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Into the winds of Cape Horn

Passengers find rough seas, amazing scenery and exotic wildlife on a two-week cruise from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso, Chile.

November 16, 2003|Randy Curwen | Chicago Tribune

Valparaiso, Chile — The Pacific wasn't.

First, we were bucked up and down, then rolled side to side. In my cabin four decks above the sea, the bigger waves sent water sloshing around the portholes. It was like looking into a giant front-loading washing machine set on berserk.

Our ship, the Norwegian Dream, was 500 miles northwest of Cape Horn, off South America, on Day 11 of a two-week cruise around the cape. Now, we were in seas with waves topping out at 65 feet and winds somewhere beyond the maximum 92 mph the ship's wind indicator could register. We'd had no warning (the nearest weather station in the Pacific being about 3,000 miles northwest on Easter Island), the captain informed us apologetically that morning, and we couldn't head back into the Chilean fiords; their narrow inlets were too dangerous.

We'd just have to ride out this, uh, storm (the captain didn't use the H word, "hurricane," until the next day, when we were finally out of it), heading into the wind at full engine power just to stand still.

Those well enough to leave their cabins navigated hallways littered with remnants of room service trays intended for those who weren't. Stacks of seasickness bags (thankfully unused) graced stairways and elevators. In the mostly empty restaurants, servers and patrons gamely held on to what they could, as breakfast, at times, literally flew by. In a gift shop, a wall of liquor bottles crashed down on two clerks trying to salvage the inventory.

All outdoor decks were closed. In the lounges, plants and trees -- and anything else that wasn't bolted down (including a tiny elderly woman from Oklahoma and her chair) -- went horizontal. The bars that remained open secured what glasses remained and switched to plastic. The social director, acting as if nothing unusual was happening, came on the public address system to announce the day's schedule -- and its alterations. Napkin folding would go on, but not bingo. The machine with the numbered balls couldn't handle the tilt.

The sound of breaking glass was everywhere.

Remote and beautiful extremes

THE cruise around Cape Horn began on the Atlantic side of South America.

Short of visiting Antarctica, this is the southernmost cruise voyage in the world, a route leading into lands of rugged and remote -- and beautiful -- extremes. First, you sail into the Roaring Forties -- the latitudes from 40 to 50 degrees south famed for their wild seas. Then, it gets worse; you enter the Fifties, for which apparently no nickname is necessary.

You don't -- if you know anything about geography and cruising -- take a ship from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso for the weather. Well, not good weather, anyway.

Even in the best of summers (December to March here), this is a route for windscreens and raincoats, not sunscreen and swimwear. Most of the 1,700 passengers aboard the Norwegian Dream seemed to know this and expected the weather would be part of the experience.

Day 1: Our embarkation port, Buenos Aires, is safe, cosmopolitan, "European" and -- especially for North Americans not known for their familiarity with lands far to our south -- comfortable. Not at all the type of place where you'd expect to start on a cruise to the end of the Earth.

Day 2: Nor is Montevideo, Uruguay, the first stop on our 14-night itinerary and only 150 miles east across the broad Rio de la Plata estuary from the Argentine capital. But the Uruguayan capital -- with a more mestizo population than Buenos Aires and a historic center dominated by Colonial-style buildings -- looked more like the South American cities we had expected. With a choice of city tours and excursions to the spiffy beach resorts of Punta del Este or a prosperous estancia (ranch), it was a long way from rugged or remote. And the early January midsummer weather was gorgeous. Then we headed south.

Into the winds.

Day 3: On our way to Patagonia, it was sunny and warm, our only day at sea with temperatures warm enough for poolside lounging. Like a moving car with its top down, a ship produces its own wind, but we also were starting to experience little gusts -- 10, maybe 20 mph -- from the side. And we were still in the Thirties.

Day 4: We didn't mind the wind this day either, now inside the Forties in hot, desert-like Puerto Madryn, a small, undistinguished Argentine city whose location halfway between Buenos Aires and the Cape has made it a prime cruise stop by default. Next door -- and, here, the 2 1/2-hour drive each way over gravel roads qualifies -- is Peninsula Valdes, "the richest land around," our guide told us. The area's prime wildlife attractions: strange birds like the tinamou (looking much like a rail), guanacos (a llama relative), rheas (like an ostrich, only smaller), and colonies of penguins (little ones -- by the hundreds) and elephant seals (big ones -- by the dozens). A long day of travel, perhaps, to see a few wild animals -- and a few more domestic sheep -- but how else to appreciate the vast, treeless expanse of Patagonia?

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