While there are only a handful of choices when considering which cruise line to take to Patagonia, Silversea cruise line, stands – or rather sails – far above the rest. Here are the 10 best reasons why:
Chile’s serene Lake District and magnificent Patagonia are best seen aboard Silversea’s Silver Explorer. The ship is small enough to dock at quaint towns and maneuver through narrow channels amid breathtaking fjords, glaciers and some of the world’s most dramatic natural sites. However, Silversea Silver Explorer is also large enough to assure complete comfort, excellent dining and their renowned world-class service.
Luxury marries adventure
Silversea’s Silver Explorer’s 144-passenger expedition ship is specially designed to navigate remote waters, which includes the two Polar Regions. It also carries 12 Zodiac boats that provide guests a bird’s eye view of truly off-the-beaten-path locales.
With all-suite luxury accommodations, including pillow menus, Pratesi linens, personalized mini-bar, flat-screen televisions, 24-hour room service, and most important, a personal butler whose mission is to make your life perfect, Silversea expeditions blissfully weds luxury with adventure.
Boredom is a bad word
Onboard there were interesting lectures by academic naturalists in marine biology, anthropology, ornithology, geology and botany. Also onboard, a small fitness center, salon, spa, boutique, two outdoor Jacuzzis, an observation library, cigar lounge, explorer auditorium lounge and piano bar lounge.
On my recent voyage, there were 102 passengers, mainly Americans, Canadians, Aussies and Swiss nationals. Also on offer were cooking demonstrations by Executive Chef Pia, enjoyable bartending courses (Cosmos anyone?), and informative bridge tours by the ship’s affable British captain, Piers Alvarez.
Time for great museums
Embarkation was in Valparaiso, 90-minutes from Santiago. Six hundred miles south we arrived to Niebla in Chile’s Lake District. Driving onward to the small city of Valdivia, the Historical and Anthropology Museum houses impressive period furnishings, including a rare, two-sided piano. The museum was formerly the home of German political exile Carl Anwandter, whose claim to fame included founding Chile’s first brewery. Upstairs are native Mapuche silver artifacts and tools.
And just a reminder that Mother Nature is never far away in Patagonia, at Valdivia’s colorful central fish market along the riverbank featuring several salmon varieties, enormous, goofy sea lions lollygag nearby lingering for scraps.
Further south, Punta Arenas’ Salesiano Museum had an excellent collection of taxidermy regional wildlife and artifacts of Indigenous peoples. Also on display, several photos by mountaineering priest Alberto Agostini resulting in the production of several regional maps.
In Tierra del Fuego’s capital of Ushuaia, The Museo del Fin del Mundo – End of the World Museum – is housed in a historic 1912 bank building. There are informative exhibits on the region’s aboriginal peoples (Yamana, Selkn’am and Fuegian Indians) and natural history taxidermy displays of the area’s birds. Down the street at the private Museo Maquetas Mundo Yamana are well-done exhibits, dioramas and cartographic representations of the peoples who have lived along the Beagle Channel.
In Puerto Montt, snowcapped volcanoes, Orsono, Calbuco and Tronador, are visible at every turn, each majestic like a Phoenix rising. Often referred to as Chile’s Mt. Fuji, Mt. Osorno – which last erupted in 1869 – is most impressive with its perfect apex.
Riding a catamaran in the 72-square mile Todos Los Santos Lake provided yet another stunning Osorno vantage. At La Burbuja Ski Center, with Osorno vividly in the background I hiked up the mountain following the ski lift path. As clouds started to roll in, the atmosphere inexplicably changed, resulting in a sundog – an optical phenomenon where refracted light from ice crystals acts like a prism. To non-meteorologist types, it appeared as an eerie, unexpected solar eclipse.
Cruising southbound, the Chiloe Archipelago consists of a large island and several small ones. On main Chiloé Island, its tiny capital of Castro has candy-colored, pastel-hued buildings and Chiloe’s most seminal landmark, Iglesia San Francisco. With its Neo-Gothic façade constructed entirely from native woods, this UNESCO-protected church built in 1910 was the brainchild of Italian architect Eduardo Provasoli.
Remarkably, there are 16 UNESCO-protected churches in Chiloe. Together these make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a good sampling of which can be visited on an included Silversea excursion.
Plenty of nature and narrow Narrows
At Chiloe National Park we walked the Tepual Trail. With 300 rainy days a year, shades of emerald and jade prevailed. In the park are budu deer, Darwin frogs and gato colocolo – wild cats. A vast wealth of flora and fauna included Nalca plants appearing a kale relative, but possessing leaves equal to a gargantuan golf umbrellas.
En route to Torres del Paine National Park, spitting members of the camelid family called Guanacos, meandered the hillsides.
