Introduction. For some time we�d had our eye on a Holland America Lines (HAL) cruise around the south tip of South America, offered through Grand Circle Travel (GCT). Twice we�d called GCT to book it only to find that it was sold out. Then after our great experience on Holland America�s Eurodam in the spring of 2009, we definitely were ready to sail with them again. We were thinking about a 19 February 2010 date when my sister told us about a special offer she�d received in the mail from HAL for the 5 December 2009 cruise. We decided to take the plunge. On 5 June we booked the December �South America Explorer� cruise on the Veendam directly with HAL. (We later turned the booking over to our travel agent.) We also booked our own flights, for about half what HAL was charging.
Thursday, 3 December. We drove to our son Randall�s house in Culpeper and he drove us to Washington Dulles Airport. It was a beautiful day, very warm for December. We checked in and got to the gate at 4:20 for our 5:29 flight to Atlanta. The flight was full, and there was a problem with people having too many carry-ons, apparently to avoid the new baggage fee. Nevertheless, the plane pulled back from the gate on time. We landed in Atlanta about 7:30 and had a snack at an airport restaurant.
The flight to Rio de Janeiro was already boarding when we reached the gate, but it didn�t leave until 9:15, about half an hour late. They served dinner about 10. Then we tried to rest.
RIO DE JANEIRO
Friday, 4 December. They served a very bad breakfast on the plane about 5:30 a.m. EST. Due to a two time zone difference, plus daylight saving time in South America, that was already 8:30 in Brazil. We were over Rio by 9:30, but the plane wasn�t allowed to land for nearly an hour. We got through immigration and customs very quickly and found the HAL representative in the terminal around 11:00. Because we had to wait for all the other passengers taking the transfer, even from later flights, we were kept standing in the terminal until 12:15 before being led to the bus where we could sit down. Then there was another delay before the bus departed. (It was a mistake to take the cruise line�s transfer. We could have been at the hotel at least 90 minutes earlier, and for a quarter of the cost, by taking a taxi.) The weather was warm and humid. It was cloudy and had recently rained, but the sun was in and out.
The city of Rio is divided in two by Corcovado Hill, site of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue. The airport where we landed and the old city center both are in the North Zone, and the beaches and newer hotels are generally in the South Zone. As the bus fought through the heavy traffic, it took us by a number of favelas (shanty towns) hanging from the hillsides. The homes, built on public land and almost always on steep hillsides, were crowded together and literally stacked on top of one another. Most were made of exposed terra cotta blocks, absent the stucco coating they were intended to have. �Favela� is usually translated as �shanty town� or �slum,� but the guide told us that most of the homes now have electricity and running water and that they are not bad to live in. Nevertheless, I must say that, all in all, our impression of Rio to this point was not favorable. It seemed very dirty and run down, even apart from the favelas.
The bus finally made its way to the Rebou�as Tunnel that passes under Corcovado Hill. That brought us into the South Zone which made a better impression. As we emerged from the tunnel, we drove by the huge Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, ringed by the Jockey Club and various parks. We continued east to the S�o Conrado district, finally reaching the Intercontinental Hotel there about 1:30. Even here, a favela (Rocinha) covered a hillside not far from our hotel.
While waiting for our room, we had the �soup buffet� in the hotel restaurant, then checked for possible tours. We gave up the idea of taking an afternoon city tour, as we'd originally intended, because it was too late, and besides, Jane needed to rest. We also decided against the dinner and Samba show tour that night because it would end after midnight. However, we did book the Rio and Sugarloaf tour as part of our transfer to the dock the next morning. We finally got our room about 2:30, giving Jane a chance for a much-needed rest. There was a nice view of Gavea Rock from our room. We were surprised to find that this expensive hotel was somewhat run down, showing lack of proper maintenance in various respects.
I decided to go out and explore our surroundings while Jane rested and maybe find a nice place for dinner. Unfortunately though, it was now raining hard, and there was a strong wind. The hotel was on a small beach but was far removed from Rio�s famous beaches and from any other points of interest. I walked a couple blocks to the S�o Conrado Fashion Mall. The hotel�s concierge had told me there were some nice restaurants there, but I wasn�t impressed. Besides, Jane wasn�t up to walking there in the rain. I hadn�t bought any Brazilian money because our stay was so short, and credit cards could be used almost everywhere. Most places also accepted dollars at a rate five riais for three dollars (US $1.00=1.67 riais).
The concierge highly recommended the Oasis churrasco (barbeque) restaurant, and we decided to try that. He said they�d pick us up by car, and that was a big selling point in view of the rain. The car picked us up at 7:30. When we arrived at the Oasis, we got two surprises. First, there was a $15 charge for what we thought was a courtesy car, twice the taxi fare.
Second, as we entered the Oasis, a woman from HAL greeted us effusively, apologizing for not waiting for us at the hotel. She ushered us past several tables filled with persons who were obviously part of some organized group and had us sit down at a long table where everyone else was nearly finished with the meal. We were rushed through a generous and absolutely delicious barbeque meal of several kinds of meat, all roasted on a spit over an open fire. There were also various side dishes as well as a large buffet. Only by talking to the other diners did we learn that this was the group going to the samba show and that their "included dinner" was at the Oasis.
I went up to the woman in charge of the group and explained that we had not booked the samba tour. After some consultation among the HAL personnel, she explained that one couple that had booked and paid for the tour failed to show up as the bus loaded at the hotel, and the woman who�d greeted us thought we were that couple. The upshot was that we did not have to pay for our meal ($47/person). Not only that, but we rode back to the hotel with another woman from HAL who would not let us pay for the taxi.
We got back to the hotel at 9:15, sated but dead tired. We were in bed by 10:30. It was still raining, but not as hard, and the wind had died down.