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REVIEW – Swan Hellenic Antarctica Cruise

Swan Hellenic

  • Room Type: Balcony Stateroom (D6)
  • Voyage Name: Antarctica Peninsula
  • Voyage Length: 10 nights (plus 1 night pre-cruise hotel)
  • Typical Nightly Rate: 1,000 USD per person
  • Price Paid: Complimentary hosted trip


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Introduction


Antarctica is a destination that most travellers only ever dream of. Somewhere that seems far beyond the reach of mere mortals.

As such, when I was contacted by a representative of Swan Hellenic to see if I would be interested in experiencing one of their Antarctica cruises, I could barely contain my excitement.

The only downside, in my mind, was that the journey would involve travel by cruise ship!

As a millenial, my preconceived notion of cruises was that these involved gigantic ships, filled with shops, casinos, buffets, waterslides, pensioners and young families. These are the types of trips that people go on when they have no imagination, no sense of adventure and little desire to actually visit a destination.

I imagined that if staying in Aman hotels in far flung destinations is fine dining, then cruising was basically the equivalent of McDonalds.

I’ll be honest though, I really hadn’t done much in the way of research…at all.

As the weeks went by and I started to dig a little deeper, I learned a huge amount and was glad to find out that my cynicism was rather unfounded. More accurately, my cynicism did not apply to the type of cruise that we would be embarking on.

This is because broadly speaking, there are two very different types of cruises: Traditional Cruises and Adventure Cruises.

 

 


What is an Adventure Cruise?


We’re all familiar with traditional cruises, involving ships fitted with cinemas, theatres, water slides, shopping malls, etc.

The idea of these cruise ships is to give you absolutely everything that you could possibly desire on board, so that the ship itself becomes the destination.

Then you have adventure cruises, which are diametrically opposed in terms of their philosophy. In adventure cruising, the emphasis is on one thing above all else: allowing guests to explore otherwise remote and inaccessible regions of the world.

Before reading about Antarctica cruises, I honestly had no idea about this major distinction and just assumed that boat = bad.

However, the more I looked into Swan Hellenic the more excited I got!

If you want to travel to Papua, Sierra Leone or indeed Antarctica – there isn’t exactly an abundance of 5* hotels or indeed scheduled commercial flights. Going on an adventure cruise allows you to visit destinations that would otherwise be almost unthinkable.

Indeed, after some time browsing the Swan Hellenic website, I stumbled upon this mind-blowing itinerary!

This is really the moment that the penny dropped for me. These cruise people were not the enemies of adventurous and interesting travel; quite the opposite.

They were opening my mind to destinations that I never thought I’d be able to visit; at least not without countless hours of research, considerable expense, discomfort and security concerns.

Acquiring visas for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau as an independent traveller would take a huge amount of planning.

…and finding accommodation that looks like this?

Impossible.

Now that I was clear on the positive of adventure cruising in general, I started to analyse the industry a little more and look into the other operators in the space.

 


Why choose a Swan Hellenic Cruise?


Price

The number one reason is clearly price: Swan Hellenic is a young entrant into the cruise industry and is offering far lower pricing than the competition, in order to drum up business.

Although the company is new, the senior leadership were previously at companies such as Silversea, Seabourn and Viking. Naturally the vast majority of the crew onboard are also highly experienced and have also worked on board the other cruise lines.

As such, there isn’t an experience gap to speak of. Swan Hellenic is a new company, comprised of industry veterans.

 

Small ships

Swan Hellenic’s ships are also small, which in Antarctica is a huge advantage.

Antarctic landing sites often have to be secured at a moment’s notice, as the weather is constantly in flux. Large ships can’t access as many potential bays and islands in Antarctica as small ships.

This means that those on a large ship may sometimes end up with no viable landing sites on one or more days of their time in Antartica. On Swan Hellenic this is extremely unlikely.

IAATO, the organisation which oversees Antarctic tourism, also places limits on the number of guests that may go ashore at any one time.

This means that on larger ships you may only be able to visit one spot each day, with successive waves of guests visiting one after the other. Of course, if you’re in group 2 and the weather closes in, you could find yourself being stuck onboard, even when others on your ship have had the chance to explore.

Conversely, on our Swan Hellenic cruise we had days where we went on three different excursions per day!

There’s also a myth that large ships somehow help to mitigate rough seas that you may encounter when crossing the Drake passage. The only thing that makes a difference here is the quality of the ship’s stabilisers. As a general rule, the newer the ship, the better the stabilisers.

Honestly though, stabilisers can only do so much to offset rough seas. Picking an Antarctic ship based on its perceived ability to successfully navigate the Drake is a fool’s errand.

 

Modern design

Onboard aesthetics are clearly less important than the ship’s ability to successfully navigate the Drake and get you on shore as frequently as possible. However, there’s no denying that some of the other cruise operators in the adventure cruising space have gone down one of two design paths:

  1. Bare bones scientific research chic
  2. Grandma’s house

Thankfully, in comparison, Swan Hellenic’s ships have a thoroughly modern Scandi design aesthetic that reminds me of Edition hotels. Recessed lighting, natural wood and pale tones abound. The ships genuinely look like somewhere you’d want to spend time in.

 


What’s included on Swan Hellenic Cruises?


As somebody who has had the great fortune to experience numerous wonderful safari properties such as Silvan and Matetsi, I had safari in mind as my reference point for imagining what might be included and what would constitute good value, on a nightly basis.

On a top safari you pay around $2000 per person per night for all meals and alcohol, 6-8 hours of daily excursions with highly experienced guides and of course modern and tastefully designed accommodation. A portion of the money you spend is also used to fund conservation and anti poaching efforts.

