Incredible Antarctica with Atlas Ocean Voyages
I returned last month from my 2nd trip to Antarctica, this time with the new small expedition cruise line Atlas Ocean Voyages. It’s not hyperbole to say this was one of the most extraordinary trips of my life, truly mind-blowing in so many ways. Antarctica is a destination that I could talk about until my face is blue and never be able to convey what it is really like. You have to see it yourself.
My first visit 10 years ago was with Celebrity Cruises. It was an amazing trip cruising the Antarctic Peninsula, but one where we couldn’t step off the ship and touch the continent. Ships carrying more than 500 passengers are not allowed to land at all, and small ships are only allowed to land 100 people at a time. Our ship the Atlas World Navigator carries 200 passengers, but limits that number to around 180 in Antarctica.
Back in November I was invited to the naming ceremony for Atlas World Navigator & World Traveller and I wrote about how beautiful the ships are. That was a 3 night cruise, and this time we were onboard for 11-nights and experienced the full spectrum of what Atlas has to offer. I was traveling with more than 30 of my own guests, and also shooting a promotional film for Atlas, which is currently in my editing bay. I knew that my guests would be thrilled with the accommodations, because the ships are gorgeous and the rooms are spacious and dripping with style and luxury.
This was a 2 week trip including travel days and a stop in Buenos Aires. When long trips arise either my wife or I have to stay home with the kids, so this time I took my brother along and Jen held things down at home. He’s a great traveling companion and we laugh a lot.
One thing about Antarctica is that it’s a completely alien landscape, it doesn’t look like any other place on earth. I heard someone onboard describe it as “somewhere between two worlds” and I thought that was apt. Somewhere between earth and outer space.
Each morning I awoke in Antarctica I’d throw open my curtains and almost fall on the floor at the sight outside my window. At the Southern tip of South America, the Andes Mountain range breaks apart and dips below the surface of the ocean, crosses the Drake Passage and rises again to form the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s rocky peaks rise straight up from the ocean thousands of feet, blanketed in compact glaciers 200ft thick like merengue on a lemon pie. Around you float icebergs that might be 100ft tall and 1000ft wide, 13 million tons of ancient frozen water bobbing like a cork. It’s also devoid of vegetation or any signs of humanity aside from the occasional long-abandoned research station. Regardless of these conditions, implausibly, the waters and shores are teeming with astonishing wildlife.
At the start of our cruise, Jonathan our expedition leader gave us the three most important keys to a great Antarctica expedition – flexibility, flexibility and flexibility. The team plans for two landings daily, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. These are chosen based on a number of factors like weather, wave conditions and wildlife. There were times where we pulled into an area for a landing, and then left for another spot, because Jonathan & the Captain either decided that conditions weren’t right, or at least once, because another location opened up that was better. This is another thing that Atlas is very good at and what sets them apart. Many of the larger ships book their landing sites and if conditions aren’t favorable when they arrive, they just cancel the landing. We were able to move quickly to other locations without missing any landings, until our final landing was canceled by wave conditions, and we were pressed for time to head back across the Drake to beat an incoming storm.
The landings are what we’ve all come for, and the Expedition Team works very hard to deliver the goods. On the menu are: Penguin colonies, sea lions, birds, massive Walmart sized icebergs, old abandoned research stations, the volcanic Deception Island, incredibly close encounters with whales and leopard seals. I was in a zodiac while a curious Minke whale playfully swam beside and underneath us, eventually popping it’s head fully out of the water to get a good look at us. Another time we spent an hour on a zodiac with a leopard seal as it devoured two penguins beside a small iceberg.
On land, we walked in small groups with our team leader to see the sights and learn about the wildlife and the islands we were visiting. Everything down there is named after someone’s wife or girlfriend – Jenny Island, Mary Byrd Land, even the Adelie penguins. It’s very romantic in my opinion.
Onboard, you dress for the landings in the mudroom, where your own private locker stores your parka, life vest, boots and anything else you wish to keep there. Atlas provides an exceptional parka with a zipout puffy vest liner, and rubber boots. The rest of the gear you bring with you – gloves, hat, neck warmer, layers, etc
The Expedition Team
The Expedition Team is another big piece of the puzzle that makes a trip with Atlas to Antarctica so special. They are a dizzyingly diverse group of professionals from all over the world – Canada, Scotland, Russia, Argentina, France, the US among others – with a wide array of expertise. There is a whale specialist, an ornithologist, a climate expert, general Antarctica experts. They are led by Jonathan Zaccaria, a fascinating Frenchman who has spent decades working and living in Antarctica including several “over-winters” at different stations.
They lead the zodiac landings and are fountains of knowledge about not only the wildlife but the history of Antarctica, and their enthusiasm is contagious. Onboard, they deliver lectures and presentations daily in the theater about subjects ranging from penguins to whales to birds to other fabled expeditions like Shackelton’s famous voyage.
