A Silversea Antarctica voyage is a life-affirming, privileged glimpse of one of the most precious places on Earth, says Liz Jarvis

They call it the polar plunge and it’s considered a rite of passage in Antarctica. You stand on the jetty, shivering in your swimsuit or trunks, while a rope is tied round your waist, and then you jump into the icy water below before swimming quickly back to the ship. Bearing in mind the sea temperature is officially at freezing point, this is not something for the fainthearted, and it’s definitely not for me. I’m happy just to watch from the deck nursing a hot chocolate.

My Silversea Antarctica adventure began with two flights to the Chilean capital Santiago, followed by an internal flight to Punta Arenas in Patagonia. By the time our group embarks Silversea’s Silver Cloud we’re all glad of the chance to unwind over a Pisco sour or two (these cocktails are practically obligatory in South America).

The first day of sailing on our Silversea Antarctica voyage is calm, and I wake to see whales from my balcony. We frequently spot seabirds gliding into the air currents of our ship’s path, including gulls and terns. Most guests congregate on the outer decks with their binoculars, scanning the horizon for signs of life, retreating inside only for coffee.

Our first port of call is New Island in the Falklands. We disembark the zodiacs (remembering to slide, slide, turn, then legs over, otherwise you end up in an ungainly heap) before hiking across the island to reach a rookery.

As we approach the edge of a cliff, we hear a cacophony of screeching and squalling and then we see them: rock penguins and albatross galore, sleeping, fighting, mating, or just chilling out. It’s incredible to see so many of these remarkable birds in one setting, and to observe their behaviour. We learn that the albatross, which are enormous, will steal the rockhopper penguins’ eggs, and it’s difficult not to glare at them when you know what they’re up to, but, of course, it’s just nature. I’m fascinated by the birds’ expressions – the albatross have hard beady stares and the rockhopper penguins, with their red eyes, look slightly suspicious. They are completely captivating and we’re all transfixed.

It’s a slightly surreal experience to visit somewhere you heard about on the news as a child, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Falklands. I certainly didn’t anticipate that they would be quite so beautiful. That afternoon, we dock at West Point Island, the sun breaks through the clouds and suddenly we’re in fields of canary-yellow gorse contrasting with the brilliant blue sky. We go for a hike and end up in the midst of more albatross and the occasional rockhopper penguin. Afterwards we’re invited in to a pretty farmhouse with a white picket fence for tea, including cakes homemade by local islanders, and we could be in the English countryside, instead of 8,000 miles from home.

As this is expedition cruising with Silversea, the hallmarks of the luxury cruise line’s offering is still evident. Silver Cloud is an ice-class ship but with the onboard facilities you would expect, including a choice of restaurants, bars and a spa. Suites are supremely comfortable and no request is too small.  

It’s also proper expedition cruising and the right gear is essential. You’re given a fairly extensive kit list (including lots of thermal layers), and, before we had even set off for our journey to South America to embark on the cruise, we were required to order complimentary waterproof jackets and boots, which are waiting for us when we embark. You’re not allowed into the zodiacs without life jackets.

As members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, Silversea respects the Antarctic Treaty and observes the Environmental Protocol, taking its responsibility to this precious biosphere very seriously. Every guest on board for the Silversea Antarctica voyage is required to attend a lecture detailing the things we must not do while we’re on land (from dropping litter, eating or drinking to using selfie sticks, which can upset the wildlife).

Everything is meticulously organised. We are put into coloured groups and given carefully co-ordinated disembarkation times in each destination so as not to overwhelm the natural environment. It works brilliantly, and it means you are never fighting for space with other guests. 

The onboard expedition team is excellent, insightful and approachable. There are lectures every day and usually at least one, but sometimes two, opportunities to disembark. You soon settle into the rhythm of getting into your outdoor gear, putting on your life jacket, climbing down the steps into the zodiacs, and doing the same thing in reverse when you return, as well as cleaning your boots in the special wash-and-brush area so as not to contaminate anything.

