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Antarctica or Galapagos? Choosing Your Trip of a Lifetime

Apr 19, 2021 12:00AM ● By By David Dickstein

A tender boat cruise off the Melchior Islands was plan B after wind and ice scrubbed a landing in Orne Harbor. Photo by David Dickstein

Antarctica or Galapagos? Choosing Your Trip of a Lifetime [5 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

Gentoo penguins or Galapagos penguins? Roald Amundsen or Charles Darwin? Cold or hot? When deciding on a genuine, bona fide, honest-to-goodness trip of a lifetime, the two destinations that likely come up most often are Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands. These are places the wanderlustful dream about and save up for even when international travel is restricted in a pandemically strained economy.

Antarctica and the Galapagos are must-sees despite that few would say that getting there is half the fun due to remoteness that adds travel days and expense to an already long and costly trip. Strict regulations that limit the number of visitors allowed per year, even more so in the post-pandemic period, also may put a damper on options and opportunities.

Then there’s a matter of health. As sure as fresh snow and trails of uneven boulders make for challenging trekking, even with ski poles and walking sticks, exertion is required on landings. True, there are ways to see either region without ever stepping foot on terra firma. Cruises offering an “Antarctica experience” allow guests to see the continent and wildlife from the decks. Port-to-port tours some 5,000 miles north take visitors to population centers in the Galapagos, but not to national parklands where the celebrated wild things are.

While these scaled-down trips earn checkmarks on a bucket list, is spotting a blue-footed booby or colony of chinstrap penguins through binoculars from the water how you really want to conquer Antarctica or the Galapagos? Unless that’s your only option due to physical and financial limitations, there is another: the expedition cruise.

If Goldilocks had this pair of destinations on her must-see list, along with at least $9,000 for fares covering sea and air, she’d find expedition cruising aboard a 20-passenger Ecoventura motor-yacht to the Galapagos or 500-passenger Hurtigruten ship to Antarctica as “just right.” Not too big, not too small, not too posh, not too basic, not too expensive (relatively), not too cheap (subjectively).

Having experienced both with my oldest son right before the COVID-19 travel restrictions and on expedition cruise lines you may have never heard of, this discerning and sea-legged voyager believes he found the ultimate rides to the destinations routinely jockeying for first among ultimate trips of a lifetime. Which brings up two points: 1) Life is short; and 2) with the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other authorities showing efforts to open the world to nonessential travel – though an argument can be made that vacations are very essential – there might not be a better or more affordable time to realize your dream with proof of being vaccinated for COVID-19.

Hurtigruten to Antarctica - Antarctica is one of the most photogenic places on Earth, but the “White Continent” was really showing off on the final landing of a 12-day expedition cruise aboard the M/S Midnatsol – the same itinerary that’s now being booked for cruises on the new M/S Fridtjof Nansen.

As I stood before the shoreline admiring the most amazing sunset in the South Shetland Islands, a baby Minke whale was swimming by before me, colonies of Gentoo and Adelie penguins were behind me, a sleeping elephant seal was to my left and a playful leopard seal was to my right.

The only thing more stunning than that memorable 360-degree view is the fact that so few are afforded the opportunity. Roughly 56,000 visitors are permitted to follow in the frozen footsteps of Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, making Antarctica perhaps the world’s least-crowded tourist attraction. More people visit Disneyland on an average day than will see Antarctica all year. The club becomes even more exclusive when subtracting the 11,000 who will merely sail around the islands and the Antarctic Peninsula.

The majority of visitors making land come off expedition cruises that usually embark from Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. The sweet spot for an Antarctica-bound expedition cruise is 350 to 500 guests. Besides being allowed to go ashore – the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators forbids ships with more than 500 souls to land – that size of ship makes for a good floating hotel for 11 or 12 days, the sweet spot in terms of duration of an Antarctica expedition cruise.

Why nearly two weeks? Bear in mind that four days of the roundtrip are spent just crossing Drake Passage, the body of water between Cape Horn, Chile and the South Shetland Islands. You also want enough time on land to justify the time and expense. Four or five landings are an acceptable ROI, but foolish is the traveler who thinks these encounters with nature can be done in as many days. Our voyage was cut short by three landings due to unpredictable weather and detours caused by a passenger with a medical emergency and hitchhiking scientists looking for help getting to their station.

The unforeseen, alone, is reason to book on a mid-size ship when trekking through the Antarctic. Smaller lends for fewer exploring and living options when such snafus as high winds, ice and fog kick in, and heaven help the seasick-prone with all the rocking. Larger expedition cruises offer more of everything, but that includes frustrated passengers all wanting to make up for lost time at the same time.

Getting back to sweet spots, Norwegian-based Hurtigruten, a 128-year-old cruise line that specializes in expedition cruises, could be the best-kept secret here in the States. Half of the 414 people on our “Highlights of the Frozen Continent” cruise were German and Scandinavian, and generally familiar with the line from past voyages to Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Alaska. For the 89 Americans, most first-time Hurtigruten cruisers, consensus was that the brand as household a name in the U.S. as the prime minister of Papua New Guinea made a great first impression with one big asterisk.

