Overview... This cruise was an exceptional experience, passengers constantly had a glazed look on their faces as they viewed the spectacular scenery & wildlife. Antarctica will only ever be seen by a limited number of people & it is more expensive than normal cruising. Hurtigruten is between the small expedition ships & the big cruise ships & in my opinion it is the best value for money in Antarctica. The bonus with Hurtigruten is that you also get around 5 days in the Chilean fjords that the big ships who go round the Horn cannot get to. I have an album of Antarctic photos at http://travel.webshots.com/album/556799884Xpmhqz & an album of Chilean fjord photos at http://travel.webshots.com/album/557148289IicbmL
Getting there... Antarctica is a long way from anywhere in the Northern hemisphere. Those of us from Europe had to make flights from our home Country to Madrid. After waiting 2 to 3 hours there we then took a 12.5 hour flight on Iberia (worst International airline I have been on) to Buenos Aires. After a short orientation tour we arrived at our included hotel exactly 24 hours after I had left my home to catch a train to London. Our hotel the Panamericano was first class with good buffet breakfasts provided. Hotel was in a central situation with many tourist areas in easy walking distance. Rooms were available & all pre-allocated, I was very pleased with my room. I then enjoyed one & a half days walking around the City in warm sunshine. One essential visit for those interested in Antarctic history is to the Corvette "Uruguay" moored as a museum ship in the docks. It was used to rescue the Nordenskold Swedish expedition after their ship the "Antarctic" had sunk in pack ice 1903, a lot of memorabilia on display. On the Friday morning we were called at 5am, I had breakfast at 5.20am to be ready for the airport bus at 6am (for first flight to Ushuaia). Bags had been left outside the room door by 11pm & we did not see them again until in our cabin on the ship. A charter flight by LAN was timed at 8.10am, boarding cards were handed out at the airport, no check in or allocated seats other than normal security check. Very impressed with the LAN flight & crew who really worked hard, providing us with another breakfast at 9.20am & snacks later. Arriving at Ushuaia around noon it was only 46F & raining with a strong wind blowing. After a short orientation tour i/c a photo stop we were dropped at the pier car park around 1.30pm & told to be back at 4.45pm as ship did not start to load passengers until 5pm. It was a national holiday & many shops were shut. After wandering around in the rain, viewing a few tourist shops, having a coffee etc many of us went back to sit on the bus. At 4.45pm we went through security onto the pier & had to queue on a steep slippery expanded mesh ramp in the rain, while every ones photos were taken & ships cards issued. Those who had purchased ships tours to National Park etc were quite late getting onto the ship.
The Ship... MV Nordkapp is used in European summer months for the Bergen - North Cape Hutigruten service. It therefore has accommodation for day passengers & also a car deck. In Antarctica the number of passengers is restricted to 350max. The car deck is used for storing the polarCirkel boats used for landings & for storing the rubber boots provided. There are benches to sit on while changing your boots before getting into the boats. Furnishings throughout the public rooms are very good. The main lounge is at front of ship with good windows for observation, this is also used for group meetings. There is one large bar with smoking allowed in one corner. Other swivel seats are located on the port side between the dining room & lecture rooms. The cafe has beverages available as well as cakes etc with no charge in Antarctica. No pool, just two spa baths on the rear of one deck. There are two large lecture rooms, usually one English & one German that have a media projector for DVD films & CD's. There is a limited library & a small shop with a few essentials & souvenirs. There is an Internet facility that was 60 NKR for one hour; very poor connection speed & I wasted my money on it as I could use my UK mobile phone to text messages. Nordkapp will be replaced by a new purpose built ship the MV Fram next year but sister ship Nordnorge, essentially the same as Nordkapp will also be in Antarctica. Gratuities are suggested at 80 Nkroner per day & a form is left in you cabin for you to fill in & return to reception to be added to your account.
Cabin... I had an inside no359, it seemed typical of those I saw at around 110sq feet. DEcor was utilitarian grey with two "charcoal drawing" pictures on the wall. Small bathroom with a very efficient shower, but best of all, its floor was heated (provided you did not knock the switch off). There is no shortage of water but you are requested to minimize use as below the 60th parallel the ship cannot discharge grey water & should the tanks become full they would have to head north again. In that size cabin there is not a lot of space for movement or storage. In daytime, one bed folds to the wall, the other forms a seat. As I was a single occupant the stewardess soon took to leaving the bed down & made up during the day, this did not worry me in the slightest. There is no TV & the radio that is part of the telephone did not work in Antarctica, presumably it is set up for Norwegian stations. Cabin was kept very clean by the friendly Philippine staff. I did not spend much time in the cabin except to sleep a few hours. I was there to see as much as I could & never went to bed before midnight & was up at 6am all the time in Antarctica. There is a lifejacket in the cabin but this is a compact one & only used in the polarCirkel boats, normal emergency lifejackets are kept at your muster station. You also find in your cabin the blue wind & waterproof good quality jacket provided as part of the package & yours to keep. You do need to take your own waterproof trousers; you will need them in the boats & on shore. I was able to use my UK mobile phone to text my wife from the cabin or from anywhere on the ship every day, but could not get to do a voice message. The phone did not work at all in Argentina or Chile.
