“Buckle up and enjoy the ride.”
That was Captain Terje Ulset’s signature signoff from public announcements on the maiden sailing of Atlas Ocean Voyages’ third expedition yacht, World Voyager, as we sailed to Antarctica. And it couldn’t have been more fitting for the early season launch that gave the ship and its crew an immediate chance to prove their mettle in the region’s notoriously rough and unpredictable conditions.
After a christening in Ushuaia with Atlas President and CEO James Rodriguez and World Voyager’s godmother Harpreet "Preet" Kaur Chandi, a British naval officer who in January 2023 recorded the longest-ever solo and unsupported polar expedition by a woman of color, we set out on Atlas’s nine-night Antarctic Discovery itinerary through the Drake Passage to the South Shetland Islands and the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Initial weather reports indicated we’d have a fairly normal (if there is such a thing) sailing through the notorious Drake, where the average waves are about 10 feet high. But that soon changed, with swells reaching more than 30 feet on the first afternoon of our two-day crossing.
Yes, dishes were crashing, and a number of people fled the lecture hall and lounges clutching sickness bags. But considering the height of the waves and the fact that at one or two points in the cruise snow was blowing sideways -- and sometimes even straight up in 100-plus mile-per-hour winds -- the yacht felt surprisingly stable, with World Voyager more than holding its own against the elements.
Like the other two yachts in the Atlas fleet, World Traveller and World Navigator, World Voyager is a Polar Category C and Ice Class 1B-certified ship with the some of the latest in sonar, stabilization and engine technologies, including a hybrid electric-diesel engine and a hydro-jet propulsion system for smoother, safer and more energy efficient rides.
And while the ship had sailed a few seasons previously under a German brand, Nicko, this was its first time in polar waters after being refreshed and rebranded to join the Atlas fleet.
After making it across the Drake, we woke up on our third day to sunny weather in the South Shetland Islands. We made two landings that day on Deception Island, where we got our first chances to hike snowy peaks and watch penguins waddle, swim, and even fight amongst each other.
Unfortunately, the weather gods didn’t stay on our side – always a risk on any expedition to the polar regions. We spent the rest of the trip skirting around and through extreme conditions, including 100 knot winds that Captain Ulset said were the strongest he’d encountered in his 38-year career at sea.
The weather limited us to just five of the eight potential included off-ship excursions — three landings and two zodiac rides. But when you’re sailing aboard a comfortable yacht with unlimited food and drink and plenty of cozy, glass-walled lounge areas from which to watch the dramatic weather, majestic landscapes, icebergs, birds and whales, it’s hard to complain.
The 198-passenger ships, which are positioned as “intimate yachts,” offer a hybrid between luxury and more traditional expedition cruising.
Staterooms aboard World Voyager range in size from 183 to 465 square feet. I stayed in a spacious 270 square foot Horizon Stateroom, which instead of a balcony had a large sitting area with small sectional couch, corner chair and a desk. The outer wall had a floor-to-ceiling window, which came halfway down with the touch of the button. There was also a large flat-screen television set and stocked in-room minibar.
The bathroom was also large by cruise ship standards, with a tiled rain shower that had multiple wall jets,and even a bench – a feature which came in handy during rough seas.
The contemporary Scandinavian décor aboard World Voyager is largely identical across the fleet, with wood, blue and earth tones that offer a casual yet luxurious feel.
For Antarctic sailings, only the main dining room, Madeira, and Paula’s Pantry, a grab and go venue, are open. But in warmer weather there is also a reservation-only outdoor restaurant, 7-Aft Grill.
While Atlas offers fine dining and five-star amenities, including a spa, it’s still a fairly new entrant to expedition cruising. It’s first ship, World Navigator, launched in 2021, and World Traveller joined the fleet last year.
Because the line is young and growing ( World Seeker is set to join the fleet in 2025 and World Discoverer in 2027), it’s still offering introductory specials that make its price point quite a bit more affordable than many of its competitors.
Some Antarctic cruises are as low as $7,999 USD per person, and these rates are attracting first-time and younger cruisers. The average age on our sailing was 57, and company officials said it was even younger for World Voyager’s next departure.
The fare for the Antarctic Discovery itinerary includes a pre-night stay in Buenos Aires, unlimited food and drink (except premium wine and cocktails), 24-hour room service (and butler service in suites), limited WiFi, up to two landings or zodiac excursions each day (weather allowing), parkas, charter flights between Ushuaia and Buenos Aires and a trip to Tierra del Fuego National Park before boarding.
There are also itineraries with options to fly one way to King George Island, to have more time in Antarctica and less time in the Drake.
All three of Atlas Ocean Voyages’ ships are sailing in Antarctica this season before heading north to the Arctic and to warmer waters later next year, where the company will offer cultural and epicurean-based itineraries.
(See our review of an epicurean expedition through the Mediterranean aboard World Navigator)
On World Voyager’s blustery maiden sailing, guests seemed content with the extra sea time, building a snowman on the deck, playing cards, trivia games and attending lectures on whales, the history of the region, and of course, climate changes’ impact on the fragile poles.
In fact, cheers went up and the champagne came out the afternoon that 100-knot winds cancelled our second attempt for a zodiac excursion because we had been on the ship all day and you’re not supposed to enjoy the unlimited alcohol until after the day’s activities are over.
More disappointing than a few cancelled excursions, however, was our missed opportunities to kayak, paddleboard and dig a bed in the snow to camp under the Antarctic skies in a mummy-like sleeping bag similar to the one Chandi uses in her polar expeditions. Atlas is one of just a few cruise operators who offer the camping excursion as an add-on.
But if Antarctica is one thing, it’s unpredictable. And while conditions are generally less harsh later in the season that typically runs between November and March, the motto of any cruise there, the crew reminded us from the outset, is flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.
Luckily, we ended on a high – literally -- hiking to the summit of Danco Island in a light snow alongside hundreds of penguins. The summit offered stunning 360-degree views of the region’s unmatched polar beauty.
That afternoon we took a zodiac excursion to the continent where we saw our first chin-strap penguins. While ice prevented us from actually making a landing, the crew took us close enough to touch the cliffs of the Seventh Continent.
Before heading back into the Drake Passage, conditions also cleared enough for the ship’s expedition team offer the traditional – and very popular -- polar plunge.
More than half of the 144 passengers aboard World Voyager lined up to jump into the icy waters, an exercise that took several hours as each guest has to be tethered before plunging overboard.
I was content to be a spectator onboard World Voyager, simply taking in the amazing views all around me.