This report includes information on our February 3-19, 2020, “Beyond the Polar Circle” expedition cruise on the Le Soléal with Ponant. Although we had traveled on a “drive by” cruise of the Antarctic Peninsula in 2007 on the Golden Princess, this expedition offered the opportunity to experience the Antarctic region in more depth and the possibility of better wildlife sightings. Unfortunately, the number of sites we were scheduled to visit had to be curtailed due to a medical evacuation and there was not enough time to voyage south of the Antarctic Circle. Nevertheless, we saw six types of penguin (Magellanic, king, gentoo, rockhopper, macaroni, chinstrap), five types of seal (fur, elephant, crabeater, Weddell, leopard), three types of whale (fin, humpback, minke) and vast numbers of seabirds including wandering albatross and black-browed albatross. Despite the abbreviated itinerary, this was a fantastic wildlife-viewing experience!
Even though the on board ship experience (accommodations, service, food) was excellent, the expedition component was less so. Although the Expedition Leader worked effectively with the Captain to maximize the possible sites we could visit after the medical evacuation, he was very disorganized in other respects. The briefings and recaps were skimpy and added little to the expedition experience. The formal talks were not well-integrated with the expedition program. For example, there were no wildlife presentations before our visit to the Falkland Islands on Day 3, where the wildlife was mainly penguins and seabirds; a talk about seabirds was not given until Day 5 and about penguins on Day 13. To be fair, there were good talks about whales on Day 5 and on pinnipeds on Day 9, prior to encountering those species. Perhaps we were simply spoiled by the outstanding program provided by Quark Expeditions during our Arctic expedition last September. As another example, Quark provided brief biographies of our team prior to the cruise as part of the cruise information packet; Ponant only posted bios on a wall of the ship several days into the cruise and possibly only after it was suggested to them.
EXPEDITION ITINERARY: BEYOND THE POLAR CIRCLE (17 DAYS/16 NIGHTS)
[Note: This is the itinerary we followed. Each expedition is unique; the actual sites visited depend on the weather and sea conditions during that expedition.]
Argentina: Buenos Aires, Ushuaia
Falkland Islands: Saunders Island, West Point Island
South Georgia: Fortuna Bay, Grytviken, St. Andrews Bay, Cooper Bay
Antarctic Peninsula: Portal Point, Neko Harbor, Paradise Bay, Lemaire Channel
ABOUT THE REVIEW
Our reviews are primarily a journal of what we did each day, including links to tourist sites and maps. However, this was our first cruise with Ponant, so we have included more details about the on board experience (especially the food and wine) and made some comparisons to our Golden Princess cruise and Ocean Adventurer expedition. Prior to the Le Soléal expedition, we spent two days in Buenos Aires.
John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our late sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. I already had an Argentinian flag from previous trips but I hoped to obtain a Tierra del Fuego provincial flag, which features an albatross.
We enjoy both cruises and land tours; often our trips combine the two. We have cruised to or toured all seven continents, primarily in the Americas and Europe. On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, towers, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up for a good view.
Previously, we have taken “soft adventures” to the Galapagos Islands on the Celebrity Xpedition (www.cruisecritic.com/memberreviews/memberreview.cfm?EntryID=77850) and to Machu Picchu with G Adventures (www.smartertravel.com/short-inca-trail-machu-picchu/). We have also taken an expedition cruise to the Canadian Arctic and West Greenland on the Ocean Adventurer with Quark Expeditions (boards.cruisecritic.com/topic/2716812-trip-report-2019-%E2%80%9Cnorthwest-passage-epic-high-arctic%E2%80%9D-on-the-ocean-adventurer-quark-expeditions/).
BOOKING WITH PONANT
We booked our expedition directly with Ponant (us.ponant.com) by phone 23 months ahead to take advantage of the early booking discount. Our package included the domestic flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, transfers in Ushuaia, lunch at the Arakur Hotel, a guided walk through the Cerro Alarkén Natural Reserve, on board gratuities and open bar. As first-time guests, we also received $250 pp on board credit. We could not receive any referral OBC because all our friends who had previously traveled with Ponant had booked through Tauck. We purchased travel insurance through SquareMouth (www.squaremouth.com).
Dealing with Ponant is exasperating. The “My Ponant” website is essentially useless: unlike many other cruise lines, it cannot be used to make a partial payment or to enter passenger information. It does have downloadable copies of the required passenger forms; however, they cannot be submitted through the website. When forms are submitted by email (as directed), there is no indication on the website that they have been received and no email acknowledgment is sent. [Note: The day before we started our trip, Ponant launched a marginally improved website.] Emailing Ponant returns a canned reply that promises a personal response within 48 hours; I never received any response at all to most of my inquiries. The only way to get through to Ponant was by telephone. Although partial payments could be made that way, I did not always receive correct information about my booking. For example, two weeks after emailing the required medical forms, I called and was assured that those had been received and all our other paperwork was in order. Shortly after, I received an email that my medical form had been received but my husband’s had not (they were sent as attachments in the same email). I resent John’s form and finally received email confirmation that all was in order. Final documents were not emailed until 23 days before sailing and hard copies were delivered by FedEx a few days later.
Antarctic Adventures Forum
“Antarctica: A Guide to the Wildlife (Bradt Travel Guide)” (2018) by Tony Soper (Author), Dafila Scott (Illustrator)
“Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent” by Gabrielle Walker
“Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean” by Joy McCann
“Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing
“Shackleton” (2002) The true story of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole, and his epic struggle to lead his twenty-eight man crew to safety after his ship, Endurance, was crushed in the pack ice. This two-episode miniseries stars Kenneth Branagh as Shackleton.
“Chasing Shackleton” (2014) This four-part series follows a modern expedition team as they attempt to duplicate Shackleton's 800-mile boat journey across the Southern Ocean in a replica of the lifeboat James Caird and his mountain crossing of South Georgia, using only the clothing, tools and supplies that Shackleton's team used.
PRECRUISE IN BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
FRIDAY, JANUARY 31, 2020—RALEIGH/DURHAM (RDU), NC, USA TO BUENOS AIRES (EZE), ARGENTINA
We planned to arrive in Buenos Aires two days ahead of the expedition. We chose to connect in Atlanta, rather than Miami, to avoid possible flight delays due to Super Bowl LIV, which would take place in Miami on February 2. Moreover, airplane ticket prices were much higher for a departure on February 1.
Our Delta flight encountered turbulence on the way to Atlanta and arrived late, we still had several hours to relax in The Club using our Priority Pass membership. The lounge was crowded when we arrived but John spotted a table and we enjoyed the food and drinks until it was time to head to the gate for our Delta flight to Buenos Aires. With our sleep aids, eye masks, industrial-strength ear plugs and signs asking the flight attendants not to disturb us, we managed to sleep fairly well for most of the 10.5-hour flight. Buenos Aires is only two hours ahead of EST, so we did not have to deal with jet-lag.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2020—BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
We awoke shortly before breakfast was served; the less said about that, the better—we just needed some calories. It was a breakfast sandwich and not very appetizing. Our flight had encountered turbulence and was late; we arrived at about 10:30 a.m. Customs and immigration took about 30 minutes.
We made all of our precruise arrangements (airport transfers, hotel tours) through Defrantur (www.defrantur.com.ar/ingles/). This is the third time we have used their services in Argentina and we are still impressed with them; everything was seamless and superb. Our driver, Juan Carlos, handled all of our transportation needs during our visit; he was waiting when we exited customs. The airport is pretty far from the downtown area; it took about 30-40 min, with lots of toll stops, to reach our hotel, the Howard Johnson Plaza Florida Street. Avenida Florida is a pedestrian shopping street but the hotel is easily accessible from a few meters away on Avenida Santa Fe near Plaza General San Martín. That is where Juan Carlos would pick us up for our tours and drop us off afterward.
At the hotel, we were greeted by the owner of Defrantur, Ricardo De Franco, who went over our tour program with us and made some suggestions for our stay in Buenos Aires. We paid him the balance owed for our land tour in USD (a deposit had already been made by AmEx credit card). Ricardo also helped us exchange some dollars to pesos and presented us with a nice bottle of Rutini Trumpeter Reserve, Uco Valley, Argentina 2017 (malbec).
This four-star Howard Johnson (www.wyndhamhotels.com/hojo/buenos-aires-argentina/howard-johnson-plaza-florida-street/overview/) is in an excellent location, near several of the main attractions in the Retiro neighborhood of Buenos Aires. The economy in Argentina has been doing poorly and there are always touts outside the front entrance offering to exchange money. You enter down a short hall lined with a couple of shops. There is an elevator to the lobby one floor up and there is also an apparently non-working escalator. Our room was quite nice, really spacious, with free wifi and a safe in the room; a good buffet breakfast is included in the room rate. As we expected, there were no washcloths but toiletries included dispensers of hand soap, body lotion, shampoo and conditioner; there was bar soap for the shower.
Our room was ready when we arrived so, after a short break to freshen up, we were ready to meet Juan Carlos for our Parana River Delta boat tour. The drive from the hotel to the Terminal Fluvial in the town of Tigre took about 1.25 hours. On the way, we passed through some of the upscale residential neighborhoods of Buenos Aires: Olivos, Martinez, San Isidro, San Fernando. Juan Carlos showed us points of interest, such as Quinta de Olivos (1854), a National Historic Monument and one of the official residences of the president of Argentina. We also drove by the neo-Gothic Catedral de San Isidro (1898).
There are several boat companies offering tours of the Delta; Juan Carlos bought tickets for us with Sturla. The one-hour panoramic tour features commentary in English and Spanish plus a snack (coffee and muffin). This is obviously a popular weekend activity for families. We had to wait about half an hour for the tour to start, so we walked along the Tigre River and around the Terminal area. There was an arts and crafts fair, sponsored by the Women Entrepreneurs of Tigre, going on under bright purple tents.
We boarded a motor launch and cruised down the Tigre River to the Luján River, one of the many waterways that make up the Delta. Motoring up the Luján, we passed the Museo de Arte de Tigre, housed in an ornate belle-époque building that was formerly a social club. The boat takes you around an area with really nice houses and some older, even abandoned ones. There is a little of everything: weekend houses, brightly-painted wooden shacks, rowing clubs, marinas, schools, churches. There are no roads to the houses so everything (mail delivery, garbage pickup, etc.) is done by boat. It reminded us of the fishing camps along Lake Pontchartrain, outside New Orleans, merged with Venice, Italy. As we returned along the Sarmiento River, we passed Casa Museo Sarmiento, a small house inside a glass enclosure. That was the home of Argentina’s 7th president and is a National Historic Monument. As we approached the dock at the end of the tour, we passed the old fruit market (now a shopping area) and an amusement park. The boat ride is pleasant but not overwhelming. However, it was a nice way to enjoy an afternoon outside of Buenos Aires and fun to see a different way of life!
