DW and I had done 19 previous cruises to the usual places (Caribbean, Mediterranean, Alaska, etc) and recently visited Iceland and Greenland on a Transatlantic cruise. The scenery was fantastic and got us thinking about visiting Antarctica. We like hiking and wildlife viewing, but also like coming home to a nice hotel or cruise ship where we can have a great meal and a clean place to sleep - we're not into tents or camping.
We also were looking to check off continents #6 and #7, and this itinerary gave us the chance to see Buenos Aires & Ushuaia, as well as a chance to step on the continent of Antarctica. We knew that a larger non-expedition ship that only does a drive-by would not satisfy us.
Booking was easy; there were a few cabins still available in July so we plunked down some extra to get a larger suite, as well as business class airfare. For long flights, it's worth it, IMO. We used Silversea's air program which gave us a very nice itinerary; from Albany NY to Buenos Aires with one stop in Atlanta.
Using Silversea's air program was handy when our first flight from Albany to Atlanta was delayed 6 hours due to mechanical difficulties; I called our TA while waiting in the (long) line at the airport and she got us switched to a new itinerary through JFK within a few minutes.
We arrived in BA around 11 AM and were met by a SS rep just outside of customs. Luckily, it was a national holiday so there was minimal traffic on the way to the hotel and we were there just after noon. Check-in was quite efficient and we were in our room for a shower and change of clothes by 12:30, ready to go exploring. I've used other cruise lines hotel packages and they don't guarantee room availability for early check-in; SS does and that was a really nice perk after a long night of flying.
Buenos Aires was OK and we did some fun things there, but that's not really the topic of the review. The hotel (Park Tower BA) is a Starwood Preferred Group property and quite luxurious; breakfast was included and we really enjoyed the hotel. 2 days later, we had to be ready to catch the bus to the airport at 5AM so we could get to our charter flight to Ushuaia.
The charter flight was probably the least organized/smooth aspect of the whole cruise, but not bad by any means. We arrived at the airport at 5:30 or so for a 7:00 flight, but it got delayed until some time after 8:00 so we all sat around for quite some time not knowing what was going on. The flight down was OK; coach class on LAN. Ushuaia airport is tiny and from there we got on buses and went for a scenic drive, then lunch. After that, we went for a bit more sightseeing before driving to the pier to embark.
Embarkation was lightning fast and the cabins were ready when we got there.
The ship itself is small but our suite was quite nice; the size is larger than a Penthouse suite on Oceania but smaller than the Owner's suite. Decoration was comparable to or nicer than what we've had on Oceania or Princess. Amenities and toiletries were Bulgari; the suite felt very luxurious. We had a bottle of champagne waiting for us but with all the wine and drinks included, it was almost impossible to find time to drink it! Also, we had a nice box of Godiva truffles waiting for us as well...
The ship layout isn't very complicated - the back stairs connect the dining room (Deck 4) and the Panorama Lounge (Deck 5), and the front stairs lead to the theater and the Observation Lounge (both Deck 6). Cabins are on 3, 4, and 5 mostly mid-ship; there are a few suites on 7. There's also a neat spiral staircase in the dining room that leads directly to the Panorama lounge - so you don't need to walk as far for your after-dinner drink.
Not much entertainment, but enough - if you're here to see Antarctica then that isn't really a problem. Nights in the Panorama lounge there was a piano player, and we got to do some dancing, relaxing, talking to other passengers and staff, and every few nights they had Karaoke (ugh)...
I can't say enough about the level of service that we encountered - hands down the best we've seen. By day 2 most of the staff knew our names and our drink preferences. When we appeared in the Panorama lounge after lunch the bartender would bring our double espressos as soon as he saw us. The bar staff were attentive and would get you whatever wine you desired. The dining room staff were excellent as well.
Food quality was probably a touch better than Oceania - which IMO is a real compliment. I wasn't expecting such good food on an expedition ship, and we were quite surprised. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet-style which initially worried me - some bad experiences on the buffet line with other cruise lines... But the buffets were uniformly excellent, and the variety quite good. Dinners were traditional sit-down style with usually 3 appetizer choices, 3 soup/salad choices, and 4 entrees including a vegetable option. Suffice it to say we never had a bad dish the whole time. Seating was open for all meals, with some tables for 2 and some larger tables. We often joined other couples at tables for 6-8. The neat thing about that is that the expedition staff would come in and eat with us at these larger tables - so it was a great chance to talk to them informally about a wide variety of topics.
The expedition staff were uniformly fabulous. Conrad was expedition leader, and from him on down they were all personable, knowledgeable, and friendly. In addition to Conrad there were 2 asst. leaders, a historian, a mountain guide from Patagonia, and 4 other naturalists. We learned so much from them, and really enjoyed their company. They lectured once or twice a day on various interesting topics, and gave ad hoc small presentations during the nightly recap meetings.
We got through the dreaded Drake Passage with time to spare and attempted a bonus landing at Penguin Island the night before our first "scheduled" landing. Ice conditions and weather precluded making this landing, so we were disappointed but eager to land the next day.
We were divided up into 4 groups and 2 would land at one time. Group 1&2 landed first, then 3&4. For the next landing, Groups 2&3 landed first, then Groups 4&1, and so forth. So we all had a chance to land first (early morning - ugh) vs. later on in the day.