The following morning, the azure sky has been replaced by a threatening grey, and the weather is too bad for us to dock at Port Stanley, which is a bit of a disappointment, as I’ve already fallen in love with the Falklands and would have liked to have seen more. But by its very nature, nothing on an expedition cruise can be predictable. Instead we sail on towards Drake Passage and that’s where things take a decidedly dramatic turn.

Seasoned cruisers will readily tell you that the 500-mile wide body of water between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands can be either Drake Lake or Drake Shake. For this cruise, Drake Passage is definitely on the shaky side, and nearly the whole ship goes down with seasickness, myself included. If you’ve never had it, then the only way to describe it is feeling as though your stomach is a washing machine, churning over and over. I’m cold and clammy and if I try to get up and walk across the room I feel worse. It’s not often I skip meals, particularly on a Silversea Antarctica cruise where the food is consistently excellent, but the nausea makes it impossible to eat; my butler brings me crystallised ginger, which helps, and I take the antihistamines a friend recommended, which knock me out. But it lasts a good two-and-a-half days there and back. 

By the time we arrive in Antarctica, we’re all feeling like proper intrepid explorers; we’ve earned our stripes as sailors and now we’re ready to embrace our inner Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

Finally, the weather calms down and we land in the Antarctic Peninsula to be greeted by lots of gentoo penguins. We’re warned not to step on their tracks because they follow them from the land to the water and back. We trudge through the snow and past a few sleeping
crabeater seals, up a mountain (no mean feat) and then we’re in the middle of an entire chinstrap penguin colony. They’re everywhere, apparently oblivious to us, and it’s simply joyful to watch them, preening, regurgitating, doing all the things penguins are supposed to do when they’re in their natural habitat, wild and free.

The weather continues to be bad and one day it starts to snow. Icicles form on my balcony and the crew makes a snowman by the pool. And then, just like that, it lifts and the sky is blue again, making the perfect setting for our exploration of the icebergs and island.

Close up, icebergs are exquisitely beautiful; they look almost like sculptures, and many of the ones we see have a blue tinge (which, apparently, is all to do with the atmospheric scattering of light).

After disembarking, we hike up the snow-clad mountain (walking poles are recommended) to be rewarded with the most spectacular views; the sea sparkles and the penguins call to each other gently, and that, right there, is my favourite Antarctica moment. It will stay with me for ever. 

Gentoo Penguins – Antarctic Peninsula

Suddenly, I find myself in a Mexican standoff with vcx a gentoo penguin. Every time I try to move, he moves with me, and if I stay still he does the same, almost mimicking me, much to the amusement of everyone else in our group. Eventually, he gets distracted and waddles off.

Our final port of call on our Silversea Antarctica voyage is to Elephant Island, with its black pebbly beach. Here, we see leopard seals, and, of course, more penguins, including Magellanic. Perhaps one shouldn’t have favourites but the last penguin I see in Antarctica is my favourite kind, a chinstrap: she extends her wings to dry in an angelic pose and she is simply gorgeous.

There is just enough time for a whistle-stop tour of Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernost city in the world, with its glorious mountain backdrop and colourful architecture, before catching a plane back to Santiago to wait for our flight home. 

Sometimes on a cruise you experience so much that it’s almost impossible to take it all in until you return home and look through your photos and have time to reflect on what you’ve seen and done. For me, that’s what it was like on my Silversea Antarctica cruise. It is one of the most special voyages I have ever made: an incredible, unforgettable privilege – one life-affirming experience after another, and the region should be treated with the utmost respect.

If I think too much about the fragility of the White Continent, the extraordinary wildlife and spectacular natural beauty, I feel overwhelmed by its precariousness. It is up to all of us to do whatever we can to look after and protect it. 

GETTING THERE

A 10-day Ushuaia round trip Silversea Antarctica sailing on Silver Cloud starts from £9,630 per person (return economy flights, all on-board lifestyle and shore excursions are included). Ports of call include Ushuaia, Drake Passage, Antarctic Sound, Antarctic Peninsula, South Shetland Islands. For more information, or to book, visit silversea. Terms and conditions apply.

Click here to read a review of a Silversea Africa cruise.