With Swan Hellenic there are even more inclusions, despite the fact that the price point is lower AND instead of having a static room on a lodge, you have to factor in the cost of the fuel and the crew, who are responsible for safely sailing the ship!

Swan Hellenic Inclusions:

  • One-night pre-cruise accommodation with breakfast in a 4/5-star hotel in Buenos Aires
  • Group return transfers from Buenos Aires airport to the hotel
  • Economy round trip flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia
  • Group return transfers from Ushuaia Airport to the cruise port
  • All meals onboard the ship
  • 24-hour room service
  • Coffee, tea, soft drinks, and selected alcoholic beverages available 24 hours per day
  • Lecture programs by the experienced expedition team and guest speakers
  • Standard WiFi
  • Onboard gratuities and port taxes
  • One selected shore excursion/expedition activity per port of call (up to 3 per day in Antarctica)

On safari I do enjoy the fact that a complete laundry service is almost always included.

On Swan Hellenic you have to do your own laundry but this is free of charge and the machines are super simple to use, with detergent nozzles built into them. As such, I didn’t view it as a huge inconvenience to put a couple of loads of laundry on and then head to the bar whilst I waited!

 


Swan Hellenic Pre-Arrival experience


Pre cruise hotel: Alvear Icon Buenos Aires

Our Swan Hellenic experience began with a stay at the Alvear Icon, the night before our sailing. Alvear Icon is a modern 5* hotel, located in the waterfront tourist district of Puerto Madero.

Personally, this would not my choice of location in the city, I far prefer the Recoleta neighbourhood – home to the Four Seasons, Alvear Palace and Park Hyatt.

However, for a quick stop I found our hotel room to be very comfortable.

Alvear Icon - bedroom

Alvear Icon – bedroom.

Alvear Icon - wardrobe

Alvear Icon – wardrobe.

The large, marble clad bathroom was a pleasant surprise too!

Alvear Icon - bathroom

Alvear Icon – bathroom.

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Alvear Icon - bathroom

Alvear Icon – bathroom.

The view from our room was of the hotel pool, as well as those of the condos next door. Beyond this there was an expanse of parkland leading to the Rio de la Plata in the distance.

Alvear Icon - pool

Alvear Icon – pool.

Although I didn’t bother making use of the pool, I did head up to the gym.

Alvear Icon - gym

Alvear Icon – gym.

This was actually a better facility than I had been expecting. The gym featured not only a Smith machine but also a lat pulldown, chest press, combo leg extension/curl machine and a decent selection of free weights.

Alvear Icon - gym

Alvear Icon – gym.

Alvear Icon - gym

Alvear Icon – gym.

One thing to note is that instead of being offered the usual breakfast, Swan Hellenic arranged for an all day buffet to be set up at the hotel from the moment we arrived to the moment that we checked out the following morning (at 5am!).

The execution left a lot to be desired though and did not make for a great first impression of the brand.

It was exactly the kind off super low quality buffet that I had been dreading on board the cruise. Powdered eggs, watery filter coffee and bacon with the consistency of fruit roll ups.

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I took one look at this and went with a protein bar instead.

 

Transfers to the SH Vega

After a 4:15am wakeup call, we headed down to the lobby to be handed our boarding passes for the flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. Swan Hellenic chartered the entire plane, with economy seats allocated more or less at random.

Being more accustomed to taking private transfers and flying in Business Class, I have to say that I found this part of the trip to be quite jarring.

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The domestic terminal which we flew from had no lounge to speak of, just a single café with a huge line.

Naturally, our group was forced to arrive almost 3 hours before departure too. At least there were plenty of empty seats on board though and those of us placed near the back of the plane were able to stretch out and gain back some of the lost hours of sleep!

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Upon landing in Ushuaia we were greeted by local reps who directed us to the buses, which would take us to the port. We stopped at a scenic lookout point en-route and I was honestly shocked at the number of cruise ships in the harbour!

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Seeing all of these ships immediately drew two key points into sharp focus for me:

  1. There would likely be competition for the top landing sites in Antarctica
  2. The variance in Antarctic ship sizes is huge, with a few of them looking ominously like the Caribbean cruise ships which I had been dreading.
Swan Hellenic - Ushuaia port

Swan Hellenic – Ushuaia port.

Once we reached the port of Ushuaia I figured that we would be walking up some steps or along a walkway to board the ship directly.

Swan Hellenic - Ushuaia

Swan Hellenic – Ushuaia.

However, this was not the case. Instead we had to drag our hand luggage onto a tiny ferry which then sailed us the 500 metres or so from the port to our ship, the SH Vega.

Once on board the check-in process was mercifully quick, with each passenger being issued a keycard on a lanyard, which served as both a room key and as a means of keeping count of passengers, every time we embarked and disembarked.

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SH Vega Balcony Stateroom (D6)


SH Vega features cabins on floors 4, 5 and 6.

The Oceanview cabins on floor 4 don’t feature outdoor space, whereas all the cabins on Decks 5 and 6 do. We were allocated cabin number 603, towards the front of Deck 6.

Even on the walk to our floor, I was already impressed by the overall design aesthetic of the ship. Although it had been a bit of a rough start getting here, with the lengthy transfers, now that I was safely on board I felt like things had taken a huge turn for the better.

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SH Vega - Deck 6

SH Vega – Deck 6.

Bedroom

These feelings were further reinforced as we swung open the door to our stylish home for the next 10 nights. To be honest I really hadn’t expected the room to feel so bright, warm and inviting!

SH Vega - D6 Bedroom

SH Vega – D6 Bedroom.

I was really looking forward to spending time in this cosy space, after a long day on the ice, with the curtains drawn and the fireplace switched on.