The return drive was on a highway, so it only took about an hour to get back to the hotel. We tried some of the malbec before taking a half-hour nap. Then it was off to a 2.5-hour wine tasting, “Argentina Wine Route,” which was held at La Cava del Querandí (lacavadelquerandi.com.ar) in the San Telmo neighborhood. This was a public tour; in addition to us there were one Russian living in Germany and group of 14 Danes with their guide. We descended to the wine cellar, where we were served three Argentinian wines, each matched with a different food. The Las Arcas de Tolombon “Siete Vacas,” Calchaqui Valley 2018 (torrontes) was served with a beef empanada, the Videla Dorna Calfulen Reserva, Patagonia 2018 (pinot noir) with an onion-mushroom tart and the DiamAndes DiamAndina, Uco Valley 2017 (malbec) with a beef, onion and green pepper skewer. The empanada was oddly good with the torrontes! The presentation of the wines and food was done well, factually accurate and nicely detailed.
Back at the hotel, we finished off the malbec and settled in for a good night’s sleep.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2020—BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
This morning we had a good breakfast at the hotel. There was plenty of time before our 12:30 p.m. food tour, so we went for a walk. Only a few blocks from the hotel is Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento (turismo.buenosaires.gob.ar/en/atractivo/basílica-del-santísimo-sacramento). We considered going inside to view the ornate gold and silver decorations but were discouraged by the panhandlers outside. [Note: I had seen several reviews saying that this was Pope Francis’ church when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires; I think they are confusing this Basilica with the Metropolitan Cathedral.]
Instead, we walked to the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve (vamospanish.com/discover/ecological-reserve-reserva-ecologica-buenos-aires-argentina/) along the Rio de la Plata. We did a hot and dusty 6 mile (10 k) hike; there were nice views of the river and many pretty blooming lapacho (pink flowers) trees. There were lots of joggers, cyclists and walkers out enjoying a nice day in the park—all within view of the downtown skyscrapers.
On the way back to the hotel, we were confronted with the “bird poop scam.” I happened to notice that John had kicked up mud on the back of his pants leg. But wait—there was no mud around! I glanced behind and saw a man gaining on us—he wasn’t even trying to hide the squirt bottle with which he had liberally sprayed black, smelly (like vinegar) liquid all over the back of our shirts and pants. Usually the scammer sprays you surreptitiously and just happens to have tissues and water to help you clean off the “bird poop” while he is cleaning out your pockets. As John quipped later, “What kind of bird was this supposed to be? A condor?” Anyway, I immediately realized what was going down and we moved away quickly. Back at the hotel we had to wash out our pants and shirts in the sink, then dry them using the towel squeeze and hair dryer method. Good thing they are all made of quick-dry fabric. What an aggravation though!
Still slightly damp and smelling faintly of vinegar, we went down to meet Juan Carlos to go to the Parrilla Tour (parrillatour.com) in the Las Cañitas section of the Palermo neighborhood. We met our guide, Laura, outside La Cañita. We were the only two people on the three-hour tour today!
At La Cañita, Laura introduced us to a popular aperitvo, Gancia Americano Bianco mixed with seltzer water. Americano is an Italian vermouth and has a distinct citrus taste. The food tasting started with berenjenas en escabeche (eggplant ceviche). We love all things eggplant, so it was hard not to eat it all. However, we saw the two choripáns that had appeared and knew we should pace ourselves for a long afternoon of eating. Choripán is an immensely popular street food and was one of my eating goals for this trip. It is a butterflied chorizo sausage grilled and served between slices of crusty bread with two traditional sauces: chimichuri and criollo. Laura talked about food history and flavors and tradition. Chorizo in Argentina is not spicy like Mexican chorizo because of the strong influence of Italian heritage on the food here. OK, we ate every bite; so much for pacing.
The next stop was at La Guitarrita, where the walls are covered with futbol (soccer) memorabilia and pictures of futbol stars. They make several kinds of empanadas there but Laura ordered beef for us, which she said are supposed to be eaten in the hand. These are baked and she explained that empanadas are cooked differently in different parts of Argentina: baked, fried or cooked on the grill. Also, the beef is cut into small pieces, not ground. The empanadas were delicious and served with Etchart Cafayate Reserve, Salta, Argentina 2017 (torrontes) poured liberally from a pitcher shaped like a penguin! Laura pointed to the word “Cafayate” and asked how I would pronounce it. When I said cah-fah-YAH-tay, she said in Argentina it is cah-fah-SHAH-tay. She got a menu for us to keep as a souvenir and went through the various items. When she got to the chicken empanadas, she said “pollo” is PO-sho. That is the kind of detail that we love about these tours and Laura was exceptionally informative!
Both of those stops were just the warm up for lunch at Las Cholas, parrilla et hornito de campo (grill and field oven). Although we already had had three starters, we had another one: provoleta grillade (also on my “must eat” list). This dish is a large slice of provolone, topped with herbs and spices and grilled in a cast iron skillet. This can be eaten as-is or with bread; we sent the bread away—no sense wasting valuable stomach space. Finally it was showtime: Argentinian beef (on John’s “must eat” list)! Out came two huge platters, each a main course, one piled with bife de chorizo (NY strip sirloin steak) and the other with vacio (flank steak). In addition to chimichuri and criollo, pebre (similar to pico de gallo) accompanied the meat. Not to mention that there were side dishes: mashed roasted pumpkin, rice, piles of French fries (one “a caballo” with a fried egg on top) and grilled onions and peppers. From our previous visits to Argentina, we knew that this staggering amount of food is considered normal for two people to eat. Although we did our best to devour this carnivore’s dream (Laura refused all but one slice of the sirloin) we had to admit defeat because we knew dessert was coming. To help all this go down, we consumed a bottle of Las Perdices, Agrelo, Argentina 2018 (malbec).
Somehow, we still had room for ice cream (helado) at Persicco, a local chain of heladerías. John had dulce de leche and I had chocolate suizo. This was a wonderful ending to our food tour! Laura was a fantastic guide and we would highly recommend this tour to anyone who wants the chance to sample the cuisine of Buenos Aires.
Juan Carlos picked us up at the heladería. We had originally planned for him to drop us off at the San Telmo Antiques Market, then walk back to the hotel on our own. However, we were stuffed and the market was almost over, so we had him take us back to the hotel. We also realized that we would not be able to eat again later that night at the restaurant where Defrantur had made a reservation for us, so we asked the hotel to cancel our reservation. We can only handle so much food!
REVIEW OF THE EXPEDITION
DAY 1: MONDAY 3 FEBRUARY 2020—BUENOS AIRES (AEP) TO USHUAIA (USH), ARGENTINA
This morning we were still so full from yesterday’s food tour that we didn’t even check to see whether some items might have been available early on the breakfast buffet. Ricardo had told us to wait in the hotel lobby for Juan Carlos and not go outside to our usual meeting point on Santa Fe. We were ready for our 6:30 a.m. pickup and saw a number of homeless people sleeping in doorways.
Our Aerolineas Argentina flight to Ushuaia left from the domestic airport, Airport Jorge Newbery (AEP), at 8:55 a.m. We were supposed to check at 6:55 a.m., so we arrived with plenty of time and in advance of most of the crowd. There were two local Ponant contacts with clipboards to check off our names and make sure that we had a Ponant tag with our cabin number on our checked bags. After that, we could join the line to get our boarding passes and check luggage; I was also able to add our Delta SkyMiles numbers to our reservations. Checked luggage was limited to 50 lbs (23 kg) and carry-ons to 22 lbs (10 kg). Our checked bags were 44 lbs (20 kg) and 26 lbs (12 kg)—no problem. Our carry-ons were not weighed.
After that, we proceeded to the departures area, which is upstairs on the other end of the airport. There are two security areas: one for flights going north and the other for flights going south. Everyone seemed to be going south, so there was a long line waiting to go through security. Nevertheless, we arrived at the gate about 45 minutes after Juan Carlos dropped us off. There was an earlier flight to Ushuaia and people were still queued up for it.
We were traveling the week after the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in China started to make headlines; several cruise ships had already been quarantined because of possible infections aboard. We saw a few people at the airport wearing paper masks, not realizing that a virus is a really tiny thing and the masks don’t keep it out. Like other travel companies, Ponant was scrambling to deal with this issue. We had to fill out two health forms (one on the plane and one on the ship) swearing that we did not have any symptoms and had not been to China recently. The ship’s doctor examined everyone’s passport to look for passport stamps from China. We did have a number of Chinese passengers; I guess they were not running a fever or showing other symptoms as we are not aware that anyone was denied boarding.
The flight to Ushuaia, which means means “the bay which looks towards the east” in the Yámana language, took 3.5 hours and a forgettable breakfast was served. Once we arrived, we collected our checked luggage and turned it over to Ponant staff; we would next see it in our cabin. Then we were directed to buses, depending on our language and whether or not we were taking the optional (extra cost) excursion to the Tierra del Fuego National Park (www.argentina.gob.ar/parquesnacionales/tierradelfuego).
John and I had visited Ushuaia (turismoushuaia.com/zonas/ciudad-ushuaia/?lang=en_US) twice previously and already toured the national park. We chose the included excursion to a beautiful lodge overlooking the Beagle Channel, the Arakur Ushuaia (arakur.com/en/). Along the way, our local guide gave us a short panoramic tour of the highlights of Ushuaia. Once at the resort, we were served a beautiful buffet lunch in the La Cravia restaurant. The meats from the fabulous grill stole the show (it is Argentina after all!)—rib eye, flank steak, chorizo—all washed down with Zuccardi Serie A, Uco Valley, Argentina 2018 (malbec).
The resort is set in the Cerro Alarkén Nature Reserve and after lunch we had the choice of a 30-minute or an hour-long guided walk to various overlooks. Naturally, we picked the longer hike, which first went to a turbal (peat bog) as our guide pointed out the different native trees and plants. Then we climbed to the summit of Cerro Alarkén for a 360° view of Ushuaia Bay, the Beagle Channel and the surrounding Martial and Vinciguerra mountain ranges. We would have liked to hike more of the trails (www.floxie.com.ar/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/cerro-alarken-chico.jpg) on our own but it was time to move on to our ship! [Note: there were no flags in the resort gift shop and there was no time allotted to shop in Ushuaia.]
We were bused to the cruise pier at about 4 p.m.; the Seabourn Quest and Scenic Eclipse were also in port. We were welcomed aboard Le Soléal by the crew with a glass of Veuve Cliquot champagne and another health form. We could return the form to Reception later and give an imprint of our credit card. We also received our ID cards, which would be scanned whenever we embarked or disembarked the ship. Because these were also our cabin keys, we had to carry them with us instead of leaving them in the pocket on the left parka sleeve (as we did on the Ocean Adventurer).
After that, we went to our cabin to unpack. We had booked a Deluxe Stateroom with balcony, located midships on the port side; it was exactly what we had expected from the photos on the Ponant website. The cabin was larger (198 ft2/18.4 m2, 43 ft2/4 m2 balcony) than our Main Deck Twin Window cabin on the Ocean Adventurer (115 ft2/10.7 m2, no balconies on the OA) but smaller than our minisuite on the Golden Princess (323 ft2/30 m2, balcony included).
