Luxury on ice: The ultimate Antarctica bucket-list adventure

Lifestyle

A once-in-a-lifetime expedition reserved for the adventurous elite, the Silversea Endeavour feels like a floating six-star hotel that can take you to a part of the world very few have explored. Forbes Australia editor-in-chief SARAH O’CARROLL reports.
SILVER ENDEAVOUR AT ANCHOR IN PETERMANN ISLAND SURROUNDED WITH ICE ALL AROUND

“GOOD MORNING, Ms Sarah. It’s Francis, your butler.”  

It’s breakfast time. I open the suite door to Francis, my immaculately clad personal valet in a tailcoat and bow tie with a silver tray in hand. He lays the white tablecloth and sets the silver service with coffee, fruit, and omelette ordered the night before.   

It feels like a six-star hotel in the heart of the city. But as Francis opens the curtains to the breathtaking view of unending waters – it’s an exhilarating reminder that I’m further away from any city than I’ve ever been.   

We’re halfway across the Drake Passage, the 800km stretch of water south of Chile’s Cape Horn. It’s day one of our 10-day expedition on board the Silversea Endeavour, heading for Antarctica.  

(L-R) Francis and Forbes Australia Editor in Chief Sarah O’Carroll.
JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE EARTH  

As I step out onto my sun-drenched balcony, I know I’m embarking on the journey of a lifetime.   

It’s hard to wrap my head around; a cruise to the end of the earth, to explore one of the most inhospitable places on the planet on board what is arguably the most luxurious expedition cruise ship in the world.   

Crossing the notorious Drake Passage, a place I’ve long dreamt about, I think of the legendary polar explorers such as Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton, who steered their vessels through these same waters in search of the great white continent.   

Pool Deck, Silver Endeavour.

Although it’s almost 112 years since Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole, Antarctica remains the world’s least-explored continent. But it’s growing in popularity. More than 100,000 tourists visited last year during the October-March cruising season, with about 71,000 of those setting foot on land, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).   

Our expedition will be a journey of 1,937 nautical miles (3,587km) which will take us along the Antarctic Peninsula. At our most southern landing, Petermann Island, we would still be 2500km from the South Pole.  

As much as I wanted to feel like I was following in the footsteps of the great explorers, I doubt they sipped champagne and ate caviar along the way or that their plan was quite as simple as ours: two days to cross the Drake Passage from the most southernly tip of Chile to the South Shetland islands, five days exploring the Antarctic peninsula, and two more days to sail back to Puerto Williams in Chile.   

But as I learned over the next week, there’s nothing simple about Antarctica, and plans – like the weather – can change within minutes.

Crossing the Drake Lake in luxury

Our Drake crossing was calm. “Drake Lake”, as they call it on such days, got its name from the 16th-century English explorer Sir Francis Drake who, while circumnavigating the world in 1578, unintentionally discovered the 800km connection between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.    

But the passage is more often a wild and unpredictable body of water that can quickly turn into the “Drake Shake”, delivering waves of up to 30 feet. The thought of this is terrifying, even though the Silver Endeavour is one of the toughest ice-plying vessels in the world and can get into some of the most rugged corners of the earth. Measuring 165 metres from stern to bow, the 20,000-ton ship is carrying 154 passengers and 207 crew from 43 different nations. It was purpose-built for polar regions with reinforced steel around the hull, and no expense was spared.  

Il Terrazzino, Silver Endeavour

Silversea bought the Silver Endeavour for US$275 million in 2022. It was a bargain considering the estimated US$450 million it cost to build, with cutting-edge navigation and exploration technology, world-class gymble stabilising cameras, submarines and helipads.  

Her maiden voyage with Silversea was in November 2022, and now mid-March, we were on the last voyage of the season.   

Before we’d set sail, I’d heard it described as the “Hermes of the sea”. One guest, an avid cruiser, told me it was the “Rolls Royce of cruises”. And even though it was my first time on any kind of cruise ship – I knew I’d gone straight to the most luxurious.  

“The last expedition is often a younger crowd,” said Captain Niklas Peterstam. “This one is a lively crowd.”  

