Antarctica had been on my wish list for as long as I can remember. The world’s only continent with no permanent human habitation held a curiosity and wonder like no other place I had visited. I considered it the last remaining wilderness, untouched, remote, vast, cold… a real adventure that few people are lucky enough to ever experience.
So to say I was excited to finally travel to Antarctica with ultra-luxury cruise line Silversea is somewhat of an understatement. It was going to be a trip of firsts – my first time visiting Antarctica and my first time travelling with Silversea and my first time on an expedition cruise. A trip of firsts but hopefully not lasts, as every element surpassed my expectations and made for the trip of a lifetime.
What to expect on your first trip to Antarctica
If, like me, you like to be prepared and know exactly what to expect when you visit, I’ll do my best to share as much as possible. However, there are some things it’s impossible to plan for and will all take shape during your trip.
The journey south
There’s no denying that for those of us based in the UK, it’s a pretty long journey before you arrive at the Antarctic Peninsula. Most* Silversea Antarctic expedition cruises depart from Puerto Williams, a tiny town located on the very southern tip of Chile. But first, you’ll fly into Santiago and stay overnight to recover from the flight and freshen up. The following day you take Silversea’s private charter flight down to Puerto Williams. The flight is around four hours, and the plane is spacious with large seats, plenty of legroom, and fantastic food and drinks served throughout the flight.
It’s then time to board the ship, in my case Silver Endeavour, and make the two-day journey across Drake Passage – the infamous body of water heralded as one of the roughest sea passages in the world. This was the one element of my trip I spent the most time researching and thinking about (or should that be worrying about). It’s entirely unpredictable and you never know if you are going to get ‘Drake Lake’ or ‘Drake Shake’.
My journey into Antarctica was blessed with some of the calmest conditions possible. Even the expedition team commented that they have never seen the passage so still. It was crystal clear and plain sailing. Two days onboard also presented the perfect opportunity to explore the ship, get my bearings, and enjoy all the onboard facilities. We weren’t as fortunate on the return crossing of Drake Passage, with strong winds and large waves and swells, but despite all my pre-trip nerves it was actually quite fun! After seeing both sides of Drake Passage one thing’s for sure: whichever may be awaiting your voyage, it’s completely worth it when you discover what is waiting on the other side.
*For anyone limited on time, or wanting to avoid Drake Passage at all costs, it’s worth noting that Silversea also offer packages including the Antarctica Bridge – a two-hour flight taking you into the heart of Antarctica.
An ever-changing itinerary
Once you have arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula, that’s where the fixed itinerary ends, and a flexible attitude is a must. Silversea expedition cruises aim to make two landings (shore visits) per day, and these will be planned by the expedition leader and captain. So many things can influence where the ship ventures each day, such as the weather forecast, sea ice, landing access, and so on. Every evening the expedition leader holds a briefing to explain the plans for the following day. Sometimes there is a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C!
Sometimes plans can even change during the landing. One day we were exploring Neko Island, watching as the penguins made their way up and down the penguin runs to the sea and back, and admiring the view of a glistening glacier from a lookout point perched at the top of a fairly steep climb. Within moments the weather changed: winds went from a breeze to blustering to positively blasting – thank goodness for walking poles to dig in and brace. The landing was quickly abandoned and the zodiac ride back to the ship was akin to a log flume ride – thank goodness for good waterproofs!
Overall though, we were incredibly lucky, and this was the only instance of this kind. All other days we managed to achieve two landings, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The beauty of having no fixed itinerary is that you have no preconceptions, and every new landing is an unexpected new discovery. Our expedition leader Marieke and the whole expedition team were incredible at bringing each destination to life and making our time in the Peninsula so rewarding.
While Antarctica might be low on the number of humans on the continent, it more than makes up for it with wildlife of all kinds calling the continent home. The obvious being of course penguins, but the waters are brimming with marine life, and the skies are graced with some of the largest birds I have ever seen.
