Our trip to South America and Antarctica on the Zaandam was an excellent, educational voyage and in this review I’ll attempt to give you a feel of what to expect and some useful general information rather than a blow-by-blow account of every detail.
The highlight was Antarctica, of course, but before we get there I’d like to talk just a bit about our stop to see the penguins at the Falkland Islands, which was added to the itinerary just a couple of weeks before embarkation. Bluff Cove was an amazing rookery on a beach where Gentoo and King Penguins could be seen and interacted with at close quarters. It was not too far from town, so we had plenty of time to walk around Stanley when we returned from the rookery. As others have pointed out, the 4x4 rides to the penguin rookeries at the Falklands can be a little rough and the weather was alternately cool, cold, rainy, sleety, and snowy, so be prepared for anything!
After Stanley, we headed down to Antarctica. This may have been the roughest part of the voyage, where the ship rocked and rolled quite a bit as we steamed away from the Falklands.
If you’ve looked over the itinerary, you may wonder what’s happening on all those sea days. Well, the activity list was very full each and every day. We decided to do what we called the “university at sea” track, attending pretty much all the lectures given by the Antarctic Expedition Team of experts that accompanied us throughout the voyage. The Team was comprised of two long-time (now retired) NSF Office of Polar Programs staffers, David Bresnahan and Guy Guthridge, the naturalist Chris Wilson (great nephew of Edward Wilson, who perished with Captain Scott on the way back from their trek to the South Pole), and ice pilot Dick Taylor. We learned all about the U.S. polar programs, sea birds, penguins, and whales, the history of exploration of Antarctica, the ozone hole, how climate change is affecting the poles, and more. Alternatively, we could have tried to learn the tango, as many others did. World Tango Champions Karla & Juan were amazing dancers and teachers. Overall, we were so busy, we barely got around to catching up on all the reading we planned to do!
So, regarding Antarctica itself, we were very lucky to have had a couple of clear, sunny days there. Captain van Hoogdalem opened the bow to all passengers, which was great (this was done on most calm days when wind was low throughout the voyage). The sun was very intense, though, and many people came away with sunburned faces, so remember to use a lot of sunscreen in Antarctica.
We had numerous close-up sightings of humpback whales on our first Antarctic day, but less after that. Many penguins were seen standing on, and jumping from, ice floes; sea lions were sunning themselves in various spots, and we encountered several dolphins here and there. Bird lovers were always entertained by the variety of species flying near the ship. The highlight, however, was the awe inspiring scenery. Huge mountains and glaciers, crystal clear mirror-like waters, and giant icebergs against bright blue skies. The temperature was right around 30 degrees (-1 C), but felt warmer when the ship was in the sun and moving slowly. Once we picked up speed it quickly got very chilly! The best bet for this voyage would be a couple of sweaters and a mid-weight winter coat, with gloves and a hat that won’t blow off in the wind. Warm boots were also helpful on the rainy, overcast days (especially on shore excursions) and we made good use of water-resistant pants, which we put over our jeans when it got really cold and wet.
Now some miscellaneous info. The clientele on this cruise was heavily weighted toward engineers and science buffs. Since it spanned Christmas and New Year’s, there were also quite a few families on board. There was plenty to do for the younger kids via HAL’s Kids Club and the teenagers seemed pretty happy being able to meet new friends. The Kids Club did not specifically interface with the members of the Antarctic Expedition Team, which was a little bit of a missed opportunity, but some young people did attend the lectures in addition to the hard-core science and nature types.
The ship was clean and in good condition; most of the public areas had recently been refurbished. There was only one operational laundry room and there was plenty of competition for the machines! Washers are $2 in quarters, dryers are $1. The front desk was happy to make change. Soap is free. You push a button on the machine and the powder flows from a giant container directly into the machine.
The rooms have a limited number of power outlets, some of which have European style plugs (two round prongs). We brought an adapter, so were able to use both the American and European style plugs to charge our iPhones, etc. Speaking of phones, they will work on board, but for a hefty price! Best to turn off roaming. The Zaandam’s Wi-Fi is slow and quirky, but it will do in a pinch. Only some of the ports had free Wi-Fi and it was not always easy to get a signal, so overall it’s best to be resigned to being a little cut off from the world while you’re on this trip.
The bed was excellent. Better than most good hotels, actually. Our inside cabin was on the Lower Promenade Deck toward the rear and had a shower stall, which we prefer, rather than a bathtub. There is sometimes vibration in that area of the ship, particularly while maneuvering to get into port, but it didn’t bother us. What we loved was being so close to the doors to the wraparound outdoor promenade, where all the nature lovers with their giant camera lenses hung out. It was easy to get in and out for a quick bird or whale sighting! Most of the days at sea were smooth sailing, other than a stretch just south of the Falklands and the crossing through the famously treacherous Drake Passage on the way up to Cape Horn. We didn’t get too queasy at any point, but if you think you’ll be prone to seasickness, having some Dramamine on hand would not be a bad idea.
Regarding the food, it was very good and often excellent in both the main dining room and the Lido buffet. The desserts and cakes were only OK, though. Iced tea and lemonade were complementary at the buffet and always available and hot chocolate made an appearance on several occasions. The “international buffet” on Christmas Eve was outstanding. Coffee was pretty awful throughout the ship, though; we knew to expect this beforehand and brought Starbucks Via packets with us. That was a lifesaver!
If you’re interested in the holiday aspect of things, the ship was well-decorated and the crew was really in the holiday spirit. Christmas morning was lots of fun, as Santa Claus and Max Hoge, our cruise director, handed out gifts to the kids. Kids and adults alike took pictures with Santa and had cookies and cocoa. New Year’s Eve brought out Baby New Year, who rang in 2014 on the ship’s bell and partied all night in a diaper.
There were some very good entertainers coming aboard throughout the trip, many of them local, like the incredible Uruguayan harpist, Shirley Dominguez. Old time comedian Marty Brill was hysterical and comic magician Jeff Peterson was excellent. Speaking of entertainment, the Tango show we saw in Buenos Aires (where we embarked) was outstanding. It was like going to the ballet; really professional. This was a HAL shore excursion and the venue was the Cafe de los Angelitos. I won’t spend much time here on the shore excursions, other than to point out that we were very impressed by how nice Montevideo was and that the trek at the Andean Club in Ushuaia turned out to be a challenging, interesting hike.
Special thanks to Stevie, who scoured the ship from stem to stern in search of Greek yogurt; Yanto, a real pro in the dining room; and Sinta, who was always a positive presence in the Lido. Room stewards Niza & Sam were also excellent.
To sum up our Zaandam voyage to Antarctica, we found the people on board to be very interesting, the educational program strong, the crew friendly and always willing to help out, and the wildlife and scenery unbeatable. Highly recommended!