Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Navimag's Off-Season: What To Expect in the Chilean Fjords

A few months ago, I wrote a preliminary accountof my Navimag voyage from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, on the company’s newly acquired M/N Edén. Given that the vessel had started serving the route on short notice, only a few days earlier, that post was never meant to be definitive, but now I feel confident enough to suggest what the experience may be for the upcoming season and beyond.
First, to recap the vessel’s history: Between 1984 and 2010, France’s Société Nationale Maritime Corse Méditerranée (SNCM) operated the combination cargo and passenger ferry as the Monte Cinto, connecting Marseille with Corsica. Then, after being sold to Baja Ferries, it became the Mazatlán Star, connecting the Mexican mainland with the peninsular port of La Paz, in Baja California.
When I boarded the vessel in mid-February, faint outlines of the name “Monte Cinto” remained visible on the stern, and the hull still bore SNCM’s blue and white color scheme (which, ironically, closely resembles the flag of Argentina rather than Navimag's signature red). In fact, the outline of “Baja Ferries” was also visible, though painters were adding “Navimag” to both the port and starboard sides. The Mexicans, for their part, had never even bothered removing hallway posters of SNCM’s Mediterranean destinations.

The night before the Edén sailed from Natales, I heard complaints from arriving German passengers who called it “dirty,” but that was not my experience. It might have been fairer to call the interior “worn,” and to remember that the ship was suddenly placed to satisfy demand for a service that had been suspended for most of the season. What it will look like in the upcoming season is the issue, and I’ll try to address that issue on the basis of my own experience and conversations with Navimag management.
On the basis of my experience, the M/N Edén is work-in-progress, which will soon look very different. That said, it’s important to remember that this is a mixed passenger-cargo ferry – it is most definitely not a cruise ship like the Stella Australis (pictured above), operated by another division of the same company. Rather it carries a maximum of 140 passengers in closer quarters and a large amount of freight, including livestock – cattle, horses, sheep, and dogs – in trucks on the lower decks. It also provides free transportation for the Kawéskar people of the village of Puerto Edén (Isla Wellington) in what is their only regularly scheduled link to the outside world.
One reason for changing vessels is that the Edén has a larger cargo capacity but, though the passenger quarters are likely to undergo some changes, their capacity will probably not increase. For its earlier Mediterranean and Mexican runs, it could accommodate additional passengers on reclining butacas in what is presently the audio-visual lounge, but that’s not suitable for three nights through the channels and fjords of Aisén and Magallanes.
My own accommodations were a compact cabin with private bath, measuring roughly eight by twelve feet (2.5 by 3.5 meters), with two single beds placed at right angles to each other. It had its own bath and, I was pleased to learn, the hot shower water arrived immediately – in complex plumbing, that can sometimes take a while. Nevertheless, it had a view obstructed by lifeboats and, to see the scenery, I really had to go outdoors. Some cabins have no views and private baths, while others have shared baths, and the carpets need to be replaced.
The common areas also needed work and, over the southern winter, they’re likely to get it. The cafeteria, for instance, was too small to accommodate all the passengers at once, so we had to have lunch and dinner in shifts (breakfast is not an issue, as people straggle in throughout the morning). As yet, there was no formal bar; though beer and wine were readily available, the customary pisco sour was not. I have suggested that they expand the cafeteria into the adjacent audio-visual salon, which is larger than it needs to be, and to replace cafeteria windows that have fogged with age and salt spray – a great part of the attraction of this voyage is the views.

Those views are still available, but mostly from the open decks at the bow and on the stern – wind and weather permitting. That’s one reason I’ve done this voyage so many times but, given the Edén’s reduced capacity, potential passengers should make their plans well in advance for the 2014-15 season.

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