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SH Vega in Antarctica (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)
SH Vega in Antarctica (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)

Just Back From Swan Hellenic in Antarctica: First Impressions of New-Build Cruise Ship SH Vega

SH Vega in Antarctica (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)
SH Vega in Antarctica (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)
Rebecca Barnes

Last updated
Feb 13, 2023

Read time
6 min read

(6:08 a.m. ET) -- The brash ice in Charlotte Bay is scattered like broken glass as far as the eye can see, and the Narnia-like setting is arguably more beautiful and tranquil than anything else I've ever witnessed before.

Suddenly, the silence is broken by a 10-metre high iceberg fragmenting in front of our eyes. We watch, transfixed, then pass a leopard seal lazing on a slab of ice, while seconds later a minke whale teases us with a flash of its fin.

I'm sailing on Swan Hellenic's SH Vega, built to navigate the world's iciest waters, on a bucket-list voyage to Antarctica, a destination which likes to remind you that just perhaps, you aren't actually meant to be here.

This is SH Vega's maiden season in Antarctica and follows the debut of Swan Hellenic's SH Minerva in the White Continent in 2021, after the British line's revival in 2020 under new ownership.

Since landing in Buenos Aires for an included pre-cruise overnight stay, the excitement has been growing among fellow passengers eager to get onboard the 152-passenger ship -- I'm especially excited as I'm about to tick off my seventh continent.

Boarding in Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of South America, the 10-night voyage takes us across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands.

Here are some of my first impressions of the new polar PC5 ice-class SH Vega.

SH Vega Offers a Premium Expedition Cruising Experience

What cruisers unfamiliar with Swan Hellenic might not realise is the line offers a premium-style of expedition cruising.

There's a high-level of inclusions, including gratuities, drinks (including coffee, tea, soft drinks and selected alcoholic drinks), WiFi, a branded parka coat, backpack and water bottle to keep, and of course daily landings (normally two but sometimes three). There's also a mini bar in the stateroom with complimentary soft drinks and beer; bottled water is replenished twice a day.

Balcony cabin on SH Vega (Photo by Rebecca Barnes)
Balcony cabin on SH Vega (Photo by Rebecca Barnes)

Staterooms feel high-spec. I'm staying in a spacious Balcony stateroom with soothing soft woods and marble, a separate living area, more cupboard space than my London flat and a luxurious and spacious bathroom with full sized Italian toiletries. Lighting feels well-considered, too, including night lights, and a holographic flame-effect fireplace opposite the bed gives a cosy feel.

Food and drink is of a similar high standard: Swan Dining Room is the main venue for breakfast, lunch and dinner, serving regional and international dishes. There's an open seating policy with lots of space and large windows so you never miss the action outside.

Menu highlights include herb roasted Angus beef tenderloin with parmesan mashed potato, and orange salmon with butternut squash puree. There are daily "always available" items, including an excellent chicken or shrimp Caesar salad, and Swan Hellenics' Culinary Ambassadors' Selection dishes, as well as vegetarian options.

My favourite venue for a lighter lunch -- as well as afternoon tea -- is the Club Lounge, a more informal living room-style space with a feature fireplace. This leads out to the al fresco Pool Grill and Bar, the venue for occasional themed lunches and dinners when the weather permits.

Fellow Passengers on SH Vega Are Like-Minded Adventurers

Port Lockroy, home to the Penguin Post Office (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)
Port Lockroy, home to the Penguin Post Office (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)

If you love knowing that you are at the bottom of the planet and love wildlife, this cruise needs to be on your bucket list. But such voyages don't come cheap, so if you want to step on the seventh continent, you'll need to commit time and budget in order to live out your Antarctica dreams; this particular itinerary leads in at £10,684 for an Oceanview room.

This is one of the shorter Antarctica itineraries I've come across, at 10 nights/11 days, or 11 nights/12 days if you count a one night pre-cruise stay.

