Being in a mini-suite gave us certain perks; such as, the first stocking of the mini-bar was complimentary. We also received free drinks with our meals, and we had lovely mint chocolates on our bed each evening. We had a comfortable queen-size bed with two individual duvets and three pillows. We asked for and received a fourth pillow. The bed was covered with an unusual terry cloth type sheet, which we decided was to help hold us on the bed during heavy seas versus a slippery cotton sheet. The bathroom was continually stocked with a small bar of soap, shampoo and lotion in tiny bottles and shower caps. However, there were also, dispensers with body wash/shampoo mounted next to the sink and in the shower. There were curved glass doors for the shower with a showerhead, which could be adjusted to different sprays. They used a bungee cord/lock system to hold the doors during heavy seas.
Our TV system worked spasmodically due to several factors. However, Channel 2 under the Info setting was important for hearing announcements that kept you informed on your landing status. There was neither CD nor radio in our suite. The telephone was supposed to be able to set up wake-up calls, but every time we tried to set it, the system was busy. Luckily, we brought our own travel clock. The hair dryer was located under the TV in a drawer, and it would reach into the bathroom for styling. There was also a magnifying mirror attached next to the sink area which came in handy for various grooming needs. The bathroom floor had a heating element that worked nicely.
We had procured our own airfare from and to the United States, but we did use the charter air to and from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. This flight was with LAN Argentina. Going it was first come first served on seating, so a few folks pushed to be at the front to get the first class seats. We were able to obtain the emergency door exit seats, which was nice also. On our return charter flight with LAN, we had assigned seats. The snack both coming and going consisted of two little sweets and a small bag of ham flavored crackers with a glass of soda or water.
We chose not to book a shore excursion in Ushuaia because we had visited the city on a previous cruise, we had places we wanted to explore. The ship had arranged for buses to pick us up at the airport. It was supposed to be one bus for German speaking passengers and another bus for English speakers. However, the English speaking bus filled before we cleared the Agricultural Inspection, so several guests who spoke English had to pile onto the German bus. The guide did an admirable job of presenting her talk in both languages. We visited two overlooks, and then they let us off in the city for a few of hours. We chose to visit the old prison museum which was quite fascinating and well worth the small charge. They had lockers where we could leave our packages. About 5 p.m. we returned to the bus and were transported to the dock and the ship. Earlier our passports had been collected which were then delivered to the ship.
Upon arrival at the ship, we had to be processed through several lines. The first line was to get photographed for your ship's I.D., and to take care of the credit card business. The second line was to turn in your Medical Forms to the Ship's Doctor. This had to be done in person, not by a spouse, other relative or friend. Finally, we were fitted and were able to pick up our coats. This coat is not a parka, but are water-resistant and has a nice hood and pockets. They are NOT waterproof nor are they fleece lined. Taking your fleece jacket to wear under this coat is necessary for warmth. Our luggage was waiting for us at the door of our suite when we finished the processing.
We had open seating for a buffet dinner that night. In our cabin was a notice that assigned us a table for the sit down dinners. On those nights, we had Table 10, which was a great table next to the windows for four guests. However, there was another table butted up against our table for another four guests, which was not a problem.
The buffets were interesting considering what an international mix of passengers they had to cater for each day. Usually, there would be fish and one other main meat on the buffet. The same for sit down dinners. Besides the fish, they served a variety of meat such as reindeer, pork, chicken and beef. There was always soup, salad and a cheese selection. The fresh baked breads and a wonderful variety of desserts were excellent. We don't eat most fish or reindeer, so when that was on the menu, we requested another alternate meat. This alternate had to be approved by the chef. Therefore, at lunch, we would look at the posted menu for the sit down dinner, and we would make our decision about dinner. We had fried chicken, steak and a hamburger as alternates. On the posted menu they offer the main meat and the other listed meat would be an alternate. If you did not want the main meat listed, then you had to go to the HeadWaiter and request the alternate meat listed. You were not supposed to wait until dinner to request an alternate. They gave you a laminated label that said alternate, which you brought to dinner that night and placed at your seat. If you were picky like us, you could request a special alternate, which was not on the menu or even on the buffet. They were always gracious when we requested something different. They offered tap water, special water with and without gas, teas, coffee, sodas and alcohol. You would sign for those drinks that were not complimentary, which was based on your cabin category. This procedure was not explained, but was discovered by asking questions.