One side of the cabin has the wardrobe and a long shelf that holds a tray with bottles of water (sparkling and still), the telephone, a lamp and a folio with information on the ship and cabin. There is a mirror above the shelf; beneath it is a hassock and the included minibar. There are a chair and table between the window and the comfortable double bed. There is a small shelf next to each side of the bed but no drawers; the ledge under the window made convenient a storage space for small items, like binoculars.
There was a fair amount of room in the wardrobe for our clothing but hanging space was really tight once we added our bulky parkas. There are a shelf (holding full-size life jackets) above the clothing rod and three smaller shelves above the safe; slippers and bathrobes are provided. There are also laundry bags and lists in the wardrobe. We spent most of our OBC on laundry; prices ranged from 1€ for underwear to 12€ for a two-piece suit (washable only—there is no dry cleaning). Items sent out in the morning were returned late the next afternoon.
Next to the door are only two hooks, which held umbrellas. I put the umbrellas in the wardrobe so we could hang our parkas, waterproof pants and life vests on them. We really missed the convenient shelf and four hooks next to the door on the Ocean Adventurer, where we could hang those items.
There is only one sink in the bathroom, with three small shelves on one side and two drawers underneath. One of the drawers holds vanity kits (cotton pads and sticks), sewing kits and shower caps. Next to the sink are small bottles of shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and body lotion as well as a bar of soap; those toiletries are “Un Jardin sur Le Nil” by Hermès. The shower is roomy and has glass doors. Bath linens are mat, bath towels, hand towels and face cloths. Although there was a sign asking us to reuse towels, there is no place to hang them up to dry. The toilet is in a separate compartment and equipped with scratchy French toilet paper.
After inspecting the cabin we toured the ship. That doesn’t take long: the Observatory Lounge and Terrace, Bridge and Medical Center are in the bow; the two restaurants, Library, Studio (ship photographer), Spa, Theater and Main Lounge are in the stern; the Reception and Excursion desks and the Shop are midships. This is definitely an upscale ship with lovely décor.
Now it was time for the lifeboat drill. We had to wear our full-size life jackets to the muster station in the Theater, where our ID cards were scanned. Although this is a non-smoking ship, there is a distinct cigarette smoke odor in the Theater, probably residue from the smokers’ clothing. The life vests have weird connectors that we had not encountered before. After a briefing on safety and evacuation procedures, we were directed to the lifeboats so we could see where and how we would board them.
Between the lifeboat drill and dinner was a good time to have drinks (Jameson and 3-year-old Havana rum) in the Main Lounge as we sailed away from Ushuaia. There was a nice selection of alcohol included with the open bar and we were wondering why we needed a minibar in the cabin. While in the lounge, a fellow CruiseCritic member (Cruize) recognized me from my profile photo; he and his wife are from New Zealand and would be taking an “Around the Horn” cruise on the Coral Princess after disembarking Le Soléal in Buenos Aires. Nice people! As the sun went down, there was a beautiful rainbow in the east.
Open seating dinner is usually served from 7:30-9 p.m., with table service in the L’Eclipse Restaurant and self-service in the Le Pythéas Restaurant (buffet). We had dinner every night in L’Eclipse, sometimes by ourselves and other times sharing a table with another English-speaking couple. Each meal began with an amuse-bouche. The five-course dinners usually included two soups, three starters, three main courses, a cheese course and three desserts or ice cream/sorbet or a sliced fruit plate. Each dish was labeled (gluten free, lactose free, etc.) to assist those with dietary constraints. There were some “always available” items: Caesar salad, green salad, fish, steak, other meat or poultry, hamburger and various vegetable/starch options.
Tonight’s amuse-bouche was pumpkin mousse topped by chestnut mousse, which we followed with a savory clafouti of morel mushrooms and asparagus. The haddock in white butter sauce was good and the porcini mushroom risotto was excellent. The cheese plate was undistinguished; a much better selection would prove to be available every day at lunch. John enjoyed one of his favorite desserts, crème brûlée, and I had strawberry profiteroles with raspberry sorbet.
Each night there was a different assortment of included wines (almost always French): two whites, a rosé and two reds. Today’s group was Jardin des Charmes, Coteaux de Béziers 2018 (chardonnay), Château Haut-Bellian, AOC Bordeaux 2018 (sauvignon blanc, sémillon), Croix Salans, IGP Pays D’Oc 2017 (grenache, cinsault), La Tête Ailleurs, IGP Pays D’Oc 2018 (grenache, syrah), Guillaume Aurèle, Pays D’Oc 2018 (merlot). There are two sommeliers (Antoine and Bryan) who alternate between the dining room and the buffet. They would be happy to help us choose a premium (starting at about 70€) bottle from the extensive wine list. The included wines were good but young. In general they went well with the food that was served.
After dinner, we went to the Theater to be fitted for our red parkas with numerous patches; I felt like a NASCAR driver. Although the parkas are waterproof and quite warm, they are not as nice as the Quark ones, which have larger pockets and a removable liner. They would probably be much too hot to wear during our day in the Falkland Islands and perhaps in South Georgia.
There is bad news on the COVID-19 front for the Diamond Princess, which is currently ending a January 20-February 3 cruise roundtrip from Yokohama. (We are booked on this ship for April 2021.) A passenger who embarked in Tokyo and disembarked in Hong Kong tested positive on February 1, so Japanese public health authorities were reviewing the health status of all guests and crew. There were 3,711 persons ( 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew members) on board. About half the passengers were from Japan.
DAY 2: TUESDAY 4 FEBRUARY 2020—AT SEA
This was a nice day with air temperatures throughout the day around 50°F (10°C).
This morning we saw albatrosses (wandering and black-browed for sure, maybe royal) following the ship and another ship on the horizon. Because Tokyo is 12 hours ahead, we were already hearing that the Diamond Princess’ next voyage was canceled while the health reviews continued.
After experiencing a Le Soléal dinner, we realized that we could not maintain our svelte figures if we ate three full meals a day. Fortunately, in addition to a full breakfast with many options in the two restaurants, there is a continental breakfast served in the Main Lounge. Sometimes we indulged in a pastry and decaf cappuccino; other days we just had a decaf cappuccino.
Le Soléal being a French ship, announcements are made in both French and English; presentations are given separately in each language. We never were told the exact passenger count or breakdown, but we heard that there were 176 guests, of whom about half were French speakers. From our interactions with other guests, we guessed that there were about a dozen from the USA and maybe twice that many from Australia and New Zealand.
Mid-morning, we went to the Theater to be welcomed by Captain Daher and the Expedition Leader, Pierre. They gave an overview of the itinerary and introduced the other 11 members of the Expedition Team. The guides’ specialties included history (2), biology, marine biology (2), marine ecology, entomology, glaciology, ice/climate/geology, plants/geomorphology and birds. I was surprised that the Team was so small: the team on the Ocean Adventurer was twice as large for fewer (118) guests. Most of the Team’s on board presentations were very good, but some were disorganized, especially Pierre’s. Sign-up sheets were available to schedule dinner with the guides and they were always ready to answer questions.
Later we had mandatory briefings about IAATO environmental and safety rules and about zodiac safety. Our ID cards were scanned and we had to sign a list verifying that we had attended the briefings. On the way out of the Theater, we were handed our zodiac life vests.
Open seating lunch is usually served from 12-2 p.m. and usually has a theme. There is table service in the L’Eclipse Restaurant and self-service in the Le Pythéas Restaurant (buffet). We initially chose to eat lunch in the buffet. However, it is very crowded because it is too cold to eat outside on the deck. Whichever venue you choose, there is an excellent and varied selection of six cheeses (Gorgonzola Dolce, Provolone, Camembert, Chèvre, Comté, Curé Nantais, Saint Nectaire, Elutcha des Cabasses, Marotte de Larzac and many more) available every day.
Today lunch was a seafood buffet. We sampled several dishes, some good, some just OK. The seafood au gratin was surprisingly good as was the thinly sliced octopus; the skate wing was OK, not great. The shrimp served with the squid ink risotto were excellent but the risotto itself was gummy. The wine selection was the same as last night except that the Guillaume Aurèle was replaced by a different merlot, Jardin des Charmes, Coteaux de Béziers 2018. We drooled over the dessert display but that way lies madness.
In the mid-afternoon, there was a lecture by Mitya on “In the Heart of the Seas: the History of the Falkland Islands.” He is an interesting speaker but maybe runs a touch long. While that lecture was presented in French by Alizée, the English-speakers repaired to the Main Lounge for our boot fitting and zodiac group assignment. The boots ran much larger than we expected from our running shoe sizes; I got a 39 and John got a 40. The boots are stored on a mat outside the cabin door. There were four zodiac groups (Red, Blue, Green, Yellow) of roughly equal size; we were put in the Red group and a red sticker was placed on our ID card. Disembarkation rotates among the groups, so there is really no advantage to being in any particular one.
Afternoon tea with treats is served at 4 p.m. everyday in the Main Lounge. That is the same time that the Observatory Lounge opens, so we usually went there for a more stimulating beverage. The bar steward, Wayan, quickly learned our names and preference for an extra-dirty vodka martini. On other days, I had a Bloody Mary, mojito or glass of house champagne (Charles Heidsieck Brut). A very nice place to read and watch the ocean go by!
Tonight was the first of three “formal” nights—the Captain’s Gala Evening. A large number of people dressed up but many others stuck with casual dress. We were somewhere in the middle: white silk shirt, pearls and black travel pants for me; white travel shirt, tie, cream sweater vest and black travel pants for John. Nobody looks at anybody’s feet (well, maybe some of the women do) so we wore our black running shoes with black socks. There were too many clothes to pack for this trip to waste weight on extra shoes!
The evening started with welcome cocktails (Veuve Cliquot) and hors d’oeuvres with Captain Daher in the Theater. After the Captain spoke a few words, we all proceeded to the L’Eclipse restaurant, where the gala fixed menu was served to everyone at the same time. The two menu choices were classic or vegetarian.
Tonight’s amuse-bouche was halibut, avocado and cilantro jelly topped with sweet potato chips. The classic menu featured both a cold starter (salmon gravlax with caviar) and a hot starter (duck foie gras), a main course of lobster in a casserole with artichokes and potatoes, a crispy pistachio dessert and mignardises (sweet treats: tiny chocolate tarts and flavored marshmallows). The meal was very good, especially the lobster dish; the amuse-bouche was again excellent. The wines offered were La Chablisienne, AOC Chablis 2015 (chardonnay); Croix Salans, IGP Pays D’Oc 2017 (grenache, cinsault); Château Siaurac, AOC Lalande de Pomerol 2013 (merlot, cabernet sauvignon). A special wine pairing was offered tonight. We and our table mates (two Australian physicians) wanted to do the pairing but the minimum number needed was not met.
