On a 20-day cruise on Holland America Line’s (HAL) Veendam from Valparaiso to Buenos Aires, I decided to mix my adventures: wildlife, wines, technical classes onboard and a real thriller, a bicycle tour in Buenos Aires.
My companion and I chose this last activity because we thought it would be a good way to see the oldest sections of Buenos Aires: the La Boca and San Telmo districts. There were around a dozen participants and we were supplied with everything — bicycles with wide tires and helmets and two guides to accompany us, one in front and one in back.
One would think that anybody could ride a bike — didn’t we all do that once as kids? Judging by our experience, it turns out that riding a bike in Buenos Aires is really for daredevils. HAL warns their guests that participants should be experienced bicyclists able to ride off curbs and that helmets are required, but there were other perils. Buenos Aires is a big city and doesn’t have bike lanes in place. On our tour, I quickly found I didn’t know the local driving customs.
“Stay together,” the guide told us at the beginning of our ride, but Argentine drivers don’t seem to be accustomed to bicyclists on their streets. We learned this as a fuel truck driver making a right turn blared the truck horn for about 10 seconds before he continued his turn, splitting our long line of riders in two.
One of our group members described it as “a harrowing day, the kind of day that you will take to you grave” — but we all survived with war stories. Perhaps we should have chosen a day of wine tasting instead.
Actually, we did that as well, just outside Montevideo, Uruguay, at the Bouza Winery, a family-run business that believes that small is better. The winery features some new structures, including a large dining room with grand windows. Waiters roamed the room, pouring four tastes of wine, and served us an extravagant lunch of lamb, beef and tasty cheese. Live traditional music at lunch was provided by an accordion player and a pianist.
That experience was topped only by a later visit with penguins in their natural habitat. Three choices were offered on the Veendam. Magdalena Island, near Punta Arena, Chile, proved to be the best choice for us, as guests have more time with the penguins. In addition, access to the island via a modern ferry is easy and involves less walking than the other options.
Magdalena Island is home to Magellanic penguins, charming because they look like they are smiling. More than a thousand of them were hopping about, some digging out a new front porch, others coddling their fledglings, which were born just about 40 days earlier. Some of the adults were waddling around, while others were lifting their heads, puffing out their breasts and making a honking call. Sadly, we learned from Palmer Station employees that the arctic penguin population is dying off due to global warming, which is bringing sub-arctic penguins to the station.
The adventures continued on our days at sea. I was thrilled with the complimentary onboard digital workshops, including tips on camera operation and photo editing and organization. These new hour-long classes are offered on all HAL ships in a classroom setting. On Veendam, small classes of 10 covered using a digital camera, photo editing, movie and slideshow creation, PC organization, cloud storage with SkyDrive and navigating Windows 8. The classes began last year as a marriage between HAL and Microsoft and were so popular that they were extended through 2014.
In addition, one-on-one coaching called Techspert Time is available 70 hours each week so guests can stop by with questions. Those in need of more in-depth assistance can attend these help sessions.
HAL offers its three-week South America and Antarctica Explorer cruises on the Zaandam, embarking Dec. 18 of this year as well as Jan. 8 and 29, and Dec. 22 of next year.