It has been a bit crazy with all of my recent travel and, of course, having just returned from French Polynesia nine days ago, getting into the Antarctica vibe has been a bit “interesting”. There are, actually, three overriding things that have kept my excitement a bit more reserved than usual…but I am sure that will change.
First, I am still basking in the joy of spending time with so many of what I will call my “cruise family” (aka former Seabourn folks) when on my recent Windstar cruise. I know there are a few on the Scenic Eclipse, but I also know that those I am aware of will have just departed the Scenic Eclipse for Sri Lanka to help open its sister brand’s new expedition ship, Emerald Azzurra.
Second is that having been to Antarctica – my favorite and most inspiring place in the world – for the fourth time, so that giddiness isn’t quite at the same level. The “unknown” is kinda “known”. Don’t get me wrong, nothing in Antarctica is as expected, so I am not passe! Antarctica is bigger, more majestic, more powerful, and more unpredictable than anywhere else on earth. That initial connection with penguins, seals, seabirds, and whales has been made. And the emotions of my first fog-lifting glimpse of the “ice” and that amazing sunset are embedded in my soul.
While my excitement to be back “on the ice” is huge, my mind keeps returning to the same question: “How is the Scenic Eclipse experience different than my first three?” I don’t only mean the delivery of the expedition, but the ship itself. I am not sure if it is a distraction or my just doing my job.
Third is Covid Fatigue. Looking back, I haven’t had a normal social life since mid-November. Between having contracted Covid-19 even though I am vaxed and boosted (It was very mild), and making sure I was not infected again – thereby preventing my journeys if I didn’t pass any of the multitude of testing I have to undergo – I haven’t been out and about socially in my hometown but for one time. I get “business first” and, yes, all this travel is my business, but c’mon. (And if you think I am overly cautious, just before I departed a client of mine – who was also supposed to depart on his cruise this week – caught Covid and couldn’t go.)
So bear with my short rant: I am very tired of having so many requirements which, in real terms, are mostly in place mostly to protect the unvaccinated (and, to a minor extent, the esoteric hope that with enough prevention the virus will disappear). My mother is 89 and lives in New York City, so she is part of the other group of concern: The “vulnerable”, but she regularly goes to lunch and the theatre with her friends while, due to the international travel requirements, I can’t. (And, of course, if I had the flu, norovirus, or picked any other communicable disease, I don’t get tested for it and I can travel internationally freely. I did get my flu vaccine, BTW.) Go figure!
So, with the mindset that I can either comply or not travel. I comply. And to be very clear: IT IS WORTH IT. There is absolutely no benefit to being righteous! I want to travel. I need to travel. But, alas, it is for those reasons that I have isolated myself for so long!
Before I get back to the real “Getting There”, I feel the need to underscore the scientific absurdity of the current situation (remember I actually am a scientist!) as well as my total agreement with just complying and getting on with it:
1. I had to pass my 30th?? Covid test in order to enter Argentina. Meanwhile, the CDC says I shouldn’t travel to Argentina because there is so much Covid. So Argentina is worried about my bringing Covid to their country? I don’t really think so.
2. I was advised I should not leave my hotel once I arrive in Buenos Aires to reduce my chance of contracting Covid. However, unless I lock myself in my room (assuming my room is even ready as I arrive in the morning) I will potentially be in contact with hundreds of people from around the world. How is that safe?
3. Regardless, scientifically, my leaving the hotel to walk outside and to a very exclusive restaurant where I will be seated at a table by myself is far safer than dining or hanging about in the hotel.
4. I then have to have an antigen test given by Scenic the evening of my arrival. I understand the precaution and, most certainly, that not everyone will have taken a PCR test only a couple of days prior, but if I didn’t have Covid two days ago, there is scientifically no way I could have a positive antigen test as it takes about five days of infection for that to happen. See below!
5. I then have to get up very early for my internal Argentinian flight to Ushuaia. But before I can board the Scenic Eclipse, I have to take another antigen test; literally less than 24 hours after I was just tested.
6. There will be a third antigen test given after 72 hours onboard. Now this one make sense! Because – as noted above – it is only then that an antigen test could show up positive. (And, hopefully, if everyone is negative some of the masking requirements, etc. will be loosened.)
But after this expedition, I will be taking a break from international travel so I can move about and socialize freely! And, to be honest, it is a bit distracting.
OK, that out of the way…
In a welcomed change, my first flight from Reno to Houston was an early afternoon (rather than very early morning) flight. But as it was snowing in Tahoe and all it takes is one tractor-trailer to jackknife heading down the mountain to shutdown Interstate 80, I chose to leave early for the airport before that happened. Fortunately, there is an Escape Lounge (affiliated with American Express Centurion Lounges) so I parked myself there and got some work done. Oh, and I had a couple of Bloody Mary’s!
Although my first flight was on a small Embraer jet, and as per usual I missed the upgrade to First Class by one seat (not that it was any great shakes on that aircraft), my usual bulkhead-aisle seat had a ton of legroom and the 3.5 hours went quickly…as I continued to work until it was time to chill for a bit.
The United Club in the Houston airport’s International Terminal was OK, but the selection of snacks was markedly below that I have enjoyed(?) in other clubs as of late. (Ham and Cheese sandwiches cut into eighths.) It was busy but not crowded or noisy. Again, some work before chilling out, as my layover is only two hours.
