This Epic Antarctica Cruise Offers Adventures Like Helicopter Rides, Submarine Trips, and Whale Sightings
"You know the Drake Passage can be terrifying?" replied my motion-sickness-prone dad, speaking of the infamously rough body of water between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula, after I'd informed him that I was heading to the world's greatest wilderness on a 13-day Antarctica in Depth voyage.
That potentially wild rite of passage is the price paid for the privilege of experiencing the pristine majesty and serenity of an entirely ice-clad continent bigger than the United States and Mexico combined.
I was sanguine. I've traveled rough seas on everything from tramp steamers to a full-size replica of HMS Bounty. But never have I experienced such astonishingly smooth sailing as aboard the Scenic Eclipse, a veritable game-changer that launched in April 2019 as the world's most advanced and luxurious expedition vessel.
On our second day heading south from Ushuaia, Argentina, the "Drake Lake" briefly turned into the "Drake Shake," with swells of 20 feet that would have sent the crockery flying on other ships. But the Scenic Eclipse's cutting-edge oversize stabilizers held her steady. The 551-foot-long, 228-passenger (200 in polar waters) Discovery Yacht sliced through the swells like a laser beam cutting through ice. I dined comfortably as I watched albatross skim the waves and a screaming wind slice streaks of foam off the whitecaps.
Next morning, I raised my stateroom's electronic blackout curtain to a thrillingly quintessential Antarctic view: Electric-blue icebergs floated in an ink-black sea framed by towering, snow-covered mountains laden with great crevassed glaciers. We were "anchored" in Marguerite Bay, some 75 miles south of the Antarctic Circle. (Well, not quite anchored. The Polar Class 6-rated vessel employs computerized GPS dynamic positioning to stay glued in place, using thrusters and its revolutionary Azipod propulsion system featuring twin electric motors housed in propeller pods — each capable of rotating independently through 360 degrees — outside the ship's hull. With no throbbing diesel engines rattling the cutlery, we were as one with Antarctica's otherworldly serenity.)
Scenic's Discovery Team of polar and naturalist experts entertained us during our passage with fascinating lectures on Antarctic glaciers, whales of the Southern Ocean, penguins, and the infamous Scott versus Amundsen race to the South Pole. For the next week, my fellow travelers and I would go ashore daily, or partake of Zodiac cruises, sea kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and first-of-a-kind James Bond-worthy indulgences that elevate polar cruising to the level of a 007 movie.
This being the tail end of austral summer, temperatures hovered just above freezing. Scenic provides a waterproof, fleece-lined, hooded jacket for every guest. But once we were zipping in the Zodiacs across choppy waters to Horseshoe Island for our first landfall, the biting wind sent the thermometer plunging. I was glad I wore two extra fleece jackets, plus warm fleece leggings beneath waterproof pants.
Two Adélie penguins waddled the pebbly shoreline. A Weddell seal bobbed beside a neon-green-and-blue ice floe; two others snoozed atop the snow, totally uncaring of our human presence. Far out in the fjord, humpback whales exhaled steamy plumes. The next few days would deliver ever more sensational all-star wildlife encounters.
That afternoon presented a unique and unforgettable highlight as I strapped into one of Scenic Eclipse's two remarkably quiet Airbus H130-T2 helicopters and lifted off for a 30-minute flightseeing adventure. The polar landscapes appeared even more spectacular as we swooped low over miles-wide glaciers and vast ice sheets receding into an all-white infinity. Below, our sleek eight-deck vessel seemed dwarfed.
Before Scenic Eclipse launched, heli-flightseeing in Antarctica was the preserve of private megayachts. It's also the first expedition ship with its own submersible for submarine Antarctica adventures. And each of 114 spacious staterooms is a stylishly contemporary suite with an entire wall of glass opening to a broad balcony (which made up for the limited public deck space).
The next morning, I used my balcony rail like a tripod to photograph kayakers paddling among the ice floes of Holtedahl Bay. A snow flurry had cleared and the waters, dead calm beneath a slate-gray sky, were punctuated by cyan icebergs and yellow and red kayaks. Suddenly, a humpback whale emerged, exhaled, then dove, trailing its flukes in the air.
The interior of Antarctica is a desolate, lifeless environment. But marine life is astonishingly abundant thanks to the Antarctic Convergence, a circumpolar strip of merging oceans marked by an upwelling of deep, nutrient-rich waters that nourish a phenomenal profusion of phytoplankton and, in turn, krill. Resembling tiny shrimp, these small invertebrates travel in massive swarms that can stretch for miles — both wide and deep — forming the prime food source for whales, seals, penguins, and other birds.