In the Main Lounge after dinner, there was a short show, “Love, Love, Love,” by the ship’s five-member dance troupe, Paris C’Show. The production was small but spirited and good. Other entertainment options included live music by the Le Soléal musicians in the Main Lounge and a pianist in the Observatory Lounge.
DAY 3: WEDNESDAY 5 FEBRUARY 2020—SAUNDERS ISLAND & WEST POINT ISLAND, FALKLAND ISLANDS
Bad news about the Diamond Princess: 10 cases of COVID-19 were detected and the ship will remain in quarantine in Yokohama Harbor until February 19.
The forecast for today was partly cloudy with air temperatures throughout the day around 50°F (10°C). Despite being quite windy, it turned out to be a wonderful day for our first expeditions.
We have previously made two port calls to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands (www.falklandislands.com), which is on East Falkland. On those visits, we had seen Commerson’s dolphins, flightless steamer ducks and Magellanic, gentoo and king penguins. Today we would visit two islands to the northwest of West Falkland.
For our early (7:30 a.m.) morning excursion, we wore our basic underwear, light long underwear bottoms, a base layer LS shirt, liner socks and wool blend mid-weight socks. That was topped with the Ponant parka, life vest and waterproof pants (not insulated). We also wore hats and fleece glove liners under waterproof gloves. We did not use backpacks or waterproof bags—John put his camera and the hiking Garmin in the pockets of his parka. I had brought collapsible hiking poles but ended up not using them for any of the landings.
We were supposed to carry our boots to the Main Lounge and don them there. We walked to the lounge in our socks but a few people wore their shoes or slippers and left them in the lounge. From the lounge, we walked over to the top of the stairs leading down to the Marina and our ID cards were scanned. The dancers helped line us up to go ashore. After descending the stairs, we walked through a trough of disinfectant solution before descending a few more steps to the zodiac landing platform. This was definitely easier than taking the steep metal stairs down to the tiny metal loading platform on the Ocean Adventurer!
Red was the first group and we were in the first zodiac ashore on Saunders Island (www.falklandislands.com/explore/the-islands/saunders-island). The ride over was somewhat rough and I got a good splashing. Rubber mats were placed on the rocky landing site to give us better footing; there were two crew members in dry suits to pull in the zodiacs and help us ashore.
We landed near the South Beach of “The Neck”, an isthmus connecting two parts of the island. We walked independently up a slight rise and then above the beach, following the red flags set out by the Expedition Team. We saw gentoo penguins everywhere and many seabirds (brown and south polar skuas, kelp gulls, oyster catchers, Falkland steamer ducks, imperial shags). At one end of the beach was a rusted trypot, used by sealers to render oil from penguins and seals.
We then turned inland across The Neck to the North Beach, where we saw upland geese and even more penguins. Rockhopper, gentoo and a small group of king penguins stood closer to the water and Magellanic penguins milled around near their burrows on the hillside. Saunders Island is a working sheep farm and we saw a number of those as we climbed up the slopes of Mt. Richards to reach two black-browed albatross colonies. Along the way, we saw the bleached bones of a whale skeleton. In the colonies there were many fluffy gray albatross chicks, maybe a month from fledging, sitting on their volcano-like mud nests. There were also striated caracaras looking to prey on weak or injured chicks. Before we walked back over The Neck to the landing site, we walked out on North Beach, keeping an eye out for fur seals (we didn’t see any) that might be lounging in the tussock grass. The walk this morning was supposed to be 2 km (1.2 mi) but we measured 2.1 miles (3.4 km) on the Garmin; the elevation gain was 181 feet (55 m). As we expected, the parkas were much too warm even with just a base layer underneath.
Back on the ship, we had to scrub and disinfect our boots before removing them to enter the ship. The dancers again helped out by checking our boots and blasting them with high pressure water if they are not clean enough.
Lunch was a Mediterranean buffet with pissaladière (onion, black olive and anchovy tart) and eggplant Parmigiana. John discovered the ice cream station—bad for our waistline but great ice cream. Lunch wines were Moulin de Gassac, IGP Pays D’Hérault 2018 (carignan, terret); Château Mas Neuf, AOC Costières de Nîmes 2017 (roussanne, grenache); and Moulin de Gassac, IGP Pays D’Hérault 2018 (syrah, grenache). The Croix Salans (grenache, cinsault) and Guillaume Aurèle (merlot) were back again.
In the afternoon we landed at West Point Island (www.falklandislands.com/explore/the-islands/west-point-island), another privately-owned farm. The zodiac ride was less rough this time. We landed at the farm dock and the Red group was first ashore again. This was another self-guided hike across open, rolling countryside with wonderful scenery. There was a four-wheel drive vehicle to transport the mobility-challenged. John and I were the first to hike to the end of the trail at the Devil’s Nose, a rocky promontory with dramatic sandstone cliffs, but the people in the 4WD got there first. There were muddy trails down to two black-browed albatross colonies; rockhopper penguins were also nesting on the rocky ledges and areas of tussock grass. Skuas and turkey vultures were eating dead chicks. The caracaras here were not happy about the large red creatures wandering about and dive bombed several in the group. On the way back to the dock, we stopped at the old (1880) farmhouse for tea and an impressive assortment of cookies and cakes. We enjoyed our treats at a picnic table in the pretty garden, full of flowers. The walk this afternoon was supposed to be 4 km (2.5 mi) but we measured 3.2 miles (5.1 km) on the Garmin, with an elevation gain of 265 feet (81 m).
Before dinner there was a rather skimpy recap of the day’s events. The recap included information on the history of the farm and Lars-Eric Lindblad (founder of Lindblad Expeditions and a pioneer of ecotourism); some of Lindblad’s ashes are buried in the garden at the farm. It would have been nice to have been told about that ahead of our visit.
Dinner tonight again had a great amuse-bouche: pea puree with topped with mushroom mousse and a mushroom chip. That was followed by an amazing escargot dish: the snails and garlic butter were inside small pastry cups that were floating in a cream sauce. The herb-crusted lamb loin was perfect. John finished with the cheese plate and lemon tiramisu; I had a chocolate-caramel dessert. Wines were the same as at lunch.
”Soleil,” the show in the Theater, was good but long: it started at 9:35 p.m. and ended at 10:25. That was rather late for us given this morning’s early start and a busy day of excursions. The dancers did an amazing job considering that we were rocking and rolling in the Southern Ocean.
Tonight we received a feedback survey about our experience on the ship thus far. We thought this was an excellent idea to correct any problems early! We noted the excellent food, service and accommodations. However, we expressed disappointment that we had not had any wildlife lectures yet. Quark prepared us much better before our landings so we could appreciate what we might see. On our drive-by cruise, Princess had also provided lectures ahead of time so that we could know what to expect as far as wildlife sightings. We also mentioned that it would be nice to have a list of the names of the Expedition Team and their specialties so we would know who best to pester with our questions. Whether it was because of such critiques or Ponant planning, we soon had wildlife lectures.
DAY 4: THURSDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2020—AT SEA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 10 new cases, 20 total.
The forecast for today was cloudy to partly cloudy skies and windy, with slightly lower air temperatures throughout the day around 45°F (7°C).
It would take two days to reach South Georgia, which many reviews claim is the highlight of an expedition like this. The wildlife is supposed to be amazing and we were eagerly anticipating our arrival and the three days there.
We slept in a little this morning. Later there was a good talk on “Shackleton” given by Cécile. We have read so much and watched so many movies and TV programs about Sir Ernest that we probably could have given the talk ourselves. Nevertheless, it was a nice recap.
Today’s lunch theme was “Bistrot.” We have thus far avoided soups because—well we're not sure but it seems like we shouldn't eat everything! However, I had to try the gratinéed French onion soup. One main dish was duck confit parmentier (under a layer of mashed potatoes) and the daily special was freshly-prepared beef (and salmon) tartare. Those were amazing! And of course, there was the mandatory cheese selection. By cruise end, they may have to pry us away from the cheese tray but we'll fight them off with the wine bottles we have emptied. Four of the lunch wines were repeats: two whites (Château Mas Neuf and Jardin des Charmes) and two reds (Jardin des Charmes and Moulin de Gassac). The new rosé was Château Mas Neuf, Les Conviviales, AOC Costières de Nîmes 2016 (cinsault).
In the afternoon, there was another mandatory briefing, this time about biosecurity, environment and safety in South Georgia and Antarctica. The IAATO rules are more stringent there than for the Falkland Islands. In order to reduce bird strikes, all windows on the ship would now be covered from sunset to sunrise.
After the briefing we had a mandatory decontamination session. We had to bring any outerwear or gear that we planned to use on our landings for inspection and vacuuming. Velcro and pockets are especially susceptible to collecting seeds and other contraband; I did have one seed (shame!) caught in a Velcro strap on my pants.
As if we had not had enough wine for lunch, we next went to a wine tasting (45€ pp) with the theme “Inside the French Vineyard.” This was a real tasting with knowledgeable sommeliers, unlike Princess’ Grapevine or Maitre d’ tastings. It was limited to 12 people; besides us there were three Australians and the rest were French. The tasting was excellent with nice tidbits to match with the wines. The wine pairings included Côtes de Provence Clos Mireille, Domaine Ott 2015 with asparagus and salmon; Pouilly-Fuissé “Les Courtelongs,” Domaine Saumaize 2017 with squid ink risotto; Château Marquis d’Alesme, AOC Margaux 2012 with tartare Italiane; Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Clos Saint Michel 2011 with rare roast beef and potato salad; and Minervois La Livinière “Le Viala,” Gérard Bertrand 2011 with a chocolate tart and meringue cookie. One of the wines was corked and it was interesting to find out how that defect smells and tastes.
The amuse-bouche tonight was the same smoked salmon/asparagus combo that we had at the wine tasting. We started with roasted quail breasts followed by the duck breast with pink peppercorns as our main course. For dessert, I had the apple tart with vanilla ice cream; I think John had the panna cotta. The wines were the same as at lunch; we enjoyed the rosé with the duck. We are definitely eating too much! We need to get ashore and do some hiking to burn calories!
Tonight the clocks would be set ahead one hour to be on South Georgia time. This was announced in tomorrow’s (!) daily program, which we got late this evening. Fortunately the cabin steward left a notice on the bed.
The ship is rolling a bit more as we approach the Antarctic Convergence. There are barf bags in the elevator and tucked into the railings along the passageways.
We later learned that the highest temperature ever measured on the continental Antarctic peninsula was recorded today at Argentina’s Esperanza research station—18.3°C (64.9°F).
DAY 5: FRIDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2020—AT SEA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 41 new cases, 61 total.
The forecast for today was cloudy and windy, with slightly lower air temperatures throughout the day around 42°F (6°C). The ship was rolling quite a bit and this was probably the roughest day of the cruise.
This morning Danielle (Dani) gave a good talk on “The Lives of Whales and Dolphins.” Finally a wildlife talk with information on what we might see and how to tell what it was!
