On board the luxurious Seabourn Quest, T+L sails to the ends of the earth—a fantastical landscape of ice, water, penguins, and whales. Let the adventure begin.

By Stephen Drucker
October 07, 2014
Credit: People exploring in South Shetland Islands

My greatest fear before going to Antarctica was that I would get seasick.

My greatest fear when I was leaving was that I wouldn’t remember it.

I don’t know how you remember the rumble of thunder on a sunny afternoon, the signal that somewhere a glacier is cracking. I don’t know that anyone can fully remember the phosphorescent blue of an iceberg, or the motion of a ship in 30-foot swells, or the fading sound of 20,000 penguins as you sail away from them.

It was all just too much to grasp. First you fly to the end of the world, then you sail off the edge of it. Every day the icebergs get bigger, until they’re bigger than your ship. And when the ship has gone as far as it can go, you stare at the horizon and try to imagine the unthinkable frozen place beyond it.

Plain, functional expedition ships have been taking tourists to Antarctica for decades. Large, luxurious ships cruise there on occasion but are not allowed to land their passengers. Last winter, for the first time, Seabourn sent one of its beloved small ships—Seabourn Quest, its hull reinforced with new steel—on an Antarctic season, putting its passengers ashore in Zodiacs and spooning out 105 pounds of caviar. There were four cruises, each sailing 6,000 miles in three weeks between Valparaiso, Chile, and Buenos Aires during the southern summer, November through February.

There is no more comfortable way to take this trip. The cabins were better equipped than the best hotel room. Binoculars, guidebooks, a Sunkist-orange parka, and a steady stream of gifts, including a professional photographic record of the trip, were delivered at moments calculated to make you sigh. Planning for the temperature drop of 60 degrees, I brought nearly every piece of clothing I owned, yet the closet was only half-full. I was still unpacking when the cabin steward rang to ask if I preferred Hermès, Ferragamo, Baudelaire, or L’Occitane soap.

Three of the four dining rooms are run like restaurants, without assigned times or tables, and the food is excellent, varied, and sufficiently healthful that I didn’t gain a pound. Seabourn does not do midnight buffets. The crew, almost one of them for each of you, knows your name in a day. There was the bartender on deck who, pointing out he’s Irish, insisted on whipping up an Irish coffee for me when he saw my nose running from the cold; the steward making afternoon rounds with trays of mini grilled-cheese sandwiches; and the handsome, blond Latvian barista, cheerfully preparing lattes and macchiatos to order for 458 passengers all day. The longer you’re on board, the more you learn from the many Seabourn veterans, like how to call room service and ask for “caviar for six, toast for one.”

I’d sailed with Seabourn twice before, about 15 years ago, and found the atmosphere much more relaxed this time. Back then I always seemed to be wearing a tie, and even well-cut jeans were not kindly received. The mood is more modern now; the tie doesn’t matter much anymore. There were fewer diamonds and less talk of bucket lists; fewer corporate lions and more entrepreneurs who’d made a killing and were taking that epic cruise at age 45 before making the next killing. Antarctica is an itinerary with this new passenger in mind. As our ultra-mellow cruise director, Handre Potgieter, welcomed us the first night, “After this cruise, any other cruise may seem a little dull.”

I’d never thought very much about Antarctica. Now I know—after daily briefings by the 17 history, geology, penguin, whale, and seabird experts on the ship—that it’s a continent with no countries and no natives. Also, that it’s the coldest, windiest place on earth. And that snow is rare. It’s gone way beyond snow; the ice is as deep as three miles and as old as 3 million years. The biggest wilderness anywhere, bigger than all of Europe, it’s about 98 percent ice. “Most of the continent, we have no idea what’s really there,” expedition leader Robin West told us during his first talk.

There’s no passport control. Antarctica is an environmental preserve for scientific research, overseen jointly by 50 countries in relative harmony. It’s the most protected place on the planet, especially from tourists. Before you can go ashore, the Velcro on all your clothes has to be examined for pollen, and you have to step into a disinfectant bath for your boots. There were all of 22 ships on the entire continent when we were there. Only 100 people can go ashore at a time (and no ship with more than 500 passengers is allowed to land at all), and after that the penguins get a scheduled rest. There’s no smoking in Antarctica; the air is the cleanest on earth. You cannot carry a paper napkin on deck, because it might blow out of your hand. The only known trash is a couple of giant swastikas dropped from a plane by the Nazis in 1939 in a grandiose territorial grab, and nobody knows where they landed.

