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Antarctic Cruise Information

This is in response to questions from others who are considering a similar cruise.

* Ship. I think that currently the best choice is the ship we took, the Seabourn Quest – if you can get away for at least three weeks. With pre- and post-cruise stays, we were gone for a month. (I've made substantial additions to the original email account of our voyage since I posted it on my website, while an earlier story includes more introductory information.)

With a capacity of 450, it's the largest modern (2011) ship that is permitted to land passengers on Antarctica. Because of international regulations only those with fewer than 500 passengers are allowed to go ashore, and in groups of a maximum of 100 at a time.

It was serendipitous that Seabourn constructed a ship sufficiently small but large enough to offer spacious public areas, alternative dining venues, lounges, bars, a nightclub and theater – one that they could later modify to ice-class standards. Two sister ships, Odyssey and Sojourn, ply other, warmer, waters, and have not been modified.

The other cruise line in the "mega-yacht" category, Silversea, designed their two modern ships with 540 and 576 passengers, leaving them no option of doing something similar. So, beginning mid-2017 they will begin modifying the smaller, 296-passenger, Silver Cloud for Antarctic duty. We've sailed it before and we did enjoy it, but it is over 20 years old. Earlier, they had purchased a 132-passenger expedition-class ship, and although refurbished in 2007, it was originally constructed in 1989.

Other lines advertising Antarctic cruses that actually can only "cruise," because of the ship size, are Holland America, Celebrity, and Crystal. They were even joined by the Silver Cloud – although small enough it was not ice-rated at the time.

It's a mystery to me why anyone would spend so much money and time, as well as potential discomfort when traversing the Drake Passage, twice, to only be able to view the frolicsome feathered fellows from afar.

I've read that there are new purpose-built luxury ships at least on the drawing boards if not under construction, but they don't seem to be sailing yet.

Other lines with expedition-type ships include Quark, Lindblad, Ponant, and Hurtigruten. They offer shorter cruises, leaving and departing from ports closer to Antarctica, if that's a concern. These ships are smaller – most between 100 to 250 passengers – and are often able to offer two trips ashore per day.

No longer being of the expeditionary bent, we found that a single round of donning the multiple layers of garb, finished off with our "dairy boots" stored in lockers near the disembarkation point, riding a zodiac to shore, socializing with the penguins for an hour, taking a zodiac back, and changing back into shipboard casual was enough for one day.

For the really adventurous, one cruise offers a shore excursion that begins on the west coast of South Georgia Island, traversing the mountains in the center, over to the east coast. Not quite Shackleton's harrowing journey, but strenuous enough for non-Antarctic explorers.

As for which sailing, we took the only one that stopped at South Georgia Island because of my long fascination with Shackleton's amazing saga. If that isn't high on your interest list, more chicks would be visible on later cruises. We did see some peeking out from under the parents, but none yet running around. They are closely monitored, though, because skuas are always nearby waiting to gobble them up and will do the same to an unguarded egg.

However, you don't want to go too late, because as the season elapses, if the penguin parents realize their offspring aren't sufficiently advanced to be able to manage on their own, they abandon them. We were told that such cruises are known as "Dead Penguin Tours!"

Not knowing the cruise history of the reader, I have some recommendations we've compiled over the years and how we research them, including tips regarding cruisecritic.com and vacationstogo.com. Check back later when I'll provide a link.

* Logistics. As Antarctic cruises depart in our winter, it's a good idea to plan to arrive at least one day early, in case of weather delays. In fact, it's a good plan for any time of year – snow isn't the only kind of disruptive weather, and with today's packed aircraft the next available flight may not be soon enough.

On an earlier cruise that departed from London in September, some passengers had a delay in Chicago and missed the first four days of the cruise. They also missed the striking departure under the raised Tower Bridge down the Thames. Although the first landfall was in Vigo, Spain, the first port with convenient air service was Lisbon.