The lunch theme today was “Caribbean.” We enjoyed the jerk chicken and roasted pork belly with pineapple (and of course more cheese). Usually there are wine glasses on the tables but not today due to the rolling. We still got wine, thank goodness! Two of the wines were the white and red Jardin des Charmes that we had seen before; the rosé was Jardin des Charmes, IGP Coteaux de Béziers 2018 (cinsault, grenache). A new white was Passe Colline, AOC Ventoux 2018 (grenache, vermentino, clairette) and a new red was Château Thomas Laurent, AOC Bordeaux 2016 (merlot, cabernet sauvignon).
This afternoon we had an uneven talk on “Birds of the Voyage” by Rao. He is not an ornithologist, just interested in birds, but at least it was something pertinent. Later we noticed that photos and biographies of the Expedition Team had been posted near the Expedition Desk. Maybe they read our survey responses or maybe it was planned already.
Before dinner we had a briefing on tomorrow’s planned activities. However, the weather was supposed to be iffy, with high winds and a good chance of snow; high air temperatures were only expected to be around freezing (32°F, 0°C). In the morning, we would attempt a landing at Salisbury Plain (www.gov.gs/docsarchive/Visitors/Visitor%20Management%20Plans/2015/Salisbury%20Plain.pdf), South Georgia’s second-largest king penguin colony. In the mid-afternoon we had two options: make a landing at Whistle Cove to see king penguins or join the walking group (limited to 90) to make the 6 km (3.7 mi) Shackleton walk (www.gov.gs/docsarchive/Visitors/Visitor%20Management%20Plans/2015/Shackleton%20Walk%20revised%20070115.pdf) from Fortuna Bay to the Stromness Whaling Station. Although Pierre emphasized the difficulty of the walk and that it would likely be miserable in the snow, we signed up for it anyway. We were not about to miss the chance to replicate the last leg of Shackleton’s trek across South Georgia!
The ship was really rolling this evening as we passed Shag Rocks, six small uninhabited islands on a seamount of the Scotia Ridge. As suggested by the name, there are lots of shags (cormorants), prions, petrels and other seabirds there and following the ship. During dinner, the ship had a severe roll as Captain Daher pulled in the stabilizers and maneuvered to avoid a pod of whales. Wine and water glasses and eating utensils all slid over, but we responded quickly enough to avoid spilling anything (especially the wine). Later we found that all the water bottles in our cabin had fallen over!
Dinner included another excellent amuse-bouche, followed by foie gras. John had a tuna steak with an Asian touch; I had beef Stroganoff. John again enjoyed one of his favorite desserts, crème brûlée, and I had the “Chocolate 3 Ways.” The wines served were the same as at lunch; we chose the Bordeaux.
Tonight a movie was shown in the Theater but we did not attend.
DAY 6: SATURDAY 8 FEBRUARY 2020—AT SEA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 3 new cases, 64 total.
It is a straight, 2-day shot from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia, so John had not bothered to chart it with the Garmin. However he set it up before we went to bed last night to record the arrival in South Georgia. When we got up this morning though, he thought there was something wrong with it because it showed us heading northeast. There were no South Georgia fjords outside the window and the ship was making top speed, 16 knots instead of the previous 12. There were large waves and high winds, making it a rocky ride during the night and this morning. The higher speed probably affected the motion too.
The Captain soon announced that there was a life-threatening medical emergency and he had turned the ship around at 11 p.m. last night to return to the closest place where a medical evacuation would be possible—the Falkland Islands—36 hours away. This explained the direction and speed of the ship.
This morning we had a hastily-arranged presentation by Mitya on “The Forgotten Expedition: Bellingshausen and Lazarev in Antarctica 1819-1821.” This was the first Russian expedition to the Antarctic and confirmed the existence of the seventh continent. Again, this was an interesting topic but the talk was a bit too long.
The lunch theme today was “Italian.” John had some good Sicilian-style sole and I had the veal saltimbocca. There was decent vegetarian pizza too. However, the highlight was the fantastic antipasto table. The sous-chef was carving thin slices of prosciutto from a whole hog leg. There was a huge assortment of great roasted/marinated vegetables: eggplant, peppers, zucchini. In addition there were green and black olive tapenades, green and black olives, thinly-sliced octopus, bresaola and salami. John was complaining that he needed to start cutting back; his pants were getting tight. Nevertheless, he was able to put away some tiramisu. Three of the lunch wines were repeats: the Passe Colline white, the Jardin des Charmes rosé and the Moulin de Gassac red. A new white was Muscadet Chéreau Carré 2018 (melon de bourgogne, folle blanche) and a new red was Le Pas de la Beaume, CDR 2018 (grenache, syrah, cinsault).
New plans were announced by the Captain this afternoon: take the ship to within 200 NM of the Falkland Islands, evacuate the patient by helicopter, head back to South Georgia and spend two days there instead of three. Then the ship would proceed on to the Antarctic Peninsula, where we would have only 1.5-2 days instead of three. He expected to reach the rendezvous point tomorrow morning before noon. Of course, that all would depend on the seas and the weather. Currently, the skies are clear, with strong wind from south. There are high waves and spray over the bow occasionally.
It was disappointing to hear that we would lose 2-3 days of expeditions but we were thankful that neither of us was the person who would be dangling from a helicopter (no place for it to land) tomorrow morning. The person was stable right now but no telling what effect the evacuation would have on him/her.
After that we skipped a lecture on climate change and headed up to the Observatory Lounge to revive our spirits with some extra-dirty vodka martinis.
Tonight’s amuse-bouche was Caesar salad with pearl couscous. I followed that by asparagus with seafood; John had beetroot carpaccio. We both opted for beef Rossini (with a nice slab of foie gras on top). I had pear Helene for dessert. The lunch wines made another appearance at dinner.
We had an after-dinner Jameson while waiting for the show, which was supposed to be inspired by Picasso. Instead we got passengers showing off the moves they were learning from the dance classes; we did not stick around for that.
DAY 7: SUNDAY 9 FEBRUARY 2020—RESCUE AT SEA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 6 new cases, 70 total.
This morning we abandoned the pretense that we are concerned about our caloric intake: we had breakfast in L’Eclipse. There were good pastries and a variety of juices. However, our focus was on Eggs Benedict, cooked to order. The requisite poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce were perched on bacon and toast—a novelty to us, but delicious nonetheless. This was setting a very bad precedent.
This morning we skipped Dani’s presentation on “Of Whales and Man: From Whaling to Watching.” Reading “Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean” had given us more than enough information about the whaling industry.
Overnight it had been decided to get our ship to within 150 miles of Stanley to give the helicopter less distance to travel and more time on station. When the ship reached the rendezvous point, the Captain asked all of us to stay off the outside decks. Many of us gathered in the Observatory Lounge where we could keep watch for the helicopter, an AgustaWestland AW189. It arrived at 10:40 a.m. and hovered over the pool deck while (we later learned) it lowered a doctor down to the ship. After 15 minutes, the helicopter took off and began making wide circles around the ship while the doctor and the ship’s medical staff prepared the patient for evacuation. After 25 minutes, the helicopter returned and hauled up the doctor and the patient. Of course, we could only see the helicopter hovering over the edge of the ship and do not know whether a stretcher basket was used or whether the patient’s companion was able to accompany him/her. The helicopter departed for the Falkland Islands at 11:35 a.m.—the whole evacuation took less than an hour. We later learned that the patient was taken by air ambulance from the Falkland Islands to Punta Arenas, Chile, and from there to France.
Lunch today was “Barbecue” with Argentine-style grilled steak and shrimp/sausage skewers. That looked really good but we had had breakfast and there were no seats—people who had finished lunch were sitting around talking and not leaving.
We made up for it by having champagne and martinis. While we were relaxing, three beaked whales were spotted but we only saw their spouts. Later we went to a good lecture on “Life in the Abyss” by Rachel.
The amuse-bouche tonight was tomato carpaccio with chick peas, followed by pâté en croûte. For our main, we had shrimp sautéed with garlic and parsley, with a side of the truffle risotto. The whites tonight were Benjamin Nieto Senetiner 2018 (chardonnay) from Argentina (!) and Le Pas de la Beaume, CDR 2018 (grenache, roussanne, clairette). The rosé was again Jardin des Charmes. The reds were also repeats: Le Pas de la Beaume and Guillaume Aurèle.
Tonight’s entertainment was karaoke—not for us!
We later learned that a new high temperature record was logged today by Brazilian scientists at Seymour Island off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula—20.75°C (69.35°F). Sigh.
DAY 8: MONDAY 10 FEBRUARY 2020—AT SEA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 65 new cases, 135 total.
Mid-morning we went to a coffee break with Rachel and Katia. It was interesting to hear about how they got involved in marine science and about results from their doctoral research.
The buffet restaurant had been so crowded that we decided to start having lunch in the L’Eclipse dining room and get pampered. The first course, dessert and cheeses are served buffet-style and the main course is ordered from the waiter. The lunch theme was “Oriental” but it should have been “Moroccan.” I had lamb kefta with bulghur; John had delicious chicken tagine.
After lunch, we went to another wine tasting (45€ pp). The theme was “Duel;”we would taste two wines side by side and compare them. This time John and I were the only non-French-speakers. Domaine Vacheron, Sancerre 2018 (sauvignon blanc) was matched against a wine from New Zealand—Dog Point Vineyard, Marlborough 2016 (sauvignon blanc). Château la Verrerie Grand Deffand, AOP Luberon 2018 (syrah) was matched against a wine from Spain—Les Terrasses Laderas de Pizarra, Priorat 2016 (grenache, carignan, cabernet sauvignon). Finally we had a blind tasting of two wines that had been decanted. These were eventually revealed to be Pauillac de Latour (third wine of Château Latour) 2011 (merlot, cabernet sauvignon) and Ornellaia, DOC Bolgheri 2011 (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot). John was pleased that he identified the Pauillac as a Bordeaux blend, vintage 2010-2012, and guessed the correct vintage of the Ornellaia; nobody else came close. We had also signed up for a third tasting with the theme “Great Wines of Our Cellar.” However, it was 95€ pp and it did not attract the required minimum number.
A bit later, we had a briefing about our landings tomorrow. There would no longer be time for the long walk from Fortuna Bay to Stromness. Instead, we would have landings at Fortuna Bay and Grytviken. We would be able to do a shorter walk at Grytviken.
Before dinner, John had a martini, a margarita and a kir royale along with nuts and snacks; I had a mojito and a margarita. We still have some self-control but we are sliding into decadence.
Dinner tonight was just okay. As usual, the amuse-bouche (salmon mousse topped with smoked salmon and cucumber) was outstanding. John’s starter was salmon tartare and mine was grilled vegetables with pine nuts. We both had the beef Bourguignon with mashed potatoes, which was not as good as it sounded. For dessert, John had the apple tart and I had a chocolate tart with coffee ice cream. The wines were all repeats: Château Haut-Bellian, Le Pas de la Beaume, Jardin des Charmes, Moulin de Gassac and Guillaume Aurèle.
The entertainment tonight was bingo; again, not our style.
