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ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Arctic vs Antarctic

By Ted Scull.

If you are in a quandary over booking an expedition cruise to the Arctic or Antarctic, here are some thoughts about both polar destinations based on a half dozen trips to the two regions.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Ted is about to embark on an expedition cruise around Svalbard in search of polar bears.

Cruises generally take place in June, July and August for destinations above the Arctic Circle.

While cruises to Antarctica have a wider window, November into February. The bracketed end months will be colder, and so lower rates will be in effect.

The geography of the two is vastly different, and they vary substantially in wildlife seen, scenery, excursions, and naturally the seasons.

However, many who visit Antarctica will be pleased how the daytime temperatures and conditions ashore can be most comfortable. Discomfort may come in the open seas between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Antarctic vs Arctic 

Antarctic cruises, the simpler of the two to explain, visit the continent of the same name, and most itineraries embark from a port (usually Ushuaia, Argentina) near the southern tip of South America. The ship heads south to cross seas known as the Drake Passage for a visit the Antarctic Peninsula, a land mass that juts north of the actual Antarctic Circle.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Expedition ship hovers alongside a huge Iceberg in Antarctic Sound. * Photo: Poseidon Expeditions

Longer and more expensive itineraries venture south of the official circular line only at the height of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer season when navigation through the ice permits a safe passage.

While the area visited seems relatively large, it is far more compact than with Arctic cruises.

Overview: The Arctic

The Arctic is a region above the Arctic Circle and not a continent. Its span across the Northern Hemisphere is remarkably long. A few itineraries visit an area that begins in remote northern Russia (Franz Josef Land) and slides west to northern Finland, Sweden and Norway — all attached to the European continent.

After that it’s islands. The main ones are Spitzbergen, the largest part of Svalbard (a Norwegian possession), and Greenland (a self-governing Danish possession) above the Arctic Circle.

Iceland falls almost entirely just below the Arctic Circle, with just a tiny northern tip officially within the region. And because the island is included in many Arctic itineraries, it will be included here.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

This polar bear ambled nearly two miles across the ice to check us out. * Photo: Ted Scull

West of Greenland, the Arctic Circle slices across Canada and encompasses the northern sections of Nunavut Territory, officially created in January 2000, from roughly the eastern half of the North West Territories, then continues across the NWT, Yukon Territory and Alaska into the Bering Sea with Siberian Russia on the opposite side.

Much of the northern Canadian portion is made up of islands, and the main channel through the archipelago is the famed Northwest Passage. A few Arctic itineraries enter this passage via Lancaster Sound to call at Inuit communities on Baffin and Devon islands. The full-length passage is for another day, and its high cost makes it available to so few.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Kayakers amongst the ice. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

The land within the Arctic region has seasonal snow and ice cover and is mainly treeless permafrost and tundra. Ice is present seasonally and may close the passage to navigation in winter.

Some expedition ships with substantial power to achieve a high level of icebreaking capabilities can reach the geographic North Pole during a relatively brief period of the northern summer.

Arctic Cruise map

One of the typical Arctic expedition routes. * Map: Poseidon Expeditions

Overview: Antarctica

Antarctica contains the geographic South Pole and the continent, almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle, is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. The continent is almost the twice the size of Australia and has a minuscule resident population. Various national-flag research stations house several thousand souls with a seasonal variation. Some itineraries include visits.

Nearly 98 percent is covered by a thick ice cap apart the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, the area most visited on cruises.

The continent, on average, qualifies as coldest, driest, and windiest continent and has the highest average elevation with most of its expanse a polar desert with low precipitation on its edges and almost none inland.

An outstanding fact is that 80% of the world’s freshwater resides there. If all of it melted, sea levels would rise 100 feet.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Easing up to a couple of icebergs. * Photo: Ted Scull

Unknown until the start of the 19th century and not stepped onto until the end of the century, Antarctica was not considered important because it lacked valuable resources.

Antarctica may be the best-known destination of the two, identifiable by its clear-air beauty, bird life, including ever-popular penguin species, toothy walrus, elephant seals, whales and, of course, humongous icebergs, some the size of small states.

Right off the bat, one has to honestly say that Arctic wildlife takes second place to the starkly beautiful landscape, iceberg-choked fjords, Inuit culture and the fascinating history of the search for the elusive Northwest Passage.

Its Arctic opposite is generally much less understood, but no less fascinating, and many of the same ships trade to both regions.

Polar expedition-style cruises have taken off in the last decade, and the people who are attracted to them bring aboard wide-ranging interests and expectations, most having little connection to today’s mainstream cruising.

Antarctic map

Antarctica. * Map: Lindblad Expeditions

RELATED:  An Antarctic Expedition with A&K and Ponant.  by John Roberts

 Arctic vs Antarctic — A Comparison

  ARCTIC – Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland, Canadian Arctic ANTARCTICA
Season June, July & August Nov, Dec, Jan & February
Weather Mostly above freezing in the summer up to 60Fs on land. Wind makes it feel colder, possible rough sea days Freezing levels up to the 40Fs. Beautiful clear blue-sky days; gray days; possible rough weather crossing Drake Passage
Wildlife Birds, polar bears, seals, walrus, whales Birds (especially albatross), several species of penguins, seals, walrus, whales
Overall Scenery Ice & some snow, fjords, glaciers (Greenland), rugged terrain, tundra, wildflowers, some forests Ice & snow covers Antarctica, except northern portion of Antarctic Peninsula in summer months. Massive-to-minuscule floating and rooted ice formations
Landscape Highlights Glaciers, iceberg-choked fjords, geysers (Iceland), Northern Lights, spring flowers on some landscapes Giant icebergs (some colors), ice calving, rugged ice fields
Culture Inuit and European communities & culture, fishing villages, ancient ruins, former whaling stations Remnants of past explorers (ie Shackleton) & abandoned research stations; today’s research stations (possible visits); Falklands — villages, farms
Cruising Challenges Possible rough seas, windy conditions Drake Passage sea conditions, cold if windy

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Cruising the Arctic Region

Much of the experiential content here comes from four separate expedition cruises, all on small ships. The first section is based on two 10-day cruises in August to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.

Greenland

From the air, Greenland, the world’s largest island, appears as a dark forbidding landscape of stony mountains incised by deep blue fjords that carries the eye inland to a snow-covered white cap stretching to the far horizon.

The four-hour flight From Ottawa, Canada’s capital, set down on a gravel runway alongside the Sondre Stromfjord, a long arm of the sea slicing deeply into Greenland’s West Coast. School buses hauled us to a deep-water landing where Zodiacs sped out to the anchored ship, ready to sail because of a rapidly falling tide.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Southern Greenland from the air in summer. * Photo: Ted Scull

Sailing up the West Coast of Greenland, with a high following sea, we first anchored off the fishing port of Illulissat boasting populations of 6,000 people and 60,000 sled dogs. We walked through the brightly painted town, its wooden houses painted blue-gray, deep green, maroon, red and mustard, passing yapping sled dogs straining at their leads and impatiently waiting for winter when they would again go seal hunting.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Colorful villages help brighten the rugged and sometimes bleak landscape of West Greenland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Jakobshavn Glacier

The main attraction here is the Jakobshavn Glacier, the world’s fastest moving ice flow, advancing 65 feet per day and calving a new berg every five minutes. Upon hearing the characteristic crack and thunder, eyes quickly sought the spot where falling ice would send up fountains of spray and ripples across the water.

Chances were pretty good, according to one of the naturalists, that the prolific Jakobshavn Glacier spawned the infamous iceberg that cruised south with the cold Labrador Current to sink the Titanic.

The Island of Umanaq

While the first day had been damp and drizzly, the second dawned crystal clear as the ship dropped anchor off Umanaq, a small island town nestled at the base of two impressive granite peaks.

Zodiacs headed over to the mainland shore for a climb up a spongy slope, carpeted with Arctic cotton and heather, blue harebells, Labrador Tea and wintergreen, to a hillside cave where well-preserved 500-year-mummies of seven women, two boys and an infant had been discovered. Several are now on display in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city museum.

Most passengers stayed as long as time allowed to take in the magnificent view, white bergs drifting on a blue sea under blues skies flecked with white clouds and rimmed by snowcapped mountains, one closely resembling Japan’s Mt. Fuji.

Reboarding the ship, we moved closer to Umanaq and went ashore to visit the colorful fishing port with its wooden Lutheran church, original log and sod houses and hotel terrace with a million-dollar view and pricey Arctic beers.

Some time ago, a succession of calving bergs just outside the port sent destructive waves sweeping into the harbor and overturning dozens of boats and smashing docks. A local resident caught the high drama in a video shown in the town’s gift shop, and surprisingly no one was killed.

Baffin Bay

During the 24-hour passage across Baffin Bay, we passed close to huge tabular bergs marching south with the strong current, behind which rose a coastal mountain range draped with a half-dozen glaciers feeding into the sea. We then made several landings on Baffin Island, a major component of the Inuit territory of Nunavut that was hived off from the vast Northwest Territories at the end of the last century.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Last call in West Greenland before crossing the Baffin Sea to the Canadian Arctic. * Photo: Ted Scull

We walked the beach at Pond Inlet accompanied by a Scottish-born guide who had spent 29 years in the Arctic, first as a Presbyterian missionary and now a cultural historian and naturalist. We encountered a freshly killed ringed seal and poked around a Thule encampment dating from sometime between AD 900 and 1700, people who were direct ancestors of the present-day Inuit.

Milne Inlet

Cruising Milne Inlet one evening, a pod of narwhals spouted and surfaced, and we kept them in view while the staff grilled steak, sausage, wahoo and caribou ribs for an outdoor meal consumed under the coldest conditions that I have ever experienced. However, the barbecue served as a good primer for what the 19th-century expeditions had encountered when searching for the Northwest Passage extending across the top of Canada.

Beechey Island

On the desolate shores of Beechey Island, three graves marked the site where members of John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition had met their ends, and as we would learn, they may have been the lucky ones, for the rest of the party died an agonizing death of lead poisoning from cans containing preserved meat. Hundreds of empty tins scattered nearby eventually led researchers to uncover the trail of death.

Devon Island

Landing on Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world, we encountered our first sight of a polar bear and cub, walrus lounging on bergy bits and the bloodied ice where a ringed seal had been recently killed. The closest approach turned out to be a musk ox, a bedraggled looking beast with two layers of fur that pawed the tundra when someone moved in too closely.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

A polar contemplates his next move. * Photo: Ted Scull

Narsarsuaq

The second itinerary got into high gear as not a half hour after we sailed from Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland, we were donning rubber boots for our first wet landing by Zodiac to visit the ruins of the settlement Erik the Red established in 983 AD and the present-day sheep farm.

We explored the foundations of the first Christian church in the New World, had a look into an existing pretty wooden church with a slate blue interior and chatted with some villagers seated outside their homes painted in red, yellow and mustard, enjoying the end of a pleasant long summer day.

Davis Strait

During the choppy passage across Davis Strait, we approached a large pod of spouting fin whales and enjoyed close-up views of their cavorting. At dinner one evening while anchored in a fjord off Baffin Island, a polar bear and her two cubs came down to the water’s edge and began swimming out to the ship, bringing everyone out on deck. With poor eyesight but an especially keen sense of smell — in this instance our grilled salmon steaks —the three came within a hundred yards before turning back to shore and loping off to find another source of food.

On outings ashore, we divided into groups according the length of the hikes, and in polar bear country, our guides carried powerful shot guns and radios. Angelika, arctic white and yellow poppies, blue harebells, cotton grass, mosses, lichen, and one-inch high polar forests of birch, juniper and willow formed the colorful and often spongy tundra underfoot.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Caribou antlers from the Canadian Arctic. * Photo: Ted Scull

We had distant sightings of caribou sporting their huge racks, but more often we were satisfied by the physical beauty of the wild untouched landscape in temperatures that ranged from the mid 40s to the mid 60s.

The Zodiac trips brought us close to a half dozen polar bears one morning, to an island inhabited with lounging walrus, another with ring-neck seals and a steep cliff face where tens of thousands of guillemots waited for their young to make a first flight.

Inuit Villages

Two visits to isolated Inuit villages, Lake Harbour and Cape Dorset, gave us an insight to traditions of bone, marble and soap stone carving, gymnastics and the unusual sight and sound of two women engaged in throat singing.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Inuit mother & child, Lake Harbour, Nunavut. * Photo: Ted Scull

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Intricate carving on display in a Canadian Arctic cultural center. * Photo: Ted Scull

At Cape Dorset we were greeted by a handsome Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman wearing his formal dress uniform. After posing for photographs, he pointed the way to the Hudson Bay Company store where we could see what was available for the local Inuit to buy in the way of food and clothing.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman posses for a snap. * Photo: Ted Scull

Northern Lights

In the middle of one night, the expedition leader woke us up to witness a pulsating display of Northern Lights and most, wrapped in woollies, happily responded. On another night, we slowed to pass through two thick lines of pack ice, and during the day we encountered the wonderful shapes and colors of icebergs drifting south.

Svalbard

These recollections come from a seven-day expedition cruise from Longyearbyen, the main settlement.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Svalbard from the air. * Photo: Ted Scull

Polar Bears          

Liking ice and when a polar bear was spotted, the captain edged his ship as far into the flows as he felt comfortable in doing. These bears are curious creatures, and on two occasions they slowly ambled toward the ship, and with everyone on deck in the silent mode, they came right up beneath the bow, close enough to photograph with little magnification.

The rapid clicks of shutter releases sounded like a presidential press conference.

On another occasion, a large male had killed a ringed seal. After he was satiated, he moved off to take a nap while his off-spring moved in and vied with sibling growls for what remained. Birds strutted impatiently at a safe distance.

The largest number seen at one time totaled nine bears, taking turns at pulling apart the remains of a whale. One mother entered the fray by swimming across the inlet with her club clinging to her back.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Two polar bears fight over the remains of a whale. * Photo: Ted Scull

Excursions on land took place where no bears had been spotted, and even then the naturalist staff took precautions, and every party ashore was accompanied by a staffer with a rifle, happily rarely, if ever, used.

Hikes across the tundra or snowfields were offered as challenging, moderate and easy, with a fourth category for photographers.

Two-person kayaks were available on three of the seven days, often in addition to Zodiac excursions. It was fun circling the ship and inspecting ice that had calved off glaciers.

Ashore we found reindeer herds, walrus sprawled together, others frolicking just off the beach, whale bones, tiny delicate tundra flowers and the stone foundations of trapper’s huts and whaling camps. Early 17th-century whaling was close to shore and then as the herds were decimated, the whalers had to go further afield until the practice was banned by most countries, but not Norway or Japan.

One island’s rocky cliffs provided nesting spots for thousands of little auks while hundreds of others flew around the ship, bobbed on the water and went fishing, a raucous yet highly organized scene.

Near the end of the week, we headed to locations where whales are often found and came close to both fin whales and blue whales, the largest mammals on earth. None breached but their slow arcing movements through the water at close range revealed their immense size.

RELATED:   Svalbard Overview: Exploring the High Arctic.  by Ted Scull

Iceland

The account is based on a 14-day cruise in July that circumnavigated Iceland and called in at the Faroes and Orkney.

As those with a good geographical sense might already know, Iceland could have easily been named Greenland and Greenland, Iceland.

I say “could” rather than “should” as not all Iceland is green by any stretch, but except for one remote section there is very little ice.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Akureyri Falls, Iceland. * Photo: Ted Scull

During over visit, large swaths of open landscape were covered with wildflowers in yellows, blues, purples and reds. At the height of summer, sheep and lambs outnumber Icelanders by three to one, and 85 per cent of the houses in Reykjavik, the capital, are heated and supplied with hot water directly from thermal springs.

Our political lecturer gave us an insight into how fiercely independent the Icelanders are, that is beyond the Cod Wars with Britain. In 1918, with a war raging in Europe, the Danish colony took the opportunity to pass a referendum for a first step to independence, then in 1944 while the Nazis occupied Denmark, Iceland, then under British and American protection, declared complete autonomy!

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Almannagia Rift, Iceland. * Photo: Ted Scull

At three ports in Iceland — Akureyri, Isafjord and Reykjavik — we visited a traditional fishing village meeting some of the local folk, fish still being the country’s largest export. We walked through a deep mid-Atlantic rift that marks the continental divide between Europe and America, skirted boiling mud pools, watched geysers erupt and enjoyed the gentle nature of the towns where we went ashore.

RELATED:  Iceland Circumnavigation with Windstar.  by Sarah Greaves Gabbadon

The Faroes Islands

The Faroes, still Danish, showed a softer but no less dramatic landscape with its mountain, valley and cliffside scenery. The government center in Torshavn was quaintly housed in 19th-century wooden buildings situated atop a largely residential promontory jutting into the harbor.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Thorshavn, capital of the Faroes, Danish island dependency. * Photo: Ted Scull

Shetland Islands

Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands, located well north of the Scottish mainland, is a charming stone town to walk through with Iron Age and Viking ruins not far away.

We chose a boat trip to the island of Mousa, where its 2,000-year-old broch or fortress is the country’s best preserved, a towering stone cylinder some forty feet high where early setters lived with considerable protection from their enemies and the forces of nature. We also enjoyed a two-mile walk around the island to see the nesting guillemots, basking gray seals and those adorable Shetland ponies.

➣Cruising Antarctica

This account is based on a 10-day cruise from Ushuaia in January.

Upon opening a reference book on Antarctica, the very first paragraph indicates that the white continent qualifies as the coldest, driest, windiest, and iciest land mass in the world, and the surrounding Southern Ocean whips up into the stormiest seas.

Antarctica sounded like a prime destination for the masochist. Yet once I stepped ashore there, a completely different set of superlatives came to mind.

The continent is the most pristine and least populated place on earth, and an international treaty signed in 1959 aims to keep it that way. Antarctica’s wildlife is the tamest and least fearful of humankind as in the Galapagos. Its scenery, seen through the clearest air, presents a breathtaking combination of majestic mountains draped by massive glaciers and rugged islands spread across a seascape peppered with icebergs longer than a football field and taller than our ship.

