There are two things I discovered while on a South America cruise. First, while February is officially summer in the southern hemisphere, it can get rather chilly. Second, when the weather turns rough, the best place to be is slap-bang in the middle of the ship, on the lowest possible deck.
Seabreeze Penthouse Suite number 9068 qualified nicely on the first count, though not so well on the second. But that proved easy to forgive, even in the teeth of a 93mph gale. One of the new butler-serviced suites included in the ship’s recent revamp, it was a haven of luxury, with a spacious bathroom and veranda.
And with 545 crew to look after Symphony’s complement of just 848 guests, we were thoroughly spoiled from the first to the last of our 16 days as the ship sailed from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso.
Our itinerary began with two days in Argentina’s graceful capital, where we happily wandered its contrasting neighbourhoods, admiring the faded grandeur of San Telmo and the leafy streets of Palermo Viejo. In the evening we feasted on thick cuts of juicy bife de chorizo at La Cabrera steakhouse.
Setting sail down the Rio de la Plata estuary, our first call was another capital – Montevideo – which turned out to be a vibrant, compact city, richly endowed with beautiful neoclassical and Art Deco buildings.
Next, the ship turned south, back into Argentine waters, heading for Puerto Madryn, where herds of sea lions loll on desolate beaches. And then came the Falkland Islands, those lonely dots in the South Atlantic, famed for their abundant birdlife, including the largest colony of king penguins on earth.
Continuing our course, we eventually reached Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city. It looked a picture, set between the Beagle Channel and the snow-capped Martial mountains, but the chill in the air reminded us we were just 620 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula, at the very tip of South America. Not for nothing do they call this the end of the world.
And right on cue, that’s where the weather began to get interesting. As the pastel wash of late evening light faded to black, the gale outside our window whipped the waves into a frenzy and the ship creaked as it rocked on a mighty swell.
“This is nothing,” laughed our butler, Nikola. “You will know it’s bad when things start flying around.” Rather hoping that wouldn’t happen, we hunkered down in our suite, rolling around in bed like two sausages in a frying pan.
Next morning, we were relieved to find calmness restored, our ship having rounded the tip of the continent and found shelter in the Chilean fjords. Throwing open our curtains, we were greeted by the big skies and bright sunshine of Punta Arenas, Chile’s port on the Strait of Magellan.
“Before the Panama Canal opened, Punta Arenas was an important stopping point for ships sailing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans,” explained our guide, as we stood at an onshore viewpoint, overlooking this sprawling metropolis with its red-painted roofs and grand colonial architecture, built on the wealth of the wool trade.
Today the city is best known as the base from which to explore the stunning wilderness of Tierra del Fuego. We chose a somewhat less demanding (and shorter) adventure, heading 20 miles or so south to Agua Fresca Bay, where we gently paddled the waters of the Strait of Magellan, looking up at rugged mountain peaks.
Back on board that night, we continued our mission of exploring the ship’s truly exceptional range of dining options. Crystal Symphony and her sister ship, Crystal Serenity, have a stellar reputation for combining big-ship amenities with the quality of service that only a small vessel can offer. They fully deserve it, but it’s the cuisine that really puts them ahead of the game.
As part of Symphony’s recent revamp, Crystal has raised the bar even higher, with the addition of new restaurants including Silk Kitchen & Bar, which serves modern Chinese crowd-pleasers, from dim sum to wonton noodle soup. They have also refined existing concepts such as the former Crystal Dining Room, which has now been transformed into Waterside, a chic open-seating area that allows guests to dine when they wish.
But for true foodies the standout is surely Umi Uma & Sushi Bar –the only Nobu restaurant at sea – which has also been given a new look, though the cooking remains as sublime as ever. The ship’s Italian speciality restaurant, Prego, remains unchanged, still serving delicious pasta and other favourites.
Over the following days we enjoyed them all as we gently cruised through fjords and past ice-blue glaciers, stopping occasionally at fascinating ports such as Puerto Chacabuco, set on the shores of Aysen Fjord against a tableau of mountain scenery.
On our last evening, snuggled into the Palm Court’s deep armchairs, pre-dinner martinis in hand, we realised there was a third thing we’d learned about South America. We love it and we want to come back – especially if we can do it aboard Crystal Symphony.
When to Go
The best time to visit South America on a cruise is during the southern summer months, between mid-November and late March. These offer the best time for exploring the spectacular wildernesses of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, though temperatures can still be chilly.
What to Take
Layers are key, so take plenty of them, including a light rainproof jacket. Patagonia is directly below a hole in the ozone layer, so cover up and wear sunscreen. And don’t forget a pair of binoculars to view all that spectacular wildlife up close.
North Pond Penguin Discovery in the Falkland Islands – if you love the cute antics of gentoo, Megallanic and king penguins, you’ll adore this.
What to Eat
With 12 dining options aboard Crystal Symphony, including 24-hour room service, you will be spoiled for choice. But don’t miss Umi Uma & Sushi Bar, which serves superstar chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s signature Peruvian-Japanese fare, with dishes such as lobster with truffle yuzu sauce.