Australis is the only cruise line that offers expedition cruises around the Chilean fjords and the southernmost islands on earth on its one ship, Stella Australis. (A second, Ventus Australis, is on the way, due for launch in January 2018.)
The ship offers a unique opportunity to visit a stunning and little known landscape of glaciers, fjords, cascading waterfalls, tiny islands and pretty bays full of wildlife. Even the names themselves -- Tierra del Fuego (land of fire), Patagonia, Beagle Channel, Magellan Straits -- conjure up a distant and dramatic land.
Which is exactly what it is.
It also gives cruise passengers the opportunity to visit (almost) the southernmost point of South America -- Cape Horn -- site of myths, legends and countless shipwrecks (Editor's note: The southernmost islands of South America are in fact the Diego Ramirez islands).
Little visited, and sparsely populated, Tierra del Fuego and its neighboring islands are rich with an astonishing history, breathtaking landscape and a stark and rugged beauty.
We got onboard Stella Australis for a four-night cruise to discover this land. Here are nine highlights from our time onboard.
1. The Ship
Stella Australis is a 200-passenger expedition ship, but any preconceptions that it's a rough affair should be abandoned now. The cabins are all big for an expedition vessel -- 177 square feet, with four at 220 square feet. They have huge floor-to-ceiling picture windows, comfortable beds and lots of space. There are even French bathroom products, rather than generic shampoos and gels from dispensers. There are no balconies, but as one crew member said to me that's probably wise as the waters can be choppy. There are three lounges, including one with a bar. This is expedition cruising in very comfortable surrounds -- not luxury, but not far off.
2. The Crew
The small crew (64) were friendly, helpful and kind, working as a close-knit team to make the journey memorable. The guides, especially, were outstanding. Special mention must go to head guide Marcello, who has been with the company for 13 years and whose depth of knowledge and deep professionalism stood out; Sarah, new this year, who gave an outstanding talk about the native people of the area; Rodrigo for his laid-back humor; and Javier for his excellent commentaries and insights.
It's also worth stating that every single one of the guides made safety and the concern of the passengers their number one priority -- getting us on and off the Zodiacs with real care; informing us in great detail what to expect the next day in terms of tricky parts (mud or steepness); and ensuring that we were always comfortable on the excursions.
3. Fellow Passengers
We had 16 nationalities onboard, predominantly North American (U.S. and Canada), but also German, French, Australian, British, Colombian, Chilean, Mexican and Argentinian. Despite language differences, every single one got on -- at dinner, on the Zodiacs and on the shore excursions. The atmosphere onboard was convivial, friendly and relaxed. Everyone was here for the same reason -- to explore and to see the unspoiled natural beauty of the region.
4. The Landscape
The landscape or the marine life or both (if you're lucky) are always the stars on expedition cruises, and our cruise was no exception. The number of glaciers and waterfalls you see is astonishing; you even cruise down an aptly named channel called Glacier Alley where each glacier is named after a country. Sunsets (at this time of year) are long and languorous, and the stunning sunrise at the end of the world is a thing of beauty. One of the pleasures of this cruise is the navigation, either sitting in your cabin looking out of your picture window, or in one of the lounges, watching the jaw dropping beauty slowly pass by. Stella Australis cruises very slowly for you to soak it all in. As head guide Marcello said, "It's not so much about getting there, it's the journey."
5. Shore Excursions
It's not every day you get to see penguins in the wild so up close and personal, but the expedition team -- though they are not allowed to land on Tucker's Islets -- get as close as you can get, pretty well landing the boat on the beach so you can take plenty of pictures. And although you don't actually walk on the glacier at Pia fjord, you get about as close as possible, taking a steep hill climb alongside it and getting astonishing views of it, as well as Cape Horn.
And at the end of every one? Some extra-special hot chocolate.
6. The Food
It's not often that food on an expedition cruise ship gets a shout out. Australis recently employed the talents of Peruvian chef Emilio Peschiera as consulting chef, and the partnership has really paid off. Each meal is themed -- whether that's Chilean, Pan-Asian or Argentinian -- and the quality and variety of food is outstanding. Standouts were the Asian-themed lunch, which included sushi and pork ribs, and the delicious leg of lamb on the last night. Throw in some excellent (included) local wines, and Australis is competing on a luxury level in terms of cuisine.
7. No Wi-Fi or Phone Signal
When Marcello announced that we would be cut off from Wi-Fi and phone signal for the duration of the cruise, a big cheer went up. Perhaps this was because of the 65+ demographic; a ship full of millennials might have gasped in horror. But for someone in the middle of those two demographics, I personally found it quite liberating. It stimulated conversation and meant no one was staring at their phone throughout dinner -- or posting penguin selfies (which might have been kind of fun actually).
8. Cape Horn
Cape Horn is the southernmost point of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, and has always held a fascination for seafarers and travelers alike. Until the building of the Panama Canal, "round the Horn" was the only way from west to east by sea, and countless ships have been dashed against the rocks in some of the roughest seas on earth (where the Pacific meets the Atlantic at the Drake Passage). So it is with a high degree of caution that Stella Australis approaches the Cape and it is not until 7 a.m. on that morning that you learn whether you will be able to visit the island, creating even more of an air of excitement and suspense to the trip.
Once you have braved the swell and climbed the steep steps, a Chilean naval officer waiting at the top greets each passenger personally, welcoming you to his home-for-a-year. He goes through a rigorous selection process to be chosen to man this highly strategic location -- Chile and Argentina still dispute exactly where Chilean seas end and Argentine ones begin -- and where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet. It is regarded as a great honor to be named to this post.
Cape Horn is a barren, windswept place, and as I looked out from the monument to those who have died in shipwrecks over the years, I felt privileged to have safely reached its shores. The Captain pointed southwest, indicating the direction in which Antarctica lies, some 1,000 km away.
9. The History
The history of Patagonia (the southernmost region of South America, shared by Chile and Argentina), and more specifically Tierra del Fuego, and the characters that have passed through it have played a key role in how we view our world today.
In the 19th century, a young Charles Darwin broke his journey here from England en route to the Galapagos Islands. His observations of the Yamana tribe helped form the basis of his Theory of Evolution. Before Darwin, countless seafarers, most notably Magellan, headed here to find that elusive way round South America; many perished trying before Magellan finally "found" the Straits which bear his name. Ernest Shackleton stayed in this area to plan the rescue of his stranded crew after his ship, Endurance, was trapped by ice in the Antarctic.
To walk -- and sail -- in the same places as these famed explorers, and to experience where history happened, made our trip feel more meaningful, and much more memorable, than a typical holiday cruise.
--by Adam Coulter, U.K. Editor