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Sapphire Princess in Antarctica (Photo: Princess Cruises)
Sapphire Princess in Antarctica (Photo: Princess Cruises)

Should You Take a Large Cruise Ship to Antarctica? Just Back From Sapphire Princess

Sapphire Princess in Antarctica (Photo: Princess Cruises)
Sapphire Princess in Antarctica (Photo: Princess Cruises)
Tim Johnson

Last updated
Feb 29, 2024

Read time
8 min read

It’s a strange and beautiful moment. Up on stage, a full troupe of dancers and singers put on a show, one that’s spectacular and colorful, with complicated choreography, soaring solos, glittering costumes, swirling lights—a full-on extravaganza.

And then, as everything builds toward the big finish — everything moves. An unmistakable, primordial roaring sound from outside pierces the bonhomie of the theatre for just a moment. The hundreds of us in the seats roll, just a little as a big wave thumps the side of the ship.

But, as they say, the show must go on. And, undeterred, we continue the performance, and our course across the Drake Passage, sailing Sapphire Princess across one of the world’s wildest waterways.

Those who cruise to Antarctica face a choice: Go with a big mainstream cruise ship, or try a small expedition cruise line? It’s a decision that affects everything, from your likely itinerary to the options on board (including shows) to the types of activities you’ll engage in, along the way.

I’ve sailed to Antarctica five times on small expedition vessels and just returned from my first voyage to the ultimate south on a large cruise ship. Both types of trips have their advantages and disadvantages. Here are the main differences.

Size Matters: What You Get on a Large Mainstream Cruise Ship

Sapphire Princess sailing into Antarctica (Photo: Tim Johnson)
Sapphire Princess sailing into Antarctica (Photo: Tim Johnson)

Sapphire Princess, which also sails to Alaska, Mexico and other destinations, carries a maximum of 2,670 passengers, and it was fully booked (or close to) on my trip. In contrast to expedition ships, which rarely carry more than a couple/few hundred guests, Sapphire Princess is a world unto itself.

On board, you’ll find a total of 18 decks, with four pools (one indoor), a full-service spa (some treatment rooms have big windows overlooking the waves) and the luxury, adults-only Sanctuary. There are favorite Princess specialty dining restaurants like Alfredo’s and Sterling Steakhouse, a big buffet, several dining rooms, and special occasion dinners like Chef’s Table and the Caymus Winemaker Dinner.

Show on Sapphire Princess (Photo: Tim Johnson)
Show on Sapphire Princess (Photo: Tim Johnson)

For entertainment, the ship has a large theater with Broadway-style shows, plus bars for every type, from live music on a grand piano at Crooner’s to Skywalkers, where you can dance the night away, with sweeping views from a top deck.

All of this means quite a bit of choice of places to eat and things to do onboard, if you go large. (And you have your choice when it comes to large, mainstream lines — Celebrity, Norwegian and Holland America, among others, all sail to the ultimate south. Royal Caribbean recently went there on its first World Cruise.)

Itineraries on Large Ships Usually Spend Less Time in Antarctica Itself

Ushuaia seen from Sapphire Princess (Photo: Tim Johnson)
Ushuaia seen from Sapphire Princess (Photo: Tim Johnson)

The vast majority of small ships sail a standard 10-day itinerary, generally round-trip from Ushuaia in Argentina. These voyages spend two days (or fewer) crossing the Drake in each direction, plus six or seven days exploring the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands.

My 16-day trip on Sapphire Princess included less time in Antarctica (four days), and a total of about three to four days on the Drake. Sailing from Santiago to Buenos Aires, we called at a much wider variety of ports in South America, including Montevideo and the Falkland Islands. I also enjoyed excursions in Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, which are typically used as mere departure points for expedition Antarctica voyages.

Crab shore excursion in Ushuaia with Sapphire Princess (Photo: Tim Johnson)
Crab shore excursion in Ushuaia with Sapphire Princess (Photo: Tim Johnson)

In the former, I took a catamaran up the Beagle Channel to a Magellanic penguin colony. At the latter, a small, locally run tour piled me into four-wheel drive, which wound through the mountains to a waterside restaurant located in a small village. There, the gregarious chef and owner had us pose for photos with Dungeness crab in hand on the rocky beach, where we sampled some ceviche. Then we went inside to enjoy live music and fresh seafood (the crab, plus sea bass and mussels).

In Antarctica, we visited two spots that usually don’t appear on a typical expedition itinerary. Our captain sailed us to A23a, the world’s largest iceberg, with a total surface area of 3,900 square kilometers. We might have been the last humans to see it intact — it’s currently spinning away toward Africa and should break up soon. The second was Elephant Island, famous in the lore and history of Shackleton. None of my five previous voyages visited here, and while we just sailed past, for a Shackleton nerd like me, this was a definite highlight.

Cost: You’ll Pay Less When You Go Big (Ships), At Least With Your Base Fare

Antarctica seen from Sapphire Princess (Photo: Tim Johnson)
Antarctica seen from Sapphire Princess (Photo: Tim Johnson)

The most obvious and impactful factor between big ships and small ships: price. You can book passage on a big ship for, in some cases, a tenth the cost of a small expedition vessel. Practically, this means many more people will be able to see and experience the frozen continent.