SH Vega - D6 Bedroom

SH Vega – D6 Bedroom.

All of the ship’s cabins are configured with two twin beds pushed together to make a very comfortable queen bed. For those preferring a twin configuration, the bedside tables can be moved to the centre instead.

SH Vega - D6 Bedroom

SH Vega – D6 Bedroom.

Both sides of the bed featured an array of light switches and power ports as well as ample storage space.

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Speaking of storage space, although this is clearly at a premium onboard a cruise ship, the designers really did a fantastic job of providing a seemingly endless number of shelves and drawers.

A series of different storage compartments were placed at the foot of the bed, surrounding the fireplace. One of these even contained a bag with a set of Nikon binoculars inside.

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To the left of this, right by the door to our cabin was another large wardrobe. (Use the slider to look inside the wardrobe!)

Not only was there a ton of space for all of our winter clothing, accessories and luggage, the wardrobe was really well lit too. I also loved the curved finger pulls on the doors and drawers and the clever touch of adding in subtle lips to all the open shelves, preventing items from sliding out on rough seas.

 

Bathroom

The bathroom was also located by the entrance to our cabin, directly opposite the wardrobe.

Although this was by no means the largest bathroom I’ve ever found myself in, there’s no doubting the quality of the fittings and fixtures here.

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The overall aesthetic was very modern and clean and it genuinely felt like we had more than enough space, thanks to the very clever and intuitive design.

SH Vega - D6 Bathroom

SH Vega – D6 Bathroom.

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Living Room

Thanks to the thick terracotta coloured curtains, the bedroom and living room could be very easily separated. The work desk doubled as a makeup area with a flip up, illuminated mirror.

SH Vega - D6 Living Room

SH Vega – D6 Living Room.

Much like the bedside area, the desk featured a multitude of power options and an elegant reading light.

SH Vega - D6 Living Room

SH Vega – D6 Living Room.

I spent countless hours here trying to get wifi reception but honestly after a couple of days all of us on the ship gave up. Antarctica really isn’t somewhere that is well covered by satellites, so even opening your inbox on Gmail is close to impossible.

Having said that, the TV worked well and contained a pre-loaded library of hundreds of movies, similar to what you’d find on the IFE of a top airline.

There was even a direct feed to the lectures taking place in the main lounge, with all of these recorded and made available to watch, on demand, for the remainder of the cruise.

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Those who know me well know that I need good coffee or I get VERY cranky. Thankfully, rather than the vile swill produced by Nespresso, Swan Hellenic opted to go for infinitely superior Illy capsule machines.

SH Vega - Illy coffee machine

SH Vega – Illy coffee machine.

In addition to this, the fridge was stocked with a selection of complimentary beer, soft drinks and… Castelnau champagne. To be honest, I rarely bother drinking this when flying on BA and my bottle went untouched for the duration of the cruise. Still, it’s a nice gesture to put a bottle of champagne in every guest’s room.

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The living room space also featured a wonderfully comfortable sofa, which could be pulled out into an additional bed.

SH Vega - D6 Living Room

SH Vega – D6 Living Room.

Balcony

I actually ended up spending more time out here than I had initially imagined. There was always so much to see from the balcony and when the sun was shining, it was the perfect place to enjoy an espresso!

SH Vega - D6 Balcony

SH Vega – D6 Balcony.

Although the chairs weren’t padded they did featured suspended webbing, so they were quite comfortable to sit on.

SH Vega - D6 Balcony

SH Vega – D6 Balcony.

 

Notes

Every guest is provided with a very high quality set of expedition equipment which is theirs to keep after the cruise. The includes a parka with removable interior gilet, a drybag/backpack and an aluminium drinking bottle.

These were waiting for us in the room, with alternative parka sizes offered for those who may have mistakenly ordered the wrong size.

Swan Hellenic - Parka, water bottle and dry bag

Swan Hellenic – Parka, water bottle and dry bag.

Despite having mentioned that I’m allergic to walnuts on my pre-cruise form, a tower of snacks was place on our table and it contained a segment filled with walnuts. Conversely the top section was only ever partially refilled, despite us finishing all of the smarties every day!

Swan Hellenic -Snacks

Swan Hellenic -Snacks.

Our housekeeper was very friendly but a little careless. There were often hairs and crumbs lying around. When we first boarded, we found a drawer with a used sanitising wipe inside, as well as numerous hairs from the previous occupants of the room.

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SH Vega facilities, food and drink


 

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Passengers aboard SH Vegas have access to all decks between Deck 3 and Deck 9.

We’ll come back to Deck 3 later, since this is where we got dressed in our expedition gear and boarded the zodiacs in order to explore Antarctica.

Deck 4  – Swan Restaurant and Laundrette

SH Vega - Deck 4 Plan

SH Vega – Deck 4 Plan

Deck 4 contained the lowest category of Oceanview rooms, without balconies, with the laundrette tucked away in a small room at their centre.

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Swan Restaurant

At the rear of this deck was the Swan Restaurant, this is where the majority of our meals were served.

SH Vega - Swan restaurant

SH Vega – Swan restaurant.

The restaurant featured a variety of different seating options; from cosy booths to dramatic window tables and even a private dining room.

SH Vega - Swan restaurant

SH Vega – Swan restaurant.

I really loved the aesthetic in here as it seemed to strike the perfect balance between being casual enough for speedy buffet meals, yet formal enough for more elaborate multi course, a la carte dining too.

SH Vega - Swan restaurant

SH Vega – Swan restaurant.

Of course, with views like this there tended to be a rush to get the best tables!

SH Vega - Swan restaurant

SH Vega – Swan restaurant.

