An express flight to the penguins: This new luxury tour gets you to Antarctica faster than most
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Editor’s note: TPG’s Gene Sloan traveled to Antarctica on a free trip provided by Silversea Cruises. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by the line.
The chinstrap penguins were waiting for us in the water, like a welcoming party.
Just an hour earlier, we had taken our first steps on the continent of Antarctica, stepping down from a small plane on a gravel runway at a Chilean research station, and we were zipping across a nearby bay in a small Zodiac boat when we saw them.
There were about a half-dozen of them, their streamlined black-and-white bodies darting around us in the frigid Antarctic water, and they didn’t move away. Our Zodiac driver idled the engine so we could take them in — our first official Antarctica wildlife sighting.
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As someone who has traveled to Antarctica in the past in the traditional way — on an expedition ship that sets out from South America and must spend the better part of two days crossing often-rough seas to the continent — I found the quick penguin sighting both delightful and a bit of a shock.
I still hadn’t wrapped my head around the idea that I even was in Antarctica.
I had woken up just a few hours before in a hotel in downtown Punta Arenas, Chile — more than 600 miles away.
My speedy arrival was thanks to Silversea Cruises, the luxury cruise company, which has just launched a new “fly-cruise” Antarctica itinerary that replaces the traditional two-day ship crossing from South America to Antarctica with a two-hour flight to the destination on a chartered aircraft.
Dubbed Antarctica Bridge, the program takes advantage of the small gravel runway mentioned above, which is at Chile’s Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva base on Antarctica’s King George Island.
As I saw during a test of the new program in late December, Silversea has chartered two BAe 146-200s — small, tough planes capable of landing at short and unimproved runways — to fly passengers directly to the Chilean base from Punta Arenas. From there, passengers are quickly transferred to a Silversea expedition ship prepositioned in the bay nearby.
The ship — the 144-passenger Silver Explorer — then takes them on a six-night exploration along the mountain, glacier and penguin-lined Antarctic Peninsula before returning them to the Chilean base for a quick flight back to Chile.
Skipping the rough seas
One of the big allures of Silversea’s new fly-straight-to-Antarctica itinerary is that it allows passengers to skip what sometimes can be a stomach-churning ride across the large body of water between South America and Antarctica, known as the Drake Passage.
More than 600 miles wide, the waterway often is roiled with waves 10 or 15 feet high, which can bounce around expedition vessels in what Antarctica aficionados call the Drake Shake.
As I’ve experienced myself on a ship-based trip to Antarctica, the churn in the Drake Passage occasionally can be even more extreme. Waves up to 25 or even 35 feet high at times are not uncommon. This is known as the Drake Quake, and — trust me — it’s something you’re probably not going to love, even if you’re a fan of cruising in topsy-turvy waters (for the record, the waterway also can be almost perfectly calm at times, something known as the Drake Lake).
Silversea’s new Antarctica Bridge tours avoid all of this, whisking passengers over the Drake Passage in a jiffy.
The new tours also are shorter than what is typical for an Antarctica trip — something that should appeal to would-be Antarctica visitors who are limited in the number of days they can get away from work.
Antarctica trips that include ship crossings of the Drake Passage usually are at least 10 nights in length, not including the time it takes to get to and from the southern tip of South America. By cutting out the days crossing the Drake Passage, Silversea is able to offer an equal amount of time exploring Antarctica on a trip lasting just eight nights, including two nights in a Punta Arenas hotel — one before the flight to Antarctica and one afterward.
To me, both of the above differences are big advantages of the program. But perhaps the biggest allure of the Antarctica Bridge itinerary in my mind is that it allows you to get to the mind-blowing wildlife and scenery of Antarctica more quickly.
Straight to the penguins
Our penguin sighting soon after landing at the Chilean base was just the tiniest of amuse-bouches in the multicourse feast of wildlife encounters and immersions into stunning scenery that is an expedition cruise along the Antarctic Peninsula.
The next morning, when I threw open the drapes along the window wall of my Silver Explorer suite (every cabin on the upscale ship is labeled a suite, though many aren’t any bigger than a traditional cruise ship cabin), I found myself in the midst of a scene that was almost too beautiful to comprehend.
During the night, Silver Explorer had repositioned to Mikkelsen Harbour, a picture-perfect, two-mile-wide bay surrounded in all directions by icy cliffs, snow-covered mountains and glaciers that descend to the water’s edge.
Heading up to the ship’s top deck, I tried desperately to capture the bay’s wintry magnificence with my iPhone and bigger Nikon camera. But it was such a big scene that digital reproductions can’t really do it justice. As with so much that I was about to see in the coming days, it was one of those places that you have to be present in, in the moment, to fully experience.
