Expert Review: Land of Penguins & Icebergs

May 16, 2018 • Arielle Lightcap

AdventureSmith Explorations Adventure Specialist Arielle Lightcap reviews her Land of Penguins & Icebergs expedition aboard the 114-guest Sea Spirit. Learn her highlights from this all-suite ship and traveling in February.

It is impossible to predict exactly how a visit to Antarctica will go because it is one of the rare wild places left on Earth.

It is impossible to predict exactly how a visit to Antarctica will go because it is one of the rare wild places left on Earth. My 13-day journey aboard Sea Spirit showed me the raw nature and alluring mystery of the 7th continent that has evoked a sense of adventure for generations. I had a feeling this would be the Antarctica trip of a lifetime, but it went way beyond my expectations.

Small expedition ship in Antarctica with seal on rocky beach in front.

The Journey to Antarctica: Tierra del Fuego & Ushuaia

Even the journey to Antarctica is an example of just how remote this destination is. Getting to and exploring the city at the end of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, was just the beginning of my adventure. Through AdventureSmith Explorations I arranged a day trip into Tierra del Fuego National Park on a full-day canoeing and trekking guided tour. Not only was this a great introduction to what was about to be the most outstanding and memorable adventure of my life thus far, it also gave me a chance to stretch my legs after traveling. The canoeing and trekking tour was well organized with an hour-long canoe (guests do the paddling), a delicious lunch in a wilderness dome and a four-hour hike that was manageable for everyone in my multi-generational group.

Person smiling in front of the Tierra del Fuego National Park entrance sign in Ushuaia Argentina.

After my trek, feeling refreshed and exercised, I checked into Arakur Hotel as part of the included cruise package for my ship, the 114-guest Sea Spirit. I didn’t know it at the time, but Arakur would set the tone for what was to come. The hotel sits on a hill above the city, overlooking the Beagle Channel and offers a high level of luxury and service. Upon arrival to the hotel I was given a welcome letter and instructions for the following day’s embarkation. I was traveling alone, so I was set up with a roommate during my cruise who would also share the hotel room with me.

View from the balcony of a small ship in port before disembarking Ushuaia Argentina.

Boarding the Sea Spirit Ship: Insights on Cabins & Common Spaces

After a restful night of sleep, the day to start my voyage had arrived. There was a briefing meeting at the hotel to explain the options for getting to the ship in the afternoon. Many of my fellow passengers chose to take the optional day tour to Tierra del Fuego National Park, but I decided to stay at the hotel and walk around the nature reserve located behind Arakur. At 3:30 the bus that would deliver me to the Sea Spirit pulled into the hotel. Within 15 minutes I was walking up the gangway and on to the ship.

The ability to change course to respond to weather or wildlife is what’s so wonderful about small ship cruising.

Walking into the Oceanus Lounge I was offered juice and some tea sandwiches while other guests checked in with the reception desk. At this point my bags had already been collected from the hotel and were waiting for me in my cabin. Once all passengers were checked in, the Expedition Leader, Jonathan, introduced himself and the rest of the team as the Sea Spirt began making her way through the Beagle Channel with sunny skies and no wind. During his overview of the trip, Jonathan clearly set expectations, explaining that everyone will get the most out of the trip if they are willing to be flexible. Weather and circumstances can change quickly in Antarctica, and because of this, the itinerary may not happen exactly as planned. This only added to my excitement. The ability to change course to respond to weather or wildlife is what’s so wonderful about small ship cruising.

Albatross near water seen from a small ship cruise to Antarctica.

The two days spent crossing the Drake Passage served as a good opportunity to familiarize myself with the ship, sit in on some educational lectures and borrow books from the library stocked with books on the polar regions. Entering my cabin, I was surprised by the size. My Premium Suite had a seating area with a table and couch, a separate space with a vanity, two large closets and a mini fridge. The bathroom had a large sink with plenty of counterspace and storage. My favorite feature of my cabin was the balcony, which I used more than I expected to.

Lounge chair on a Premium Balcony suite cabin aboard a small ship in Antarctica.