Breakfast at Swan

The service at The Swan was absolutely amazing, indeed this was very much true of the ship’s crew, in their entirety.

By day 2 the staff here seemed to already know everybody by name and were bringing over favourite food and drink items for passengers, without being reminded. Honestly, I have no idea how they train their memories to this level but this was truly incredible to see in action.

Not only that but there seemed to be enough staff so that you always felt that you had their full and undivided attention.

Breakfast was served as a buffet, in order to ensure that guests could eat quickly and get dressed and ready for the morning excursion.

SH Vega - Swan breakfast buffet

SH Vega – Swan breakfast buffet.

SH Vega - breakfast

SH Vega – breakfast.

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In addition to the food items, a variety of juices, shots and smoothies were offered, with tea and coffee served by the very friendly and efficient waitstaff.

SH Vega - Swan breakfast buffetSH Vega - Swan breakfast buffet
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There was also a highly tokenistic section of gluten-free foods and dairy-free milk alternatives.

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SH Vega - Swan breakfast buffetSH Vega - Swan breakfast buffet

Buffet dining at Swan

Since SH Vega is a small and nimble ship, it is able to access parts of Antarctica that other ships can’t and this often meant adding or modifying daily excursions to ensure the best possible experience for guests.

The result of this is that we ended up having quicker buffet style lunches on a little over half of the days of our sailing.

One thing that really surprised me was the quality and variety of healthy vegetable options. At the beginning of the trip I got the idea in my head that all fruit and veg would be prepared from frozen after day 3 or 4 but this was far from the case.

I have no idea how the kitchen managed to keep such huge supplies of fresh and delicious vegetables in stock but as a first time cruiser this was really somewhere that my expectations were significantly exceeded!

Sh Vega - Swan buffet lunch

Sh Vega – Swan buffet lunch.

Cheese, cured meats, nuts, olives etc are more what I had been expecting to find on an Antarctic cruise and the quality was decent, although the cheese tended to be harder types, since these keep better.

Sh Vega - Swan buffet lunch

Sh Vega – Swan buffet lunch.

There was always a very decent selection of hot dishes, generally a vegetarian dish, some kind of rice/pasta, starchy vegetables and three different kinds of protein. Overall a great selection, which made it very easy to stick to a healthy diet!

SH Vega - Swan buffet lunch

SH Vega – Swan buffet lunch.

 

A la carte dining at Swan

Although lunches were generally served buffet style, we still had 5 a la carte lunches and 9 a la carte dinners whilst on board. The quality and variety of food were extremely impressive. I don’t think that I saw many a la carte dishes repeated over the course of the entire 11 day cruise!

Starters always included dishes from around the world such as escargots, sushi and soft shell crab tempura.

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Main courses tended to include a fish dish, a meat dish, a vegetarian dish and one or more pasta/rice based dishes.

Some particular standouts for me were the rare prime rib of beef and the slow cooked lamb shank. Both were absolutely delicious and extremely generous in terms of portion size!

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The chicken and mushroom vol au vent and the grilled swordfish were also excellent:

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It was clear that a great deal of effort also went into desserts like the freshly baked soufflé and the lemon meringue pie (which clearly drew some inspiration from Massimo Bottura!)

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Overall I have to say that the food exceeded my expectations, given that we were sailing through the most remote part of the earth with nothing but the supplies that were loaded back in Argentina.

Not only were there delicious and elaborate dinners, there seemed to be some real wizardry at play to ensure that we were still eating fresh fruit and salads on day 10 of the cruise!

There was also a wonderful selection of included wines, with a list of reds and whites suggested each evening and an even larger list from which to choose, should you wish to drink something else.

In addition to this there was a reserve wine list, for those perhaps wishing to celebrate a special occasion with a rare bottle of Bordeaux.

 

Deck 7  – Swimming Pool, Club Lounge, Observation Lounge & Bar

Decks 5 and 6 on SH Vega contain only cabins so we’ll skip those and move straight to Deck 7, which was very much the beating heart of our Swan Hellenic experience.

Observation Lounge & Bar

The beautifully bright and spacious Observation Lounge was the main social hub on board, with all the major announcements and lectures taking place here.

SH Vega - Observation Lounge

SH Vega – Observation Lounge.

We had almost two full days at sea, crossing the Drake Passage, before exploring Antarctica. This meant that we spent a lot of time here getting to know our fellow passengers.

There’s no doubting the fact that the bar’s location in the corner of the lounge assisted in this process!

SH Vega - Observation Lounge Bar

SH Vega – Observation Lounge Bar.

The bar staff were super friendly and much like their counterparts at Swan restaurant, they quickly got to know the personal preferences of every passenger on the ship. Even going as far as knowing that certain passengers would have certain drinks at certain times of day!

Swan Hellenic Bar Menu

As you can see from browsing through the pages above, the list of included drinks was very extensive indeed and unlike some other Antarctic operators, Swan Hellenic includes all drinks at all times of day.

Those who preferred more privacy could just sit in one of the smaller, two seater sofas but most evenings you would find large groups of people playing chess, cards, Catan or indeed drinking games around the larger sofas.

SH Vega - Observation Lounge

SH Vega – Observation Lounge.

There were plenty of power sockets dotted around too, for those wanting to use their laptops.

During the various lectures and daily activity briefings, high resolution screens would pop up seamlessly around the lounge too.

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In addition to these screens ,there was a larger main observation screen, which showed a live feed of the Swan’s Nest at the front of the ship.

SH Vega - Observation Lounge

SH Vega – Observation Lounge.

Swan’s Nest

The Swan’s Nest was technically located down on Deck 6 but could only be accessed via Deck 7, from the observation lounge.

