Cushioned from the extremes, Pamela Wade, meets penguins by the thousands and faces down a fur seal.
The sun was setting in sepia splendour behind the Lighthouse at the End of the World. As the lonely tower shrank behind us, ahead lay Antarctica's frozen wastes, a two-day sail away across Drake Passage: notorious as the roughest stretch of sea on the planet. It was the first of 18 days on a doughty expedition ship, and it felt like time to start channelling Ernest Shackleton. Then, "More wine, madam?" Daniel murmured at my elbow, and with a gurgle of malbec into the glass, the whole pretence was shattered.
Sailing with Silversea is always a cosseting experience, and even though the Silver Explorer is a 1A ice-class vessel, capable of pushing through ice floes, there's little compromise on the line's standard of luxury. From the white-gloved butlers giving personal care to every guest, through the pillow menu, to the actual menu of five-course dinners every night, our experience couldn't have been further from the polar explorer's grim ordeal back in 1914.
That's not to say we couldn't empathise. Our route, to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Elephant Island, the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula, took us through the same frigid environment and to some of the very places that Shackleton visited as he tried, failed and then magnificently redeemed himself on his two-year Endurance expedition. His story was a constant thread running through our voyage. So were the penguins. Rockhoppers, gentoo, magellanic, chinstrap, macaroni, adelie, king: they're all as familiar to me now as the birds in my garden. But oh, so much cuter.
From our first introduction, to rockhoppers on West Point Island, off West Falkland, we were all hooked. Right up close, we delighted in watching them literally hopping over the rocks to the rookery they shared with a colony of frowning black-browed albatrosses.
Both species were focused on their eggs and fluffy nestlings. As well as temperatures rising to balmy heights — we basked in 11C in South Georgia — seeing babies everywhere was the main charm of visiting in December.
The seal pups we soon met were equally fat and furry, and it was tempting to give them a cuddle. Under strict instructions about wildlife protocols, however, we restrained ourselves — especially with the fur seals. "They will chase you and they will bite you," Cory warned us.
She was one of the ship's team of enthusiastic specialists who, on at-sea days, gave us interesting lectures on a range of relevant topics, including whaling, explorers, geology, research and of course the wildlife. It's thanks to Cory's talk about elephant seals that I now know the scientific term "sneaky copulator".
She and the others also drove the rigid-inflatable Zodiacs that took us ashore, and led us on our excursions there; on board, they were on hand to point out things of interest and answer questions.
Cory was certainly right about the fur seals, I discovered on our first day in South Georgia. It was one thing to be growled at by an adorable bundle of fluff with big shiny eyes; quite another to suddenly find a grown male lunging at me with sharp teeth bared. Fortunately, I remembered her instructions and growled back sufficiently fiercely to stop him in his tracks, allowing me to scuttle away to safety.
I liked it much better when the baby king penguin nibbled my parka. The adults of this second-biggest species are strikingly handsome with their golden feathers, and their chicks are gorgeous too in their thick brown coats of fine, fluffy down. Standing patiently in a huge nursery — several of the colonies we visited numbered in the tens of thousands of pairs — waiting for their parents to return with a feed, the arrival of a trail of red-jacketed people alternately cooing and clicking was an irresistible distraction for some of the bolder youngsters. As we settled in for a leisurely observation, they waddled over, eyeing us curiously and tugging at trouser legs and camera straps.
One of the very best things about this cruise for me was the generous time provided ashore to spend watching the wildlife. Often this was to fit in with the simultaneous option of a hike (frequently described in the evening newsletter as "difficult, strenuous, slippery" although actually perfectly do-able) but none of our shore visits felt rushed. It was an absolute delight to have ample opportunity to sit and stare, to mosey along the beach exploring, or to seek out Cory or Luke for a behaviour explanation.
"This is the best route ever, hands down," Captain Piers had assured us in his welcome. It was tempting to think that he would say that, wouldn't he; but his enthusiasm was evident every day, with bing-bong PA announcements interrupting lectures and meals to advise of whales alongside, a notable iceberg, a classic sailing ship. And, like him, the expedition team was still in awe of this environment despite numerous previous visits.
Whether pointing out a caracara causing a kerfuffle in a rockhopper rookery, giving a commentary on humpback whales bubble-net feeding, or taking us on a Zodiac tour of a bay filled with an astonishing diversity of spectacularly beautiful icebergs, their wonder matched ours.
It was pleasing, too, that we guests were diverse, in nationality, age and background, and at the same time similar in interests and outlook. From Rohan, aged 9, whose father works for Nasa, to John, aged 84 and making a second career out of expedition cruises, all 136 of us were thrilled to be in Antarctica. "Bucket list" was second only to "We're so lucky" as the trip's most over-used phrase.
We were also relieved at how accessible this notoriously hostile environment turned out to be. The temperature, once we got properly south (64 degrees of latitude was the furthest we went on this cruise) hovered either side of zero for most of the time; but our own layers plus the complimentary padded jacket and parka, and the boots we hired, meant that even when it snowed we stayed toasty — although it was sometimes hard to bend our arms.
Waddling penguin-like through knee-deep snow was warming exercise; and on many days we luxuriated in blue skies and sunshine that made the Jacuzzis on the deck irresistible for post-cruise bragging. Even the Polar Plunge braved by 45 guests from a black volcanic sand beach lined with snowbanks was less heart-stoppingly freezing than we had feared.
After weathering rough seas en route to South Georgia, the crossing of the dreaded Drake Passage that loomed at the end of our cruise weighed heavily on many minds for days beforehand. Expedition leader Tim, answering a question about the forecast, brushed it aside with a chirpy "Doesn't matter. We're doing it anyway." To our incredulous relief, what we got was Drake Lake: 1000km of sparkling millpond.
When we neared Tierra del Fuego again, however, where the colourful town of Ushuaia marked the end of our cruise circuit, sadness overtook the relief. From the rabid Britishness of the Falkland Islands, through South Georgia's Shackleton fix, to the spectacular beauty of Antarctica itself with its mountains, glaciers, icebergs and iconic wildlife, the cruise had met every expectation.
Totally bucket list. I'm so lucky.
An 11-night expedition to Antarctica on board Silversea's Silver Cloud, departing on December 2, is from $17,729pp, twin share. helloworld.co.nz