The plan for the morning was to land by Zodiac at a Gentoo penguin colony along the bay (as is typical for expedition ships that visit Antarctica, Silver Explorer carries a small fleet of the lightweight, inflatable boats for such landings). Alas, strong winds were kicking up the waves around the ship, making Zodiac operations difficult. So after taking in the view, we soon were repositioning to a more protected anchorage a few miles away called Cierva Cove.
It was at Cierva Cove that we began plunging into the splendor that is Antarctica in earnest.
Bundled up head to toe against the cold, we set off into the ice-filled bay in Silver Explorer’s Zodiacs, in search of wildlife. We were soon rewarded with sightings of humpback whales and chinstrap penguins — the latter both in the water and along the shoreline.
At one point, dozens of the penguins swam in a group alongside the Zodiacs, leaping in and out of the water as they went. It was as if they were offering an escort.
Among the attractions in Cierva Cove were several large icebergs that we zoomed around for photos before plowing into a field of small floating ice chunks so thick that the water had the look of a semi-melted Slurpee.
In the distance, we could see the orange buildings of an Argentinian research station, currently unoccupied.
Thus began five days of daily landings and waterborne exploring by Zodiac that brought repeated encounters with penguins — sometimes in large numbers — as well as sightings of whales, seals and all sorts of petrels, terns, skuas and other birds.
Just over 24 hours after departing Punta Arenas, we were in the heart of Antarctica’s wonder zone.
Walking on floating ice
As is typical for Antarctica trips, the five days of exploring mostly took place along the Antarctic Peninsula — a staggeringly beautiful, 800-mile-long stretch of soaring mountains, glaciers, fjords and icebergs.
Silversea was a pioneer among luxury cruise brands in operating in the area, and it has developed an expertise in upscale trips to the region that shows in the unusual experiences that it delivers to passengers.
Notably, on our second full day of exploring the Antarctic Peninsula, Silver Explorer’s experienced captain, Freddie Ligthelm, offered passengers something truly extraordinary — a chance to walk on floating ice.
The opportunity came during an early morning stop at ice cliff-lined Wilhelmina Bay, which was partly covered in fast ice — sea ice that is “fastened” to the coastline. Unlike drift (or pack) ice, fast ice doesn’t move with currents and wind, and it is relatively stable.
The fast ice, in turn, was covered in a thick coating of recent snow.
Ligthelm offered the walking-on-ice opportunity with a flourish. Instead of positioning Silver Explorer in open water near the ice for landing operations, he ever-so-slowly drove the vessel’s bow straight up onto the ice — essentially beaching the ship.
Passengers lined the front of the vessel to watch the operation, which took place before breakfast as clouds enshrouded the area and a light snow fell. It was a magical moment.
Tougher than the typical cruise vessel, Silver Explorer is specially designed for such operations with a strengthened hull that lets it safely push through ice floes with ease (it has a 1A ice class rating from Lloyd’s Register). But, even so, what we saw that morning in Wilhelmina Bay isn’t something that happens every day.
A Silversea executive who was on board Silver Explorer told me it only was the fifth time in the company’s history that a captain had driven one of the line’s expedition vessels onto Antarctic ice.
The beaching, meanwhile, was just the start of a memorable day. After the ship was firmly anchored in place along the ice shelf, the ship’s expedition guides took passengers exploring along the ice edge in Zodiacs (in one spot, finding a group of crabeater seals lazing at the water’s edge) before landing them directly on the ice.
The landing was a rare chance for passengers to follow in the footsteps of the likes of the legendary Antarctic explorers Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen with a walk on Antarctic ice that was floating just feet above the frigid Southern Ocean.
The big difference, of course, was that we were experiencing it in a lot more comfort.
To wit, Silver Explorer expedition guides and crew had landed on the ice before us and set up a greeting station where they handed out glasses of Champagne to toast the landing. There were warm drinks, too.
Shackleton, for sure, didn’t have it nearly so good.
Antarctica with a luxury touch
Serving Champagne to passengers on an Antarctic ice shelf is just the sort of over-the-top luxury touch for which Silversea is known.
The luxury line is one of the highest-end cruise brands operating expedition trips to Antarctica, and — as I saw firsthand — it offers an Antarctica experience that is as high-touch as it is high-adventure.
Silver Explorer operates with around 125 crew members, nearly one for every passenger on board. That’s a stunningly high ratio for a cruise vessel, and it results in a level of service that is relatively rare. As I saw, it’s the kind of old-style, high-trained, intuitive service where lounge servers and room stewards seem to know more about you than you do within a day or two.
By the third day of the trip, the bartender in Silver Explorer’s Panorama Lounge was asking me upon arrival if I was ready for my Old-Fashioned, having remembered that I had ordered the drink in the days before. The server at breakfast had my sparkling water and black coffee ready to go as soon as he saw me.
Within a day of my arrival, a significant number of the crew, even people I hadn’t remembered meeting, were addressing me by name — an impressive feat. It’s that kind of service.