In fact, on this Antarctica cruise several passengers who planned on arriving on Sunday, the day of departure, were delayed and had a 10-hour bus ride to Puerto Montt, the first port stop. Then there was the couple also planning a Sunday arrival after an itinerary that involved four flight legs beginning in Australia – so they could use Frequent Flyer miles! They arrived so late that, six days later(!) they had to fly to Ushuaia, our last port before Antarctica – where there are no nearby airports.

And this on a cruise whose large Australian contingent was attracted by the convenience of non-stop flights from Sydney. Unfortunately none are available from the Washington, DC area, and we suffered unpleasant surprises both coming and going. (I've since learned that there is an airport on King George Island, where some Antarctic cruises begin, but it may not be a simple matter to arrange a ship transfer.)

Since we hadn't been to any part of Chile or to Buenos Aires – we had briefly entered Argentina from Brazil to see Iguassu Falls from the opposite side – we came three days early and stayed three days afterwards. We hadn't known when we made te aircraft reservations that the temperature in Buenos Aires might be over 100 degrees in mid-January or we might have reconsidered. However, it didn't top 95 and living where we do, we shave learned to cope.

Although the cruise left from Valparaiso, international flights arrive at Santiago, which in any case has more points of interest. Others had researched ways of getting to Valparaiso, including a 10-passenger bus that would pick up people at their various hotels for $99 each. We contacted our boutique hotel, the Orly, who said there would be no problem arranging transportation, so we held off on prior arrangements.

The Sunday morning of departure, the concierge arranged for a pre-paid taxi to take us to the bus station. It was on the western outskirts and cost $13 – the most expensive leg of our trip. He wrote in Spanish on the back of a card that we wanted the next "Turbus" to Valparaiso. The bus station was busy but had a dedicated window for Valparaiso and we soon purchased tickets. There was a holiday promotion so the tickets cost $4.50 each. There was frequent service and we boarded within 15 minutes.

Turbus is actually the name of a bus company, but it also describes their luxurious vehicles, suitable for relaxed touring. Double-decker with reserved seats, it is much more comfortable than standard airline accommodations. Bottled water was served and from the upper deck we viewed the changing scenery, including the Andes and vineyards along the way.

While waiting in the Miami airport, we had conversed with some Chileans who told us they would be taking the bus to the Lake District some ten hours from Santiago. At the time I thought that would be quite a long uncomfortable ride. However, after enjoying the quality of Chilean Turbuses I'd take one in place of a flight any day. And some buses have seats that recline flat for overnight travel. Coincidentally, I've since learned that our shore excursion at Puerto Montt was in the Lake District. Also, the previously-mentioned latecomers had the same trip.

Arriving in Valparaiso, we encountered a traffic jam caused by a Christmas market extending for many blocks in the median. However, that gave us an opportunity to see what wares were available and we had plenty of time before sailing. Our luggage was among the last to be retrieved and we worried that we might have a problem getting a taxi. Evidently the others had heir own connections, because by the time we pulled our wheeled duffels to the front of the terminal, a taxi pulled up and took us to the port, for $7 – for a total trip cost of $29.

One who had taken the $99 bus transfer was steamed about their service. They were the first to be picked up and were driven all over the city to collect the others. To make matters worse, the driver often didn't seem to know where to go – once they had to tell him that the next hotel was behind him after he made a wrong turn. When I told her of our experience, she stuck out her tongue!

* Garb. There are several options for getting outfitted:

– Seabourn provides a puffy jacket and waterproof parka with hood, the orange color of which will make one stand out against the Antarctic whiteness. Although they didn't mention this, they also provided a black woolen cap with a cute embroidered penguin on the front.

– For the rest of the provisions, the simplest method is to have a Seattle outfitter that partners with Seabourn provide all the desired items waiting in your suite when you arrive. They will even provide rental boots and trekking poles for those who might not use them later and don't wish to pack them for their return.

– You can purchase desired items from them and take them with you.

– You can purchase your own from where you wish, based on Seabourn recommendations, which was our approach. We bought part of the base layer at Costco, the rest from Macy's online and the waterproof pants at our local L.L. Bean store, where we were able to try them on to be sure of a proper fit. Late in the season, department-store-wise, we were also able to find Head waterproof ski gloves at Costco for 1/3 the price as L.L. Bean.

