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Wednesday, 13 March 2013 12:40

Antarctica

Written by  Lillian Africano

Antarctica. The White Continent. Cold, remote, mysterious and seductive, it covers almost one-tenth of the world’s surface and embraces what is arguably the world’s most awesome scenery. It has lured generations of explorers, including the legendary Sir Ernest Shackelton, who set sail on the Endurance in 1914 and managed to save his crew despite the loss of their ship and months of untold hardships.

The first modern expedition to Antarctica was in 1966, led by Lars Eric Lindblad, the father of the expedition cruise industry. In 1969, Lindblad built the MS Explorer, the first of the small expedition ships that would follow. (The Explorer sank in 2007.)

Today Antarctica attracts travelers who want a taste of adventure, a sense of being somewhere that very few will be privileged to see and experience. Their numbers are relatively small - about 33,000 in 2010-11 (compared with close to a million visitors to Alaska) - and reflect a decline of about 8%, due to the reduced number of larger cruise-only vessels following the prohibition on using and carrying heavy fuel oil in Antarctic waters. 

Prior to this regulation, prospective visitors had a number of cruise-only choices on the dozen bigger ships that simply traveled through Antarctic waters. Currently only Holland America and Azamara offer cruise-only voyages. HAL’s ms Veendam does a 21-day South America/Antarctica itinerary from Rio to Valparaiso on December 20, 2012 and January 30, 2013, also a 20-day version on January 10, from Valparaiso to Rio; these cruise the glaciers of Antarctica (starting price, inside cabin, $2,199 pp). Azamara’s Quest will sail one 16-night cruise on January 15, 2013, a round-trip Buenos Aires itinerary (starting at $4,299 pp, inside cabin), with the ship spending several days in the Antarctic Sound/Peninsula.

Clients who wish to experience the “real” Antarctica may prefer the small expedition ships with ice-hardened hulls that conduct frequent Zodiac landings and allow passengers to get up-close-and-personal with the world’s largest concentration of marine wildlife: penguins, seals, whales and the legendary wandering albatross. In the course of these landings, the Zodiacs travel among enormous icebergs, with colors of the deepest, most astounding blues seen nowhere else. Adding to the excitement, chunks of iceberg occasionally break off from frozen ice shelves, offering a dazzling display of Nature’s wonders.

Onboard naturalists share their knowledge with guests throughout the voyage in an atmosphere that is as intimate as a classroom.

But clients should be aware that an expedition cruise is not like, say, a cruise to Alaska. Though my Antarctic voyage aboard the Explorer (years before it sank) ranks as the best trip of my life, it was not without some discomfort. We experienced 40-foot waves while making our way along Drake’s passage, and many of my shipmates who had brought along ginger, wristbands and other well-known anti-seasick remedies were nevertheless seasick. Thanks to the Transderm patch my doctor prescribed, I was not. 

Modern expedition ships are as safe as technology and research can make them, and over the years of Antarctic sailings, there have been only two accidents. In fact, when the Explorer sank in 2007, former captain Leif Skog, was quoted as saying: “I’m totally shocked and surprised. She was just outstanding in her design, perfect for ice navigation.” 

More recently, in 2010, the Clelia II was slammed by waves, sustained engine damage, but still was able to limp into port. 

In addition to being safe, these ships have so much more to offer by way of luxury and amenities than the first, very basic Explorer. Some have a yacht-like atmosphere, balconies, premium bedding, alternative dining venues and spas.

The luxurious ships of Hapag-Lloyd will sail three Antarctica cruises during the 2012-2013 season. The Bremen (rates starting at $9,220) has a November 30-December 15, 2012 itinerary that includes the Falklands and South Georgia, as well the Antarctic Sound and a January 3-18, 2013 sailing (starting at $10,300). The Hanseatic (the world’s only 5-star expedition ship) sails February 13-March 3, 2013 (starting rate, $12,760). All rates are for outside cabins, double occupancy; all include round-trip airfare from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina.

The Ponant ships, L’Austral and Le Boreal, return to the South Pole this month with nine itineraries running from November through early March. Trips run from 11 to 16 days and start at $7,341 per person, double occupancy. Ponant is currently offering a $1,300 flight credit on many of its trips to Antarctica when booked with Ponant. Flights and airport taxes, transfers, and optional shore excursions are not included.

Hurtigruten is offering up to $1,659 per person savings on its “Classic Expedition” - the 10-day expedition sailing that starts in Buenos Aires with a flight to and from the port at Ushuaia. Guests spend four days exploring the White Continent, with numerous landings. Inside cabin fares start at $5,327, per person, inclusive of savings; included are flights to/from Buenos Aires and Ushuaia.

Other Hurtigruten sailings: the Polar Circle Expedition (13 days - seven in Antarctica); In The Realm of Great Explorers (19 days following the historical expeditions that took in Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia); Weddell Sea Expedition (13 days that travel further south to take in Weddell Sea); and Christmas Expedition (17 days with stops in The Falklands, South Georgia and the South Orkney Islands, as well as Antarctica).

Silversea’s Silver Explorer (formerly the Prince Albert II) will sail 10- 12- and 17-day round trips from Ushuaia, starting this month, through February 2013. Prices for the 10-day itinerary start at $8,799.

The National Geographic Explorer sails 14-day itineraries, roundtrip from Buenos Aires/Ushuaia, from November 27, 2012, through February 5, 2013, with prices starting at $11,740. On new bookings for select departures, various credits are offered. 

Though Antarctic sailings cost more than many other cruises, they are rich in the kind of memories and experiences that make for the trip of a lifetime.

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