The bottom of the world
As cruises go, this isn't the cushy kind
Expedition staff member Vladimir mans the tiller on a zodiac during a cruise through Cierva Cove that was rewarded with spectacular views of icebergs. The Ocean Nova is in the background. (Phil Marty/For the Chicago Tribune)
"That mountain over there," he says, pointing to bare rock, "used to be covered by snow and ice."
Moments later we watch in awe as an avalanche rolls down the slope of another mountain.
How are you going to top that?
Back aboard ship, the loudspeaker crackles to life.
"There's a whale off the port bow." Everyone who had been sitting in the Panorama Lounge while listening to a lecture on wildlife rushes out on deck to see the real wildlife.
For the next hour, we're in whale heaven. One humpback here. Three humpbacks there. Two humpbacks over there, looking like a synchronized swim team as they dive together, their tails arching in unison.
How are you going to top that?
After three days of sunny, calm, moderate weather, our last day has given us what our expedition leader, Mariano, describes as a typical summer day here — overcast, 35-mile-an-hour winds, temps in the low 30s, scattered snow.
Boarding the Zodiacs to go ashore at Deception Island, a former whaling station, proves a challenge as waves bounce them up and down. But we're getting the complete Antarctic experience — and our first sighting of chinstrap penguins to boot.
Later, out in the strait, I look out from the top-deck lounge and watch the horizon in front of the bow roll up and down as we slog through 10-foot waves that occasionally smash across the windows. The lounge is nearly empty as most people have gone to their cabins to lie down after grabbing a handful of seasickness pills from the bowl that sits on the bar.
The 10-foot waves, Mariano would say later, are typical for a normal day if we'd gone across the Drake Passage.
Lying in my bunk that night as the boat rocks in the waves, it's hard not to gain a greater appreciation for people such as Shackleton and Amundsen and Scott, who challenged this amazing wilderness on foot and in delicate wooden vessels just a century ago.
Why would you want to go there?
"This was a trip and a destination that will live in my heart forever," says Helena, a Briton from Argentina, as we wait to go ashore our last day. "It's like remembering a favorite tree — or an old lover."
If you go
American and LAN are the primary airlines flying from the U.S. to Punta Arenas, Chile, starting point for my trip. I flew a combination of the two, with the last leg being from Santiago to Punta Arenas on LAN. Depending on your starting point, you're looking at being in transit as much as 24 hours. For departures in December and January 2012, expect to pay $1,500 to $2,000 round trip, though if you're a glutton for punishment and willing to spend even more time en route, you might score a better fare.
The Antarctica Fly and Cruise package from Quark Expeditions (888-892 0334, quark
expeditions.com) includes two nights' lodging in Punta Arenas, the round-trip flight from Punta Arenas to King George Island, four full days and two half-days on the Ocean Nova, all food (quite good, with a choice of meat, fish or vegetarian) and drinks. We had two outings a day in the Zodiacs, including landings.
Our group of 60 came from 14 countries, and though there were a couple of extremes, average age was 50s and 60s. Despite that, this isn't your grandparents' cruise. Getting in and out of the Zodiacs can sometimes be tricky, and we had hikes through the snow up hilly areas at some landings that were quite strenuous, though those were always optional.
Cost of the trip for the coming season, which has just seven departures from mid-December to mid-January, runs $9,260 to $14,410 per person, depending on whether it's a triple, double or single cabin.
Quark has several other Antarctic trips, some costing less than $5,000 per person, that involve traversing the Drake Passage.