By Chris Robinson
Tick off the final continent in style by cruising to Antarctica with Holland America Line’s Zaandam – without having to undergo the rigours of an expedition-style trip.
“Great God! this is an awful place…”. Captain Scott wrote these words in his diary in the heart of the Great White Continent.
Antarctica continues to inspire awe in all who are privileged to experience its immense and incredible wonders. It is an elemental amalgam of ice and rock, sky and ocean whose beauty is so intense, so pristine, that visitors are left spellbound. No country owns Antarctica. There is no permanent human population – just a transient scattering of scientists in isolated bases. And there are great endless vistas without any signs of human existence at all.
Nature fills this empty space with an array of improbable wildlife that occupies every niche in the ocean and continental fringe. Cacophonous and smelly colonies of waddling and nesting penguins occupy almost every rocky beach. They climb penguin trails to snow ridges and icy bluffs. They mix with fur seal groups. And they move gracefully through the frigid waves in groups known as rafts – they are the flying fish of Antarctica. The surrounding waters are studded with icebergs, which also showcase wildlife. To watch seals and penguins shuffle or waddle to the berg edge, and then dive into the water, is to watch a transformation from awkward land life to graceful creatures of the sea.
The coastal seas abound with whales. Knobby humpback whales breach with exuberant abandon. Orca cruise in ominous pods looking for prey. Sperm, fin, blue, right and minke whales are all seen regularly. Arctic terns flit between the waves and petrels of many hues whirl in the blustery polar winds. The regal king of the airwaves is the mighty albatross. These magnificent creatures have the longest wingspan of any birds, seldom visiting land and instead gliding effortlessly just above the waves.
This profusion of wildlife is, however, just the icing on the cake of an Antarctic experience. It is the landscape itself that impresses more than anything else. Most Antarctic cruises travel to the Antarctic Peninsula and its offshore islands, such as the Palmer Archipelago and the South Shetland Islands. This Peninsula is an extension of the South American Andes – a towering jumble of jagged peaks reaching into the clouds and riven by sweeping, crevassed glaciers that plunge between towering granite peaks and fall directly into the ocean. Where the ice meets the sea, blue-green ice cliffs crumble into icebergs which are then eroded into weird and wonderful shapes by the sun, sea and wind. Sculptured arches, castles and fantastical creatures undulate in the waves. Sometimes immense ice shelves many kilometres wide break loose and float free. And over this great explosion of rugged landscape, the Antarctic skies re-shape the views every few minutes. The rapidly changing weather conditions illuminate, then hide, then speckle the ice and the ocean in an interplay of light and shade that is unique to polar regions. This is indeed an awe-full place.
Background Reading (Sidebar)
To inspire your Antarctic planning here are three books to consider: ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ by Apsley Cherry-Garrard is a first-hand account of Captain Scott’s famous expedition to the South Pole; ‘Endurance’ by Alfred Lansing is the riveting story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, a stirring tale of survival; Lonely Planet’s Antarctica – yes, they have a guidebook for this destination, and a very useful one too.
The Frozen Continent Made Easy
Visiting this most extraordinary place doesn’t have to be a hardship: Holland America Line’s 22-day cruise on the Zaandam allows travellers to experience Antarctica in both style and comfort.
Even the most enthusiastic travellers often believe that Antarctica may be a continent too far for them. Images of spartan expedition polar vessels, wet landings from bucking Zodiac inflatables and eye-popping price tags keep The Great White Continent on the bucket list, rather than on the planning list. Think again. It is now possible to cruise around the most scenic parts of Antarctica, relaxing aboard a luxurious cruise ship, and without the need to take out a second mortgage.
My voyage aboard the Zaandam began in San Antonio, Chile, the port for Santiago. We headed ever southward along the Chilean coast from the Lake District to Patagonia, weaving in and out of countless islands and glaciated Andean mountains to fabled Tierra del Fuego. The brooding cliffs of Cape Horn are the final southward lunge of South America. From there, it is a thousand kilometres across the Drake Passage, often called the wildest ocean passage in the world, to the Antarctic Peninsula. Heading back north after a week in the Antarctic seas, we called at the Falkland Islands, Argentinian Patagonia, Montevideo in Uruguay and finally Argentina’s capital city, Buenos Aires.
But the main reason I and my fellow voyagers are aboard the Zaandam was to see Antarctica. The days spent cruising amidst the epic grandeur of this polar wilderness did not disappoint. There are many advantages of experiencing this uttermost region of our planet with Holland America Line. The size of the ship (61,400 tons and 1,432 passengers) means that disembarkation in Antarctica is not possible, but it also means stability across the wild seas of the Drake Passage, while passengers aboard small expedition ships are often confined to their cabins. The stateroom accommodations are spacious and well-equipped, and the dining options are many, varied and excellent. It is quite something to be gourmet dining in the glow of a prolonged Antarctic sunset, while watching icebergs and whales from picture windows. Or to observe an albatross wheeling from the warmth of the hot tub.
There is a strong ‘edutainment’ component to this voyage. An association with BBC Earth facilitates screenings of stunning nature documentaries, sometimes accompanied by live musical performances. A party of scientists from Palmer Research Station came on board to talk about living and working in one of the most isolated places on earth. A team of several wildlife and experienced Antarctic scientists presented topics from wildlife and geology to Antarctic exploration. And the team was often on deck to provide commentary on the landscapes and wildlife we were seeing.
The decks of the Zaandam are the places to soak up the sepulchral splendours of this cruise along the Antarctic Peninsula. In the Antarctic summer, the days are long and the temperatures hover benignly around freezing. The weather here can change in an instant, but you are always moments away from a hot drink, a dip in the covered pool or even a spa treatment with a view of the icy wastes outside.
“We are all adventurers here, and wild doings in wild countries appeal to us as nothing else could do” Captain Scott wrote. “It is good to know that there remain wild corners of this dreadfully civilised world.” Yes, it is; but it is also wonderful to have a little piece of that civilized world from which to experience this wild corner of our planet.
Holland America has three cruises to Antarctica in December 2019, January and February 2020 aboard the Zaandam.