America, Celebrity, Virgin, Disney, Azamara, Oceania, Regent and Silversea— reposition their ships.

In the fall, liners that spent the summer calling on European ports are redeployed across the pond to Florida, where they will spend the winter season visiting Caribbean islands, Mexico and Latin America. 

The ships generally take 12 to 14 days to cross the Atlantic. Most depart from Barcelona, Rome or Lisbon.  En route, one or two stops are made in islands like the Canaries, Madeira, Azores, Bermuda or Puerto Rico. 

In the spring, the ships return to Europe, making the same stops along the way.

Because they know most passengers prefer cruises that stop at a different port every day, cruise companies offer steep discounts to entice travelers onto repositioning cruises. And since they don’t have to pay to dock their ships in different ports every day, the cruises cost them less to operate than standard cruises. 

Repositioning cruises are a win-win for the cruise companies, and for travelers who prefer days at sea where they don’t have to rush off the ship every morning and be herded onto buses that take them on excursions to visit yet another rum distillery, beach, museum or cathedral. Because there’s nothing to see but the sea, you can’t help but relax. There’s no rush. Nothing frenetic about it. If you’re one of those people who has to be on the move at all times, you can always take advantage of the walking track or head to the fitness center.

Repositioning cruises are targeted toward a specific demographic — retirees who love the days at sea and have the time to cross the ocean at a leisurely pace — so the sailings rarely sell out. Our ship, which can accommodate 680 passengers, had just 429 passengers. Ninety percent appeared to be least 65 or older. Many told me they were on their tenth, twentieth or, in the case of an Australian woman, forty-third repositioning cruise. 

During the day, the pool deck was mercifully free of annoyances found on mass-market cruises, e.g. screaming children, wet t-shirt contests, and music blasting from giant speakers, making it easy to concentrate on a good book, converse with new friends, or enjoy a snooze in the late autumn sun. 

Fellow passengers who have taken multiple repositioning cruises told me that the weather can vary wildly. Cruises in October or May generally encounter highs in the mid-seventies. Cruises in November or April average ten or so degrees cooler. The key is to pack clothes you can layer and shed or don as the weather dictates. 

Is a repositioning cruise for you? If your idea of a perfect vacation is outdoor sports, a tropical beach, or sightseeing, the answer is probably no, you won’t enjoy it. If you prefer vacations that give you free time, you love being catered to 24/7, and can view the ship rather than a different port every day as your primary source of entertainment, you probably will. 

How much can you expect to pay? It depends on the cruise line, the level of service it offers (not all include free booze and gratuities as ours did), and the room category you book. As I’m writing this in mid-December, 2023, Vacations To Go, the company though which we booked our cruise, is featuring on its web site more than 30 repositioning cruises in October/ November from Europe to Florida.  Starting prices (per person, double occupancy) range from as little as $529 for an inside cabin on Royal Caribbean — less than $50 per person, per day — to $370 a day for a suite on Silversea, one of the world’s priciest lines, favored by travelers who demand nothing but the best. Airfare to/from port cities isn’t included. 

If you like to plan ahead and want to lock in your price on a specific cruise, book now but be forewarned:  You just may bag a better deal if you are willing to wait until a month or so before departure because some lines drop their prices even more.

Whatever you choose, bon voyage. 

You just may run into me, because I’m getting ready to book another one.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

A moment like this

My first visit to Chile was in September, 2002. I spent several days in Santiago, then flew 600 miles south to Puerto Montt, considered to be the northernmost outpost of Patagonia. While I would have loved to continue deeper into Patagonia which extends southward for another 1200 miles, I didn't have the time, so I rented a car and drove to Puerto Varas, a resort town on Lago Llanquihue, Chile's second-largest lake. Across the lake is a snow-capped volcano, Osorno. 

I got to my hotel on the lake in late afternoon and went to the bar for a drink and to drink in scenery so breathtaking I wanted to commit it to memory. Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This,” the song that had made her the first American Idol just a week or two before, was playing in the background. I found it odd that a song from an American tv show that had just been released was already a hit in Chile. To this day, whenever it comes on the radio, I’m transported back to Puerto Varas, the stunning scenery, and that sublime moment.

Today is the second day of my second visit to Chile, day 13 of a 16-day cruise from Buenos Aires to the Falklands to Antarctica to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, and up the Pacific coast to San Antonio, Chile. 

