We are a well travelled New Zealand couple in our 60s. We did the HAL “sail by” to Antarctica over Christmas 2015 and were wowed by the scenery & wildlife, so decided to do an expedition cruise to see it closer up.
Our expedition cruise to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica (22 nights with Hurtigruten December 2018/January 2019) was three times the cost of our drive by on HAL, a 21 night cruise from Valparaiso to Buenos Aires. So it was a big investment.
Hurtigruten’s pre cruise experience was a frustration. It was impossible to get information from them and anything you told them obviously went into a black hole. Our travelling companion, who lives in Australia, was sent the optional pre and post cruise excursions, but we had to request them. We asked about getting time in Ushuaia on embarkation day and were told there are 2 flights from BUE to USH, but that flights are not assigned until the night before at the hotel and we would have to talk to the Hurtigruten representative at the precruise hotel in Buenos Aires. We got there too late in the day to talk to them. And anyway, the flights are assigned well before that. The people who had booked optional Hurtigruten excursions in Ushuaia on embarkation day were the ones put on the early flight and those people had to get up at 1.30am in order to catch this first charter flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. They had not been told the timing prior to reaching the hotel in Buenos Aires. It would be simple for Hurtigruten to explain this procedure to all passengers, whether they are doing optional Hurtigruten excursions in Ushuaia, or if they want extra time in Ushuaia.
We were put on the later charter flight, which meant leaving the hotel in Buenos Aires at 8.20am. It was a little over 3 hour flight to Ushuaia. There we were put on buses, sorted by Mandarin, German and English speakers. We were driven to a viewpoint for a photo stop, then to a car park on the waterfront. We had 15 minutes free time. This was not even long enough to go up to the main street, just have a bit of a walk along the waterfront. We then had to return to the bus, to sit there for 20 minutes before being taken to the ship, the Fram, for embarkation.
We had to get a comprehensive medical form completed by our doctor at home. We were told we would have to see the ship’s doctor on embarkation, to get our medical form checked before we were accepted for passage. In fact, when we checked in with all our other paperwork, the medical forms were just taken off us and put in a pile to be given to the doctor later. We were surprised at how many passengers were travelling, despite appearing to be in poor health.
Hurtigruten had the allocated boat groups up on the noticeboard when we embarked. These are the groups you go ashore in, via the polarcirkel boats. Usually no more than 100 people are allowed ashore at any one time, but in some locations the limit was 20. The groups are rotated in landing order. However, there had been no respect for people travelling together. Our group of 3 had been split across 2 boat groups and many other groups had been split up too, so a lot of people were complaining. They had to reorganise all the boat groups. Because of the number of passengers on the Fram and the limits on how many people can be ashore at any one time, you do spend quite a bit of time waiting for the call for your group to go to the polarcirkel boats for landings.
The Fram was comfortable enough. We had a Polar Outside N2 cabin on deck 3. As expected, it was very small, but we did not spend much time in it. One bed was folded away during the day, giving us room to get our gear on for excursions. We were given a jacket on embarkation day. They seemed quite flimsy, but in fact did their job very well. We were also loaned a pair of muckboots, which you stored in your cabin for the duration of the journey. You had to clean the boots when returning from shore. They were warm and did a good job.
The food was hit and miss. Breakfast and lunch were both buffet and had good selections. Dinner was buffet on shore days and fixed seatings on sea days. You were allocated a time slot for the fixed seating dinners, either 6pm or 8pm. Again, there was no recognition of groups travelling together and we were allocated 8pm dining while our travelling companion was given 6pm. But it was easy enough to change our time to 6pm. Generally, we found the food, particularly dinners, to be rather uninteresting. The desserts were particularly bland and invariably items such as pastry could be so hard as to be inedible. There was afternoon tea in the Observation Lounge on deck 7; other than that no extra snacks to be had.
Water, tea and coffee was always available at no charge, at the drink station by the shop. We were provided with water bottles to refill. Alcohol could be purchased at dinner, or in the bar which was in the Observation Lounge. The shop had a selection of clothing, postcards, sweets etc.
Everybody had one 24 hour period of internet included. As there were 3 of us we were able to share and spread our internet days across the journey.
Safety was always the first priority and the crew did an excellent job at helping passengers on and off the polarcirkel boats. If they considered a landing site not to be safe then they would look elsewhere, or cancel altogether. There must have been some passengers who never went ashore, as they would have been too immobile to manage the shore landings. Sometimes we would have to jump into water from the boats, and to get back on board it could be a case of putting your knee up and basically falling into the boat. They could not always put steps out if there was swell.