SH Vega - Swan's Nest

SH Vega – Swan’s Nest.

Most evenings I followed a quiet ritual of popping into the Observation Lounge, just before going to bed, to see the video feed of the ship’s ultra high powered lights illuminating our surroundings.

SH Vega - Observation Lounge

SH Vega – Observation Lounge.

SH Vega - Observation Lounge

SH Vega – Observation Lounge.

Right next to the main screen was a control panel of sorts, featuring a set of screens that showed live maps, activity information and weather readings.

SH Vega - Observation Lounge Bar

SH Vega – Observation Lounge Bar.

Next to the entrance to the lounge was a shop but honestly I don’t think there was much need for this since we were all given so much Swan Hellenic swag when we first embarked!

SH Vega - Observation Lounge

SH Vega – Observation Lounge shop.

Club Lounge

SH Vega - Club Lounge

SH Vega – Club Lounge.

The ship’s club lounge is a smaller, cosier version of the observation lounge, located just across the hallway on Deck 7.

SH Vega - Club Lounge

SH Vega – Club Lounge.

The central fireplace here contrasted wonderfully with the icy wonderland outside. Honestly this area of the ship was hygge in its purest form.

SH Vega - Club Lounge

SH Vega – Club Lounge.

A small buffet area at the back of the lounge provided breakfast to those who didn’t make it to Swan for breakfast, before the morning excursion.

Club Lounge Breakfast

The scrambled eggs were decent and the hash browns and bacon were both properly crispy. However the sausages were pretty dubious.

SH Vega - Club Lounge breakfast

SH Vega – Club Lounge breakfast.

Given that this was effectively a second breakfast, in addition to the usual one, it was good to see selection of smoothies, smoked salmon, yoghurts and fruit. They could probably have gotten away with just having a small continental selection but actually a lot of passengers seemed to enjoy having this full selection.

This was especially true on the mornings where lots of hiking was involved!

SH Vega - Club Lounge breakfast

SH Vega – Club Lounge breakfast.

Those who really needed to replenish their energy reserves had a decent selection of carbs to choose from too.

SH Vega - Club Lounge breakfast

SH Vega – Club Lounge breakfast.

Club Lounge Afternoon Tea

After lunch had been served, a small afternoon tea was laid out in the Club Lounge. This consisted of various cold cuts, fruit and sandwiches…

SH Vega - Club Lounge breakfast

SH Vega – Club Lounge afternoon tea.

…as well as freshly baked cookies and cakes.

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SH Vega - Club Lounge afternoon tea

SH Vega – Club Lounge afternoon tea.

There was also a tea and coffee station, which provided a wonderful selection of teas…

SH Vega - Club Lounge afternoon tea

SH Vega – Club Lounge afternoon tea.

…together with a truly horrendous coffee machine. Thankfully decent Illy espresso was available just across the hall, at the Observation Lounge Bar.

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Pool Deck

At the rear of Deck 7, just outside the Club Lounge, was the ship’s pool deck. You may be thinking that there wouldn’t be much use for this but of course, Antarctica can only be visited during the summer months, when there is almost zero darkness and the sun can shine quite brightly!

SH Vega - Pool Deck

SH Vega – Pool Deck.

This space was beautifully furnished and made for a super relaxing place to enjoy a coffee in the afternoons. Although the pool bar wasn’t regularly staffed on this voyage, we did have a couple of buffet lunches out here, on days when the weather permitted.

SH Vega - Pool Deck

SH Vega – Pool Deck.

The Indian themed buffet lunch was a real highlight in fact.

SH Vega - Pool Deck buffet

SH Vega – Pool Deck buffet.

I imagine that many more lunches are served all around this outer deck when the ship finds itself in The Mediterranean, Polynesia or Africa.

SH Vega - Pool Deck outdoor dining area

SH Vega – Pool Deck outdoor dining area.

However, the pool got plenty of use most days. Even when the skies were grey and snow was falling.

Sh Vega - Swimming Pool

Sh Vega – Swimming Pool.

The water was heated to bath temperature throughout our voyage and the only thing that stopped people from jumping in was when the captain ordered the crew to drain the pool, during a particularly rough day on the Drake.

Sh Vega - Swimming Pool

Sh Vega – Swimming Pool.

Deck 8  – Wellness facilities and The Bridge

SH Vega - Deck 8

SH Vega – Deck 8.

Deck 8 was home to the part of the ship that I was most looking forward to on this journey. The promise of a proper gym, sauna and hot tub offering views of the epic snow covered landscapes of Antarctica was hugely enticing. What better way to unwind after a day out on the ice?

SH Vega Gym

I’m the kind of person that starts to get quite agitated if they can’t make it to the gym for 3 days straight, so the fact that there was a gym on board was something that truly filled me with joy. I really hadn’t been expecting this given that Swan Hellenic’s ships are know for being smaller and more nimble. I figured that facilities like this would be out of the question.

Sadly, as is all too often the case in hotel gyms, the focus seemed to be on catering to a situation in which large numbers of people are all doing cardio at the same time.

SH Vega - Gym

SH Vega – Gym.

Obviously the views from the cardio machines were fantastic…

SH Vega - Gym

SH Vega – Gym.

…but the almost complete lack of weights was a real shame. The sad thing is that there was more than enough space for a Smith machine and a cable crossover but instead somebody decided that a hyper specific pec flye machine (which had to be tied down with bands in rough seas) was the best idea.

Although I’m generally an advocate for free weights, after trying to do use dumbbells on rough seas, on the Drake, I think that the two aforementioned machines would have been far safer and a more efficient use of the space available.

SH Vega - Gym

SH Vega – Gym.