Food & Service... Norway is justly proud of its cold table (Smorgasbord) & I thought the buffet cold table put on for breakfast & lunch in the dining room was as good as any 5* ship we have been on. Hot food was a different matter; this is not normal cruising with a wide choice of entrEe's. They do not have the facilities for that, there is a set dinner menu with one alternative available if ordered before 2pm. Quality was also variable, some superb & some hot dishes very poor. At breakfast the beans provided in a bacon & bean mixture were the worst I have ever seen, like bullets with black spots. The first night, the 5 Antarctic nights & the night at Puerto Natales were all buffet dinner, & for me this was better than the served to table meals. Having said that the last night Captains dinner was very good indeed. When evening dinner is buffet service the early & late seating allocation is still kept to. It is open seating at all times in the dining room but specific groups of tables are allocated to the various nationalities. The dining room staff were very friendly but did not seem to have a system or proper training to me. On my table of 8, I was left without a dish for 4 of the first 8 courses served to table after they missed me out & went on to serve other tables. I did not starve however & I accepted things for what they were, I was not there for the food, that was well down my list of priorities. The cafe had hot water, tea bags, coffee & drinking chocolate powder available together with cakes & some desserts 24 hours per day. However there was no one in attendance all the time & some things especially milk used to run out. No charge for this in Antarctica.
Who Goes... On this cruise 301 passengers. 178 Americans, 42 Germans, 14 Austria, 35 British, 6 Australians + several other nationalities. All were there for the experience, many had dreamed about going to Antarctica for years. Some had been before but found the Hurtigruten price so attractive they had to go again. For my own part I could not have justified taking the money out of the family budget for a single fare (my wife would not go) with any other line to Antarctica. All lines to Antarctica who are members of IAATO require all passengers to have a certificate from their doctor to say they are fit enough to undertake this expedition. A copy of this is sent to Hurtigruten about 8 weeks before departure & the original has to be given to the doctor when boarding the ship. Have to say a few from USA would not have got their certificate from my UK doctor & it did take me a lot of hassle including hospital tests to get mine. Although I am fit & active for my age I only got the certificate signed at the last moment, thanks to the fear of the compensation culture now prevalent in UK health service.
Entertainment... The cruise itself is the entertainment, nothing else except lectures on Antarctica or associated subjects. After dinner a short TV film on DVD was sometimes shown in one of the lecture rooms but these were always Antarctic related & all the more enjoyable because we were there! The lecture rooms had a large screen on the end wall with two large flat screen monitors towards the back so everyone had a good view. I preferred sitting near the back & view on one of the monitors for what I thought was a better picture.
The cruise day by day... In Antarctica there are no "ports of call" all landings are by small boat & weather conditions dictate where landings can be made. I have to say the polarCirkel boats used by Hurtigruten are far superior to the zodiacs used by other lines in my honest opinion. Access is easy with proper steps in/out & two handrails. They only take 8 people & there is another safety handrail down the middle of the boat. Very fast & maneuverable, passengers were split into 10 groups & called down in rotation to get their boots on & be ready for the boats. There was a safetyman at the top of the gangway & at the bottom, I never heard of anyone having problems with the boats.
Day one, having left Ushuaia the night before in dark stormy weather we were not surprised to find the Drake passage fairly rough. Not very rough, a few were seasick but I was disappointed not to see any waves breaking over the ships bow, would have made a nice photo. There were a lot of birds to watch between the lectures. Attended 3 lectures & a briefing on Antarctica, a short TV film from the blue planet series called "coast" was shown at night after dinner.
Day two, Still at sea in the morning & sighted our first ice covered land around noon. Through Neptune's bellows, the entrance into Deception Island at 2.15pm. Weather very cloudy & foggy. I was group 4 & away about 3.30pm in snowy weather. Had a good hour ashore with a Leopard seal on the beach & many birds. Had a good look round the old whaling items but owing to nesting birds on the beach could not walk as far along as Neptune's window. The old British base is falling down having been damaged by the volcanic eruption in the 1960's. Later groups had more snow than we did & by the time the next ship arrived late evening it was snowing hard. TV film that evening was "Crystal desert" from Blue planet series.
