Adventures take many shapes. One person’s mortal fear is another’s adrenaline rush. How lucky we are that our wildly diverse planet accommodates a spectrum of experiences, from canyoning thrill seekers to the culturally inquisitive and relaxation specialists.
Antarctica ranks high on the adventure scale. Once a world away, this glacial oasis is more accessible than ever, thanks to the plethora of expedition vessels now frequenting this pristine peninsula. Abounding with soaring albatross, orca, humpback whales, fur seals and multiple penguin species, Antarctica is one of the last bastions of unspoiled, primal places on earth. And there are forces in place to ensure it stays that way. The IATOO and Antarctic Treaty Organization, comprised of 56 vigilant countries, collaborate to create regulations which guide tourism and support scientific research. Example: only 100 visitors at a time are allowed in any location, and burning heavy fuel oil is banned. Ergo no mammoth ships are allowed to cruise near or disembark passengers on the peninsula. May it forever remain so.
Balancing sustainable tourism while protecting the melting Antarctic ice shelf is a delicate dance. Visitor numbers are increasing annually as newly launched ships meet demand; travelers now have more options than ever. But which one? Having just returned, I can safely attest that Swan Hellenic takes the guesswork out of how to get there in five star comfort and eco conscious style.
All I had to do was get myself to Buenos Aires, the Swan Hellenic concierge team did the rest, including all transfers, domestic airfare, overnight hotel in Buenos Aires, along with a group meet and greet to get acquainted with fellow travelers. Following a sumptuous breakfast at daybreak, private shuttles transported us to our 3.5 hour flight to Ushuaia, Argentina’s Southernmost point, where our expedition vessel awaited. Ushuaia is a nature lover’s paradise, chockablock with outdoor outfitters attracting hikers, bikers, and nascent polar explorers.
Loved this ship and how well suited it is for polar and cultural expeditions. The SH Vega is a well designed, sustainably built hybrid diesel PC5 vessel with reinforced hull. At 152 guest capacity, (we had 120), it's compact yet smartly outfitted. Equipped with high tech navigational tools and stabilizers enable smooth sailing and efficiency wrapped in state of the art design. The ship features two dining venues, beauty salon, library, medical clinic, and fitness center. One of my favorite spots was the panoramic Observation Lounge, a bow front meeting space with a living room feel and seating for all. Relaxation options were plenty with scenic ocean views from the sauna, group size outdoor whirlpool, along with zensational spa treatments.
Unpacking in my bright, spacious stateroom, my travel weary body collapsed on firm, fluffy bedding. The verandah cabin featured copious storage, desk, sitting area, and bonus - crackling electric fireplace! The ultimate, ambient, cozy enclave.
I was thrilled to be on the first ship of the Antarctic season in early November, heading to the polar peninsula. Though Nov - March is considered Summer, our sailing was more like the end of winter, having multiple snowy days amid vigorous winds. When sunshine and calm seas prevailed, strolling the outside decks to breathe fresh powdery air and spot albatross or humpback whales was a breeze in the weatherproof parka SH provides each guest.
Beyond luscious cuisine and abundant ship comforts, Swan Hellenic is masterfully destination focused. Guests are prepared us well in advance with a comprehensive digital packet detailing local wildlife, packing list, and profiles of The Expedition Team. I expected experienced guides with an oceanic slant. What we got were top notch, world class professionals, consisting of a marine biologist, ornithologist, wildlife photographer, globally experienced kayakers, plus two actual polar explorers, one of whom has camped there for 3months on/off, another has been to Antarctica over 100 times! Team leader Brandon daily ensured safety as priority one. Ultimately, of 8 possible zodiac outings, we had only 5 due to high winds and rocky seas, but two included shoreside landings at Port Lockroy with a visit to the Penguin Post Office, and a snowy hike at Damoy Station. No one felt as if we’d missed out. The captain skillfully guided us around inclement weather to maximize every viewing and landing opportunity, it was a total Antarctic immersion.
When we weren’t prepping or planning for a zodiac excursion, kayak outing or polar plunge, we ate well. Quite well. Our master chef Paulo treated us to a trip around the world on our plates, with French, Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and Pan Asian themed dishes. Getting a kitchen tour for a behind the scenes look at how the sausage gets made (literally) was a memorable treat. Event the ice cream is made in house! A certain day’s culinary offerings included mouth watering Beef Bourguignon, coq au vin, and seafood bouillabaisse - and this was lunch! Dinners were exquisite, with wine pairings for every entree and savory desserts.
