Daily sightseeing by Zodiac (inflatable rubber boats carrying up to 10 passengers) and walks ashore are included in the fare. In the Arctic, guides will accompany passengers due to the threat of polar bears; in Antarctica, you can roam free within approved areas. Terrain may be rough, slippery, snowy or uphill, but most areas have ample flat ground for all mobility levels.
Almost every passenger participates in the landings, which are offered each morning and afternoon for two to four hours, with plenty of time in between to shower, warm up and have a hearty lunch. A moderate level of fitness and agility is required for the most strenuous hike -- a three-hour guided trek up and down mountains in South Georgia, following the route of explorer Ernest Shackleton when he went in search of help for his stranded party.
* May require additional fees
Polar snorkelling, scuba diving, sea kayaking, snowshoeing and mountaineering are optional activities on select departures for an additional cost. These activities are limited to 10 passengers, who must fill out a form, signed by their doctor, to confirm a suitable level of fitness. Be sure to register when booking your cruise to avoid missing out. It is not possible to sign up for these activities halfway through the trip or to do only one session. Polar Pioneer's expedition guides are very experienced professionals who do an excellent job running these activities safely and efficiently.
Passengers are permitted on the bow, the outside decks and in the bridge with the Russian captain and officers. Bring cameras and binoculars to view the wildlife from the ship; the bridge is also equipped with binoculars and wildlife books. On Zodiac excursions, waterproof cameras, casings or at least a sealed plastic bag are advisable; a waterproof daypack is a good idea, too. On Antarctic and South Georgia voyages, expect to see a variety of whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds such as albatrosses, petrels, pipits and seven species of penguins. In the Arctic, prepare for the polar bear, muskox and walrus.
Aurora Expeditions' education program is exceptional, with up to three lectures held on a sea day. These presentations are led by guest speakers, as well as Polar Pioneer's expedition leaders and kayak guides. Accompanying each voyage are at least two naturalists and a historian, who are often published authors. A documentary or movie about the region is also shown. The lecture room isn't large enough for the full capacity of 54 passengers -- it seats 42 people on long lounges with limited legroom -- so arrive early.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
There are no shows or live music onboard. A quiz night and slideshow night (featuring passengers' selected photos) are held toward the end of the trip. Every couple of days, a roundup of the cruise's activities is conducted in the bar before dinner, where the microphone is passed along to anyone who wants to share stories of their experiences. A barbecue dinner may also be held on deck, weather permitting.
The ship has only one low-key bar, which is not quite large enough for the full complement of passengers but is adequate for the number of people who use it. During the day it's a quiet but sociable space for cards, board games, reading or a cup of tea. Most nights are fairly subdued, due to the early-morning wake-up calls for breakfast and excursions. But as everyone gets to know each other, the jet lag wears off and the ship is in calmer waters, more people kick on for drinks after dinner. The wood-paneled walls are lined with photos of past explorers, which sets the tone. Passengers stay casually dressed in their adventure gear and swap travel stories.
Polar Pioneer's drink prices are very reasonable. Beers (Beck's, Carlsberg, Heineken, Stella Artois and local Chilean and Argentinian lagers) are A$6, wine and spirits start at A$6 per glass, and a cocktail of the day is offered for A$6. Bottles of wine are priced from A$18 for a Spanish rose up to A$140 for Bollinger Champagne. Cans of soft drink are A$4, juice is A$3, specialty coffee is A$4. As the ship is stocked in Poland, there's also a selection of Polish cider and beer. The Captain's welcome event, with free punch, is usually held on the second evening before dinner. The farewell toast also includes a complimentary glass of sparkling wine.
The top deck has no recreational facilities and is mostly used for whale-watching and bird-spotting. At the stern, the ship's marina is equipped with kayaks and Zodiacs.
The bar acts as the all-in-one service centre, shop, library and meeting room. Crew and passengers gather here for informal talks about the next day's activities or to socialise. One corner has a collection of reference books, board games and past passengers' novels left behind to swap with your own. The small windows are too high above seating level to watch the scenery or wildlife passing by, but it's a comfortable room in which to relax, read or play Scrabble.
There is no self-serve laundry, however the laundry service is cheap compared to other ships (from 70 cents for a pair of socks up to A$4 for a dress). Ironing costs A$3.40 per item. A medical clinic is staffed by one doctor who handles basic healthcare needs. First aid kits are carried by expedition staff on all Zodiac landings.
Communication is expensive and unreliable in remote regions so most people should prepare to be out of touch for the whole cruise. Wi-Fi is available from many areas on the ship but it can only be used for emailing from a shipboard email account, which can be set up onboard. There is no internet access to other websites. The set-up fee for a shipboard email address is A$6 and then passengers pay 50 cents per kilobyte to send and receive email. You cannot access your own home or work email accounts unless you pay a minimum A$80 for 30MB or A$160 for 80MB. Telephone calls cost A$6 per minute.
Polar Pioneer has no spa or gym. A sauna is located on Deck 2, and the ship is equipped with five double kayaks and 10 pairs of snowshoes. Passengers tend to get their exercise on active shore excursions.
Not a particularly family-friendly ship, Polar Pioneer has no kids club, babysitting or specific children's activities; however, parents can speak with the cruise line to determine whether it would be suitable. Past voyages have welcomed children, who usually enjoy the wildlife encounters and playing board games onboard. In rough waters, passengers of all ages need to be able to hold onto railings to maintain their balance and get in and out of Zodiacs. The official minimum age to sail is 8 years old.