“Weather permitting” appears often in Antarctica cruise literature. Just another piece of legalese, I assumed, to be ignored like the NUTS PROCESSED HERE sign on the door at Dunkin’ Donuts. But in Antarctica, weather permits and, just as often, denies. The weather is so mercurial that for every 90-minute excursion ashore, the team brings sleeping bags and provisions, just in case. Most cruise ships tick off ports with clockwork efficiency, but every day in Antarctica really is an unknown, improvised by the captain and the expedition leader. None of the four cruises last winter unfolded quite as planned, much less alike, yet they all received the highest survey ratings in the line’s history.

Video: Real Life Happy Feet

Ours had the best weather and the worst weather, sometimes on the same day. We saw fewer penguin species but many more whales than average, often right beside the ship playing tag with us; and we saw them doing things even the experts on board had never observed, like “bubble net feeding,” where they stir up the water and bring food to the surface for the seabirds. Although five landings were scheduled for our five days in Antarctica, two had to be canceled because of wind. But our quick-thinking captain used that time to head farther south than Seabourn had ever sailed, and found clear skies for us in the spectacular Lemaire Channel, where we cruised until the sun set, around 1 a.m. Most of us forgot to eat dinner that night.

I’ve been on enough cruises that a captain holds very little allure for me. Invariably Scandinavian and bearded, he’s usually some combination of earnest and patronizing; imagine a Norwegian oncologist. The second night out, when Captain Bjarne Larsen came to say hello in his tails and gold braid, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This captain belonged in jeans and a T-shirt, having a beer at a café back home in Denmark. He’s 45, and had only grown his beard because people have a hard time believing he’s the captain. After spending most of his career sailing through ice, he was the one who encouraged Seabourn to fortify the Quest and try expedition cruising.

“For me, to sail from Dubrovnik to Venice isn’t very exciting,” Captain Larsen confided. “But here…,” he said, lighting up. The pessimistic tone of the Antarctic map hints at the challenge: Danger Island. Delusion Point. The Forbidden Range. Cape Disappointment. And then there’s the ice. Some icebergs are as big as Belgium, while many reveal themselves only at the last possible second. On our first foggy morning in Antarctica, while I was spreading chunky raspberry jam on a freshly baked brioche at breakfast, with “Heal the World” playing in the background, everything and everybody went flying across the dining room without warning. “Iceberg,” my waiter said casually, picking up a trayful of china. For Captain Larsen it must be like driving a Porsche on the Moyenne Corniche. I asked him how he felt about his ship. He smiled, gave me a frisky, sideways glance, and whispered, “She never complains.”

I’ve never seen passengers get so attached to their captain, and never more so than when we were in the Drake Passage, the 600 notorious miles of ocean between the tip of South America and Antarctica. There, the Atlantic meets the Pacific, tropical water meets frigid water, and the weather is extreme and hard to predict. Many people hesitate to take the Antarctic trip solely because they fear the Drake. It took 10 days to get there from Valparaiso, the anticipation being about as much as we could stand. The night we finally took the plunge south from Ushuaia, Argentina, some passengers were excited about the prospect of being tossed around, while the rest of us had Transderm Scōp patches under our ears, elastic bands on our wrists, and were popping ginger and Dramamine. I went to bed hoping for the best. On a ship, your first thought when you open your eyes each morning is, how much are we moving today? That next morning, the Quest was even steadier than usual. The Drake was like glass, the sky cloudless. I spent the day on deck watching albatross and petrels chase the ship, and evened out my Antarctic tan nicely.

Many get lucky once in the Drake, but twice would defy the odds. “Ooh, we have a little weather,” Potgieter said one evening, smiling and changing the subject, his way of saying we faced a huge storm in our path for the return trip. There was no ignoring the swells, growing by the hour, until the captain finally spelled out the 30-foot seas, 75-mile-perhour winds, and driving snow ahead. “The weather forecast was not correct,” he said plaintively. “I’m sorry, but it’s going to be rather uncomfortable. I want to assure you, though, you are in no danger.” Here was the real meaning of “in it together.” The pitching was relentless, green water washed over the bow, and the sound of waves smacking the side of the ship was sometimes horrifying. It continued for 18 hours. One friend slept with her life jacket. Strangely, I was neither afraid nor seasick. Strangely, I enjoyed the storm. I stretched out on my sofa and watched a Smithsonian documentary called Expedition Antarctica: Into the Frozen Abyss. The next morning there was a snowman with a carrot nose on deck, and the crew had a snowball fight.