Day three, Up on deck at 6am for the Errara channel. There was half on inch of wet snow on deck & a small snowman had been built. Superb scenery along the channel but quite cloudy with some mist. We anchored off Cuverville Island to visit a large Gentoo penguin colony. Group 2 would be first off here; yesterdays group 1 reverting to last (i.e. no10). Procedure on reaching the shore is to step off the boat steps onto a small metal step; expedition staff ensures you are able to reach the shore by steadying both you & the boat. The leader then gives a short talk on where to go & what to see & how long you have onshore before returning to the boat. Areas where not to go are marked out by the expedition staff with small red flags. Expedition staff where stationed at various points to answer questions & point out things of interest. The system worked very well at all our landings. Although it was lightly snowing at Cuverville & was quite bad by 11.15am we saw a lot & there was a nearby glacier, so the bay was full of icebergs. We left at lunchtime & proceeded back through the Errara channel to Andvord bay. Here the snow had stopped & we were in magnificent iceberg scenery with some spectacular shapes. We anchored at Neko harbor at 4.15pm & prepared to go ashore on the Antarctic mainland. This time group 4 were 2nd off the ship. Above the landing spot was a large hill with a path indicated by the red flags to a gentoo colony. The snow was about 18 inches deep & quite hard walking up hill in that; you had to keep away from the "penguin highways" already in the snow. I only went as far as the penguin colony & back down to the beach the other side. Others younger & more active went to the top of the hill in order to slide down on their bottoms! On the beach were 4 Weddell seals & a Leopard seal. The polarCirkel boat back to the ship cruised very slowly right across the face of a huge glacier, giving us spectacular views of the blue ice cracks in it. As we left Neko at 7.15pm the sun came out & the views were unbelievable as we cruised back down Andvord bay. We then sailed between packed icebergs & spectacular scenery past the Chilean station at Waterboat point to anchor for the night in Paradise bay. Aptly named by the old whalers, the scenery was stunning with the sun slowly setting. The sun does take a long time to set in Antarctica not like in the tropics, so there are many sunset photo opportunities. I was on deck until well after 11pm, & even saw a small section fall off a glacier.
Day four, I was on deck by 6.20am taking photographs in the partly cloudy skies. Our group was now first off the ship at 8am to visit the nearby unmanned Argentine station of Admirante Brown. Here there were more Gentoo penguins sitting on eggs, many people also made their way to the top of the hill for the slide down again. This time, our boat trip back to the ship gave us a 15-minute cruise into Skontrop cove. Many blue-eyed shag's were on the cliffs with some colorful lichens on the vertical cliffs & superb reflections on the calm water in front of the glacier. Cloud & mist rolled in as we left Paradise bay at 12.45pm & it started snowing. Snow lasted for about 2.5 hours but stopped as we approached Lemaire channel. Still cloudy as we went through the magnificent channel nicknamed Kodak alley. We anchored off Peterman Island & the clouds lifted giving a spectacular view of the mainland mountain ranges running down towards the Antarctic Circle. Our group was now last, so we had dinner before going ashore. Beautiful scenery now bathed in bright sunshine, many birds to see including blue-eyed shags & Adelie penguins. We sailed back through the Lemaire channel as the sun started to set again with spectacular mountain views. Reaching Port Lockroy for the nights anchorage about 9.40pm. Port Lockroy is surrounded by mountains on all sides, the sun cast some special coloring onto these & the snow, I did not leave the deck until 11.30pm, a long but spectacular day.
Day five, Port Lockroy is on tiny Goudier Island & visits here were only for 30 minutes. It is a former British base originally built in the 1940's & now run as a museum by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust. A fascinating place to visit, kept as it was when in operation with many old artifacts & memorabilia together with a shop & post office. Most people agreed that they would have liked more time here. We had our first sight of penguin chicks here that had just hatched that week. We left at lunchtime & cruised along the scenic Neumeyer channel going into another fjord with glaciers & a crabeater seal on a floe. Several snow showers as we cruised through scenic Wilhelmina bay, lots of huge icebergs & the wreck of the whaler "Guernoren" on Enterprise Island. That evening & night we cruised the Bransfield straight on our way to the Antarctic sound.
