With over 5.5 million square miles and over 90-percent of its surface covered in ice, few places in the world engage the imagination more than Antarctica. Capt. James Cook came close to discovery in 1773, but a Russian expedition made its first sighting in 1820.
It wasn’t until 1911 that Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally reached the South Pole, describing it, “The land looks like a fairytale.” Between 1914 and 1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew attempted to cross the Antarctic continent. While that journey ultimately failed, Shackleton’s leadership and endurance became legendary.
Fortunately, expedition ships today are nothing like those early explorers had to endure during the heroic age of discovery. A great way to see Antarctica now is on Viking Cruises' Polaris, a brand-new Polar Class 6 ice ship that holds a maximum of 378 guests and 260 crew, making it intimate enough to never feel crowded, yet with enough guests to keep things interesting.
A Brand New Ship
Built in 2022, this 666-foot length, 30,150 gross ton ship, specifically built for remote outposts, was named in Amsterdam late last month, then repositioned via Madeira, Portugal for its inaugural voyage to Antarctica.
On the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, at South America's southern tip, sits the Argentinian city of Ushuaia, known as the southernmost city in the world, and sometimes called, “the end of the world.” Here I embarked in late October when Polaris was the first ship of Antarctica’s season.
Embarkation was smooth, as I swiftly passed from passport registration to lifejacket demonstration to Covid vaccine confirmation. I was in my stateroom with my carry-on luggage in a record 20-minutes after arriving to the port. The ship was so new, that much of it still had the delightful “new car aroma” that as an automotive aficionado, I‘ve always loved.
Expansively designed superb public spaces
Polaris possesses a sleek Scandinavian, modern design, yet is invitingly warm. Public areas are incredibly spacious boasting more useable space than a ship easily double its occupancy would have. Swedish sensibilities, clean lines, light woods, woven textiles, and superior comfort prevail at every turn.
Indeed, chairs throughout the ship are ergonomically comfortable and square-backed causing nary a wrinkle in men’s jackets. (Though on expedition cruises the only jackets most men will don are parkas.)
In hallways, coves, and landings, there’s dramatic, eye catching art and photography paying tribute to the early explorers and their accomplishments, the working animals that supported them on these deliriously arduous journeys, and modern, colorful paintings that invoke a strong sense of place. There’s breathtaking art also where one would least expect it: underneath lower deck stairwells are exquisite, multi-colored rock gardens.
The Living Room, The Library, The Viking Bar, The Aquavit Bar and The Hide are replete with globes, books, maps, and dream-inducing, water vapor and colored light illusion fireplaces. Aquavit also has an indoor/outdoor Tepidarium, and outdoor Frigidarium and Caldarium pools allowing views of magnificent scenery, whether polar ice fields, floating bergs with translucent turquoise rims, or coniferous forests. My favorite spot, The Explorer’s Lounge, has a constellation-like ceiling adding to thoughts of navigating voyages past.
Truly spacious staterooms
Staterooms are very spacious, starting at 215-square feet for the Nordic Balcony, up to the 1,238-square foot Owner’s Suite. Staterooms have a separate leather seating area, Nespresso machine, mini-bar, and desk. I stayed in a 322-square foot Junior Suite that had a large, dual-sink bathroom, heated floors, and an enormous walk-in shower and Freyja amenities.
Staterooms have clean lines, light wood floors, and a calming, muted color scheme. Strategically placed shelving has books, globes, and high-powered binoculars to view icebergs, wildlife, and snow-covered mountains from floor-to-ceiling electric Nordic windows.
Equally impressive, staterooms have a massive amount of closet and drawer space. More than enough even for two pack hounds. There’s also a specialized drying closet if needed following a wet landing. Polaris’ staterooms feel far less expedition ship and more like a sophisticated Scandinavian hotel.
Polaris has delicious cuisine to satisfy all tastes. Though onboard for 12-days, I never once got bored as culinary choices were abundant. Its main World Café serves all manner of continental and ethnic dishes, has a constant cookie bar, including sugar and gluten-free options, a dizzying dessert table, and a cold-stone ice cream station with every conceivable topping. The Sushi Bar has daily fresh choices and a separate sea bar with crab and shrimp. The Grill serves mouthwatering, mainly Argentinian-sourced meats grilled to perfection.
At Mamsen’s, serving late breakfasts and lunches, Scandinavian delights are memorable and pay homage to Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen’s grandmother whose handwritten recipes grace the walls. Warm waffles with Brunost – a hard, caramel-colored whey goat cheese – topped with sour cream and mixed berries were divine. Open-faced Nordic sandwiches like Gravlax on pumpernickel with mustard dill and house made split pea soup were delectably comforting.
There are two specialty dining rooms. The Restaurant, has classic, always available choices, such as Angus steaks and Norwegian poached salmon, but also a daily special menu. Think seared foie gras and Icelandic cod stew. At Manfredi’s I enjoyed some of the finest Italian cuisine at sea.