In terms of amenities there was a water fountain and that’s it. To be fair I always laugh when I see apples in gyms, since nobody ever eats an apple whilst working out. Yet I couldn’t help feeling like the lack of apples (or indeed energy bars or fruits of any kind) was an affront to the accepted code of luxury gym decency.

SH Vega - Gym

SH Vega – Gym.

SH Vega Bridge

Something I really enjoyed about our trip was that the bridge was almost always open to passengers. We were able to watch as the Captain and the expedition leader planned the day’s excursions together, contingent on the changing weather patterns.

SH Vega - Bridge

SH Vega – Bridge.

I really can’t imagine that this sort of thing happens on larger vessels, with hundreds of passengers. It was during my visits to the bridge that I most clearly appreciated how luxurious it is to travel on a smaller ship, where you receive close personal attention.

As long as this door was open, passengers were welcome to come inside and chat with the crew:

SH Vega - Bridge

SH Vega – Bridge.

SH Vega - Bridge

SH Vega – Bridge.

 


Excursions and Activities


Crossing the Drake Passage on SH Vega

SH Vega - Drake Passage

SH Vega – Drake Passage.

This is perhaps the aspect of visiting Antarctica which adds the most stress and confusion for travellers.

Indeed I searched around online for a while trying to find as much information on this as I possibly could, ahead of embarking on the journey myself.

A quick primer: The Drake Passage is the body of water that one must sail through in order to reach Antarctica from the southern tip of South America. The Drake marks the confluence between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which in and of itself would be enough to cause a fair bit of choppiness in the water.

However, this is further compounded by the fact that the winds at this latitude can accelerate all the way around the earth, with no mountain ranges, or indeed any land at all, to slow them down.

As a result of these two factors The Drake Passage has the potential to be the roughest stretch of water on planet Earth…and it takes 48 hours to cross!

For some people the thought of this is just too much to bear. We have clients who simply cannot stomach the idea of 2 days in rough seas; for them we’ve booked fly/cruise itineraries with both Quark and Silversea. These packages include flights from mainland Chile to Chilean bases in Antarctica, where guests then join the cruise ship.

However the cost increases considerably when pursuing the flight option and you miss out on the amazing sense of anticipation and camaraderie that builds during your Drake crossing.

During our two days on the Drake we had ample time to explore the ship and also get to know our fellow passengers and crew:

Swan Hellenic - Captain's introduction

Swan Hellenic – Captain’s introduction.

Indeed, something I particularly enjoyed was having access to world class scientists, historians and explorers, all of whom gave fun and informal lectures about their particular area of Antarctic expertise.

Let’s be honest, not everybody has time to do lots of research ahead of a big trip. Once at sea though, having real time access to these experts really helps to build your knowledge and sense of anticipation for the adventures ahead!

Unlike university lectures, these sessions took place with an open bar at the back. So even if the subject matter wasn’t to your liking, you could always find a glass of wine that was!

Swan Hellenic - science lecture

Swan Hellenic – Antarctic history lecture.

Swan Hellenic - science lecture

Swan Hellenic – Antarctic science lecture.

I love the fact that these displays would pop up out of side tables around the room too. Such a great touch, meaning that people didn’t feel compelled to crowd around the front of the room.

Swan Hellenic - science lecture

Swan Hellenic – Antarctic geography lecture.

Aside from all of these optional lectures, we also partook in a mandatory fire drill and a session where all of our clothing seams were power vacuumed for reasons of biosecurity. Other ‘clothing admin’ took place after the biosecurity session, ensuring that we all had correctly sized parkas and muck boots on our excursions.

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Swan Hellenic-163

It was also during our Drake crossing that we were first welcomed to come up to the bridge, to take pictures of all the instruments and chat with the officers.

Swan Hellenic - Bridge visit

Swan Hellenic – Bridge visit.

Although the sea doesn’t look particularly inviting in this picture, we actually had a very mild crossing from Ushuaia to Antarctica and I don’t think that anybody on board suffered from any seasickness at all.

Swan Hellenic - Bridge visit

Swan Hellenic – Bridge visit.

Swan Hellenic - Bridge visit

Swan Hellenic – Bridge visit.

Swan Hellenic - Bridge visit

Swan Hellenic – Bridge visit.

 

Day 1  Night – Melchior Islands Cruise

Although there are itineraries on the Swan Hellenic website, these are only ever a rough guide as ultimately, Antarctic exploration is at the mercy of the weather.

A little after 6pm on our second day crossing the Drake, around twenty of us were gathered in the Observation lounge, enjoying a few drinks and discussing the adventures to come. All of a sudden, a door burst open from the outside and somebody shouted, “We can see land!”

Immediately everybody jumped up and rushed outside, most of us were so excited we didn’t even care that we were in t-shirts. After 2 days at sea, we were going to receive our payout; the wonders of the untouched 7th continent were finally ours to see!

Swan Hellenic - First glimpse of Antarctica

Swan Hellenic – First glimpse of Antarctica.

Initially, Antarctica seemed like a blurry mirage in the distance but soon enough we had a welcoming party of birds following our vessel…

Swan Hellenic - Antarctic welcoming party

Swan Hellenic – Antarctic welcoming party.

…and with each passing second, more of Antarctica came into focus.

Swan Hellenic - Antarctica reveals itself

Swan Hellenic – Antarctica reveals itself.

If I didn’t take a picture, I’m sure nobody would believe this but as we got closer still, a rainbow appeared!

Swan Hellenic - Antarctica rainbow

Swan Hellenic – Antarctica rainbow.

Our group was already giddy with excitement as we headed back inside but then an announcement was made over the speaker system which almost sent us over the edge!

