Part 5 - Punta Del Este, Uruguay, Sea Day
March 4th, 2015 – Punta Del Este, Uruguay
The following day, the seaside resort of Punto del Este welcomed us under an overcast sky but with calm seas, which made tendering easy which was necessary in this port. We hadn’t made any plans for this day and were, therefore, in no rush in the morning. As opposed to those passengers who had probably booked fixed tours, we had no reason to catch the earliest tender at all cost and queue with the first crowd – even though those queues weren’t very long.
By the way, in tender ports Celebrity uses a system. First to tender are the passengers who booked a tour with Celebrity. Next are those with priority tickets, distributed the day before to passengers with Elite status and higher. Finally, an announcement via the PA informs all other guests that the tendering is open to all passengers, which in Punta del Este was made relatively early.
At our breakfast table, this was of little interest to us and we enjoyed our breakfast and the view of the sea peacefully and undisturbed. A positive memory for me is that after such a short time the staff at the station with freshly prepared eggs already recognized me. “Good morning, Sir! Two Eggs Benedict and three sausages as always?”, the nice lady behind the counter asked me with a friendly smile as I was still waiting in the short line. What could I say? “You are an angel!”
It’s moments like these which always make me happy. Moments in which I have the greatest respect for the staff’s performance and the deep feeling that “This is my place” – but they are also moments which bring back the simple wisdom of the graffiti in Buenos Aires: “What I offer is a smile, all I hope for is a smile in return”.
In the waiting area of the tender boat, for which we didn’t have to wait, we met Jenny, our friendly waiter from the Blu, who was selling water bottles. She also recognized us immediately and even called us by our names wishing us a nice day.
From the tender boat we observed the overcast sky and had a few doubts regarding the Captain’s promise of a sunny day, which he had made earlier during his morning announcement.
After their return from their night’s or early morning’s work, the fishermen’s colorful boats were moored at the piers of this small fishing port and offered a typical, idyllic image, which had probably nothing in common with the actual hard work of these men. At a table behind the dock, the remains of the catch were just being stripped and fileted.
Close to the edge of the pier, some of the port’s residents, attracted by the hope for some leftovers or maybe even a few tasty bits coming from this job, were awaiting their chances.
The catch, which obviously wasn’t intended to feed the sea lions but to land on the plates of local fish restaurants and in domestic saucepans, was sold directly in the port on a string of sales booths along the pier. Probably a pretty sight for fish and seafood lovers, personally I already find the smell difficult to bear – I much prefer a good steak.
From our tender boat we had seen a large tour boat with a big banner across its bow offering trips to “Isla de Lobos”. I had already read about this colony of seals and sea lions, and we were interested to see more of these marine mammals. So we asked the friendly captain for the price (USD 60.00) and time of departure (12.00 noon) and decided to buy two tickets for the trip on this comfortable and spacious boat.
We had some time left until our departure, which we used for a walk along the waterfront. Striking the eye were the many modern residential high rises along the street and many, many posters advertising building projects and luxury apartments. It reminded me of Sunny Isles in Miami, where the development of today’s millionaires’ district of glass and concrete started just like this, even the names on the posters, Trump etc., were identical.
When our tour boat set sail, we made ourselves comfortable in lounge chairs on the upper deck. Although it wasn’t a small boat and as a trimaran very steady in the water, it rocked quite a bit in the sea which had become a little rougher in the meantime. It was impossible to stand up or walk across the deck without holding on to something. As we sat right behind the bridge, the captain came to us repeatedly to apologize and ensure that everything was fine. We assured him that we had no problem with waves and that we knew that we were on a boat after all. He was relieved and told us that recently he had had to deal with quite a few negative reviews on Tripadvisor from people who had simply gotten seasick. We only shook our heads in disbelief and replied “It’s a boat!!!”
