We like to think of ourselves as adventurous travelers.
That means Antarctica had been on our radar for quite a while, of course.
So, imagine our excitement when the calendar ticked off the days toward 2020 and counted down the time until our voyage to the White Continent with Abercrombie & Kent.
We rang in the new year in style with a special trip of a lifetime, a 21-day journey to Antarctica and South Georgia Island. There are so many ways to cruise in the Antarctic region these days, and we were happy to be traveling with A&K, which pulls out all the stops when it comes to an all-inclusive luxury experience.
An expedition to such a rugged environment goes nicely when paired with the special touches and posh accommodations we had onboard our small cruise ship. Abercrombie & Kent partners with Ponant to offer these voyages. A&K provides the expedition leaders, and Ponant provides the ship that is used as your floating boutique hotel as you sail down from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Southern Ocean and the most remote places on earth.
While the first explorers to the Antarctic sailed in sturdy wooden sail boats being tossed around like corks on the ocean, we were quite pleased to be in the high-seas-worthy and plenty stable Le Lyrial, a ship that carries up to 199 passengers on its Antarctica voyages.
We did have our own period being thrashed about by the high seas, however. That was just part of an overall spectacularly memorable adventure that also had us cuddling up to penguins and seals and gazing at soaring seabirds by the hundreds. The awesome beauty of nature and wildlife was on full display.
This is the first of two posts that recaps our expedition cruise Antarctica and South Georgia Island with Abercrombie & Kent.
Our experience started in Buenos Aires with four pre-cruise days to explore the capital of Argentina. Some of the other travelers on our cruise chose the other A&K pre-cruise option to spend time at Iguazu Falls. A group of 30 took that side trip to see the awe-inspiring waterfalls, one of the most iconic sights on the planet.
We also enjoyed meals featuring the renowned Argentinian steaks and empanadas. Not being wine drinkers, I know we missed out on the lovely Malbecs that people rave about, but we got a taste of the local beers to wash down our delicious and astoundingly inexpensive meals. We paid just over $60 at Piegari Carnes -- for a delightful steak dinner with appetizers, sides, breads, drinks and outstanding service.
That was a great way to cap our last night in Buenos Aires.
The next morning, we boarded a charter flight with our fellow cruisers to fly the three-plus hours south to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego at the "End of the World."
We got settled in and familiarized with the cruise ship. Le Lyrial is a luxury expedition ship from Ponant, and the layout covers seven decks.
While sailing, it's a good time to head to the outer decks and watch all the seabirds -- and whales frequently emerge in the chilly waters. Abercombie & Kent's naturalists join passengers to point out birds, highlight the distinguishing characteristics of each type and answer any questions. We get our cold-weather parkas, pants and boots and make sure they are sized correctly. The red jackets and black pants will come to represent our uniforms for the week, and we stand out as a regiment of curious and eager explorers each day as we march around the ship or along the beaches and paths at our destinations.
The two photo experts sailing with us also offered the best tips for lighting and advice on how to capture great shots of wildlife and nature. The two sea days were also filled with a series of enrichment talks held in the ship's main theater. We enjoyed the free time to get to know our fellow cruisers over cocktails in the main lounge and at dinners at the buffet restaurant and in the main dining room.
Like us, almost every other passenger was excited to make their first visit to the White Continent. For many of them, it marked their seventh and final continent. It was my sixth (still missing Australia) and Colleen's seventh.
The great news: We had smooth sailing through the Drake Passage, which can get notoriously rough and tumble. Some people were actually a little disappointed not to have some nice big waves.
I honestly was a little torn, too. I wanted to see what the big bad Drake is really like, but I also don't like the idea of possibly being seasick for two straight days. Spoiler alert: We would get some legendary swells during a big storm on the way back, but I'll save those details for Part 2 of our trip (a coming post).
As we approached the Antarctic waters on Day 3, we were briefed about the biosecurity measures that are strictly followed to avoid contaminating this pristine destination. We must thoroughly clean our boots, waterproof pants and parkas before heading ashore and upon our return to the ship. This practice continues for each stop of the entire journey and entails walking through a tub of Virkon disinfectant as we pass through the marina area on the water to the skiffs and after we return, as well. We also have to get hosed down regularly with a sprayer to get especially sticky penguin guano (poop) off the soles of our boots.
We saw the penguins and seals in a variety of feeding, swimming, playing, squabbling, resting, nesting and mating activities at each destination.
We also stopped at Neko Harbour. This is where we saw the most whale activity of the trip, becoming mesmerized by a large pod of killers. Ashore, we went for a hike past bustling penguin colonies up to a high viewing point over the harbor (see picture immediately below).
The day also turned especially sunny, and a few of us onboard took full advantage of the heated pool on Le Lyrial to have the rare chance to go swimming in Antarctica while gazing at glaciers and snowy mountain peaks.
In the afternoon, we headed ashore at Mikkelsen Harbor in blustery conditions and marveled at the pile of whale bones on the rocky beach, remnants and reminders of the region's past as a hunting ground for the great creatures.
Thousands of gentoos and chinstraps mingle here as one large colony. We saw parents nesting on eggs and others feeding their cute chicks -- many of the youngsters had feathers left dirty and in wild disarray because of the rugged conditions.
At the beach, there were dozens of huge elephant seals resting, occasionally tussling and frequently farting and snorting.
It's simply fascinating to see the symphony of wildlife at play on the island, and it was an eye-opening experience overall during our too-short time on the White Continent.
But it was time to get back to Le Lyrial to clean up, eat up and rest up for a couple days of sailing to South Georgia Island. We were told that the wildlife is even more vibrant there.
It's hard to believe that, isn't it? But we'll fact check that claim from our guides, and we'll show you what's there in the next post.
Thanks for reading,