The process of gearing up for landing took some learning... Traffic flow to and from the mudroom is tricky with everyone milling around the relatively small reception area. It might make sense for them to have us gather elsewhere, and then take us to the mudroom to change into boots in smaller groups. But that's only a minor issue. Zodiac rides were fun, and occasionally you'd get splashed. We kept our cameras in Ziploc bags and/or under our parkas and they were fine. Landings were "wet" with a few steps in the water before reaching land. The crew were pros at getting us into and out of the boats with minimal difficulty.
We made our first landing at Brown Bluff, on the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, so this was our big moment to claim #7. After savoring that for all of 2 seconds, we were engrossed by the innumerable penguins milling about withing 20 feet of the landing site. Gentoos and Adelies nesting in huge numbers, swimming, waddling around - I'm sure they got Kodachrome poisoning from all the pictures being taken. Saw a skua stealing an egg which was a downer though. Had a nice hike up the hill to a panoramic view of huge tabular icebergs floating in the Antarctic sound... Lovely day.
After that we went to Deception island - which is a ring-shaped island with a lagoon in the center - think Santorini with snow and ice. Made two landings there - one at an old whaling station; the decrepit buildings in the harsh volcanic landscape were very picturesque. Some of us took the opportunity to make a "Polar Plunge" in the bracingly cold water... The first few inches were volcanically heated, but after that it took your breath away. We were rewarded by a few chinstrap penguins on the beach. Later we landed on another part of the island and hiked to the volcanic crater from the 1970 eruption. On the way back there was a crabeater seal hauled out on the beach, and more chinstraps.
Next day we went to Paradise Harbour further down the peninsula to visit Gonzalez Videla - a Chilean base which is smack in the middle of a huge Gentoo rookery. Guano everywhere! We tucked our rain pants into our rubber boots and were glad we did... But rewarded by great views of nests, eggs, and penguins all over the place. No chicks yet; a bit early in the season. After a brief stop in their small gift shop (T-shirts and landing "certificates") we pulled up anchor and moved to a different spot in Paradise harbor for Zodiac cruising among the icebergs. We were rewarded by seeing several Weddel seals out on the icebergs, as well as nesting Antarctic Shags, Petrels, and Skuas.
Next day we went to Arthur Harbor for a visit to the US Palmer base and Torgensen Island. The island is small and had a big Adelie rookery. Lots of eggs, but still no chicks. We caught a glimpse of a leopard seal lurking about off shore, but had a great view of a large group of elephant seals lounging about on an adjacent island. They are noisy and rambunctious - great views of them flopping about, half-fighting half-playing with each other. Palmer base is larger than Gonzalez Videla - we got a tour of their facilities, gift shop, and Antarctic aquarium. It is still a bit early for the summer "crowd" (about 150 at peak occupancy) so not much science to see. After the tour we had hot chocolate and brownies, and talked informally to some of the staff. Lastly, as an added bonus we were able to squeeze in a short visit to historic Port Lockroy, where we could buy postcards and mail them to folks back home with authentic "British Antarctic Territory" stamps. More Gentoo penguins, guano, and skuas here as well as interesting rooms left as they were in the 1950s when the buildings were last used as a working British base.
After a long day, we were glad that the next day was easier - we did scenic cruising through the Lemaire channel in the morning. The skies were overcast so we couldn't see the tops of the mountains but it was neat cruising through brash ice and occasionally maneuvering around larger bergs. The weather started getting blustery with snow flurries but we decided to try landing on Petermann island anyway - a bit of a scramble over wet rock but manageable. Once there, we finally saw our first Adelie penguin chick! We also hiked up to the saddle to look south, as this was the southernmost point of our expedition - about 65 degrees, 10 minutes south - only 70 some miles to the Antarctic circle - so close, but not for this trip.
We turned north to make one more stop in the South Shetlands - the Aitcho island group. We had a special treat at this stop - in addition to tons of Gentoos and Chinstraps, there was one lonely King penguin hanging out at the rookeries looking for - what, we didn't know. But it was quite unexpected, as they breed much further south. Great photo ops - green hillsides with moss, the larger King next to the smaller penguins, a leopard seal lazing on the distant beach, more elephant seals, another skua attack... We climbed a snowy hill and slid down on our parkas. Wonderfully picturesque and great nature shots.
After that it was time to brave the Drake - first night was a bit rough but we still made good time and got into the Beagle channel early Sunday morning. Leisurely cruising by mountains, Magellanic penguin rookeries (that made 5 species seen this trip), and a massive colony of terns.
We arrived in Ushuaia by dinnertime so had some time to explore that evening - the town isn't much but it has beautiful scenery and great sunsets.
Disembarkation was smooth the next morning - we had a leisurely breakfast and disembarked just before 9AM. It was a short hop on the bus off the pier to the town; from there we had until 11:30 to spend as we liked. Again, the town isn't much and the other problem with this was that nothing is really open until 10:00 AM. So we wandered, took some pictures, looked at overpriced souvenirs, and finally sat on a park bench overlooking the Beagle Channel watching a tall ship go by and catching some sunshine.
From there, we went to the Ushuaia airport and back to BA. Had to transfer between the airports which was a 75 minute ride in rush-hour traffic, but we figured it was either rest on the bus, or sit in the airport so no problem spending extra time on the bus. From BA, an overnight flight back home and that's about all.
I have to say this was the best cruise out of 20 that we've now taken in terms of food, service, pampering, and organization. Silversea seemed to go out of their way to make you comfortable and happy the whole time - from the moment we were met in the airport to the time they dropped us off. DW and I have found our new "Favorite Cruise Line" and booked a trip to the Arctic with them for August 2011. It can't come soon enough!