We spent the 45 minute trip to Isla de Lobs in an interesting conversation with a lady who was originally from Uruguay but had been living in Sweden for many years. She still had a house in Punta del Este, after which she looked outside the season. She told us that during the season it wasn’t bearable any more as the tourists in the streets were basically stepping on each other’s feet. She, too, told us almost wistfully about the development of Punta del Este into a desert of luxury high rises, whose apartments were bought up by wealthy Argentinians and Brazilians.
Slowly we approached the island.
Isla de Lobos is a nature reserve which cannot be accessed. This island only hosts a research station and South America’s tallest lighthouse, which is the world’s third tallest lighthouse with a height of 59 meters (180 ft). Up to 250,000 seals and sea lions living on this island form the world’s biggest colony of these animals. We could already hear their calls from afar, and the smell followed soon after. But it was still amazing to watch the animals.
As far as the eye could see, the rocks and cliffs of the island were covered by the often huge animals which, to our surprise, were able to drag their massive bodies all the way up to the upper edge of the high cliffs. Some specimen skillfully and playfully glided through the waves in front of those on land, of whom some were engaged in fighting for the best spot and others were simply having a rest.
For approximately half an hour we cruised along the island and watched the show. Taking photos wasn’t easy. The boat rose and fell with every wave, and keeping the balance, which the seals managed so playfully, wasn’t quite as easy for us. Shortly before we headed back towards Punta del Este, the Infinity’s Captain´s prophecy of the morning had come true – the skies cleared up.
In the now bright sunshine, we could see from our boat how obstructed the coast of Punta del Este already was. It wasn’t unattractive and still had original traits, especiallly around the lighthouse on a promontory, but I could imagine how in a few years’ time Punta del Este wouldn’t have the same face it had today. Our fellow passenger confirmed this and added that this already was no longer the face of the city she had known.
With the sun shining down on them, the fishing boats in the port seemed even more inviting than in the morning. What hadn’t changed were the begging looks of the sea lions swimming among them.
As I was taking photos of the hungry animals, one of the fishermen came towards us with a plastic box and handed us some of the fish leftovers it contained and pointed to the begging animals, who promptly came closer, right on cue.
When leaving the tender boat in the morning, we had received a little map of the town which showed a walking tour. As we wanted to see some of Punta del Este’s landmarks, especially the sculpture of the hand emerging from the sand, we started the tour in reverse order.
The route took us along the waterfront again, where we soon found a wooden gazebo, which was also marked as a stop of the tour.
Not far away was the beginning of Punta del Este’s public beaches, where we could see the newly built “Muelle La Pastora”. Due to the the many cruise passengers, this pier was purpose built as an alternative to the small fishing port. Today it was used by the tender boats of the MSC Sinfonia.
This is where we turned away from the waterfront and walked past a large marble sculpture, which was erected on the occasion of Punta del Este’s centennial. In this direction we soon reached Playa Brava on the other side of town where, in beautiful sunlight, Punta del Este’s probably most famous landmark emerged from the beach.
The sculpture “La Mano de Punta del Este” (The Hand) was created by a Chilean artist in 1982 during an art festival. Popularly known as “Los Dedos” (The Fingers), it is probably the most popular photo spot in Punta del Este and depicted on many postcards.
As overcast as it was in the morning, the sun was now burning mercilessly from the sky. We followed the route on the map along Avenida Gorleo, the main shopping road, grateful for every piece of shadow we could catch from the canopies of some of the shops.
I was particularly struggling with the sun. After a look at the overcast sky from our veranda in the morning, I hadn’t taken the concept of using sun tan lotion too seriously. Now I could basically feel how the little sunscreen that I had granted my skin at all, had long vaporized. That’s why, during a little stop in an air conditioned McDonalds, where we enjoyed a cool milk shake and free Wifi, I asked Birgit that we return to the ship.
Luckily, the port wasn’t very far. Once there, we still found the biggest of the sea lions, who willingly posed as a photo model for the passing tourists on their way to the tender boats.
