Voyage to Antarctica

Travelling to the White Continent on a state-of-the-art expeditionary cruise ship, Julietta Jameson finds a journey full of favourite moments.
December 2021

There is a wide age group on my Abercrombie & Kent Antarctic cruise: it starts in the teens and ends in octogenarians. There’s an even wider range of fitness levels and I, sitting in the middle of both, can’t help being in awe of Barbara, from Southern California. I meet her at the Sofitel Buenos Aires, the gorgeous hotel A&K has chosen for our stay in Argentina prior to our private charter flight to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, from where we will depart for the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica. At 86, Barbara is the oldest person in our group. She’s bent over and shuffling but as bright as a button and determined, absolutely determined to do all the landings on offer, from the Falklands to the Antarctic Peninsula. She’s also made a great choice in voyaging into Antarctica with A&K. Both the expedition team and the ship’s crew, especially the Zodiac boarding team, are equally determined to make sure she achieves her dream.

Then there are the amazing facilities provided to make this possible. A&K has exclusively chartered Ponant’s 199-passenger Le Lyrial for our 17-day odyssey into one of the world’s greatest wildernesses. Among the many advantages of the state-of-the-art, luxury small expedition ship is the large pontoon to the rear on level three, which makes docking, loading and off-loading Zodiacs, even in uneven seas, something doable for all of us, including Barbara. A crack team of able-bodied seamen, Zodiac drivers and orderly boarding procedures overseen by cruise director Jannie, don’t just maximise physical safety, they also engender a reassuring sense of confidence and fun.

And then there are the procedures ashore. At Half Moon Bay, a stunning site in the South Shetland Islands where more than 3000 pairs of chinstrap penguins nest with their delightful babies and endlessly watchable habits as they build their stone nests, a message from Suzana our expedition leader, goes out across the network of radios, carried by the expedition team. I am with one of the experts, when I hear it. “Can we get Barbara back, please? Is she still with you at the penguin colony?”

That’s precisely where she is. Barbara is sitting on a rock, happily enjoying the box seat view of the penguins and chatting to the expert about them.

The team collectively gets Barbara back to shore, into a Zodiac and with an absolute minimum of fuss, back onto the ship, where she’s helped with her boots and safety gear, and greeted, like the rest of us, with a warm treat of freshly-made bouillon or hot chocolate laced with Frangelico.

More than twenty-five years’ experience and a passion for polar expedition cruising is A&K’s not-so-secret ingredient. The company’s expedition cruise brochure talks about “dynamic orchestration” but you really can’t fathom what that means until experiencing it. Changing the landing and sailing itinerary due to weather conditions, but doing so not to create the most comfortable option for the crew, but to ensure guests get the most time on the Antarctic Peninsula possible, for instance. Going ashore before guests are even up to prepare the most stress-free landing in line with conditions, for another.

On our last day in Antarctica, conditions were slippery with a steep landing ahead. Rather than cancel the landing, the team was ashore early, carved a path in the ice, laid towels down to provide grip and stood in a line, linking arms with guests in order to give them safe passage. Everything possible was done to ensure even Barbara got to enjoy each landing. (They always set up an easy-to-reach seat for her while more agile guests took hikes, scrambled rocks, and even sledded down an incline.)

And these were just the orchestrations I noticed. This voyage is a bit like a swan, all grace and wonder on the surface, with a tonne of hard work and adaption going on behind the scenes.

And all along the way, those expedition team members, world-renowned and award-winning, who, even though they’ve been to Antarctica countless times, share our wonder and enthusiasm, imparting knowledge, encouragement and safety advice at all turns. That’s not to mention their sense of fun. They’re in their element, entertaining and informing us at the don’t-miss evening briefs in the theatre, where they discuss the day’s events and get us up to speed on what’s ahead. Complimented by the exemplary skills and knowledge of the Ponant officers and crew, it’s a remarkable approach that ensures everyone reaches that “trip of a lifetime” feeling while each having our own favourite moments, moments we all love discussing at dinner, over coffee, drinks and snacks in the comfortable public spaces of Le Lyrial.

My favourite moment? Landing at Salisbury Plain in the South Georgia Islands where one of the world’s largest colonies of king penguins roosts with its babies. Hundreds of thousands of them greet us. The night before at our briefing, our expedition leader Suzana had forewarned, “You will see a lot of penguins when you get there and you will be overwhelmed, but we need you to concentrate, okay? It’s your first landing and we need you to put safety first.”

Sure enough, when my Zodiac gets to shore, I see the penguins and start crying like a baby. Suzana catches my eye. “Concentrate, Julietta!” she says as she helps me out of the Zodiac. Then she gives me a big hug. And with that, I am okay to go meet the incredible array of wildlife there, not just the penguins, but seals and birds and to appreciate the awesome landscape.

Back on board that night, sharing a meal with my newfound friends from the US and the UK, we trade stories over fine wines and delicious food and see whales breaching out the window. Eating stops as we all rush outside with our cameras. Every day brings its own favourite moment, really – multiple moments.

Coming up the Drake Passage to Ushuaia at the completion of our expedition, one of my newfound friends and I are out watching an extra special surprise, minke whales frolicking in calm waters. We are reminiscing about how extraordinary everything has been. He says, “When I bought this trip, I thought it was expensive. Half way through, I thought I understood why it was expensive. Now, at the end, I’m wondering how they packed it all in for the money.” I can’t help but wonder, too.

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