I'm somewhere around 65 degrees latitude, sipping a latte and posting photos from my first Antarctica Zodiac ride on Facebook, seated on a leather sofa with a Nordic blanket around my legs.
I'm on a Viking Expeditions Cruise in Antartica, onboard Viking Polaris, the newest expedition ship from Viking and a sister to Viking Octantis; both ships debuted in 2022.
Outside my drop-down panoramic window -- what Viking Expeditions describes as a Nordic balcony -- black-and-white petrels nosedive into the surprisingly calm gray waters, while snow falls.
My complimentary parka, damp from a 9 a.m. whale sighting on deck, is drying in a special closet; I'll use it again later on a planned landing to see our first penguins.
Welcome to Viking Expeditions' version of an Antarctica cruise, where you get to see all the birds, icebergs, whales and seals of a regular White Continent expedition cruise, but with so many more creature comforts.
No offense to the gung-ho types who claim you're not really on an adventure unless you suffer somehow, but this more laid-back approach suits me just fine.
Viking Polaris entered the public consciousness in November with an unfortunate accident when a rogue wave struck the vessel. Water flooded several cabins on Deck 2, causing injuries and a passenger death. Currently, those cabins are out of commission and the area is boarded up. Viking Polaris will enter a drydock this spring for full fixes.
That incident hasn't marred our trip at all, although the ship is sailing at a lower capacity with the cabins out of commission. And it hasn't kept the passengers from enjoying the Viking approach to cruising.
The company, under the leadership of Chairman Torstein Hagen, started out by modernizing river cruising. Viking then took on ocean sailings with a remarkably well-designed series of 930-passenger ships, meant to appeal to a more intellectual type of traveler who still wants plenty of amenities.
After a few days on Viking Polaris, it's clear Viking is doing the same thing with small-ship expedition cruising. Here's how.
With a capacity for 378, Viking Polaris is larger than most expedition ships that visit Antarctica. (One notable exception is Hurtigruten's pair of modern expedition ships, Roald Amundsen and Fridjof Nansen, both of which have 500 passengers when they sail here). That has implications -- mostly good -- for travelers onboard.
Where passengers will really notice the size is in the sheer amount of public spaces. Viking Polaris boasts multiple outdoor decks, perfect for wildlife and iceberg viewing. There's never a point where you feel like you're elbowing others to get that iconic whale tail shot. Numerous nooks and crannies still make it feel intimate.
The ship is also big enough to have multiple restaurants, a large state-of-the-art theater, a full thermal spa, a science lab and a Hangar to accommodate all of its expedition "toys" (more on that later). All are rendered in Viking's signature upscale Scandinavian design, with the clever addition of exploration-themed artwork and photographs.
There's no way around it; the downside to a larger ship is that you will generally do fewer landings than you will on a ship with fewer passengers. That's because IAATO -- the organization that regulates tour operators in Antarctica -- limits the number of people who can be at landing sites at the same time. To be able to get all passengers on land, Viking Polaris needs two consecutive time slots at each site, which can be difficult to snag during the short high season.
Fewer landings might sound like a drawback when you're planning your trip. But when you are actually in Antarctica and facing the prospect of donning multiple layers to go out into the snow on a Zodiac, the less frantic pace can be delightful. By Day 4 of our exploration time, fewer passengers were showing up for the Zodiac cruises. The windy conditions and driving sleet proved to be a deterrent to many people, who would rather stay warm with a leisurely breakfast.
We did go out that morning and were rewarded with fabulous icebergs, some as high as office buildings, in all kinds of sculptural formations. The icy conditions made it feel like we were really on an expedition cruise, as opposed to a cruise that happened to be in a remote part of the world. But our Zodiac, which usually sat 10, was only half full.
On an expedition cruise, the onboard team of naturalists, scientists and lecturers can make or break your trip. You want to listen to people who can impart passion and meaning into their talks, as opposed to someone droning on.
So far this cruise, the topics have been more focused on relatable topics, like Maps of Antarctica; Penguins, Whales and Mammals, as opposed to 5 Kinds of Krill. While you don't have meals with the expedition staff like you do on some smaller, more rugged expedition ships, the team is available at the Bow and the Explorers Lounge, as well as an area called Expedition Central and The Studio. A list of birds and wildlife seen on the trip is regularly updated; avid birders meet daily.