Since we’d made such great time crossing the Drake and the weather conditions were favourable, dinner would be served early as a buffet, allowing us enough time to go on a nighttime zodiac cruise!

This cruise would take place around the coastline of the Melchior islands, a peaceful and sheltered region sheltered on either side by the much larger Anvers and Brabant islands:

Swan Hellenic - arrival into Antarctic waters

Swan Hellenic – arrival into Antarctic waters.

This was not part of the scheduled itinerary but since Swan Hellenic uses small ships, the crew is able to be much more flexible with regards to excursions than on a larger vessel. Indeed, this was the first of many unscheduled, bonus excursions on our trip!

The atmosphere at the dinner buffet was electric, like Christmas morning and the last day of school all rolled into one. We could hardly wait to be called down to Basecamp and gear up for for our first Antarctic experience!

Swan Hellenic - Basecamp

Swan Hellenic – Basecamp.

On day 1 the boat was divided into two groups: Red & Blue, with each taking it in turns to be the first to Basecamp for each excursion. This prevented overcrowding and ensured the the process of getting dressed and getting on to the zodiacs was always smooth and efficient.

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Swan Hellenic-179

Each zodiac could take up to 8 passengers and personally I found this to be a comfortable number. We each had enough space to move around and take all the photos that we wanted.

Swan Hellenic - zodiac cruise

Swan Hellenic – zodiac cruise.

On this first excursion we stayed on the zodiacs, since scouting and securing a landing site would have taken too long. Still, this was an ideal opportunity to get up close to giant icebergs…

Swan Hellenic - zodiac cruise

Swan Hellenic – zodiac cruise.

…see a manmade structure for the first time in two days…

Swan Hellenic - zodiac cruise

Swan Hellenic – zodiac cruise.

…and appreciate the sheer gigantic scale of our surroundings!

Swan Hellenic - zodiac cruise

Swan Hellenic – zodiac cruise.

We also had our first close encounter with the local wildlife:

Swan Hellenic - zodiac cruise

Swan Hellenic – zodiac cruise.

One thing that none of us had been expecting was to see a sailboat anchored here. I can only imagine what it must have been like to cross the Drake in that vessel.

I was also genuinely curious to understand the demographic of people who not only have enough money to finance a crossing in a sailboat but also have the requisite amount of spare time. They would have taken at least twice as long as us to complete their crossing.

Swan Hellenic - zodiac cruise

Swan Hellenic – zodiac cruise.

Since Antarctic cruises only operate during the summer months of December to February, the sun still hadn’t set when we headed back to the ship, at around 10pm. Indeed, the super long days really contributed to the sensation that we were fitting a huge amount into every single day during our time in the frozen continent.

Swan Hellenic - zodiac cruise

Swan Hellenic – zodiac cruise.

Once we were back on board we were offered cups of hot chocolate, with the option of an additional Bailey’s enrichment. The perfect way to draw our first excursion to a close.

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Swan Hellenic-192

Day 2 Morning – Damoy Point

On our second day in Antarctica we found ourselves at Damoy Point, a dramatic and mountainous place that really served to highlight the fact that Antarctica is the continent with the highest average elevation in the world.

Prior to this trip I always pictured Antarctica to be a series of vast, flat ice fields. However this couldn’t be further from the truth; this is a continent that is almost entirely comprised of gigantic mountains – a hiker’s paradise.

Swan Hellenic - Port Damoy

Swan Hellenic – Damoy Point.

Sea kayaking was available as a complimentary option to anybody who wanted to partake. However, those who opted to kayak had to wake up an hour earlier and forego the opportunity to explore on land.

Swan Hellenic - sea kayaking

Swan Hellenic – sea kayaking.

Personally, this did not look appealing to me…at all. It’s great to know that the option exists though and that there’s no additional charge, unlike with most of Swan Hellenic’s competitors.

Swan Hellenic - sea kayaking

Swan Hellenic – sea kayaking.

Since this was our first shore excursion it was also our first time going through the process of disinfecting our boots on the ship and scraping them clean before our return. Protection of Antarctic biosecurity is something which is taken very seriously, to the point where even kneeling down or sitting on Antarctica is frowned upon!

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Swan Hellenic-196

Although there are no towns in Antarctica there are several countries carrying out scientific research here and this is a major point of national pride for many of them.

Swan Hellenic - Damoy Point

Swan Hellenic – Damoy Point.

Swan Hellenic - Damoy Point

Swan Hellenic – Damoy Point.

Swan Hellenic - Damoy Point

Swan Hellenic – Damoy Point.

Upon arriving on the shore we were greeted by Swan Hellenic expedition staff, who gave us an overview of the base and also of the route that had been safely marked out for us to explore.

Initially we hiked up to very top of the marked trail, to get an overview of our surroundings and I was surprised to see another cruise ship so close to SH Vega!

Swan Hellenic - Damoy Point

Swan Hellenic – Damoy Point.

After this we went in search of penguins. We were told to keep our distance as per IAATO guidelines…

Swan Hellenic - Damoy Point

Swan Hellenic – Damoy Point.

…especially since so many of the penguins had small chicks!

Swan Hellenic - Damoy Point

Swan Hellenic – Damoy Point.

Swan Hellenic - Damoy Point

Swan Hellenic – Damoy Point.

One thing that is very hard to prepare for is the olfactory assault that penguins impose upon you. Our expedition team took the opportunity to remind us that there are no plants and no soil on Antarctica, so anything that looks like mud is in fact fish that has passed through the digestive system of a penguin!

Despite this distraction, it was hard to focus on anything other than the fact that it was an absolutely surreal setting to find myself in.

