It’s here, it’s here! The moment you’ve all been waiting for! At least, I assume you have, as it’s certainly been the adventure I’ve been most hotly anticipating: my cruise to Antarctica!
For those of you who don’t remember the backstory, the opportunity to add the 7th continent to my journey ’round the world came up pretty much out of the blue. Back in 2008 when I was on my post-bar exam trip in Europe, Malia and I wanted to visit the Greek Isles and found a bargain-basement cruise operator called EasyCruise that turned out to be the most economical way of getting around. On that cruise we met Jonathan, a lovely gent from Connecticut who — at the time — was in the midst of his own RTW adventure. We all hit it off and have stayed in touch over the years (thanks, Facebook!). Anyway, over the summer when I was planning this trip, I got a message from Jonathan asking whether I or anyone I knew might be interested in going halfsies for a cabin on a 2-week Antarctic cruise, departing Buenos Aires on the 1st of February. As it turned out, Buenos Aires was already where I was planning to be on that very day, so, as the universe basically threw it in my lap, I really had no choice but to say that I was in!
And so, on a sunny Sunday, we arrived at the Port of Buenos Aires to board the Celebrity Infinity. Let me tell you kids, this is about as far from EasyCruise as you can get. The Infinity is a massive ship (I think it’s about 2000 passengers and 900 crew). There are multiple restaurants and bars, pools and hot tubs, a spa, a gym, a theater, you name it. Jon is a veteran cruiser and has earned status with Celebrity, so our passage through the immigration and boarding process was quick and painless and we were aboard in no time. Right away we sussed out a spot on the starboard side solariam deck to park ourselves, and here — with plentiful lounge chairs and easy access to several snack options — would turn out to the spot we’d spend most of our free time aboard.
Antarctica (as you may we aware) is really, really far away from civilization. After setting sail in the late afternoon on the 1st of February, we spent the next three full days at sea headed for Ushuaia, our first port of call. Those three days passed pretty lazily as we explored the ship, made friends with some fellow passengers and ate far too much food. We opted for the fixed-seating dining option, which meant we shared a table with the same three couples every night for dinner at 6 pm. When sailing with retirees, you dine as the retirees do! We really lucked out with our table-mates, who were all really fun. Alan and Cathy were from New Jersey, she a retired travel agent and he a retired loan officer. They met some years back when she came in to the bank for a loan to re-roof her house and before long, that house became their house. They have traveled all over the world and had some great stories. Rick and Carol live in Reno and both worked for the Army, he in active duty and she as a civilian. They are also veteran cruisers, and nearly always the last to arrive for dinner, as they had a daily (free!) happy hour they got to attend due to their elite status with Celebrity. Finally, Frank and Mae from Santa Rita, California. She’s a semi-retired nurse and he used to work in Houston doing mission control for the International Space Station. Altogether, a super interesting group of people and we never ran out of things to talk about at the dinner table. Our waiters were the lovely and talented Arturo from Peru and Slobodan from Serbia, who, no matter what we ordered, never failed to assure us that we had made an “excellent choice.” (They said it so faithfully, it became a running joke, and one that I still find hilarious).
The ship runs all sorts of activities to keep people occupied during the sea days, and my favorite were (surprise!) all the trivia competitions going around the ship. The most fun was Progressive Trivia, which is a cumulative competition that goes on throughout the trip. We named our team The Cartographers (another inside joke that I will refrain from explaining here, if you really want to know, you can send me an email) and picked up Rick and Pat, a couple searching for a team to join. We soon also recruited Alan and Cathy from our dinner table.
Unfortunately, we didn’t discover PT until day 3, so missed out on the points from the first two sessions and thus never really had a chance to win the whole shebang, but had a great time anyway. There were also many long and lazy hours spent in lounge chairs, reading on our kindles and watching the ocean out the windows.
At long last, after sailing up and through the Beagle Channel, we arrived in Ushuaia where we had a day to explore the town, billed as the southern-most city on earth. It is a cute little port town, but there was not a whole lot to see and do. Some people had booked shore excursions, but none of them looked all that exciting to us, so instead we hired a taxi and headed up to Glacier Martial to do a little trekking. This was a comparatively easy trail and so we spent a nice couple of hours climbing up to the glacier and enjoying the progressively more fabulous views the higher we got.
The next morning, we were up with the sun for our voyage around Cape Horn. The landscape itself was not all that amazing, but the sunrise was breathtaking. We also got to see the little lighthouse at the end of the world, as well as the famous albatross monument that memorializes the many, many sailors who met their ends trying to round the Cape.
