Stella Australis is one of two ships in the fleet of Chile-based cruise line Australis, and spends September through April sailing exclusively around the Chilean fjords, the southernmost point of South America. A sister ship, Ventus Australis, launched in January 2018, offering exactly the same itineraries. Both ships are the only cruise ships built in Chile and are specially designed to navigate the narrow fjords and shallow bays in this part of the world -- for a ship this size it has an extremely shallow draught of just 3.4 meters (11.2 feet). They are also the only ships that offer this Chilean fjord itinerary.
Stella Australis offers three-, four- and seven-night cruises between Punta Arenas in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina. The area in which it sails is full of names that capture the imagination -- Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel -- and the ship calls in at or passes through all these spots. It also offers a unique opportunity to visit the southernmost tip of South America -- Cape Horn National Park.
The guides are outstanding and help bring the fascinating history of this part of the world alive through lectures and stories.
This is an expedition cruise, so do not expect live music, local entertainment or a casino onboard; the ship is not the star -- it's the landscape, the animals and the shore excursions that are the focus of the cruise. There's also no Wi-Fi onboard, nor a phone signal for much of the journey, which is either a blessing or a curse depending on whether you wish to be connected.
However, neither will you be roughing it: This is a fine ship, with good-sized cabins, lovely public rooms, excellent food and great service. Life onboard is convivial and is spent mainly getting ready for an expedition, listening to lectures, watching documentaries, eating, having a few drinks in the upstairs lounge or sleeping. You'll be assigned a table at the start of the cruise where you'll eat all your meals. There is a bar at the top of the ship, where lectures are held and documentaries screened.
Stella Australis cannot be billed as a hardcore expedition cruise -- this might be the southernmost tip of South America, but Antarctica it is not. The excursions are mainly gentle walks around flat islands (though there are options for more challenging outings). There are no wet landings (the crew kindly transport a metal gangplank ahead of the first passenger Zodiac), and the only tricky part is getting on and off the ship and stepping onto the Zodiacs in a swell. If you use a walking stick you should be able to participate. The ship typically offers at least one, and sometimes two, expeditions a day.
The highlights are the glaciers, the penguin colonies and the chance to spot dolphins (if you're lucky) and even orca (if you're very lucky). And, of course, the opportunity to visit the southernmost point of the earth, Cape Horn National Park.
But it's the ever-changing landscape and weather that you can watch from your picture window in your cabin or from the various lounges around the ship, that really gives you a sense of this extraordinary part of the world
Passengers are predominantly North American couples or tour groups, with the rest coming from various European countries, plus a few South Americans. The average age is 65, going up to 80 or so. Note that all the excursions are in Zodiacs, often in choppy waters, and there are no facilities for the less able or infirm. All announcements are in English and Spanish and if there is a large group from another country onboard, in that language too. The ship's crew make a great effort to keep all those with the same language together in groups so no one misses the commentary. Families are welcome onboard and there is no minimum age limit for children, though there are limited facilities.
There is no dress code. Passengers may wear what they like, and there is no formal night, though there is the Captain's Dinner, when people dress up slightly more formally (men wear a jacket, women a dress). When you book, you will receive a list of suggested clothes to bring, which includes: waterproof pants, jacket, gloves, walking boots, sunglasses, hat and fleece. You might be able to borrow one-off necessities such as rubber boots, but it's best to take what you need as there is a limited supply.
Your cruise fare includes all shore excursions and drinks onboard; there are no shuttles into town and all shore excursions are by Zodiac boat. Gratuities are not included; the suggested amount for tips is $15 per day, per person, but this is discretionary. An envelope for tips is left in your cabin on the final night, or you can pay by credit card. The onboard currency is the U.S. dollar.