We were on the Hurtigruten Polar Expedition leaving Ushuaia on 1st February 2013, having been inspired to go on it by a group tour of the Fram when she was docked in Portsmouth in 2011. Our favourable impressions of the boat and its cruise programme were fully borne out by our experience on this vacation. Good intentions to write a review upon return were finally spurred into action upon reading the largely negative Cruise Critic review for the same cruise. Our review offers a more positive perspective which was shared by all the other English-speaking passengers with whom we socialised. The ethos and purpose of this Hurtigruten Expedition are rewardingly different from the 5-star luxury and pampering to which the writer of the previous review is perhaps more accustomed.
The pre-trip information provided was comprehensive; we did need to phone about certain details which were unclear, and our queries were dealt with efficiently albeit somewhat brusquely. Our flight from Heathrow was smooth and reception at Buenos Aires welcoming but somewhat chaotic. From the comfortable Emperador Hotel we had a whistle-stop coach tour of BA which gave a good overview of the city. The transfer to Ushuaia was well-managed and smooth (notwithstanding the rather shockingly early 3.30am start from the hotel to the domestic airport). Upon arrival in Ushuaia, the coach trip/visits within the Tierra del Fuego National Park were informative and interesting.
Embarkation was smoothly handled. Over the next 48 hours of navigation down the Beagle Channel and across the Drake Passage one became aware of the enormity of the task of registering, preparing, orienting and briefing 240 passengers with regard to the on-board regime, the landings which we would be experiencing, the potentially dangerous polar environment, and the international 'code of conduct' for Antarctica. It was also a chance to relax after the tiring travel to embarkation, and to become acquainted with the ship.
The Fram is modern, spotlessly clean, comfortable, and well-appointed with some lovely decorative touches and artwork throughout. The panoramic observation lounge with bar offers fantastic vistas of the awesome scenery and wildlife. Other seating areas also provide places to relax, read or chat. Most of the meals were buffet-style, with set-menu table service on a few special occasions. The food was generally of good quality, with lots of fish and seafood, and the most superb desserts. The salads did get a bit samey; but any criticism of on-board cuisine must take into account the fact that there is no opportunity for re-provisioning on an Antarctic cruise!!! The cost of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks is high (in Norwegian waters, Norwegian taxes will apply; but surely the Antarctic is a duty-free area?!). The largely Philippine restaurant staff were charming, courteous, helpful and for the most part efficient, although frequently too rushed off their feet to respond as quickly to requests as one would hope. The iceberg shaped Plexiglas dividers between joined tables were an unfortunate touch which impeded conversation and in our view should be done away with. Our cabin (307) was compact but comfortable with fold-away twin beds (one to give a sofa), plenty of storage space, tv screen, desk (but the chairs which block access to the cabin and ensuite shower-room need replacing with less bulky ones!), and a large porthole. Brilliant showers, shelves for toiletries; our loo did block a couple of times but was rapidly and effectively fixed. The Bridge visit and explanations from the Captain on the construction, technology and operation of the Fram gave insight into the state-of-the-art design of the vessel for polar navigation.
Many cruise boats ply to and from Ushuaia and the northern reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula, but very few venture as far as Latitude 68o14'S (our southernmost destination), or are equipped to offer such an extensive opportunity for landings (of which we had 13, over 8 days). Impressively coordinated teamwork is required to launch the 8-person RIBS, land a recce party, organise groups for disembarkation, manage safe movement of passengers ashore plus enabling them to have an enjoyable and informed experience, and then to bring everyone back to the mother ship. We saw an amazing range of wildlife at close quarters, and had many fascinating visits to historical bases both manned and deserted.
The expedition team comprises an international group of 9 all of whom are experts in their fields (geology, exploration, biology, photography, flora, ornithology), and they were frequently available to answer questions and give guidance (and, I have a photograph of the Team Leader chatting on-board with a passenger.) Any criticism of their unavailability at certain times should be viewed in light of the fact that there can be no fixed itinerary, and in the context of the need for quick and flexible planning responses to prevailing weather and landing conditions. Their on-board lectures / slideshows were well presented and interesting; there were also some films. 'Entertainment' is NOT the focus of this cruise, and does not purport to be. With only one notable exception (regarding the aborted Lemaire Channel RIB expedition), the announcements were clear and provided necessary information. Given how many were necessary, it would have been inappropriate and confusing for them to be more 'chatty.' Each evening, there were group briefings (in German and in English) for the next day's planned itinerary and landings. As for the criticism that "ships officers dined in the dining room but seldom said hello or engaged with passengers:" their responsibility lay in navigating and operating the ship, which was underway for 18-24 hours every day, and with maintaining the safety of passengers rather than socialising with them.
Passenger were aged 40's upwards, most being well-travelled people of retirement age. Germans constituted the largest proportion, then many English-speaking nationalities, with smaller numbers of Europeans of other nationalities. The atmosphere on board was a relaxed, convivial, and informal.
Upon return to Ushuaia, disembarkation was efficient. A coach transported us to the starting point for a trek through the scenic Tierra del Fuego National Park, with well-informed guides who provided information about its history, ecology, flora and fauna. The flight to Buenos Aires was delayed by an hour and Ushuaia airport was crowded and chaotic, but this was not Hurtigruten's fault. The evening of our return to Buenos Aires, we learned by chance from companions with wifi connection of the anticipated several-hour delay for our next day's flight (due to technical fault with a BA plane). However the Hurtigruten rep failed to systematically contact all affected clients, and at least one couple were unaware of the delay until they appeared next morning at the originally planned time for the coach. We were booked for an excursion on this last day which clashed with the original departure time; Hurtigruten should have spotted this anomaly and cancelled the booking earlier. A refund was forthcoming only after we wrote to Hurtigruten requesting it after our return.
In summary: any criticisms centre mainly on administrative shortcomings and poor communication around the 'fringes' of the cruise, but overall our feedback on this once-in-a-lifetime experience is overwhelmingly positive, and compliments are due to the ship's crew as a whole for their excellent teamwork, professionalism, and cheerful friendliness.