11 Feb Antarctica on board L’Austral
Antarctica on board the L’Austral
Hayley Crowden – Antarctica Travel Centre
For most, an expedition to Antarctica conjures up images of rugged, hardy, bearded explorers; in-hostile sleeping quarters and repetitive tasteless provisions. You may shiver at the thought of the cold and turn your nose up at the idea of spam and tinned vegetables day in and day out. And if you’d have travelled to this harsh polar continent 20 years ago, you would be right. But Antarctica in 2020, whilst still pristine and untouched (a rarity in this day in age), is a comfortable, delight to travel to.
Once upon a time, you’d need to be either incredibly brave; completely mad or a little bit of both to risk the sub zero temperatures, treacherous Drake Passage and the complete unknown of Antarctica. Times have changed.
Antarctica retains that feeling of travelling to the unknown. Each expedition has a rough ‘plan’, but rarely do they stick to it. The weather and ice conditions dictate what landing sites are practical, so the expedition leader and captain are constantly revising the itinerary. It means no expedition is ever the same, and each day you’re excited to learn what’s waiting for you around the corner. It’s also a place that, due to distance; cost and icy, windy conditions puts a natural limit on the amount of people able to reach it. If you’re a resort flop and drop type person, this won’t be for you.
Orne Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula
Antarctica is for those passionate about abundant and endemic wildlife, dramatic scenery, unique adventure, astounding photography opportunities, complete isolation and a sense of being somewhere as far away from home as you can possibly get. The Drake Passage alone, the famous and mighty stretch of water separating the Antarctic Peninsula from South America, can be a moody beast at the best of times.
Gentoo Penguins at Orne Island
Chinstrap Penguin at Orne Island
Tabular Icebergs in the Weddell Sea
However, as remote as it is, Antarctica doesn’t need to be exclusively for those willing to give up the finer things in life. Thankfully for those of us who appreciate good food, a comfortable bed and five star service, travel to Antarctica has evolved, even if the place itself hasn’t.
I recently visited Antarctica on L’ Austral, a 200 passenger French vessel, which more than anything felt like an exclusive, private French yacht. L’ Austral is one of several vessels operated by a very experienced small ship cruise company named Ponant. They know how to cruise, and how to cruise in intimate style. Ponant isn’t about cruise ships, it doesn’t have huge ocean liners with casinos and kids clubs, instead it has large yacht style vessels that ooze sophistication and spoil you with comfort.
Stepping onto a Ponant boat is like leaving the world behind, which actually, when travelling to Antarctica, is essentially what you’re doing. Time is dictated by decadent meals, shore excursions, whale sightings and cocktail hour, rather than rush hour, meetings and deadlines. Quickly you become accustomed to a slower pace. Cheese and champagne for breakfast? Oui! A cocktail on your private balcony? Oui! A massage/haircut/pedicure? Oui Oui Oui!
I can assure you that sipping champagne and getting my hair cut whilst ice bergs were cruising past the window wasn’t something I expected to EVER do, anywhere, but on a Ponant polar expedition cruise, you’ll find you pinch yourself so often you risk bruising like a peach!
Guests enjoying the sunshine on board the L’Austral
Pool with a view on board the L’Austral
Before I go much further, I need to talk about the food. Being French, unsurprisingly Ponant serves mostly French food, with plenty of other options just in case you’re tired of it (if that’s even possible). No Euro’s have been spared on the daily cheese boards found at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The endless cheese selection is sent in containers directly from Paris, along with the French wine and Hermès amenities. At breakfast (after a starter of cheese, naturally) is an abundant buffet and full menu to order from for cooked as you like eggs, waffles and crapes. Lunch is either a buffet (in the upstairs restaurant) or a sit down, 4 course meal in the downstairs restaurant, with floor to ceiling windows almost at sea level, making it quite the place to watch whales and icebergs cruising past mid coq au vin. Dinner is either again up in the relaxed level 6 buffet restaurant, or downstairs where you’ll be spoilt for choice with an appetiser, soup, entree, main, desert and of course, more cheese. Included in your cabin price are matched wines, French champagne, cocktails, aperitifs and basic spirits (premium come at a premium). Try as I did, with the sharp, attentive Ponant service, finding the bottom of my glass was daily challenge that I rarely achieved.
At every lunch and dinner, a sous chef was making fresh, to order stir-frys, bbq’s, beef tartare and squid ink pasta, often on the deck under the brilliant Antarctic sun. One day I found myself feasting on Alaskan crab, to me even more delicious than the fresh King Crab I enjoyed in Ushuaia prior to embarkation. Along with the French food, we enjoyed dumpling day, a Mexican fiesta, Argentinean BBQ, Asian noodle dishes and Sushi Sunday. The variety and quality of the food never ceased to amaze me. And what was most astounding, is that I was eating this standard of food IN ANTARCTICA. The mere ability to keep all these ingredients fresh is a feat in itself, let alone imagining the level of organisation required to pull off such decadent meals (there’s no corner store to run to if someone forgot to order the eggs).
Meals were sometimes interrupted because someone spotted an orca surfacing next to them whilst dining in the restaurant, and the waiters were more than happy to hold your next course until you returned, face flushed from the cold and memory card full.
After dinner you might retire to the upstairs observation bar to listen to the pianist on the grand piano, or downstairs to the large deck 3 bar and sink into the couch with a cocktail with new friends, or watch the evening’s entertainment before having a bit of a boogy yourself. Or, as I did, you could throw your layers back on and head outdoors into the never-ending twilight to watch for whales and birdlife, or leopard seals basking on the passing ice flows. Because, whilst sometimes it’s hard to believe mid deep tissue massage or your third soufflé for the day, you have come all this way to see Antarctica after-all. And for those not wanting to sacrifice life’s little luxuries, Antarctica absolutely is 100% accessible. After a day rugged up in polar appropriate attire, hiking through the snow or kayaking through the brash ice, nothing feels as good as enjoying a hot shower (with an ocean view no less), changing into something a little more comfortable and sliding onto a bar stool, enjoying some live music and a French champagne before a spectacular dinner with views of the great white continent.
Each polar cruise has its own highlights and as the weather varies the schedule may change. Call 1300 784 794 or email email@example.com to talk to one of our Antarctic Experts to find the cruise that is right for you.
Subscribe to our email newsletter ‘Tailor-Made Journeys’ to hear about our latest news, new experiences and all things Antarctica, Latin America and the High Arctic.