A personal account of the 38th ‘Music at Sea’.
A South America Adventure and Panama Canal Transit onboard ‘Celebrity Infinity’
March 13 – 27, 2011
Valparaiso, Chile - La Serena, (Coquimbo) Chile - Arica, Chile
Lima, Peru - Manta, Ecuador - Panama Canal Transit - Colon, Panama
Cartagena, Columbia - Fort Lauderdale, U.S.A.
This 38th Music at Sea was promoted as a ‘Panama Canal Cruise with a Twist”. Not ‘twist’ as in Chubby Checker or even a twist in the canal, but more a deviation from the standard California – Florida routing with which many of our guests were familiar. Thus it was that we commenced our cruise, not in San Francisco, California but in Valparaiso, Chile which, with its history, art, architecture, culture and cable cars lazily snaking up the hillsides overlooking the harbour, instantly confirmed why its sometimes known as the “San Francisco of South America”.
Infinity has always been popular with MAS guests and this cruise was a final chance to enjoy her traditional Celebrity elegance before she is “Solsticized” later this year. Some of the group had arranged pre-cruise tours to Machu Picchu and many flew in to Santiago early to take advantage of the pre-cruise MAS land tour which proved an enormous ‘Hit’ – especially the visit to Estancia El Cuadro winery, where the opportunity to test the product was gratefully siezed by some who, perhaps anticipating restrictions in the number of bottles allowed onto the ship, imbibed sufficient quantities to carry the wine aboard internally!
Infinity had arrived in Santiago from Buenos Aires and was now about to embark on the last leg of her South American Odyssey. I, having boarded a few days earlier in order to put the finishing touches to our programme, had been onboard when news broke of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. By strange coincidence we were that day in the Chilean port of Puerto Montt where, on May 22 1960, a huge earthquake destroyed the town, creating a 200 mph tsunami which raced across the Pacific to wreak death and destruction in Hawaii’ and Japan. Walking around Puerto Montt that day it was clear from the expressions on the resident’s faces that, at that moment, they were reliving their own 1960 nightmare and feeling for the present day people of Japan.
It was during this pre-cruise period that I met a fellow guest, Kirk Lewis, who, over a morning coffee, told me how, in the late 1980’s, he had chanced on the coffin containing the body of the legendary Polish pianist and statesman, Paderewski, which had lain unburied on a church cart in Arlington Cemetery for the best part of fifty years!
Kirk explained that during the second world war, Paderewski, then living in retirement in Switzerland, decided that he could best help his country by going to the USA and championing its cause. After a tortuous journey he arrived in New York on November 6, 1940, his 80th birthday, and eventually settled into a suite of rooms at the Buckingham Hotel where, sadly, he contracted pneumonia and died on June 29, 1941.
Paderewski the “Lion of Poland” (Edward Burne-Jones)
Due to the war, his body could not be returned to his native country and with the advent of the communist government and assimilation of Poland into the Soviet Union in 1945 it was impossible for Paderewski to be repatriated as, in addition to being one of the world’s greatest concert pianists, he numbered amongst his accomplishments that of being the first musician to head a modern state i.e. Prime Minister of Poland! Thus it was that he was taken to Arlington and eventually forgotten about until Kirk chanced on his coffin. What followed could be the subject of a movie but to be brief Kirk set the ‘wheels in motion’ with some brilliant politiking, the end result being that Paderewski was flown back to Poland on Air Force 2 and received there with great ceremony by President George Bush and Lech Walesa. on July 2 1992. A happy ending and an example of the fascinating people one might meet onboard a cruiseship.
You can read more on the web sites below:
But back to our cruise. The itinerary was a perfect balance between the activity of land calls and the relaxation of sea days and, since none of our ports involved scrambling into tenders, we knew in advance that getting ashore would be simple and quick. Awaiting every guest in their stateroom was the Celebrity Shore Excursion brochure, impressive not only for the large number of tours highlighting the eco systems and indigenous wild life of the countries we were to visit. (A random selection would include: Machalilla National Park in Manata with over 200 species of birds, the chance to see the three-toed sloth and Howler and Capuchin Monkeys in Panama, and the sharks and dolphins in the aquarium in Cartagena) but also for the clear and concise way the information was imparted. Tour descriptions included times of departure and return plus, for those with limited mathematical skills, tour duration! There was even an exertion grading – mild, moderate or strenuous. With refreshing candor Celebrity, not usually one to underplay its products, printed the following caveat on the shore excursion flyers:
"Due to the remoteness of these two ports (Arica and Coquimbo), limited transportation and local infrastruture constraints (still under development) organised tours are in very limited supply. We will try our utmost to secure the services of the most qualified guides available. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee the quality of guides and the buses in these ports of call are NOT air-conditioned. Note that the sights seen on the tours in these ports are very modest."
