Two shore excursions or activities are offered most days, ranging from hikes of differing levels of toughness to Zodiac tours. A thorough briefing with slides the day before gives you a good idea of what to expect. It's important to attend this.
All disembarkation is via the aft platform, where two Zodiacs can "dock" at once. The process is swift and efficient, with maximum attention to safety. You hang a tag on a board by your cabin number to show that you've gone ashore. Excursions are divided by language group and assembling for trips ashore takes place in different lounges, so there's no sensation of being herded, or in a rush to leave the ship.
* May require additional fees
Once ashore, conditions vary. At Cape Horn, there's a steep, slippery wooden staircase leading to a wind-blown cliff and a short walk to the lovely Albatross monument and the striped lighthouse, manned by a Chilean naval officer and his wife, who live here for a year at a time. In Wulaia Bay, you walk along a rickety jetty, while on other landings, the Zodiacs pull up on stony beaches and the crew attach a metal ramp so you don't have to jump over the side.
Hikes are mainly flat but you need to be pretty fit for the "challenging" walk in Wulaia Bay, which is a route that marches up a steep hill. It's made very clear that the walk in Garibaldi fjord is only for the super-fit, or insane, as it involves clambering over steep rocks, knee-deep mud and traversing a waterfall. Most passengers on this day opt for scenic cruising and observing the glacier from the warmth of the lounges.
Two of the three itineraries, Discover Patagonia and Patagonian Explorer, call at Magdalena Island, where thousands of Magellanic penguins nest. You can walk among them; they are completely unafraid of humans. On the Fjords of Tierra del Fuego itinerary, penguin viewing takes place from a Zodiac in Tuckers Islets.
Other than penguins, you should spot cormorants, oystercatchers, condors, skuas, gulls and vultures. Dolphins and whales are a common sight, although not on every cruise.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
Talks on the ecology and history of the region take place in the day or before dinner, and various documentaries on subjects varying from Shackleton to wildlife are screened. One day, there's a knot-tying class and on others, bridge or engine room visits. On the penultimate day, each table in the dining room was given a trivia sheet to fill in (and you can't cheat and look it up online as there's no internet). That evening, there's a crew presentation, a slideshow of passengers' photos, a raffle to win the ship's "jack" or flag and a lively auction of the navigation chart.
Lectures take place most days covering topics such as glaciation, geology and the human history of the area, from native peoples to the various explorers whose legacy lives on in place names like the Magellan Strait and the Beagle Channel. Talks are in the Darwin Lounge for English speakers, with versions in the other lounges in different languages, adjusted to the passenger mix. There are daily briefings about the following day's activities with specific detail about the how steep, muddy or challenging each excursion will be; it's worth attending these as they go into greater depth than the descriptions in the daily program.
Ventus Australis has three lounges, the main Darwin Lounge on Deck 5, where the bar is located; the Sky Lounge on Deck 4; and the smaller Yamana Lounge on Deck 3. All three are beautiful, tranquil spaces with comfortable chairs and huge picture windows; when the ship is sailing, you can just sink into one of the oversized, squashy leather sofas with a drink and gaze at the scenery. All three have contemporary but neutral decor, with nautical prints and charts on the walls and some intriguing objets d'art made of wood and metal, offering an eclectic touch.
Yamana Lounge (Deck 3): On Deck 3, the forward-facing Yamana Lounge is an intimate spot for reading or sitting quietly.
Sky Lounge (Deck 4): The pretty Sky Lounge, with cream-and-blue decor, is the perfect spot for curling up in a comfortable chair to watch a movie at night. This is also the snacking area; there's a counter with a constant supply of cookies and other treats.
Darwin Lounge (Deck 5): The Darwin Lounge is the epicenter of activity as it's the location of the bar. There are comfortable sofas and chairs grouped around tables, with screens dotted around the room so you can always see whatever movie or slideshow is on. People gather here before dinner, and the bar stays open until the last guests have retired, which is usually not very late.
The ship has no pool or hot tubs, and much of the open deck houses the fleet of Zodiacs. There's an observation platform above Deck 5, and plenty of deck space outside the Darwin Lounge on Deck 5. There's no adornment to the deck -- it's plain blue metal throughout. Incidentally, this outside space is the only area where smoking is allowed.
Reception and guest services are on Deck 2, a sleek-looking space of bleached wood, with a massive, carved wooden table and in the window, comfortable cushions where you can sit with a reference book from the adjacent shelves that serve as a library.
There's rather a chichi gift shop outside the Darwin Lounge on Deck 5, selling everything from cushion covers and alpaca throws to branded Australis gear, jewelry and cuddly penguins. This is a change from Stella Australis, where the shop is smaller and located in the reception area.
There is no Wi-Fi onboard and no cell coverage, either, once you leave Punta Arenas or Ushuaia, which most people found refreshing after the initial shock. The ship does not have an elevator; these voyages are not suitable for the less mobile.
A word of warning about embarkation day. We embarked in Ushuaia, where we had overnighted. You present yourself at the Australis office on the main street between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., check in and drop off your luggage. There is no secure storage at the office for hand luggage so you have to carry it around all day. If you've had to check out of your hotel after breakfast, you have until 6 p.m. to kill before embarkation, so it's a good idea to plan an activity, like a ride on the Tren del Fin del Mundo. If it's raining, this can feel like a very long day. You can fly in from Buenos Aires the same day, but you would still have to check in your bag at the office and then present yourself at the dock at 6 p.m. There's no opportunity to go straight from the airport to the ship.
Embarkation in Punta Arenas is also 6 p.m., with check-in at the Australis office available from 1 p.m.
The ship has no spa or fitness facilities; you stay fit anyway if you opt for the more vigorous hikes.
Families are welcome and there's no minimum age, although very young children may struggle with some of the hikes and the cold. Kids old enough to have an interest in glaciers, forests, birds and the great outdoors would get the most out of a cruise on this ship; it's not like a safari, or the Galapagos, with constant animal sightings. There is no entertainment for children, and they eat meals at the same time as the adults. There are no adjoining cabins, but the four superior cabins can take a third bed.
On our cruise, one young girl unfortunately broke her arm when she slipped off a big log. I was impressed by the speed at which the guides got her back to the ship, attended to by the doctor and within a couple of hours, helicoptered to the hospital in Punta Arenas.