An expedition to The White Continent is a trip of a lifetime and one that very few people in the world get to experience. I was fortunate to recently make the long-haul adventure from the "End of the World" in Ushuaia, Argentina, and on to Antarctica by way of the Drake Passage on Atlas Ocean Voyages' new World Traveller.
Antarctica is every bit as magical as I had anticipated with its ice-covered landscapes, surreal turquoise blue glaciers, Elephant seals resting along the rocky coastlines, and waddling Gentoo penguins. And the long journey made me realize why travel to this remote – and harsh – region of the world has been one reserved for rugged explorers, scientists, conservationists, and the intrepid few. Antarctica is not an easy place to reach ¬– and I've gained a new appreciation for how mighty Mother Nature is, especially in this untamed land at the southernmost place on Earth.
Atlas Ocean Voyages is the U.S. subsidiary of Portugal-based Mystic Invest Holdings, which owns and operates the third-largest river cruise fleet in the world. Their portfolio includes hotels, resorts, attractions, helicopter tours, and consumer space travel.
When the company's first expedition ship, World Navigator/reviews/review.cfm?ShipID=1481), launched in August 2021, it was touted as a yacht-style ultra-luxury brand in line with cruise companies like Silversea and Seabourn, with itineraries focused on lesser-known and exotic ports of call worldwide.
James Rodriguez, who was named as Atlas' new president and CEO on August 1, 2022, and who was on the inaugural sailing, shared with Cruise Critic that this marketing strategy had a pre-pandemic mindset and the itineraries needed to change.
Rodriguez, a 19-year industry veteran with Oceania Cruises, was one of the founding members of Oceania in 2002 and most recently served as the vice president of sales and marketing for the line. He told us that travelers were looking to reconnect with the world after the pandemic. And they wanted to sail to the marquee, familiar, and safe destinations like Rome and Barcelona – and not only to lesser-known ports of call.
He also explained that there needed to be more communication and clarity around the brand's strategy after entering the market in 2021, especially with travel agents (trade partners). There were also pre-cruise customer service issues related to the ever-changing regulations around COVID-19 that caused a breakdown in messaging to clients.
With the new leadership and developing partnerships with trade partners like Avoya Travel, Atlas now brands the line as upper-premium. Rodriguez explains, "We under-promise and overdeliver." He adds, "We offer most of what luxury lines offer, but not at the price – and people are surprised."
World Navigator and World Traveller sailed to Antarctica on November 21, 2022, after a dual naming ceremony in Ushuaia, for their first expedition under the line's new leadership – and with an unexpectedly low fare. Rodriguez explains, "We didn't have a past guest list to rely on, so we advertised a Labor Day Sale, where the second guest sails free. It really is the deal of the century – and it worked surprisingly well." While the advertised pricing for the sailing was surprisingly low, especially since most people regarded the brand as being in the luxury space, the fares were deceiving.
From first-hand experience on their inaugural expedition, World Traveller offers passengers an exceptional way to sail. I was impressed by the knowledgeable and gracious staff, experienced expedition crew, and nearly flawless execution of our 9-night round-trip sailing from Ushuaia to Antarctica.
World Traveller is an elegant and intimate yacht-style polar class ship (9,930 gross tons) with 98 cabins, accommodating 196 guests at double occupancy. For expedition sailings in the polar regions, the passenger number is slightly lower, with approximately 186 guests, allowing more space to accommodate the expedition team. There are typically 117 crew and between 12 to 17 expedition team members.
On our sailing, there were 100 passengers and 12 expedition team members, and one independent observer from IAATO, a group designed to "advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to Antarctica." The observer was there to ensure that the expedition team, the ship, and the company did everything to comply with the rules and regulations, as required under the framework of the Antarctic Treaty System, to become a member of IAATO. As a side note, the ship was approved during our sailing.
Atlas currently offers 9-, 11- and 13-night roundtrip expeditions to Antarctica from Ushuaia. The line will add a third ship in the region, World Seeker, at the end of 2024, and two more vessels are planned for the future. Rodriguez said they are looking to fly the Drake Passage on some voyages. However, navigating one of the world's roughest waterways is part of the experience of visiting this remote part of the world.
