Contemplating a trip to the Antarctic poses manifold choices. Each of six major cruise lines sailing to the South Atlantic offers distinctly different options as to duration, destinations, comfort, formality, and shore excursions. In many ways, it is truly a dice toss, as itineraries are notoriously subject to change due to variant weather conditions.
We got lucky. We chose Azamara's January, 2013 16-day cruise on the Quest, a 694-passenger, 592-foot, ten-deck ship refurbished in 2007. With a small handful of exceptions, virtually everything about the Quest's on-and-off-board experience was exceptional, if not inspired
Our cruise began in Buenos Aires, sailing subsequently to Montevideo, Uruguay; thence to Port Stanley in the Falklands; on to Elephant Island and the Antarctic Sound; time in the Beagle Channel remembering the journeys of Charles Darwin; sailing by Cape Horn, Chile; and then back north through the notorious Drake Passage to Ushuaia, Argentina (the southernmost city in the world); north again to Puerto Madryn, Argentina; and a final two days at sea to return to Buenos Aires. As it happened, high winds precluded our docking in Ushuaia and sailing around Cape Horn. We did not find this unacceptable; we found it prudent. And there were many engaging sightings in lieu of those two failures.
For each port, there are various shore excursions from which to choose: city tours of Montevideo (which we highly recommend for its colonial architecture and beautiful high-rise homes on the Mar del Plata); penguin rookery tours from Port Stanley (also highly-recommended for the intimacy one may establish with the guileless and infinitely-trusting Gentoo penguins); Puerto Madryn (where we chose instead to simply walk the long pier into town and casually shop and people-watch in this informal, pristine, and friendly town of 60,000); and Buenos Aires (either pre- or post-cruise) where we chose the six-hour city tour with a lunch and superb, highly-professional Tango show at the end of the bus trip). If you intend to go ashore, you should definitely select and pay for your shore excursions online about a week before the cruise as they are half price when pre-purchased.
Destination Enrichment Series:
Each day of the cruise the staff offered two "enrichment lectures"--fifty-to-sixty-minute programs by either an historian/naturalist or a wildlife expert to introduce you to the geographical, historical, ethnological, and animal life features of the following day's cruise. They were middle-brow but useful...folksy but animated. Everyone should make the twice-daily trek down to the Deck Five Cabaret lounge to expand the depth of their cruise experience.
Where to begin? The Quest offers 13 (count 'em thirteen!) restaurants or bars open for service many hours of the day. The food is shockingly good: in quality, variety, preparation, and presentation. The service is knowledgeable, genuinely friendly, and immediate. One can choose from an infinitely extensive informal buffet at the Windows Cafe on the extensive horizons of Deck Nine for almost the entire day; or go to the Discoveries Restaurant (B-L-D) for a more structured (but informal) seven-course meal sitting at an intimate table for two looking out upon the thrashing Atlantic. Or, for only $25 a person, an exquisite gourmand experience at their two specialty restaurants: The Prime C (steakhouse) and The Aqualina (seafood focused dining).
There are true customer delights here: free quality vintage wines or beers for both lunch and dinner; a no-tipping policy throughout the ship that delivers you from constant cash decisions; free coffee (cappuccino and lattes included) throughout the ship; menus that change daily and offer a broad variety of seafood, beef, poultry, salads, and diet-killing desserts; an informal dress policy that only forbids body shirts, shorts, and sandals. And if that isn't enough, Azamara offers complimentary 24-hour room service. Are you listening? Reread that last sentence.
[nota bene: Azamara allows you to carry on your own liquor for use only in your room; if you imbibe, this is a wise thing to do: we took 8 liters of Scotch in our checked luggage saving us a $12 a shot charge for Johnnie Walker Red; standard brand liquor on board costs $50 a liter.]
We aren't "variety/revue people," and didn't attend any of the many "theatrical" offerings available. On the other hand, there were accomplished harpists, guitarists, and keyboard artists sprinkled throughout the public areas of the ship. Additionally, in an attempt to relieve the monotony of the "at sea" days, Azamara staged numerous contests ["Competitive Vegetable Carving"], skill-enhancing seminars ["Mah Jong Players Get-Together"], and dance lessons. This is not why we came to the South Atlantic. Suffice it to say that a perplexed couple from London won the "Motown Trivia Challenge" game.
There is also a casino with a fairly extensive set of slot machines and table games. The slots, we found, were fairly forgiving (having bet $400, we only lost $12--far superior to Vegas or Long Island).
We have probably made this clear already: These guys do it right. But let us expand a little on their excellences. There were small surprises at every moment on the cruise: 1) After only one day when we called room service for ice in the afternoon, they, unbidden, sent us an ice bucket at that time each day for the rest of the cruise. 2) The waiters at Discoveries Restaurant and the Windows Cafe had learned and continued to address us with our given names at all encounters. 3) Whenever we got up in the morning to go to breakfast or a shore trip,and left a "Please Make Up Our Room" sign outside our cabin, they did it almost immediately. 4) When we used only one bottle of tonic from our mini-refrigerator on the first evening, our cabin steward replenished our fridge with two cans for the rest of the cruise. 5) I foolishly lost my insulated jacket on the third day of the cruise; they found it and "Guest Relations" allowed me to claim it immediately. 6) Fresh flowers and a sweetly-ripe fruit plate EVERY evening in our cabin. Do you follow my gist
Our cabin/verandah was far better than we expected. The balcony outside our cabin was more than adequate for leisurely sea-watching, sunrise room service breakfasts, and late night star-gazing. Yes, you must learn to shower in a 4-square-foot chamber, and sit sidewise on a tiny commode for your bodily functions. But...it is all worth it.
There is more: the elevators worked quickly to give us access to every floor. The jogging track (on Deck 10) was (given the imperfect weather) perfectly-maintained so we could walk 12 miles throughout the cruise. Pursuits, the ship's daily newsletter shoved into your cabin door every evening, was up to date and instructive about the following day's activities. There was no implied formality onboard: no one dressed in tuxes or evening dresses. At the most, a handful of males dressed in ties and sportcoats.
And, finally, our cabin attendants Francisco and Rovic: there were moments when they did not answer the phone for requests. But the followup was always correct; and they were unfailingly (certainly instructed to be) polite and responsive. We learned to respect their professionalism. They deserved our $160 tip.
We have one lightly painful exception to the above:
Their promise of 'intermittent loss' of internet access is a gross understatement. We bought $165 of internet time (295minutes) and only got about 25 useful minutes of access. We were constantly bumped off our connection, and frequently unable to reconnect with our website. If your life requires continuous connection with the Web, don't count on Azamara to supply it.
But please, my fellow adventurers..... Remember: this trip is not about comforting onboard creature comforts. It is about the silent southern hemisphere moments when you discover you are in a "new place." It is about discovering the strange idiosyncrasies of the Antarctic skies: the Southern Cross, purple-magenta-lilac sunsets (one hour a day); sounding whales blithely coursing their massive mammalian bodies beneath the draft of your ship. Ten-acre icebergs with their tourmaline accents and their potent insinuations of power... given the fact that they are 90% unseen...underwater....and melting apace as our global world dissolves.
One evening, we ate dinner with a couple from England who found nothing to appreciate and everything about which to complain. One assumes they are professional "cruisers," whose sole delight is to smugly denigrate all they encounter and sneer at everything we found delightful. It is their loss and our gain that we sailed with Azamara. You should, too.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness."
-- Mark Twain