Antarctica: Cruising the ends of the earth
If you’ve got Antarctica on your bucket list, get used to seeing it there. Not because you’ll never go, but because when you do, even while you’re still there, you will be planning your return visit. Nobody ever crosses it off.
Part of what makes it so special is that it’s hard to get to. That is, admittedly, a difficult claim to maintain when you’re en route there on a Silversea cruise, and your butler wants to know your selection from the pillow menu. Though the Silver Explorer is officially a 1A-ice-class expedition vessel, there’s no compromise on Silversea’s customary inclusive service and luxurious suites. Ernest Shackleton should have been so lucky.
This doughty explorer does though provide a theme for the journey. Like him, we begin our expedition in Buenos Aires, from where we are flown by Silversea to Ushuaia, a colourful town at the southernmost tip of South America. Boarding the Explorer there, we sail away and, as the evocatively-named Lighthouse at the End of the World shrinks behind us, a mix of excitement and apprehension makes us feel kindred spirits with the legendary Shackleton. And then we go to the bar, for cocktails before dinner.
This will be the pattern of the cruise: thrilling tasters of danger and exposure to the planet’s most hostile environment, while at the same time cushioned in comfort and surrounded by reassuring expertise. The expedition staff, eagerly sharing their knowledge, make the cruise effortlessly educational. Cory-Ann is an expert on whales and seals; Anthony knows everything about Shackleton; Luke is never without his binoculars, or stuck for the answer to a question about anything from icebergs to penguins. They deliver lectures, drive us in the Zodiacs, guide us onshore, and are always ready to share their passion for this very special place.
We sail first to the Falkland Islands, and our first up-close encounter with penguins and albatrosses, both of which, on this December cruise, are busily hatching eggs and feeding chicks. It’s a barren, treeless place, and we instantly respect both the wildlife and the people who have chosen to live there. In Stanley, we take a guided tour with a local, who is British to the core, as is the town itself with its red post- and telephone boxes, and its pubs with warm ale on tap.
The harbour is full of picturesque shipwrecks, which we remember uneasily as the captain fights with a fifty-knot wind to slide the Explorer through the appropriately-named Narrows on our departure.
Two days’ sail away we connect again with Shackleton. South Georgia is where his ill-fated Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 began and ended. The only people living here are scientists and the staff who serve them, and us. Picking our way past the seals, we take a guided tour around Grytviken, seeing the relics of the whaling days, hearing about Norwegian sailors who could turn after-shave into hooch, and visiting the museum to inspect home-made ice-shoes used by Shackleton’s men, the soles pierced with screws.
Then we walk around the edge of the once-busy harbour, and pass through the white-painted fence to visit the grave of Shackleton himself. We form a circle around his rough-hewn gravestone and are led by one of the ship’s expedition staff in a toast to “The Boss”. This is Silversea: it’s champagne.
South Georgia is our introduction to the glories of the Antarctic. There are mountains, glaciers, seals everywhere, and huge colonies of the continent’s stars: penguins. Altogether, we will encounter eleven species, some of them numbering in the tens of thousands of pairs, along with their fluffy chicks. These here are the biggest we will see, King penguins, over a metre high and handsome with their golden face markings. It’s also our first proper introduction to those other distinctive features of penguin colonies: noise, and a pungent smell.
A WORLD OF WONDERMENT
En route to the Antarctic Peninsula itself, we stop off at Elephant Island, where Shackleton’s men huddled while he, faultlessly guided by his captain, New Zealander Frank Worsley, set out on their epic rescue mission back to South Georgia. The rough sea that prevents our landing there gives us some indication of what they endured for four and a half miserable months, not knowing if that rescue would ever come. We lurch in our Zodiacs, gazing with mixed disbelief and admiration at the foam-fringed finger of rock they clung to all that time.
Next morning, we arrive at Antarctica proper. We’ve already encountered icebergs, and our wonderment at these infinitely varied things of beauty grows and grows: shape, size, colour, texture, they are all so different, and all so magnificent. They are often embellished by assorted penguins and seals, which we also see plunging into and out of the sea, or arrowing through it. We see whales too: humpbacks bubble-net feeding. Orcas cruise past, dolphins ride the bow-wave.
We go ashore and get up close with penguins, which come and inspect us just as curiously as we observe them, pecking at our parkas, pulling on our zippers. The King penguin chicks are fledgling, and their fine brown down ripples in the wind as they wait patiently in large groups for their next feed.
There is a hike through knee-deep snow to a cliff-top to watch a glacier calving in slow-motion. We visit an Argentine research base, walk around a desolate volcanic island where warm springs bubble along the shore, cruise in the Zodiacs around a glorious variety of icebergs. We even allow ourselves to be sucked into doing the Polar Plunge, running into the water, complete immersion required to earn the certificate. So many people choose to do it that we who went first are able to watch the others from the hot spa pool back on deck.
After 16 days of sheer delight, our one consolation for heading back to Ushuaia and the end of our cruise, is that Drake Passage, the roughest stretch of water on the planet, is for us a millpond. It’s the final treat of a cruise that’s been so full of them, everyone is addicted. We’ll be back.
The writer was hosted on board Silver Explorer
Silversea Cruises is offering a range of cruises to Antarctica between November 2019 and February 2021, on board Silver Explorer, Silver Wind and Silver Cloud. All-inclusive fares for the Antarctica voyages include an Early Booking Bonus of 10 per cent. The savings offer also includes internal charter flights (where required), one-night pre-cruise accommodation, and transfres between airport, hotel and ship (where required, and is available on select voyages. For more information, contact your travel professional or Silversea Cruises on +61292550600, or visit silversea.com
WIN: A Viking River Cruise valued at $20,000, including a visit to the real Downton Abbey
The October issue of MiNDFOOD is our cruise special. With so many cruises to choose from, why not explore some more:
Revealed: The top cruise destinations for 2020
Tahiti: A magical blend of Pacific paradise and French culture and cuisine
Cruise the Arctic and uncover Iceland’s fountain of youth
Why you should go on a cruise for your next holiday