Day six, The Antarctic sound lies between the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula & several Islands. Known as "iceberg alley" as big tabular bergs find their way through here from the Weddell Sea due to prevailing currents. Our first stop was at Brown Bluff, here it was snowing heavily but we could still get ashore. The previous week Nordkapp's sister ship could not land due to pack ice preventing the small boats operating, so we were very lucky. Brown Bluff itself was covered in snow & therefore did not look very brown, later in the season there will be no snow. Here was a huge colony of Adelie penguins who paraded up & down the beach in quantities to rival the film "march of the penguins". The snow covering those sitting on their nests with eggs, made you appreciate the fact you were not born a penguin! However it was an amazing experience to see nature like this. After a 2 hour cruise between the giant icebergs we arrived at the Argentine base Esperanza at Hope bay on the Antarctic mainland for our 8th landing. This is a large military base with many sprawling huts, families are paid to spend 12 months here & is probably how Antarctica will look at some time in the future unless the world agrees to preserve it's pristine wilderness. Access is strictly controlled by the military & you are only allowed to walk in an escorted group. There is a large Adelie penguin colony & a historic hut used as shelter by 3 members of the Swedish Antarctic expedition of 1903. The Argentines were very friendly & you were taken to their community hall where drinks were available & memorabilia on sale. Quite cloudy while we were here but as we started to leave the cloud started to lift giving some stark views of the mountains. About half an hour later we passed an iceberg with the most marvellous blue marbling in it, that I called "the most beautiful iceberg in the world", such a pity it has to melt. It was Natures work of art & would have made a super exhibit for the turbine hall at Tate Modern in London. That evening as we sailed back through the Antarctic Sound between these huge icebergs we were treated to a most spectacular sunset. I never left the deck from 7.30pm until 11.30pm, just an amazing sight. One highlight was when we sailed alongside a huge tabular iceberg & the setting sun cast the ships shadow onto the side of the iceberg with a golden glow. The cloud continued to lift & the sky became more multicolored by the minute until it looked as if on fire! Even the Captain who must have seen many sunsets came out to photograph this one.
Day seven, Arriving at Admiralty bay on King George Island we were informed the visit to the Polish Arctowski station was cancelled as the wind speed was over the permitted 20ft/sec to operate the boats. We did drop off the 3 Polish scientists here that we had on board. We then had a 4-hour sail to Half moon Island. Alternative lectures were arranged during this period. We had a good landing at Half Moon Island with a good colony of Chinstrap penguins, Kelp gulls on their nests & Terns flying about. There is a nice old whaleboat slowly decaying on the beach that made a very good photograph with some Gentoo penguins around it. As we left the Island after our last landing there were some spectacular rocks formations of volcanic origin. Film that night was about Shackleton from an American TV series. Once again as we started across the Drake Passage Antarctica gave us another spectacular sunset, as it's leaving present. We had been very lucky, with 5 spectacular days in Antarctica & 9 landings by small boat, not everyone who travels there manages this much.
Day eight, Crossing the Drake Passage in calm foggy weather. This meant no birds were flying, as the wind was not strong enough for them to glide. I had a lie in to 8am & did my washing in the morning. The self-service laundry facilities were the best I have seen on a ship. Tokens available at 10Nkr for wash & 10Nkr for drying. Machines were very good & dispensed their own detergents that were included in the price. Instructions were on the machines but the crew laundryman Ram was very helpful with his advice. The machine calculates the time needed & shows it on a display. The dryer works until the clothes are as dry as the condition you set on a dial, no set period, very good. There were 3 lecture arranged but I only saw one in the afternoon. Evening short film was around Cape Horn in a square-rigger in the 1920's.
Day nine, Had a lie in to 7am, arrived Cape Horn after breakfast at 8am in a force 10 gale. Unable to land as Chile has now stopped foreign boats landing there. Good photos from fairly close in. Calmer weather as we sailed the Beagle channel up to Puerto Williams. Sun came out & there were many birds about. Had a 2-hour walk in the forest direct from the pier at Puerto Williams, good to see some green trees again. Sailed from here at 5pm, the Beagle channel above Ushuaia was sailed in the evening dusk. I was disappointed in the Beagle channel, we saw it 5 years ago when the mountains had far more snow on them & the glaciers looked larger. Perhaps they are affected by global warming!
Day ten, through the fjords of Agostini & Martinez before crossing the Magellan straights on our way to Puerto Natales. Later scenery only average with not many glaciers & plenty of rain mist etc. It felt colder in the damp cold than the dry cold of Antarctica when we had our thermal gear on. Many said this was an anticlimax after Antarctica. After lunch my adrenalin had subsided & I had 3 hours sleep in the cabin to make up for all those 18-hour days.