Our intimate ship size inspired congenial social interaction among guests as well as impromptu Q&A with our savvy resident experts. Daily lecture topics illuminated guests on every aspect of Antarctic life, including personal polar expeditions, historic exploits of early explorers, diverse bird life, multiple penguin and whale species, glacial formations, ice shifting, and climatology.
Nightly recaps covered all aspects of our outings, sightings, weather updates, and adventure prospects for the next day. Any downtime was far from boring. I met fellow guests from all over the US, Canada, and Europe for a friendly chat over drinks or a quick bite in the cafe. Comfy lounges served up quiet spots to enjoy a good read from the well stocked library.
Weather is always the wild card with expeditions. First day in Antarctic waters, our exploration cruises were prudently cancelled both AM and PM due to foggy, windy conditions. Then, at 9pm, surprise! Our E team seized the moment as blue skies returned, they had all 120 of us safely loaded in zodiacs for an incredible glacial sundowner cruise through Wilhelmina Bay. Pink light glanced off the crystal blue ice castles as we caught our first glimpse of Adelie penguins gathered on a frozen bluff.
At our first landing on Port Lockroy, we calmly walked among thousands of Gentoo penguins, ambling past their rookery. With no fear of humans, these gentle creatures went about their business, eyeing visitors with mild curiosity.
Despite having only two shore landings, our ship easily navigated Curtis Bay, Mikelson Harbor, the Gerlache Strait, Wilhemina Bay and the Lemaire Channel. Our Marine tested zodiacs deftly sliced through ice floes, quietly approaching fur seals for us to capture their images.
I felt as close as I ever could to tracing the steps of legendary explorers - Shackleton, Scott, Drake, de Gerlache. These early polar pioneers sailed across the earth in wooden ships launched from Northern Atlantic ports thousands of miles away. Learning how they weathered torrid frozen conditions with meager resources, often with fatal consequences, made me better appreciate such a unique opportunity to savor this glorious continent.
Our modern day polar expert, Captain Temo, was an engaging, reassuring sight throughout our journey, welcoming questions and guest interaction. He hosted an insightful bridge tour for all to learn more about the Vega’s state of the art navigation equipment, stabilizers, hybrid electric power, while sharing entertaining stories of his maritime experience.
Yes, the Drake Shake is real. Crossing this notoriously turbulent sea takes two days each way from Ushuaia. While passengers experiencing discomfort were few, the majority of us weathered the passage with little impact. Personally, I never took any motion sickness meds. I found the rolling wave action manageable for walking about the ship during the day, soothing for sleep, and never missed a meal. The Vega impressively handled choppy seas and robust winds with relative ease.
Returning to Ushuaia 10 days later for our return to Buenos Aires, our charter flight was brimming with bubbly, enthusiastic travelers, chatting up thrilling highlights ( including a polar plunge for some!), forging new friendships over this shared spectacular experience.
While Antarctica is a "bucket list" item for many, I will heartily say it is definitely worth the extensive traveling for anyone who's a flexible traveler with a zest for adventure and in decent physical shape. My takeaway from this unique, breathtaking experience?
You get the picture. Go while you can. The White Continent awaits!
Important to note...Beyond an adventurous nature, a flexible, “go with the flow” attitude is essential, changes are frequent and abrupt. Travelers must also be in decent physical shape. Zodiacs are boarded outside the ship (conscientious staff assisting) with steps in and out. On hikes, there are snow steps and small hills to scale, ski poles to grab onto for balance, and debarking/embarking zodiacs over rocks in shallow water (waterproof boots provided). Our age group ranged from 20 somethings to 70 plus. Wee ones: I recommend at least 12yrs old minimum. While there are no specific kids’ programs, staff will do their best to engage & accommodate younger travelers. Flights: be mindful it’s minimum 9-11hrs each way from JFK, ATL and MIA gateways to Buenos Aires, and another 3 plus hours to Ushuaia. Given our wintry weather in Nov., I highly suggest Dec – Mar sailings. Let's make a plan!