The wildlife was truly a highlight for me. I can still remember the excitement I felt when stepping onto the shores of our first landing on Yankee Island and seeing penguins dotted in groups across the beach; it was such a moving moment. As the week went on, penguins became a constant host of each site we visited. It was impossible to tire of their waddling walks and noisy squarks, or watching parents feeding their young, or groups of chicks playing chase across the snow. They are adorable and curious little creatures.
The expedition crew are reluctant to ever guarantee wildlife sightings, but we were blessed with some extraordinary ‘pinch me moments’ throughout the trip. On only the second day we were enjoying a zodiac cruise around the waters of Danco Island and within minutes we spotted the blow of a humpback whale. What followed was a magnificent display of tail flicks (fluking) and foraging for food. While on another zodiac cruise in Wilhelmina Bay, we watched three humpback whales bubble feeding which was absolutely marvellous to witness.
As visitors into nature’s wilderness, it’s important to always remain responsible and respectful when viewing wildlife, which includes keeping your distance. However sometimes it’s the wildlife that breaks the rules!! While in Pleneau Bay we were watching a leopard seal laze and snooze on an iceberg, when a second cheeky chappy swam straight up to the zodiac and proceeded to dance alongside us, putting on a spectacular show which we managed to catch on a Go Pro making for an Attenborough-style video.
There’s a reason Antarctica is known as ‘The White Continent’. There is of course a lot of snow and ice. But I was really surprised, and still astounded, by the diverse landscapes and colours we encountered throughout the expedition cruise, from the red and green algae-covered surfaces of Peterman Island to the volcanic beaches and craters of Deception Island.
Icebergs dominate the waters and come in all shapes, sizes and colours. The formations are truly unique and mesmerising. It appears on some that an LED light is shining from inside radiating vibrant colours of blue. Pleneau Bay has come to be known as the ‘Iceberg Graveyard’ due to the sheer volume of icebergs scattered across the horizon, which multiply as they break and carve in front of your eyes.
I think my most cherished memory from the trip came during a visit to Paradise Island (never has a place been so aptly named), when I ended up as a last-minute addition to the kayaking excursion. I had been nervous about sea kayaking, but given the perfect, calm conditions, I jumped at the chance. And I am so glad I did! We spent the morning drifting our way through the sea ice with sky high glaciers and mountains all around. There was a real sense of solitude and realisation of how small we were in this grand landscape. Just to add an extra special touch, a humpback whale joined us in the distance. It was truly a magical moment.
A visit to Whalers Bay on Deception Island offered a completely different landscape again. As the site of both an old whaling station and ex-British Antarctic Survey, derelict rundown buildings still remain, but are now inhabited by fur seals and penguins. There is an almost eerie, ghostly atmosphere as weather-beaten shacks fade into the black volcanic beach.
Visiting Antarctica is a privilege, not a right. And, quite rightly, there is a huge effort to preserve it as a natural reserve dedicated to peace and science. Tourism to the region is heavily regulated and the International Association of Antarctic Operators (IAATO) serves to promote safe and environmentally responsible tourism to Antarctica.
On day one of my Silversea expedition cruise, there was a mandatory briefing which all passengers were required to attend. It outlined the regulations which both the cruise line and passengers must adhere to while visiting the region. There are the obvious rules such as staying at least five metres away from wildlife, ensuring no litter is dropped on land, and taking nothing away from the natural landscapes. But it goes even further: only 100 passengers are allowed on land at any one time, all clothing is inspected for possible contamination before it is allowed off the ship, and before and after each landing boots are disinfected and scrubbed to avoid any cross-contamination between sites.
It is taken very seriously which made me really appreciate how precious the region is and how important it is to visit responsibly and carefully, and leave minimal impact.
What to expect on your first Silversea cruise
With a reputation as one of the most luxurious cruise lines at sea, Silversea sets the standard for high-end cruising.
I’m a fairly relaxed traveller, and I am just as happy in a beach hut as I am in a five-star hotel. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from ‘ultra-luxury cruising’. Would it be too fussy and formal? Did I need to behave prim and proper? Absolutely not!