On our way back, the waves made for a rocky transfer. When the front of the tender dove into the waves, water loudly splashed over the entire boat. Some guests were cheering, others coudn’t find it quite as funny and turned rather quiet – and pale around their noses. Two ladies in the row behind us were truly worried and debated whether this was at all dangerous. Which was, of course, a complete exaggeration.
Once in our cabin, I discovered that my face was anything but pale, just as all other parts which had been exposed to the sun. I looked just like one of those people whom I’d usually make fun of. If you are thinking lobster... think again. Think bright red lighthouse.
We set sail with a little delay. The Captain later explained that due to the wind which had become stronger during the day, he had to turn the ship in order to hoist up tender boats on the leeward side.
During dinner at Blu, my glowing complexion caused more than just the occasional joke. But I could laugh at it myself – after all it had been my own fault. And my naturally wounded pride was appeased with yet another excellent dinner. As a main course I had a simply divine white wine risotto topped with two beautifully tender filet mignons – just thinking of it today makes my mouth water.
The show at the theatre that evening was the performance of a pianist who, according to the program, had already played in many major concert halls. We had a brief look and thought he was very good. The hands of Garin Bader seemed to just fly over the keys. No matter whether he was playing the most difficult pieces by Chopin or less classical pieces for general entertainment, he played them all by heart, effortlessly and with obvious devotion and passion.
Unfortunaltey, I still felt a little tortured by my sunburn, so we decided to go to bed. Not before applying an entire bottle of hydrating body lotion to my poor skin...
March 5th 2015 – At sea
We were quite happy about this first day at sea. Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Punta del Este... all had been beautiful destinations and experiences, but we appreciated a day’s rest, too. The weather was nice, so we enjoyed yet another ample breakfast on the open deck of the Ocean View Cafe. We got talking to the people at the table next to us – yes, the bright red color of my face was still a trigger – and so time went by gently and easily.
Many took advantage of the beautiful weather to make themselves comfortable on deck, where chairs and sunbeds were available in abundance. We spent our time at the gym, reading, snacking and doing nothing.
As part of the Celebrity Life Activities, two lecturers/guest speakers had joined this cruise. At the theater, we came across a lecture on marine animals by Milos Radakovich, who was the more scientific one of the speakers. It was fantastic! Milos had an incredibly entertaining way of combining scientific facts, interesting information and humorous entertainment in his lecture and thereby inspring his large audience. We quickly looked for seat and stayed for the rest of the show.
The evening of this first day at sea was also the first of three formal nights. Since we had booked this trip onboard another cruise, we had received a nice onboard credit, which we (partly) invested in a dinner at a specialty restaurant that night. We thougth the “SS United States” would be a good choice as the ambiance seemed to match the dress code of the evening.
The food could only be described as exquisite. Warm goat cheese soufflé, pear in puff pastry with Roquefort, duck breast, lobster, grandmarnier soufflé – everything was first class gourmet cuisine. The service was extremely friendly and distinguished and thus befitting the evening’s setting – truly excellent. As usual, the Maître d’ came to the table, and since we both shared the same first name, we quickly got into a friendly conversation.
We had come to love the Constellation Lounge for evening cocktails. So this is where we went for after dinner drinks, and in the warm light of the setting sun refleced on the evening.
We had both really enjoyed dinner, and the food had been simply exquisite. However, at an extra charge of around USD 100.00 it wasn’t really low priced. Although we both agreed that the price of the food and the excellent service was justified compared to an equivalent on land, we also had a different thought. Since we had been spoiled every night by the first class cuisine and excellent service at the Blu, the evening at the SS United States wasn’t that much better. This put the price into another perspective, and we thought that guests of the main dining room might find a bigger difference upwards than guests of the Blu. This is not to be understood as a criticism of this excellent restaurant, but as – yet another - compliment and appreciation of the Blu.
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