Aboard Sea Adventurer, you often feel like you're following in the footsteps of the great polar explorers -- drifting through ice-choked seas, hiking over barren tundra, striking out in Zodiacs to catch a glimpse of rare wildlife. As part of the Quark Expeditions fleet, which focuses solely on polar travel, the ship sails to some of the most remote places on Earth: Antarctica, Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland and Arctic Canada.
You don't travel to the poles for creature comforts, though the Sea Adventurer crew certainly provided a few (hearty meals, bathrobes, homemade cookies around the clock); you travel there for the chance to see wildlife and landscapes that you can't see anywhere else. And while Sea Adventurer is an older, less luxurious vessel than others in the Quark fleet, the staff's dedication to helping passengers experience their destination is what makes a cruise on this ship extraordinary.
The expedition leader and a team of naturalist guides are in charge of all excursions, from Zodiac cruises along a walrus-covered beach to hikes through penguin colonies in the Antarctic. When spotting animals from the ship, the guides are usually up on deck, helping passengers with their binoculars and adjusting telescopes to give everyone a better look. They also give nightly talks to provide in-depth information on the animals, birds, landscapes and historical sights encountered during the day's excursions.
Sea Adventurer's daily schedule is well structured but flexible. There's usually one landing or Zodiac cruise in the morning and another in the afternoon, all clearly announced via the daily program with updates as necessary over the PA system. Everything is subject to change, however; the ship might take a detour to follow a pod of whales or to bypass an unexpectedly icy fjord. On our Svalbard sailing, passengers rushed en masse from the dining room to the deck when a polar bear walked up to our ship, anchored at the edge of the pack ice; lunch was delayed about an hour while we all breathlessly snapped photos and videos of the animal.
The ship's small size makes it easy to get to know fellow passengers as well as the expedition team and the waitstaff. This is especially an advantage for passengers traveling alone; Quark will match you up with a roommate if you want to avoid the single supplement, and there are at least a handful of fellow solo travelers aboard just about every sailing.
The ship is much less suitable for disabled travelers. There are no handicap-accessible cabins, nor is there an elevator, so you'll need to be able to get up and down stairs (even if slowly), and into and out of Zodiac boats. As long as you have that minimum amount of mobility, the staff will work to accommodate varying levels of fitness.
Sea Adventurer was built in 1975 in the former Yugoslavia. It has gone through a couple of name changes since then (starting as Alla Tarasova, then Clipper Adventurer), and was last refurbished in the late 1990s. While its age does show in spots -- worn furniture in the lounge and a lack of amenities such as hot tubs or a spa -- the ship is a sturdy, comfortable home away from home for travelers exploring the Polar Regions.
Quark attracts well-educated, curious passengers who are passionate about nature and wildlife. They hail from dozens of countries around the world, including the U.K., the United States, Australia and New Zealand; on our sailing we even had a few from the Netherlands, Malta and Argentina. Because Quark offers such exotic itineraries, its clientele tend to be quite well traveled. One night at dinner, only one person out of five at the table had not been to the Galapagos Islands; on a Zodiac cruise the next day, only two of us (out of 10) hadn't been to Antarctica.
Passengers tend to be on the older side (50+), but there are a healthy number of younger people as well; ages on our cruise ranged from 25 to 84. Quark attracts quite a few solo travelers, and the number is rising; the line will pair you up with a roommate if you don't want to pay a single supplement.
About 10 percent of Quark's passengers are repeat guests.
The dress code is casual at all times. Aside from the captain's welcome and farewell dinners, when the crew and a few passengers dressed up a bit, the standard wardrobe onboard was an array of fleece, sweaters, hiking pants and jeans.
Practicality trumps fashion in such extreme polar climates. On Quark's recommended packing list are warm base layers, thick socks and multiple pairs of gloves. Synthetic fibers are preferable to cotton, and waterproof pants are a must.
Fortunately, you don't need to pack a heavy coat or boots, as Quark supplies passengers with a high-quality parka with down liner (yours to keep) and sturdy, waterproof muck boots (on loan for the duration of the cruise).
Quark recommends a gratuity of $12 to $13 per passenger, per day, for the crew and an additional $2 to $3 per passenger, per day, for the expedition staff. This can be paid in cash or with a credit card. The currency onboard is the U.S. dollar.