Temperatures will drop to about -2 degrees C in Antarctica. Bring layered clothing, a good camera, binocs. and a willingness to be awestruck!
There is no doubt it was the 'trip of a lifetime'. Here are some observations.
Weather- we had very good conditions, despite it being early in the season. The crossing of the Drake Passage was a dream heading south, and a little lumpy coming back, but not bad! Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires were warm, as to be expected. In Antarctica itself, the waterproof windbreakers they provided (and you get to keep!) were more than adequate with a decent polar fleece and turtleneck underneath. The coldest it got was -3 degrees C.
Food- Norwegian Coastal is Norwegian, and Norwegians eat fish, so expect eight kinds of herring, plus anchovy paste, shrimp and crayfish salads, smoked salmon, gravlax, and the rest of it. I was in heaven, but others, quite frankly, had their fill after a couple of days aboard.
But fear not- there was also whole Patagonian lamb, suckling pig, Argentinean steaks barbecued on the aft deck, and lots of salads, endless versions of potatoes, and of course, truly excellent desserts. Especially good were the mousses (usually about three or four of them at lunch or dinner), and the cheesecakes. Most days were buffets, and they were favored over the more formal plate service. There was a Norwegian themed buffet one night, and a Philippine one on another (the staff, other than the Norwegian officers, were almost all Filipino, and a delight!). Ashore in Patagonia, take advantage of the excellent regional cuisine, and of course, drink lots of wine. Onboard, they offered a 4-pack of wine for about $60USD, a deal.
For those who needed more than three square, there was a 24 hour self serve cafeteria with coffees, teas, and yet more cakes, pies and other confections.
Amenities aboard- limited! No tv's or DVD's in the staterooms, quite a lot of down time between shore excursions and while crossing the Drake (36 hours each way). There is a good library, and you can sign out special books if you need that ornithological atlas or history of Antarctic explorers. There are puzzles and cards. There was a forward lounge that was almost always in use by guests just staring at the wondrous panoramas. A very small fitness room was hardly used, and remarkably, only a few cottoned onto the twin hot tubs located in a very sheltered spot on the 6th level aft deck. A great place to watch, again, the passing glorious viewscapes.
There is good internet, and one hour costs $10. What is absolutely extraordinary, though, is the telephone connectivity. A 40 minute card costs $17, and you can call home within seconds. You would think you're talking to someone in the next room, the service is so good. You'll get hooked, believe me.
Liquor prices and selection are not the greatest, but there were few serious imbibers aboard. You could bring your own booze if you drank in your stateroom. There was a nightly special, and Aquavit was the favorite.
Staterooms- I wouldn't encourage purchase of an inside cabin. With daylight extending 20 hours a day, there is always something to look at out the window. So spring for a decent category. I recommend N or higher. The berths are singles until you get into the junior suite category, and furnishings are spare. But immaculately clean, like the whole ship, and all you need. The bathrooms are snug, but absolutely workable. The wiring is 220 volt, so bring a converter to charge your camera batteries or run that small electronic device you might have brought along.
Itinerary-there is no doubt this is 'Antarctica Lite'- we didn't venture much south of 65 degrees, and in fact were blocked from entering Lemaire Passage because of ice conditions. However, we clearly saw the best-of-the-best. If you take an icebreaker, you will get further south but by all accounts from sea hardened expedition leaders we saw pretty much everything you might want to. Later in the season there are more whales- we saw only half a dozen or so, and the penguin chicks will have hatched, but we saw the spring snow fields in all their glory.
As well, we got to venture into the Weddell Sea, where giant chunks of the Larsen iceshelf have broken off and would float past in endless succession. The ship could maneuver to within a few meters of these behemoths- sometimes over a hundred feet high (with the other 800 feet or so below the surface). They were well over a kilometer long and half that width- containing about a billion or so gallons of ancient frozen water.
Which brings up the point about global warming- the lecturers talked about the issue a lot. Some populations of penguins have been dislocated due to warming conditions, and in Patagonia, the glaciers are rapidly retreating. In Antarctica itself, the ice isn't leaving any time too soon, but without doubt there are changes. The krill, on which the whales, pelagic birds and penguins feed, is diminishing, and areas that were once snow covered-eg at Port Lockroy, are now bare of snow even in their 'May'. If you really feel compromised traveling half way round the world and adding to the CO2 atmospheric load, we can arrange for you to purchase offsetting carbon credits. click here to find out how to offset CO2 Feel good about your adventure!