Later that morning, I bundled up for my first Zodiac cruise and, in the afternoon, donned a dry suit and slipped into a kayak to paddle the slushy sea off Prospect Point. Icebergs as phantasmagorical as Henry Moore's abstract sculptures floated out of the mist. Their haunting beauty held me spellbound. Both crabeater and Weddell seals — cream-colored and gray, respectively — snoozed atop flatter ice floes, while a few lone Adélie penguins had also hauled out, perhaps to escape hungry leopard seals. I captured a penguin for posterity as it dove, wings spread, into its own reflection.
I loved photographing during gloomy, moody afternoons such as this. The soft, subdued, even light allowed for perfect exposure without extreme contrast and ugly shadows.
In late afternoon, the weather cleared for a bluebird day ideal for a polar plunge off the ship's stern. Amazingly, almost half of the 165 guests opted to dive into the 32-degree water. They emerged shivering, exhilarated, and craving the ship's top-deck hot tubs or Senses Spa steam room and sauna.
Notwithstanding the 5,920-square-foot spa, the plush lounges, and my stateroom's boutique hotel comforts (and butler service), I'd been somewhat skeptical about Scenic's claim of "setting the benchmark for ultra-luxury cruising." But dining that night in the 10-guests-only Night Market, I grasped Scenic Eclipse's defining distinction. Where other upscale expedition ships offer only one or two restaurants, the Scenic Eclipse boasts eight. Six are gourmet, including Sushi @ Koko's, Lumière for contemporary French cuisine, and Elements for Italian fusion. At Night Market, a young Filipina chef named Strawberry conjured a mouthwatering panegyric to Middle East cuisine. And at the invitation-only Chef's Table dégustation, I savored 14 creative dishes curated by executive chef Alexander Parahovnik, including a cigar-themed Mexican-style flauta served from a smoke-filled humidor into an ashtray with a crumbled gray veggie for ash.
"We're different because we've learned how to marry extra luxury with expedition," operations manager Jason Flesher told Travel + Leisure. "For example, we're the first ship to offer commercial submarine dives south of the Antarctic Circle."
The vessel's futuristic, seven-person U-Boat Worx Cruise Sub seemed like something MI6's Q had a hand in designing. I sure felt like James Bond as I settled into my seat within one of the submersible's twin 18-inch-thick acrylic spheres. Hovering above the seabed at almost 200 feet down, I marveled at giant sponges, otherworldly jellyfish, ghostly looking icefish (glycerol in their clear, hemoglobin-free blood acts as an antifreeze), and starfish as colorful as those on a coral reef. All were illuminated by our sub's spotlights. (Scenic cruises are all-inclusive except the submersible and helicopter rides, and spa services. Even the gratuities are included for wallet-free cruising.)
During the next two days, we disinfected our boots and scrubbed our outer leggings before wet landings ashore to visit gentoo penguin rookeries at Neko Harbor, Cuverville Island, and Orne Harbor. The adorable birds seemed oblivious to our presence (we were briefed not to approach the wildlife, but this wasn't explained to the penguins) as they waddled along well-worn lanes in the snow, fed their young chicks, and tended to their pebble nests. As we gradually moved north along the Antarctic Peninsula, we encountered fur seals, Antarctic shags, snow petrels, and chinstrap penguin colonies — including atop the wind-blasted black spire of 938-foot-high Spigot Peak (which we hiked to, plodding uphill through deep snow with the aid of poles).
In Antarctica, the weather can change on a dime. On day nine, after a sunny morning ashore at the old, bone-strewn whaling station of Mikkelsen Harbor, a storm system socked in as we repositioned to Cierva Cove for our last Zodiac outing. We were blitzed by snowflakes as we zipped between honeycombed brash ice and Instagram-worthy icebergs that had calved off the glaciers, stirring up nutrients, bringing an abundance of seals, penguins, and whales.
It seemed like humpbacks were foraging all around us. Individuals would emerge for an instant to gulp a mouthful of krill, or breathe, then dive and appear minutes later somewhere else. Just as I'd aim my camera in anticipation of that hoped-for perfect tail shot, another whale would pop up nearby. On one occasion, three whales emerged together just 20 yards from our Zodiac. It's difficult to conceive of how enormous these behemoth mammals are until one appears next to your relatively tiny inflatable.
After two hours, with numb fingers and the light fading, we headed back to the luxurious comforts of the Scenic Eclipse. As we arrived, we encountered one last humpback whale circling the vessel as the clouds broke, bathing the scene in evanescent early evening sunlight. I clicked the shutter one last time as the whale exhaled, then submerged and disappeared, leaving me with an indelible memory of Antarctica's unimaginably impactful enchantment.