RELATED: Affordable Antarctica, Relatively Speaking.

The Falklands

After two choppy nights and a day at sea, we made landfall off the Falklands — the British islands invaded by Argentina in 1982, precipitating a nasty war. Wearing rubber boots and parkas provided by the ship, we made our first wet Zodiac landing at a private sheep farm cum nature preserve to visit a cliffside rookery of nesting rockhopper penguins, black-browed albatross, and blue-eyed cormorants.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

A rockhopper penguin in the Falkands. * Photo: Ted Scull

On approach, the sounds were more akin to a barnyard of domestic animals than a colony of birds, and with it came the strong odor of guano. Seated on a nearby rock, we watched a well-ordered line of two-foot-high penguins literally hop their way up the steep path from the beach, bellies full of fish and krill (shrimp-like crustacean) for regurgitating into the mouths of their fluffy chicks.

A school of playful dolphins accompanied our second landing, followed by a three-mile walk in bright sunshine through a hillside colony of burrowing Magellanic penguins and across sloping fields of a working farm to the main house for a proper English high tea.

A visit to Port Stanley provided a sleepy bit of old England transferred to the South Atlantic. We visited an eccentric museum packed with historic and natural history exhibits, the world’s most southerly Anglican cathedral, a safe harbor refuge for battered sailing ships, and a handmade woolen sweater shop looked after by local women with an English accent all their own.

We were taken on a personal tour by a sixth generation Falkland Islander who described the Argentinian invasion and evacuation to his grandparents’ farm and showed us the scars of war that included vast off-limit areas of unexploded plastic bombs.

Drake Passage

During the 48-hour crossing of the Drake Passage, a naturalist helped us spot Wilson’s storm petrels, Antarctic terns, and the huge wandering albatross boasting a wingspan of up to nine feet. By the end of the cruise, the bird list would grow to 62 species, but those expecting to see many whales were disappointed by infrequent sightings, generally the spout or tail of the whale.

Antarctic Peninsula Landings

Our first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula had to be aborted because of winds, and instead the captain deftly maneuvered his ship among the ice fields to anchor off volcanic Paulet Island, home to about 200,000 smelly Adelie penguins.

With nearly 24 hours of daylight, we went ashore after dinner.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Elephant oozing rotundity. * Photo: Ted Scull

In brilliant sunshine, low-lying Half Moon Island provided a rocky setting for several colonies of chinstrap (made by a black line of feathers) penguins, Weddell and fur seals in the shadow of 4,000- to 6,000-foot glacier-covered mountains. The temperature rose into the 50’s and remained above freezing every day.

While I was walking alone over a stony beach, a brown skua (predatory bird) flew toward me at a height of about three feet. The bird grazed my outstretched arm, and turning for another attack, the skua hit the piece of driftwood that I grabbed for protection.

Spotting a nearby nest, I quickly retreated out of harm’s way after a third close call. One of the naturalists later said that without protection. the skua might have taken a chunk out of me.

RELATED: Read more about Ted’s skua scare here …. 

Deception Island

In the afternoon, we cruised into the drowned caldera of Deception Island, where we explored the eerie ruins of a whaling station and a British research base, quickly abandoned in 1969 at the onset of a volcanic eruption. Steam and the smell of sulfur rose through the black sand.

Continuing south, we circled a towering conical iceberg estimated to be 250 feet high and later sailed between two tabular bergs measuring thousands of feet in length and generating their own strong winds.

A few weeks after we returned to the US, the newspapers carried reports of an iceberg the size of Rhode Island breaking off into the Weddell Sea. Near a tiny Argentinian base, Zodiacs took us into Paradise Bay, ringed by ragged glaciers, pockmarked with blue ice grottoes, that occasionally calved with a sharp crack.

an ice flow

Breaking through the ice in the Arctic. * Photo: AdventureSmith Explorations

Faraday Research Station

By carrying Her Majesty’s Mail from Port Stanley, we gained permission to call at Faraday research station, a 20-person British base located in a sea of rocky islands and broken ice and cut off for nine months of the year. The base commander boarded for a talk about the greenhouse effect and ozone layer depletion, both phenomena causing world-wide concern.

He also reported that while the ice cap is breaking off at the edges at an increasing rate, it is thickening as snow and ice form in the center. He then accompanied us on a wet and windy ride ashore to inspect the scientific facilities and living quarters. Today the base is run by the Ukrainians.

Two more landings added the sight and far worse smell of a colony of molting young elephant seals, one estimated to weigh 4,000 pounds, a gentoo penguin rookery, and a Russian research station, where we off-loaded three tons of equipment and embarked two German scientists.

Drake Passage Again

Northbound, the dreaded Drake Passage lived up to its well-deserved reputation, as during the night moderate 20-foot waves grew to 50 feet, sending everything not tied down crashing to the floor. By late morning the storm abated, and the visit to Cape Horn was so tranquil that one almost forgot the night before and began questioning the truth about the legendary Cape Horners battling monstrous seas for days on end.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Pounding across the Drake Passage. * Photo: Ted Scull

To the east one looked into the South Atlantic in the direction of South Africa, and to the west across the Pacific to Australia. South was the white continent. Cape Horn, an island, was covered in a mantle of wild flowers. The setting was so lovely that we hesitated to re-embark, because doing so meant the cruise was nearing an end.

ARCTIC VS ANTARCTICA

Landing at Cape Horn, the most southerly point in South America. * Photo: Ted Scull

Re-entering the Beagle Channel, we sailed overnight and docked at Ushuaia on the 12th morning. Passengers either flew directly home or stopped over in Buenos Aires, a favorite city of mine for its turn-of the-century architecture, street life, restaurants and cafes, and stylish residents.

RELATED:  Exploring Antarctica on a Russian Research Vessel.  by Judi Cohen

South Georgia Option

Located southeast of the Falklands, a diversion to South Georgia, a British dependency, before heading to the Antarctic Peninsula, will add five days to the itineraries and naturally generate a higher fare.

The attractions are numerous as the island is home to large king penguin, fur seal and elephant seal colonies, nesting grounds for wandering albatross, and a former whaling station where the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton is buried and an island history museum.

Arctic vs Antarctic: Who Goes There?

Except where noted, all of these small-ship lines explore both the Arctic and Antarctica regions. Note, it looks like lines will not be cruising in the Arctic this summer, 2020, due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation. Lines are hoping to get back to the Antarctic for the 2020-21 season, let’s see.

Adventure Canada

AdventureSmith Explorations

Abercrombie & Kent

Albatros Expeditions

Aurora Expeditions

Crystal Expedition Cruises  (Arctic only)

Grand Circle

Hapag-Lloyd

Hurtigruten

Lindblad Expeditions

Oceanwide

Overseas Adventure Travel

Polar Latitudes (Arctic only)

Ponant

Poseidon Expeditions

Quark Expeditions

Scenic

Seabourn Expeditions

Silversea Expeditions

Vantage World Travel

Viking (beginning 2022)

Vantage World

Windstar (Arctic only)

Zegrahm Expeditioins

quirkycruise bird

 

 

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Antarctica Cruising with Abercrombie & Kent

By John Roberts.

This cruise was going to be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. That much was known.

The rest was a mystery to me.

As the date for our Antarctica voyage with Abercrombie & Kent drew closer [Jan 2020], it started to sink in that I was going to finally get to explore this faraway place.

And I was equally excited to share this adventure with my wife, Colleen. We did tons of research on what we should pack, how the sailing conditions would be and what we could expect to see. It seems that every voyage is different and takes on its own personality, and the accounts or pieces of advice that we gleaned from friends and the Internet ahead of the trip pointed to the fact that each expedition is unique.

This proved to be absolutely true.

John & Colleen share a trip of a lifetime.

Antarctica is a magical, scarcely visited place, and we would have the privilege of spending a couple weeks in the rugged locations that had spawned so many tales of adventure.

We would be following in the wake of explorers like Roald Amundsen and Sir James Clark Ross and tracing the footsteps of legends like Sir Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott.

It’s as unspoiled as any place in the world and a destination that continues to inspire today’s ambitious travelers.

So, our excitement occupied a great deal of our emotions. But I also was concerned about packing the right gear and felt a bit of pressure to ensure I had good enough camera equipment to be able to capture memorable images of the animals and landscapes that I was about to encounter.

Then, there is the sailing itself. I have cruised more than 80 times, and I’ve never battled seasickness. I had heard about the Drake Passage, though, from several friends who have made the trip. This stretch of waterway must be crossed from our departure port of Ushuaia, Argentina, in order to reach the White Continent.

The passage is an unpredictable area that connects the southwestern Atlantic Ocean with the southeastern edge of the Pacific Ocean just above the Southern Ocean. This area between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands can get quite turbulent and test the constitution of even the most well-weather old sailor.

RELATED: Ted Talks about the Roughest Seas in the World.

So, we had that to look forward to.

It’s the pursuit of adventure, excitement and a sense of the wild and unknown that attracts cruisers to Antarctica.

We were thrilled to get our chance on an expedition with Abercrombie & Kent on the luxury ship, the Le Lyrial from French cruise line Ponant. Our trip started in Buenos Aires just before New Year’s and lasted three weeks.

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Le Lyrial in Drygalski Fjord

Le Lyrial in Drygalski Fjord. * Photo: John Roberts

Antarctica Cruising: With Abercrombie & Kent

Abercrombie & Kent is a boutique outfitter that has been a leader in highly curated luxury travel experiences for five decades. A&K first made its name with African safari expeditions in the 1960s, and the company now leads small-group journeys all over the world.

The company has partnered with Ponant on expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica. A&K charters the ships and provides the cruise director and expedition guides, and Ponant crewmembers operate the luxury 199-passenger vessel. Passengers are treated to luxurious amenities, attentive staff and all-inclusive food and drinks.

Antarctica Cruising: An Overivew

Our all-inclusive “Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands” adventure comprised four nights pre-cruise in a luxury Buenos Aires hotel in Argentina, 15 nights on board Le Lyrial, and one final hotel night in Ushuaia.

We flew to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, and from there boarded a charter flight to Ushuaia, the port city at the southern tip of South America’s Patagonia region.

In Ushuaia, we had a few hours before boarding the 199-passenger Le Lyrial. We met a few A&K guides who checked in our group and hosted a lunch at a lodge on a scenic hilltop overlooking the city. After a quick buffet meal, groups headed out for a short hike in the neighboring forest.

Once we boarded the ship, we spent three days sailing toward Antarctica. Then it was three days amid the islands and on the continent, stopping at Danco Island, Neko Harbour, Cierva Cove, Mikkelsen Harbor, Yankee Harbor and Aitcho Islands.

We cruised two more days to get to South Georgia Island, where we would head ashore for three more days of exploration, visiting Fortuna Bay, Grytviken, Drygalski Fjord, Salisbury Plain and Elsehul. After that, we sailed for four straight days to return to Ushuaia to begin our journey back home. (We were originally scheduled to visit the Falkland Islands, but weather disrupted our plans and our captain adjusted — more to come on that!)

Antarctica cruise map

The 21-day Antarctica expedition from A&K aboard Ponant’s Le Lyrial. John & Colleen did the route counterclockwise.

With so many seas days in the itinerary, we were fortunate to be sailing on a well-accoutered ship filled with posh amenities, delightful staffers and gourmet cuisine.

That’s the overview of this 20-night journey. Let’s have a more-detailed look at what we did and everything we got to see.

Antarctica Cruising: Summer in South America

A&K offers pre-cruise extension options to spend time in Buenos Aires or take a trip to Iguazu Falls, spectacular falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil. We would end up with about 170 passengers cruising on our expedition, and about 30 of them did the Iguazu Falls add-on. We met a couple who raved about it.

We chose four days in Buenos Aires, as did about 100 others. A&K’s host hotel for the trip is the historic Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt Buenos Aires, which is conveniently located in the heart of the elegant La Recoleta neighborhood.

Park Hyatt Buenos Aires

The nearly century-old historic Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt Buenos Aires. * Photo: John Roberts

This put us within strolling distance of many of the city’s top attractions, and we took advantage. The end of December is the heart of summer in the southern hemisphere, and it was fabulous to shed our winter coats and walk around the city in the nearly 80-degree temps.

During our time in Buenos Aires, we had a few days of free time and one day where we joined an organized city tour that was included in our A&K program. Colleen and I went for a couple of runs and long walks around the city and noted plenty of pretty urban parks. We also made sure to hit up a couple restaurants to dig into the delicious cuisine including empanadas, and, of course, the savory steaks.

Buenos Aires before an Antarctica cruise

One of John and Colleen’s Buenos Aires runs.

We also made sure to wander through La Recoleta Cemetery. This is one of the most scenic and visited burial sites in the world. More than just a cemetery, La Recoleta resembles a peaceful park, with thousands of graves and ornate tombs connected by winding walkways, trees and plants. The gravesites honor the dead with beautiful carvings and stained-glass accents.

On our city tour with A&K, a guide brought us to points of interest like Plaza de Mayo, which is a main hub of the city and features the Pink Palace residence of the president, as well as the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Buenos Aires touring

The Pink Palace residence of the president. * Photo: John Roberts

The main Catholic church in Buenos Aires is filled with gorgeous altarpieces, statues and stained-glass windows and is where Pope Francis used to perform mass when he was known as Archbishop Joseph Bergoglio, before he became pope in 2013.

Our pre-cruise time in Buenos Aires included a wonderful New Year’s Eve dinner at our hotel restaurant. The festive event put us in just the right frame of mind, ringing in another year before we embarked on a special cruise that had been on our wish list for quite a while.

Antarctica Cruising: Heading South

After a three-hour charter flight, our large group assembled to board buses and head to a lodge in Ushuaia for lunch, hiking and free time before the ship was ready for us. We finally boarded Le Lyrial in the late afternoon, and you could feel the excitement building for our expedition.

Once on the ship, we knew we had a few days to get settled in before we would reach Antarctica. This would allow us time to get our room organized, unpack clothes and gear, check out the ship amenities, and meet our fellow cruisers as well as the crew and guides.

Antarctica cruise gear

The gear issued at the start of the cruise. * Photo: John Roberts

Antarctica Cruising: The Ship

Le Lyrial is an elegant, modern ship with seven decks. All cabins have ocean views and most offer balconies. In ours, suite #406, we enjoyed our balcony, which I consider a must-have feature when sailing in Antarctica.

Suite with balcony in the Antarctic

A standard balcony suite aboard Le Lyrial. * Photo: Ponant, François Lefebvre-1

We spotted all kinds of landscapes, glaciers, ice formations, whales, seabirds and other wildlife simply by stepping out into the fresh air a few strides from our bed.

VIDEO: John gives you a tour of his cabin, #406, below:

The ship has a large spa that offers a range of treatments like massages, facials, and nail and hair services. The fitness center is nearby with treadmills and bikes as well as a weight-training machine. The facility also features a hammam steam room.

A large photo shop allows passengers to book portraits or purchase pictures taken by the ship’s staff of professional photographers. They also shoot a slickly edited video that recaps the entire trip, and that is available to buy.

Le Lyrial’s main theater is home to the enrichment talks, and the program offers movie nights throughout the cruise that you can view on the big screen.

Ly Lyrial lecture on an Antarctica cruise

One of the many enrichment talks in the main theater. * Photo: John Roberts

The lounge is the hub of the ship’s activity. It offers couch seating around the perimeter as well as chairs and tables, so you can sit and gaze through the windows and enjoy the views. This is where passengers spend the majority of their time, chatting throughout the day, reading books, keeping busy with knitting, and ordering beverages from the friendly bar staff.

Ly Lyrial Observation lounge

The observation lounge. * Photo: John Roberts

In the morning, we assembled to put on our gear in the lounge and lined up to get into the Zodiacs, which were reached by heading through the lounge and out onto the back deck before going down to the marina.

Live music was performed by a duet in the lounge, which also has a large dance floor. Passengers also flocked here in the afternoons for tea time — a daily event that offered special accompaniments like tapas, macarons, crepes or ice cream. The ship also features two restaurants: the main dining room, Le Celeste, called a gastronomic restaurant, and the more casual La Comete, a buffet-style grill eatery located on Deck 6 and open to the pool deck. You can also get 24-hour room service.

We tended to eat breakfast in the main restaurant on Deck 2 and dinner at the buffet eatery. The cuisine included a mix of French cuisine and international favorites, such as duck confit, seasoned lamb tenderloins and scallops. We also loved the carving station that featured items like fish, a whole pig, turkey and roast beef.

Le Lyrial in Antarctica

The main dining room. * Photo: John Roberts

Antarctica Cruise with Ponant

Iberico ham at tea time. * Photo: John Roberts

The menu also includes everyday favorites like burgers, chicken breast, mashed potatoes, green beans and french fries. The buffet eatery has a salad bar with plenty of selections. Of course, the wine is free flowing, and most passengers downed several glasses during lunches and dinners.

“The ship itself was very comfortable and cozy — easy enough to explore most nooks and crannies, including visiting the bridge,” said David Marcus, a passenger traveling with six family members. “The food was very good, but way too much. We basically had a floating buffet for the entire trip.”

The pool is heated and has a deep end and shallow end. This makes it great for a relaxing soak, and we took advantage on a sunny day at Neko Harbour in Antarctica. We were joined by several new friends, getting acquainted over cocktails and soaking up the sunshine. (Note: Apply sunscreen. Even the sun in Antarctica can burn.)

Hottub soak in Neko Harbour

A refreshing Neko Harbour soak for John! * Photo: Colleen McDaniel

VIDEO: Follow John on a ship tour of Le Lyrial, below.

Antarctica Cruising: The Beginning

As we pulled away from Ushuaia, we saw a couple of Silversea ships returning from their expeditions. I wondered about all that they had seen and what we would be experiencing over the course of our 14 days sailing around in these remote regions.