My sailing, the 9-night roundtrip expedition from Ushuaia, challenged even the most experienced cruisers as our captain navigated the approximately 48-hour Drake Passage crossing en route to the South Shetland Islands and the more extended return voyage from the Antarctic Peninsula. No one could have prepared first-timers for the rough ride through the "Drake Shake"– and at times frightening seas – with average swells at 12 to 15 feet or more and waves crashing in against the ship, causing it to shake, pitch, and roll.
When we could muster the balancing act of going outside on the decks, between the wet, windy, and snowy conditions, it was spectacular to watch the Antarctic birds soaring overhead and alongside the ship, including the largest birds in the world with a wingspan of up to 13.5 feet, the Wandering albatross.
Our expedition leader, Jonathan Zaccarria, who is no stranger to the "Drake Shake" after more than 70 crossings, said that while the passengers have more issues with the motion on the way down, the situation improves on the return trip once everyone acquires their sea legs. World Traveller is designed for travel on the high seas and has excellent stabilizers. And he and the captain explained that they do everything they can to avoid the immense waves, whether that means slowing the ship down or encountering delays. They don't want to make the passengers or crew uncomfortable, especially when the staff needs to work in the galley.
On the return passage, the "shake" was much more dramatic with rougher seas and more intense waves. The captain also advised us that a storm was coming, so in the interest of safety, the last afternoon's Zodiac ride was canceled, and we high-tailed it out of Antarctica at full speed back to Ushuaia.
Zaccarria, who has been working in the polar regions for 10 years, spent 14 months in Antarctica's French research station, Dumont d'Urville 14, which is regarded as the windiest place on Earth. Dumont d'Urville 14 is the closest station to an Emperor penguin colony and was made famous by the documentary, “The March of the Penguins."
Zaccarria and many expedition team members had notable backgrounds, with much of their time spent in Antarctica, so the onboard lectures and daily recaps were very informative and entertaining, especially on the topics of wildlife, birding, and on early explorers to the region. We also watched the documentary Zaccarria filmed during his time at the station, “Icebound in Antarctica.”
The team was very thorough in instructing all of us about the safety measures related to our gear (including our bright lime green parka that was a gift from Atlas), properly fitting the life jackets, and the requirements to make Zodiac landings ashore or go on Zodiac cruises. There were also special training sessions for passengers wishing to go kayaking or paddleboarding during the expedition. There was a group of kayakers, but I didn't see any takers for paddleboarding in the frigid Antarctic waters.
While nine nights aboard an expedition ship in Antarctica sounds like a long trip, it went by quickly when you factor in the time spent navigating the Drake Passage, which is approximately four full days of the itinerary. The time can be even longer if the captain needs to take a different and longer course to avoid bad weather, as we did on the return trip.
Our first stop was in the South Shetland Islands on Day 4 before heading south to the Antarctic Peninsula for the next three days. The itinerary shows "Captain's Choice" for the days when you can explore off the ship in the South Shetland Islands and beyond, but where you go and what you can do ultimately depends on the weather.
The typical schedule consisted of a landing, Zodiac ride and/or sea kayaking in the morning and afternoon, conditions permitting. For environmental, conservation, and wildlife protection reasons, only 100 people are permitted to do any activity at once. Zacarria explained, some passengers go ashore in the morning for a landing while others take the Zodiac ride to explore. The reverse schedule occurs in the afternoon, again depending on the weather.
The captain and expedition team are constantly revising schedules and changing strategies to provide the best and safest experiences, but plans can quickly change. In the evening recaps, Zaccarria always mentioned Plan A and Plan B, but one evening without internet access that day to help with the next day's weather forecast, there was Plan ??? for both the morning and afternoon time slots.
As the team mentioned on the very first day of the expedition, flexibility is critical. You might be disappointed if you're a planner and have your heart set on seeing the rookery of Gentoo penguins at Brown Station, an Argentinian research base. It either may not be possible to reach that exact spot, or it may not be available if another ship has already planned to land there. All of the landings and excursions are carefully monitored in Antarctica.
Expedition ships with up to 500 passengers have an added challenge because of the strict limitations – and travelers might not see as much, or have as many landings or Zodiac rides, as people sailing on a smaller vessel, especially on a shorter expedition. Any larger ships (over 500 passengers) are only able to cruise the waters. They are not permitted off the ship.