The ship left Punta Arenas, Chile, in Tierra del Fuego yesterday afternoon and this morning emerged from the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific where the sailing was anything but smooth — the ship was bouncing up and down, shuddering at times. 

Mid-morning, the captain announced that, because the water was so rough, he was going to steer the ship into the Patagonian Archipeligo, a series of channel islands that form a barrier between the Pacific and the Chilean coast. He said the diversion from our intended route would not only provide a smoother ride, it would give guests the opportunity to see Chile’s world-famous fjords. 

It was a bonus I didn’t expect, the cherry on top of the sundae of a trip that has far exceeded my expectations. I spent the afternoon on the top deck, awe-struck by ice-blue glaciers, rocky islands, endless forests and snow-capped Andes peaks. There wasn't a sign of human life -- no people, no boats, no roads, no trails, not even a fishing cabin -- for 10 hours. This part of Patagonia is not only uninhabited, it is absolutely pristine.

Though it’s summer, it’s cold in southern Chile — I wore my parka the whole time — so after a couple of hours I stepped into the cafe on the 14th deck for a cup of coffee, which I enjoyed as I continued looking out the window as some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen passed by. 

In the background, “A Moment Like This” started playing over the cafe's speakers.

Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this.

Lucky me, I've gotten to experience it twice. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Why Antarctica? Because it's there.


In 1911, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, attempting to become the first man to reach the South Pole, sailed with four men aboard the Terra Nova to Antarctica. After trekking halfway across the white continent and reaching the pole, Scott discovered a Norwegian flag had been planted upon it 33 days earlier by his arch-rival, Roald Amundsen. On the way back to their ship, Scott and his men perished from starvation and cold.

In 1915, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became trapped in Antarctic pack ice and sank, forcing him and his men to camp on ice floes. Once those melted, they were able to row lifeboats to Elephant Island where they survived on a diet of penguins. Knowing his crew faced certain death during the upcoming winter, Shackleton rowed a 20-foot boat 830 miles to South Georgia Island, whose mountains he had to cross, and, amazingly, found help who returned and rescued his men. 

On January 4,  2024, I boarded a Princess cruise ship to Antarctica. One morning, I was annoyed to discover the buffet had run out of apricot jam leaving me no choice but to slather my croissant with strawberry jam or orange marmalade, neither of which I am particularly fond. 

Great achievement always requires great sacrifice. 

I’m on Day 12 of a 16-day cruise to Antarctica. I arrived in Buenos Aires Jan. 3; boarded the 16-story Sapphire Princess the next day; spent Jan. 5 in Montevideo, Uruguay; then sailed two days to Stanley in the Falkland Islands where I spent a day on a windswept beach observing a colony of penguins. That was followed by a day-and-a-half sail to Shackleton’s Elephant Island, about 150 miles north of the Antarctic peninsula. 

That afternoon, the captain sailed 100 miles out of his way to take his 2492 passengers within a few hundred feet of the A23a, the world’s largest iceberg. One thousand feet thick, it is, at 1500 square miles, roughly 30 percent the size of Connecticut. (Having survived 30 winters in that God-forsaken place, I’m here to tell you Connecticut can be colder in October than the A23a the day I visited it.) The A23a broke off from the continent in 1986, promptly sunk to the sea floor, and didn’t rise until a few years ago, when it suddenly bobbed up like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction’s bathtub scene and began drifting north parallel to the Antarctic peninsula. At some point it will move into the south Atlantic and melt.

Over the next three-and-a-half days, as the Sapphire sailed along the Antarctic coast,  in and out of bays dotted with baby blue icebergs calved from glaciers, I saw thousands of penguins, countless whales (both blue and orca), seals, sea birds, towering white mountains and, happily, the reappearance of apricot jam the day after I assumed that, like Scott and his men, it was gone forever.

On Saturday, Jan. 14, the captain headed the ship north across the Drake Passage, and the next evening sailed past Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Yesterday the Sapphire docked at Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city (Puerto Williams, Chile, is a few miles farther south but with only two thousand inhabitants, it’s not technically a city), and today we are anchored just off Punta Arenas, Chile. Every day since we left Antarctica has been grayer, rainier and/or snowier and foggier than the day before but I didn’t come down here to get a tan— I get all the sun I need in Florida —  so the nasty weather is not only to be expected but enjoyable. 

Four days from now the Sapphire will dock in San Antonio, Chile, and I’ll fly home that night.