Guides and passengers gathered on the aft pool deck area and other outside spaces. Feeling the chill in the air and the winds whipping as we sailed, most of us had already started wearing the red parkas that A&K provided for the trip. Throughout the journey, our group roaming onshore would stand out in bright contrast to the green grasses or white snow.

the deck Le Lyrial in Antarctica

Guides in yellow and passengers in red chatting on deck. * Photo: John Roberts

We were outside right away as we started the sailing. The guides encouraged us to check out the sea birds flying nearby and learn how to identify an albatross from a petrel. We also saw dolphins and a few penguins swimming in the waters.

These were the first glimpses of what would become an incredible display of wildlife in the coming weeks.

The ubiquitous albatross in Antarctica

The ubiquitous albatross. * Photo: Claudia Kirchberger from Pixabay

Antarctica Cruising: Sea Days

During the sea days heading down to the White Continent, Abercrombie & Kent’s program kept us engaged.

To get prepared for the trip, we had the obligatory safety and biosecurity briefings. We learned the procedures that we would use during the voyage to ensure that we wouldn’t adversely affect the environments that we visited.

The main protocol had us washing our boots in a tub of antiseptic called Virkon each time we left the ship and upon our return. I was pleased to see how meticulous the process was to make sure we keep these special places pristine. This meant scrubbing off any trace of penguin poop and picking off even the smallest rock or seed from our pants, gloves, backpacks and jackets.

Antarctica excursion boots

The cleaned boots set outside the cabin to await the next adventure. * Photo: John Roberts

The program was also filled with at least a couple of enrichment talks each day in the ship’s main theater. The expert guides gave talks on the history of the region, as well as the wildlife, with specific topics covering mammals or seabirds or penguins.

There were two photo experts onboard as well, a pair who conducted regular talks in the theater. These well-known photographers, Rick Sammon and Richard Harker, gave excellent tips for capturing memorable pictures and also carved out time to sit in the lounge and meet with especially avid shutterbugs who wanted to show their daily captures and get feedback or learn how to use editing programs.

Antarctica cruising

Rick Sammon’s photography talk. * Photo: John Roberts

© Rick Sammon Antarctica ice

Stunning ice formations. * Photo © Rick Sammon

Enrichment talks are scheduled on sea days and days when visiting a port. We had 170 passengers on our voyage, and regulations place a limit of 100 passengers ashore at a time. Therefore, we were divided into two groups, and we alternated the times when we would go ashore each day.

For example, if we went out at 8 a.m. one day, we would be the 9:45 a.m. group on the next. We would have afternoon and morning shore landings or skiff tours, and this left time for attending talks (or napping!) while the other group was ashore and we were waiting our turn.

Antarctica expedition cruise with Ponant

Climbing in and out of zodiacs is business as usual on an Antarctica cruise. * Photo: Ponant

The daunting Drake Passage had to be crossed on the way down, and this period of sailing presented a certain mystique for most of the passengers, many who were on their very first cruise. I had heard plenty about how the rough waters of the Drake Passage are on another level when it comes to cruising.

So, it was with a mix of relief and slight disappointment that we had an especially smooth crossing. In fact, our experienced captain, Patrick Marchesseau, said it was one of the gentlest crossings of the Drake he had experienced.

The calm waters allowed us to get outside to watch the albatross and other seabirds that would swoop alongside the ship and follow the breezes above our wake.

Antarctica on deck

Guides and passengers mingling on deck. * Photo: John Roberts

We soon arrived to the waters just off the Antarctic continent. The excitement onboard was palpable as we noticed small chunks of ice beginning to float past as we got closer and closer to the islands that we would be visiting for our first forays ashore.

Antarctica Cruising: Sightseeing Adventures in Antarctica

Danco Island

We were in the early group for going ashore at our first destination: Danco Island. I popped out of bed and slid open the glass door and went onto the balcony to see the island, which has a wide sloping cobble beach. I could see gentoo penguins swimming the waters carrying out their fishing activities.

After breakfast, we all gradually geared up and made it down the hallways toward the main lounge.

We were a fine regiment of adventurers, with red parkas as our uniforms and waterproof pants swishing with every energetic stride.

We loaded into Zodiacs and set off to the island. As we approached, the sounds and smells grew louder and sharper. The squawks of penguins and the pungent smell of guano would fill our senses for much of the next 10 days as we visited daily with amazing creatures of Antarctica and South Georgia.

At Danco Island, we traversed the gentle slope of a snow-covered field and watched a colony of delightful gentoos wander up and down a “penguin highway” carrying out their tasks. It was our first close encounter with these endearing animals, and we were all transfixed.

penguins in Antarctica

The “Penguin Highway.” * Photo: John Roberts

“You have the opportunity to interact with the wildlife in one of the most pristine areas of the world,” Dr. Patri Silva Rodriguez said. “Here, they are not scared at all of us, and you can have the best time of your life watching them.”

The temps were mild and the sun started to shine as we wandered back down to the beach to see a Weddell seal resting on a perch, blissfully tolerating the gathering crowd as more penguins plunged into the water to start a hunt. Others waddled out of the surf and past the humans.

We were giddy to be able to witness the whole scene.

The morning at Danco Island set us off and running with memorable experiences.

Antarctica cruising zodiac

Leaving Danco and heading back on board. * Photo: John Roberts

Neko Harbour

In the afternoon, it was a hike to the top of a hill above Neko Harbour. We had officially made it onto the continent during this outing, and several travelers celebrated reaching their seventh continent. One group of friends unfurled a Canadian flag and snapped some pics at the summit to mark the accomplishment.

It was Colleen’s seventh continent and my sixth (I’m missing Australia as of this writing).

Neko Harbour on an Antarctica cruise

A hike to the top of a hill above Neko Harbour afforded a great shot of Le Lyrial. * Photo: John Roberts

The afternoon brought higher temps, and along with the challenge of hiking up the hillside and through steep snow, meant that we were generating even more heat. Most of us stripped off our parkas and enjoyed the sunshine while moving up and down the hillside and past large nesting areas of gentoo penguins.

Le Lyrial was picture-perfect in the harbor, and a few of us took advantage of the favorable conditions to settle into the heated pool once we were back onboard. We ordered some drinks and enjoyed a couple hours with new friends amid the most stunning backdrop you can imagine.

While we were just becoming casually familiar with the penguins and seals at this point, we soon would become experts on their behaviors in the coming days.

Neko Peak

From Neko Peak. * Photo: John Roberts

Cierva Cove

We took a skiff tour in Cierva Cove the next morning. Here, our driver Augie navigated around gorgeous blue ice formations that bobbed in the calm waters.

Cierva Cove in Antarctica

Wispy clouds over the twin peaks of Cierva Cove. * Photo: John Roberts

We saw gentoo and chinstrap penguins, as well as a leopard seal swimming and a crabeater seal relaxing on a floating piece of ice.

 crabeater seal in the Antarctic

An adorable crabeater seal at Cierva Cove. * Photo: John Roberts

Mikkelsen Harbour

In the afternoon, it was Mikkelsen Harbour. The beach was filled with bleached whale bones, a marker of the former whaling industry that proliferated in the region. Also spotted: more penguins and seals. Of course.

Mikkelsen Harbour

Mikkelsen Harbour where the whaling industry once thrived. * Photo: John Roberts

South Shetland Islands

Our final day in Antarctica brought us to the South Shetland Islands, where we went ashore at Yankee Harbor in the morning and Aitcho Islands for the afternoon. Conditions had grown a little wet and blustery, but we enjoyed seeing the different landscapes and habitats where the animals lived. It was amazing to see how much the elephant seals and penguins are thriving in these environments.

Yankee Harbor View on an Antarctica cruise

Plenty of penguins in Yankee Harbor. * Photo: John Roberts

gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Gentoo penguins feeding on the Aitcho Islands. * Photo: John Roberts

elephant seals in Antarctica

Elephant seals doing their thing. * Photo: John Roberts

Back on Le Lyrial for lunch between our two outings, the crew treated us to a special “Southernmost Barbecue Lunch,” to fuel up on hearty comfort food and commemorate our special place in the world — marking a latitude below 62 degrees south. Cooks grilled up burgers, chicken, hot dogs and pork out on the pool deck.

After our time in Antarctica, we had three more sea days on the schedule before we would reach the South Georgia Islands, which we were told would be filled with an even more stunning population of penguins, seals and other birds.

It was good that we had some time to rest up for another set of exciting and active days out in nature. We needed to fully process and appreciate what we had just experienced — up-close encounters with fascinating creatures and a stunning landscape that few travelers are fortunate enough to see.

While sailing toward South Georgia, we spent our time on Le Lyrial getting in a daily workout in the small gym. It was always fairly busy in the mornings, with a group of regulars who all like to keep fit and active, too.

Colleen and I also scheduled a massage and enjoyed a couple post-workout sessions in the hammam. We found this steam room to be quite rejuvenating and an unexpected treat for an expedition ship.

Antarctica Cruising: South Georgia Islands

South Georgia is a British Overseas Territory, and we enjoyed three packed days taking in all the sights, sounds and history available during our stops at Fortuna Bay, Grytviken, Drygalski Fjord, Salisbury Plain and Elsehul.

Fortuna Bay is home to a large colony of king penguins, and we were all delighted to meet these majestic creatures, which are much larger and with their own set of behaviors compared with the gentoos and chin straps with which we had grown so friendly over the prior week.

Fortuna Bay Antarctica

Gorgeous Fortuna Bay. * Photo: John Roberts

penguins of Fortuna bay

The treasures of Fortuna Bay. * Photo: John Roberts

Salisbury Plain sits in the wildlife-rich area on the north coast known as the Bay of Isles, and this spot is home to one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world. We all eagerly snapped photos, as we witnessed the birds feeding young, nesting and caring for eggs, swimming out and returning back from the sea for fishing forays.

We also saw plenty of penguins in the middle of their crucial molting process to refresh their plumage.

King Penguins in Antarcica

Molting Kings. * Photo: John Roberts

Salisbury Plain

Stunning Salisbury Plain. * Photo: John Roberts

Large colonies of fur seals and other seals also share these precious places with the penguins. In fact, 95 percent of the world’s five million fur seals are on South Georgia, and we saw massive colonies of sub-adults and pups all over the beaches, on tussock grass and inland. The number of tiny fur seal pups on display really dialed up the cuteness factor of these days.

Trio of seal pubs in Antarctica

Adorable seal pups. * Photo: John Roberts

Colleen and I made friends with a number of fellow passengers, who, like us, share a passion for adventure. They included an 11- and 14-year-old brother and sister who were traveling with their parents at what was just the start of a seven-months-long worldwide trip.

Most passengers were around 55 to 75 years old and from the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom. All were extremely well-traveled and represented a cross-section of careers (whether retired or still working) in business, law and medicine — some were highly successful entrepreneurs.

David Marcus and his wife, Bilha, from Maryland, were traveling with five other adult family members and friends. I noticed that their group was among the most engaged — enjoying the daily activities onboard and ashore. Before the trip was halfway over, Marcus had already resolved to return to Antarctica with his granddaughter once she is a bit older.

“The Zodiac tours and onshore excursions allowed us to almost shake hands with the penguins and seals,” he said. “And, surprisingly, the weather was warmer in Antarctica than back at home.”

Antarctica Cruising: Grytviken

A former whaling station, Grytviken is one of the most developed places on the island.

Grytviken in Antarctica

Grytviken is a former whaling station. * Photo: John Roberts

We went ashore for a hike and to visit the small church, immersive museum and little post office/gift shop.

Grytviken also has a small cemetery that includes the grave of Ernest Shackleton, who died of a heart attack at the age of 47 while there in 1922.

Shackleton grave on an Antarctica cruise

The grave of the legendary Shackleton. * Photo: John Roberts

The legendary Antarctica explorer made his name during several expeditions on the continent, most notably in an attempt to cross Antarctica beginning in late 1914 that led to a harrowing adventure after setting sail from South Georgia. His ship the Endurance became trapped in ice and ultimately was wrecked and sank. This led to an incredible tale of survival that lasted almost two years before Shackleton and crew returned to South Georgia.

When Shackleton’s fourth-and-final Antarctica expedition ended with his death off South Georgia, his wife, Emily, said that he should be buried there. And so he was buried on the island at Grytviken at the small cemetery that includes graves of several other residents.

shackleton's tombstone

A close up of Shackleton’s tombstone. * Photo: John Roberts

We went for an afternoon skiff tour within Drygalski Fjord and saw seals, seabirds and calving glaciers that filled the channel with thundering cracks and loud splashes and fizzing sounds as the massive chunks of ripped away from the ice field and plunged into the fjord.

Elsehul was our final stop in South Georgia, and we took a Zodiac tour in an especially enthralling place that represents the full menu of sensory experiences. We saw thousands of albatrosses, seals and penguins filling the skies, beaches and sloping grassy hillsides that surround this secluded cove.

Stunning ice formations. * Photo © Rick Sammon

The cuteness is unreal. * Photo © Rick Sammon

We were on a Zodiac with 10 others, and expedition guide Augie was at the helm again as we got our first look at macaroni penguins and marveled at the beauty of the gray-headed albatrosses. Augie had smuggled a medium-sized box onto the small boat, and its presence had gone largely unnoticed until he picked just the right time to slide it close, flip off the lid and reveal several bottles of Champagne.

 Champagne on an excursion

Nice surprise! * Photo: John Roberts

We were nestled along the shore and savoring the scenery as he popped the corks, poured the bubbly and passed around our glasses for a toast to our incredible time together over the past two-plus weeks.

Antarctica expedition cruise champagne

A toast with Augie. * Photo: John Roberts

passengers on an Antarctica cruise

Passengers Dick and Pat in Elsehul. * Photo: John Roberts

One Last Challenge: The Return Home

Remember when I said the ride south was smooth as could be and that many of us onboard were a little disappointed in not getting to experience at least a taste of what the seas can offer when they get angry on these Antarctic cruises?

Well, we got the full seven-course meal on the voyage back north.

The cruise itinerary had called for a stop at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, but that was scrapped as a massive storm crossed our path as we sailed in the South Atlantic Ocean.

RELATED: Ted’s 10 Best Antarctica & Falkland Islands Moments

Our captain informed us as we departed South Georgia that a storm was heading our way.

This resulted in almost 24 consecutive hours of the Le Lyrial and its crew and passengers being tossed about in waves that reached up to 50 feet and were regularly higher than 30 feet.

story seas in the Falklands

Stormy seas kept John & Colleen confined to their cabin for the last few days of the cruise. * Photo: John Roberts

VIDEO: Watching the sea churn during the stormy ride to the Falkland Islands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSBTx5ax1gc

Services were shut down, and we remained in our cabins for almost the entire time. Crew served us a boxed meal for our dinner, and we did the best to stay comfortable in conditions that were both thrilling and scary. Colleen and I didn’t get much rest, as it was nearly impossible to sleep while trying to hang onto the bed without tumbling to the floor.

Trips to the bathroom were precarious, and items that weren’t fastened ended up scattered all around the cabin.

But we didn’t get sick, so that was a relief. I know many other passengers had a much rougher ride than we did because of seasickness.

We stayed mostly in our bed the whole time and watched a lot of on-demand movies.

Conditions eased as we cruised into a protected area by the Falkland Islands, so we had some relief for much of one day before the waves kicked up again. We sailed for four consecutive days before reaching Ushuaia and our return to land on a Friday evening.

Everyone was quite eager to get off the ship, as cabin fever had set in, and we saw passengers lining up near the gangway to rush off as soon as it was dropped. People headed out to take a walk and find a spot for dinner off the ship.

Though we were all still abuzz about all we had seen and experienced together, people were definitely in the mood for a change of pace, especially after 16 straight days onboard a ship — with the last four being very rough sea days.

Being back on solid ground and amid civilization was just what we were looking for as we joined new friends at a nice restaurant and shared pizzas, beers and lively conversation. It was the final night of the journey and we would be heading off to the airport and on our separate ways back home the next day.

© Rick Sammon ice photo in Antarctica

Serene landscapes (when the weather is good!). * Photo © Rick Sammon

Antarctica Cruising: The Bottom Line

We have enjoyed several expedition-style cruises over the years, and the guides always have been a special part of the trip, helping to bond the group together to share some of the most intense and fulfilling experiences you can imagine.

This part of the experience came up a bit short for us on this trip. A couple of the A&K guides were fairly friendly, and they all were fine when approached with questions, but they didn’t initiate engagement with the passengers in a way that I am used to seeing.

Instead, they tended to disappear or huddle together among themselves when in the main lounge. This was a little disappointing to me.

You never get tired of witnessing penguins and seals in their daily activities up close and in their natural habitat. However, our six days of exploring in the two different regions on the voyage would have been better with a bit more variety in the excursions.

The ship carried kayaks, but A&K did not include kayak tours in its program (and we weren’t really sure why).

Personally, I also would like more options for hikes. I do realize that we were probably in the minority for having these quibbles, though, as most people I asked said they really enjoyed almost every part of the trip — save for the rough sea days.

The program was a rich one, and the guides and staff took great care of us, displaying a true expertise of the region.

The enrichment talks were fascinating, and the animal interactions were intense and more exciting than you can imagine.

elephant seal

Adorably melancholic Elephant seal. * Photo: John Roberts

Our cruise director, Paul Carter, was especially delightful, making us laugh with jokes, always asking how our days were going and keeping us up to date with info needed to effectively navigate each day and destination.

The bilingual Ponant crew speaks French and English, and represent a mix of nationalities. Most officers and managers are French, with the hotel operations staff coming from places like India and the Philippines. The A&K guides come from all over. We had guides from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, the U.K. New Zealand and the United States.

The trip overall was fantastic and a great way to explore such a thrilling destination in style and comfort. Antarctica and South Georgia are places that you have to see for yourself to get a true appreciation for how vital and vibrant they are.

“I am thankful that I was able to witness this remarkable place that most people will never be able to see in their lifetime,” says Melissa Kaplan, who was traveling with her husband, Mike, from Katy, Texas. They also cruised with A&K to the Arctic in 2018, and Melissa feels that the Arctic and an Antarctic cruise that includes South Georgia, are both equally magnificent.

