Every show staged in the classy Mondriaan Lounge on board our ship had been first-rate, but one called Elements, shown on the penultimate evening of our 14-night South American cruise, struck a particular chord. As I applauded the ship’s costumed singers and dancers, who personified Earth, Air, Fire and Water, I realised their performance reflected the factors that had determined our itinerary.
Even before we set sail from Valparaiso in Chile on a 4,500-mile voyage that would take our ship, Zaandam, around Cape Horn to Buenos Aires via the Falkland Islands and Montevideo, we had been warned that rounding the Horn and making a port call in the Falklands were weather-dependent. In the event, both were managed with ease. Other port calls would be a different story.
At our first stop, Puerto Montt, which followed a full day at sea, I had booked a Lakes and Volcanoes excursion. It was not to be. Forest fires had broken out in the vicinity, closing the road that led to all excursions and heavily polluting the town with drifting smoke.
Next day, we anchored off Puerto Chacabuco without incident.
Two more sea days followed – no hardship on a large ship like Zaandam, where there is no shortage of things to do. We could join indoor cycling lessons, attend yoga sessions or a body-sculpt boot camp, or walk briskly round the promenade deck, looking out for whales and dolphins in the water and for albatrosses and boobies overhead. Indoors, we could chill out in the Greenhouse Spa, learn to tango or to speak Spanish, or get tips on digital photography. We could play bridge or poker, or borrow books from the extensive ship’s library.
No such comforts awaited Ferdinand Magellan when he sailed these unforgiving waters in the 16th century. Next year will mark the 500th anniversary of his discovery of the sea passage now known as the Strait of Magellan, in 1520. The Portuguese explorer’s voyage – the first documented circumnavigation of the globe – would secure for the Spanish, control of the all-important spice route (the mission was bankrolled by Spain’s King Charles 1). The sailors were the first Europeans to see the mighty Pacific Ocean. The rest, of course, is history.
For me, the highlight on both sea days was scenic cruising (which came with expert commentary) – something that is not a given on ocean cruises. The scenery was reminiscent of Alaska, with turquoise-tinted glaciers and ragged mountain peaks, countless sea birds and, in the Messier Channel, a ghost-like shipwreck. From a distance, the Greek cargo vessel Capitan Leonidas seemed merely becalmed. Coming closer, we saw that she had quite a list and was badly rusted. She ran aground on rocks here in the 1960s, and remains as a warning of treacherous shallows.
At Punta Arenas in southern Chile I had booked an excursion that would take me to see thousands of penguins and a sea-lion colony – but not in the 55-knot wind blowing that day (tenders are not launched in winds of more than 30 knots). Because it was even rougher out at sea, we remained at anchor in the sheltered Strait of Magellan for much of the day, ticking off more of the many to-dos on board.
Air, fire and water, it seemed, were holding us to ransom. Earth we got in Ushuaia, where we docked next morning. This former penal colony, the southernmost city in the world, is a springboard for Tierra del Fuego National Park. On our excursion, animals were few and far between – we spotted only a single silvered-red Fuegian fox – but there were plenty of birds, along with majestic forests, sparkling lakes and rivers, and an iconic signpost marking the end of the Pan-American Highway – which runs for some 19,000 miles south from Prudhoe Bay on the north coast of Alaska.
Ironically, our feet next touched terra firma at one of the sights we had been warned we may not see: Cape Horn. Far from the fierce gales and fearsome 100ft waves often encountered here, the sea was moderate and the sky clear as we drew close to this desolate point where two great oceans meet. We stayed for some hours, steaming slowly back and forth off the small island known locally as Cabo de Hornos. Shivering on deck, we saw dawn’s golden fingers gently gild the steep, sharp-edged headland.
We made the next weather-dependent port call at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, where my holiday highlight was seeing penguins in their natural habitat. Doing so entailed a long drive with a lunch stop en route, but it was worth every mile. Walking among these jaunty characters, watching the adults switch from Chaplinesque waddlers on the sand to sleek, accomplished swimmers in the surf, and seeing enthusiastic but inexperienced chicks battling Atlantic breakers was pure delight.
Ahead lay Montevideo in Uruguay, with its eclectic architectural heritage, the highlight of which was the Museum of Decorative Arts housed in the beautiful Palacio Taranco. This was followed by two days touring in Buenos Aires, taking in the bohemian La Boca neighbourhood and the famously atmospheric Recoleta Cemetery.
All were intriguing, but the memory I cherish is of those countless tuxedo-clad creatures with orange beaks and feet. No matter that I couldn’t tell them apart. Each of them won my heart.
A 12-night South America Passage on Holland America Line’s MS Zaandam, departing March 21, 2019, costs from £1,249pp excluding flights. A departure in March 2020 costs from £1,699pp (0843 374 2300; hollandamerica.co.uk).