*The Lone Trail lures you on.
And somehow you are sick of the highway,
With its noise and its easy needs,
And you seek the risk the by-way,
And you reck not where it leads.
… And sometimes it leads to an Arctic trail,
And the snows where your torn feet freeze.*
--Robert William Service, British-Canadian poet and writer
On the return to Ushuaia, we get one final going-away present: the dreaded Drake Shake, with swells of 32 feet. It gives us the dubious distinction of having experienced both ends of the spectrum -- so appropriate for this land of extremes.
Midafternoon of our second day on the Drake, it's land ahoy! We finally spot Cape Horn, the rocky headland at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet. From the 16th to the 20th centuries, the passage around Cape Horn was so dangerous that an estimated 10,000 sailors were lost in 800 shipwrecks caused by gale-force winds and unexpected streams. "Rounding the horn" became a legendary feat in the maritime world. But for those of us on the comfortable Midnatsol, the conditions are calm and it's just another splendid photo op on the way back to civilization.
As our polar expedition comes to an end after 1,700 nautical miles, fellow traveler John Bloom of Richland, Washington, sums it up best: "This is something that's going to be difficult to share with people because what you get is an emotional response."
Then he adds, "It's going to take months to wipe the smile from my face."
Epilogue: Lessons Learned
As I reflect on the cruise, here are my takeaways to help you prepare for your own:
• The weather dictates the itinerary, not just day by day, but hour by hour. It can be clear sailing when we set out for a 90-minute landing and threatening by the time we return. It changes that quickly.
• Expect weather in the Antarctic Peninsula's early summer (November) to average in the low 30s. But the wind factor can make it feel considerably colder.
• Be flexible and leave your expectations at home. The expedition team does an excellent job of providing the best possible experience, but they're up against unpredictable weather and ice conditions. Because of that, they can only plan the itinerary a day at a time.
• This is a highly participatory cruise, not a pampering one. It's an expedition cruise, after all, with the emphasis on expedition. Weather permitting, each day is filled with landings and Zodiac cruises, which are included in the cruise cost. The landings require walking and/or climbing on the snow. Optional excursions include kayaking, snowshoeing and camping. At the same time, there's no pressure to do anything beyond your comfort level, and some passengers went ashore only occasionally.
• The expedition team is extraordinarily supportive of everyone and will ensure that you are able to join every excursion you want to, even if you're hesitant about your ability to do so. They do an amazing job of facilitating shore landings, which can be tricky when moving from a bobbing tender directly onto a steep, snowy landing spot. But they succeed in getting everyone ashore.
• On the other hand, be realistic about what you can manage. For example, the snowshoe excursions can be two hours long up and down hills, which require considerable physical fitness. Detailed briefings on all these activities will help you decide if you want to do them.
• Bring strong hand and face lotion and ChapStick. The air is extremely dry.
• Buy medical evacuation insurance. Despite all the safety precautions, the amount of physical activity on this cruise increases the odds of an accident.
• In addition to following the helpful Hurtigruten packing list, I recommend bringing a neck gaiter instead of a scarf. It's better for pulling up to protect the lower part of your face -- especially on the Zodiacs when the wind can be strong while you're zooming across the water.
• Bring both light and heavy gloves. I was happy to have thin liner-type gloves, which were easier to use (or pull off) to shoot photos. On some days, I didn't need the heavier ones.
• Bring good thermal underwear. For one thing, that's all you wear under your waterproof pants. An extra pair is nice, but not necessary because you only have to wear them during excursions. I rinsed out my thermal top midway through the cruise, and it dried in a flash. Bathrooms have clotheslines.
• Internet access is very spotty, so you may want to consider doing without, considering the cost. This is the perfect cruise for a digital detox.
• Unless you're an avid birder, consider leaving your binoculars at home. I brought a pair that I never touched, simply because I was shooting photos all the time.
• Standard cabins on the Midnatsol are simple and quite small by cruise standards. But they're comfortable and the heated bathroom floors are a big plus.