Sponsored by Silversea
What's it like to visit Antarctica for the first time? We get a first person view from Sara Macefield, who traveled on Silver Endeavour's first expedition to the White Continent in November last year.
Nothing prepares you for that first thrilling and unforgettable glimpse of Antarctica as this untamed wilderness looms on the horizon. The White Continent is still the ultimate bucket list prize for many travelers, drawn by its majestic beauty and untamed appeal – and where nature calls the shots.
So it’s no surprise that this initial sighting sparks a tide of excitement as elated guests on Silversea’s new expedition ship, Silver Endeavour, celebrate crossing the notorious Drake Passage to the bottom of the world.
Elated whoops and shouts of “land ahoy!” ring out, prompting us to rush to the windows for that first glimpse. I grab my phone and race out on deck, ignoring the sub-zero wind chill to gaze mesmerized as the distant shapes gradually morph into craggy cliffs topped with a thick layer of snow draped over them like a blanket.
It has taken nearly four days, flights covering more than 12,000 miles – including a private Silversea charter from Santiago, Chile’s capital, to Puerto Williams, Chile's southernmost town – and the 550-mile crossing on Silversea's Antarctica Bridge across the Drake’s mercurial waters, to get here.
Admittedly, that's far less time than it took the explorers of old to reach this point, but I can almost feel the weight of history as we draw closer to land, following in their footsteps and knowing that little has changed here since their pioneering voyages hundreds of years ago.
Thankfully, it’s a different story for the gleaming new ships now bringing guests to the Antarctic Peninsula on the Southern Ocean, proving there’s no roughing it for today’s generation of explorers. At least not onboard!
Silver Endeavour is a case in point, bristling with adventurous mod-cons and the latest technical innovations, while guests revel in a crew to guest ratio of one-to-one in addition to lavish suites, haute cuisine dining and a team of attentive butlers on hand to meet their every need.
With a strengthened hull to Polar Class 6 classification, enabling it to cruise through ice of up to a metre thick, this swanky 200-passenger ship, which started life as Crystal Cruises’ Silver Endeavor before being bought by Silversea last year, is well equipped to deal with the unpredictable challenges of this beautiful, but capricious corner of the planet.
Its fleet of Zodiac boats allow easy access for landings as I soon discover when they fire into life to take us ashore for the first time, bumping over the waves for the short ride to the rocky beach.
As we approach, a clutch of diving penguins arcs out of the water like an aquatic welcoming party, while the sausage-like blobs we’d spotted scattered across the beach turn out to be slumbering elephant seals.
I can’t wait to step ashore, having been thoroughly briefed by Silver Endeavour’s expedition team on how to explore safely, what to expect and how to behave.
We must give way to animals at all times while keeping five meters distant, keep our voices low, and avoid the so-called penguin highways – the paths these cute critters use to move from one place to another.
The expedition leaders have gone ashore ahead of us to prepare the ground for our arrival, marking permitted routes for us to follow with red flags and digging pathways through the deep snow which, we note with much amusement, canny penguins start to use too.
These comical characters make me feel as though I’ve wandered into a scene from the movie Happy Feet, as they waddle around us and gather in vast rookeries where hundreds stand in huddles, occasionally throwing their heads back to break into noisy choruses of cawing.
I spy three species at this first landing spot on Robert Island in the South Shetland Isles, with endearing adelie and gentoo penguins and distinctive chinstraps, all of which rigidly stick to their own nesting areas – where males obsessively focus on some serious courting (and more!) as the breeding season clearly gets underway.
Watching their amusing antics becomes one of my favorite pastimes, but I’m distracted by the sound of distant roars emanating from colonies of gargantuan elephant seals where belligerent young males square up to each other with menacing growls, waves of blubber rippling down their colossal bodies as they heave themselves over the rocky ground.
Some already carry the bloodied battle scars of earlier skirmishes and we watch in fascination as an expedition guide tells us that males grow to an incredible four tons, compared with considerably lighter females who weigh in at just 900kg or less. I sympathetically wonder how they fare during mating season.
