Sailing to the end of the world
Who would have thought it — a once-in-a-lifetime luxury cruise in the alabaster otherworld that is Antarctica. Not Captain Cook, apparently...
It is, in the words of David Attenborough, “the most hostile of the Earth’s frozen lands, where temperatures can fall to below minus 80 degrees Celsius and winds blow up to 200 miles an hour”. He is, of course, talking about Antarctica, the White Continent. It is a place so remote and unforgiving that the population consists almost exclusively of a couple of thousand scientists from 29 or so nations who hunker down at their bases during the summer months (between October and March) and who leave behind only a smattering of colleagues to brave the harsh winters.
But summer, in Antarctica, is a relative term, as my wife and I discovered when we journeyed there — not to tick off another destination on our bucket list but to be enveloped by the majesty of a place without peer. And the best way of doing it, whether we like it or not, is by ship. In terms of prestige and popularity, few activities have swung more wildly than cruising. After the heights of its first boom — when the Mauretania and other transoceanic liners were a byword for decadence — the industry limped through the 20th century, a relic of a bygone era struggling to reinvent itself.
How the seascape, and those who purvey the apex of cruising, luxury expeditions, have changed. Today there are myriad specially made vessels that ply the waters of the Antarctic. Our choice was the newest of the crop, the soignée Silver Endeavour, a sleek and bijoux 164.4-metre ice-class hulled ship by Silversea that would navigate us in and around glassy white icebergs where pods of humpbacks were feeding on algae while an unimaginable number of penguins, from chin-straps to gentoos, darted in and out of the waters.
But we had to get there first. The traditional way of reaching the Antarctic Peninsula has been via the dreaded Drake Passage, the 600-mile-wide section of the Southern Ocean where the frigid, polar conditions of the Antarctic Peninsula collide with the cool, humid climate at the tip of South America. This atmospheric transition forms one of the roughest and most treacherous stretches of sea on the planet, and has been the graveyard for innumerable ships of yore.
However, one can forgo this thirtysomething-hour ordeal and instead embark on Silversea’s new Antarctica Bridge, which enables guests to travel over this inhospitable sub-polar territory in comfort in a chartered British Aerospace BAE-146 quad- jet aircraft that flies over glacial snowfields and volcanic peaks from Punta Arenas, Chile, and — weather permitting — lands on a gravel airstrip at the joint Chilean-Russian Bellingshausen research station on King George Island, a desolate moonscape in the far-flung sub-Antarctic islands replete with lunar-like vehicles, fortified shelters on stilts and, unusually, a small Russian Orthodox church. From there, you board a Zodiac and are transported to your recherché retreat for a week of unparalleled adventure.
Cruising at its best is an enthralling jaunt of discovery when done decorously — and the White Continent is the ideal subject matter. With an icy centre that is almost devoid of life, Antarctica’s most eye-catching natural attractions and wildlife are at the edges, where, according to Attenborough, “some creatures find a way to not only survive but to flourish”. This is apparent at the outset and throughout our journey, when we are trailed by an alabaster tableau in every direction: expanses of pristine glaciers, snow-clad peaks and marble slabs adrift, interspersed with innumerable sea life breaching the surface and, from time to time, the outline of a rust-coloured research station in the distance, oftentimes bearing the ubiquitous baby-blue and white of the Argentine flag. It is intoxicating.
It is also a slightly bewildering experience to be on a state-of- the-art satellite stabilising ship with high-speed internet, every luxury and accoutrement at your disposal (the showerhead in my suite had more pressure than the one at home!) and to reflect on British explorer Captain James Cook’s failed attempt to find Antarctica in 1775, after which he wrote: “I can be bold to say that no man will ever venture farther than I have done and that the lands which may lie to the south will never be explored.”
I’m happy to report that we, alongside 198 other guests who were seen to by an exceedingly professional crew, explored it in enormous comfort. There are no fewer than five superb eateries, a number of lounges and bars, libraries stocked with relevant hardbacks, and most importantly a pair of specially made mudrooms from which we would board our Zodiacs with our highly qualified guides and embark on daily (and sometimes twice- or thrice-daily) off-ship sojourns through icy waters, with the thundering of calving glaciers in the distance, and dressed in waterproof outerwear, sturdy rubber boots and a scarlet parka with which Silversea had furnished us.
To set foot on a continent that has lured explorers, scientists and travellers to its inhospitable landscape for nearly two centuries was awe-inspiring and humbling. The silence was stunning, the air the freshest on Earth. And because you’re travelling with equally engaged, au fait passengers, a sense of reflection and rumination is omnipresent throughout the voyage, notably when one encounters wildlife like a colony of penguins or a gathering of seals.
Because the weather is changeable along these rich coastal fringes, even summer days can vary in terms of activities and anchorage (the ship never drops anchor in these waters but reaches “a sheltered drifting position”), and the itinerary may change at the behest of the captain. Regardless, the more studious can distract themselves from the occasional scheduling deviation by attending presentations and seminars (from wildlife experts, historians, marine biologists, anthropologists, naturalists and filmmakers) and the more sybaritic can avail themselves of a massage or a session in the gym or sauna (with views of the surrounding scenery while they sweat out the umpteenth martini they may have consumed the evening before).
Dinners can be of the casual or formal variety, with an endless choice of cuisines, and pre- and post-prandials are accompanied by musical performances or, as the mood strikes, in quietude in the wood-panelled cigar lounge (sadly stocked with only non-Cubans). But the setting, for me and my wife, left little time for contemplation as we darted from one side of the ship to the other, binoculars in hand and sometimes braving blustery conditions, bewitched by the visual and sensory bounty of this ethereal milieu. At journey’s end, and in the weeks and months that followed, we returned to civilisation as de facto Antarctic ambassadors. When asked by a friend why he should embark on such a journey, I referred him to Sir David.
Read the full story in Issue 91, available now.