Our trip to Antarctica was bittersweet. We were experiencing the most epic adventure of a lifetime – exploring the most isolated and remote continent on earth, though acutely aware that no trip in the future would ever compare.
I’ve grappled for the past few weeks with how to put the experience into words. Because even though the continent pulls rave reviews, the experience is still undersold. One of the rare destinations which actually exceeds and surpasses the hype.
And I’ll admit, I was apprehensive of traveling to Antarctica. Extraordinarily excited, sure, but I’ve traveled enough to know that you can ruin a destination by building it up in your mind. And the pedestal I’d built for Antarctica was exceptionally high. But we needn’t have been scared. Because the reality of Antarctica didn’t crush the dream – it blew it out of the water.
The Trip of a Lifetime: Traveling to Antarctica on an Expedition Cruise
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For me to travel to Antarctica, I was only ever going to go on an expedition cruise; a smaller ship with limited number of passengers which was an experience more likely torn from the pages of National Geographic than Travel + Leisure.
Because the whole romance of experiencing a destination such as Antarctica is to follow in the footsteps of historic explorers such as Shackleton or Drake. And a boat with 500 passengers would dilute this. Also, international regulations limit the number of people allowed on land at any one time, so large cruise ships don’t let you off the boat.
“We’re heading to Antarctica” I said to the inquisitive couple in the elevator of the Renaissance Santiago.
“Ooooooh we’ve just come from there!” she exclaimed. “It was increeeeeedible – though a little disappointing, actually. We had to stay on the boat.” She paused. “Incredible sightseeing though!”
I smiled politely and said “I can’t wait”. I don’t voice my opinion, but am quietly wondering why you wouldn’t book to actually walk among the spectacular wildlife and landscapes you’ve traveled to the edge of the earth to see.
We chose to travel with Chimu Adventures because the company mirrored our values, offering a taste of exploration and an intimate connection with the land. When you’re on an expedition ship you’re not simply brought to the southernmost continent only to snap a few pics and then head back, but given an authentic experience of what the voyage really means.
Our floating home for the duration of the cruise was the ice-strengthened M/V Sea Spirit, and she sailed 3,631 nautical miles from Ushuaia, across the Drake Passage, to Paradise Harbour and back. This small and mighty vessel carried 114 passengers and 72 incredible crew, who spend more of their time immersed in this part of the world than that of their original home.
Instead of musical theater and bingo, activities on board had an educational theme. Presentations from naturalists and science-oriented guest lecturers covered the history, geography and ecology of the region. And these stressed that sustainability and responsible travel was key.
But to keep the trip from getting too serious, there were fluffy robes, and flatscreen TV’s. And the crew actively encouraged friendly on-board competition – bar credit for the passenger who could guess the correct timing of the first glacier we would see (we were an hour shy!).
Films and documentaries played which offered insight into Antarctic exploration. And we were always ready for spontaneous discoveries – a pod of whales, a circling Albatross, or a glaciated mountain vista. With only 114 passengers on board there was always space on the outdoor decks. Which, on a calm sunny day was an excellent place to dive into a book from the library.
You Won’t Have Time For the Library
Before we boarded the ship I was quite excited about the prospect of the library. A quiet cozy place for reading and relaxation, it has an extensive selection of polar books and DVDs, magazines, and reference materials, and we often stopped in for a quick scan of world newspapers printed daily. But while I had grand plans of reading in my down time, in reality, there was too much else to do.
Because this was an adventure cruise. From dawn until dusk we were hiking, kayaking, exploring, swimming, sliding down glacial mountain tops, visiting a research base, eating incredible food, drinking amazing wine, dancing, and attending expert lectures if we wanted to. And, if you hadn’t decided to give up your room for camping on the ice, there was an outdoor hot tub from which you could decompress and enjoy the view.
Ours was the most basic room, though for an all suite ship, even this was luxurious for what we assumed from an expedition cruise.
We had 226 square feet in a stateroom with twin beds (which pushed together into a double), and a sofa. We had port hole windows, two wardrobes, a computer desk, mini fridge, TV/DVD, temperature control, and en-suite. House keeping will service daily if you want them to.
As we congregated for welcome drinks in the presentation lounge upon boarding, we were asked to pull out our itinerary.
“Good” said our expedition leader Jonathan. “Now rip it in two”.
The reality of exploring such a harsh environment means that our landings each day were dependent on weather. We would gather at the end of each day for a daily recap, and a preview of the plan for the next. And we take our hats off to the Sea Spirit Crew who were incredible at orchestrating back up plans for their back up plans, and quite literally working overtime to make sure we didn’t miss the chance to explore.
Each morning breakfast would run from 7.30 until 9 in a beautiful open seating dining room (while there is a buffet laid out the chefs will cook to order for you). We would board a fleet of rubber zodiacs for a morning landing at 9, and have the freedom to explore until lunch was served back on the ship at 1 in the afternoon.
During lunch the ship would sail to a new destination, and we would take an afternoon landing around 3pm. While there were tea and cakes served in the bar every day at 4, and cocktails and canapes at 6, we never made it. We were never onboard.
And this freedom and flexibility to take landings as you wanted to, return to the ship if you’d had enough, and explore at your own pace was really, for us, what made the cruise.
