10th December 2019 and finally we were off on our long awaited holiday to Antarctica; postponed once because the ship, the Roald Amundsen, wasn’t ready, then a further 12 months because of health issues. We were going to be sailing with Hurtigruten on the MS Midnatsol from Ushuaia on 14th December on the “Christmas with the Penguins” expedition: “It’s not a cruise,” we were told, “It’s an expedition.” We were finally heading south on an overnight BA flight from Heathrow to Buenos Aires. We arrived at the Emperador Hotel just before midday on the 11th, after a good flight – premium economy just makes all the difference – for a three day stay prior to the cruise. The Emperador Hotel was beautiful and ideally located to visit the city. The pool in the second basement was very peaceful; the garden at the back delightful, and the breakfasts each day more than satisfactory, while our room was spacious and well appointed.
We loved Buenos Aires. It was hot (36degrees), busy, vibrant yet beautiful. We spent one day on the hop-on-hop-off bus and managed to do the whole of the three routes. This took in all the main sights and allowed us a walk round the Bocco district, a very good way to see the city and great value for money, especially as it comes with an informative headphone commentary. We spent one morning at the Recoletta cemetery and by dint of watching where the tour guides went, managed to find Eva Peron’s burial place. This gothic cemetery for the great and good of Buenos Aires was a fascinating place to visit. We spent an afternoon in the ECO Park that runs along the banks of the River Plate – it’s 250 miles across so you can’t see the other bank! We ate away from the hotel each night. For the first two nights I had booked before we left, based on Trip Advisor reviews of restaurants near our hotel. The first was a local Argentinian style steak restaurant, Las Nazarenas, and boy was the steak glorious. The second at The Secret Garden in the Four Seasons Hotel for some fine dining which was superb (we would have returned but it was booked out) and the third was at an unresearched local chain restaurant but the food was of a similar high quality as our previous two evenings.
We had a very early start on 14th December (5am in the hotel lobby). We were on the first flight to Ushuaia (where the ship sailed from) as we had a pre-embarkation tour booked to visit the Tierra Del Fuego National Park. The coach took us round the park stopping to allow us to visit various view points and use the southern most post box on the South American continent. We arrived at the ship about 4pm and were able to go straight to our cabin where our bags had already been deposited. The ship left about 6pm: our Antarctic adventure has begun.
The crossing of the Drake Passage was unusual, the sea was glassy smooth and we completed the crossing in a day and a half. We had been kept busy with briefings about Antarctica and what to expect, collecting muck boots and our windproof jackets and decontaminating our personal outdoor clothing. We decided to bid for places on excursions to go snowshoe walking and to go kayaking. We decided not to bid for the sleep out on the ice (quite pricey). Passengers were divided into smaller groups which would be used to timetable landings – where we would visit a different landfall each day, and cruising – where in groups of 12 we would use a zodiac to sail alongside the coast and between the ice floes. Each day we would have to opportunity to attend lectures covering all aspects of the Antarctic, its wildlife, geological formation, scientific activity and history. There were also mini briefings to answer questions the passengers had asked that the expedition crew thought maybe of interest to all, plus a daily briefing in preparation for the following day’s activities.
The speedy crossing of the Drake Passage gave us the chance for an extra landing at Arctowski Station, a Polish research establishment on George III Island, South Shetland. As we got off the zodiac, in very light snow, we were bizarrely met by three penguins standing in a line: a Gentoo, a Chipstrap and an Adele, while elephant seals were lying on the beach. There was a post box at the station so we sent a card from Antarctica to our grandsons.
The routine was now set for the next 10 days. Each day we would arrive at a new location, have the opportunity to do a cruise (about an hour each time), and visit the landing site (about 1.5hours each time). Then there would be a lecture, the briefing for the next day and two mini briefings.
On the 17th we landed at Yankee Harbour. We saw Gentoo penguins, Elephant seals and Humpback whales. We were told we had been selected for kayak Group C but it is weather dependant so we had to just wait and see if we got lucky. Of all the bidders only a few had been given places and groups A and B went out.
On the 18th we were at Brown Bluff. Here there were icebergs and penguins. We saw A68, which is the current largest iceberg afloat -it had calved-off from the Larson Icefield and is 1300m long and the overall area of Delaware in the USA. The kayaking was cancelled(too windy).