Viking Polaris also has a fair amount of space dedicated to science. There's a hands-on Science Lab (which, incidentally, snagged Viking Expeditions the Best Science Offering at the 2022 Cruise Critic Editors' Picks Awards) with seriously impressive equipment, although the ship is still trying to figure out how to best involve passengers in experiments. Programs like cloud identification and Happy Whale, where people can send in photos of whale flukes to track migration patterns, are easy to do and require a minimum of effort from passengers. It's all very accessible and fun, as opposed to hard core.
Keeping with the accessible theme, Viking Polaris has several ways for passengers to explore Antarctica: Zodiac cruises and landings; kayaking; Special Operations Boats and two submarines, named George and Ringo (Paul and John are on Viking Octantis).
While all these toys sound great, whether you'll actually get to use them is debatable. By Day Four, the submarines had only been deployed a handful of times. Same with kayaking and the SOB. We had made one landing in four days, with the rest of our time outside sticking to scenic Zodiac cruising.
Unpredictability is the hallmark on expedition cruising, particularly in Antarctica where "pancake ice" can start forming before your eyes on a snowy day. The expedition staff sets this expectation off the bat; safety has to be the primary driver in this part of the world.
And what we have been able to do has been incredible. Our SOB trip brought us within 20 meters of humpback whales, so close that we could hear them as they dove. The SOB itself is a game changer, and Viking is the only cruise line that has boats like this. It's easier to get in and out of the SOB than a Zodiac, so people with mobility issues can enjoy a close-to-the-water experience. It's another way that the line is opening up expedition cruising to more people.
I've been stunned with how good the onboard Wi-Fi is, even as our ship has gone south of the Antarctic Circle. I've been able to FaceTime with family every day, upload photos on social media, communicate with workmates on Slack and email, do Peloton workouts and even join in an essential doctor appointment.
Die-hard expedition lovers might say that constant communication has no place in Antarctica. But let's face it: Antarctica cruises are long by design, and few people -- even retirees -- want to stay out of touch for extended periods of time. Having good Wi-Fi makes an Antarctica cruise more available to working professionals who still need to be in touch with the office, some who are on this trip. While the majority of our fellow passengers are in their 60s and 70s, there are some couples in their 40s and 50s, and also several parent-adult child pairs. Good connectivity appeals to almost all demographics. (And, of course, if you don't want to stay in touch, there's no obligation to use it.)
One place where Viking Polaris passengers benefit from the larger size is in the extra amenities, such as the fitness center and spa. Similar to Viking's ocean ships, Viking Polaris' fitness center has two rooms, one with cardio and weight equipment and the other with mats for yoga. It's a large space for an expedition ship. Still, even with the extra space, it's full in the mornings.
The spa is modeled on what you find on their ocean ships, and there's simply nothing else like it on other expedition ships. There's a full therapy pool and all the stages of what Viking describes as a Nordic bathing ritual -- sauna, steam room, cold bucket and snow grotto. The piece de resistance is the Badestamp, a hot tub next to an open window. Soaking here, as the White Continent floats by, brings a level of luxury to your bucket list that you didn't know you craved.
Finally, this cruise has been one of the most upbeat and fun Viking trips I've been on. While the line has always eschewed fancy dress clothes, here you spend most of the day in athleisure wear. I always describe Viking as PBS at sea, so it was almost shocking to see the ship and crew lean into the NFL playoffs. To the delight of passengers, all of the games were streamed on a large screen TV in the Living Room, along with bar food such as chicken nuggets and soft pretzels.
That sense of celebration has pervaded the natural side of the trip too. When we first spied Antarctica after a calm Drake Passage, mimosas and pastries were served in the Explorers Lounge. A deckside BBQ with steaks, lobster tails, shrimp and sea bass took place on our sunny day below the Antarctic Circle -- the first time Viking Polaris had traveled that far south. We all received certificates in our cabin noting our status for both events.
And that atmosphere of fun exploration and camaraderie, while still living large, is why I'm so happy that I went with Viking for my first Antarctica trip. I still want that excitement and adventure that Antarctica brings, but without the pressure to wear myself out. Viking is bringing people to Antarctica with a minimum of stress -- and I see that as appealing to a wide swath of travelers.
Updated January 25, 2023