VIDEO: Enjoy John’s overview of his magical Antarctica A&K adventure.

Fares for John’s 20-night “Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands” adventure (four hotel nights in Buenos Aires, 15 nights aboard Le Lyrial, and one final hotel night in Ushuaia), started at $20,995 per person, including round-trip flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, plus all zodiac excursions; all house wines, spirits and drinks; expedition gear (parka etc); tips and port charges; accommodation in a suite; and more (note all cabins have a balcony except for 8 cabins on Deck 3)..

View similar offerings for the 2021-22 season here.  *Note, the “new normal” for cruising, whether small-scale or mass-market, is still to be determined as the travel world adjusts to cruising in the era of COVID-19. 

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

RELATED:  Antarctica Aboard a Former Russian Research Vessel.  by Judi Cohen

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Helicopters aboard Scenic Eclipse

New Scenic Eclipse

By Peter Knego.

During a blast of social media posts covering the debut of Scenic Cruises’ six-star luxury expedition ship Scenic Eclipse, what stood out in my feed were the comments from friends who are generally indifferent to cruising and cruise ships. My childhood buddy Radames chimed: “Okay, now THAT’s a cruise ship I can get behind — sideways skyscrapers do nothing for me!” Meanwhile, several others gushed about the “James Bond” edginess of the ship’s appearance. “Gorgeous!” “Beautiful!” “Sleek!” These were common descriptions on social media platforms frequented by cruise aficionados.

Click below 👇🏼 for a quick clip of the Scenic Eclipse at her Manhattan berth on September 10, 2019, the day of her christening.

Since 2008, Scenic Cruises has been one of the highest rated, all-inclusive luxury river cruise lines in the world, making the 228-passenger Scenic Eclipse a hotly anticipated new comer into the high seas cruise market. Dubbed a Discovery Yacht, this ship is not only the Australian-based line’s first foray into ocean cruises but the first in a new generation of top tier expedition ships equipped with impressive features like helicopters (two) and a submarine in addition to the usual armada of kayaks, zodiacs and e-bikes.

Octopus ship

The mega yacht Octopus, which has two helicopters and submarine, was the inspiration for Scenic Eclipse’s edgy profile. * Photo: Peter Knego

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During her New York christening on September 10, 2019, Scenic CEO Glen Moroney attributed her striking, wedge-like silhouette to that of a mega yacht (the late Paul Allen’s Octopus) he admired from his office window overlooking Sydney harbor.

Scenic Eclipse christening

Basking in the christening afterglow, from left to right:  Godmother Dame Helen Mirren, Glen Moroney (Founder and Chairman of Scenic Cruises), Karen Moroney (Project Director, Design for Scenic Group), Captain James Griffiths. * Photo: Peter Knego

With polar cruising in mind, the ship has a PC6 ice class rating, the highest possible for a passenger ship, which will allow her to not only cruise Antarctica but also navigate the Northwest Passage.

The Eclipse’s interiors, which are just as dynamic and photogenic as her exterior, are the vision of Moroney’s wife, Karen. Inside and out, they have achieved an object of cutting-edge beauty that comes with a few caveats.

Scenic Eclipse's Lobby Lounge

The Lobby Lounge, where comfort and chic converge, facing aft from port. * Photo: Peter Knego

Once aboard, I was struck with how the interiors resembled Scenic’s river cruise ships, albeit on a much grander scale. Stark black, gray, beige, and wood tones along with white Carrara marble surfaces provide a sophisticated setting for luxurious furnishings, vivid floral arrangements and bold artworks.

This ship is pure eye candy for those who tire of the Vegas glitz or, perhaps even worse, the generic stylings and bland, chunky architecture of many of today’s mass market cruise ships.

Including Deck 3, where there is a mud room for guests to don excursion gear, the Eclipse has eight guest decks with most of the four overall grades of suite accommodations concentrated at the forward end of the ship. Two stair towers and a pair of lifts provide vertical access and wide central passageways traverse each level, providing a seamless guest flow.

Owner's Suite on Scenic Eclipse

The Owner’s Suite 902 living room, facing port/forward. * Photo: Peter Knego

RELATED: QuirkyCruise News: A Look Inside the Lavish New Scenic Eclipse

During the christening ceremony, the ship’s Godmother, Dame Helen Mirren, compared the most opulent digs, a pair of lavish 2,099-square-foot Owner’s Suites on Deck 9 to “New York apartments.”

And for a short while, with their Hudson River view that day, they actually were. These palatial abodes feature a massive, forward-facing teak-lined terrace boasting fixed alcoves of seating and a large whirlpool tub.

The living room has a panorama of floor-to-ceiling windows, a dining nook and a massive flat screen television (somewhat precariously mounted atop a chrome pedestal). Owner’s Suites also have a separate bedroom, a walk-in closet and a bathroom with a tub that overlooks the sea.

Verandah Suite on New scenic eclipse

Standard Verandah Suite, facing starboard. * Photo: Peter Knego

Even the less princely Verandah Suites boast teak balconies, a sitting area, king-sized Scenic Slumber beds (that can change position with the touch of a button), a wall-sized mirror that contains a flat screen television and familiar Scenic trappings. We’re talking Bose speakers, a complimentary mini-bar and convenient touches like an umbrella, slippers, plush robes, (illy) espresso machines, QuietVox headphones for shore excursions and, of course, butler service.

The Theater aboard Scenic Eclipse

Theater, facing forward. * Photo: Peter Knego

There is an entire deck of public rooms located near the bottom of the ship on Deck 4, beginning with the in-the-round Theater (featuring reclining chairs with drink holders). On the starboard side, a boutique leads aft to the Lobby Lounge with its sea-level span of full-length windows, a magnificent backlit quartz crystal bar with 110 selections of fine whiskeys and other top shelf liquors and a Carra marble-fronted reception desk.

The entry vestibule follows, leading to the open kitchen Koko’s Asian fusion restaurant on the starboard side and the Continental/Italian Elements restaurant on the port side.

The ship's library

One of the ship’s best kept secrets, the handsome Observation Lounge is located at the forward end of Deck 5.  It boasts a self-serve espresso and tea station and a library of interesting books. * Photo: Peter Knego

More public spaces can be found on forward Deck 5 (Observation Lounge), aft Deck 5 (Lumiere French specialty restaurant and Azure Bar/Cafe), aft Deck 6 (Spa, available at no charge to guests although treatments are for a fee) and aft Deck 7 (Gym, Yoga Studio, and the Yacht Club buffet terrace and pool area).

Unfortunately, the outer deck areas are a bit compromised by the Eclipse’s edgy aesthetics and expensive toys.

Thanks to a very large helipad on aft Deck 8 and the visually appealing but space-consuming vertical curvature of the forward bulwarks, there is a lack of ample open deck space.

While cruising through some of the most scenic waters in the world, guests will have to content themselves with open-air views from their private verandahs, racing all the way to a narrow stern terrace, up to Deck 10 or, even more remotely, out to the open bow on Deck 5.

Dining and swimming on Scenic Eclipse

Where dining and swimming converge. The Yacht Club, shown in a forward-facing view. * Photo: Peter Knego

Another functional design quirk is that the only proper pool is in an enclosed area at the aft end of the Yacht Club. Sharing space with the buffet dining area, it creates a humid environment for diners and during meal times, it becomes a noisy, crowded venue for those seeking a quiet poolside respite.

Further, while the terrace on Deck 10 is a beautiful setting with its commanding views, teak decking, open sunning space and a pair of whirlpools, it lacks a proper windscreen, negating its use when the ship is at sea.

Late that afternoon, I embarked as a guest for a four-night cruise to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. After settling into my Verandah Suite, there was time for a quick cappuccino and a fabulously crunchy cookie in the Azure Café before boat drill.

Two hot tubs on board

Manhattan departure from Deck 10, which has a pair of Jacuzzis and banks of cushioned seating. * Photo: Scenic Eclipse

Scenic Eclipse must have looked magnificent as she pivoted out of the NYPST (New York Passenger Ship Terminal) and pointed her long, sleek bow towards the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.  We toasted with a glass of champagne up on Deck 10, as Manhattan basked in a golden afternoon light and numerous small craft and a very persistent helicopter encircled us.

sushi bar

Watching the chefs work their magic is one of the highlights of dining at Koko’s sushi bar. * Photo: Peter Knego

That evening, I joined a fellow cruise writer for dinner in Koko’s. While my companion enjoyed the sushi offerings, I particularly delighted in the tofu fritters and the ice-cold Kirin Ichiban beer.

art on the Scenic Eclipse

One of the eye-catching Hush panels in Koko’s. * Photo: Peter Knego

In addition to excellent food, Koko’s features artwork by London-based Hush that combines graffiti style graphics with traditional Japanese geisha imagery.

Digital daily program

A digital version of the daily program is available round the clock on Scenic Eclipse’s stateroom televisions. * Photo: Peter Knego

When I retired to my cabin, my bed was turned down but there was no program for the next day. I returned to the Lounge to ask for one and was told that in order to conserve paper, programs were not being printed unless requested. Not wanting to navigate the complex television system or download yet another app (that might or might not function with shifty shipboard satellite connections), I requested that one be placed in my cabin each night.

I appreciated Scenic’s conservational motives here but in the overall scheme of things, one daily program per cabin is a drop in the bucket compared to all the other paper use on board.

digital door info

A “do not disturb” setting outside stateroom doors can be activated with a convenient switch. * Photo: Peter Knego

Once back in the stateroom, I ticked off various boxes on the breakfast room service menu, placed it in the slot outside my cabin, turned on the red “do not disturb” sign (a familiar feature that has morphed over from Scenic’s river ships) and called it a night.

Scenic Eclipse's teak bow

Guests have access to the long, teak-lined bow on board the Scenic Eclipse. * Photo: Peter Knego

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The next morning, I awoke to my smiling butler baring a room service tray with cold cuts, a deliciously flaky croissant and a piping hot cappuccino. It was just the fuel I needed to venture out and explore the bridge (Scenic has an open bridge policy, conditions permitting) and stand out on the bow as it cut through the mild Atlantic chop.

Yacht Club buffet spread

The excellent buffet style offerings in the Yacht Club come with a side of humidity (haha) from the enclosed pool at the aft end of the room. * Photo: Peter Knego

The lunch buffet in the Yacht Club had some beautifully prepared, delicious selections but the humidity generated by the adjacent enclosed pool was daunting.  As the Eclipse pulled into the Martha’s Vineyard anchorage — in lieu of reef-damaging anchors, the ship uses a satellite-controlled pod system to stay in place — I capped off lunch with another perfect cappuccino in Azure.

Helicopters aboard Scenic Eclipse

Helicopter maneuvers on board Scenic Eclipse. The issue of the ship’s lack of ample open deck space could be easily remedied if the Deck 8 helipad could be opened up for guests when the helicopters (which are stowed in adjacent hangars) aren’t being used. * Photo: Scenic Eclipse

After heading up to Deck 10 to witness a shipboard helicopter take off for the first time, I was soon tendering ashore to join an afternoon tour of Martha’s Vineyard.

Martha's Vineyard

On tour with Scenic in Martha’s Vineyard. * Photo: Peter Knego

Scenic provides included Freechoice tours in each port in addition to reasonably-priced Discovery tours. Our Tastes of Martha’s Vineyard excursion took us via school bus through six quaint towns and past numerous farms and Victorian estates before stopping at the Aquinnah Cliffs for a spectacular view of the lighthouse.

Scenic Eclipse in New England

The Scenic Eclipse is shown here off Martha’s Vineyard with her helipad “wings” folded up into the aft superstructure. * Photo: Peter Knego

When we returned to the ship, she looked especially fetching with her helipad “wings” retracted.

That evening, as the Eclipse navigated the Cape Cod Canal towards Boston, we dined in Elements, which compared to the delicious offerings and attentive service in KoKo’s was somewhat of a let down.

drinks aboard Scenic Eclipse

A dash of this and a drop of that, please… * Photo: Peter Knego

Later, at the whiskey bar, I sampled some very exclusive bourbon choices. Hard liquor is not usually my thing but with friends’ and the bartender’s guidance, I chalked it up to a rather “spirited” learning experience.

chicken curry

Going “cuckoo” for Koko’s authentic Indian chicken curry. * Photo: Peter Knego

Intermittent rain greeted us in Boston on the next morning’s Freedom Trail walking excursion, a reasonably-priced Scenic Discovery tour. I made it back to the ship just in time for a fabulous chicken curry lunch in Koko’s.

Wandering and pondering the Eclipse that afternoon raised some concerns about all the sharp corner edges (passageway railings, counters, furnishings) on a ship that will be navigating some very rough seas.

Later, while resting in my stateroom, I also noted that the shelving was lacking lips and stays to prevent articles from sliding off. Hopefully by the time the ship is navigating the Drake Passage for her upcoming Antarctica season, some of these issues will have been addressed.

Lumiere restaurant aboard Scenic Eclipse

A spoon sculpture by Francois Bertrand greets guests at the entrance to Lumiere. * Photo: Peter Knego

When the skies cleared, I joined my writing colleague for a run around the harbor area. We met up again for dinner in Lumiere, the included but reservations-required fixed menu French eatery.  With my non-red meat, somewhat vegetarian diet, I figured I could just enjoy the ambiance as my friend consumed her photogenic courses, then head off to Koko’s or, in a pinch, get room service.

Well, once again, in the food and service department, Scenic exceeded expectations. Our waiter presented vegetarian alternatives to the fixed courses that were not only cruelty free but just as delicious and beautifully rendered.

From the first glass of Champagne to the very last scrape of the cheese platter, the entire dinner was culinary magic.

That evening, I saw no harm in our returning to the whiskey bar to sample more of those interesting malts. Of course, the following morning, when room service arrived, I found myself blearily questioning that choice.

dining on Scenic Eclipse

Bento Box tempura in KoKo’s. * Photo: Peter Knego

a cafe on board

Azure, where cappuccinos and Carrara marble connect. * Photo: Scenic Eclipse

I spent most of the sea day confined to my cabin, catching up on a writing assignment while taking advantage of Scenic’s strong, included Wi-Fi.  When I did venture out, it was to enjoy a Bento Box tempura lunch in KoKo’s, more cappuccinos (with less milk and extra foam) in Azure and a stress-reducing workout in the gym. Since KoKo’s teppanyaki room was fully booked, my final dinner on board would be yet another extravaganza of friendly, excellent service and artful sushi bar craftsmanship.

At Lunenburg, Nova Scotia on the final morning, we were provided with the exhilarating opportunity to test out one of the Eclipse’s helicopters.

Click below 👇🏼 to board one of Scenic Eclipse’s Airbus helicopters.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMcN7JBSh6c

After signing a few liability forms we donned safety vests and were escorted to Deck 8 to board the chopper, a feat that prior to the Scenic Eclipse has been privy only to the occasional yacht-owning oligarch. Seating is assigned according to weight — no exceptions — but with its comfy seats surrounded in a bubble of glass, spectacular views were enjoyed by all.

Nova Scotia from above

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, from aloft. * Photo: Peter Knego

The pilot, an experienced military flyer, joked that this particular group was more interested in getting footage of the Eclipse than the gorgeous town and topography of Lunenburg. Commanding an average of $500 per guest, each 20-minute flight is a pricey but unique (for now) experience that will soon be offered on several newbuilding expedition ships.

The Eclipse’s other “toy,” the five-guest Scenic Neptune submarine, was also going to be deployed that day but it was sold out far in advance (at fares in the $250 range).

Scenic Eclipse from above

Parting glances — an aerial view of the mother ship off Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. * Photo: Peter Knego

Upon our return to the Eclipse, we had but moments to bid goodbye and hop the tender ashore for the ride to Halifax and our eventual flights home.

Afterthought: My four-night September sampling was probably a bit too early in the game and too brief to render a complete appraisal but hopefully this beautiful ship’s somewhat quirky design issues will be remedied or at least taken into account with her proposed sister ships.

As far as food and service go, even at this early stage in the ship’s career, Scenic hit it out of the park.

From the flawless room service where menu “write-ins” were graciously allowed, to the perfect cappuccinos, cookies and pastries in Azure and the excellent quality of the offerings in the humidity-challenged Yacht Club, even the most casual culinary experiences were top notch. Although Elements had some teething pains, Koko’s and Lumiere were proof that Scenic Eclipse’s highly touted six stars aren’t just skin deep.

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Affordable Antarctica aboard the Ushuaia

Affordable Antarctica – Relatively Speaking

By Ted Scull.

It is well understood that anyone looking at the QuirkyCruise site will likely have aspirations to travel aboard ships that do not resemble giant floating resorts with thousands of folks aboard. Lots of cruisers love them, but here we prefer to cover ship travel that provides experiences shared with a much shorter passenger list.

The Corinthian in Antarctica

The Corinthian glides by a huge Iceberg in Antarctic Sound. * Photo: Posiedon Adventures

Perhaps it’s a ship that can take us to smaller ports in popular countries that avoids the crowds. Maybe it’s entirely another world, well over the horizon, and in a class by itself.

Antarctica Dreaming ….

One such place is Antarctica. It was once only sought after by trophy hunters with some seeking fame, intrepid explorers, scientists representing many fields of interests, and governments looking after their national interests by establishing bases there.

In the southern hemisphere summertime, it’s a white winter paradise with deep blue skies and amazingly sculptured ice formations. Strutting penguins in the hundreds that may scoot across the ice on their bellies, while leopard and Weddell seals lounge on the shoreline. The volcanic soil from still active Deception Island is surprisingly warm.

Affordable Antarctica

Chinstraps on Half Moon Island. * Photo: Ted Scull

Why so Costly?

Antarctic cruises are expensive because the high costs of operating ships to get there and back. As they are going remote, they must be totally self-sufficient. They must carry special equipment for going ashore and also employ a staff of salaried naturalists who are an integral part of any expedition cruise.