We were very disappointed with the lectures. We had far better lectures on our HAL sail by. The timing of the lectures was also poor. For example we had a lecture on what wildlife we might see on the Falkland Islands – the day after we left the Falklands!
When we were booking they emphasized not to book a flight after the cruise leaving Buenos Aires before 20.00. Once we had booked this changed to “don’t book a flight on disembarkation day at all – book an extra night in Buenos Aires after the cruise”. I realise that weather conditions could mean a delay in returning to Ushuaia, but in our case we were early, so the ship lingered much of the night in the Beagle Channel before docking early morning in Ushuaia. There were two charter flights from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires. Even though we had previously indicated we wanted time in Ushuaia we were allocated to the early flight without consultation. On board I requested a change to the later flight for the 3 in our party and they said they might not be able to change the flight we were on. However, we did get moved to the later flight. We disembarked about 8am and were dropped shortly after a couple of blocks from the centre of Ushuaia. The town itself is a bit scruffy, but there is some great souvenir shopping if you want anything to remind you of ice and penguins! Unfortunately nothing in the town opens until 9.30am, many shops not until 10am. We just managed to get some souvenirs before having to return to the bus at 10.15am, for the short trip to Ushuaia airport.
We arrived back at AEP in Buenos Aires at 3.30pm and had to wait over an hour for our luggage. We did not use the Hurtigruten post cruise hotel. We stayed overnight in a hotel in Palermo that we had booked, before returning to AEP very early next morning for our flight to Santiago, on our way home to New Zealand.
After we returned home we were sent access to download a log of the voyage. This was an interesting reminder of the trip, but it was disappointing to see the errors in it - days when we had landings were listed as “at sea”. This was a continuation of the errors we had while on board, in the daily programs for instance.
Overall Hurtigruten gave us the impression of being enthusiastic amateurs with no attention to detail. We also felt as if they were trying to organise our holiday for us without listening to what the client wanted. If we ever do another expedition cruise we would likely be considering other operators.
However we absolutely loved the wildlife and the scenery in Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands. The wildlife was absolutely amazing. The highlight was definitely South Georgia, which I consider is a must do add on to any trip to Antarctica. You do this trip for the wildlife and scenery, not the ship. And this part of the experience is something you will never forget.
Our itinerary and landings were as follows:
27 December – arrival in Buenos Aires and overnight at the Emperador Hotel, the hotel Hurtigruten uses.
28 December – flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia and embarkation.
29 December – at sea.
30 December - New Island, Falklands. We landed in Settlement Harbour and had 2 hours ashore to walk to a colony of rockhopper penguins, imperial cormorants and black browed albatrosses. Also visited a small museum.
30 December - West Point Island, Falklands. Had 2 hours ashore in the afternoon for a 40 minute walk to Devil’s Nose, where we were able to get stunning photos in a black browed albatross and rockhopper penguin colony.
31 December - Saunders Island, Falklands. We had 2 hours ashore walking around The Neck area to watch numerous penguin and other bird species.
31 December - Carcass Island, Falklands. We had about 1.5 hours ashore in the afternoon to see a variety of birds, plus there was an elephant seal with pup on the beach. There was the option to stay ashore longer if you wanted to do an 8km hike (each way) to another beach on the other side of the island.
1 January – Stanley, Falklands. We were docked at the commercial wharf from 8.30am to 6pm. Hurtigruten provided a shuttle service into the town. Excursions were offered by Hurtigruten but we just spent the day exploring the town.
2 & 3 January – At Sea
4 January – King Haakon Bay, South Georgia. Our first landing was at Peggotty Bluff, for an hour. There were elephant seals, fur seals with pups and king penguins. Then the ship moved to the other side of the bay, to Cape Rosa. Here we went ashore at Cave Cove, which is where Ernest Shackleton and his five companions arrived at the end of their epic voyage from Elephant Island. We only had 15 minutes ashore, which was long enough – it is a very small landing site and just a plaque on the rock to see here.
5 January – Prince Olav Harbour, South Georgia. No landing here in the morning; we cruised around the bay in the polarcirckel boats for 45 minutes.
5 January – Salisbury Plain, South Georgia. Here there is the largest penguin colony on South Georgia, with about 60,000 pairs. We were unable to land here due to swell, so moved around a headland to find a more suitable landing site. Here we were given 30 minutes ashore to view many king penguins and seals with their pups.
