Celebrity tests the waters of S. America in debut season

Senior copy editor Carolyn Moschello and her husband, Richard, sailed on a 10-day South America voyage on Celebrity Cruises' Mercury. Her report follows:

As Celebrity Cruises' fleet grows from six to nine ships during the next year and a half -- the Infinity was launched in March, to be followed by the Summit in August and an unnamed Millennium-class ship in April 2002 -- the line is expanding its itineraries to visit exotic ports around the world.

This winter, Celebrity ventured into South American waters with its 1,870-passenger Mercury.

My husband and I sailed the Mercury roundtrip from Buenos Aires, Argentina, spending two days in Rio de Janeiro and one day each in Santos and Ilhabela, Brazil, and Montevideo, Uruguay.

After two days at sea, we were welcomed in Rio de Janeiro by temperatures that reached 104 degrees.

"We have two seasons here," said a taxi driver at the port terminal, "hot and inferno."

Despite the heat, we set out on a four-hour Corcovado and Tijuca Forest shore excursion.

At the pier, passengers boarded air-conditioned motorcoaches to Corcovado Mountain, the location of the landmark "Christ the Redeemer" statue.

A view of Montevideo, Uruguay, from Fortaleza del Cerro, a Spanish-built fort that sits on the hills outside the city center. To reach the statue, erected at the summit in 1931, we boarded a Swiss-made cogwheel train that did not have air conditioning but did have windows that opened, making for a comfortable 20-minute pilgrimage.

There are several steep flights of stairs to climb to reach the statue, but the results are worth the effort.

The 80-foot statue's outstretched hands span all of Rio, from the southern beach areas to the northern industrial section.

A lookout area in front of the statue affords sweeping vistas of the city as well as Sugarloaf, an egg-shaped mountain that juts out of the sea, and the verdant hills that split the city in half.

Corcovado Mountain features a souvenir shop and a tiny eatery, where bottled water can be purchased for about $1.

Our return trip wasn't as smooth as the ride up. The train was late, and there weren't enough seats for all.

I was fortunate with a window seat, from where I enjoyed a slight breeze and a good view of Tijuca Forest.

According to our guide, the forest was destroyed by the encroachment of coffee plantations. The area was reforested by six slaves who took 13 years to plant 30,000 trees, according to an information screen at the station.

The Corcovado and Tijuca Forest excursion costs $38 for adults and $20 for children ages 12 and under.

Other Rio excursions include the Sugarloaf and City Tour, which takes passengers through Rio's downtown and features a cable-car ride to the top of the 1,200-foot mountain ($38 per adult, $20 per child).

There's also a three-hour Rio by Night excursion, which features a trip to a samba show house ($62 per person).

We ventured into Rio on our own on the second day in port. There were plenty of taxis at the terminal. A ride to Copacabana beach costs about $10, one way. To Ipanema, another famous Rio beach, the fare is between $15 and $20, one way.

However, we found a free alternative: H. Stern, an international jewelry chain, offered an air-conditioned shuttle to its Ipanema headquarters. Once there, we were led into the store for a tour. The free, self-guided tour began with a look at Brazil's mining of precious stones and ended with a glimpse at some jewelry. We were then led into a gallery and offered several baubles in a variety of price ranges. We left without making a purchase, but we did stop at a gift shop on the store's bottom level.

Only a few shady blocks from the store are the white-sand beaches of Ipanema. A promenade decorated with a swirl of black-and-white mosaic tiles lines the beach. Palm trees and small eateries off the promenade provide shade from the sun.

At H. Stern, we caught another shuttle to the Copacabana Palace hotel, a historical city landmark built in 1923. The hotel's poolside proved to be a good place to cool off and enjoy a caipirinha, a refreshing concoction of sugarcane rum, lime juice and ice.

The hotel is across from Copacabana beach, which also is fringed by a tiled promenade.

Our next stop in Brazil was the port city of Santos, where the only excursion was the eight-hour Sao Paulo Highlights tour ($89, adults; $45, children). We were warned by the excursion manager (via Mercury's interactive, in-room television information channel) that the traffic to Sao Paulo could be heavy and that there would be few stops, so we opted to explore Santos on our own.

The town was too far to walk from the terminal, but an efficient taxi service was in place.

English-speaking attendants collected fares (about $4 per person) and hailed cars. The attendants wrote instructions in Portuguese, the official language of Brazil, for the return cab ride.

Santos is a bustling city, with an abundance of malls, shops and restaurants.

The city's wide beach, although hardened by rainfall the night before, was filled with people. A beach party was in full swing, with loud music and plenty of dancers. Merchants, selling everything from clothes to food and drinks, marched up and down.

The last stop in Brazil was Ilhabela, a lush, tropical island with mountains that dip into the water. The excursion here was a three-hour schooner tour to Jabaquara beach, where visitors can snorkel and swim.

The 30-minute schooner ride followed the island's coast, which was dotted with sprawling homes. The beautiful cove was marred only by an abundance of mosquitoes. Insect repellent wipes were available on board the Mercury.

The excursion costs $24 per person.

The village of Ilhabela is only a few small blocks long, but it is a charming destination. Filled with shops and restaurants, the village also has a church, a well-shaded park and, of course, beaches.

Bambole Sorvetes, a self-serve ice cream parlor, offers several flavors of ice cream along with a wide selection of toppings.

The ship spent two days at sea before reaching the next port, Montevideo.

The capital of Uruguay is a lively metropolis, with wide, shop-lined avenues; a cobble-stoned pedestrian shopping area, and several parks.

At the port, tourism representatives handed out maps highlighting the main attractions of Montevideo's old town.

A walking tour outlined on the map passes several important buildings, including the St. Francis Church, built in 1864, the Metropolitan Cathedral, erected in 1790, and the Government Palace, which dates to 1873.

Celebrity offers two shore excursions in Montevideo: a three-and-a-half-hour Montevideo Highlights tour ($32 per adult, $17 per child) and an eight-hour Punta del Este sightseeing tour ($79 per adult, $51 per child).

The Montevideo Highlights excursion, via motorcoach, canvasses the city and features a guide who provides insight on the city, past and present.

The tour makes stops at Carrasco Beach in an upscale residential area and the Legislative Palace, an ornate marble structure that houses Uruguay's first constitution.

The tour also stops at the Fortaleza del Cerro, a Spanish-built fortification which offers sweeping views of the city, and at several monuments, including La Carreta (ox cart) Monument, which pays tribute to Uruguay's pioneers. The second excursion visits downtown Montevideo and the resort area of Punta del Este.

Several post-cruise tours are available in Buenos Aires. Best of Buenos Aires (eight to nine hours) tours Buenos Aires and visits an estancia (ranch) for a barbecue and gaucho show.

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