To be truthful many of the MAS group told me that they hugely enjoyed their excursions in these ports. In Arica they raved about the pink and white San Marcos Cathedral.
San Marcos Cathedral, Arica, Chile
This structure, built almost completely from iron and designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Parisian tower fame!), was pre-fabricated in Paris, shipped to Peru, assembled in Ilo, and later, in an unusual act of international kindness, dismantled and reassembled in Arica to replace churches destroyed by a massive tidal wave.
Another tour which was hugely enjoyed featured the petroglyphs (rock carvings) at Rosario and included a stop to imbibe cocoa leaf tea which we were assured was an ancient tribal remedy for preventing alitude sickness. It works! Here it was that the original inhabitants, the Chinchorros, practised mummification, predating the Egyptians by several hundred years. And. dear reader, did you know that the first President of Chile was an Irishman named Bernardo O’Higgins? We were at sea for St. Paddy’s Day but, appropriately, our location was off the coast of Chile where we celebrated en route to our next port, Lima, Peru.
I had not realised that this amazing metropolis, with a population close to ten million, ranks amongst the 20 largest cities in the world. We learned about the enigmatic and mysterious Incas. Their language was Quechua from which are derived such words as gaucho, coca, puma, condor and llama but what really intrigued us were the unanswered questions they left behind: How did they transport those heavy stones when they had no knowledge of the wheel? Where did they derive the knowledge which enabled them to practise sophisticated brain surgery and, of peculiar fascination to everyone: where is the hiding place of the fabled Treasure of the Llanganatis Mountains? Seven hundred tons of pure Inca gold waiting to be discovered! Why oh why didn’t we pack metal detectors?!
Panama City pictured in the early morning heat mist from the deck of ‘Infinity’ March 22 2011
I never tire of the Panama Canal, currently undergoing widening, a process the onboard lecturer humorously described as a “canal coronary bypass”. For me the Big Ditch has been the scene of several personal dramas. My first transit attempt was aborted when the ship suffered mechanical problems and the next year the vessel I was onboard hit the canal bank! On another occasion the Captain and Canal Pilot had a furious row – not a good idea in the only place in the world where the Canal Pilot is superior to the Ship’s Captain - which resulted in the Captain being taken off the ship and put on an airplane out of Panama! The subsequent disruption to the cruise cost the Captain his job and the shipping company over $1,000,000 in compensation claims). Perhaps my most memorable experience occurred on the Pacific side when, very early one morning whilst disembarking the ship for the airport I sleepily followed my luggage down the ladder to the waiting tender boat where I had assumed I would be the sole occupant. Wrong! As I balanced in the rolling boat deciding where to sit I was abruptly jolted into consciousness by the realisation that I had a companion for the journey lying still and silent under a blanket. A companion who was unaware of my presence and who would cetainly never cruise again. I was about to share the ride with a corpse!
On another occasion two of my fellow artistes, a roller skating act, turned themselves into whirling Dervishes and, skating maniacally in the show lounge for the entire duration of an 8 hour westbound transit, collapsed in triumphant exhaustion as we sailed past Panama City. Why? To earn a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the first people to roller skate through the Panama Canal! Alas, all for nothing. Their skaterthon didn’t make the book!
Heres a tip for any of you thinking of doing the transit with family and friends at home who might like to follow your vacation. Give them your schedule in advance and direct them to the website:
There they can follow you and your ship as you navigate the locks, watching the action on live webcams and, for the tech-savvy generation, it will create far more excitement than a postcard!
Infinity moored in Cartagena March 24 2011
And so to Cartagena, Columbia. Did someone say “Emeralds”? Well that’s one of the big attractions here along with the native coffee and certain illicit indigenous substances known but not named! On the gangway all returning crew were made to remove their shoes for inspection but fortunately we guests, perhaps being considered more trustworthy(!) escaped the indignity. Our day, planned well in advance, was commited to the Music At Sea Surprise Tour which commenced with an early morning ride around the harbour onboard a replica Spanish Galleon.