The vast majority leave from the southern extremities of South America with Ushuaia, Argentina handling the most sailings and Punta Arenas, Chile in second place.

International flights arrive at Buenos Aires or Santiago, then it’s an additional 3.5 air hours to the ship at either port. At the minimum, there will likely be one-night hotel stays at the beginning and end of the Antarctic voyage. If you choose additional days in Argentina or Chile, the cost per day will be lower than aboard ship. Hey, it’s worth considering as you have come all this way.

The shortest cruises last about ten or 11 days with four or five days ashore in the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula. The other half is crossing the Drake Passage twice. The days aboard are anything but a waste of time with the naturalist team preparing you well for what’s ahead and putting everything in perspective on the way back.

Longer cruises add more landings in Antarctica as well as exploring the Falkland Islands (a British dependency) and include extra sea time. Adding South Georgia requires another week and a lot of sea time but for those who can afford it, the rewards are far more birdlife than you are likely to see anywhere else, dramatic landscapes, and connections to the legendary Shackleton Expedition.

So, what are the less expensive ships like, and will I miss something by not being able to spend more for an upmarket ship with all the bells and whistles?

Affordable Antarctica

Breaking ice en route to the next landing. * Photo: Adventure Smith

Let’s Start with the Latter…The High End

The upper end of the cruise market has developed a following that often places the high-end amenities of suite accommodations (with balconies), haute cuisine, fine wines, abundant staff, spas, and some with helicopter rides as de rigueur when they cruise.

Once such luxury was not available on expedition ships and now with the burgeoning popularity of cruising to the White Continent, many cruise lines have built expedition ships with all the creature comforts and even the thrills of diving in a submersible and winging over the ice in a chopper.

All this luxury costs plenty so per diems start at roughly $1,000 per day and continue on up from there.

Now, Let’s Consider the Affordable Antarctica Options

The lowest rates for expedition travel start at about $500 per person per day, maybe lower if promotions appear when cabin space is still available closer to the departure dates. Preparing to make an Antarctic expedition takes some thought, organization and preparation. One does not just pack a suitcase and head to the ship.

The lower brochure rates are generally available on older ships that may have started out as a research vessel or a working ship in Scandinavian waters, while others were purpose-built when Antarctica began to become a sought-after destination.

These sturdy ships, fully paid for and generally debt free, often have lots of character not found on sleek new ships. And what’s equally important, they offer simpler types of accommodations that bring the rates down and offer travelers affordable Antarctica.

The Hapag Lloyd Inspiration

Hapag Lloyd Inspiration, a new ship for polar exploration. * Photo: Hapag Lloyd Expedition Cruises

Affordable Antarctica: Cabins & Amenities

Cabins may be smaller and have a porthole rather than a picture window, beds may be referred to as berths or bunks, some configured side by side with a night table in between. Some may offer an upper berth for a third person.

These cabins may be sold as a unit or to single travelers (of the same gender) willing to share and save a bundle over a single-rate single occupancy cabin. Some few may be inside, that is without a porthole or window, again at an even lower rate. Time in your cabin other than sleeping is minimal because of all the goings on beyond your sleeping quarters.

Most cabins will have private shower, toilet and washbasin, and some few may share these facilities with a small number of other cabins. With the latter, the passage rate drops even further.

The public spaces are shared by all and will invariably include a dining room, a separate bar/lounge, and covered, sheltered and open spaces for viewing from the ship. The shared experience with the others aboard will, for most, will be a major plus for the amazing experience ahead.

Affordable Antarctica

Towering ice formation may not look big but it is 250 feet high. * Photo: Ted Scull

Affordable Antarctica: Expeditions Lines Offering Lower Rates

(As prices fluctuate, rates listed here are a starter guide.)

ADVENTURE SMITH

$4,860 for 10 days (4 days in South Shetland and Antarctica Peninsula).

Vessel: USHUAIA carries up to 90 passengers; ex-NOAA built 1970 and speed of 11 knots. Cheapest rates are in an upper/lower berth double with porthole, washbasin and shared shower facilities between two cabins; also single berth in a triple with three lower berths, private facilities and a window.

Affordable Antarctica aboard the Ushuaia

The 90-passenger USHUAIA was built in 1990. * Photo: Adventure Smith

G ADVENTURES

$6,099 for 11 days (6 days in S. Shetland and Antarctic Peninsula); $7799 for 13 days.

Vessel: G EXPEDITION built in 1972; 134 passengers; speed of 13 knots. Category 1a is 2 upper berths and 2 down with private facilities; porthole; Cat 1 with 1 upper berth, 2 down; full private facilities, porthole; Cat 2 with twin beds, full private facilities; porthole, no single supplements.

G EXPEDITION in Antarctica

The 134-passenger G EXPEDITION. * Photo: G Adventures.

QUARK EXPEDITIONS

$4,800 for 11 days (March 2020); $5,700 for 11 days (December 2020)* (with 4 days visiting Antarctic Peninsula, South Shetlands).

Vessel: OCEAN ENDEAVOUR carries 199 passengers; speed of 15 knots. Triple with 3 lower berths and inside; twin with 2 lower berths and porthole; upper and lower berth (76 sq. ft.). *OCEAN DIAMOND takes 189 passengers; speed 15 knots. All cabins exterior, though some with partially blocked views; single cabins with no supplement, twins and some with a third berth.

OCEAN ENDEAVOUR in Antarctica

The 199-passenger OCEAN ENDEAVOUR. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

Affordable Antarctica: Discounted Sailings

These rates above are all from the brochure (printed and online at the time of writing), so sally forth as it’s the discounted sailings that can bring on other higher-priced lines that may match the per diems above.

And the trio of lines already presented will also offer discounts bringing per diems well under $500 a day, so your budget may be able to spring for a longer cruise that adds the Falkland Islands and maybe even South Georgia.

Yes, some discounts as high as 50% are close-in departures but press on and they may exist much further out with some still 50% off and then a sliding scale 40%, 30%, and 20%.

QuirkyCruise.com covers 22 lines that offer Antarctic Expeditions, so there is a lot of inventory that needs to be sold. Look for last-minute discounts, if you can gather yourself together for an expedition a month or two ahead. There are plenty of options, but it is too changeable to list them here.

Also, if you like to book well ahead — 12-18 months — you can lock in favorable rates.

Affordable Antarctica

Junior Suite aboard Aurora Expeditions’s brad-new Greg Mortimer. * Photo: Aurora Expeditions

 

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Hurtigruten's new Roal

Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen

by Anne Kalosh.

All ship christenings are exciting and special. But that of Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen was also very unusual and historic.

On Nov. 7, the world’s first hybrid battery-powered cruise vessel was named in spectacular surroundings. The 530-passenger Roald Amundsen became the first ship christened in Antarctica, in Chiriguano Bay, ringed by the snow-covered peaks of Brabant Island.

Passengers watched the naming ceremony from the water, in Zodiacs. They were joined by passengers and crew from another Hurtigruten ship, Midnatsol, also on an Antarctica expedition cruise.

The happy naming party aboard their Zodiac

The happy naming party aboard their Zodiac. Godmother Karin Strand stands with Roald Amundsen Capt. Kai Albrigtsen. * Photo: Shayne McGuire for Hurtigruten

Instead of Champagne, a Chunk of Ice

The godmother was Norway’s Karin Strand, 48, who has completed more than 140 expeditions to the White Continent, making her one of the most experienced explorers in adventure travel.

Instead of the traditional Champagne, she used a chunk of ice, a ritual invented by polar hero Roald Amundsen himself.

Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen is christened with a chunk of ice

Godmother Karin Strand gives the rope holding a chunk of ice a yank to send it smashing against the hull. * Photo: Shayne McGuire for Hurtigruten

Quoting Amundsen

Standing in a Zodiac, Strand gave a rope tied to an upper overhang on the ship a mighty yank, sending the ice smashing against the hull.

She quoted Amundsen’s words when he christened the polar ship Maud in 1917: “It is not my intention to dishonor the glorious grape, but already now you shall get the taste of your real environment. For the ice you have been built, in the ice you shall stay most of your life, and in the ice, you shall solve your tasks.”

The ship’s namesake is one of the greatest explorers of all time. Amundsen led the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage, the first expedition to the South Pole and the first expedition proven to have reached the North Pole.

Karin Strand aboard the Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen

‘For the ice you have been built … ‘ Polar explorer Karin Strand, the godmother, quotes the ship’s namesake, Roald Amundsen. * Photo: Andrea Klaussner for Hurtigruten

Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions

“For all of us on board MS Roald Amundsen this is a very special day for a very special ship,” Capt. Kai Albrigtsen said. “She is the most innovative vessel to hit the waters in decades and we hope she will serve as an inspiration for others to follow.”

Roald Amundsen uses large battery packs to support its low-emission engines, reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by more than 20 percent compared to other cruise ships of the same size.

“I believe Roald Amundsen would be proud,” Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam said at the festivities. “With the ship carrying his name and legacy, Hurtigruten is pushing borders, challenging the industry and pushing towards a greener and more sustainable operation. As Roald Amundsen was the symbol of a new era of exploration, MS Roald Amundsen is the symbol of a new era in the cruise industry.”

Celebrating the ice smash

Hurrah! Celebrating the ice smash, from left, are Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam, ship’s godmother Karin Strand and Capt. Kai Albrigtsen. * Photo: Andrea Klaussner for Hurtigruten

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Ban Heavy Fuel Oil would help to mitigate icebergs blackened by soot

AECO Lines Voluntarily Ban Heavy Fuel Oil

By Anne Kalosh.

The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) has just approved a self-imposed ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO) there.

The current practice among the association’s members is to refrain from using HFO when sailing in the Arctic. This has now been formalized as a mandatory guideline.

AECO was an early signatory of the Arctic Commitment, which calls for a phase out of polluting HFO from Arctic shipping.

The AECO encourages the Ban Heavy Fuel Oil

.

Sending a Message

According to AECO Executive Director Frigg Jørgensen, the HFO ban enjoys broad support among the association’s members.

“AECO represents the great majority of operators that offer expedition cruising in the Arctic. By formalizing this ban, the expedition cruise industry is sending a message to decision-makers that it is time to act to protect the Arctic from the risk of HFO pollution,” she said.

Ban Heavy Fuel Oil to improve health and air of local communties

Arctic communities’ health can be impacted by air emissions from ships while livelihoods could be threatened by an oil spill. Here, Lofoten. * Photo: ©TRphotos, courtesy of Hurtigruten

Why is HFO so Bad?

HFO, the tar-like sludge that’s left over from the crude oil refining process, is bad news for the environment and human health. Exhaust from HFO includes sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Scientific studies have linked these pollutants to asthma attacks, heart and lung diseases, and birth defects.

Yet HFO is the standard fuel used by ships because it typically costs 30 percent less than cleaner-burning distillate fuels.

But the Tide is Turning

International, regional and even local regulators are tackling harmful air emissions from ships. The International Maritime Organization, part of the United Nations, has mandated that from Jan. 1, the global sulfur cap in marine fuels will decrease to 0.5 percent. Ships will be allowed to continue using HFO provided they are equipped with exhaust gas cleaning systems, or scrubbers, that remove sulfur oxides from emissions.

In addition, the sulfur limit is already lower, 0.1 percent, in special emission control areas — currently, around parts of the coastline of North America, in the U.S. Caribbean, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The European Union Sulfur Directive enforces a 0.1 percent limit in EU ports. And the California Air Resources Board requires ships to adhere to a 0.1 percent sulfur cap within 24 nautical miles of the coast.

Banned in Antarctica, but not the Arctic

The use of HFO is banned in Antarctica, but not in the Arctic. As AECO’s action demonstrates, a campaign is building to change that.

For one thing, people live in the Arctic, so human health is a consideration. In addition, because of HFO’s viscosity, it is much harder to clean up after a spill, and it can be toxic to fish, seabirds and marine mammals. So a spill might decimate a community’s fishing grounds, or harm endangered animals like polar bears and whales.

As well, when large exhaust particles like black carbon (soot) get deposited on snow and ice, instead of reflecting the sun’s radiation, they absorb it, leading to more warming and melting.

Ban Heavy Fuel Oil would help to mitigate icebergs blackened by soot

AECO has imposed a formal ban on the use and carriage of HFO in the Arctic. * Photo: AECO

Hurtigruten Speaks Out

AECO member Hurtigruten, based in Norway, has been a vocal proponent for banning HFO altogether.

“At the same time as shipping increases in the Arctic areas, the emissions do, too. But polluting fuels like heavy fuel oil are still not banned in these vulnerable areas,” Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam said.

“Hurtigruten banned heavy fuel oil a decade ago and is working for a global ban.”

Hurtigruten ships have not used heavy fuel oil in years

Hurtigruten ships have not used HFO for years. * Photo: Hurtigruten

Meanwhile, Hurtigruten wants HFO out of the entire Arctic and along the Norwegian coast. “It makes no sense,” Skjeldam said, “to create more pollution and increase the risk of spills and destruction in areas that need to be protected.”

A decade ago Hurtigruten enacted a Ban Heavy Fuel Oil

‘Hurtigruten banned heavy fuel oil a decade ago and is working for a global ban,’ CEO Daniel Skjeldam said. * Photo: Hurtigruten

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises Takes Action

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises stopped using HFO in the Arctic of its own volition in 1993 and only uses marine gas oil (MGO) with a maximum sulfur content of 0.1 percent. The company has announced it will use only MGO with no more than 0.1 percent sulfur on its entire fleet (not just its expedition ships) wherever it operates, from July 2020.

Besides Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Hurtigruten, AECO members include Aurora Expeditions, G Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions, Oceanwide Expeditions, Origo Expeditions, Quark Expeditions, PolarQuest, 69 Nord, Silversea, Tall Ship Company, Albatros Expeditions, and Hanse Explorer. Members also include Grands Espaces, Abercrombie & Kent, Poseidon Expeditions, Algol Océans, Noble Caledonia, EYOS Expeditions, Seabourn, Boreal Yachting, Aztec Lady, Ponant, Adventure Canada, Zegrahm Expeditions, The World Residences at Sea, and Viking.

Provisional members include Natural World Safaris, Scenic Cruises, Arctic Explorer, Mystic Cruises, Cape Race Corp., Heritage Expeditions, Crystal Expedition Cruises and Cookson Adventures.

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Poseidon Expeditions

Poseidon Expeditions was founded in 1999 by Nikolay Saveliev as Poseidon Arctic Voyages. Registered in the UK, the company operated its first voyage in 2001 aboard the nuclear-powered icebreaker YAMAL. Expedition voyages center on the Arctic Region, including multiple annual departures sailing directly to the North Pole, and to Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia.

The firm currently charters two fine ships, the 114-passenger suite ship SEA SPIRIT, and 50 YEARS OF VICTORY, nuclear-powered and the world’s most powerful icebreaker, also with excellent accommodations for 128 passengers. The latter is a working ship at other times of the year, and she can break through ten feet of ice (3 meters). In the printed brochure, members of expedition teams are featured right up front with brief bios and their expertise.

Sea Explorer. * Photo: Poseidon Expeditions

Sea Explorer. * Photo: Poseidon Expeditions

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

SEA SPIRIT (built 1991 with recent major renovation, 114 passengers) and 50 YEARS OF VICTORY (b. 2007, 128 p).

Passenger Profile

Active people from Europe, Australia, the Far East and the US/Canada are aged 45 and up. English is the primary language onboard.

Passenger Decks

SEA SPIRIT: elevators operate between all 5 decks. 50 YEARS OF VICTORY: elevators link the four cabin and public room decks but not the bridge nor the pool and sauna located aft on the lowest of the six decks.

Price

$$ to $$$ Expensive to Super Pricey (North Pole expeditions)

Included features

One pre-voyage hotel night (most departures), all regular excursions*, foul weather parkas with destination patches, free loan of Wellington boots for Zodiac landings­, and digital voyage log. * Helicopter flights included for North Pole expeditions but not flights to Murmansk to join/leave ship.

Spitsbergen (Svalbard) - Curious polar bear comes up to the bow of the ship. * Photo: Ted Scull

Spitsbergen (Svalbard) – Curious polar bear comes up to the bow of the ship. * Photo: Ted Scull

Itineraries:
  • Arctic: SEA SPIRIT operates a program of 10-to 15-day expeditions in June and August/September that visit Iceland, including the Northern Lights, Jan Mayen and Spitsbergen (Svalbard); Spitsbergen and Franz Josef Land (Russia); Spitsbergen circumnavigations; Iceland and east Greenland. Most expeditions feature photography (free) and kayaking (a fee). En route north for the Arctic season, in May the ship will embark in Plymouth, South of England and visit sites in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, ending at Leith, the port for Edinburgh. A second cruise begins in early June at Leith and subsequently calls Jan Mayen Island, and disembarking in Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen. After a series of Spitzbergen itineraries, the ship heads for Franz Josef Land. Expedition dates are available for the 2020 season.
  • North Pole: 50 YEARS OF VICTORY operates three 13-day expeditions in July and the beginning of August to the North Pole starting with a flight from Helsinki to Murmansk (Russia) then boarding the ship to sail 90 degrees north and onto the North Pole with a return via the uninhabited Franz Josef Land to look for polar bears and sea birds and stop at an abandoned meteorological station. All North Pole trips feature photography lessons and helicopter sightseeing (included), barbecue, and an optional polar plunge. Note: A Russian visa is required for this expedition.
  • Antarctica: SEA SPIRIT spends a full season with departures from late October onto late February undertaking 11-day Antarctica Peninsula cruises and several 20- and 21- expeditions to the Antarctic Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, the Falklands, and South Georgia. One cruise crosses the Antarctic Circle to 66 degrees South, now that’s about as far south as it gets! All cruises begin at Ushuaia, Argentina, except the first and last of the season that use Puerto Madryn, Argentina. Some Antarctica trips feature photography lessons (free), kayaking amongst the ice (a fee), and how about overnight camping on the White Continent (a fee). Expedition dates are available for the 2020-2021 season
Sea Spirit in Antarctica.* Photo: Poseidon Expeditions

Sea Spirit in Antarctica.* Photo: Poseidon Expeditions

Why Go?