As I sleepily awaken the following morning, I’m greeted by another spectacle even more mind-blowing as a procession of small icebergs floats peacefully past my window in the tranquil frozen surroundings of Neko Harbor.
Barely able to contain my excitement, I bound on to the balcony into the cool, crisp air to absorb this serene moment of silence broken only by rhythmic lapping against the hull as our ship pushes through the ice-speckled waters.
A few hours later, I get a close-up view of this frozen landscape on a sea-going safari from one of Silver Endeavour’s two-person kayaks as we paddle past small growler icebergs, admiring their sculpted outlines and pristine alabaster hue tinged with vivid slashes of turquoise.
The snowy backdrop of mountain peaks injects extra magic into the moment but, unfortunately, this doesn’t last as conditions worsen and the water arounds us starts to freeze – threatening to encase our kayaks in ice and forcing our excellent guides to bring this excursion to a premature end.
With our paddles bouncing off the rapidly freezing sea, we have to summon up brute force to smash our way through to the rapidly diminishing stretches of open water where Zodiacs gather to take us back to the ship.
Back onboard and it’s hard to equate the harshness of the environment with our sumptuous life on Silver Endeavour as I head to the Arts Café to grab a coffee and graze some of the morning snacks.
One of my favourite spots is the conservatory-like pool deck and grill whose glass walls and roof let the light flood in, along with panoramic views. Breakfast, lunch and dinner is served here and, with the swift, efficient service, it is a stunning venue day or night.
However, for such a small ship, Silver Endeavour has an impressive selection of dining options where, in addition to the main restaurant and pool grill, guests can opt for the speciality Italian Il Terrazzino and gastronomic fine dining spot La Dame.
The Observation Lounge, with its vast windows, proves to be a perfect vantage point and I spend one afternoon watching entranced as humpback whales cavort in the waters below. Later, I venture on to the open deck at the front of the ship where I find a perfectly placed hot tub – the ideal spot to soak up the views – especially when the ever-attentive crew serve hot drinks.
More temptations await in the ship’s Otium Spa, along with its beauty salon, gym, sauna and steam room; while guests wanting to supplement the daily briefings and talks in the Explorer Lounge can immerse themselves in the library where I find charts and maps and where many of the expedition team are on hand to chat.
My suite, in its palate of soft silvery greys is a welcoming haven, with its huge soft bed, spacious seating area and sofa, and delightful walk-in wardrobe providing acres of hanging space.
I make myself at home here, getting the coffee machine on the boil and firing up the in-suite iPad to check out the daily program. The feeling of luxury continues in the lavish ensuite facilities, split between a separate toilet and marble-lined shower room, with the push-button rain and power showers.
Glass doors lead on to the balcony, which becomes my go-to place every time we arrive in another outstanding location. But as we squeeze between the soaring cliffs of the Lemaire Channel, I’m back in a Zodiac along with the rest of the guests, close to the ship’s bow as we await its christening by British explorer Felicity Aston.
The setting is unsurpassable and as the sunlight sparkles on snow-covered tongues of crevasses scored through the rockface I can’t help thinking wistfully that such an occasion really calls for a glass of celebratory bubbly.
Lo and behold, in true Silversea style, a Zodiac appears just minutes later manned with crew members handing out freshly poured flutes of sparkling champagne and I can’t resist leaning out over the side of the boat and scooping up a small chunk of Antarctic ice from the frozen waters.
I pop it in and it fizzes furiously. I take a few sips while watching intently as the all-important ceremonial christening bottle (made of ice, of course) is released and smashes against Silver Endeavour’s hull, splintering into a shower of icy fragments.
This spectacle lingers in my mind when we return to the South Shetland Islands on our final day for the two-hour flight from King George Island, as part of Silversea’s Antarctica Bridge service to Punta Arenas.
The business-class charter means we don’t have to face the Drake Passage again because this offers a speedier and more convenient alternative with no risk of the dreaded "Drake Shake".
But I’m feeling slightly queasy at the thought of leaving this incredible continent so soon. Our time here has vanished in a flash – melting away far too quickly – but such a fleeting glimpse leaves me feeling immensely privileged to have experienced it – and in such comfort and style.
Updated March 13, 2023