There is no cruise in the world more spectacular than a voyage
to Antarctica. Water, sky and ice meet in a pristine wilderness,
like nothing else on earth. It is a destination that must be
experienced, on a personal level with all of the senses, to fully
appreciate what your eyes are seeing.
“Why would you want to go to Antarctica?” was a question I heard
more than once from well-meaning friends who failed to share my
excitement for the destination. “Isn’t it all just penguins and
Well yes it is, and so much more. Like the vast majority of my
fellow travelers aboard the good ship Marco Polo, I was
“collecting” my seventh and final continent on earth. I also wanted
to experience a place that has not yet been heavily touched by the
hand of man. On another level, this was a chance to reconnect with
my parents, who are both in their 80s, and enjoy a trip with them
as I had been doing since childhood.
On our cruise, older, experienced travelers made up the majority
of the passenger list. Before the trip I was concerned about my
parents’ ability to climb in and out of the zodiacs that would take
them to shore at remote landing sites. Could they negotiate the
mud, rocks and rough terrain? Would it be too cold for them? My
worries were quickly put to rest by the incredible expedition team
of the Marco Polo. At a mandatory briefing in the ship’s lounge,
the team leader carefully explained landing and safety procedures.
All passengers are given a bright red parka which is theirs to
keep. The experienced crew made sure that every passenger,
regardless of their mobility level, was able to enjoy an adventure
in Antarctica by zodiac if they desired. The 22,080-ton,
826-passenger Marco Polo is the largest cruise ship that actually
lands passengers in Antarctica. Orient Lines’ years of experience
shows in their ability to showcase the destination to a relatively
large number of people, while remaining sensitive to the ecological
balance necessary to keep it pristine.
Just getting to the ship is an expedition in itself. After a
17-hour flight from Los Angeles, I was ready to relax from my
journey with a pre-cruise hotel package in Buenos Aires. From
there, it is another three-hour hop to Ushuaia, Argentina.
The Marco Polo’s voyage begins with a placid cruise through the
incredible Beagle Channel. This serene passage soon gives way to
the notorious seas of the Drake Passage, 600 miles of some of the
roughest water in the world. The reward is well worth the effort.
The first entry in my daily log read “Opened the curtains early in
the morning to see a whale spouting.” We spent the morning cruising
in the collapsed caldera of a volcanic island. In the distance
giant icebergs and the white Antarctic continent loomed.
Later that day we had our first opportunity to cruise in the
zodiacs as the ship anchored in the ice-filled bay of Cuverville
Island. The experience did not disappoint, and included up-close
looks at penguins, floating icebergs and a crabeater seal lounging
on the ice. Scenic wonders continued the next day as the Marco Polo
successfully navigated the glacier and mountain-rimmed passage of
the Lemaire Channel.
Later, Port Lockroy would provide an opportunity to set foot
ashore and mingle amongst the huge rookery of gentoo penguins with
their newly hatched chicks. Paradise Harbor is home to a variety of
wildlife including elephant seals, whales and thousands of
penguins. It also provides the one opportunity to stand on the
actual Antarctic continent, against the backdrop of a wall of
The final stop is Half Moon Island where visitors land on a
black-sand beach and hike up a small hill to view a colony of
chinstrap penguins. With everyone safely back aboard, the ship
plots a northerly course, once again crossing the Drake Passage
before returning to Ushuaia. There, guests have one more treat in
store for them; an included tour of Tierra del Fuego National Park,
all the way to the southern terminus of the Pan American Highway
which stretches from Fairbanks, Alaska, to the wilderness of
After a trip like this you feel different about travel.
Antarctica does that to you. It is the journey of a lifetime and
can never be categorized as just another vacation. The place
changes you, while instilling in you a hope that your visit did
nothing to change it.
The erstwhile Marco Polo was built in 1965 as the trans-Atlantic
liner Alexandr Pushkin. Contrary to persistent rumors, the vessel
was never a Soviet spy-ship, nor is it an ice-breaker, although it
does have an ice-strengthened hull.
The ship’s 2006/2007 Antarctic season kicks off with a 25-day
cruise boarding in Rio de Janeiro on Dec. 10.