Few expeditions go directly to 90 Degrees North, where you can stand at the North Pole and be photographed from the air. The other destinations such as Greenland and South Georgia are little visited, and often arriving by ship is the best or only way.

Drop anchor and go ashore where roads and air access do not exist. If you want to feel that you are truly away from your normal routine, then one of the expedition-style voyages is for you.

When to Go?

The itineraries operate seasonally according to the most advantageous times of the year, so generally the Arctic Region in the summer and Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer.

Poseidon Expeditions

50 YEARS OF VICTORY. * Photo: Poseidon Expeditions

Cabins

SEA SPIRIT: All accommodations are designated as suites, all outside, and with dimensions 215, 250, 277, 353 and 437 sq. ft. The largest two categories have balconies. Twin beds convert to king-size. Amenities are TV/VCR, refrigerator, Internet Access. The headboards are partitioned mirrored glass panels.

50 YEARS OF VICTORY: Cabins are located amidships and forward, all outside and originally designed for officers and top staff who would spend months aboard breaking ice so there are desks and plenty of storage space. Windows open. The smallest are 151 sq. ft., while the rest range from 237-355 sq. ft. All have TV/DVD and only the smallest categories do not have a fridge.

Public Rooms

SEA SPIRIT: All public rooms are located aft while suites are amidships and forward. The Presentation Lounge is set up for lectures and video presentations, and above that, the Club Lounge is for socializing, with a bar and an adjacent library lounge with books on exploration and wildlife as well as for general reading. Outside deck space circles the ships so viewing locations span 360 degrees.

50 YEARS OF VICTORY: On one deck, the Victory Bar looks over the bow while, the library and lounge are just aft and the second lounge and bar are all the way aft and used for lectures and presentations. There is plenty of deck space for viewing. For both ships, the bridge, often open to passengers, is a spacious additional focus to learn about navigation and chat with the officers.

Dining

SEA SPIRIT: The main restaurant is on the lowest passenger deck and seats all at one sitting. The food is good, varied and as fresh as it can be when sailing in remote locations. In addition, an outdoor bistro serves lunch most days from a covered buffet section, and tables are arranged on the adjacent deck.

50 YEARS OF VICTORY: There is a single restaurant accommodating all passengers at one sitting. As the crew is both Russian and from other European countries, the meals will partially reflect these nationalities.

Taking sight on a polar bear. * Photo: Ted Scull

Taking sight on a polar bear. * Photo: Ted Scull

Activities & Entertainment

SEA SPIRIT: The principal emphasis are the outdoor activities relating to the destinations such as the Zodiac trips in search of wildlife and for going ashore to local communities, beauty spots and onto the ice with destinations such a penguin colonies, and even the North Pole! On board, the presentations and recaps tie in with what happens ashore. The ship is equipped with a gym and hot tub. During the evening hours, a pianist provides light entertainment.

50 YEARS OF VICTORY: Designed for long periods at sea, the ship is equipped with a massage room, gym, two saunas and heated outdoor saltwater pool, and not often found, a basketball and volleyball court. The ship carries a helicopter on an after deck.

Embarking into Zodiacs. * Photo: Poseidon Expeditions.

Embarking into Zodiacs. * Photo: Poseidon Expeditions.

Special Notes

Read carefully what the line suggests you bring and don’t burden yourself with too much unnecessary luggage. Excursions ashore in these remote parts as well as activities such as kayaking and helicopter sightseeing are subject to weather and wind conditions.

SEA SPIRIT was refitted during a drydocking in spring 2019 with a more effective set of stabilizers to reduce rolling while underway, drifting and when anchored.

Along the Same Lines

Other high-end expedition lines.

Contact

USA & CANADA — Poseidon Expeditions, 245 Waterman St., Suite 502, Providence, RI 02906; 347-801-2610.

UK — Poseidon Expeditions, 13 John Prince’s Street, London W1G 0JR  poseidonexpeditions.com,  +44 020 3369 0020.

Check the website for additional offices in Germany, Cyprus and China.

TWS

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QuirkyCruise Review of Ponant

Cruising for over a quarter century, this chic French line is a Francophile’s dream. Ponant’s crew is discreet, the décor is subtle and the food is tantalizing. French desserts, French cheeses and French wines accompany passengers on cruises around the world, from French Polynesia and the Caribbean to the North and South Poles, and lots in between.

Passengers are a well-traveled, well-dressed international lot and the handsome captains stroll around the ship in short sleeves chatting to guests as if they are one of the passengers. Ponant is a bit of Europe no matter where the ships are sailing.

In late 2014, the company’s name was simplified from the French Compagnie du Ponant, to just Ponant, a simpler name for the company’s growing international audience, though Ponant still remains the only French-flagged, French-flavored cruise line out there. Ponant is in the midst of building frenzy, with six 184-passenger expedition vessels in the pipeline between now and 2021. As they are delivered, itineraries will be expanded to offer more frequent sailings and brand-new destinations.

A hybrid electric icebreaker is to appear in 2021 and be able to make it to Geographic 90 Degrees North — The North Pole.

Note: Some sailings are directly operated by Ponant and others are under charter to well-known firms for individual sales as well as for special interest groups.

N.B. In August 2019, Ponant announced that the French-owned line has bought Paul Gauguin Cruises, operating the ship PAUL GAUGUIN in French Polynesia and that the ship will continue to operate under its current name.

Ponant's fleet hits the poles and lots in between. * Photo: Ponant

Ponant’s fleet hits the poles and lots in between. * Photo: Ponant

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

LE BOREAL (built 2010, 132 passengers), L’AUSTRAL (b. 2011, 132 p), LE SOLEAL (b. 2013, 132 p), LE LYRIAL (b. 2014, 122 p), LE PONANT (b. 1991, 64 p), LE LAPEROUSE (b. 2018, 184 p), LE CHAMPLAIN (b. 2018, 184 p),  LE  BOUGAINVILLE (b. 2019, 184 p) and LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE (b. 2019, 184 p), LE BELLOT (due April 2020, 184p), LE JACQUES CARTIER, the sixth Explorer-class ship (due July 2020, 184p), and LE COMMANDANT CHARCOT (due April 2021, 270 p), specifically designed for polar explorations.

Ponant's mini cruise ships are dwarfed by the giants. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ponant’s mini cruise ships are dwarfed by the giants. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Passenger Profile

Mostly Europeans, heavy on French, Swiss and Germans, with a sprinkling of Francophiles from everywhere else — North America, Brazil, you name it. Children are welcome, but are expected to be well behaved; there is a children’s menu, Wii gaming console, and when there are a number of kids on board, a few activities are organized by a staff member.

On a handful of special family-friendly sailings per year (often a Med itinerary in the summer), a Kids Club is offered with kids’ counselors supervising games and activities for ages 4+. Several firms charter Ponant ships, so they will determine the languages, and a number of them are in the English-speaking markets.

Passenger Decks

6 with elevators to all decks (4 on LE PONANT, the motor sailing yatch, and no elevator)

Price

$$  Moderate to Expensive

Included Features

Open bar throughout ship, stocked cabin mini-bar, and all soft drinks. New for 2019 is free WiFi in all cabin categories on all ships.

PONANT                                                                                 LE BOUGAINVILLE delivered in 2019 as the third ship in the explorer class. * Photo: Ponant

Itineraries

The ships, with such an expanding fleet, roam all over the world on one- to two-week cruises (some longer): Mediterranean and Northern Europe, Alaska and Canada, Caribbean, Central America, both coasts of South America, West Africa and Southern Africa, Madagascar, Seychelles, French Polynesia and Oceania, Hawaii,  Indonesia, East Asia and focus on Japan, Eastern Russia, Australia and New Zealand, Antarctica, the Arctic including the Northwest Passage, trans0ocean positioning voyages. A few highlights include (and it’s a moveable feast:

  • 10- and 16-night Antarctica cruises November – February
  • Iceland & Arctic Circle cruises in summer; also Northwest Passage, Eastern Canada, Great Lakes
  • 6- and 7-night cruises out of Martinique to the Grenadine Islands in the winter; also Cuba (Cuban calls suspended due to a US government ban.
  • 7-night Croatia cruises round-trip out of Venice between May and September; also Western & Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt
  • 9-night New Zealand cruises in January and February; also Australia’s eastern coast
  • 7- to 13-night Alaska cruises in June and July; including Aleutian Islands
  • 13-night Chile cruises in November and February; also Amazon and Orinoco rivers, Sea of Cortez
  • New tropical destinations are being added to include the Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean, also Maldives and Madagascar, and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, also French Polynesia, Easter Island
  • South and Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Japan, Eastern Russia.
Why Go?

The French flare, the amazing food, the gorgeous interiors — tres chic. In 2018 Ponant signed an agreement with National Geographic Expeditions to have the latter’s experts and photographers come aboard in Australia, New Zealand and Asia/Pacific.

When to Go?

The fleet cruises in different regions of the world at the best time to visit.

Cabins

LE PONANT is an 88-meter, three-masted sailing ship with lots of wood and nautical touches such as navy blue and white bedding and fabrics in the rooms. Most cabins are on the lowest of the four passenger decks and have twin beds — two rooms have king beds — and there are a few triples. Five larger cabins are higher up on the Antigua Deck.

LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL are nearly identical sister ships with the majority of cabins measuring between 200 and 236 square feet, not including the balconies (which all but eight cabins have). Cabins are designed in stylish neutrals of champagne, smoky greys or blues, and crisp whites with pops of color, like a red border on a bed throw or pillow.

All cabins are stocked with L’Occitane toiletries, bathrobes, mini bars and iPods, and a have a great split bathroom set-up — toilet in one little room and a large shower (and/or tub) and sink in another. They also have a desk and great adjustable reading lights on either side of the bed. Many standard cabins can accommodate three people with one on a sofa bed; ideal for families are the Prestige suites, which are ostensibly two connecting standard cabins. There are four large suites on the Deck 6 near the top of the ship.

A lovely standard cabin aboard Le Lyrial. * Photo: Francois Lefebvre

A lovely standard cabin aboard Le Lyrial. * Photo: Francois Lefebvre

The new 184-passenger sisters LE LAPEROUSE (2018), LE CHAMPLAIN,  LE  BOUGAINVILLE, LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE, LE BELLOT, and  LE JACQUES CARTIER  began arriving in mid-2018 and will continue into 2020. A feature on the new ships is the Blue Eye, an underwater sightseeing lounge. They make up what is termed Ponant Explorer Class with enhanced ice-breaking capabilities.

Public Rooms

LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL have two restaurants, one main entertainment lounge, one combination lounge/bar, and a lovely outdoor bar with sea views. There is no casino. Each has a spa with a Turkish steam room, hair salon, and an excellent ocean-view gym with a row of treadmills and recumbent bikes, plus a Kinesis wall with weights, pulls and grips for weight training.

A small library area (with a Wii console nearby) and a boutique round out the public areas, unless you also count the medical clinic. The smaller LE PONANT has two restaurants, two indoor lounges and lots of deck space for sunbathing. All five of the vessels have a platform for watersports when anchored in favorable conditions.

Dining

Cuisine is a big part of the Ponant experience, and I still sometimes dream about the dark chocolate mousses we devoured on a L’AUSTRAL cruise to Croatia (I gained several solid pounds on that cruise). Each of the five ships has two restaurants, one a more formal fine-dining multi-course French gourmet venue for dinner and the other a casual buffet restaurant with outdoor and indoor seating and themed offerings. Some of the chefs are French (the pastry chef was on my last cruise) and no matter where they are from, they’ve been schooled in the French culinary tradition.

Desserts to die for. * Photo: Ponant

Desserts to die for. * Photo: Ponant

Meals incorporate fish and grilled seafood, and plenty of delicious soups and salads of all kinds. When possible, local ingredients are used, from cherries in Kotor, Croatia, to rainbow trout from Nunavut, in the Arctic. Amazing desserts on offer might comprise a hazelnut mousse cake, lemon meringue tarts and that to die-to-for chocolate mousse already mentioned; easily the best desserts I’ve ever had on a cruise ship.

A selection of cheeses from France and Italy are a staple in the buffet and of the complimentary wines generously poured, I remember an especially refreshing French rose at lunch on route to our next Croatian port of call. You can always order a bottle off the extensive menu if you want something extra special.

The more formal of two restaurants aboard Le Soleal. * Photo: Ponant

The more formal of two restaurants aboard Le Soleal. * Photo: Ponant

Activities & Entertainment

The ships are in port every day, or nearly so, but if there’s a sea day, most people enjoy simply sunbathing by the pool and soaking up the scenery. In the French way of doing things, there isn’t an abundance of scheduled activities or group events. There are theme cruises from time to time focused on gourmet food and wine, film and topics like oceanography, with experts on board giving talks and demonstrations.

Evenings, a singing duo moves around the ship before and after dinner to serenade passengers as they sip cocktails and chat about the day’s adventures and the ones that lay ahead. At the top of the tiered decks at the stern on LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL is a wonderful al-fresco bar, an ideal place to plant yourself as the ship sails off into the sunset — likewise on LE PONANT’s sun deck. After dinner from time to time, a dance performance or film screening may be scheduled in the show lounge of the four sister ships.

The new and larger 184-passenger sisters LE LAPEROUSE, LE CHAMPLAIN,  LE  BOUGAINVILLE, LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE, LE BELLOT, and  LE JACQUES CARTIER started to debut in mid-2018 and continued into 2020, and the larger 270-passenger LE COMMANDANT CHARCOT will launch polar explorations in April 2021.

Ponant passengers love to be outside on deck. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ponant passengers love to be outside on deck. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Along the Same Lines

SeaDream is close.

Contact

Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions, 420 Lexington Avenue, Suite 2838, New York, NY 10170; us.ponant.com, 1-888-400-1082.

— HMS

 

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Roughest 8 Cruising Regions

By Ted Scull.

For small ship cruising, it is not always fair winds and calm seas. Some parts of the world see more chop than others, and to be in the know before booking, here below are the regions that have a bit of a reputation.

Now let’s begin with the good news. Advance weather forecasts give ship captains ample warning to steer clear of a hurricane’s track by altering course. A diversion may result in skipping a port or two and substituting others, and while you might still feel the swell from the storm, it is unlikely that the ship’s movement will be more than a gentle rise and fall.

Roughest 8 Cruising Regions

Some major white water in the Atlantic, off Patagonia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Stabilizers help reduce side-to-side rolling, but not the up and down pitching motions into oncoming swells. The smaller the small ship, the less likely it will have the stabilizing fins. Large cruise ships’ massive blunt bows tend to slam into head seas, and to lessen the unpleasant sensation, the captain may drastically reduce his speed to lessen the impact.

The bodies of water below have the potential for the being the choppiest in world; in no particular order:

1)  Caribbean

The Caribbean’s hurricane season (roughly June to October) tops the list in terms of the number of passengers potentially affected because of the large number of ships cruising here. However, with so many alternative routes and ports of call, in most instances, ships can avoid the storm’s fury and still provide a satisfying cruise.

2)  North Atlantic

The North Atlantic is notorious for its storms at almost any time of the year, and the further north the track the more likely it is to encounter some rough seas along the multi-islands’ passage between the North of Scotland, Shetland/Orkney, Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland and the Canadian maritime provinces and/or the U.S. East Coast. It is positive thinking to note that all islands have a lee side.

The ships that reposition seasonally via the Atlantic between the Mediterranean/Iberia and the Caribbean/Florida are much less likely to encounter storms. However, ships that sail between Northern European ports, Iberia and the Mediterranean pass through the Bay of Biscay. This body of water, west of France and north of Spain, has a long anecdotal history especially with Brits.

In my experience — 16 passages — only one (Santander to Portsmouth) was truly tempestuous and that was quite enough for everybody on board, including me who likes a bit of chop.

3)  Mediterranean

Speaking of the Mediterranean, the Mistral that roars down the Rhone Valley in France and then across the Western Med can stir up heavy seas in winter and spring as does the Meltemi in summer in the Greek Islands. I was aboard the ROYAL CLIPPER during a powerful Mistral and the sail-laden ship reached its maximum hull speed. It was exhilarating and more than a bit dramatic.

4)  Drake Passage

The dreaded Drake Passage between Ushuaia, Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula has a well-deserved reputation, and happily any storm that does occur rarely lasts more than 12 to 24 hours. If you are susceptible to mal de mer, be prepared to deal with any eventuality because the expedition is well worth it.

Longer itineraries that include the Falklands and South Georgia expand the chances for stormy weather.

Cowabunga dude!! That's some wave action on the Drake Passage. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cowabunga dude!! That’s some wave action on the Drake Passage. * Photo: Ted Scull

5)  Gulf of Alaska

The Inside Passage to and from Alaska may be well protected apart from a few short-open sea stretches, while ships traversing the Gulf of Alaska to Seward, on the other hand, may encounter North Pacific storms or swells from a more distant storm.

6)  Southeast & East Asia

Typhoons are an occasional worry in Southeast and East Asia from the South China Sea north to Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, but course alterations can minimize discomfort unless the ship must call at a disembarkation port, then arrivals may be delayed until the waters calm.

7)  Trans-Tasman Passage

The Trans-Tasman passage between Australia and New Zealand and the Bass Strait between Southeast Australia and the island of Tasmania can kick up a mighty storm, but few small ships venture into these southern waters.

8)  Point Judith

The only time I ever felt I might be seasick was standing at the bow of a small ship rounding Point Judith where Narragansett Bay meets Long Island Sound. The sea becomes confused here due to colliding waters, and by simply moving amidships, the unpleasant sensation eased.

Charles Darwin was seasick more than not during his three-year voyage on the Beagle, but back then there were few remedies, and today they are many. A truism is that everyone reacts differently, so there is no easy answer. Still, for the small percentage that do experience mal de mer, it is no picnic. Get professional advice before you go.