6 January – Fortuna Bay & Stromness Harbour, South Georgia. We were given 90 minutes ashore at Stromness Harbour. We walked about 1.5km to a king penguin colony. Then we sailed across the bay, to drop off the passengers who were walking from Fortuna Bay to Stromness, doing the “Shackleton Hike”. The ship then sailed around to Stromness Harbour, where we had 2 hours ashore. We went ashore for a walk to a waterfall, meeting the hikers coming the other way. Lots of seals and an abandoned whaling station.
7 January – Grytviken, South Georgia. In the morning when we arrived it was snowing, but shortly after our arrival the weather cleared into a gorgeous day, and the scenery was magnificent. Before we went ashore a member of the South Georgia Heritage Trust staff came onboard the Fram to give us a 30 minute talk about what they are doing on South Georgia. We only had 90 minutes ashore, which was not long enough for us. Grytviken was a highlight – the cemetery where Shackleton is buried, an abandoned whaling station, a church, museum & post office (long queues for stamps & souvenirs).
7 January – St Andrews Bay, South Georgia. Here there is the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia. Unfortunately we could not land here, due to swell. We sailed on, to Gold Harbour, which we didn’t reach until about 6pm, so it was quite late when the last rotations got ashore, for just 30 minutes.
8 January – Drygalski Fjord, South Georgia. We cruised down the fjord and back. With no landings. After that we headed for Antarctica. This was a rough stretch of sea.
9 January – At Sea.
10 January – At Sea most of the day. We reached Elephant Island at 5.40pm and were not scheduled to land, but it was decided conditions were suitable – just! They said this was the first time Hurtigruten had landed here. It is very inhospitable and it is hard to imagine those men from Shackleton’s expedition being stranded here for four and a half months! We were only given 5 minutes ashore – long enough to get a photo of the bust of the captain of the Chilean ship which rescued Shackleton’s party. They only allowed 20 ashore at any one time – it was important that we could be evacuated quickly if necessary.
11 January - Sailing through the Antarctic Sound (Iceberg Alley). We could smell Paulet Island well before we got there! There is a colony of 200,000 Adelie penguins here! We went ashore in the afternoon and were given 90 minutes to walk up to a lake, around a hill, through the penguin colony. There is also a small shag colony here. Back on the ship we had great views of the penguins “porpoising” through the water around us. I could watch them for hours!
12 January - Hannah Point, Livingston Island. We had an hour ashore; lots of gentoo and chinstrap penguins, and a single Macaroni penguin. Also many elephant seals.
12 January - Whaler’s Bay, Deception Island. Arrived about 3.30pm, sailing through Neptune’s Bellows into the caldera. We were given 90 minutes ashore and able to walk up the hill to Neptune’s Window for the views. Here there are deserted research station buildings and minimal wildlife – a few chinstrap penguins and some seals.
13 January - Orne Harbour. We had 90 minutes to climb up a very snowy hill for some magnificent views and a chinstrap penguin colony perched on top. It was hard going – both up and down – for those of us not used to walking in deep snow, but absolutely worth the effort.
13 January - Danco Island. We arrived here about 2.30pm. We had 75 minutes ashore - gorgeous scenery on a magnificent day with a few gentoo penguins and a hill to climb up.
This evening we had a BBQ on the outside deck, then some passengers were returned ashore to camp overnight. The Fram moved out of sight and returned the next morning to pick up the campers.
14 January - sailed down the Gerlache Strait. We stopped to watch several Gerlache Orca, which meant we were running very late, so the planned polarcirkel cruising in the morning was cancelled.
14 January – Port Lockroy. After arrival here in the afternoon we had a member of the UKAHT team come on board the Fram to talk to us before we got to go ashore. This is a very small site; only 30 people allowed ashore at a time. We were given 40 minutes ashore. It was built as a research centre; now a post office and shop. The gentoo penguins moved in after the station was built, and they are living really close to the buildings. A delightful stop.
15 January – We were supposed to have landings at Petermann Island and another island this day, but both were cancelled because the ice was too thick for the polarcirkel boats to operate safely. We just cruised around the Lemaire Channel area for the day admiring the scenery and the wildlife. We had to change routes several times because of the ice.
16 & 17 January - At Sea. Very rough in the Drake Passage.
18 January - Disembarked in Ushuaia about 8am, flew on Hurtigruten charter flights back to Buenos Aires.
Extremely compact, but the bed was comfortable enough and we had everything we needed. Did the job!
Interesting wander around the town and some good souvenir shops