Penguins are not easily forgotten, if only because you see so many of them, sometimes tens of thousands at a time. Magellanic penguins, vaguely duck-ish. Gentoo penguins, the Volkswagen of the penguin world. King penguins, three feet tall and as majestic as Carson on Downton Abbey. “If I had two weeks to live,” Brent Houston, our penguin expert, said, “I would spend one of them looking at king penguins. And the other week getting here.” Penguin experts are almost as entertaining as the birds they study. Houston, completely unaware of himself, sprinkled his sentences with penguin sounds, the way fashion types drop a French word now and then. One day I overheard one expert telling another, “You’ve gotta Google ‘penguin in a car.’ Really cool stuff.”

“A penguin,” Houston explained, “has a large gland in its head to extract the salt from seawater. You could put a brain up there, if you see what I’m driving at. Their brains are small, which makes them fun for us.” To meet the birds, we’d get up at dawn, pull on layers of Capilene until we looked like Martha Graham dancers, wait for our scheduled Zodiac departure and Potgieter’s plea to “Please put on your hoodies,” and go ashore for about an hour to wander freely in the rookery. Penguins haven’t much fear of humans, and while technically you’re not supposed to get closer than 15 feet, they don’t know that. Earlier cruises saw penguins with their eggs; we arrived when the chicks were toddlers and saw quite a bit of parenting. Athletic swimmers, penguins are slapstick-funny on land, constantly hesitating, slipping, and stumbling on the ice. They get visibly flustered. “You can definitely tell when a penguin is upset,” Houston warned us.

Even they can’t escape all that ice. The icy landscape, however, was what I most wanted to see. Only after you arrive do you realize that the color green does not exist in Antarctica. Everything is white, blue, or gray, against a peculiar sky that seems backlit, like the screen of my iPad. It sounds monotonous, but it’s as raucous as the pinks and saffrons of India. The glaciers are white, but very finely filigreed with neon-blue tubes of ancient ice. The icebergs glow science-fiction blue, as if they’re radioactive. Every iceberg is a Rorschach test. I was convinced I saw a Spanish galleon and a slice of Key lime pie. From a Zodiac you can feel the cold coming off them.

Video: Whale-Watching in Antarctica

For every hour ashore with the penguins or exploring the ice fields, you spend the rest of the day talking about it. Expedition travel breeds camaraderie. En masse, a hundred of you run starboard to see six whales, then port to see 20 dolphins, then starboard to see three sea lions, and quick, off the bow at ten o’clock, there’s an avalanche. “Watch this,” a winking bartender said to me one night while pouring my absolutely legal seven-year-old Havana Club. “Whale!!!” he shouted, tongue in cheek. Drinks were knocked over in the rush to get to the windows.

Our friendships, if fleeting, were intense, with eight lazy days at sea for them to flourish. Roughly half of us were American, the rest mostly British and Australian, with 21 countries on the official passenger list, a piece of reading material I always look forward to. There was a Venezuelan couple who looked like they owned Venezuela (“They do,” someone confirmed); a Scottish peer (“Oh, you do know they can buy titles up there, don’t you?” said a Brit eager to deflate him); an English barrister; a handful of bird-watchers; a Boeing 747 captain; and an Australian man who had lost both legs and was indefatigable. There were women who “found their look” 40 years ago and had stuck with it, and long-married couples who ate dinner without a word, and many Unsinkable Molly Browns. Everybody is interesting on a ship, at least to me. You develop obsessions, like mine with a chic couple from New Zealand, and the samurai way he pinned his long hair up. You have your favorites, like the theatrical Californian couple who drank rosé and chain-smoked, uninterrupted, from 10 every morning until late into the night. They’d been on 12 Seabourn world cruises and had stopped going ashore after the fourth. Antarctica broke their streak.

I’ll never see any of them again. That’s the nature of ships. I have mostly myself to reminisce with, and I often do, always surprised that what you remember about a trip is never what you plan to remember.

Before you ask...

Everybody has the same questions for me about this Antarctic cruise. Let me save you the trouble:

How cold is it?
About 30 degrees. Not that cold, unless it’s windy and you’re on the water. Then it’s very cold.

Did you get seasick?
Some lively seas are likely. You may have a queasy spell. But meds work.

Did you need special clothes for the cold?
Seabourn provides a packing list. I ordered what I needed in five minutes, through a Seabourn affiliate online, which shipped everything directly to my cabin. Cost, about $500.

Did you see polar bears?
They’re in the Arctic. Antarctica is for penguins.

Was there Wi-Fi?
The whole time. It was better in Antarctica than off Argentina.

Didn’t it get boring?
I brought a 1,044-page book. Never opened it.

21-day Antarctica and Patagonia sailings from $12,999 per person.