After dinner, one of the first orders of business was the LifeBoat Drill, which was a little different. We did not put on life jackets, but we did watch a crewmember put on an Emergency Survival Suit and a life jacket.
Later that evening, they held a Welcome Meeting in the QILAK Observation Lounge on Deck 7 that was the usual introduction of the staff and how the expedition would be conducted.
For landings, the passengers were divided into Boat Groups. There were eight groups with about 32 guests assigned to each boat. The first two groups appeared to be German speaking guests. Groups three through six were a mix of nationalities, and the final two groups appeared to be Chinese. We visited with passengers from Norway, Switzerland, France, England, Germany, China, Australia, Canada, India, and America. Announcements and lectures were usually offered in English, German and Chinese. The eight groups rotate through so that everyone gets to be the first group off the ship at least once.
A daily programme is distributed to your cabin with meal times, lectures, landings and other items of interest. At the end of the voyage, you receive a complimentary Ship's Log (CD) with all of this information plus a wildlife list, maps, distances sailed and other memories of the voyage. They emphasized that due to the nature of the expedition and the necessity of a flexible itinerary that mealtimes and lectures could change from what had been posted in the daily programme.
On day two, we had three lectures: "Eye of the Storm" with Christopher Gilbert on the Falkland's history; "Jewels of the South Atlantic" with Manuel Marin on the birds of the Falklands, South Georgia and South Orkneys'; "Sub Antarctic Islands" with Rudolf Thomann, which was on life at the entrance to the Antarctic. After dinner a film: "The Falkland Islands - a Natural Kingdom" in English was shown on a repeating basis for three hours in Polhogda Hall.
Day three we landed at West Point Island in the Falklands in the morning. We visited the Napiers whose family settled the island in 1879. We walked about 1.5 miles to Devil's Nose to see several thousand Black-Browed Albatrosses and Rockhopper Penguins. Both bird groups had many babies. The family offered tea and cookies in their lovely home. Guests were requested to leave their rubber boots in the lovely garden. That afternoon we visited New Island which is run by the owners as a nature preserve. There were Black-Browed Albatrosses, Rockhopper Penguins, Imperial Cormorants, Striated Caracaras, and one lone Macaroni Penguin. That evening after the dinner buffet they showed the film: "The Falklands Play" which was the backroom story to the Thatcher's war.
Day four was a visit to Port Stanley. We chose to take the Volunteer Point shore excursion that lasts about 7 hours and travels by 4 X 4 vehicles. This is a very rough, back jarring ride, but a great way to see the countryside and visit three different penguin rookeries. The vehicles got stuck frequently, and others in the caravan would pull them out of the bogs. One vehicle had a blow out, one lost one of its drive shafts and almost everyone got stuck in a creek or bog at least once. There is no road that goes all the way to Volunteer Point so you are riding across open fields, creeks and bogs. We saw Gentoo, Magellenic and King Penguins with lots and lots of baby penguins at the reserve. A very nice sack lunch was served. After returning to Stanley, we took advantage of the free shuttle bus to do some quick shopping in town. That evening after the dinner buffet they showed a film: "Wale - Tumbledown" about the Falkland War.
Day five we had several lectures: "Tales of Whales I have Known Part I" with Andrew Wenzel, "Silent Men Who do Things" with Christopher Gilbert on Shackleton and the ship Endurance, "Penguins - Those from the Other Side" by Manuel Marin, "Polar Photography" with Dominic Barrington, and "Marine Mammal Research" with Julian Bastida on seal migration. After our dinner, there was a film: "South Georgia Briefing for Visitors", and guests had to sign the declaration on Biosecuity checks for South Georgia. Later that evening there was a fashion show utilizing the ship's officers as models. Also, Day five started the bridge tours, which was set up by the boat group numbers.
