A rookery of Gentoo penguins // © 2012 Mark McDermott; Tomas Mauch
Expeditions between Nov. 2 and February 2013 start at $5,277.
The Norwegian cruise line, Hurtigruten, calls their cruises to Antarctica “expeditions,” and with good reason. Each voyage from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the white continent at the southern end of the world is unique. The line runs nine to 10 expeditions based on four different itineraries per season but, due to weather and ice conditions, the choice of landings is continuously changing.
On my Hurtigruten expedition this year, the Lemaire Channel just north of the Antarctic Circle, open the previous season, was choked with sea ice and impassable. However, Paradise Bay, slightly further north and one of the most spectacular places on Earth, had been closed a month earlier because of huge sea swells but was now accessible, its surrounding peaks bathed in sunlight. Penguins leapt like porpoises in and out of the waves near shore. Sheer cliffs covered in snow and penguin rookeries glistened white under a blue sky. Nesting season was in progress and a sea of patient birds sat on eggs, rolled pebbles toward nests or nurtured their hatchlings.
The 374-foot Fram was named for Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s own vessel, and Nansen’s photograph, along with pictures taken during his polar expeditions and archaeological artifacts decorate the public areas. Fram, which has a crew of 74 members, was built for Arctic cruising and is able to carry up to 318 passengers. The vessel’s 127 cabins range from 118 to 420 square feet. There are two elevators, and public rooms include an enclosed viewing area complete with a telescope for checking out spouting whales, a small library, a restaurant, computer terminals and an Internet bistro serving free cookies and coffee with other snacks for purchase. The ship is also equipped with outdoor observation decks, a gym, two large Finnish saunas — his and hers — and two outdoor Jacuzzis.
The ship’s basic cuisine is Norwegian, with an emphasis on meat and fish, and service for all but three of the nine nights onboard was buffet style with open seating. Special nights were dedicated to Argentine and Filipino food and the captain’s dinner on the final night featured filet mignon and baked Alaska. Each evening featured live entertainment and drinks in the bar and the viewing lounge.
The expertise of the team, which includes a geologist and several biologists, is impressive. Lectures are given during the two-day passages across the Drake Straits and, during the landings, the team was positioned at key sites to answer any questions.
A feeling of community quickly developed among the passengers, who ranged in age from 8 to 92 years of age and came from everywhere — China, India, Canada, Europe, Australia and both Americas. The ship’s language is English but the language of the Antarctic is universal: from the quarter of a million Adelie penguins on Paulet Island to the cluster of elephant seals on Livingston to the dancing dolphins off Cape Horn, Hurtigruten’s Antarctic expeditions are a never-to-be-forgotten experience.