CAPE HORN — This place has been called the end of the world, and under a Bronte sky of glowering clouds and raging winds, with an albatross soaring overhead like something out of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," that's easy to believe.
We are aboard the Royal Viking Sea, sailing around the craggy gray cliffs of Cape Horn at the tip of South America where the Atlantic meets the Pacific. Because the weather is unusually clement, we are able to sail past the cape, then turn and sail past again before heading north to Buenos Aires.
Most of the passengers and many of the crew stand out on deck, sea legs in admirable order, to savor this moment near the bottom of the world, light years away from the traditional suntan-and- pina-colada shipboard life of TV commercials and glossy magazine ads.
Cruise ship passengers can be divided into two basic types, those looking for an itinerary with as many sun-and-shopping ports of call as possible, and those who seek out sailings that offer the optimum sea and shipboard experience.
This 17-day cruise is definitely an example of the latter, with 11 days spent at sea in weather that has ranged from Rio's hot sun to Montevideo's temperate autumn to pewter skies and rolling seas off Patagonia.
Of the 688 people on board, 466 are repeat passengers who have chosen this cruise not only because it takes them through the Strait of Magellan and around Cape Horn, but also because it gives them a lot of long, leisurely days at sea filled with the kind of pampering they've learned to expect from Royal Viking.
A dramatic refurbishing several months ago has brought the Sea a new snap, crackle and verve, a sleek and glamorous air. The first of RVL's three ships to undergo updating (the Sky and Star are scheduled during the coming months), it has replaced the perky but passe Scandinavian blues, greens and oranges with cool and elegant mauve and rose carpets, draperies, bedspreads and upholstery.
To go with the subtlely sophisticated new look in the ship's show lounge, the entertainment has been revved up considerably, drawing a standing-room-only crowd every night.
Three glittering new production shows spotlight a company of singers and dancers choreographed and costumed to a fare-thee-well. Even the usual shipboard variety acts here are several cuts above normal, especially a delightfully offbeat humorist named Mike Neun.
Where the casino used to be, the Sea has added an oceangoing health club with a series of fitness classes from yoga to aerobics available throughout the day, as well as a tempting collection of exercise and sports clothing for sale.
The casino has been moved to a more visible location on the promenade deck in place of the nightclub and disco, while the next-door Dolphin bar turns into an after-dinner piano bar and lively late-night dance spot.
On a somewhat different note, Royal Viking's Norwegian flag has also been quietly removed and replaced with Bahamian registry for all three ships, following the lead of the line's parent company, Norwegian Caribbean Line. The re-flagging will represent a significant cost saving with the line no longer tied to Norwegian Seaman's contracts, says RVL spokesman George Cruys, and there should be no on-board changes noticeable to passengers.
RVL's housekeeping is still the best afloat, with a diligent crew that cleans from midnight to 6 a.m. so early risers find a fresh, tidy ship instead of the remnants of last night's party. Going out to watch the sunrise one morning, we saw a deckhand in the pre-dawn darkness carefully wiping salt spray off the rails.
Helping to make the Sea one of the finest traditional cruise ships is a staff that cushions the passenger from any inconvenience--a concierge to assist with shore arrangements and airline reservations, a Scandinavian stewardess to serve breakfast in bed or take out the laundry and dry cleaning, and, in the penthouse suites, a butler to serve champagne and caviar at elegant private cocktail parties.
All the cabins aboard the Sea are comfortably spacious with two lower beds, color TV sets and plenty of closet space. Bathrooms are tiled and many have bathtubs as well as showers. Suites and deluxe cabins also contain terry bathrobes, hair dryers and mini-refrigerators, while penthouse suites include a private veranda and fully stocked bar.
Swiss chef Urs Keller produces delectable daily dining, and dynamic cruise director Fernando de Oliveira is everywhere at once, calling all of the nearly 700 passengers by name and chatting in half a dozen languages to the cosmopolitan crowd.
Royal Viking has also begun an alternative idea for the captain's cocktail party that other ships might do well to copy. It provides a second lounge with music, drinks and hors d'oeuvres as an alternative to waiting in line to shake hands with the captain.