Day six had lectures: "Tales of Whales I Have Known II" by Andrew Wenzel, "The Jewels of the South - South Georgia and South Orkneys" by Manuel Marin on birds, "Welcome to Africa - Geology of the Falkland Islands and Beyond" by Steffen Biersack. Also, the mandatory IAATO briefing was held today and more bridge tours. They also offered a vacuum service for backpacks and other things you would be bringing ashore from home. After dinner the film: "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure" with original footage from Frank Hurley was shown. It was great! We passed the Shag Rocks in the early afternoon. They are six small islands about 150 miles west of South Georgia and jut up about 246 feet. Very jagged rocks.
Day seven we landed at Fortuna Bay in the morning. Many of the passengers had signed up for the hike to trace part of Shakleton's journey over the mountains of South Georgia from Fortuna Bay to Stromness Bay. We chose not to take the hike. That morning as you waited to go on or to enjoy after your landing, they showed the film: "The Story of the King Penguin". At Fortuna Bay, we saw King Penguins, Fur and Elephant seals and many flighted birds. There were huge numbers of King Penguins and babies at Whistle Cove that also had a beautiful glacier in the background. That afternoon we landed at Stromness Bay which was home to three deserted whaling stations. You could not enter the station buildings for safety reasons. The weather was wet and misty with the ground being very muddy and slippery. There were hundreds of fur seals everywhere that made traveling around the whaling station a bit daunting. The big guys and their ladies did not appear to care that you were walking near them. However, the young male Fur Seals were very aggressive. My DH was charged five times by a young male who was not frightened off by two staff and us. We were instructed to NEVER run from the seals, but to stand your ground, lift your arms wide and then clap and make a lot of noise. All four of us were doing just that, but it took a lot of effort by all four of us to send this young male on his way. During our time in South Georgia, we had several encounters with seals. Even the babies would growl at you. The seals do not stay long on the beaches, so if you visited at a different time, you would not be dealing with territorial seals.
Day eight we visited Grytviken, South Georgia. This is where Sir Ernest Shackleton and others are buried. We had Christmas Eve services at the Whaler's Church. The Captain read the Christmas story in Norwegian and another staff member read it in German. In addition, a retired Lutheran Minister read the story and gave a short talk in English. Catherine and Manuela from the ship, accompanied us as we sang Christmas hymns on the church's organ and violin. We also visited the excellent little museum and well stocked shop at Grytviken. On board the ship, the museum staff had set up a little post office. There were stamps, post cards and coins for sale. After dinner, everyone was invited to the QILAQ bar to await Santa. We decorated the Christmas tree with handicrafts made from offered supplies. We sang Christmas carols and walked around the Christmas Tree, and we were rewarded by Santa's arrival with gifts. Everyone received a ship's T-shirt from the company and Captain. Again, Catherine and Manuela provided the music for the evening.
Day nine we passed through the Antarctic Convergence which is where the warmer waters of the north meet the colder, denser, less saline waters of the south. While in the area we were privileged to see thousands of birds feeding and flying all around the ship. We also enjoyed lectures: "Hell Served for Breakfast" with Christopher Gilbert on the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, "Penguins: The Brushtailed Life and Death Part I" by Manuel Marin, "Antarctic Cycles" by Miguel Rubio Godoy. After dinner the film: "The March of the Penguins" was shown. Later they had a quiz on the lectures in the QILAQ bar with nice prizes. Teams were divided up by their boat groups.
Day Ten we had more lectures: "Sitting with Seals" with Andrew Wenzel and "Geology and Geography of Antarctica" with Steffen Biersack. That evening we had the film: "Madagascar". The highlight of the day was a landing in the South Orkneys and a visit to the oldest continuous Antarctic Research Station: Orcadas. They have been collecting data since 1904. It was a lovely visit with penguins, seals and seeing the station. They were very friendly mailed postcards for those who bought them and the postage.