For our 9-night expedition, we had a total of three landings, three Zodiac cruises, and three sea kayaking trips. We also had the polar plunge, considered by some to be a rite of passage when traveling to Antarctica. Forty-four passengers braved the frigid waters of the Neumayer Channel so they could have bragging rights for their bravery (or insanity) for making the plunge. (I wasn’t one of those passengers).
My advice – and what I hope to do on a return trip – is to choose the longer itinerary. Also, don't skip going on a landing or a Zodiac cruise when it's offered. You never know when the captain may have to shift course and cut out an excursion due to the ever-changing weather.
When we weren't ashore traversing through foot-high snowy landscapes – or gliding through the vast silence in a Zodiac capturing images of humpback whales, penguins, seals, ice flows, or eerily turquoise blue icebergs, activities seemed plentiful throughout the day. And the days went by so quickly, even though we were limited mostly to indoor public spaces (except for wildlife viewing and the polar plunge).
Crew and expedition members mentioned that it might be more comfortable on the rough sea days to watch the lectures, movies, and recaps from our beautifully appointed staterooms rather than in the main theater, Vasco de Gama Auditorium, at the ship's bow. However, staying in the public spaces, such as the Atlas Lounge and guest relations area on Deck 4 was easier for me as it was two decks down from my cabin. This area in the center of the ship felt like a substantially more stable spot in the vessel.
This area was also a great spot to chat with fellow passengers and the engaging crew, including the cruise director and the hotel manager, who were a part of almost every activity on the ship, including assisting in the mud room when it was time to head out for a landing or Zodiac ride.
Deck 4 is also where you'll find most of the dining options available in Antarctica. Lisboa, the aft-situated main dining room, also offers al fresco dining in season. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style in Lisboa with a wide selection of freshly prepared foods and cooked dishes. The number of choices and quality of the food were excellent. Most days at lunch, there was also a carving station or an individually prepared specialty, such as a truffled risotto, an Asian noodle stir fry, or mussels prepared with white wine and garlic.
They served a buffet dinner the first and last evening on board, and for a special holiday meal, but the rest of the evenings were plated meals. You can also request a menu when they have a buffet. I looked forward to the dining experience every evening with beautifully executed dishes and attentive service. I also can't stop thinking about the delicious freshly baked loaves of bread (some of the best I've had on any cruise) and the daily homemade ice cream flavors, with Blueberry Muffin still ranking as one of my favorites.
Paula's Pantry, located in the same area as the Cruise Director's and expedition team's desks, is a brilliant grab-and-go concept with specialty coffees, fresh-pressed juices, yogurt, morning and lunch options, freshly baked pastries, muffins, cookies, and more. And at The Dome on Deck 7, you'll find panoramic views, a spacious and comfortable lounge space, and light bites during the morning. The Dome is also where tea is served in the afternoon, and evening entertainment takes place after dinner.
A memorable touch by the crew was a Thanksgiving Day meal complete with all the traditional fixings. It was also thoughtful to offer guests a short non-denominational Thanksgiving service in The Dome (Deck 7) hosted by the minister that had officiated the naming ceremony. It was an emotional experience as we sailed in remote waters so far from home. Many of us were without family, so it was particularly moving when guest entertainer Asijah Pickett sang "What a Wonderful World."
My last expedition cruise in the Galapagos was also a life-changing and bucket-list experience. The difference was that we were so busy spending time off the ship every day that the design and décor of the vessel were not the top priority.
This expedition to Antarctica was very different. With so much time spent on board between crossing the formidable Drake Passage twice, waiting for the next time to go ashore or on a Zodiac ride, and spending long hours indoors, comfort was paramount – and luxury a bonus.
An expedition to Antarctica is a shared experience with fellow travelers and the crew. The World Traveller's onboard spaces make for a convivial environment – whether you're showing photos from the day's landing or conversing over an evening cocktail, the ship is a welcome – and elegant refuge. If you didn't go on board as friends, you might come away with a few new acquaintances you may even want to travel with again.
On World Traveller, you can have an all-inclusive, adventure-filled, and once-in-a-lifetime expedition to The Last Continent while enjoying all the luxurious appointments, top-notch dining, and attentive service on a yacht-style ship. I’m ready to book my next – and extended – adventure to explore deeper into The White Continent and cross over the Antarctic Circle.