Cruise to Antarctica: Thrills, Spills and Chills

Sunday, October 4, 2009

James R. Wachob of Chevy Chase is the latest contributor to Your Vacation in Lights, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. You won't win a million dollars if your story is featured -- in fact, you won't win anything but the thanks and admiration of your fellow readers. To file your own trip report, see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: A 10-day Gap Adventures cruise on the Russian-crewed M/V Polaris from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Antarctica and back.

WHO: I was accompanied by my Brazilian friend, Lucas S. Eidt, whose photography skills had enabled him to provide excellent documentation of earlier vacations we had taken in Europe, Central America and Asia.

WHEN: Needing to visit Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere's summer, we flew from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city, in February 2008.

WHY: I was eager to visit the only continent on which I had not yet either lived or traveled.

PLANNING: I fortunately was briefed by a fellow parishioner, who had visited Antarctica six times with her mother, a famed polar explorer for whom one of the continent's largest ice shelves is named. I flew from Washington to Buenos Aires, but cruise participants can reach Ushuaia from several places besides Buenos Aires, such as Chile.

COST: The twin-bed outside stateroom cost about $13,000 for the two of us. This included meals, nonalcoholic beverages and compulsory insurance.

PACKING: My briefer lent me much of the clothing and gear -- parka, ski mask, knee-high rubber boots, waterproof pants, wool socks, etc. -- that I needed for the ship and cruise landings. I also had to pack for the summer temperatures of Buenos Aires.

LAND HO: The cruise included wet landings by 10-person Zodiac rafts onto several South Atlantic islands, where we viewed penguins and other maritime animals. The high point for me was landing at an abandoned Argentine research station on Antarctica itself.

SCARY PASSAGE: The route passed through Drake Passage, the 500-mile stretch of turbulent water considered to be the most dangerous in the world. In preparation, crew members installed heavy metal covers on each stateroom porthole, a clear indication of things to come. The crew said that our two days in Drake Passage were the worst in 15 years. The first morning, the ship keeled so far that everything on the breakfast tables was swept to the floor. That evening, sitting in a chair in the dining room, I was thrown from one side of the room to the other, landing unscathed under a table. The passage was less exciting on the return to Ushuaia but still posed problems for anyone moving from one part of the ship to another.

SCENIC HIGHLIGHTS: After Drake Passage, the sea became calmer and flecked with floes and icebergs of white and blue. The scene, best compared to the setting of a science-fiction film, induced a feeling of introspection not unlike my experience on the endless Mongolian steppes.

DINING ON LAND AND AT SEA: Food and beverages were excellent in Buenos Aires, where the exchange rate added to tourists' pleasure. Dinner at Kaupe, in Ushuaia, came strongly recommended, in particular the king crab dishes. Located on a hillside overlooking the harbor, the small restaurant was the ideal place for our pre-departure evening celebration. In contrast to the all-hours feeding frenzy on some luxury liners, our 65-passenger ship maintained a firm schedule of three meals daily, each with a good selection of food and nonalcoholic beverages. Alcohol was available in the lounge in the afternoon and evening.

LEARNING AT SEA: My friend and I were mealtime partners of the ship's Ushuaia-based physician, who provided interesting bits of information to supplement the lectures given each evening by staff members, all native English speakers. The well-attended lectures included presentations on glaciology, ecology, the history of Antarctic exploration, international agreements on Antarctic affairs, and detailed discussions of the birds and mammals seen during the cruise.

WEATHER REPORT: The temperatures near and on Antarctica's peninsula hovered around freezing, substantially higher than farther inland.

HEALTH EXAM: Upon booking, cruise participants were required to present their physician's attestation to the state of their physical and psychological health. Older than 80, I was happy to be able to submit documentation that met the requirements.

HISTORICAL NOTE: My friend and I had booked the M/S Explorer, but it sank in the South Atlantic in November 2007 after hitting an iceberg. Fortunately, the cruise organizers were successful in getting the M/V Polaris diverted from the north polar region to follow the original February 2008 itinerary and program of the sunken ship.

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