The next day and night was our crossing of the Drake Passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet below the tip of South America. It has the potential to be a very rough crossing, but we were pretty lucky overall. There was definitely some rocking and rolling, but my trusty scopolamine patches kept me from feeling too bad, though I did spend most of the day snuggled up in my bunk. I had to save my strength, because the next day we sailed up the Schollaert Channel and into Paradise Bay. We had finally arrived to Antarctica! Our first glimpses of the continent started at mid-morning, and the low-hanging clouds shrouded everthing in mist. Laying eyes on the snow-covered rocks and glaciers is an indescribable experience, knowing that you’re seeing places that so few have ever and will ever see. The best views were from the open decks, and though the temps were well below freezing, I tried to stay out there as long as I could before ducking in to get warm. Being there gives you an otherwordly feeling, as though you’ve sailed right off the edge of the planet itself. With the passing of every crystal-blue iceberg, you can’t help but try to imagine what lies under the surface. The next night and day brought us out through the Gerlache Straight and on to Elephant Island. Conditions were clearer and the views were even more spectacular.
One big downside of taking this particular conveyance down to Antarctica is that, mostly due to the size of the ship, we couldn’t get super close to the shore and there are no landings on the continent itself. There are ships that do offer those experiences, but with costs ranging anywhere from $6-20,000 for passage, those ships were way (waaaaaaayyyyyy) out of my reach. Hopefully someday I’ll get a chance to go back and actually put my boots on Antarctic soil, but in any event, I am incredibly grateful that I got this chance to go down there at all.
All too soon, it was time to head back north, and re-crossing the Drake was a bit of a somber experience. There was still one big treat to look forward to, however, with our next stop at Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas, if you’re Argentinian). I won’t delve into the political issues surrounding these largely barren rocks in the middle of nowhere, but suffice to say it’s still a touchy subject in Argentina, and I’ll leave it at that. Besides, there’s no room for politics where a much more important “P” is in play: penguins!!!! For our big splurge shore excursion, Jon and I booked a tour to Volunteer Point, a stretch of coast only reachable by a 2-3 hour overland journey in a convoy of 4WD trucks. It was unbelieveably bumpy (but also incredibly fun) and at the end was the payoff, huge colonies of Gentoo, Magellenic and King penguins, all just hanging out. Obviously it is a look-but-dont-touch kind of deal, but they all seem utterly un-perturbed by the presence of camera-toting tourists and you can get right up close.
Obviously, I love penguins (who doesnt?) and it was fantastic to spend the whole afternoon frolicking amongst them. If you’ve never seen a penguin run, you are missing out big time. They stick their little wings straight out behind them and take off, looking very much like drunk little toddlers. I felt like I could have stayed there for ages, but eventually we had to get back in the Land Rovers for our journey back. About 2/3 of the way there, our truck was crossing a makeshift bridge over a particularly boggy patch and slipped off into a ditch. We had to have the convoy leader come back and hook up the winch to pull us out of the mud. Such rescues are a pretty common occurrence on this adventure and I’m glad we got to experience it first-hand! After cruising through Antarctica, spending the days with the penguins was the highlight of my trip and I’m so glad we decided to spend the money.
Another day at sea passed before we pulled into Puerto Madryn, about halfway back up the coast. J and I got off the boat for a bit and looked into taking a taxi out to a beach where there were (sometimes) a lot of sea lions hanging out, but the taxi guys were running a racket and refused to take us for less than $75, which we decided wasn’t worth it, especially coming on the heels of our magical day at Volunteer Point. We walked around the town for a bit, but soon headed back.
One more day at sea and then we arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay, our last stop before returning to Buenos Aires. There’s a lot of pretty architecture there and it has a feel like what I imagine Havana is like (something I hope to confirm on another trip in the near future!) I knew I would be returning here in a few weeks, so I just spent a few hours wandering about and getting a feel for things.
Our final dinner aboard was both happy and sad, as I’d really come to like and look forward to seeing all our table-mates (and Arturo and Slobodan, of course). Cruising is a strange little alternate reality though, and — after 4,851 nautical miles traveled — it was time to rejoin the world. Malia and I were finally to be reunited in Buenos Aires and we’ve got a lot more ground to cover!
Thanks for sailing with me, I hope you all had a good time!
(Don’t forget to check out — and Like! — my Facebook page for full photo albums from every destination)