Like all Silversea ships, Silver Explorer sails with butlers assigned to every room — surely the ultimate luxury touch.
Within minutes of boarding Silver Explorer at King George Island, I was introduced to mine, Sumit, who turned out to be one of those gems of a service professional that you just want to package up and take back home with you.
After leading me to my room, Sumit immediately offered to unpack my suitcase, because, well, that’s apparently what butlers do. I should have said yes, just to test out the experience for this story, but my class-divide consciousness made it tough for me to pull the trigger.
I also turned down an offer from Sumit to swap out the Bulgari toiletries in my bathroom with something fancier — as if Bulgari toiletries weren’t fancy enough. But I did let him rearrange my miniature bar so that it would always be loaded with sparkling water — my daytime drink of choice.
Later in the week, I also let Sumit shine my dress shoes. But only because he seemed so eager to do something — anything — for me. He apparently had spotted them, looking tired and unshiny, in the corner of my closet and preemptively offered to fix the situation. He had to ask me three times before I finally caved and said yes. But I’m so glad I did. They haven’t looked this good in a long, long time!
The luxury of a small vessel
Compared to some luxury cruise vessels, Silver Explorer is a relatively modest affair. It only has a few main public areas, all of which are relatively simple in their design. There’s essentially just one main restaurant where most passengers eat all of their meals (there’s a small decktop grill, too, but with such limited opening hours and so few tables that it’s almost inconsequential). There are three small lounges, one of which essentially just serves as a lecture hall, and just a handful of other small venues including a small spa and an even smaller fitness center.
Built way back in 1989 for now-defunct Society Expeditions, Silver Explorer also lacks balconies with most of its cabins — balconies being something that used to be rare on expedition ships but are increasingly common. Some of the cabins also are relatively small as compared to the rooms on newer luxury expedition ships such as Crystal Cruises‘ just-unveiled Crystal Endeavor.
Still, Silver Explorer is a comfortable ship, and after a recent renovation, it’s up-to-date in its furnishings and finishings. Silversea regulars will recognize its subdued but classy white, gray and blue color scheme.
Silver Explorer also offers something that some other expedition ships don’t offer — the intimacy that comes with a vessel designed for just 144 people. This is something that can be a real advantage on an expedition trip to a place like Antarctica.
In expedition cruising, sometimes the ultimate luxury is being in a small group.
Even if Silver Explorer is operating at 100% capacity, with every one of its 144 berths filled, its expedition guides can quickly get all of its passengers off the ship onto Zodiacs and on their way to see penguins and other wildlife. That isn’t the case with bigger expedition ships that often carry at least 200 and sometimes even 400 or 500 people.
In Antarctica, in particular, the size of a vessel matters when it comes to the quality of the experience, as expedition ships in Antarctica are limited to landing 100 passengers at a time by international treaty. The more passengers an expedition ship has on board in Antarctica, the more its expedition guides have to break them up into separate groups for separate landings, slowing down the process of exploring at any single landing site greatly.
The result is that passengers on smaller ships in Antarctica get to see far more wildlife and scenery up close than passengers on bigger ships.
On my sailing, the small size of our group allowed for separate landings by Zodiac over three successive days to see penguin colonies up close as well as separate outings in Zodiacs on some of those days to cruise through the ice in search of whales, seals and penguins.
Three kinds of penguins
Each of the penguin colony landings brought something a little different. On the first of the outings, at an undulating outcropping called Damoy Point, we waded through knee-high snow to clusters of Gentoo penguins that had yet to build their nests for the season. As we learned from our guides, the unusually heavy-for-this-time-of-year snow in the area was an impediment to them, as they needed open rock areas for egg-laying.
Damoy Point also is home to a long-abandoned British hut that has been preserved just as it looked when its last occupants departed in 1973 — an example of the unusual historical sites that travelers to Antarctica will come across during a trip to the continent.
At our second stop at a penguin colony, at Half Moon Island, we saw an entirely different kind of penguin — the chinstrap penguin — in large numbers. Here, the snow wasn’t nearly as thick, and the penguins already had built nests and laid eggs in rocky, snow-free areas. In fact, a few chicks had just begun to emerge. We watched in delight from a safe distance as one of the penguins fed the tiniest of little chicks that was tucked under its fluff at a nest.
Penguins build their nests out of little rocks of just the right size, and at Half Moon Island, some of the penguins still were busy adding to their nests by scooping up such rocks with their beaks and waddling them back to their nests. It was fascinating to see. The penguins were paired up and working in teams, with one laying on the nest, an egg underneath, while the other one searched for more good rocks or headed out to sea to feed.
At the third landing at a penguin colony, at northerly Ardley Island, there were three types of penguins — Gentoo, chinstrap and Adelie — that were even further along in their nesting. Here we saw much bigger (and fluffier) chicks that laid sprawled in front of their parents.
In Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands, Ardley Island was just around the corner from the Chilean research station where our trip had begun and our final stop. The next day, we would begin our way home from the small gravel airport runway at the station where it had begun.
Waiting for a ‘weather window’
Silversea isn’t the first company to offer a fly-cruise trip to Antarctica that avoids a ship crossing of the Drake Passage. Several expedition cruise operators, including Quark Expeditions and Antarctica 21, have been offering such trips for more than a decade. Like Silversea, these expedition cruise operators also have chartered flights straight to ships prepositioned at King George Island.
But such fly-cruise trips still are relatively rare. About 90 percent of travelers to Antarctica still arrive at the continent by ship. And Silversea, which is offering five such trips this year, is the first of the big luxury cruise operators to offer fly-cruise packages.
For the record, the sailings don’t entirely remove the possibility of experiencing rough seas. After leaving King George Island, expedition ships must cross the 60-mile-wide Bransfield Strait to reach the Antarctic Peninsula — a body of water that, as I saw for myself on the first night of our trip, can be choppy. We hit seas around 10 feet high in the strait, leaving many passengers feeling queasy or worse.
The good news is that the Bransfield Strait crossing is relatively quick. We entered it in the evening and were through it by wake-up time the next day. Once at the Antarctic Peninsula, the seas are relatively calm.
The big knock on such fly-cruise sailings to Antarctica over the years has been that there is a risk that poor weather at the landing site at King George Island could cause flights to and from the island to be delayed. The landings on the rough airstrip at the Chilean base require that pilots have a visual sighting of the runway. But Silversea has taken this into account in its itinerary planning.
To allow for delays caused by shifting weather, Silversea has built a wide “weather window” for the charter flights to and from Antarctica into the itinerary. The trips begin and end with a night at a hotel in Punta Arenas, with downtime there built into the itinerary that creates a significant amount of wiggle room for when the flights can occur.
If the weather is right, the flights to Antarctica will take place in the morning after passengers arrive in Punta Arenas. But they can also shift earlier or later if the weather isn’t cooperating. The flights back to Punta Arenas from King George Island can be similarly adjusted.
In addition, Silversea has booked extra nights at the hotel it uses in Punta Arenas, at its expense, just in case the flights are significantly delayed and passengers have to spend an extra night in Punta Arenas either on the way in or the way out — though such an occurrence would be rare.
I saw this weather-window strategy in action myself during our trip. The day before we were supposed to fly back from King George Island, a large storm front moved in over the South Shetland Islands with low-lying clouds and fierce winds. The storm not only made it difficult for the charter planes that were supposed to take us back to Chile to land at the island but also made it difficult to operate the Zodiac boats that would be shuttling us from the ship to shore.
As per the plan, we arrived back at the bay at King George Island early and waited for a clearing in the weather that would allow our flights home to take place. Such a window finally appeared, in the late evening of the last day of the trip. We took off for Chile at around 11 p.m. — about nine hours later than we would have if the weather had been ideal.
A costly trip
As is the case with all Antarctica trips, Silversea’s new Antarctica Bridge trips are not inexpensive. Eleven available departures of the eight-night itinerary between now and December 2023 start at $16,600 per person, including flights — more than $2,000 per day.
The trips are significantly more expensive than traditional Antarctica sailings that involve a crossing of the Drake Passage, which Silversea also offers. Fares for such trips at Silversea start at $11,900 per person — about 40 percent less than the Antarctica Bridge trips.
In both cases, the fares above are highly-inclusive “door-to-door” pricing that includes private executive transfers between your home and departure airport, international flights to South America and regional flights, airport transfers in South America, pre-cruise hotel stays, all shore tours, drinks and gratuities. Silversea also offers less expensive “port-to-port” pricing that strips out the international portion of the flights and transfers.
Silversea’s new fly-straight-to-Antarctica trips aren’t for everyone. For some people, the experience of crossing the Drake Passage in a ship, experiencing its often-rough seas, is a defining element of a visit to the continent. It’s part of the adventure, and to skip it would be to lose an integral part of the experience.
As I’ve seen on a ship-based crossing of the Drake Passage, such crossings also give the expedition guides on Antarctica trips a chance to prepare passengers for what they are about to see with lectures on the wildlife, geology and history of exploration of the continent. In speeding up the “getting there” part of a trip to Antarctica, fly-cruise trips to Antarctica, such as Silversea’s Antarctic Bridge program, leave less time for learning on the way.
But for travelers who are fearful of rough seas, or who have work schedules that make it difficult to be away for long periods, such fly-cruise trips bring access to one of the world’s most wondrous places that might not otherwise be possible.
And with Silversea’s new program, it’s access with a luxury touch.
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Featured image of Gentoo penguins at Antarctica’s Damoy Point by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy.
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