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G Adventures

For more than 30 years, G Adventures has been offering affordable adventure travel around the world including small-ship cruises (about 10-15% of their total annual business) on private yachts, catamarans and oceangoing expedition-style ships, with more recent offerings on riverboats. They also sell travel by rail, road and air. Their MO is providing small groups with authentic cultural experiences, through local guides, cuisine, and transport and uncontrived excursions. The target skews younger — 20s to 50s — than most other travel companies; though any age will be comfortable if they’ve got a young-at-heart attitude and a decent level of fitness.

A trained, local CEO, or Chief Experience Officer, guides all trips and acts as the point person to make sure things run smoothly. (On the G EXPEDITION ship, there are additional expert guides in various disciplines). The emphasis is on active exploring, using bicycles for example, and on supporting local businesses and communities (i.e. through visits to schools and charity-supported restaurants in Cambodia).

To keep rates reasonable on the various sailing trips, meals are not included, instead the skipper collects a modest amount of money from passengers who want to share a simple breakfast and lunch on board (skipper goes grocery shopping for the basics); for dinner, it’s expected that passengers will want to eat dinner in port on the islands (who wouldn’t want to!). A BYOB policy (bring your own booze) is in effect on board most of the Europe-based sailing and river cruises. The line matches same sex passengers to avoid single fares.

With 700 itineraries in more than 90 countries (including the new series of in-depth riverboat tours called National Geographic Journeys), G Adventures excels in offering trips geared to various ages, styles and interests — from families with young children to budget-minded “yolo’s” (the 18- to 39-year-old set).  Adventures is dynamic, cutting-edge, socially minded and hip (cue the great photos and video on their website), and definitely thinks outside of the typical travel company box. Quirky cruise anyone?

The line owns the G EXPEDITION ship for trips to the Arctic and Antarctica, and does full-ship charters for its many other small-ship offerings (hence ships may vary from year to year, and listings below reflect a portion of their current fleet). Consult their 150-page encyclopedia!

G Adventures

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

XAVIER III (built 1996, refurbished 2004; 16 passengers) – Galapagos

MONSERRAT (built 2005, refurbished 2016; 20 passengers) – Galapagos

QUEEN OF THE GALAPAGOS (built 2007; 16 passengers) – Galapagos

YOLITA (built 2007, refurbished 2016; 16 passengers) – Galapagos

ESTRELLA DEL MAR (built 1990, refurbished 2014; 16 passengers) – Galapagos

REINA SILVIA VOYAGER  (built 2020; 16 passengers) – Galapagos

EDEN  (built 2000, refurbished 2012; 16 passengers) – Galapagos

G EXPEDITION (built 1972, refurbished 2008; 134 passengers) – Arctic/Antarctica, designed to Ice Class 1B specifications

DANIELE (built 2015; 22 passengers) – Burgundy, France

TOUM TIOU II (built 2008; 28 passengers) – Mekong

VARUNA (built 2006; 24 passengers) — Ganges

AMATISTA (built 1994; 30 passengers) – Amazon

SAILING VESSELS in Europe, the Caribbean and Asia may change from year to year, but those chartered generally carry about 8 to 16 passengers.

A catamaran cruise in the waters of Thailand. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

A catamaran cruise in the waters of Thailand. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

Passenger Profile

Adventurous couples, singles, and families of all ages (though especially the under 40 set) mostly from North America, and a handful from the UK, Europe and other places. The ocean expedition cruises tend to attract largely couples, average age mid-50s, while the sailing tours draw mostly 30s singles.

Passenger Decks

2-3; no elevators.

Price

$ to $$, Moderate to Expensive

Included Features

Generally meals are included across the board except on the small sailing yachts. For Galapagos and South America coastal cruises, snorkeling gear is part of the package, while bicycles are carried on French rivers and on the Mekong. On some itineraries guided shore excursions are also included.

Passengers on an excursion in the Galapagos. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

Passengers on an excursion in the Galapagos. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

Itineraries
  • Galapagos: There are mostly 7, 10 and up to 17-day cruises either round-trip from Baltra or San Cristobal islands, packaged with a 1- or 2-night hotel stay in mainland Quito, Ecuador with the longest more elaborate stays in Ecuador. Itineraries focus mostly on the Central (including Santa Cruz Santiago), Western (Isabela and Fernandina) and Southern (Floreana and Espanola) island groups, to get up close and personal with the amazing wildlife and diverse landscape. (Note: airfare between Quito and the islands is not included in the rates as it often is with other lines).
G Adventures

Estrella Del Mar in the Galapagos. * Photo- © G Adventures, Inc.

  • Europe Rivers: 6-night cruises round-trip from Dijon through France’s Burgundy region visit small villages and wineries, with excursions on foot and by bicycle.
  • India Rivers: 15-night cruises from Patna to Kolkata (Calcutta) on the Ganges River visit ancient temples, ornate palaces and sixth-century rock carvings. South, east and north coast catamaran sailing in Sri Lanka.
  • Southeast Asia Rivers: 7-night cruises (plus 2 hotel nights) on classic-style riverboats between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap go to wet and floating markets, temples (including a sunrise visit to the legendary Angkor Wat on the longer itins), stilt villages, and Vietnam war sites (such as the Cu Chi tunnels and Reunification Palace, associated with the Fall of Saigon in 1975).
  • Turkey & Croatia: 9-night super casual catamaran cruises travel between Split and Dubrovnik, Croatia, and between Bodrum and Fethiye, Turkey.
  • Greek Isles: 7-night super casual yacht cruises sail between Santorini and Mykonos with stops at untouristy offbeat islands in the Cyclades; maybe including Folegandros, Sifnos, Ios, Antiparos, Paros and/or Naxos.
  • Cuba: 6-night super casual catamaran cruises sail round-trip out of Havana and visit points on the Canarreos Archipelago with a focus on snorkeling, swimming and beach-bumming.
  • British Virgin Islands: 6-night catamaran cruises are round-trip from Tortola and hit all the best offbeat swimming, snorkeling and beach sites.
  • Maldives: 6-night cruises aboard a traditional dhoni (a dhow-like fishing boat) spend a week snorkeling and diving in the gorgeous waters of the Maldives islands, and its lagoons and atolls.
  • Thailand: Choose from 6 nighters round-trip from Phuket and 3-night cruises between Phuket and Koh Phi Phi. Indonesia Interisland catamaran cruising from Bali to nearby islands and Lombok.
Amarista on the Amazon. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

Amarista on the Amazon. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

  • Amazon River: 7-night cruises on the Amazon depart from Iquitos, Peru; with optional pre- or post land trips to Machu Picchu.
  • Antarctica: 10- to 22-night cruises round-trip from Ushuaia, Argentina visit points throughout the South Shetland Islands and Antarctica Peninsula. Longest cruises add the Falklands and South Georgia..
  • Arctic/Norwegian Fjords: 10- to 14-night cruises between Reykjavik, Iceland, and Longyearbyen, Norway, visit ports along the coasts of Norway, Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard.
  • South America: 4- to 5-week-long cruises along the west coast of South America (Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia) are offered as the G EXPEDITION repositions between Antarctica and the Arctic region, with excursions to fjords, glaciers, national parks and rain forests, plus a 3-day overland trip to Machu Picchu.
No shortage of South Georgia Penguins in the Antarctica. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

No shortage of South Georgia Penguins in the Antarctica. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

When to Go?

Galapagos is year-round, Antarctica late October through mid-March; Arctic late May through mid-September, SE Asia July-April, Maldives year-round, Thailand October-April, and Europe April-October.

Cabins

G EXPEDITION (Polar) is G Adventures’ owned ship for polar travel; it has five different cabin categories that range in size and layout. All have private bathrooms with showers, and a porthole or window. The two lowest categories are quads and triples with upper and lower bunk beds. All other categories have two lower beds, except for four larger suites that have a queen bed.

QUEEN OF GALAPAGOS (Galapagos) the most high-end of the company’s five Galapagos ships, has 9 luxury cabins all with windows, private bathroom and air conditioning, TV and DVD players — 7 have queen or twin beds, and 1 is a suite with a sitting area.

A light-filled twin cabin on the Galapagos Queen. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

A light-filled twin cabin on the Galapagos Queen. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

YOLITA’s (Galapagos) 8 cabins have queen or twin beds, large windows, and TVs with DVD players. All have private bathrooms and air conditioning.

XAVIER III’s (Galapagos) 8 cabins are all double-occupancy with twin beds; 4 on the upper deck cabins with windows, and 4 on the deck below with portholes. All come with private bathrooms and air conditioning.

A twin cabin on Xavier III. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

A twin cabin on Xavier III. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

MONSERRAT’s (Galapagos) 10 cabins comprise 6 double-occupancy upper deck cabins with windows and 4 on the deck below with portholes. All are equipped with private bathrooms and air conditioning.

EDEN (Galapagos) takes 16 passengers and a two wraparound decks to easily access all directions. 4 cabins are twin lowers, a double bed cabin, and  3 twin-share bunk cabins, all with private facilities and A/C.

ESTRELLA DEL MAR (Galapagos) has 8 double-occupancy cabins with bunk beds, 4 on the upper deck with windows and 4 on the deck below with portholes. All have private bathrooms and air conditioning.

DANIELE (France) is a canal barge with 12 lower deck cabins all with windows and private bathrooms, TV, radio, and air-conditioning.

TOUM TIOU II (Mekong) has 6 upper deck cabins and 8 lower deck cabins, all with windows and en-suite bathrooms.

AMATISTA (Amazon) has 15 cabins — 7 upper deck and 8 lower deck, all with windows and private bathrooms.

VARUNA (Ganges) has 12 air-conditioned cabins, all with en suite bathrooms.

CATAMARANS/SAILING YACHTS (Cuba, BVIs, Greece, Croatia, Thailand, Maldives), the vessels may vary from year to year, but generally have 4 to 8 double cabins often (but not always) with private bathrooms.

Dining room on Galapagos Queen. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

Dining room on Galapagos Queen. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

Public Rooms & Dining

All Galapagos vessels and the polar ship G EXPEDITION have an indoor observation lounge for talks by the naturalists, plus a bar, small library, outdoor observation deck with chairs for relaxing, and indoor dining area for casual and relaxed meals. The menus where possible incorporate local ingredients, such as fish.

TOUM TIOU II (Mekong River) has a main lounge with a large-screen TV for watching a limited selection of DVDs, a library, bar, and open-air dining area and indoor/outdoor lounges. DANIELE (France) has a lounge with bar, dining area, sun deck with loungers and parasols, and a hot tub.

The small catamarans and yachts in the Caribbean, Europe, Thailand and the Maldives, and the riverboat on the Amazon, all have a combination lounge and dining area indoors, plus outdoor seating for sunbathing and hanging out.

Some vessels have reliable Wi-Fi, including G EXPEDITION, but on many, connectivity is spotty.

Amatista on Amazon. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

Amatista on Amazon. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

Activities & Entertainment

In general, the entertainment is the destination and interaction with fellow passengers, sharing conversation and drinks on deck. Activities happen in port or in the water while snorkeling, diving, kayaking or zipping around in zodiacs or small skiffs. The Galapagos boats carry 2 zodiacs for expeditions and snorkeling equipment for passengers’ use (wet suits are free of charge on QUEEN OF GALAPAGOS and YOLITA only). DANIELE (France) has a hot tub, and it and the Mekong riverboat carry a handful of bicycles.

Along the Same Lines

QuarkOne Ocean, Poseidon Adventures in the polar regions.

Contact

G Adventures, 19 Charlotte Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5V 2H5; 416-260-0999. US office: 179 South Street, 1st floor, Boston, MA 0211, 877 390 9050. Additionally in USA & Canada 1-888-8000-4100; UK 0344 272 2060; Australia 1300 853 325; New Zealand 0800 333 415. Consult the website for additional international telephone numbers.

— HMS

 

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Quark Expeditions has been in business since 1991 offering lots of creative itineraries in the Polar Regions (Arctic, North Pole, & Antarctica) using a fleet of chartered ships including a pair of Russia’s finest icebreakers. The firm was the first with paying passengers to sail the complete Northeast Passage across the top of the Russian Arctic, and to make circumnavigations of the Arctic Ocean and Antarctic continent.

With the varied fleet, there is a wide price range to choose from based on from moderately-priced cabins that four can share on up to two-room suites for those who want maximum comforts when not ashore . The expedition teams come from a wide range of backgrounds, some with considerable longevity with Quark. Short biographies on Quark’s website introduce their experience and skills.

Passenger Profile

As long-established Quark is well known around the world, passengers come from North America, Australia, Britain and other parts of Europe.

Ships, Year Delivered & Passengers

The Fleet: With such a large number of ships involved, the individual vessel amenities vary considerably, and here we sketch the most important details. In addition to the ships listed below, the firm has ordered a new expedition ship taking up to 200 passengers. Special features will be four embarkation points for faster and smoother access to the 20 Zodiacs and two helidecks. Delivery is scheduled for 2020. In the meantime, Quark will charter the 2019-built World Explorer for its 2019-2020 Antarctic season

The Icebreakers

50 YEARS OF VICTORY: The world’s most powerful icebreaker, and nuclear-powered, was designed as a Russian scientific vessel in 2007 and more recently chartered for passenger expeditions. It is dedicated to summertime trips embarking in Murmansk, a major Russian naval port, and heads to 90 degrees north, equating to the North Pole.

The 6-deck ship takes up to 128 passengers in all outside cabins with private facilities designed for a staff and crew that spent months aboard, so desks and good storage are part of their functional design. There are two lounges with bars, one forward-facing, and a library with polar region references. The dining room seats all at one seating and all bar beverages are included. The food is continental, Eastern European and Russian. Amenities include a small salt-water pool, basketball and volleyball court, gym and sauna. Elevators connect four of the five passenger decks (not lowest with pool & sauna). A sightseeing helicopter, stabled in a hanger, takes off and lands from the aft open deck. A hot air balloon may follow, weather permitting.

North Pole. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

North Pole. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

** KAPITAN KHLEBNIKOV (not currently chartered): This Russian icebreaker has enjoyed longevity in the expedition world and specifically with Quark. Built in 1981 and converted for passenger use in 1992, the KHLEBNIKOV has made more Northwest Passage voyages than any other ship afloat, and from time to time, she reverts to her icebreaking duties. Expeditions include transits of both the Northeast and Northwest Passages and explorations of remote northeast Greenland. 51 outside cabins and suites are spread over four of the eight decks, and all passenger levels thankfully enjoy elevator access. The amenities include windows, desks and large closets as the ship was designed for long-term living. Four corner suites have windows facing forward and to the side, and three more cabins are forward-facing, all qualifying as true two-room accommodations with the lounge fitted with TV and DVD. The forward-facing lounge, bar, and library are semi-partitioned into three spaces, the auditorium screens films and hosts the lecture program carried out by the expedition staff. The dining room is divided into two sections with forward and side-facing windows. It’s open seating and the food is continental and Eastern European. On the lowest deck, a suite of rooms provides for a gym, sauna and heated plunge pool.

Expedition Ships

OCEAN NOVA: Built in Denmark in 1992 as a passenger vessel connecting Greenland’s coastal settlements, the ice-class (1B) OCEAN NOVA was subsequently lengthened and in 2006 converted to an expedition ship for passengers. Taking up to 78, she continues to operate in her familiar home territory as well as making circumnavigations of Spitsbergen. 38 outside cabins with windows are spread over just two decks, and all have windows, TV and DVD.

While the majority are twins, additional configurations also include six with upper and lower berths, three triples and two quads. The main lounge and separate library are located aft while the auditorium on the deck above is a new space where lectures are held and as well as serving as an observation lounge and bar with floor to ceiling port and starboard windows. The windowed midships dining room has enough seating for all and a large serving buffet for most meals. There is an exercise room but no elevator between decks. The ship carries a fleet of Zodiacs for inshore cruising, and offers hiking and snowshoeing, and kayaking (for a fee).

Elephant Seal ignores Ocean Nova, in Antarctica. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

Elephant Seal ignores Ocean Nova, in Antarctica. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

OCEAN ADVENTURER (formerly SEA ADVENTURER): Built in 1972 in Yugoslavia as a passenger ship for the Russians, the OCEAN ADVENTURER was renamed and upgraded to its latest standards  in 2017 and has a 1A ice classification. In the summer, she cruises Greenland and Inuit Canada, Spitsbergen and nearby Franz Josef Land archipelago, occasionally including the North of Norway. Voyages include Zodiac cruising, hiking and snowshoeing, and for a fee, kayaking and overnight camping ashore.

In winter, the OCEAN ADVENTURER cruises Antarctica, including below the circle, the Falklands and South Georgia. Most trips offer kayaking and some camping, both optional extras. 128 passengers occupy moderate-size outside windowed or portholed cabins with private facilities, plus in the latest refit, six new twins and three suites. Most are twins, and six are triples. Eight cabins on Upper Deck face an enclosed side promenade, and with the deck’s lights kept on at night, shades need to be drawn. All cabins have TV and DVD player. There is NO elevator between the six decks. For a small ship three lounges are unusual. The main forward lounge with moderately good views is used for presentations, and on the same deck port side, the Clipper Club is a second quiet place to read and relax. The most attractive library with comfy seating is on the deck above. The dining room is all the way aft with the best tables for viewing at the stern. The food caters to the widely diverse nationalities. A small exercise room is located down on Main Deck.

OCEAN DIAMOND: Built in 1974 as a freighter, she was rebuilt into a very popular cruise ship in the mid-1980s and now carries 189 passengers on a winter Antarctica program, that on the longer trips, include the Falkands and South Georgia. The ship offers kayaking on all itineraries and camping on many as an optional extra. All cabins are outside, most of a good moderate size with either windows or portholes and TV and DVD. Singles have one double bed, twins either two beds or one double, and a few are fitted with an upper berth.

