BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - The one-week cruise on the 105-passenger Andrea, an intimate Croatian expedition ship that gently touches the nooks and crannies of the world, including the waters of icy Antarctic, had more salty stories to tell than Capt. Ahab, and was joyfully overflowing with a surprising mix of time trickery and magical South Atlantic Brazilian voodoo.
One moment we were eagerly boarding the ship in Buenos Aires, sensuous tango music ringing in our ears. Then suddenly, after a tour of Rio de Janeiro - where the pulse of samba rules, the engaging rhythms swirling over Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, the cadence ensconced on famed Sugar Loaf Mountain, reaching to Christ the Redeemer standing 2,332 feet above the bay - it was sadly time to gather up and head for home. If ever life was wildly fleeing, this was it. A deep breath of Argentine, Uruguayan and Brazilian goodness seemed to be transitory, like a gypsy on the run with suitcase in hand.
|SMALL SHIP, BIG FUN - The Andrea, a small, 105-passenger expedition ship based in Croatia, can explore ports that other larger ships have to bypass. CNS Photo by Laura Weston. |
|WHERE TIME STANDS STILL - Paraty, Brazil, is a UNESCO World Heritage village that takes one back to the early 18th century. The cobbled streets are lined with shops, boutiques and cafes with live music. CNS Photo by Laura Weston. |
MUSIC IN THE STREETS - A young street performer plays a bandoneon on bustling Florida Street, a pedestrian street in the heart of Buenos Aires. CNS photo by Laura Weston.
|BRING YOUR UMBRELLA - Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is one of the world's most famous beaches, and a lifestyle for the residents. CNS Photo by Laura Weston. |
|LOCAL COLOR - The colorful La Boca area is a tango-infused neighborhood of Buenos Aires and a major tourist attraction with artists showing their work along the narrow passageways. CNS Photo by Laura Weston. |
Yet, on the other hand, it felt as if we had spent months discovering the Buenos Aires neighborhoods, such as tango-infused La Boca, while gazing at a great city that is a bit frayed around the edges, lingering at bustling flea markets with their worldly antique goods, where vendors eager for a peso or two had droopy cigarettes dangling from their lips, a badge of Argentine street cool.
On the hectic streets, animated cabbies were filled with tall tales, including their take on Evita, believed by them to be one of the most acclaimed, controversial, charismatic and creative women of the 20th century. They spoke of their undying love of tango, and loudly criticized the wretched resident loco drivers who force pedestrians to scatter for their lives. Buenos Aires was a flashing memory. We were living the moment, but the moments were vivid and fleeting like a memorable sunset that teases the senses with a taunting farewell.
Then, with a blink of an eye, we were wondering about the lives of the Andrea passengers and the oceangoing antics of cruise life on an expedition ship that could fit neatly in the hull of the new mega cruise ships, not unlike a starfish hitching a ride on a whale's back.
Would the zany drivers zipping past the ship live another day? Would we see another lingering kiss ondeck between an inseparable couple that only two days before were total strangers? Was there a violin player from Russia with itchy fingers, who could sing in five languages, hiding among the luggage? Who was the gorgeous six-foot blonde with the long eyelashes lounging on the deck?
It seemed like yesterday that the Andrea, eager to begin her cruise, was standing out like a sparkling gem against the Buenos Aires skyline, tugging at her bowlines, counting the minutes to departure time, and her voyage across a wide isthmus to neighbor Montevideo, Uruguay, and then north along the Brazilian coast to Santos and Sao Paulo, followed by a short hop to Paraty, a slick little World Heritage UNESCO village, and finally to Rio de Janeiro, and the world.
A small ship in a big ocean, the Andrea was like visiting an old friend where an ever-changing sky, tinged with boiling clouds, was mixed with sparkling, educational shipboard lectures and intriguing ports with intriguing passengers, many who were sailing the Andrea or her sister ship the Monet for the second and third time.
The days at sea became as precious as a string of pearls. Mercifully, with no televisions available on the Andrea, the hard news of the world was left to the sea gulls.
While Buenos Aires was still fresh in the memory bank, passengers were abuzz about arriving in Montevideo, enjoying a tour of a splendid city and dining only steps from the ship in the historic Port Market. Housed in an earthy old warehouse are 13 open-kitchen barbecue eateries, offering 20 or so fine cuts of meat and veggies sizzling on fiery open grills in a chaotic maze of skillets, plates and garlic bread, but somehow as efficient as a Swiss timepiece.
The ship heads north past a sunken ship and rusted, algae-covered freighters, along the Brazilian coast aptly described by Don Klein, a prestigious and captivating lecturer, photographer and bibliographer, as 4,600 miles of beaches, boats and bikinis. Klein, a South American gypsy who speaks fluent Portuguese with roots in San Francisco and strains of genius running through his veins, became the heart and soul of the ship with entertaining and enlightening lectures supported by a large-screen power-point show.
Smiling, he said, "To fully enjoy the three countries on the itinerary one must be aware of their fascinating European origin, which is overflowing with intrigue, conspiracy and mystery."
Klein also informed passengers that Rio de Janeiro's big four are beaches, beer, soccer and samba. The rhythms of samba shape a setting of "live your life, dine at 9 and party until the legs begin to wobble."
The 47-year-old Norwegian coastal liner, purchased by Croatian-based Elegant Cruises, enjoyed her first cruise in 2004, after a million-dollar Swedish face-lift. Unlike the large ships where it takes days to learn your way around and where one can get lost in a maze of dead-end passageways, the Andrea was as inviting as a backyard patio.
The purser's desk, a reading lounge, dining room, bar and fantail with deck chairs were on one deck, while the bridge was accessible to passengers 24-7. Open-seating dining gave passengers the opportunity to meet travelers from all parts of the world, a marvelous expedition ship bonus. A captain's cocktail party and a deck barbecue took place during sea days, while each night, before and after dinner, Darko, a talented Croatian, played Croatian and Brazilian folk songs on the organ and mandolin.
Sailing into Paraty, Brazil, time fell back to the early 18th century, as sailors in jaunty sloops and schooners moved about the channels and troughs past islands appearing like large gumdrops, while pastel-hued houses and large-stone-cobbled paths are ensconced at the base of a jagged mountain range, once home to smugglers and pirates on the lam.
Travelers won't find hustlers, hawkers, billboards or glittery nightspots. Life is simply, as the Brazilians say, "splendid." Every Paraty doorway seems to be an opening to an artistic endeavor. The pedestrian-only streets host a mix of classy boutiques, one-of-a-kind handicrafts, artists with easels, posadas and cafes with live music. Paraty is magical, as frogs, crickets and birds form a melodious chorus, while somewhere in the distance a boat's whistle echoes across the water as the Andrea sails onward to Rio de Janeiro, and fond farewells.
IF YOU GO
Contact Elegant Cruise Lines for small-ship explorations in South America and Europe featuring Croatia's Dalmatian coast: 800-683-6767, www.elegantcruises.com.
Richard Carroll is a freelance travel writer.
© Copley News Service