Why did I trek 8000 miles to the only continent that has no permanent inhabitants, no cultural activities, no restaurants and — horrors — not even a Disney theme park?

As George Mallory replied in 1924 to a reporter who asked why he wanted to be the first man to scale Mt. Everest: Because it’s there. (Like Scott, his quest ended in tragedy. It wasn’t until 1953 that Everest was conquered.) 

I’ve visited the other six continents. Antarctica presumably, will be my last unless some smart-ass explorer discovers another one that’s been hidden away all these years, by which time I may be too old to travel to it. 

Plus, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the thought of a pristine frozen continent twice the size of Australia that, until the 1700s, nobody had any idea  existed.

My mom’s aunt Grace, a teacher who died in the early 1960s, left behind a collection of every National Geographic magazine published between 1917 and her death. Mom, who couldn’t bear to throw them away, brought them home and stashed them in our basement. By the time I was a teenager, I had read them all, cover to cover, and was particularly intrigued with Antarctica and have yearned to see it ever since.

For years I’ve been begging my wife to join me on a trip, and I was starting to think I was finally winning her over until a year ago when a rogue wave in the treacherous Drake passage struck a cruise ship and washed a passenger relaxing in her stateroom out to sea. That did it for her but, to her credit, when I found a great deal in the late fall on a solo cabin, she told me to book it. So I did. 

Having spent four days sailing through the Antarctic peninsula and surrounding islands, I’m more intrigued than ever. It is — this is the only word for it and it’s inadequate — awesome, beyond anything I could imagine. 

There are two ways civilians can experience the continent: 

1. By a small expedition ship specially built to withstand the climatic challenges of the Antarctic. The expedition ships drop anchor just off the coast and shuttle passengers via zodiac boats to the shore, where they can walk among penguins and seals and in some cases, even camp out with them. A lovely idea but not one that appeals to this thin-blooded Floridian who dons a polar-tek whenever the temperature dips below 70. 

2. By a conventional cruise ship. Princess, Celebrity, Holland-America and several other lines offer “sail-by” cruises that pass within a few hundred feet of the shore as passengers stand on deck snapping pictures and watching wildlife through binoculars.

The cost difference for an expedition versus a sail-by? An expedition cruise can easily cost five, ten, even twenty times as much as a sail-by of comparable length. And while it would add another notch to my travel belt to say I put my boots to the ground on the continent, I spent more than 72 hours within a few hundred feet of it and saw everything I came to see, and more, from the upper decks of the ship. One day, I was so mesmerized by the scenery I stayed up there for 12 hours, ducking inside only for hot coffee or tea and fresh baked cookies.

Even though it’s summer in Antarctica and the sun never fully sets, it was cold as all get-out, but I came well prepared with a new puff jacket, gloves, battery-powered hand-warmers, waterproof boots, insulated socks, long johns (not easy to find in Florida, believe me), thermal sweaters and a leather flight cap with ear flaps and a chin strap that makes me look like a crazed kamikaze pilot. 

It can be a bit lonely, even though I’m surrounded by fellow passengers representing more than 40 countries from the other six continents. If I’m feeling sociable, I can share a communal table in one of the five formal dining rooms, go to the casino (which to my regret I did one night), play trivia, workout in the gym, attend a stage show, or grab a stool at one of the dozen or so bars scattered across the ship. When I want to be alone, I can eat at a single table in the buffet, or retreat to my stateroom and watch a movie and/or write a blog post.

The bottom of the world isn’t exactly the kind of place one goes to be social and, truthfully, I am enjoying the solitude, generally preferring my own company, doing exactly what I want to do when I want to do it. 

And with that, I’m going to wind this up so I can be on the top deck as the ship sails out of Punta Arenas in a few minutes. Looking out my stateroom window, I see the fog has lifted and there are, I’m told, snow-capped Andes peaks and glaciers to see as we head out into the Pacific for the long trek up the Chilean coast.

But before I do, I’d like to give a shout-out to my great aunt, Grace Matilda Tate.  The farthest you ever traveled from Montgomery County, Missouri, was to the teachers college in Kirksville, Mo., where you earned your teaching degree sometime around 1915, but you clearly knew there was a big world out there, a world you’d never see, so you subscribed to National Geographic.

You couldn’t have known that if you had bequeathed me a million dollars, you couldn’t have left anything that would have done more to nourish my young soul than those musty stacks of black and white magazines I spent hours pouring over, dreaming about a world I hoped would someday be mine.

And it has been.