Hotel before the cruise: 2 nights at the Tierra del Leyendas in Ushuaia. What a wonderful little hotel! Warm, inviting with great service and food. It is hard to imagine a better start to an Antarctic trip than a stay at this little gem. Highly recommended!
The cruise: Before getting into the cruise, I have to make a few points about Ponant Customer Relations. We and our TA found it lacking and the communication very poor. Very shortly before departure (3 weeks), the company informed our agent they needed medical forms - and that we would be denied boarding if we did not have them signed by a physician and submitted. While the requirement of the form is not surprising, none of us had heard about the requirement since the cruise was booked (almost a year before sailing). In addition, no one had asked us about sizes for the parka we were to receive or how they were to be distributed. By comparison, Silversea asked our size for an Arctic cruise last year on the PA II (now the Silver Explorer) and had them for us when we boarded. Different procedures for different companies is certainly understandable, but a lack of communication and poor organization is not. As an aside, we were told the Ponant agent with whom our travel agent booked the cruise is no longer with them. Not exactly a surprise!
On the dock before the cruise: Ponant unfortunately continued to provide a less than expected experience when we had to pull our own luggage all the way to the end of the dock to the gangway. I have never had to pull my own bags (not just my carry-on) all the way to the ship. Surely there was some way to take baggage from passengers and convey it to the ship. By the way, once on board we had to go back to reception to bring 2 of the 4 bags to the cabin since they were left standing there. Very disorganized and somewhat weird.
The cruise: OK, enough of the bad stuff (just a little more to come). I am sure you think I am going to slam the cruise, but that is definitely not the case. I just felt it was necessary to share the bad with the good.
The ship is beautiful and very comfortable. The last bit of bad stuff is that there is a design flaw in the balcony doors on Deck 3. On the first morning in the Drake Channel (25-30 foot seas) our cabin flooded twice in the space of 3 hours. The flaw lets water in under the sill of the door as well as around the seal. Until the ship makes a technical stop (their term) it cannot be corrected. As a result, at least 7 cabins on Deck 3 had the water problem and we were all moved to unsold cabins on Deck 6. Thank goodness they had them available.
Service: Excellent. The cabin staff was tremendous and the dining room staff was superb.
Food: This has been a hot topic of debate on the reviews. The quality of the food and preparation was absolutely top-notch. I can understand, however, how some passengers might have been disappointed with only 2 choices of soup, 2 choices of starters, 3 choices of main course (a fish, a meat, and a pasta), and 2 choices of dessert nightly. There were limited choices always available - Caesar Salad, Grilled Ribeye, ice cream, and a cheese plate. For the Captain's Gala Welcome and Farewell Dinners, the menus were fixed - and delicious. For me, there was always an appealing choice and I would rather have fewer selections of excellently prepared, top quality food than a lot of so-so items to pick from. Breakfast was a buffet (plus one featured dish prepared to taste) and lunch was a themed buffet daily. Nice house wines and beer was served with lunch and dinner with extra cost selections available as well.
Public Rooms: Very appealing and well laid out.
Cabin: Except for the flooding in our first stateroom (325), they were well designed and laid out. There were two quirks, however - 1) There is a panel that can be moved to reveal a fixed window that looks into the bath from the bed area; 2) The toilet is in a small area by itself. You have to exit it and go into the separate area with the shower and sink to wash your hand. Very odd.
Entertainment: There were some very talented singers, dancers and musicians on-board. Entertainment was better than expected and made a nice way to end some evenings. In addition, Wii was available (I had never played) in 2 locations and made a nice diversion for the 5 children (and some adults - like us!) on-board. There was also a library (with a couple of tables for card playing or writing), computers (with available Internet packages), etc. In addition there were daily briefings and lectures like you would find on other Expedition cruises.
Expedition Staff: Very competent but not as outgoing or sociable as on Silversea. All in all, though, they were dedicated to our safety, making sure we had every opportunity to enjoy Antarctica, to enforcing the rules and regulations. I don't think you could ask for more. I will also include the Videographer and Photographer in this category. They were incredible and very helpful. The video DVD and photo CD (available in US and non-US formats) are fantastic.
Antarctica: The scenery and wildlife were amazing. Weather was always a challenge (snow probably half the time and rain others while near or on the continent). We saw the sun perhaps 1 or 2 days in addition to sail away and the day we returned. The tentative itinerary will definitely change due to ice, sea conditions (40 foot waves while fighting north on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula) and weather.
Favorite moment? There were 2. Brown Bluff (huge Adele Penguin Rookeries with new chicks and taking zodiacs to get off on an ice flow in Wilhelmina Bay.
I can only suggest that you go. You are in for an exhilarating and unique experience.