It’s impossible to understate the caliber of these people and what they add to this experience. One of the team, a painfully handsome polar camping specialist named Chad Burtt from South Africa – who also starred in one of the only movies made about Shackelton’s ill-fated expedition – was a part of the mission that discovered the wreck of Shackelton’s Endurance at the bottom of the Weddell Sea last year. His presentation was the best I have ever sat through, and the entire ship was there in the theater, front rows noticeably filled with women, and all of us riveted by his incredible tale of the discovery. The Endurance was found a mere 3 days before the sea ice forced an end to the 7-week expedition!
Check out details for our 2024 Sailing, starting at $7299 per person!
The Food & Service Onboard Atlas World Navigator
Atlas Ocean Voyages is a 5-Star luxury expedition cruise line. One piece of that is the accommodations and public areas, which as I mentioned earlier are gorgeous, stylish, cozy, warm like a Swiss lodge and clad with custom birchwood veneers. Another piece of that, and much harder to accomplish, is a very high level of service. The closest experience I could compare Atlas to is Uniworld River Cruises. Those of you who have sailed with Uniworld will know what I am talking about. When you board Atlas Ocean Voyages, you are taken to the Atlas Lounge and greeted with a glass of champagne and canapes as you complete your checkin, and then personally escorted to your stateroom. By the end of day one, most of the staff already knows your name. At dinner the first night as I walked into the dining room, a person I’ve never seen in my life said “Welcome Mr. Carr, may I help you find a table?”
From the officers to the room stewards, it is clear that Atlas instills in their crew a love of working with people and a commitment to excellence. It is the kind of intuitive service where they almost predict your needs and fulfill them before you can ask. The bartenders know your favorite drink, the servers in the dining room know how you like your omelet in the morning, how you like your coffee. They are happy and ebullient and eager to make your experience the best it can be. I asked Nuno the hotel director how they do it, and he told me that they simply take good care of them. They treat their crew with respect and work as a team to accomplish a level of service that they are all a part of and can feel proud of.
Meals onboard are served buffet style at breakfast and lunch, though there is also an a la carte menu available for both (do not miss out on the bacon-cheeseburger at lunch). Dinners are an event – fine dining with a new menu every night with 5 to 7 courses and a theme like Greek, Asian, Indian, French, Italian. Then also a standard menu of always available comfort foods – a plate of spaghetti, steak cooked to perfection, French fries…
A fantastic selection of wines from around the world, generously poured (all included by the way), helps to lubricate lively conversations that can stretch past 10pm as people share their experiences of the day’s landings and laugh and celebrate. At some point, people trickle up to the Dome Lounge at the top of the ship for a nightcap and singalongs with “Piano Paul”, and by the way, we saw you coming so here is your drink already waiting for you.
Room service is also available 24/7 – helpful on a rough Drake Crossing!
During the voyage all landings are included, but there are 4 options available that should be booked in advance. There are very limited spaces for each, and they tend to sell out before the cruise so if you wait to book them until you’re onboard you’ll likely go on a large waitlist. The options are – Sea Kayaking, Paddling, Standup Paddleboarding, and Camping. You have to pass a physical test onboard when you sign up for any these (except the camping), it’s basically sitting on the floor and lifting yourself up onto a small wooden box using one arm. If you fail the test but have prepaid for your excursion, you will receive a refund.
Sea Kayaking – $350 per person
Every excursion is weather permitting, and the expedition leaders will try and make it happen as often as possible. Your fee gets you access to the kayaks each time they are available, and we got 3 opportunities to go out on them. We were out around 2.5 hours each time, up close and personal with whatever wildlife is in the area – sea lions, scores of penguins, elephant seals, even whales. The ship provides a dry suit and you wear warm base layers beneath it.
Paddling – $75 per person
I’m not sure what accounts for the cost difference here, because paddling is basically kayaking in an inflatable canoe with a wider base that is a bit more stable. That seems preferable to me honestly, but maybe the expedition team gives kayakers more opportunities to go out. Paddlers went out twice, and had virtually the same experience as the kayakers as far as I can tell. Again the ship provides a dry suit.
Standup Paddleboarding – $75 per person
There was only one opportunity for the paddleboarders, as you need very calm waters to standup on a paddleboard with any stability. Our opportunity came inside the flooded caldera of Deception Island, shielded as it is from the open ocean. It’s an active volcano that last erupted in 1969 forcing a team of researchers to flee in a daring rescue by helicopter. The shores of Deception Island steam with volcanic activity and it’s a very cool and surreal spot to go paddleboarding. Dry suits are used in this excursion as well.
