KidTripster Teen: 5 Unforgettable memories from my bucket list voyage to Antarctica
Antartica has been on my bucket list for years. In fact, I’m a fan of polar regions. I would choose a glacier over a sandy beach any day of the week, and Antartica has quite of few glaciers! It’s by far the most isolated place that I’ve ever visited and certainly the hardest and most expensive to reach. After five flights over three days, my mother and I finally boarded our Antarctica 21 ship for a cruise of a lifetime.
I should mention that we choose Antarctica 21 because it’s one of two companies in the world that flies the Drake Passage instead of crossing by ship. My mother is really prone to seasickness, and it’s the only way that she’d make the voyage with me. In the end, I can’t imagine having a better experience on any other cruise line.
If you’re wondering what an expedition cruise like Antarctica 21 has to offer your kids, read on. Here are my top 5 favorite things about cruising in Antarctica.
1/Snowshoeing up mountains
I enjoy a good hike, and I like the snow. Put those things together, and Antartica doesn't disappoint. Antartica 21 offers options for a morning activity and an afternoon activity. While snowshoeing is an add-on activity with an extra fee of $195 per person, it’s well worth the cost. (You’ll thank me after trying to walk on the snow and constantly falling through without snowshoes.)
Passengers typically land on a beach where there’s a penguin colony or some other interesting wildlife to see. The snowshoeing group - lead by a separate guide - gets to see the same sights, but it has the opportunity to hike first in the fresh snow and farther up the mountainsides. I especially liked the hike to the top of Cuverville Island, an elevation gain of about 750 feet. The 2-hour hike was well worth the work, as we were treated to expansive views of the surrounding mountains, bay, and penguin colony below. We took a shortcut down the hill by sliding on our backsides.
If you haven’t snowshoed before, don’t worry. The equipment - snowshoes and poles - are easy to use and provided; you wear the boots that are issued to all passengers. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. That being said, you should be in reasonably good shape to go, as the uphill sections can be tiring for some.
There’s no set number of times that you’ll be able to go snowshoeing. As you’ll quickly learn, where you land is completely determined by weather and surf conditions. The landing site may or may not have a good snowshoeing route. We got to go three times; the cruise before ours went seven. It just depends.
KidTripster Tip: You can always opt out on a particular day if you decide to do the main activity. However, you can not opt in, even if someone who pre-registered is not going that day.
KidTripster Tip: Snowshoeing is only open to a limited number of people. If you’re interested, it’s imperative that you sign up right when you book your cruise. It will sell out.
As you can imagine, there are no grocery stores in Antarctica. You can’t just pop in and pick up something that you forgot. And no crops grow on the continent, so everything that you eat needs to be brought along on your voyage. The logistics involved are kind of mind-boggling.
That’s why it’s even more impressive that the food on Antarctica 21’s Ocean Nova is the best of the four expedition cruises that I have sailed. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style, which makes a lot of sense. I’ve been on other cruises where breakfast and lunch were table service, which always takes way too long. There are plenty of choices for every palate; everything is really good. All the passengers especially raved about the bacon at breakfast; the chef said it was imported from Germany. At dinner, you’re able to serve yourself a soup and salad; an appetizer will already be set at your seat. Then you choose your entrée: meat, fish or vegetarian; each are equally good. Choices range from lobster or halibut to rack of lamb or roasted turkey. As good as the first two courses are, desert always steals the show. My favorite was the raspberry cheesecake.
The wait staff is friendly and very animated. They take great pleasure in celebrating passengers’ birthdays and anniversaries with singing and more dessert. As full as you are, you always seem to be ready to try the next thing to come out of the kitchen!
KidTripster Tip: Three meals not enough? Breakfast pastries and coffee are served for early risers (I like to call this “first breakfast.”), drinks and snacks are available in the lounge during the day, and hors d'oeuvres are served nightly before dinner.
3/Spectacular wildlife viewing
The main reason to come to Antartica is to see the wildlife. Being a smaller, expedition vessel, the crew of the Ocean Nova has the flexibility to adapt the ship’s schedule to the wildlife around it. On the first morning, some curious Orcas skirted back and forth on the bow of the ship. The ship slowed down to give all the passengers ample opportunity to see the spectacle. The bridge crew was particularly good at spotting Humpback whales and would reposition the ship so we could watch them breach.
However, when most people think of Antarctica, they picture penguins. And we saw penguins nearly every day! On one particular day, we were fortunate to have the right surf conditions to land at Baily Head, the site of Antarctica’s largest Chinstrap penguin colony. Total number? 106,000 penguins! Be sure to spend some time simply watching the penguins, as they do some pretty funny things. Over the course of the cruise, we saw four species that populate the Antarctic Peninsula: Adele, Gentoo, Chinstrap, and one lone Macaroni penguin.
KidTripster Tip: Ask your guide how the Macaroni penguin got its name. It’s an interesting story.
KidTripster Tip: Penguins are definitely cute, but know this, they are really smelly!
We also saw several types of birds and seals. One baby Elephant seal in particular laid on the snowshoeing gear bag that we’d left along the shore. He wasn’t too keen on giving it back!
KidTripster Tip: I didn’t realize this until the end of the cruise, but the expedition crew keeps track of all the sightings on a list posted in the lobby. Look for it.
Unlike the other expedition cruises that I’ve sailed on, this one had a more diverse group of people. The 68 passengers on our cruise came from 11 countries and five continents. There are plenty of opportunities to chat with people during downtime on the ship or over meals, as there’s no assigned seating. My mother and I tried to sit with someone new at each meal. It was fairly easy to communicate with them, as most people spoke some English.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re joining the “7th Continent Club” on this cruise, you won’t be alone! I’d estimate that at least half of the passengers were in the same boat, so to speak.
The crew, too, hails from across the world. The captain was from Panama, the expedition leader was from New Zealand, and the hotel manager was from Switzerland. Most of the wait staff was from the Philippines; the housekeeping staff was from Central America. Guides came from the United Kingdom, Argentina, New Zealand, Sweden, and Russia. All this diversity simply added to the experience.
KidTripster Tip: The diversity of the cruise varies from sailing to sailing. For example, two large tour groups from China were boarding the ship as we left; only five passengers on the ship weren’t of Chinese descent. In general, we were told that the most diverse groups tend to sail over the Christmas holiday. That’s also the time when you’ll find the most kids on board.
In my opinion, no trip to Antartica is complete without a dip into the icy waters of the Southern Ocean. (Know that my mom would have a very different opinion about this one!) The polar plunge was a highlight for me. You line up in the gangway, waiting your turn to be tethered to a rope, just in case there’s any problem when you go in. I ran down the ramp and jumped. Watch here. The water was frigid, but when you get back on deck, there’s a celebratory shot of vodka waiting (for those who are of age) to warm you up. On our cruise, about half the passengers took the plunge; my mother wasn’t one of them.
Nathan Shah is a freshman in the Honors College at the University of San Diego, majoring in mechanical engineering and computer science with a concentration in mathematics. While he’s achieved his goal of visiting all seven continents, he knows that the world has so much more to offer!
This writer received a discounted cruise for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.