Going to Chile during a pandemic meant jumping through more hoops than a circus dog. Credit to Hurtigruten though, when they got us from the Chilean authorities, our progress to the ship was smooth and safe whilst navigating the final regulations. As we sipped our welcome champagne on board Roald Amundsen, even the thought of being stuck on the runway for an hour (because 100mph winds made it too dangerous to leave the plane) began to fade. Quickly our thoughts turned to a shower in our beautifully appointed stateroom, a good night’s sleep in our super comfortable king-sized bed and adventures to come.
Our first full day presented many enjoyable options. Lectures to attend, a well-equipped gym, pampering in the spa and more. For us the main attraction was enjoying time on deck, on our balcony, or in the Explorer Lounge (loads of windows and a bar) whilst cruising the Chilean fjords and specifically the Beagle channel. So named after Darwin’s exploration ship Beagle, it is one of three channels that run between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Beautiful, if not somewhat rugged islands, are perhaps at their best in the “Avenue of the Glaciers”. A series of tide glaciers flow down from the Darwin field into the sea providing spectacular sheets of snow/ice and waterfalls of melted water.
The Aune (main) and Fredheim restaurants provided high quality dining in a relaxed atmosphere to chase away any hunger pangs (generated by a few laps of the running/walking track) whilst being able to watch fabulous skies from nature’s pallet over the fjords.
Cape Horn was next up and weather conditions around one of the greatest ship graveyards prevented us making the scheduled landing. Our captain was no Bligh and forestalled any mutinous thoughts by giving us a circumnavigation of the island before heading across the infamous Drake Passage. Famed for its unpredictable seas, our crossing to the Antarctic was probably in the middle of the two extremes. Plenty of “rock and roll” but, fortunately, not too much.
What a privilege it was to be in Antarctica at the same time Shackleton’s Endurance was being discovered on the seabed, just a few miles away.
Our initial focus was to explore the South Shetland Islands. The Expedition Team ran a carefully orchestrated operation with guest safety and minimising the environmental impact at its centre. A waterproof jacket was supplied for each guest (to keep) together with loaned rubber boots and life jacket. Safety briefings were completed and soon enough we were blasting off the ship in a zodiac to Half Moon Island. The island is home to a large chinstrap penguin rookery who waddle around, or flop to the ground for a rest, seemingly oblivious to the human invasion. In the afternoon we moved on to Yankee Harbour on Greenwich Island, where gentoo penguins are out in force. A variety of birds and seals make up the remaining wildlife. The fur seals look genteel and cuddly when they’re having a snooze, but when the adolescents bare their teeth in mock fighting, you realise why you were warned to keep your distance from them.
Whilst the snow on the black volcanic rock provided magnificent vistas, it did seem that we’d been dropped into the middle of a monochrome movie. Then we looked closer (putting the camera aside) and saw that the outstretched wings of the black and white penguins were pink underneath as they vent excess heat. The lichen shines brilliant green, trying to get a foothold in the black volcanic rock. The dazzling white icebergs contained slashes of dazzling blue where the air has been crushed from the ice. Colour was all around us!
Having said that safety was at the heart of what Hurtigruten do, you’ll think we’d been having a little too much of the (very palatable) wine onboard and just imagined we’d sailed into the caldera of an active volcano at Deception Island! You’ll also question my sanity when I tell you, with a wind chill factor of minus 7C, some of the channels of water were steaming and hot to the touch. The “polar plunge” was cancelled that day, but it would have been an interesting tale of how you’d thrown yourself in Antarctic waters only to burn your bottie!
Crossing the Antarctic Circle into a spectacular ice field, was magnificent. Some resembling a white table top, some as big as apartment blocks, hiding somewhere between 60-90% of their mass below the water line. More exciting still was to be in amongst them, as we left the ship on our Zodiac. Crunching over the smaller chunks of ice, like white rubble, the larger and flatter pieces were ideal for seals to have a floating snooze on. Up close the crevices of the more massive pieces were such a vivid blue it appeared they were lit from within. Could things get any better? They did! On the way back to the ship we pulled up alongside another zodiac serving piping hot chocolate with a generous shot of rum. Nice touch Hurtigruten!
For animal lovers let me point out that the red on the seals is not blood.
Although a bit battle-scarred, they’re quite healthy and the red is the krill they eat which colours their poo (they have a tendency to roll in it).
Further adventures on various islands and the mainland made each day a memorable one.
Be it watching baby penguins comically chasing their mothers for the next feed, or seeing whales majestically flick their mighty tails before the next dive. Whether it be tackling a 100 metre zigzag climb up a very steep snow laden hillside, or laughing at a seal giving itself a good scratch on a floating iceberg, there was something for everyone.
Hats off to Hurtigruten for running this cruise at all in these challenging COVID-19 times. The extra PCR tests and other aspects they had to introduce must have cost them considerably and their guests were not asked to contribute a penny. Exemplary service, all delivered with a smile by a highly professional team. An extraordinary adventure and memories for a lifetime.
I would like to thank Hurtigruten for the small amount of onboard credit they provided for this cruise.
For further information on Antarctic cruises call 0800 412 5678 to talk to our Silver Travel Advisors. The time to travel is December to March, summer in the Southern Hemisphere.