The demographic onboard surprises me, with passengers incredibly mixed and ages ranging from teenagers to Keith from the United States, who is celebrating his 90th birthday with 11 friends. There are 106 like-minded guests from 19 different countries.

Some of the passengers have cruised on more mainstream ships and itineraries, although a fair few haven't ever been on a cruise at all. A handful of U.K. guests booked last minute in Ushuaia as they were already travelling in and around Argentina.

SH Vega's Onboard Enrichment is First-class, Itineraries Are Changeable

Expedition team leader Antony gives a lecture in the Observation Lounge on SH Vega (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)
Expedition team leader Antony gives a lecture in the Observation Lounge on SH Vega (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)

This is where Swan Hellenic excels: the onboard enrichment is delivered by a highly knowledgeable, friendly and engaging expedition team, who make the itinerary come alive.

One evening I dine with expedition team-member Richard Simpson who shares tales about his adventures in Antarctica, including when he was partway through a quest to commemorate Shackleton, but with bad weather closing in and the avalanche risk too high, the eight-strong team made the decision to abandon the mission.

Ships were gradually being grounded due to Covid, but it was SH Minerva that finally rescued them. A few months later, Richard got a call from Swan Hellenic offering him a job.

As is standard on expedition cruises to Antarctica, daily briefings are packed with information including weather patterns, routes, destinations and talks on the wildlife spotted that day. The Observation Lounge doubles as the lecture theatre, and lectures and briefings are also shown on the in-room entertainment system, so you don't have to move from the sofa.

Don’t expect to stick rigidly to an itinerary when voyaging this far south. Expedition leader Antony uses his knowledge to continually assess weather patterns and often comes up with alternative routes and landing sites in order for guests to have the best experience -- and most favourable weather conditions -- possible.

This includes scouting for landings where other ships do not go; during this cruise we experienced four places that SH Vega has never been to before. The guests do not seem to mind these changes -- with one saying the itinerary has far exceeded her expectations -- and are certainly up for venturing into the unknown.

I’ve learnt so much since being onboard, from how colossal some icebergs become -- the size of whole cities apparently -- to the behaviour of nesting gentoo penguins.

There's Plenty to do Onboard SH Vega

Zodiacs onboard SH Vega in Antarctica (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)
Zodiacs onboard SH Vega in Antarctica (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)

Along with SH Vega, your main mode of transport when on this particular expedition vessel is one of the 12 military grade Zodiacs which can break through brash ice (floating ice consisting of fragments up to 2 metres across). During landings and weather permitting, guests can also kayak (extra charge); if you want to take a dip, there's the heated infinity pool, large hot tub which seems very popular on sunny days, or for the really brave, the infamous Polar Plunge.

Infinity Pool on SH Vega (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)
Infinity Pool on SH Vega (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)

For sea days, there's early morning yoga, treatments and massages in the cosy spa and a sauna with a view. While the TV has useful elements -- namely movies, radio channels, the daily program, a bow camera and a map -- I find that most of the time the TV channels are not working.

Hot tub on board SH Vega (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)
Hot tub on board SH Vega (Photo: Rebecca Barnes)

In the evenings, things are a low-key affair. The light-filled Observation Lounge is the hub of the ship with informative daily briefings and a bar serving great cocktails; in the evenings there's also piano music and at times, music and dancing.

Swan's Nest on SH Vega (Photo by Rebecca Barnes)
Swan's Nest on SH Vega (Photo by Rebecca Barnes)

As Swan Hellenic says, the real show takes place outside, and SH Vega has one of the most unique viewing platforms on the ocean. Affording frontline 360 degree views, the Swan's Nest at the bow (front) of Deck 6, cannot be beaten for panoramic whale or bird spotting, drinking in the extraordinary scenery or snapping a picture or two with the bonus of one of the planet's most unbeatable backdrops.

Publish date February 13, 2023
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