Having inspected the other Sea Spirit cabin categories, I’d advise that you really can’t choose a bad one. Each of the cabins are similar in layout and offer more space than many small ships. The Sea Spirit’s five decks are easily accessible by the elevator or the interior stairs. Meals were served in the large restaurant on the Main Deck or outside on the Sports Deck. Breakfast and lunch were always buffet style and offered during an hour-and-a-half window so that we could eat when we were ready. Dinners were elegantly plated and customized to accommodate most dietary requests. The Oceanus Lounge comfortably seated us all, with easy visibility to the presenter. The ship also has a small gym equipped with ellipticals, a spin bike and a good amount of floor space for anyone looking to continue their workout regimens.

During my trip we were fortunate enough to have the hot tub full and accessible every day until we made our way back across the Drake Passage when the seas were a bit rough. I also took advantage of the ship’s open bridge policy. The Captain and officers have a keen eye for spotting wildlife, and the bridge was usually less crowded than the other decks when watching whales from the ship.

Reaching the South Shetland Islands & Antarctica

After nearly two days at sea, the first sites of land began to appear in the early evening. We had reached the South Shetland Islands. Seeing this first glimpse of a world so far away was really something special. To think of how the early explorers must have felt to finally see land after the journey across the Drake Passage made me really appreciate my own crossing. Approaching our first landing site, Barrientos Island, brought about the first smells and sounds of Antarctica—an experience I won’t soon forget. Now it was time for the penguins. First you smell them, then you hear them, then you see them!

At this time of the year (mid-February) the fuzzy chicks are almost as big as their parents.

A short Zodiac cruise from the ship to the landing site brought me within a few feet of two juvenile elephant seals resting on the shore, and of course, penguins. Hundreds of gentoo and chinstrap penguins noisily welcomed me to their home. At this time of the year (mid-February) the fuzzy chicks are almost as big as their parents and always seem to be in desperate need of food.

4 penguins on shore seen from a small ship tour in Antarctica.

The next six days were spent exploring the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula with two to three excursions per day. Sea Spirit carries 114 passengers, but this did not prevent everyone on board from having a chance to go ashore each day. All passengers were split into groups in order to adhere to the IATTO regulation of only 100 people ashore at a time. For example, while one group was on land, the others would be out on the water exploring by Zodiac, and then the groups would switch.

Before each land excursion, the expedition team would set out a safe walking route that passengers could roam freely within. Typically, there was an option for a hike to a viewpoint or a walk to a penguin colony at every landing site. Visits ashore lasted two to three hours, but there was always a Zodiac coming or going to bring people from the next group ashore, so anyone could go back to the ship whenever they were ready. For passengers who were less surefooted, the option to do a Zodiac cruise seeking out wildlife and icescapes instead of a shore landing was always available.

Group aboard a skiff from their small ship heading to a research station in Antarctica.

Evening recap presentations and the plan for the next day was clearly outlined daily by our Expedition Leader in the Oceanus Lounge. There was never a question about what was happening because in addition to these briefings TV screens displayed the daily program throughout the ship. After dinner, our resident musician played piano in the Club Lounge. The program and professionalism aboard Sea Spirit was so much more than I expected. In addition to this, the food was outstanding. The buffet breakfasts and lunches always had healthy options, and the plated dinners were similar to that of a fine-dining restaurant. The chef also did an amazing job catering to our variety of dietary needs.

My Antarctica Cruise Highlights

In my opinion, every day in Antarctica is a good day, but some moments during my cruise really stood out. My first continental landing at Portal Point was a moving experience; it was like being on another planet. The sheer scale of the landscape was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Later this same day, the ship stopped in Wilhelmina Bay to watch five humpback whales bubble feeding, and in the afternoon, I was setting foot on the stone-covered Cuverville Island to spend some time with a large gentoo penguin colony. The day was filled with so much, it was hard to believe this was only the first full day spent along the peninsula after arriving to the South Shetlands the evening before.

Two whale tails seen from a small ship in Antarctica.
Large group of penguins on land in Antarctica.

My first continental landing at Portal Point was a moving experience; it was like being on another planet.