Boots were from Amazon, for about the cost of a rental. Read the reviews about sizing – mine said to order a size smaller, which proved to be accurate. Others had written that a single trekking pole was normally adequate for the type of walking we'd be doing, so we bought one pair to share for about one-third the price of rental – carbon fiber at that. I also purchased a pair of fingerless gloves, as recommended in the brochure below.

* Cameras. Most people will want to document this once-in-a-lifetime experience, although a prize-winning photographer couple captured all the highlights, which we received on a DVD (gratis, in case you're familiar with other cruise lines' policies). With such a small ship, you might even find yourself among the photos. The photographers also provided a pre-voyage brochure of Photo Tips as well as frequent on-board lectures and availability throughout the cruise to answer questions.

There were serious photographers among our group, some with an extra suitcase just for their gear, and some of whom later vowed to go lighter in the future. DSLRs with long zoom lenses can be unwieldy when getting into and out of zodiacs – we heard that someone on an earlier cruise had dropped a $5,000 camera into the water on disembarkation. It was at the shore end, so it could be retrieved, but salt water isn't very friendly to delicate mechanisms.

In fact, even for zodiac tours, where we didn't come ashore, many decided not to risk the salt spray. One who brought his in a waterproof bag didn't remove it during our adventurous tour to see the Adelie penguins, instead using his cell phone camera inside a plastic envelope.

I had used SLRS from the time of our first European trip in 1967 until we left for Germany in 1989, when I switched to a camcorder. However, when the first digital cameras arrived, I purchased a pocketable Canon in 1999, and never looked back. You can see that one as well as the next five generations here.

Shortly before our departure another cruiser tipped me off on a good deal available at Costco, the Panasonic ZS40. I was happy with my Canon SX260, which has a 20X zoom lens (25 to 500mm), but this one offered 30X (24 to 720mm) and the ability to take raw pictures as well as jpegs. Raw images, which have long been available from DSLRs, include all the information available to the sensor; information that is compressed to form the much smaller jpg files.

Programs such as Lightroom (an obvious nod to a darkroom), and even Photoshop Elements can take advantage of this extra data to perform a much wider range of adjustments than to jpeg files. As you may imagine, raw files are larger. One 32 GB SD memory card which could have held 70,000 or so jpeg pictures maxed out at 2,296 raw-plus-jpeg photos. (It's a good idea to also include a jpeg image because browsers won't display raw images.)

Of course, large capacity cards are inexpensive these days (unlike my original camera which had a 65 MB card), and I didn't totally fill the second one during the month of our trip – ending with 1,868. As a precaution, every evening I copied the day's shots to my laptop, then to a thumb drive.

As another precaution, I also brought along my Canon SX260.

Brightly-lighted white landscapes typical of Antarctica make it difficult to view images on the usual LCD monitor, particularly at higher zoom levels. The ZS40 includes a digital viewfinder, which improves visibility, and I found that wearing a billed cap helps further decrease glare.

All of this comes in a compact package, weighing 8-1/2 ounces that fits easily in a pants pocket. Or, when in a zodiac in Antarctic garb, safely in a pocket of the waterproof parka, but easily accessible when something interesting appears.

It also includes a GPS capability, whose value is illustrated in my Antarctic account referenced earlier. Inexplicably, GPS has been eliminated in some later versions of the camera. I found it so useful that I'd have stayed with the Canon SX260, which also included it, rather than purchase one of the newer Panasonics.

New camera models appear all the time, and no doubt viewfinders will become more common, so if you're interested in a pocketable camera – it has been said that the best camera is the one you have with you – do a search for "compact megazooms." Cross check reviews with the manufacturer's website – I found one that incorrectly claimed a camera included GPS.

On the other hand, if you're willing to carry a larger camera, there are a variety available that aren't SLRs but have long zooms and viewfinders. They share some of the previously-mentioned disadvantages of DSLRs during zodiac transport. However, having a much more compact zoom lens, with a neck strap they could be kept inside one's parka until a suitable occasion arises.

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