The five days we spent in Patagonia were phenomenal. Perfect weather for Torres del Paine- a long day aboard a coach to get glimpses of the Unesco Heritage Site National Park. Punta Arenas is actually a delightful town, and Puerto Natales, with its endless trekker services, beckons for a return visit. Even tiny Puerto Williams, jumping off point to Cape Horn, has its charms, and we spent a pleasant morning walking around and viewing the 'Yacht Club at the End of the Earth'. We even ran into Rolf Bjelke on the dock, captain of a 40 foot sailboat that he and partner Deborah Shapiro had sailed to Antarctica and overwintered in the very areas we were to visit. Their tale, published as Time on Ice, cemented their legendary status among bluewater sailors. Ushuaia is a sizable town with three excellent museums/galleries- one of them in an old prison! Strongly recommended.
Expedition leaders- there were historians, geologists, bird biologists, whale and penguin experts, even a glaciologist aboard. They gave lectures and showed slides/played naturalist themed movies pretty much every day. In German, French and English (separately!) You could not have asked for more topical information. Which suited the guests just fine- most were 50's to 70's, well traveled, well educated, and game for adventure. It was delightful to see a late 80's pair of identical twins decked out in polar gear, eager to get out onto the ice each day.
We got about 10 shore landings, each about an hour in duration. The loading of the Polar Cirkel inflatables was done by 'grupas'- in our case 9 groups who were called in rotating order. So you had a pretty good idea of when you needed to be on deck 2, decked out in your gear, lifejacket secured, ready to go. Once ashore, you could stay a bit beyond your allotted hour, because some people always went back a bit early. The boats were safe, fast, and very professionally handled. A couple of times, we just did a little driveabout, weaving between icebergs and along dramatic shorelines.
The ship itself was VERY agile, and could literally turn in its own length, thanks to fore and aft thrusters. We got into places I swear looked impassable. For sure, you don't do that on Princess Cruises, and the 100 passenger adventure ships that do get closer just aren't nearly as comfortable. NCV is very good compromise!
Most of all, you needed a good camera. I shot over a thousand pictures on my new Nikon D70s digital, and felt like a rank amateur compared to some of the real camera fiends. Despite the hackneyed term, this is a world class experience, and recording it HAS to be one of the greater pleasures. And if you missed the great shot, don't worry- the staff take loads of pictures and sell a CD of the best on the last day. We bought one...
Travel arrangements- The inclusive package includes air from a North American gateway city, a night in Santiago (at the 5 star Intercontinental), an internal charter flight to Punta Arenas, return to Buenos Aires with an overnight at the very deluxe Panamericano, then return home. Transfers are included.
I STRONGLY recommend air deviations to allow for a longer stay pre/post cruise. It is a long way to travel, and squeezing a couple of extra days either end makes a lot of sense. Our small sub-group got together and did day trips to wine country (Colchagua and Maipo Valleys) in Chile, as well as to Valparaiso and the seaside home of Chilean literary icon Pablo Neruda. We retained a van that comfortably seated seven of us and the knowledgeable driver/guide. The 12 hour tours cost about $90 each/day all in, with the independence to choose exactly what we wanted to see and for how long, plus delightful lunches. We did a half day self directed tour of Santiago, and in doing so ran into the same tour buses that would have been the alternative. Do eat out at any of the fantastic restaurants located within two blocks of the hotel. Imagine gourmet dining for $30/person with exquisite wines. By the way, generous buffet breakfasts were supplied at the hotels.
In Buenos Aires we retained a professional guide, who packed in more BA than could have been imagined. Everything from the San Telmo market to La Boca, eating huge steaks at the famous Parilla Las Lilas in Puerto Madero, visiting the Museo del Belle Artes (fabulous!), the trendy area known as Recoletta- with the grand Hotel Alvear as its striking hub, and time left over for shopping- leather and jewelry being very good buys.
Norwegian Coastal offers pre/post trips to Iguassu Falls, Atacama desert in northern Chile, even Easter Island. I tried to price these out independently, and their packages were very price competitive.
Tipping- is at your own discretion, but please, be generous. The crew on all ships work very hard, long hours, every day, away from family, for pretty low base pay. Your gratuities make all the difference. The recommended amount is $12USD/person/day, on your credit card. If you prefer, vary that, and leave envelopes with cash for your cabin steward and servers.
By the way, bank machines work well in Argentina and Chile, and cards are nearly universally accepted. But do take small denomination US dollars, for tips and for incidentals. These are still developing countries, and your dollar looks like three dollars to an Argentinean! A small price to pay for a big privilege in seeing this part of the world.