Like a gliding moniker to welcome us as we returned to the Silver Explorer, several black-necked swans paddled gracefully by.
As we passed through the English Narrows – indeed narrow at a width of 540 feet – breakfast was busy. First a pod of Commerson Dolphins – with its distinct panda-like coloring – swam along side the Silver Explorer, followed by several Magellanes penguins diving for their breakfasts.
As the ship passed through the Kirke Narrows, we collectively held our breaths. Though the measured width is 450 feet, the actual passage is 240 feet, making this transition especially delicate given the currents.
One of the expedition’s highlights was Pio XI Glacier, the largest in the southern Patagonia Ice field and named after mountaineer Pope Pius XI (also called Bruggen Glacier). At 488 square miles, it’s the largest glacier in South America.
In Zodiacs and decked out in waterproof pants, several top layers, hats and gloves, it was a chilly 35 degrees. Within 200 feet of Pio XI, we stopped for photos. At that moment, another Zodiac approached with Silver Explorer Executive Chef Pia. Like a fantastic fantasy, she handed us glasses of champagne and macadamia nut cookies. Ferdinand Magellan no doubt would have swooned in disbelieving decadent delight.
Pio XI is immense and with massive sapphire-tinged spires, is intensely beautiful. Here one can experience glacier “calving,” where the glacier reaches the sea and large ice pieces break free and float away. Calving is astoundingly loud and heard before breakage is seen. A thunderous rumble, tumbling explosion, ice separation, the crash into the water, followed by several waves. It’s remarkably akin to Mother Nature sounding off warning shots to Father Time indicating potential danger lurking in the foreground.
At the gangway on return, Silversea crew plied us with hot hand towels and steaming apple tea. In continuing natural grandeur, like an orchestral crescendo, a huge rainbow caressed a mountain peak just near the glacier’s western edge.
Further south we cruised amid the Garibaldi Fjords arriving to the massive Garibaldi Glacier. The outside temperature was around 35 degrees, but felt colder as wind whistled and snow started falling. Viewing the Silver Explorer in the distance amid floating icebergs the size of Volkswagens, our Zodiac sped away toward the glacier. As an enormous condor flew overhead, several calvings occurred, resulting in wave sets. It was an otherworldly experience that would be long remembered.
Experiencing all four seasons in a day
Though our Silversea Patagonia cruise was in November and the beginning of Southern Hemisphere springtime, as we entered Torres del Paine National Park it started to snow. In typical Patagonian fashion, one can experience all four seasons in a day, often within 10 minutes.
Passing the ethereal Nordenskjold Lake bursts of fiery red-orange wild flowers dotted the hillsides. Hiking 20 minutes up – easy on rough shale rock – to the Salto Grande waterfall the mineral-rich turquoise waterfall was our just dessert. At the hill’s bottom, a lone orange-breasted, long-tailed Meadowlark posed regally for photos.
A similar event occurred in Punta Arenas. Arriving to sunny azure skies, I disembarked the ship donning sunglasses for a stroll through the town possessing some excellent examples of French Neo-classical architecture. Within three minutes, skies turned, snow started falling and out came hats and gloves. Ten minutes later, the weather pattern reversed and off came the accouterments. It’s a constant reminder that Mother Nature rules the Southern Hemisphere roost.
The “end of the world” in style
The final stop on this marvelous voyage was Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city and capital of the Argentinian portion of Tierra del Fuego. Known as the “end of the world,” Ushuaia served as Argentina’s Alcatraz between 1906 and 1947. Ushuaia is also the final jumping point for ships departing for the Falklands, Shetlands, South Georgia and finally, Antarctica.
Ushuaia is charming town with some quaint cafés and shops selling Antarctic gear. There are also several restaurants serving delicious crabs.
As I disembarked Silversea’s Silver Explorer thinking of all the natural marvels and physical beauty experienced, I remembered Anne Stevenson’s words “The sea is as near as we come to another world.”
Nowhere is this truer than in Patagonia. And nowhere is it better than aboard a Silversea expedition ship.
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Patagonia if you go.… Silversea offers all-inclusive Antarctica expedition cruises from Valparaiso, Chile (near Santiago) to Tierra del Fuego’s capital of Ushuaia in Argentina (and reverse) and several other itineraries in the region. These cruises are truly all-inclusive with unlimited wines, cocktails, specialty coffee drinks, all meals, daily high tea and canapés, Zodiac excursions with highly educated naturalists onboard, all land tours and local guides. Silversea even provides a complimentary snow parka and windbreaker/raincoat to take home along with those unforgettable memories. Fourteen day all-inclusive cruises start at $7,800 per person. Tel 888/978-4070. www.Silversea.com
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Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, legal columnist and attorney now based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com