And it was. The four restaurants, including French fine dining in La Dame and the Italian-themed Il Terrazzino, were alive with atmosphere every evening. The Grill is a glassed-in solarium offering 270-degree views of Antarctica with a swimming pool.  

Sergei, the pianist and Jaime, the guitarist, entertain guests each evening in the Deck 9 Observation Lounge. And if you fancy a digestif, you can retire to the Connoisseurs Corner, stocked with the finest cognacs and cigars.  

Connoisseur’s Corner, Silver Endeavour.

With a spa, fitness centre, plush library and a crew-to-passenger ratio that makes for aristocratic levels of service – you’d be forgiven for forgetting you’re cruising to the end of the earth.  

The passengers came from all over the world and were of all ages – not the old crowd I expected of a cruise. Many were on a mission to visit their seventh continent, marine biologists, geologists or naturalists, and others were avid cruisers who simply loved the aristocratic ways of travelling.   

The 58-year-old Italian beach club owner living in Miami made a last-minute decision to join the cruise while motorcycling around southern Chile. He had a high-up connection at Silversea and managed to score the “owners suite”, which, if he’d paid full price, would have set him back $78,000 for the 10 days.  

One of Norway’s wealthiest men was on board with his 20-something-year-old grandson to spend some quality time and create a lifetime experience.  

And the recently retired Bill and Kelly from Atlanta (Georgia), who visited 88 countries and spent 158 days cruising, love to dress up to dine and tell me this cruise is different to all the others – a cut above the rest.   

Welcome to Antarctica
This photo was taken while zodiac cruising in the Lemaire Channel, we pass through this channel many times depending on the ice but we never had the chance to lower the zodiacs and cross it while the ship slowly followed us, really a unique perspective.

The first sign that you’re nearing the White Continent is the birdlife of the south which forms a kind of welcoming party.  

After almost two days at sea and a slight lingering nausea, we spot the ice-tipped rocky cliffs of the South Shetland islands. We’ve arrived.  

From Wandering albatrosses with a wingspan of 3.5 metres to the tiny Wilson’s Storm Petrel, we grab our binoculars to spot the wildlife swooping alongside the ship.  

“Good morning, a very good morning,” is our intercom wakeup call from expedition leader Marieka to share the plan for the day.   

Most days involve two excursions ashore in inflatable speedboats called Zodiacs for what they describe as a “wet landing”.  

Marieka tells us that we are venturing into remote and hostile terrain, with weather conditions that can dramatically change within minutes.  

We’re called in groups to the mud room, the high-tech changing room which is far from muddy. There were lockers for stowing our outdoor gear and boots stored on heated pegs. It’s also where the biosecurity screening before any landing takes place: all outer layers are meticulously examined, and boots disinfected and scrubbed.  

We are lowered into the zodiacs and set off to bounce along the icy waters to our first step in Antarctica – Yankee Harbour.  

And there they are. Penguins!  

A GENTOO PENGUIN LOOKS DOWN TO ITS CHICK, READY TO FEED.

Crowds of little Gentoo penguins waddle up to greet us from the boat. I scramble for my camera. My impulse is to hug them, but the warning from the expedition team before landing on strict biosecurity rules put a quick stop to that.  

Further up the beach, we pass elephant seals lounging on the pebbles – giant blobs on the landscape with bizarrely cute smiles.   

The experience in the following few days was almost too hard to describe. As Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen said: “The land looks like a fairy tale.”  

We sailed south through the 200km ice-jewelled Gerlache straight to the heart of the peninsular to Danco island, and it was one jaw-dropping moment after the next. We paddled, explored and cruised around the most thrilling and magical landscapes on the planet alongside whales, seals and penguins.  

Weddel seal resting on the snow, ashore in Mikkelsen Harbour.

We kayaked through broken sea ice and towering glaciers in Paradise Bay.  

Humpback whales, who spend 90% of their time beneath the water’s surface, make majestic displays and come so close to the zodiacs I wonder if they will topple us.   

The air is completely free of impurities. There is no sound apart from the wildlife – no distant noise of a plane, train or car.   