DAY 9: TUESDAY 11 FEBRUARY 2020—FORTUNA BAY & GRYTVIKEN, SOUTH GEORGIA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: no new cases reported.
We finally touched land today! The forecast was for partly cloudy skies with air temperatures in the morning around 42°F (6°C) and in the afternoon around 40°F (5°C). We decided to stick with the unlined waterproof pants for the two landings.
South Georgia was intensely green at this time of year, with jagged mountain peaks and impressive glaciers. This was a 4:30 a.m. start and the Red group was the second to land on the wide pebble beach. Fortuna Bay has a small colony of king penguins, “only” about ten thousand breeding pairs. There were many fur seal pups—incredibly cute, rambunctious and curious. Don’t mess with the adult females though because they bite! There were also some juvenile elephant seals, which are much larger than the fur seals. They were not cute and rambunctious. In fact, except for the occasional glance in our direction, they seemed dead! It was only a short walk this morning, about 1.25 miles (2 km) with an elevation gain of 59 feet (18 m), to some overlooks. We had spectacular views of the whole colony with the Konig Glacier and snow-capped mountains in the background. (www.gov.gs/docsarchive/Visitors/Visitor%20Management%20Plans/2015/Fortuna.pdf)
We had a light lunch after our after our morning on beach. John had calamari Provençale plus some charcuterie and cheeses. I also had some of the squid, salad with tuna and some vegetarian lasagna. After lunch, there was a briefing about tomorrow’s activities.
In the afternoon, we visited Grytviken (www.gov.gs/docsarchive/Visitors/Visitor%20Management%20Plans/2019/GRY01%20-%20Grytviken.pdf), formerly the largest whaling station on South Georgia. Today it is only inhabited in the summer by the staff of the South Georgia Museum, housed in the former residence of the station manager. The British Scientific Station at King Edward Point sits at the entrance to King Edward Cove. For a change, we disembarked using the ship’s tenders instead of the zodiacs, so we did not have to wear our life vests. Again the Red group was the second one taken ashore.
There were several activities planned but first we wanted to make a pilgrimage to the small cemetery south of town to pay our respects at the grave of “the Boss,” Sir Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton died here in 1922, the day after arriving on the Quest for his final expedition to Antarctica. Next to the grave is a plot where the ashes of his right-hand man, Frank Wild, were interred in 2011. Other graves are those of whalers who died here and that of an Argentinean sailor who was killed during the 1982 Falklands War, when it was mistakenly thought that he was trying to scuttle the captured submarine Santa Fe. The walk to the cemetery passed by a large number of fur seals and their pups cavorting near the water. Farther inland, groups of elephant seals were resting side-by-side and still looking dead.
A funeral service for Shackleton was held at the tiny Whalers Church, which is still in use today. Inside the church are a bust of Shackleton, a number of memorials to him and memorabilia from other expeditions.
The town is encircled by steep rugged mountains and we were offered a 1.5 hour guided hike from the church north to the Maiviken viewpoint. This hike was described as “moderately easy;” it was about 2.25 miles (3.6 km) round trip with an elevation gain of 595 feet (181 m). Climbing in the Ponant boots is not all that easy, although the footing was fairly good. One of the guests did slip on some of the loose rocks and got a bloody nose. The hike climbs along a pretty stream and there are great views of the surrounding mountains. We moved away from the stream as we got higher, eventually reaching the overlook with views of two freshwater lakes, Lancetes Lake and Maivatn, and Maiviken, a cove at the north end of Thatcher Peninsula. The weather was spectacular and the guides made a point of telling us that they could not recall ever seeing the mountains that surrounded us. We were indeed fortunate! [Map of walk: www.gov.gs/docsarchive/Visitors/Visitor%20Management%20Plans/2015/Maiviken%20Walk_extended%20walk.pdf]
Back in town, we had enough time to visit the Post Office, the Shop and the South Georgia Museum. The museum was originally devoted to the whaling industry but was later expanded with exhibits about the wildlife of the area, the discovery of the island, the sealing industry, Shackleton and the Falklands war. The building next door houses a life-sized (22.5 feet or 6.9 m) replica of the “James Caird”, the open boat in which Shackleton and five of his crew sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia. The Post Office has a nice exhibition, “Enduring Eye,” which includes 10 replica glass photographic plates, with associated images, and 12 original lantern slides from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition. These plates and slides were taken by the expedition photographer, Frank Hurley, and are on loan from the Royal Geographical Society (www.rgs.org/about/our-collections/enduring-eye/).
Lastly, we had a guided tour of the whaling station, led by a member of the museum staff, Sarah. The name Grytviken means “Pot Bay” and refers to the trypots left here by early sealers; there is one in front of the museum. The town is strewn with the remnants of rusty oil tanks, oil processing plants and the beached wrecks of whaling vessels. Sarah explained the various steps involved in processing whales, from hunting to the myriad resulting products; every part of the whale was used. There are a number of informational signs throughout the site, so it is also possible to explore the town on your own.
Back on the ship, we had views of some interesting cloud formations, including lenticular clouds, tinged with gorgeous colors by the setting sun.
Dinner tonight was especially delicious. The amuse-bouche was a salad of tomato, chick peas, mint and feta; we followed that with scallop ceviche and hake fillet with mustard sauce. John enjoyed panna cotta for dessert and I had Pavlova with berries. We paired dinner with the Muscadet Chéreau Carré; the other white was the Moulin de Gassac. The rosé was the Croix Salans. The two reds were Château Thomas Laurent and Moulin de Gassac.
We retired to the Observatory Lounge for a nightcap. Tonight we had clear skies for a change. Even though it was a couple of nights past the full “snow” supermoon, we saw a great moonrise. We also saw two north/south satellites passing overhead.
Much later, there was a presentation by scientists from The British Scientific Station at King Edward Point about their research. We did not stay up for that.
DAY 10: WEDNESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2020—ST ANDREWS BAY & COOPER BAY, SOUTH GEORGIA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 39 new cases, 174 total39 more on DP 174 total.
This was an incredible morning at St. Andrews Bay (www.gov.gs/docsarchive/Visitors/Visitor%20Management%20Plans/2015/St%20Andrews%20Bay.pdf). We heard the anchor drop around 4 a.m. and looked out to see a beautiful clear day and a giant king penguin colony in front of the Heaney and Cook Glaciers. Giant is an understatement: this is the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia with 250,000 breeding pairs, so there are at least a half-million birds here.
The weather in South Georgia has been fantastic—lots of sun. It wasn’t so windy this morning but the air temperature was lower than yesterday, about 38°F (3°C) Dani said. We decided to dress in insulated pants and mid-layer plus base layer top because of the wind and the half-hour zodiac ride.
The Green group left at 4:15 a.m., followed by the Yellow group; the Blue and Red groups could not disembark until first two started coming back. John and I were in the last group off at 6:20 a.m. We just missed a zodiac going out but then no one was behind us for some reason. Maybe they were waiting to be called but we have learned to go to the lounge a few minutes before our scheduled time to gear up. Anyway, the result was that the two of us had a private zodiac ride along the beach, watching king penguins and fur seals fish and swim as southern giant petrels bobbed in the water. Fur seal pups were frolicking in the water. Year-old chicks (oakum boys) in their fuzzy brown coats were everywhere. Here and there were groups of elephant seals lounging on the beach.
The landing site had four crew in dry suits to pull in the zodiac and help us negotiate the surf to get ashore. Penguins were everywhere at the landing site, making it hard to maintain the requisite 5 meter buffer zone. We were given 1.5 hours to hike 1 km (0.6 mi) to an overlook of the colony. (We measured 0.8 miles (1.4 km) with an elevation gain of 64 feet (19.6 m).) As before, we could follow the trail of red flags at our own pace. We thought we had seen a lot of birds on the beach but the vast expanse of them visible from the overlook was incredible. We even saw some new gray-downed chicks snuggled under their parents’ belly flaps and many oakum boys molting their down to reveal their adult diving suits. This is not even to mention the stupendous mountain background and two huge glaciers glistening in the sunlight. Plenty of elephant seals and fur seals had hauled out a good distance from the beach. We also saw some south polar skuas.
Today there was a special brunch buffet from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. to accommodate the timing of the excursions. There was not enough room inside the Le Pytheas, so we found a table outside (fortunately there were blankets!) on the pool deck. There were many other dishes but we concentrated on the foie gras and beef tartare. We also sampled the roasted rib eye and lamb, grilled salmon and grilled chicken skewers. We skipped the flambéed bananas for dessert. The bananas are getting old so this was good use for them.
During lunch, the ship re-positioned to Cooper Bay (www.gov.gs/docsarchive/Visitors/Visitor%20Management%20Plans/2015/Cooper%20Bay.pdf), dropping anchor around noon. We would take a 1.5 hour cruise here with no landing. So that we could enjoy the commentary during the zodiac cruise, we were divided into language groups this time. We headed out with Cécile in the first English-speaking group at 12:30 p.m. The zodiac cruised in and out of coves to observe wildlife. We saw macaroni penguins going up and downhill; it’s surprising how high they climb! There were chin strap, gentoo and king penguins and lots of fur and elephant seals. There were plenty of seabirds too—pale-faced sheathbills, petrels, terns, cormorants. Our outboard motor developed a problem and we had to move over to a new zodiac; fortunately no one went overboard during this maneuver! As the afternoon went on, it became progressively cloudier, and light rain was falling at the end of the cruise.
By 4 p.m. all of the zodiacs were raised and the Le Soléal headed off to Antarctica. Back aboard the ship, we had some drinks (mojito, martini, champagne), then settled in for a nap. That didn’t last long because whales interrupted. Two fin whales came really close to the ship; we saw one humpback nearby and several in the distance. John got some good video from our balcony. Later, there was a recap of our day before dinner.
Despite the filling lunch, we still managed to go to dinner. Tonight’s amuse-bouche was curry and coriander cream soup. John followed that with a crab cake and I had tuna tartare. His main was duck leg confit, while I chose sea bream with bouillabaisse sauce. I had the pecan brownie with vanilla ice cream for dessert. The wines were all repeats: Moulin de Gassac and Muscadet Chéreau Carré for the whites, Croix Salans for the rosé and Moulin de Gassac and Château Thomas Laurent for the reds.
We skipped tonight’s classical piano concert.
DAY 11: THURSDAY 13 FEBRUARY 2020—AT SEA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 44 new cases, 218 total.
It would take two days for us to reach the Antarctic Peninsula with nothing to do but sleep, read, eat and imbibe. We got a start with cappuccino in Observatory Lounge, a good place to read while trying to conjure up whales. John saw whale spouts far away, probably humpbacks, but no tails.
There was a good talk on “Pinnepeds of the Great White” by Dani; it should be helpful when identifying them. It is unlikely that we will see Ross seals, but we have already seen fur seals and elephant seals; we should see the other three (Weddell, crabeater, leopard) once we get to the Peninsula.