Food-wise, we were treated to some of the best cuisine this long-time cruiser has had. Meals are served buffet style except for two “Explorer Dinners” (reindeer steak or Arctic char one night, chateaubriand or halibut the other). Passengers were kept satisfied with lavish spreads that are undoubtedly being replicated on the much younger M/S Fridtjof Nansen.

Equipping hundreds of mostly senior-aged passengers of varying levels of vigor with boots, jackets, life vests and other personal gear is no easy task, but Hurtigruten makes suiting up rather painless. Zodiac rides to shore or for a harbor cruise are handled by groups, again very straightforward. Kayaking is offered for an extra fee on multiple days, weather permitting. Another optional experience is Amundsen Night. Thirty lucky and plucky passengers are selected by lottery to spend the night on land in tents while the ship is anchored out of sight. While worth the $350 upcharge, our experience was tainted by the two naturalists who remained in their tent the entire night while half the group too excited or cold to sleep would have enjoyed hearing from the experts.

There’s that big asterisk mentioned earlier. While a small handful among the expedition team were there for the right reasons, too many clearly showed a need for retraining, an attitude adjustment or a new job, preferably not public facing. On behalf of several passengers who shared their own examples of crew rudeness, I brought this up with management during the cruise. One officer actually used the excuse, “That’s the Norwegians. They’re very direct. It’s cultural.” First off, really? Secondly, how do you explain the coarseness of the Chinese, Czech, Spanish and American guides? Come to think of it, it might be cultural – as in Hurtigruten’s corporate culture.

Despite the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” moments, Hurtigruten offers tremendous value and literally runs a tight ship with over a century of experience in expedition cruising. Best of all, the cruise line hits all the sweet spots for an unforgettable trip of a lifetime to Antarctica. 

Ecoventura to the Galapagos

Fact No. 1: When it comes to luxury expedition cruising, size matters. Although social distancing measures will lower numbers for the time being, over 250,000 visitors are expected to be granted passage to the astonishing archipelago in the first year of normalized travel. Passenger capacity of the roughly 70 permitted vessels ranges from 16 guests on catamarans to the legal max of 100 on ships.

Fact No. 2: You flew to mainland Ecuador and took the short flight to the Galapagos Islands for one thing: seeing the unique wildlife that inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution.

Fact No. 3: With all the time already invested in days of travel and years of planning, saving and dreaming, the last thing you want is to wait to see the most unique collection of animals in the world.

Going small, but not too small is the ticket, as in Ecoventura’s 20-passenger sister ships, the M/V Origin and Theory. The combination of sharing the vessel with such a low number and a crew that has the excursion process down to a science equates to virtually no waiting for one of two inflatable landing crafts that whisk guests to twice-daily nature walks sandwiched by an equally life-changing snorkel outing.

If there’s one cause for ship envy among the 100 passengers aboard the Silver Galápagos, Celebrity Flora or National Geographic Endeavor II, it’s the speed by which smaller crafts execute outings. Exploring in groups no larger than 10 really is a Galapagos godsend. With Ecoventura, zero wait time applies on land, too. Communication between the naturalist and sailor has your Zodiac pulling up the moment the guided hike or beach time is over. The captain welcoming you back on board with a smile and outstretched arm for hoisting is one of those nice touches that make Ecoventura a recommended choice for the Galapagos.

Catamarans and single-hulled yachts offer the most intimate multi-day live-aboard cruises, but unless you’ve booked the entire vessel there’s the risk of your trip of a lifetime being spoiled by that one fellow passenger from whom you can’t escape. While this argument might favor ships with the largest number of passengers, eyes must be kept on the prize: the array of amazing animals.

The now-2-year-old Theory is a lovely vessel to take you to them. The buffet-style breakfasts and lunches were elegantly spread out with impressive variety on our voyage, and while the waiter-served dinners were oddly lukewarm by the time they came to our tables, they were mostly delicious and beautifully plated. Passengers staying on the then-4-year-old Origin shared similar reviews regarding the cuisine. (The sister ships run relatively parallel to each other with staggered daily itineraries.) Our stateroom was modern and clean with an unexpectedly large shower. The one standout among the 13-member crew was the purser, Mariuxi, who emulated the level of service promised by the company in the brochures and what should be expected from a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux group.

Where Ecoventura excels is what matters most – bringing humans up-close and personal with wildlife – because years later it won’t be the mode of passage you’ll remember so much, but the marine and land iguanas, boobies, penguins, giant tortoises, sea lions, flamingos, frigates, crabs, sharks and other fantastical nature friends made on your trip of a lifetime.


If You Go

Hurtigruten –

Ecoventura –