The service was excellently balanced; everything you could possibly need or want was on hand, but it was never over the top or overbearing. Every suite has a dedicated personal butler, and from the moment Gayan handed me a glass of Champagne as he showed me around my suite, I knew we’d get along famously. He was my knight in shining armour when I dropped my phone in the snow and it stopped working, bringing me a bag of rice to dry it out overnight!
Across the ship, staff were so friendly and personable, and we were on first name terms within a couple of days. They quickly picked up on your preferences, and it wasn’t long before they didn’t need to ask if I wanted still or sparkling water, and my decaf coffee was served at breakfast before I even needed to ask. There was a lovely light-hearted nature to the service, with conversation and jokes between staff and guests. I was even serenaded during lunch at The Grill each day as Jolie sang along to the guitarist as he went about his business.
Ultra all inclusive
There’s all inclusive, and then there is Silversea all inclusive! Think flights, pre- and post-cruise hotels, transfers, food and beverages, butler service, shore excursions. It’s all included and to an exceptionally high standard.
The quality of dining is quite simply sensational. Onboard Silver Endeavour there were four restaurants, plus all-day in-suite dining. The Grill is located at the rear of the ship and with glass windows and ceilings boasts incredible views. This was perhaps my favourite dining venue onboard for a relaxed breakfast and serve-yourself lunch. In the evening, the à la carte menu showcased meat and fish options cooked to perfection. Il Terrazzino brought mouth-watering Italian flavours to the Antarctic, and possibly the best scampi tail I have ever tasted. Meanwhile, The Restaurant is reservation-free and open seating leading to a lovely atmosphere with amazing three course fine dining menus.
During downtime in between shore excursions, I loved nothing better than to sit in Arts Café where coffees, snacks, ice creams and sweet treats were all readily available. Or it was great to enjoy an early evening drink in the Observation Lounge as the sun was setting. There’s plenty of options to unwind, and it’s all included. Drinks, including Champagne, are served throughout the ship which is an extra special touch.
I joined Silver Endeavour on her final Antarctic voyage of her maiden season, having been christened less than six months ago. She’s a beautiful ship with elegant interiors, and comfortable, welcoming restaurants and social areas.
Along with four restaurants and Arts Café, there’s also a library, Observation Lounge, Explorer Lounge (where all briefings and enrichment talks take place), fitness centre, spa and beauty salon.
I found life onboard really relaxed and sociable. As I was on an expedition cruise, there was a familiar routine most days – a morning shore excursion, downtime and enrichment talks, an afternoon shore excursion, downtime, daily briefing with the expedition team, and finally dinner and drinks. As much as my Veranda Suite was absolutely perfectly homely, I spent most of my time out and about around the ship. No matter where I was onboard, the staff were welcoming with a smile and impeccable service, and whether you wanted a quiet spot to sit and read, or a chit chat with fellow guests about the day’s activities, you could take your pick.
What to wear
When packing for my Silversea expedition cruise I was torn between casual ‘expedition appropriate’ clothing and smart ‘cruise appropriate’ clothing. I ended up packing a bit of everything. Turns out both are appropriate! During the day it wasn’t formal at all, and casual clothing is definitely required as you are changing before and after every shore excursion, so comfort is key. In the evening I’d best describe it as smart casual. There’s no need for ladies to wear formal dresses or gentlemen to wear dinner jackets – unless you want to of course! The atmosphere is relaxed, and I never felt underdressed, or that there was a dress code to follow; everyone just dressed for comfort.
It’s worth noting that I was on an expedition cruise which by its nature is more active and less formal. Other Silversea cruises may have a formal evening or two which have a dress code in place.
What to expect on your first expedition cruise
An expedition cruise is quite different to an ocean cruise in a number of ways. Smaller ships can venture to more remote places, and it is all about exploring and discovering new destinations.