The lunch theme was “Asian.” Starters included dim sum (two kinds of dumplings) and sushi. John had seared halibut with Asian seasonings; I had beef stir-fry that was hardly any beef, all noodles. As usual, there were great cheeses for dessert. The wines were all ones we had had before: Jardin des Charmes (white and red), Château Haut-Bellian, Croix Salans, Le Pas de la Beaume.
We skipped the afternoon lecture on “Movement, Beauty and Change in the Cryosphere - Part 1” by Julien; we had heard similar lectures in the Arctic and went for drinks instead. We saw more whale spouts later in the afternoon.
Tonight was the second of three “formal” nights—the All White Gala Evening or “Soíree Blanche” (it sounds more elegant in French). Everyone was asked to wear a white (or black and white) outfit. Again, all sorts of attire were on display, from very dressy to casual. As on the last formal night, we were all asked to show up at the same time in the dining room, so we shared a table with an Australian couple. The husband is an actual tanner, the first one we have ever met.
The classic menu (the other was vegetarian) was fantastic! Tonight’s amuse-bouche was a creamy potato and truffle velouté with a port-flavored biscuit. The cold starter was a celery and langostino remoulade and the hot starter was Oeuf 65°, a sous vide egg with vichyssoise foam and Iberian ham. The only misstep was the beef Wellington, which was only so-so (too mustardy). Dessert was dark chocolate cake with cherries. We enjoyed the La Chablisienne Chablis with the seafood dishes and the Château Tauzinat L’Hermitage, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2012 (merlot, cabernet sauvignon) with the rest. The rosé was the Croix Salans again.
The clocks were set back one hour at midnight tonight. Again this was not mentioned until tomorrow’s daily program. Thank goodness for the reminder from the cabin steward!
DAY 12: FRIDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2020—AT SEA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: no new cases reported.
The ship sailed past the South Orkney Islands this morning. It was very foggy almost all day and windy. We went to a good lecture on “The Plankton” by Rachel.
Confusingly, lunches do not always match the theme listed in the daily program. Today’s was “Argentinian” but was mostly Italian dishes and had a pasta station. We didn’t come on a French ship to eat Italian, so we concentrated on the cheeses and accompaniments such as olive tapenade. One of the cheeses (probably Gorgonzola) was so soft that it had to be served with a spoon—it was so good! John had some ice cream that I think was Calisson flavor, a traditional French candy made with ground almonds and candied fruits.
In the mid-afternoon, the ship diverted 15 NM to get within 150 m of a large (10 miles wide) tabular iceberg. It was hard to see in the fog (cue the theme song from “Titanic”). Later we went to a depressing lecture on climate change by Julien, “Movement, Beauty and Change in the Cryosphere – Part 2.”
We were drinking away our depression in the Observatory Lounge when a barely intelligible announcement directed us to lug all of our outerwear to the Main Lounge for an unscheduled inspection. Why can't these things be listed in the daily program? I'm starting to feel like I'm on a Costa ship, with things happening at random times.
Before dinner, we had a briefing on the activities planned for Antarctica. Pierre may be great in planning but he’s not good at presenting—he couldn't get out what he was trying to say. After some disorganized rambling, the Captain had to bail him out and finish the briefing. We don't need hemming and hawing about what we might have done with more time or better weather, just tell us what looks feasible and safe! The comparison with Ali, our Expedition Leader on Quark, is very unfavorable to Pierre.
Today was St. Valentine's Day and Executive Chef Seys went all out with special his/her menus (vegetarians had a unisex menu). The “Love Her/Love Him” dinner was unbelievable—creative, great materials, great execution! Even the dinner rolls were heart-shaped. Everyone started with an avocado wrap for the amuse-bouche. After that, there were parallel courses for her or for him, with two versions of the same basic ingredient: two foie gras cold appetizers, two scallop hot appetizers, two roasted veal loin main courses and two delicious desserts (one strawberry, one chocolate). The finishing touch was a rose macaron and raspberry candied fruits. What else to drink on Valentine’s Day but champagne? We started with Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut, followed by Le Pas de la Beaume with the starters and Château Thomas Laurent with the veal loin.
The fog lifted somewhat during dinner. The ship passed Elephant and Clarence Islands on the starboard side about 8 p.m. but we could not see them. After the outstanding dinner, we were too stuffed to indulge in a postprandial libation and were not interested in “Dancing with the Le Soléal Stars.”
DAY 13: SATURDAY 15 FEBRUARY 2020—PORTAL POINT, ANTARCTICA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 67 new cases, 285 total.
This morning, we were cruising in the Bransfield Strait between the South Shetland islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, making good speed (15+ knots). From here the ship would traverse the Croker Passage and enter the Gerlache Strait. Visibility was somewhat better than yesterday and air temperatures were expected to be 23-32°F (-5 to 0°C) today. We saw spouts from our cabin in the morning and throughout the day we would see many icebergs.
Rao gave another lecture, this time on “Penguin Habitats.’’ Lunch included orzo risotto with excellent smoked duck breast and morel mushrooms. No new wines appeared.
Because we would be arriving so late to Portal Point, the show (“Perhaps”) was presented in the afternoon. Dinner would start later than usual to accommodate the expedition schedule.
Starting at 5 p.m., two color groups began cruising Charlotte Bay in the zodiacs for one hour, while the other two were spending 1.5 hours on land; groups would then alternate cruising and landing. There is a requirement in Antarctica that no more than 100 people (cruisers and crew) be ashore at one spot at any one time. The Red group was second in line for the scenic cruising and so we started our zodiac cruise at 5:30 p.m., wending our way among the huge, intricately carved icebergs and admiring the spectacular glacial scenery.
The site is called Portal Point (www.ats.aq/devAS/Ats/Guideline/6d7ca336-859f-473e-bd55-3ad8fd4b3edb) because a Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey team built a refuge hut here in 1956 and used nearby glacial tongues to access the Polar Plateau. There are remains of the hut near the landing site and a male fur seal was hauled out on the rocks farther away. There were a few gentoo penguins scattered here and there and some gulls and cormorants. As we approached the landing site, we could see that the snow slopes were tinted pink with “watermelon snow” by an algae that grows on penguin poop (www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-is-antarctic-ice-red?).
Finally we set foot on the White Continent! First we followed the red flags up the snow slope to the right of the landing site, climbing 75 ft (23 m), to a promontory for panoramic views of the bay. After climbing back down to the shore, we climbed up 90 ft (27 m) to the circular peninsula on the left of the landing site. The Team had marked the perimeter of the peninsula with red flags so we could safely circle it for great views in all directions. Then it was back to the landing site for a total walk of 0.7 miles (1.1 km). While waiting to go back to the ship, Céleste showed us some salps (a type of plankton) in the water. During the zodiac ride back to the ship, we got some good views of the male fur seal stretching.
Tonight’s amuse-bouche was artichoke soup with bacon mousse and fried onion slivers. The starter was a welcome repeat of the snail dish we enjoyed so much earlier in the cruise. The main course was a casserole of marinated shrimp with potatoes and olives. Dessert was lemon tiramisu for me and dulce de leche ice cream for John.
Around sunset, we were enjoying a drink in the Observatory Lounge (seems like a common theme) when humpback whales were spotted. As the ship got closer, we were thrilled to see that a group of at least four whales was bubble-net feeding! In this learned behavior, the whales circle their prey (small fish and krill) while each exhales in turn to create the bubble net. After the prey is corralled, the whales simultaneously swim upwards with their mouths open to engulf the trapped prey. We had never seen this feeding activity in real life before! The water was so clear that we could see the whales (especially their pale pectoral fins) underwater and the exhaled circles of bubbles. Although it was difficult in the fading light, John was able to get some good photos and videos.
DAY 14: SUNDAY 16 FEBRUARY 2020—NEKO HARBOR, PARADISE BAY & LEMAIRE CHANNEL, ANTARCTICA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 70 new cases, 355 total. [Note: Several countries were making arrangement to repatriate their citizens from the ship. Charter planes would evacuate US citizens starting tonight and they would be quarantined for 14 days once they arrived back in the USA.]
We were up this morning at 4 a.m. for a 4:45 zodiac cruise/landing at Neko Harbor (www.ats.aq/devAS/Ats/Guideline/39864605-7e82-4f8e-a171-49bdb8423e4f) in Andvord Bay. The Blue and Red groups went ashore first; the other two groups did the cruise first while we did the walk. There were many gentoo penguins near the rocky landing site and on the beach by the Deville Glacier. This glacier calves regularly and a calved iceberg might cause a tsunami. We were told, “If you see the penguins running, follow them.” There were two options for a walk. We started with the more strenuous one—climbing about 380 feet (116 m) high, up an icy incline to a rock outcrop with a stunning view of the glacier. The glacier is heavily crevassed; we could hear it cracking but did not see any calving. From the overlook, we had views of the entire area and the bay. As usual, we were overdressed for the hike and the way down was more difficult; John went faster by unintentionally sliding part way. Back down at the penguin colony, we walked along the beach for nice views of the glacier from below. On the way back to the landing site, we saw a very nice pebble nest with a parent guarding a tiny gray chick. The total distance for both hikes was just over a mile (1.6 km).
While we were making the walks, we were envious because we could see that the Green and Yellow groups were viewing humpback whales during their zodiac cruise. However, we were equally lucky on our cruise and had many close whale encounters. We even saw a whale do a spyhop.
While the other groups were finishing their excursions, we fortified ourselves for the afternoon’s adventure with a breakfast of Eggs Benedict and a short nap. As the ship sailed out of the bay to our next stop, we came upon many more humpbacks, singly or in groups of 2-4. There was plenty of nearby surface activity, such as breaching, more spyhopping and lobtailing (tail slapping). The ship spent at least an hour here, maneuvering to give us better views of the whales. This was an amazing whale encounter! We also saw a fur seal on an iceberg.
During repositioning to Paradise Bay, we passed a Chilean scientific station (Gabriel González Videla Base), surrounded by thousands of gentoo penguins. Some of them were climbing high above the beach to a horizontal crack in the glacier. Only a short way farther along, we spotted a leopard seal in the water, looking like a small sea serpent. We spotted crabeater and Weddell seals as well.
The ship anchored in Paradise Bay around 11 a.m. Blue and Red again went first, but this time we started with the zodiac cruise. Earlier we had spotted a humpback whale cruising along the base of one of the tidewater glaciers. When we got out in the zodiacs, we could see he was surface feeding. We got many great views of his head emerging to capture a mouth full of krill. Katia was our driver and she provided a great explanation of what we were seeing. The whale really seemed to enjoy the company of the zodiacs and kept following them. We saw crabeater seals on icebergs and Weddell seals on the beach. We motored into another glacier-lined bay with stunning views. The rock cliffs here were teeming with cormorants and Katia pointed out a large vein of malachite. Out in the middle of the bay, she opened an ice chest and served us champagne (or orange juice) to celebrate. The whale had followed us here too!