Public rooms tend to be aft with the exception of the forward observation lounge. The Upper Deck lounge is used for presentations and an aft facing bar is below. The main restaurant is on the lowest passenger deck and a special intimate dinner restaurant is just above. The food is of a high standard. An elevator serves all passenger decks. Additional amenities are a gym, massage and wellness program. The ship offers complimentary Zodiac cruises, snowshoeing and hiking, and for a fee, kayaking, cross-country skiing and mountaineering.

Ocean Diamond. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

Ocean Diamond. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

OCEAN ENDEAVOUR: Completed in 1982 as one of a series of eight cruise-ferry -style ships for the Russians, she passed through a series of short-term owners before settling down as a 198-passenger expedition ship, here for Antarctic cruises and extensions to the Falklands and South Georgia. On most of these trips, the ship offers Zodiac cruises, hiking and snowshoeing as free options, and kayaking, cross-country skiing and mountaineering as paid options.

The cabins fall into 13 categories, most outside with windows or portholes and all with private facilities, radio and TV. Most rooms are twin-bedded, a few are sold as triples, and a block of inside cabins are used for single travelers. The top category faces forward over the bow. Lounges include the Meridian at the top of the ship, the aft-facing Aurora looking out to the pool, the intimate Compass Club, the Nautilus Lounge for presentations, and a small library. The large Polaris Restaurant is bracketed by large port and starboard windows with the food being mostly continental and Eastern European. Wine is complimentary with dinner.

Additional amenities are separate men’s and women’s saunas, and spa and gym. Elevators connect the three most important of the six passenger decks.

Ocean Endeavour passes under a chinstrap penguin rookery. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

Ocean Endeavour passes under a chintrap penguin rookery. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

ISLAND SKY: Completed in 1989 as Renaissance VIII, this unit was the last of eight nearly identical boutique ships for now defunct Renaissance Cruises. She is used for the shorter Antarctica Peninsula cruises based in Ushuaia, and for those who would like to fly to and from Antarctica to join and leave the ship there without making the Drake Passage sea crossing.  Five decks have roomy cabin accommodations for 106, four on the highest deck having balconies, with eight more on the deck below. All have flatscreen TVs, DVD players, and private showers (no tub baths).

The middle deck has a narrow wraparound promenade, and an elevator connects all decks. The Club, one of two lounges has a connecting library, and on the deck below, the main lounge is used for presentations. The restaurant is located aft on the lowest deck with informal dining on the Lido Deck aft when the weather is suitable. High up on the Explorer Deck is the best location for forward viewing, and aft is a hair salon. The ship carries Zodiacs for local calm water excursions and for landing on the peninsula.

WORLD EXPLORER — A newly ship in 2019, she carries up to 172 passengers (limited to 140 for the Antarctic season). The cabin accommodation is all outside with either walk-out balconies or Juliet step-out platforms. This ship will handle some of the fly-cruise departures along with OCEAN ADVENTURER.

Note: ULTRAMARINE — A highly sophisticated new expedition ship is under construction in Croatia to begin cruising Antarctica for the 2020-2021 season. This will be the company’s first owned new-build. Passenger capacity will be 200 (6 are singles), two helicopters carried, with trips included in the fare, and a stern marina for launching the Zodiacs. In the Arctic, they will be used for sightseeing and accessing hiking and skiing locations. Other activities include Greenland camping, mountain biking and alpine kayaking.

Quark Expeditions

Preview of ULTRAMARINE in Antarctica. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

 

Price

$$ to $$$  Expensive to Super Pricey

Itineraries
  • Antarctica Peninsula may be the sole destination on shorter expeditions (11 to 14 days), while long voyages may include the Falkland Islands, South Orkneys and South Georgia (20-23 days). On some Antarctic Peninsula cruises, passengers have the option of flying across the potentially-rough Drake Passage from Ushuaia, Argentina, and depending on the sailing, one or both ways (8-11 days). Those with more time, extend your stay add-ons to Buenos Aires, Argentina; Santiago, Chile; Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil or Easter Island, Pacific Ocean.
  • In the Arctic, Quark offers many departures that last from 9 to 14 that may include Norway above the Arctic Circle, Spitsbergen/Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, an archipelago, Greenland (all coasts), Arctic Inuit Canada, and the North Pole. For add-ons, consider Reykjavik, Iceland; Oslo or Helsinki.
Why Go?

Antarctica and the South Atlantic islands are playgrounds for animals and birds galore, visiting isolated settlements and research stations, seeing amazing ice formations and enjoying some of the world’s clearest air.

Curious penguins in Antarctica. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

Curious penguins in Antarctica. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

The Arctic offers bird and animal life on land and in the sea, ice, glaciers and fjords, remote settlements, Viking ruins, and a possible voyage to the North Pole.

There is something out there, so getting ready. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

There is something out there, so getting ready. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

When to Go?

All expeditions are scheduled according to the regional climatic conditions, so the Arctic voyages take place from May through September while the Antarctic expeditions operate between between November and February.

Activities & Entertainment

Lectures and recaps presented by the expedition team are a daily part of life aboard, to prepare you for and answer questions about going ashore. The choice of activities in Antarctica has broadened considerably in the last few years, and while most options off the ship are included in the overall rates: Zodiac trips, snowshoeing and photography — some will cost extra such as camping, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, cross-country-skiing and mountaineering. Arctic voyages, depending on the specific itinerary, may feature Zodiac cruising, kayaking, hiking, and snowshoeing on some trips and extra cost hot air ballooning on treks to the North Pole.

Kayaking is available in both the Arctic and Antarctica. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

Kayaking is available in both the Arctic and Antarctica. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

Along the Same Lines: Look at other lines that concentrate on expedition-style cruising.

Contact: Quark Expeditions, 3131 Elliott Avenue, Suite 250, Seattle, WA 98121;  Quark Expeditions.com, USA 888-979-2061, UK 0.808.120.2333, Australia 800.812.855

TWS

Silversea Expeditions

Silversea Expeditions was launched in 2008 as high-end Silversea Cruises’ adventure arm, offering its loyal well-healed clients a chance to explore some really remote corners of the globe at a level of luxury close to what they had been enjoying on Silversea’s 5 ritzy 296- to 382-passenger ships.

Silversea Expeditions started out with the SILVER EXPLORER (the former PRINCE ALBERT II), and then in 2012 added the SILVER GALAPAGOS (formerly GALAPAGOS EXPLORER), and in 2014, the SILVER DISCOVERER (the former CLIPPER ODYSSEY — since sold to CroisiEurope). All of the ships were refurbished before joining Silversea Expeditions, with SILVER EXPLORER being the most elegant.

Note, most officers and crew aboard SILVER GALAPAGOS are Ecuadorian as required by the government, and the crews on the other two ships are international.

Another note: In August 2017, Silversea Cruises’ SILVER CLOUD was refurbished and converted into an ice-class ship and then joined Silversea Expeditions at the end of 2017 to offer a similar experience as her fleetmates. After the overhaul, SILVER CLOUD EXPEDITION carries 254 passengers and sails in polar and non-polar regions; when sailing Arctic and Antarctic itineraries, the number of passengers booked on those cruises will be restricted to 200. Sistership SILVER WIND will receive the same modifications to ice class and have its passenger capacity drop from 294 to 254, again 200 when in Antarctica. The work is expected to be completed in November 2020, and expedition equipment such as kayaks and Zodiacs will be added.

In August 2020, SILVER ORIGIN (92 passengers) will join the fleet cruising the Galapagos bringing a new standard to the island chain with prices to match, and her passenger/crew ratio approaches one to one.

RELATED: Reader Reviewer Sue B on her Antarctica Silver Cloud cruise

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

SILVER EXPLORER (b. 1989 & 142 p); SILVER GALAPAGOS (b. 1990 & 100 p); SILVER CLOUD “EXPEDITIONS” (b. 1993 & 254 p; rebuilt 2017); SILVER ORIGIN (2020, & 200 passengers).

Previously a sister ship, SILVER WIND (b.1995 & 296 p) remains with the main cruise ship fleet, while all her running mates exceed our 300 passenger limit. They comprise SILVER SHADOW and SILVER WHISPER (382 p), SILVER SPIRIT (608 p), and SILVER MOON and SILVER MUSE (596 p).

SILVER ORIGIN will be delivered on August 22, 2020 taking only 92 passengers and 90 crew on mostly 7-day Galapagos circuits, plus two December and January holiday cruises at 10 and 11 days.

Silverseas Expeditions

SILVER ORIGIN cruises the Galapagos. * Rendering: Silversea Expeditions

Passengers

Well-to-do couples 40s on up from North America, and others from the UK, Europe and Australia. Many have previously cruised on Silversea’s posh cruise ships. Galapagos cruises will draw families during the school holidays.

Passenger Decks

5 with an elevator connecting all of them. 7 decks on SILVER CLOUD and elevators connect all but the highest deck with the jogging track and deck chairs overlooking the pool below. 6 decks with elevators serving 5, the exception being the highest Stargazing Deck.

Price

$$$

Included Features

All excursions, wine, spirits and all non-alcoholic drinks throughout cruise, plus gratuities. Also, a snappy-looking bright red expedition parka embossed with SILVERSEA EXPEDITIONS.

Itineraries

Cruises span the globe with the expedition fleet. Only SILVER GALAPAGOS stays put in the Galapagos with week-long, year-round cruises amongst the Galapagos Islands between Cristobal and Baltra, plus two nights in Quito, Ecuador.

In late 2019, the line announced the First Expedition World Cruise, the longest ever undertaken, when the SILVER CLOUD departs January 2021 for an 167-day odyssey calling in at 107 ports spanning the globe and including both polar regions.

What follows is a more normal sampling:

  • 12-day summer cruises with SILVER CLOUD either embarking in Norway or Svalbard for a Norwegian coastal and fjord experience and a circumnavigation of Svalbard and 16 days exploring Greenland’s west coast and Arctic Canada.
  • SILVER EXPLORER winters in the Antarctica on 10-day expeditions while 18-day itineraries add the Falklands and South Georgia  Following the Antarctica season, the ship cruises the Chilean fjords, then sails westward to Easter Island, interisland loops in the South Pacific, northward to Japan and South Korea, the Russian Far East (many islands plus the Aleutians), South-central and Southeast Alaska and return to the Russian Far East. The EXPLORER then undertakes the first ever Silversea’s Northeast Passage above Siberia/Russia. Following that the remainder of the summer is voyaging to Spitsbergen, Iceland, Greenland and Arctic Canada. Then prior to the winter in Antarctica, cruises resume via the Panama Canal and along the West Coast of South America to Ushuaia. N.B. This ship only, beginning in December 2021, will inaugurate the so-called Antarctic Bridge allowing passengers to fly the Drake Passage to meet the ship, the flight taking under two hours and avoiding possible rough weather and saving nearly four days travel time. The flight operates between Punta Arenas, Chile to King George Island, South Shetlands.
Silver Explorer in the icy poles. * Photo: Richard Sidey

Silver Explorer in the icy poles. * Photo: Richard Sidey

When to Go?

The vessels cruise in different regions of the world at the best time to visit: Galapagos is year-round, Antarctica between November and February, Northern Europe, Arctic Canada Alaska, Russian Far East and Japan in the summer, Southeast, East Asia, Indian Ocean and East Africa in the cooler months and the Pacific regions in the summer (winter in the Southern Hemisphere).

Cabins

Aboard the three, all rooms and suites have twin beds convertible to queens, sitting area and writing desk (some also have vanity tables), and marble bathroom with shower or tub; SILVER EXPLORER and SILVER CLOUD have the choice of Ferragamo, Bulgari or hypoallergenic bath amenities.

SILVER GALAPAGOS offers a local brand from Ecuador). Enjoy butler service, plush robe, slippers, choice of pillows, fine Pratesi bed linens (that Elizabeth Taylor apparently swore by), and a stocked mini-fridge.

All accommodations come with expedition binoculars, hair dryer, personal safe, flat screen TVs, on-demand movies, direct-dial telephone, and Wifi access. All ships offer cellular service based on availability.  Complimentary parkas are offered on Antarctica and Arctic voyages as well as other select sailings.

Of SILVER EXPLORER’s 66 all ocean-view suites, 24 of them measure 230 sq. ft. with windows. Another 8 at that size also have French balconies (sliding doors with narrow ledge for standing); 14 rooms are 154 to 192 sq. ft.. There are two Owner’s suites at 626 sq. ft. and a pair of 675-sq.-ft. Grand Suites, all with balconies. Another 16 large suites measure 351 to 460 sq. ft..

SILVER GALAPAGOS has 50 all ocean-view suites, with 24 of them measuring 210 to 250 sq. ft.; a dozen are 268 sq. ft. including balconies. There are four 361-sq.-ft. Silver Suites and 8 Deluxe Veranda Suites measuring 303 sq. ft., both with balconies.

SILVER CLOUD has 130 all ocean-view suites, with 24 of them with windows and measuring 240 sq. ft.; 32 are 295 sq. ft. including balconies; (1) 541 sq. ft. suite includes balcony; (2) 736 sq. ft 1-bedroom Royal Suites; (2) 736 sq. ft 1-bedroom Grand Suites on the deck above; and (1) 587 sq. ft 1-bedroom Owners Suite (the later four categories can be combined with neighbouring suites to become even larger). All have walk-in closets.

SILVER ORIGIN (Delivery 2020) has all suites located on two of its six decks. Five pairs are interconnected, and half can accommodate a third passenger. The lowest four cabin categories measure 325, 335 and 355 sq. ft.. then it on up to 536, 897, 1,025 and 1,722 sq. ft. All have sitting area,writing deck, walk-in wardrobes and floor to ceiling sliding glass doors out to the veranda.

Public Rooms

Aboard SILVER DISCOVERER the largest space is the 120-seat Explorer Lounge with wraparound windows for scenery views; this is the ship’s hub and place where lectures are held and where passengers cluster to read and chat. It has a bar at one end and a station for coffee and tea all day long. There’s an outdoor bar on the Sun Deck and a pool as well as plenty of seating. Below decks is a small gym, massage room and beauty salon.

SILVER EXPLORER has two windowed lounges for scenery viewing — the smaller Observation Lounge forward on Deck 6 and one deck below the larger Panorama Lounge at the stern, which is also the best place for pre- and post-dinner cocktails. A pianist provides background music. Adjacent to the Panorama Lounge is the cozy Connoisseur’s Corner for cigars and cognac. The comfortable 110-seat Theatre is where lectures and slide shows take place. The ship has a small library/Internet Café, boutique, small gym, and a spa with one massage room, a sauna/steam room and a beauty salon. There are two hot tubs at the stern of Deck 6.

SILVER GALAPAGOS has a small ocean-view gym, massage room, beauty salon, and a combo boutique/library. The 100-seat Explorer Lounge is the hub of the ship and the place were lectures and briefings happen. It has a high-tech AV system and a photo station with an iMac where you can download and edit your photos. The Piano Bar, with a resident pianist on hand, is the spot for pre- and post-dinner drinks, as well as afternoon tea.

SILVER WIND, the largest of the expedition vessels, offers the Explorer Lounge for lectures by the expedition staff, an aft Panorama Lounge and on the same deck, a forward Observation Lounge. A Connoisseur’s Lounge is for cigar smoking and cognac. Additionally, there is a library, beauty salon, spa , and a top deck jogging track. A changing room on the lowest deck prepares the passengers for exploring in Zodiacs and hiking ashore.

SILVER ORIGIN, the newest in the fleet has a forward observation lounge located on the second highest deck, the Explorer Lounge for presentations and leading out to an after outdoor lounge, basecamp, the staging area for boating the boats via the stern marina, and an outdoor lounge area on the highest deck.

Silver Galapagos gets this close to shore. * Photo: Silversea Cruises

Silver Galapagos gets this close to shore. * Photo: Silversea Cruises

Dining

On all four ships, continental and regional specialties — Galapagos Lobster à la Galapaguera anyone? — are served in the open-seating no-jackets required dining venues; the food level and scope aboard  SILVER EXPLORER and SILVER CLOUD are essentially the same as the rest of the fleet (SILVER GALAPAGOS, on the other hand, is bound by Ecuadorian laws and restrictions regarding food sourcing, so the menus can’t quite compete). In the main restaurants, it’s fine dining all the way on candle-lit tables set with crisp white linens and china. Each also has a more casual al fresco Grille restaurant that turns into a popular dinnertime spot for grilled fish and steaks and other goodies prepared tableside on a heated volcanic-rock plate; reservations are suggested. The larger SILVER CLOUD also has a Relais & Châteaux® restaurant and La Terrazza.

There are two restaurants on SILVER EXPLORER, the main one serves buffet-style breakfast and lunch, and a la carte dinners, while the smaller more casual Outdoor Grille seats up to 34 passengers for breakfast, lunch and bar service.

SILVER GALAPAGOS has two dining venues, the larger main Restaurant and the al-fresco Grille at the stern of Deck 6, which serves buffet-style breakfast and lunch. At dinner at the Grille, you can grill your own steaks and seafood or choose homemade pizza or lite fare.

SILVER CLOUD EXPEDITION has four dining venues: the larger more formal main restaurant; the al-fresco Grille on deck; a Relais & Châteaux® restaurant (for $40 extra per person); and La Terrazza, on the stern with wake-facing seating.

SILVER ORIGIN  provides The Restaurant for all three meals and The Grill high up on Deck 7 aft of the Observation Lounge.

Activities & Entertainment

The destinations are the main event, with naturalist-led excursions at least once and often several times a day; about 10 expedition team members sail on every voyage. On board there are lectures and slide shows about the destination, and otherwise passengers read, chat with new friends and gaze out at the stunning landscapes. Evenings before and after dinner, it’s drinks and conversation.

They all carry inflatable zodiac landing craft (SILVER EXPLORER has 8; SILVER GALAPAGOS 5; and SILVER CLOUD 18).

Along the Same Lines

Closest would be the Celebrity XPEDITION and Ponant’s LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL.

Contact

Silverseas Expeditions, 110 East Broward Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301; www.silversea.com, 800-722-9955

— HMS

 

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