Monday 18 December 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 1 - Sailaway

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise

It's not what you expect, that the day you join a cruise on a ship with the luxury Silversea line, you have to drag yourself out of bed at 4am. But, thanks to an impending general strike at midday today, everything was brought forward in order to ensure our getting to Ushuaia without hold-ups. It's a three and a half-hour flight, over the vast sprawl of Buenos Aires, flat farmland, lakes and then the sea to, eventually, Tierra del Fuego, which looked remarkably like Fiordland from the air. Mountains, Indian snow, green bush, rivers.
When we landed, though (at a pretty and modern airport with the fastest baggage carousel it's been my challenge to seize my suitcase off) everything looked much more like Anchorage: colourful, lots of corrugated iron, a bit ramshackle, a distinct feel of remoteness. The surrounding mountains are the end of the Andes, the Beagle Channel links the Pacific and Atlantic, the wind powers through, in winter there are only 6 hours of daylight, and in summer 12 degrees is as hot as it gets (it was a delightful 11 today). Still, it's bustling, and the population is 80,000 and growing. First it was prisoners, then beaver hunters, and now tax-free industry - all designed to make sure people were here so the land could be claimed by Argentina (Chile is within sight). There's also a Hard Rock Café here, by the way - the world's southernmost (that's a label they're unashamedly fond of using, understandably).
We took a drive in a bus, which didn't let us get out in the town; instead we had lunch at a hotel up on the hill, before some of us went on an escorted walk through the 'forest' - which to me looked just like our bush, mainly due to the dominant beech trees, though they're deciduous here and in new leaf. "Make the most of the green!" instructed the guide, rather ominously, referring to all the blue and white we have ahead of us. She also took care to point out to us the dandelions, buttercups and daisies in the grass. I guess when you're emerging from the sort of winter they have here, any splash of yellow is a delight.
And then we went to the ship, the Silver Explorer, its last guests evicted and brutally sent to take their chances with the strike, while we were welcomed on board by a line of smiling crew, especially our personal white-gloved butler Ivy, a Filipina (of course - all the best people in hospitality are). Our cabin suite is on Deck 7, near the bow (so, not the best position for rough seas) - it's an overflow room for the adjoining Owner's Suite, which according to the plan is huge and undoubtedly eye-wateringly expensive. But ours, while somewhat snugger, is still amply big, with a proper bath and shower, a veranda, and on the table a gorgeous gingerbread house decoration that I will never be able to bring myself to defile.
We did our own unpacking this time (I know!) and then had a bit of an explore on the way to cocktails - the ship is naturally much smaller than our other Silversea homes, but still classy and recognisably Silversea, and there will clearly be no stinting. The staff are all typically multinational, enthusiastic and welcoming, and the food is ruinously irresistible. We did the lifeboat drill and then relaxed into drinks and dinner, discovering that a surprising number of people have been this way before. I really expected it to be a one-off bucket-list thing for everyone, but not at all.

Our sailaway was delayed to give the wind time to drop, so it happened as we ate - sharing a table with Tone and Sasha from Holland - and the low sun and then long dusk over the Andes' last gasp along the Channel made for a dramatically pretty backdrop, especially the romantically (if slightly erroneously) named Lighthouse at the End of the World. (There's another further south on Cape Horn, apparently.)

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