Fresh market salads coupled with hand-rolled gnocchi and excellent house made pastas so satisfying, I nearly belted out ‘O sole mio.’ Fortunately for my dining companions, I quickly remembered my talent was eating, not singing.
There’s also a private dining room for 20 and 24-hour room service for late night cravings. Regardless of where you dine on Polaris, you will eat well, and experience top notch service.
A nod to the Nordic Spa and Fitness Center
The Nordic Spa’s floor-to-ceiling windows permit continuous nature viewing while indulging in the 100-degree main pool. In an ocean-facing, partially open alcove is the “Badestamp,” a smaller 120-degree pool.
A sauna, steam, rain experience, cold water bucket dunk, snow shower, and to recover from all that, heated limestone mosaic tile loungers set in an igloo-like section complete the experience. Following snowshoeing in the South Shetland’s, I had a Swedish massage from the extensive menu that was both excellent and invigorating.
Just like Frank Bruni, "I have a PhD in gluttony," so to avoid gaining 100-pounds from Executive Chef Martin Kintzing and Pasty Chef Emanuel Bautista’s tasty offerings, daily I went to the large, airy, ultra-modern fitness center. State-of-the-art Technogym equipment, free weights, and an enormous, separate exercise studio for stretching, yoga, Pilates, or meditation using Wii, meant weight gain wasn’t mandatory.
Much to my chagrin, my reward for being in the fitness center often resulted in bearing witness to feeding frenzies on view through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Sea birds regularly dove for sustenance in what became a daily, serial smorgasbord. The irony wasn’t lost on me.
Channeling your inner Sir Shackleton
Depending entirely on Mother Nature, the Drake Passage – often known to be a difficult crossing even for the initiated – has been alternately and aptly described as either Drake Lake or Drake Shake. On this voyage Father Time had plans of its own.
We had glass-like conditions heading toward the Antarctic Peninsula, but 40-miles-per-hour winds and intense 30-foot swells on the return. Though I don’t get seasick, even those that felt a bit queasy during the crossing reported it was a minuscule price to pay for being able to experience the adventure, dramatic beauty, and abundant wildlife of Antarctica.
Daily briefings, expert science lectures, and fascinating historical films took place in The Aula, a panoramic auditorium inspired by the Nobel Prize ceremony’s former venue. Polaris and her sister ship Octantis are the first two civilian ships permitted to host onboard weather stations.
Twice during our voyage, specialized weather balloons were launched into the atmosphere. Afterwards guests could go to deck two’s Expedition Central and view the readings. Once the balloon bursts, the onboard chief scientist packages the collected data and sends it to US regulatory agency NOAA, for inclusion in weather modeling.
There’s also a fully functioning 380-square feet scientific lab onboard in partnership with Cambridge University encouraging guest participation. Also onboard, an ornithologist, and mammal and history specialists who all provide informative lectures. Additionally, there’s a NASA-partnered Globe Cloud Watch timed to coincide with passing satellites and a well-curated library for the inquisitive.
Excursions for the adventurous
The Hangar is the industry first in-ship marina so guests can embark directly from the ship’s aft to one of Polaris’ two military grade twin-engine, 12-passenger Special Operations Boats, dubbed SOBs.
These speedy vessels permit unique, close-up wildlife viewing opportunities: penguins methodically food diving, resting crabeater seals, humpback whales spouting and breaching, and a near constant ornithological orgy.
Also there's 18 MK5 Milpro military-grade zodiacs. These are used for both landings where massive penguin colonies roam freely, and to cruise close to Mack truck-sized icebergs, incandescent blue ice formations, and floating through fragments that resembled gliding amid a massively frosty gin and tonic.
Polaris also has two Dutch yellow U-Boat Worx 7-seater submarines, aptly named Ringo and George. Heading down to 325-feet below sea level, several trillion krill cavorted amongst sea sponges and starfish for an underwater thrill of a lifetime. There are also 30 kayaks enabling bird’s eye view, close-up adventures.
There were several times during excursions when words couldn’t adequately convey the awe and astonishment of experiencing Antarctica’s ethereal abundance. Indeed, on both Cuverville Island and Yankee Harbor, both with massive penguin colonies, several passengers were so overcome with emotion at the magic they openly wept. Then there is the utterly deafening silence that for most urban dwellers is shocking and inspiring.
Jon Krakauer once said, “I think part of the appeal of Antarctica is experiencing some sort of power, the forces of the natural world.” Perhaps this was also true for “The Boss” Shackleton. I will perhaps never fully grasp the level of courage and bravery early explorers possessed while enduring the severe hardships they encountered.
I'm happy to instead voyage in comfort on Polaris, where Antarctica truly became transformative, and also a constant reminder that we mortals must consciously and conscientiously care for and be steadfast stewards of our glorious planet.
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Written by Julie L. Kessler
Read more posts by Julie L. Kessler