Over the few next days, we took several more expeditions. One of the most spectacular was the active volcano on Deception Island. Once home to a thriving whaling station and then a scientific station, it was abandoned after the most recent eruption in 1969. We hiked the Luna landscape over the rim of the volcano and looked down to the geothermally heated waters of Pendulum Cove. I’ve gone from a world of ice to feeling like I was on the moon.  

Polar plunge time

As we pull into Paradise Bay and I settle on my balcony to absorb the breathtaking beauty of the icy wilderness, Marieka comes over the intercom: it’s polar plunge time.  

Around 70 brave adventurers gathered in the mud room, this time donning bikinis and shorts. The crew blare music and hand out shots of whiskey as we line up to voluntarily jump into –1C waters.  

A zodiac expedition in Paradise Bay, Antarctica.

I jump. Squeal. Splash. Shock. A million tiny icy pins all over my body send shockwaves to my brain. I scramble for the ladder to get back to the boat. Invigorating.  

The polar plunge is a rite of passage for any adventurer, and when Francis delivered my polar plunge certificate later that day, it was another tick off the bucket list, and I felt I’d joined the elite few.  

Endurance to opulence

Each evening we convene in the Explorer’s Lounge, where members of the expedition crew give educational lectures on everything from marine birds of the polar regions to workshops on nautical knots. My favourite was the lecture on “Shackleton’s Endurance” – the story of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his doomed expedition to traverse the Antarctic continent.   

Shackleton’s mission went disastrously wrong when his ship Endurance got stuck in the ice. But the brilliance of Shackleton saved all 26 men on board, and it was an epic tale of leadership and survival against almost impossible odds.   

What made it even more special was on our last day, we stopped at Elephant Island. This place is written deep into Antarctic legend as the site where Shackleton’s men took shelter for four and a half months and miraculously survived a harsh Antarctic winter in 1916 as Shackleton sailed to South Georgia island to get help.    

As Captain Peterstam sailed around Cape Valentine, he brought us as close as possible (with a push from Marieka) to see Point Wild – the small, rocky spit at the glacier terminus, with very little protection from the elements where the men took shelter.  

I felt admiration and awe for how they survived, coupled with a sense of guilt as I stood on my five-star deck with a hot chocolate.  

The journey home

It’s time to leave, and we embark on our journey back across the Drake Passage. It was only as we were departing that I found out that most guests take a fast track to Antarctica. Travellers can fly from Punta Arenas, Chile, to King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands and spare themselves the possible Drake Shakes. But I don’t regret my Drake crossing. You are rewarded for enduring the two-day crossing as it drives home just how lonely and desolate the wild continent is. I forever get to say I have sailed the most treacherous body of water in the world.   

On the last day, we gather in the Explorer’s Lounge for the Captain’s farewell. Captain Peterstam, alongside expedition leader Marieka, raise a toast to the final voyage of the season and the exceptional crew.   

I feel an overwhelming sense of admiration and gratitude to the crew for the experience they created for us. I glance around the theatre-style room at my fellow 154 explorers, and I’m not the only person tearing up.  

THE SILVER ENDEAVOUR USING ITS DYNAMIC POSITION TO STAY ALWAYS ON THE SAME SPOT IN ORNE HARBOUR

Antarctica stirs something inside you. A feeling of how insignificant we are in the world – the vastness of the stunning earth around us, the wildlife we should so desperately try to protect.  

Antarctica has been described as a place that “touches the soul” and “leaves a lasting impression on the heart.”   

As I sit on my Antarctic Airways flight from Puerto Williams back to Santiago, I feel an enormous privilege that my heart and soul could have been so touched. I look out the window and wish farewell to Antarctica and the faces of all my fellow explorers and crew. I wonder if we will stay in touch.   

And just like that, a farewell WhatsApp pops up on my phone: “Dear Ms Sarah. It’s Francis, your butler.”  

He’s read my mind again, and I smile.  

The author was a guest of Silversea. The next Antarctic sailing on board the Silver Endeavour departs  on October 31, and all costs include flights from Australia.  

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