A classroom at sea
Did you know a penguin can’t pee, but they poop every 20 minutes? I learnt that fact along with so many others during the daily enrichment talks presented by the expedition team onboard – a team made up of experts in a number of fields from ecology, biology, oceanography, ornithology, history and even storytelling. There’s no better way to get to know the unique destinations you visit on an expedition cruise than listening to experts sharing their specialism. The team are so eager to share their passion and expertise with you, and guests are really encouraged to get involved and soak up all the information they give you.
You can even get involved yourself and become a citizen scientist. We were briefed on different ways we could help collect data from our trip and submit our contributions to research organisations. For instance, pictures of whales, and in particular their tails, can be uploaded to Happy Whale, which then identifies the whale and tracks their movements all based on non-invasive citizen support. The feeling of being a part of such a special destination really enhances the whole experience.
Active and on the go
In case you hadn’t already guessed, an expedition cruise is not a relaxing holiday to re-charge your batteries! Our expedition leader Marieke joked on day one that we would need another holiday to recover at the end. It is an active holiday with busy days full of exciting activities which you’ll want to join in order to get the most out of the destination.
A typical day would see the first zodiac group depart around 8am and return a few hours later. There is then downtime to change out of waterproofs, attend an enrichment talk, have lunch and so on, before the afternoon zodiac departs early afternoon. Again on return there is a bit of downtime to change and get ready for the daily briefing which usually takes place around 6.45pm. The evening is then free for dinner, drinks and some entertainment, but to be honest I was always ready to retire at a decent time, ready for another early morning and day of exploration.
Of course, you don’t need to join every single shore excursion, and you may prefer to relax, read a book, or visit the spa which is all possible. There are also days at sea during an expedition cruise which you can use for time out to restore your energy levels.
They say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing! So prepare beforehand, and ensure you have the essentials. You don’t need a huge amount of clothing. Layers are the best option: a good base layer, insulation layer, and then outerwear. Plus, all the accessories – good gloves, hat, face scarf, thermal socks, and sunglasses.
When travelling with Silversea you receive a complimentary parka and backpack, and you can rent your boots so they are ready and waiting for you when you board the ship. The parka is fantastic – a two in one, and I confess I wear it quite often back in the UK!
If you want to capture some amazing photos along the way, I would recommend getting a decent camera, and certainly not relying on your phone. A camera with a good zoom will be worth its weight in gold so you can get up close pictures of adorable penguins and otherworldly icebergs. If you prefer to soak up the moment with your own eyes, you’ll find a pair of binoculars in your cabin to get a good view of wildlife and landscapes.
Fellow travellers become friends
When you are experiencing such incredible moments on a daily basis, it’s impossible not to tell tales and share stories with your fellow guests. You’ll get to know your zodiac group pretty well and start to recognise faces within the first few days. And in no time at all you’ll be taking photos of each other, AirDropping pictures between phones, and becoming social media buddies!
This sociable atmosphere makes an expedition cruise a great choice for solo travellers. I travelled alone and was never short of company or dinner companions. I was surprised at how many other solo travellers there were onboard, and many by choice as their family at home simply didn’t fancy venturing Antarctica.
Sharing such a momentous trip with like-minded, adventurous, travellers really enhances the whole trip. Though you may be from different countries and continents, and may never cross paths ever again, for that moment in time you share a unique experience which will always be remembered.
To sum up my trip to Antarctica
There’s always a danger that when you hold something in such high regard it’s impossible to live up to your expectations. I had certainly placed Antarctica on a pretty high pedestal, and it truly did not disappoint. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it takes top spot for the most enjoyable trips I have ever taken.
It might sound cheesy to say, but it’s not a holiday, it’s an experience. A truly enriching experience where every day brings a new, unexpected round of ‘wow moments’. I feel privileged to be able to say I have ventured into the world’s last remaining wilderness, and take away some unbelievable memories. One lasting impression I have of Antarctica is the fact that it’s the only place in the world where Mother Nature still has the upper hand; humans may visit, but nature and wilderness rule, and that makes it really special.
If you have any questions about travelling to Antarctica or taking an expedition cruise, I’d be happy to help: email [email protected].
To start planning your expedition cruise to Antarctica, or any other cruise voyage with Silversea, call Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 412 5678.