Our landing site was at Argentina’s Almirante Brown Research Station. Here we could walk to an overlook of the bay at an elevation of 250 ft (76 m). The icy climb up was not so bad; we didn't get that hot. The way down was much more treacherous, with both of us slipping and me winding up in my back at one point. We were quite overheated by the time we got back to the landing point.
Once back in the ship, we took a well-deserved shower and headed up to the Observatory Lounge for a drink. We saw more humpbacks (ho hum) and seals (leopard, Weddell) on icebergs. We also many huge icebergs, some 230 feet (70 m) high.
Dinner was early (6 p.m.) because of the scenic cruising planned for later. The amuse-bouche was a salad of asparagus, red onion, feta and chickpeas. The starter was shrimp with guacamole and salsa; the main course was roasted haddock fillet. John had panna cotta with red fruits for dessert and I had a chocolate treat, 100% Cacao. There were no new wines to try.
After dinner we bundled up and went out on the Observatory Terrace for the transit of the Lemaire Channel. The channel is only 6.8 miles (10.9 km) long and one mile (1.6 km) wide at its narrowest point. However, it is renowned for its dramatic scenery that epitomizes Antarctica. There were many icebergs at the entrance and the channel is lined by towering snow-capped cliffs. We saw a whale that Mitya identified as a minke and seals on icebergs. As we exited the channel, the Hurtigruten Midnatsol was entering. This was the first time we had seen another expedition ship since we saw the Seabourn Quest and Scenic Eclipse back in Ushuaia.
After exiting the Lemaire Channel, the ship took the French Passage (between Petermann island and the Argentine Islands) out to the Southern Ocean. The French Passage lies at 65°10’S latitude or about 90 NM due north of the Antarctic Circle (66°33’S). Of course, the ship couldn’t go due south, so it would actually be at least 115 NM to get there and thus out of reach for us. There was not even enough time left for the ship to follow the original itinerary along the west side of the Palmer Archipelago and past the South Shetland Islands. Instead, the Captain set a course directly toward Ushuaia.
DAY 15: MONDAY 17 FEBRUARY 2020—CROSSING THE DRAKE PASSAGE
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 99 new cases, 454 total [Note: About 380 citizens were airlifted yesterday from the ship to the USA; 14 were found to be infected after they arrived today.]
We are now finished with the zodiac life vests, so we were instructed to leave them outside our doors to be picked up along with our boots. I stopped by Reception to get a printout of our on board account and saw that we had been charged 72€ for somebody else’s bottle of wine. That was corrected after the sommeliers checked the bar slips.
Later this morning there was a good talk on “Orcas of the Ice” by Rachel. Unfortunately, we did not see any orcas on this voyage.
The lunch theme was “Country Style” but “International” would have been more accurate. We started with spanakopita and had seared tuna Thai style as the main. John got crème caramel, another of his favorites, for dessert. The wines were all repeats. We signed up for the wine pairing to accompany tonight’s Gala Dinner but again the minimum number needed was not met.
In the afternoon, Mitya gave a talk on “Enchanted by Cape Horn.” This was about the art of Rockwell Kent, who was known for his landscapes, including works based on his travels in and around Tierra del Fuego in the early 1920s.
Teatime today was replaced by a caviar tasting! We were served two blinis with generous helpings of Kaviari caviar (starts at 1600€/kg), smoked salmon and smoked trout. We thought it went quite well with the house champagne.
Tonight was the last of the three “formal” nights—the Farewell Reception and Gala Dinner. It seemed to me that more people dressed up for this than for the others—we even saw a tux! And Cruize had penguin studs on his shirt! An unusual feature was that the Captain introduced every single crew member (except the Second Officer, who was on the Bridge) and brought them on stage. A nice surprise was the Captain’s announcement that we would be compensated for the loss of landing days with a 30% discount on our next Ponant cruise (booked by the end of 2021) and 300€ pp OBC. We later received a letter detailing the offer and it was also emailed to us after we returned home.
Again, a fixed menu, with classic and vegetarian versions, was served. Tonight’s amuse-bouche was duck foie gras, the cold starter was marinated sea bream and the hot starter was seared scallops. The main course was a duck and duck foie gras duet with chanterelles. Dessert was “Le Choco-coco” followed by vanilla madeleines. There was a new white wine tonight: Silex, AOC Sancerre 2018, Domaine Delaporte (sauvignon blanc). The rosé was Château Mas Neuf, Les Conviviales, and the red was the Château Tauzinat L’Hermitage. We found that all the menus were excellent but the fixed menus on the “formal” nights were especially pleasing.
The show tonight was “Around the World,” presented in the Main Lounge.
DAY 16: TUESDAY 18 FEBRUARY 2020—CROSSING THE DRAKE PASSAGE
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 88 new cases, 542 total.
Alas, this morning was the disembarkation talk. Unlike every other ship we have sailed on, we were not given a printed copy of the schedule and procedures ahead of time (John took a photo). Naturally, that resulted in plenty of confusion.
Immediately following was a screening of the movie of the cruise. We had debated whether to purchase this because John had taken so many good photos and video. However, after seeing it, we decided it was worth the 70€ price (we still had 32€ OBC to spend). [Note: Quark Expeditions posted a collection of the ship photographer’s photos, and photos shared by other guests, online after the expedition. Those were accessed using our booking number at no charge.]
The “Mediterranean” lunch included lamb curry for me and perch fillet for John. No new wines.
At 4 p.m., we had the final recap, hosted by Mitya, who was dressed in a penguin suit. He gave a routine about how much he hates penguins before introducing Pierre and the rest of the Expedition Team to say farewell.
At 6 p.m., the show “Métropolitain” was presented. This outstanding review was inspired by the various neighborhoods and sights near the Paris subway stations. After the show, an illustrated marine chart of the voyage was raffled to benefit crew welfare.
By now, the ship had entered the Beagle Channel and we expected to arrive in Ushuaia around 11 p.m. We were still keeping an eye out for wildlife and were rewarded with the sight of hourglass dolphins leaping near the ship.
The last dinner of the cruise began with an amuse-bouche of chestnut mousse with crêpes. My starter was vitello tonnato and John enjoyed an encore of Oeuf 65°. His main was the sea bream and mine the lobster pasta. Dessert for John was baba au rhum; I had chocolate-mint “After Eight” cake. No new wines. During dinner, the Silversea Silver Cloud passed us on her way to Antarctica.
Later there was a movie about Ponant’s history. We skipped that to finish packing, set out our bags and turn in early to be ready for our early morning departure.
DAY 17: WEDNESDAY 19 FEBRUARY 2020—USHUAIA TO BUENOS AIRES (EZE)
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 79 new cases, 621 total. [Note: Passengers who had tested negative started disembarking from the ship at the end of the 14-day quarantine period.]
Our bus did not leave for the airport until 7 a.m., so we had time for one last breakfast of Eggs Benedict. As we disembarked, I noticed that the National Geographic Orion was also in port.
At the airport, we found our bags and checked them for the 9 a.m. Aerolineas Argentina flight to Buenos Aires. Because we had not purchased our flights home from Ponant, we were not able to have the bags checked directly through to RDU. I was able to have our Delta SkyMiles numbers added to our reservations though.
We were served a snack on the flight and arrived in Buenos Aires around 12:30 p.m. After collecting our luggage, we exited into the Aerolineas Argentina terminal, where local Ponant representatives pointed the way to the Delta check-in counters. Unfortunately, there would not be any Delta agents there until 5:50 p.m. At least we were able to get seats in the terminal near an open door and it was not too hot (no air conditioning).
When the Delta agents finally showed up, we had another slight problem: the date I entered Argentina was not legible on the passport stamp. After much consultation with supervisors, it was decided that I must have come in with John on February 1 and we were issued boarding passes and checked our bags. We went through the security screening and proceeded to passport control. The Border agent scowled at my stamp but the computer system must have said it was OK because I got through.
By now it was so late that the Star Alliance Lounge, where we had hoped to wait for our flight, was supposed to be closed to Priority Pass cardholders. Luckily, John had the brilliant idea to ask whether we might be admitted anyway and we were allowed to enter! This was an exceptionally nice lounge with comfortable chairs and plenty of good food (empanadas!); there was self-service Salentein wine, beer and liquor. After we had been relaxing for awhile, two other couples from the cruise showed up; they also had had to wait for their airlines’ counters to open.
We left the lounge about 30 minutes before boarding time so I could try to spend my leftover pesos. I found a small store with stuffed animals that looked promising. The sales clerk did not speak any English and I don’t speak much Spanish, but she assured me that the canid I was holding was indeed a zorro (fox) and not a perro (dog). I was later relieved to learn that there is such a thing as a South American gray fox, whose range extends to Tierra del Fuego. Neither it or the penguin I also bought look much like real animals but I doubt that our granddaughters will mind.
Finally, it was time to leave Argentina behind and catch the flight to Atlanta. Again, we managed to sleep fairly well for most of the flight. The food and wine consumed in the lounge allowed us to sleep through the undoubtedly delicious dinner on the flight. We awoke shortly before the breakfast service started.
FEBRUARY 20, 2020—ATLANTA, GA (ATL), TO RALEIGH/DURHAM, NC (RDU), USA
Diamond Princess COVID-19 update: 13 new cases, 634 total, 2 deaths.
Our flight arrived at 5:40 a.m. and we intended to use EoA (Enrollment on Arrival) to complete the interview needed to renew our Global Entry membership. Atlanta now has facial recognition, so we only had to have a photo made to get our entry slip and go through the Global Entry line. The Global Entry line was surprisingly long but still much, much shorter than the regular immigration line and it goes fast.
When our passports were scanned, we asked about EoA and were directed to the proper counter. There we were asked how much time we had until our next flight because there were three people ahead of us and the computers were down. We had three hours, so it was no problem for us to wait. When we were finally called for the interview, the officer took both of us at the same time. He didn’t even ask us any questions; all we needed to do was have a new photo and set of fingerprints taken. The whole interview took about 10 minutes!
EoA taken care of, we proceeded to the baggage carousel to collect our bags and take them through customs. We didn’t have any problem finding the bags because they had been taken from the carousel and grouped with the few others that were still unclaimed from our flight. We quickly passed through customs and re-checked our bags on to RDU. We still had time to relax in the same The Club lounge that we used on the way to Buenos Aires before heading to the gate for our short flight home. We napped a bit during the flight and felt refreshed when we arrived.
Although some aspects of this expedition cruise were not as we had hoped, the whale encounters (especially the bubble-net feeding and breaching whales) exceeded our expectations. South Georgia also lived up to its reputation as the place to really see wildlife. We also enjoyed the luxury cruise experience on Ponant. The food was always excellent and sometime absolutely amazing. The included wines were pleasing and better than the included wines we’ve had on a Viking River cruise or on the Ocean Adventurer. The quality of the food was also a step up from Viking and Princess and probably two steps up from our Quark cruise. Overall, we were definitely pleased and will look into using our discount to book another cruise with Ponant in the future. Meanwhile, it’s time to lace up the walking shoes and burn off all those foie gras pounds!