The Spanish Galleon in Cartagena
I bid the group ‘Bon Voyage’ from the dock, watching the galleon move into the bay, a magnificent spectacle in the early morning sunshine, pirates dancing, wenches wenching, sails furled, (surely that ‘put-put-put’ sound of a diesel engine was an illusion?) the blue, gold and red of the Columbian Flag proudly flying from the yardarm. Later I was told that the pirate king had given an easy way to remember the colours: Blue for the Oceans Pacific and Atlantic, Gold for the riches of the country and Red for the blood the Spaniards spilled! From the safety of my vantage point I reflected that in days long past no Englishman would have strayed within range of a Spanish Galleon and lived to tell the tale! Which leads me to the second part of our tour which took in the Fort (Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas) and stories of the fearsome Admiral Vernon (he of Mount Vernon in Washington) and the War of Jenkins Ear which, although I had a hazy remembrance from my childhood history lessons, I had forgotten about. For the benefit of others with similar amnesia the unfortunate Jenkins, having had his ear sliced off by a Spaniard, retrieved the said body part, transported it to London and there indignantly presented it before the great and good of the land sitting in Parliament, who, splutterng with fury at this outrage, and not even considering the possibility that Mr Jenkins might have been engagaged in robbery, rape or murder (which perhaps might have justified cutting off his ear and even additional portions of his anatomy) immediately declared war on Spain. That’s it dear reader. The English declared war on Spain because the man could no longer balance the headphones from his iPod! But for sheer bestiality and a testament to man’s cruelty to man nothing could compete with the hideous display in the Torture Museum of the Palace of the Inquisition. Here we saw the Papal equivalent of “Advanced Interrogation Techniques”. Not the ideal place for a group photo but, it was the only place so, in the shadow of the guillotine and hangman’s noose, we smiled into a camera lens for our group photo!
The MAS Group in the courtyard of the Inquisition Palace, Cartagena, Columbia. March 24 2011
“What, NO SHOPPING?” Are you kidding? Our thoughtful guide provided labels with her name boldly displayed which we dutifully attached to ourselves before we entered the jewelry shop. Sadly, our pleasure at wearing these sartorial embellishments was short lived as, no sooner had we left the shop we were asked to return them!
And then it was lunchtime and what a magnificent lunch we had. Remember the name “La Serinissima” for this is NOT a tourist trap restaurant. Here cuisine is elevated to art. Wonderful food, lovingly prepared, carefully served and washed down by a choice of drinks which included a delicious home made lemonade. I cannot recommend this establishment too highly and plaudits from the group confirmed my evaluation. It capped an excellent and unusual tour and we returned to the ship content but pleasantly tired – knowing we had two relaxing sea days to recharge our batteries enroute to Fort Lauderdale.
This had to be one of the most social groups ever. Terry and Janice inroduced me to Tequilla Slammers (Once in a lifetime is sufficient thankyou!) and Judy and Sue hosted an open house in honour of Jim. No, Jim was not a member of our group. His surname is Beam, a close relation to Al Cohol, and he inhabited a bottle from which several of our members were keen to liberate him! Job well done!
Many of us have or had the the joy of owning a pet and we held a gathering where we showed pictures of our treasured companions and exchanged reminiscences. We learned of Toffee the MOST handsome resident of Canada, Rusty the rescue dog and Precious the univited interloper who now rules the house. (“Precious will NEVER be allowed into the house” her innocent owner assured me 3 years ago. Now Precious sleeps on her bed and woe betide anyone who tries to move her!) We learned of a Canadian rescue dog which was ‘extremely dumb’ (Dogs ARE dumb – ask any cat!) but which won a beauty contest, demonstrating that the inverse proportion between brains and beauty frequently shown in humans can also be found in our little darlings! And then we were shown a photograph of Sugarpie, ‘the most adorable species of felinehood that ever munched a mouse’ – or so her adoring owner claimed! Wei from Malaysia told us of his pet pig and gibbon and there was not a dry eye when we heard of a litter of baby kittens hand reared to adulthood after being miraculously rescued from a basement. It was a moving afternoon. I suspect I was not the only one who found it therapeutic as Ann and I had said ‘Farewell’ to our beautiful Burmese boy only a few weeks earlier.
And so we reached the end of this 38th Music At Sea. I rarely mention the music in these Blogs as it’s a given but the traditional MAS formula of old favourites such as Rhapsody In Blue, Moonlight Sonata, Clair de Lune etc with the addition of members requests and the occasional new item still works! One of our guests, new to Music At Sea, immediately booked MAS 39 (River Rhine) and Mas 40 (Canada New England) for later this year. We also had numerous requests to share the secret of where we will be going in 2012. All I can reveal is that we are working on something VERY special which will be announced soon – so please watch this space!
And now I’m back in London helping Ann with the launch of her new novel “The Impersonator”. It’s causing a stir (which to those of you who know Ann will come as no surprise) and has achieved ringing endorsements from Pauline Collins (Oscar nominated star of “Shirley Valentine” plus the TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs”) and the novelist Caroline Graham (creator of the hit TV series “Midsomer Murders”). Details on Ann’s website: www.annmann.co.uk Yes, its available worldwide but DO read the synopsis before ordering as it’s a tale of sexual obsession set in ‘swinging ‘60’s’ London and some of the storyline, which is explicit, might shock! On the other hand if you feel like a hot read followed by a cold shower……..
See you soon.
With warmest thoughts
May 13th. 2011 London