Day Eleven we enjoyed lectures: "Staying Warm: Adaptation to the Life in the Freezer" with Miguel Rubio Godoy, ""Abandon Hope all Ye Who Enter Here with Christopher Gilbert, "Penguins the Brush Tailed Life and Death Part II" by Manuel Marin. The film for the evening was "With Norwegian Whalers to South Georgia" It included original footage from the Larsen expedition in 1928 and was a silent film. It was extremely interesting. Today, we sailed very close to Elephant Island which where 22 marooned members of Shackleton's expedition stayed for four and a half months till they were rescue. The weather was awful with heavy winds, sleet and snow while we tried to get an idea of the area where those men had to live. It was the worst weather of the trip.
Day Twelve had two landings. The first was a rare landing at the Chinese Great Wall Station, which normally does not receive many visitors. It is located on King George Island and which is the largest of the South Shetland Islands. They had wonderful facilities and were very friendly. They had a small souvenir shop where many dollars and euros were spent. Our Captain and staff exchanged gifts and business cards with the Station Leader, Ting Xu. That afternoon we landed at Yankee Harbour on Greenwich Island. We saw Weddell Seals and about 4000 pairs of Gentoos. There were reports of seeing a Leopard Seal off shore. There was a lot of floating ice at the landing site, but our Polar Cirkel boats had no problems getting us ashore. Our crew carried back a fairly large chuck of clear ice, which the galley wanted to use for an ice carving show that evening.
Day Thirteen saw us traveling through the Antarctic Sound into the Weddell Sea and trying to land at Brown Bluff. However, the winds kept that site iced in, so we visited Paulet Island where we were doing Polar Cirkel boat cruising to see a penguin rookery and the many icebergs floating around the ship. However, the weather turned bad and only a small number of passengers were able to take this cruise. Those who did were soaked and miserable before they could return to the ship. Then we visited a new site for the ship. It was on Joinville where we saw Adealie and Gentoo Penguins, and many seals. While sailing through the Sound, we saw Leopard, Crabeater, and Weddell Seals, and many penguins resting on the icebergs. We could not count the number of Tabular Icebergs we passed in the Sound. The sun came out for a while which made the icebergs dazzle in the sea. The film that night was "Climate Wars Episode 2"
Day Fourteen had us arrive at the volcanic caldera of Deception Island. Our ship made it through Neptune's Bellows and anchored in the natural harbour. Some had signed up for a walk between Whalers Bay and Baily Head and back. We chose to explore the old whaler's village there. We had an amazing encounter with Chinstrap Penguins on the deserted beach, and visited the old aircraft hanger. Deception Island was the site where the first flight took off to fly over Antarctica. When you put your fingers into the sand near the water, it was very warm. Some folks took a "polar plunge" while there because of the warmer water. That afternoon we visited our last stop in Antarctica - Half Moon. There was a large Chinstrap Penguin rookery plus Gentoos, and one loan Macaroni penguin. We also saw many seals resting on the deep snow.
Day Fifteen offered several lectures: "Cormorants the Untold Story" by Manuel Marin, "Ice-Portrait of a surprising Material" with Steffen Biersack, "living in Polar Seas" by Andrew Wenzel, and "Fossils of Antarctica" by Rudolf Thomann. After the special New Years dinner, the showed the 11 minute film "Dinner for One". There was a hat parade with prizes in the Observation Lounge to celebrate the New Year.
Day Sixteen had more enjoyable lectures: "History of Whaling" by Christopher Gilbert, "Climate Change" with Miguel Rubio Godoy and "Comparison Arctic - Antarctic" with Tessa Van Drie. Later there was a Climate Discussion with Rudolf Thomann, Miguel Rubio Godoy and Stefan Stoll. Later Dominic our ship photographer presented a preview of the trip DVD that was great. That evening we had our Captain's Dinner, which was very special. Then we had to pack for disembarkation the next morning. Our luggage had to be placed next to the elevator before 11 p.m.
Day Seventeen went well with quick exits off the ship. They did let us keep our cruise cards, but every passport had to be inspected because one guest's passport had gone missing. She was going to have to visit her country's consulate in Buenos Aires at the end of the Charter Flight. We had a little more time in Ushuaia before we were transferred to the airport for our Charter Flight back to Buenos Aires.
This was truly "A Trip of a Lifetime", and we would highly recommend this ship, staff and our tour company "Expedition Trips".