Day eleven, Up at 5.20am but missed the traverse of Kirke narrows into Ultima Esperanza fjord for Puerto Natales. Anchored out in the fjord, first Torres del Paine tour from deck 3 called at 8.15am. Large local tender used with 100 passengers. First on the boat were last off & this proved to be to our advantage as the first bus was filled but 2nd bus half empty. This bus saw a bit more than no 1 bus. We made stops for flora, flamingos & birds on a lake. Had to stop at a new bridge & walk across to older hotel bus on the other side. Hotel at grey lake provided a very good lunch, unfortunately the view of the Torres was completely clouded out. I did a short walk by the lake but we did not have a lot of time. On the way back we had several stops for photos at waterfall, flowers, guanacos, condors & gauchos with sheep. A long drive on graded roads but I enjoyed it even if we did not see the main objective, arrived back at ship at 6.15pm. The ship stayed at anchor overnight & it was possible to go ashore after dinner. Evening film was "flight of the condor"
Day twelve, Ship left early but I was up for coffee & the trip through the narrows. Sailed more fjords with a lot of glaciers & past another wrecked ship. Captain saw a whale in the afternoon & we turned round to get a photo op! In the evening we had our disembarkation talk for Punta Arenas. Day thirteen, sailed through more fjords with glaciers to Turner Island. Sailing past we saw many cormorants & a few Magellanic penguins, a pod of Dolphins swam around the ship. Sailed back out the way we came in. After lunch most people were at the charity auction of the ships chart & missed some spectacular scenery in Serrano sound. One fjord had 7 glaciers in view at the same time. We then entered another smaller fjord with brash ice all around & two glaciers at its head. We dropped anchor right in front of those for Captains dinner on our final night. What a sensational position & what a view for dinner, would have cost a fortune for that view at a restaurant in Europe! Very good dinner to end the cruise. Straight afterwards I was back on deck for the reflections in the fjord & the sail away between Fantastic Mountain & sky scenery in the setting sun. I finally had to leave the deck at 10.30pm to pack my bag as it needed to be outside the cabin door by 11pm. What a great day to end the cruise!
Disembarkation & travel home... The pier at Punta Arenas is a military one, no bus is allowed on. We were off the ship at 7.30am & had to carry our own hand luggage down 300 meters of pier to the waiting bus. Raining again, bus did a short orientation tour of Punta Arenas & dropped us in the main square at 8.20am telling us to be back for 10.55 to transfer to the airport. Nothing was open, I phoned my wife & then many of us found shelter in the hotel Los Hombres that I think is used by Hutigruten for passengers boarding in PA. After the bus to the airport it was the same procedure as in BA, boarding cards handed out with no allocated seats & through security to waiting area. Again a good flight with LAN & a good lunch served, very impressed with LAN. Arrived Santiago at 5.10pm, quite a wait for the bags then a long walk outside the terminal dragging our bags to a car park. Here bags were loaded on a truck & we boarded a bus that did another city orientation tour. Not very impressed with the guide on this tour, no explanations of the old buildings etc. Hotel was the Intercontinental & again a very good standard. There was a long line in the hospitality room for the already made out room keys but tea coffee & biscuits were laid on. Eventually I found our bags were at level minus 2, i.e. the car park under ground, I collected mine rather than wait for delivery. Now it was quite late so I did not go out to eat as some did, but ordered from room service. I thought this was very good & more reasonable than I expected. Good buffet breakfast next morning & bus to airport at 10.30am. Only 20 minutes to get there by the fast route. Checked in & through security quickly then a long wait for take off. Flight was again to Madrid on Iberia, worse conditions than on way out, poor food, poor service, my headphone plug was broken, someone else has a dirty seat. Justifying my rating of the worst airline I have flown on. After a flight from Madrid to Heathrow, a tube train into central London & another train home I eventually arrived home 52 hours after getting off the ship at Punta Arenas, but no worries, Antarctica was worth it.
Conclusion... All passengers I spoke to said what a superb cruise & experience we had. In my case it was almost a mystical experience having been to Antarctica 50 years ago on National Service & never having thought I would be able to get there again. The weather was kind to us, the ship was very good & the expedition staff superb, I consider myself very lucky. If you get half a chance, go before it is too late you will not regret it. I believe Hutigruten gives the best value for money in Antarctica & their polarCirkel boats are the best for landings. They are certainly the only way I could have travelled to Antarctica, as the small expedition ships were prohibitively expensive for me as a single passenger.