However, keep in mind that while most expedition ships are all-inclusive, smaller items can add up on a bigger vessel, including Wi-Fi, drinks, excursions and meals in specialty restaurants. And you’ll be on your own in terms of packing your own cold-weather gear — there’s no cool, free, take-home parka.

Landings: If You’re On a Big Ship, You Won’t Touch Antarctica Ground

Sapphire Princess guests in Antarctica (Photo: Tim Johnson)
Sapphire Princess guests in Antarctica (Photo: Tim Johnson)

In terms of day-to-day experience, this is the biggest difference: On the big ships, in almost all cases, you can’t land passengers. According to IAATO rules, which govern most tourist activities in Antarctica, groups on land must be limited to 100 or fewer. This in turn shapes the size of a typical expedition ship. Most max out at about 200 guests so that you can easily get everyone ashore for a penguin walk, or onto Zodiacs for an iceberg cruise, then back on board, in a reasonable amount of time.

This just simply isn’t possible when you have more than 2,000 passengers, so guests on the big ships get the beautiful view, but not the sensory experiences of being here. The sounds, sights — and smells — of being up-close at a penguin rookery, for example. (Big ship trips are therefore sometimes labeled, somewhat uncharitably, “drive-by” voyages.)

For me, this cut both ways. It was strange to visit places like Wilhelmina Bay, famous for its many whales, and not climb into a Zodiac to get a closer look. Or to squint through binoculars to see seals and penguins.

But on the other, I enjoyed a certain amount of relaxed satisfaction in viewing wildlife and the almost unbelievable, extraterrestrial beauty of Antarctica from one of the large decks on Sapphire Princess. Expeditions can be tiring. For each landing, you bundle up in your waterproof kit, slide into your heavy rubber boots, don a life jacket, and step into a sometimes-undulating Zodiac. On this big ship voyage, our Antarctica days were essentially sea days but surrounded by most stunning scenery in the world.

One last point: Our itinerary included an afternoon anchored near the famous Port Lockroy. Once serving as Station A for the British Antarctic Survey, it’s now essentially a tourist attraction and museum. While we couldn’t visit, staff from the station came on board and sold merchandise, taking postcards from guests with them back, to be mailed with an Antarctic postmark.

Interpretation and Enrichment : Both Types of Ships Give You Both

Birds eye view of Sapphire Princess in Antarctica (Photo: Princess Cruises)
Birds eye view of Sapphire Princess in Antarctica (Photo: Princess Cruises)

Of course, no landings doesn’t mean no enrichment. Naturalists and historians provided regular lectures in the theater, and passengers packed the place to learn about everything from penguins to explorers like Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Another nice feature: During our four days of scenic cruising in Antarctica, two men provided running commentary through the ship’s loudspeakers.

Like on a river cruise passing through the Rhine Gorge, say, the guides provided background and stories and details about everything we passed. Both were very well-qualified to do so. One was Robert Keith Headland (known affectionately around the ship as just “Bob”), who has written several books on Antarctica having been involved with the BAS since 1977. He is a recipient of the Polar Medal and served as archivist and curator for the Scott Polar Institute for 27 years.

While Headland’s breadth of experience is extraordinary, expedition ships also offer impressive experts. Perhaps the biggest difference: To operate things like Zodiac cruises and penguin-walk landings, you need a fairly large ensemble cast. On these voyages, ornithologists and naturalists and historians double as Zodiac drivers and guides on shore, then share their knowledge through lectures and bar talks back on board. So the expert-to-guest ratio is (much) higher on a small ship.

Entertainment, Dining, Activities: Big Ships Have It All in Antarctica

Sapphire Princess cruise ship
Sapphire Princess

This was a major point of differentiation. On my five expedition trips, Antarctica was the entire focus of the voyage. Drake days en route were spent in mandatory IAATO briefings and being fitted for gear. We assembled in the theater for lectures and instruction from the expedition leader about the next day’s weather and landing plans.

But Sapphire Princes is unmistakably a cruise ship — with all that entails. I partook in some of my favorite onboard activities, including daily trivia (Negroni in hand) and attending big production shows. You could play shuffleboard or pickle ball on the sports deck, sing karaoke in the club, eat pizza all day by the pool or dance while the house band rocks out in the atrium.

Verdict: Should You Take a Large Cruise Ship to Antarctica?

Calm Drake Passage in Antarctica (Photo/Gwen Pratesi)
Calm Drake Passage in Antarctica (Photo/Gwen Pratesi)

Short answer: Yes, absolutely. While affordability is probably the primary reason most people choose a big ship, cost isn’t the only factor. During my reporting, I asked guests why they chose this ship and this trip, as opposed to a more expedition experience.

Some passengers cited mobility issues; others, that they enjoyed the multiple decks to view wildlife. One said they preferred a big ship to cross the potentially wild waves and winds of the Drake Passage. All noted they would recommend the voyage, and many pledged to return and do it again.

The bottom line? Any opportunity to see the world’s coldest, highest, driest, darkest, windiest continent is definitely worth it. And I enjoyed Sapphire Princess — triumphing at trivia, tapping my foot in the theater, and spotting gentoos and humpbacks and crab eaters. Big ship or small, I would return to Antarctica in a heartbeat.

Publish date February 29, 2024
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