Camping – $500 per person
In our debriefing for camping at the beginning of the cruise, Jonathan read aloud from a passenger comment card, “camping was cold and uncomfortable.” I saw pictures from World Traveller and they used tents, but on World Navigator you are camping on the snow, in a hole that you dug yourself, in an arctic sleeping bag rated to negative-30° and a bivy sack to keep you dry. Leaving after dinner, we arrived to our camping spot on Jenny Island on a slope above the shoreline, and after setting up camp we wandered the island for a couple of hours chatting with our fellow campers and visiting the penguins and fur seals on the shore. At midnight we climbed into our bags and “slept” until morning. I equate it to sleeping on an airplane, where you wake up often to change positions and try to get more comfortable. If you’re expecting a relaxing night of slumber, don’t go camping. It was incredibly cool, and I was grateful to be there with my brother and some of my longtime clients and friends Glenn Kneese, Leonard Fulcher, and Bill & Martha Cummings. It snowed all night, deafening all sound except for the penguins and seals on the shore, whales surfacing and spouting in the bay, and icebergs crackling against the rocky sea bottom. I barely slept, and mostly laid awake listening to it all, trying to be present and appreciate where I was. I will never forget it.
Crossing the Drake Passage
We got lucky and had mostly pleasant weather on the often fearsome Drake Passage, but we still had 15 foot swells and the ship experiences rolling ups and downs. I worked on cruise ships, and I don’t typically get motion sickness, but I used the Scopalomine seasickness patch behind my ear to be safe. I never felt sick, but a lot of people did, including my brother. The patch works and also the front desk passes out Dramamine and Bonine like candy. Ask your doctor about the patch, the prescription is very strong and a couple of my guests experienced significant side effects – confusion and hallucination – and had to be monitored for around 24 hours until the drug left their system.
It takes 2 days to cross the Drake and by day 2, most people were feeling better even though the swells remained the same. By the time we returned under the same conditions, 15 ft waves, most people had their sea legs and weren’t affected the same.
Any Antarctica expedition has to pay very close attention to the weather, and there is a chance you’ll have to leave Antarctica early to return across the Drake Passage before a big storm arrives. This happened to 4 of my clients who were onboard last week, and had to cut short their trip by one day to beat a storm back to port in Ushuaia – a 3 day crossing with 30 ft swells and 75 mph winds. In a bad storm, waves in the Drake Passage can reach incredible highs, 50-60ft, and you do not want to get caught in it.
Go to Antarctica
Ultimately this was in the top 2 or 3 trips of my life. I can’t say this enough, it blew my mind. Having been before with Celebrity I thought I knew what to expect, but the intimate and radically up-close experience of an expedition ship in Antarctica exceeded all of my expectations. Looking back now after being home almost a month, I can hardly believe I was there and it was all real, it was like an “out-of-body” experience.
By the end of the cruise, we were like one big family, all of us having shared an experience we’ll never be able to relate to someone who wasn’t there. On the last evening as we sailed through the Beagle Channel back into Ushuaia, I had a late dinner with my brother where we both sat wide-eyed and grinning like Cheshire cats talking over everything we had just experienced. Disembarkation would be early the next morning but we decided to pop upstairs to see if maybe a couple people made it up for a nightcap, and instead found almost the entire ship there singing with Natalie our Cruise director (whom I discovered, was once the production singer onboard the Carnival Pride – my ship when I worked for CCL). She was belting out “Rollin on a River” and people were losing their minds, it was amazing. The evening proceeded into the wee hours of the morning as Natalie sang hit after hit and all of us danced in one big whoop of exultation, a release of the stockpiles of joy we had accumulated on this journey. It didn’t hurt that most people were 3 or 4 glasses in on Douro Valley red wine, and after she finished with an encore, everyone sat around for another hour taking pictures together, exchanging emails, hugging, crying and laughing. I have rarely experienced the kind of bonding I saw amongst the passengers on the World Navigator. It speaks to the intimate environment that a 200 passenger ship provides, and the great lengths that the crew onboard will go to make the experience what it is.
There are a lot of options in Antarctica now. Viking is there, Silversea, and Seabourne all have expedition ships, along with expedition outfits like Hurtigruten, Lindblad, Swan Hellenic and a host of others. If you’re afraid of the Drake Passage, and money is no object, you can fly to Antarctica from Chile with Silversea’s “Land Bridge” program and skip it altogether. And if you want to try it out with a less expensive itinerary on one of the large cruise ships, that is well worth the trip too and you’ll see a lot.
Atlas Ocean Voyages delivers a truly remarkable expedition experience, with smaller ships than Viking, Silversea and most of the others, a uniquely nautical style and luxurious accommodations (hello large marble & glass tile walk-in showers). They’ve got the hardware, but Atlas also has worked hard to lure the kind of talent needed to carry off such an exceptional land experience in Antarctica, thanks in no small part to Jonathan Zaccaria who is highly respected in the industry and was surely courted by other cruise companies. Plus Atlas’ onboard service & cuisine rivals the best luxury brands in the world
We’re going back in 2024, same ship and same 11-Night itinerary, I already have my group rates secured. Book a spacious 260sf Category B2 Balcony Stateroom at $7299 per person. Check out the details HERE!