We were concerned before traveling that our land based activities would make us feel nannied. That there would be a guide breathing down our necks and there would be a path from which you wouldn’t be able to move. But nothing ended up being further from the truth.
Yes, there were flags which were placed on each landing site to indicate where a cliff would drop off, or the presence of a “penguin highway”, and there were one or two guides posted along the general route. But they would only tap you on the shoulder if you got too close to the wildlife, and spoke to you as equals as opposed to making you feel as if you were in year two.
For this, we pass on our sincerest thanks to an incredible crew
Just being present in such a harsh environment burns more energy than you’re normally used to, but if there was one thing we were impressed by, it was the food.
A buffet for breakfast and lunch meant you could eat as much as you wanted to, and on a sunny day the outdoor bistro would serve hamburgers, soups, pasta, salads, and desserts if you were after something lighter.
A la carte dinner was served each evening at 7.30pm, and the open seating dining meant there were no assigned tables – you could choose your seating, meet and mingle with other passengers, eat alone, or join other guests. Dinner was a fine dining experience, with contemporary, international cuisine created by the talented on-board chefs.
And while the servers and Maitre D were incredible, if there was one man everyone was on first name basis with it was the bartender. Who else! After dinner most passengers would ascend to the Club Lounge, which has comfortable seating around a Grand Piano, a 24-hour self-service coffee and tea bar, and a full service bar with a wide variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
I’m not the type of person to spontaneously burst into tears, but the pristine landscape of Antarctica will do that to you. It steals your composure and wills you towards an emotional wreck.
You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. You look around to see if there’s anyone who can share the moment with you, and provide reassurance that this is happening – that the beauty is real and you should believe your eyes.
And it’s a delicate balance, for photographers especially. Photography is a huge part of the trip, and you want to be able to capture the incredible sights. However the landscapes and scenery in Antarctica are some of the most majestic and pristine man has ever seen. And if you can be present in the moment and detach yourself from your viewfinder, the feeling which washes over you is an immense sensation of awe and inner peace.
To Take Your Breath Away
The landscapes you’ll see are surprisingly diverse for a continent which is known as the land of snow and ice. Literally covered with a thick ice sheet that reaches up to an average of 2,450m, there are of course snow capped peaks and collossal mountain ranges which have been set in a deep freeze.
You’ll take rubber zodiacs through glassy water and maneuver floating glacier ice, though Antarctica also has several large and small islands, with deep beds of moss and visible vegetation, where everything has melted and the bedrock is dry.
Deception Island in particular is a far cry from the Antarctic stereotype; an active volcano in the South Shetland Islands archipelago, with barren volcanic slopes, steaming beaches and ash-layered glaciers. It is one of the only places in the world where vessels can sail directly into the centre of a restless volcano, and in stark contrast to the pristine white landscapes you would expect, everything is covered in dark ash.
While we made landings in the South Shetland Islands on the first day, and I burst into tears from the landscapes on the second, it wasn’t until Cuverville Island on day three that I thought “This is what I expected Antarctica to be”; standing in the middle of a gentoo rookery, with thousands upon thousands of penguin pairs.
One of Antarctica’s biggest draws is its incredible wildlife, and much like the Galapagos Islands, animals here roam free and have no fear of close contact with humans. If anything, they were mildly curious about our presence, but honestly, for the most part, they didn’t seem to care.
They didn’t run when you pointed your camera lens, in fact, they would often come closer to stare. Vastly outnumbered by the native wildlife, we were the only exotic creatures here.
If there was any fear of taking the polar plunge, the only likelihood was from Humpback Whales who would swim within 100 meters of our zodiac. They hardly breach, though do tend to put on a show, slapping the water with their tail and fin, and being open to relatively close encounters. It was absolutely magnificent to see in person.
We sat next to colonies of seals without disturbing them, witnessed giant seabirds with the balls to swipe a penguin chick, and were left thoroughly in awe of the array of hardcore wildlife which call the icy continent their home.
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It’s important to keep in mind that you’re there to observe and not interact. As visitors to this pristine land, our job as travelers is to make sure our actions don’t interfere with the behavior of native species.
The Trip of a Lifetime
2,000 words later, the moral of the story is that this was the trip of a lifetime, though it was definitely bittersweet. We’re very aware that no destination going forward is ever going to be able to compete.
Keep watching our Antarctica destination page for detailed stories from the trip – each activity, wildlife encounter, and landscape is a story in it’s own right. From swimming in the sub Antarctic waters, to getting sunburnt on the ice, I still have so much more to write!
Getting There: Cruises leave from Ushuaia in Argentina. Flights leave from Buenos Aires daily via LATAM and the local Aerolineas Argentinas.
Travel Insurance: mandatory with every Antarctica cruise due to the remoteness and isolation of your destination.
I used Cover-More travel insurance as they offered premium cover, affordable policies, and included our land based activities (other insurance companies told me they would only cover time spent on the ship, which is pointless for an adventure cruise). Click for a quote.
Disclosure: Special thanks to Chimu Adventures for providing our cruise. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to travel with a vibrant, committed and socially-responsible company. We plan to pay for an expedition cruise to the Arctic with Chimu next June.
More info: For more information on Antarctica travel visit the Chimu Adventures Antarctica Resource Centre.
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This post was sponsored by Cover-More Insurance Services Pty Ltd and Chimu Adventures.