On the 19th we landed at Esperanza Base (Argentinian ), in Hope Bay. We were given a guided tour by the base Deputy. We saw Gentoo penguins and several had chicks of only a few days old. And there were Adele penguins and pale faced Sheathbills (aka Shitchickens!).
On the 20th we were at Deception Island, an active volcanic caldera. We had two landings – at Pendulum Bay and Whaler’s Bay. We could see the old science and whalers stations, the rusty tanks the whale oil was stored in, melt water flowed from the glacier into the sea and whale bones littered the beaches. There were krill and salp washed up on the beach, cooked by the warm spots in the water where volcanic activity is just below the surface. These are staple foods for the whales, penguins and seals that live in the seas here. We saw Chinstrap and Adele penguins. Those brave souls who wanted to could swim but had to wear special shoes in case they stood on a hot spot which would burn their feet. We declined the offer as at 4 degrees celcius the water was too cold for us!
On the 21st we were at Neko Harbour, Andvord Bay Station. In the morning (8:30am) we went out kayaking – it was just magical. You could hear the icebergs popping (releasing trapped air as they melt ) and we saw ice falling off the side of the glacier and felt the rippling water this created. Many of the Icebergs had an attractive blue hue. We then managed a landing at 11:10 and a cruising at 17:00. On the landing we saw Wedel seals and Gentoo penguins and a penguin egg that had probably been plundered by a Skua. The cruising went by Brown Base and we saw Blue eyed Cormorants nesting on the cliff faces, with moss, lichen and malachite deposits.
On the 22nd we were at Chiriguano Bay and did landings on Danco Island. The walk at Danco Island was quite steep but the expedition team made a snow-slide so coming down was very easy (and fun). The Gentoo penguins could be seen to be sitting on eggs, no chicks yet here. We were forecast a windy night but we didn’t suffer though the boat was a bit rocky.
On the 23rd December we were at Ronge Island and Orne Island. We were up early with a shout of whales and were treated to a great display by Humpback whales all around the ship at Wilhelmina Bay. On the landing we saw Gentoo Penguins with Wedel and Crabeater seals. While cruising we saw Crabeater seals on ice bergs along with Kelp gulls, Skuas and Shags as well as green and pink algae.
24th December and Christmas eve. We did our snowshoe hike today up the hill overlooking Port Lockroy and along the glacier edge. It is certainly easier to walk in snow shoes on deep snow and we enjoyed the experience. There was a “Carol” Service before a huge Norwegian Christmas Buffet and then Father Christmas arrived at 9:30.
6am on the 25th December found us at the Lemaire Chanel, one of the beauty spots of the Antarctic, and our furthest point south of the voyage. We couldn’t proceed through the channel due to thick ice but it was quite awesome to see. Two Minke whales joined us briefly while we were there, along with three Orcas who just swam gently past the ship, their fins high in the air. We had our final opportunity to land today seeing more penguins.
On the 26th December we were at Fournier Bay and our last opportunity to cruise through icebergs and with Humpback whales, tho’ the whales didn’t come too close to us.
On the 27th we began our journey back to Ushia. As the day progressed the weather worsened and overnight it reached storm force 12 with 10m high waves. We handed back our muck boots (you keep the wind proof jackets, which with a couple of thermal layers underneath had kept us suitably warm throughout the voyage).
On the 28th we rounded Cape Horn in calmer weather at 10:30 in the morning and continued back to Ushia through the Beagle Channel. We arrived at Ushuaia very early on the morning of 29th December.
On the 29th we were again on an early coach (7:30am) as we had booked a trip for a Scenic drive and hike to the ‘End of the World’. Once again it was quite beautiful and we were able to get up close as we walked through the forests. We saw a (disused) beaver dam. A flight back to Buenos Aires saw us returning to the Emperador Hotel for our final night of the holiday. We had booked a Tango Experience and Dinner for our last night and it was an excellent night out.
Our flight out the next day(30th) was at 14:20 so we had time for a leisurely, good quality, breakfast before leaving for the airport. Our taxi was waiting for us at Heathrow the next morning and we were home on the31st by 9:30pm. Needless to say we did not stay up for New Year!
If you are considering this holiday, or one like it, all I can say is go ! It fulfilled all our expectations. Hurtigruten are experts in their field. It is no ordinary cruise. You will work reasonably hard if you take advantage of all the landings and extras, but it’s definitely worth the effort.