I tried out United’s Premium Economy again and, again, I was terribly disappointed. Other than a bigger seat with a leg rest you really don’t get much of anything “premium”. Things started out poorly when I asked about having a double whisky and was told all that is offered is complimentary beer and wine. Huh? I had whisky on my domestic flight in Economy Plus! There is just no excuse for this; especially since there is a significant premium for “Premium” Economy. (About three hours into the flight, right after I fell asleep, the kind flight attendant arrived with my whisky. I appreciated the gesture…oh but for it to have been before my non-creamy cheesy dinner!)
This was followed by my choice of chicken or pasta. I asked if the pasta was cream-based and was told it wasn’t. I wasn’t exactly thrilled when I opened the foil to see a heavy cream sauce and a ton of cheese. Breakfast was a faux Egg McMuffin without cheese, served in a lovely cellophane bag dumped on my tray table.
Side Note: American Airlines came through again…and, again, not in a good way. There was another flight with many Scenic guests departing out of Dallas at about the same time. After what seems to be the commonplace dragged out delays by American, there was the “We are trying to find another aircraft, so please move to Gate X” according to some Facebook posts. I knew what that meant: No plane! The passengers were eventually given hotel vouchers and are supposed to arrive at 11:30 PM rather than in the morning. I can’t emphasize this enough: Do not fly American Airlines if you have other options.
Arriving in Buenos Aires was a breeze. Arriving at Passport Control with virtually nobody there definitely expedited the process. They do check your passport, vaccination cards, vaccination test, and DDJJ Immigration form. More specifically, in this everchanging requirements world, Argentina required either a PCR test taken no more than 72 hours prior to your departure or an antigen test taken within 24 hours. The DDJJ form can be completed up to 30 days in advance, but not less than 48 hours prior to your arrival.
After claiming my luggage it was out the doors and finding a team with the Scenic signs. As there were about 60 guests on our flight Scenic needed a team. Our group of about nine folks were gathered and placed on a 50 passenger bus with a very nice guide (Leonardo) for the 45-minute drive to the Alvear Palace Hotel. We did have the bonus of a traffic delay due to a group setting a fire on the highway protesting they’re not having electricity for two days.
Arriving at Alvear Palace Hotel was a breeze with my room ready when I checked in about noon. That is a very appreciated touch! My room was on the smaller side, but stylish and very comfortable.
After checking in, it was up to the first floor (remember we aren’t in America so the lobby level is 0) to a room Scenic has set up for briefings. They took photos of my vaccination cards and then, when two other couples arrived, we had the briefing.
Scenic does a great job of keeping the guests informed. There are three groups for our journey to Ushuaia and the Scenic Eclipse. I was Group 2 and was given a red ribbon to attach to my luggage (which has to be placed outside of our rooms by 10:00 PM) and two papers with a ton of information; answering pretty much every possible question about the day’s and next day’s agenda, what to pack or bring, etc. Excellent!
I asked Scenic if they could make sure I had an aisle seat as I do get a bit claustrophobic and just thinking about being in a middle or window seat for the 3.5-hour flight got me anxious. Not a problem!
When I told Scenic I had a dinner reservation for 7:00 PM so I would appreciate an earlier testing time, they said just slip in 15 minutes earlier and they would get it done. And they did. Another nice touch by Scenic!
So I was off to dinner. I knew where I was going: Aramburu. It is a small, modernistic, restaurant with an 18-course degustation menu with, if you like (and I do) wine and cocktail pairings. I will be writing a separate article showing all eighteen courses, but here is a “taste” of what I experienced over the next 3.5 hours!
Obviously my luggage was not outside my door by 10:00 PM (oops!) but the hotel was great about picking it up around 11:30 PM.
5 :30 AM came way too early. This is especially so because, for some reason of late, my children need to have some sort of crisis when I am away. This time my daughter went to a concert (I’m not sure it was a concert as I perceived it to be) and wound up with a hairline fracture in her arm. Yes, another Emergency Room visit. Four weeks in a sling. Hopefully, that will be the only crisis for this trip!
Scenic provided a continental breakfast and then it was off to AEP, the domestic airport in Buenos Aires; staggering the groups’ departures by about 15 minutes. This obviously allowed for less of a crowd as it spaced out check-in. We were given boarding passes on the bus and guided to the check-in line. It was a long line, but it moved quickly…and we were given new boarding passes.
The flight was fine; especially because I slept a good portion of it. This was fortunate because being in the back of the plane for the first time in I can’t remember my claustrophobia was creeping in a bit. I did, however, have a distraction: There was a constant line for the bathroom for almost the entire flight. (I now even more so appreciate my bulkhead aisle seat!)
After claiming our luggage Scenic had someone waiting to take it for delivery to my suite. I was then ushered into a van with just a few other guests, rather than the three other buses waiting for Scenic guests. I am, apparently, a VIP.
But it was not yet time to go to the ship. No, it was time for the second antigen test at the Ushuaia Ruby Club. It was quick and painless, but a bit disappointing. I had visions of a “club” but it was merely a rather commonplace gym. Oh well.
But it was still not time to go to the ship…because we were too fast. We had to kill 20 minutes which was accomplished by a very slow “tour” of some of the areas of Ushuaia I never knew existed. After a brief stop at the Ushuaia sign, it was finally time to get to the ship.
And what a surprise! Before I even got out of the van I saw familiar faces. It was like I was boarding a Seabourn ship because so many of the staff are former Seabourn staff. Not only is the Corporate Executive Chef, Tom Goetter, and Director of Hotel Operations, Vitor Alves, formerly of Seabourn, but literally dozens of others as well!
Remember what I discussed about the folks at Windstar? Well, the same words were spoken when I arrived at the Scenic Eclipse: Family!
Part III: Aramburu 18 Course