Getting into some of the human history of Antarctica brought us to Damoy Island and Petermann Island with a cruise through the Lemaire Channel in between. After landing on the rocky shore at Damoy Island I stepped into a time capsule when I entered the old hut formerly used by the British Antarctic Survey as a summer transit station. A walk along the shore brought me to a penguin rookery where I sat quietly and observed the hilarious act of chase feeding. After some time with the penguins I noticed a mountain of rock peeking out through the lifting fog behind the hut. As the sun continued to burn off the fog, an entirely new landscape began to appear. Within minutes the blue sky dominated, and the Seven Sisters ridge came into clear view. The rest of the day was full of sunshine and I was thankful that our Expedition Leader changed the plan to start the day at Damoy Island rather than the Lemaire Channel because we would have missed out on the stunning landscape.

Once through the Lemaire Channel we landed at Petermann Island, where a French expedition overwintered in 1909. A hike along the southern tip of the island exposed views as far south as the Polar Circle. Before heading back to the ship, I took a Zodiac cruise to get a close look at a resting leopard seal. The creature was as long as the Zodiac and its smiling face was otherworldly.

Seal resting on small icebergs seen from a small ship in ANtarctica.
View on a hiking excursion from a small ship in Antarctica.

A hike behind Almirante Brown Station and a Zodiac cruise through Paradise Bay and Foyn Harbor were on the agenda during day four along the Antarctic Peninsula. Another continental landing with a hike led to impressive views of the once-prime whaling site, Paradise Bay. The hike up was challenging for many because of the uneven and slippery snow, but the view from the top was worth it. The landscape in front of me was so vast and unspoiled by human influence. Coming back down from the hike I opted to take a Zodiac cruise through Paradise Bay with the hope of watching whales. During the two-hour excursion, we spotted minke whales, crabeater seals and a cliffside of nesting blue-eyed cormorants which produced the most beautiful sounds of the trip.

Paradise Bay Antarctica as seen from a small ship.

Each day spent in Antarctica was better than the last, and on my final full day, this trend continued. Back in Wilhelmina Bay, a Zodiac cruise was organized for the morning’s excursion. I was thankful to have the expedition parka that was given to me when I embarked the ship because it was cold and rainy. After cruising for around 15 minutes our guide spotted two humpback whales resting on the water’s surface.

As we approached, the sleeping giants became active and we spent over an hour being watched by them. The whales were just as curious about us as we were of them.

As we approached, the sleeping giants became active and we spent over an hour being watched by them. The whales were just as curious about us as we were of them. It was an incredible experience I never expected to have. Watching the whales, the rain was no longer a bother, and I was thankful that I decided to brave the cold and go out for the excursion. I’ve always heard that February and March are the best months for whale watching in Antarctica, and this rare intimate encounter proved it in the case of my trip.

Whale's head out of the water next to a skiff with guests from a small ship cruise in Antarctica.

Crossing the Drake Passage, Returning to Ushuaia

The journey back to Ushuaia was nothing like on the way down to Antarctica. Leaving the South Shetland Islands, we encountered high winds and big swells. Nearly everyone aboard was seasick and confined to their cabins. There must be something wrong with me because I thoroughly enjoyed the crossing and consider it to be one of my top five highlights of the trip. I knew we were in capable hands with the ship’s captain and officers, so the rocking of the boat didn’t worry me.

After 12 full days aboard the Sea Spirit, it was time to disembark the Sea Spirt and carry on my way. If I could have turned around and re-embarked that afternoon, I would have. Everything about my voyage was so much more than I could have hoped for. I visited one of the most untamed regions of the world, and not only did I travel in style, I had knowledgeable and passionate guides to help me see the best of Antarctica.

For more photos of this voyage, including penguins and whales, view my Facebook Album on AdventureSmith Explorations’ Facebook page.

This Antarctica cruise review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. Use the AdventureSmith team’s Antarctica cruise reviews and small ship cruise reviews for insights to inform, inspire and book your next trip aboard a small cruise ship. For dates, rates and booking information on this trip, see Land of Penguins & Icebergs, or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about our small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-800-728-2875.

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