I’ve had the great fortune to travel to the Maldives countless times, visit Bora Bora, go on safari…but nothing compares to this:

Swan Hellenic - Damoy Point

Swan Hellenic – Damoy Point.

Day 2 Afternoon –  Port Lockroy and Jougla Point

After lunch, we were told that a guest lecturer would be coming over to give a special presentation about our next destination.

Port Lockroy is a British research base which is staffed by volunteers. Each year, thousands of applicants compete for the 4-5 vacant positions. The competition is fierce, with an average of 1,000 applicants vying for each open position.

It was one of these successful applicants that was tasked with coming over to give a talk on the history and day to day operations of the base. She also explained that the crew of Port Lockroy are always very keen to come and give these talks as it’s also a fantastic opportunity to come aboard for a hot shower and a freshly cooked meal!

Swan Hellenic - Port Lockroy presentation

Swan Hellenic – Port Lockroy presentation.

Since Port Lockroy is rather small, we alternated between visiting the base and Jougla point next door. My group started at Jougla point, where we once again encountered penguins who seemed completely unfazed by their epic surroundings….

Swan Hellenic - Jougla Point

Swan Hellenic – Jougla Point.

As well as the remains of a penguin who clearly should have been paying rather more attention.

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Swan Hellenic-225

It actually took us all a while to figure out what exactly we were looking at, at first and the obvious question, “what did this to the penguin” was promptly answered by a swooping visitor, overhead.

Swan Hellenic - Jougla Point

Swan Hellenic – Jougla Point.

Initial exploration of Antarctica was soon followed by adventurous individuals descending to find their fortune in the lucrative whaling trade. This is something that had been explained to us in the history lectures, whilst we were on the Drake. However, I hadn’t been expecting to see perfectly preserved reminders of the whaling trade during our excursions:

Swan Hellenic - Jougla Point

Swan Hellenic – Jougla Point.

Swan Hellenic - Jougla Point

Swan Hellenic – Jougla Point.

Banks of rapidly moving fog added to the drama of the landscape, periodically offering us glimpses of the monolithic mountains behind.

Swan Hellenic - Jougla Point

Swan Hellenic – Jougla Point.

From Jougla Point if was a very short Zodiac ride across the water to Port Lockroy.

Swan Hellenic - Jougla Point

Swan Hellenic – Port Lockroy.

We had been told to expect to be in close proximity to penguins during this visit, since the island is quite small and they are completely desensitised to humans. However, I was still rather shocked to see the penguins taking shelter directly under the eaves of the main building.

Swan Hellenic - Port Lockroy

Swan Hellenic – Port Lockroy.

It was also interesting to see reminders of British society, whilst so far from home:

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The interior of the main building has been meticulously preserved and acts as a museum of early Antarctic exploration.

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Apparently one of the officers on the base fancied himself as something of an artist and took to drawing lady companions for the lonely male inhabitants of this Port Lockroy.

Incredibly, one of the ladies in our group said that she actually knew one of these famous starlets, having attended several parties with her in L.A. in the 1960s!

Swan Hellenic - Port Lockroy

Swan Hellenic – Port Lockroy.

As with all British museums this one featured a gift shop selling themed memorabilia. It felt very strange browsing a shop with all the prices in Pounds Sterling, whilst 8000 miles from London!

Swan Hellenic - Port Lockroy gift shop

Swan Hellenic – Port Lockroy gift shop.

Swan Hellenic - Port Lockroy gift shop

Swan Hellenic – Port Lockroy gift shop.

Back on the ship, we cracked open a very special celebratory bottle which I had brought with me to mark the occasion of setting foot on my seventh continent!

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Swan Hellenic-241

Day 3 Morning – Danco Island

Our third day in Antarctica began at a place called Danco island, which naturally made me want to listen to Danko Jones.

The area en route was rife with absolutely monumental icebergs.

Swan Hellenic - Danco Island icebergs

Swan Hellenic – Danco Island icebergs.

It’s hard to truly understand how large these icebergs are since Antarctica has no buildings, people or vehicles for scale.

Swan Hellenic - Danco Island icebergs

Swan Hellenic – Danco Island icebergs.

This one was roughly the size of The Gherkin in London for example:

Swan Hellenic - Danco Island icebergs

Swan Hellenic – Danco Island icebergs.

We also had the opportunity to see some ancient ice caves, where the ice had been so heavily compressed over centuries that no air bubbles remained amongst the individual ice crystals.

Swan Hellenic - Danco Island icebergs

Swan Hellenic – Danco Island icebergs.

As a photographer, I was also very happy to get this shot, which I think perfectly encapsulates how otherworldly this continent feels. The light often falls in such a way as to make you feel like you’re in a comic book cell, rich with contrast, with the colour yet to be added.

Swan Hellenic - Danco Island icebergs

Swan Hellenic – Danco Island icebergs.

Danco Island itself featured a huge penguin colony…

Swan Hellenic - Danco Island penguins

Swan Hellenic – Danco Island penguins.

…as well as a population of rather grumpy looking fur seals.

Swan Hellenic - Danco Island seal

Swan Hellenic – Danco Island fur seal.

As with the majority of our shore excursions, there was a light and easy hiking path marked out for those who were interested.

Swan Hellenic - Danco Island hike

Swan Hellenic – Danco Island hike.

I never once regretted expending the effort to see the views from the top.

Swan Hellenic - Danco Island

Swan Hellenic – Danco Island.

After returning to the ship we started sailing almost immediately and passed this Chilean base en route to our next stop:

Swan Hellenic - Danco Island

Swan Hellenic – Chilean Antarctic base.

Day 3 Evening – Neko Harbour

Up until this point, we had only set foot on Antarctic Islands but Neko Harbour offered us the chance to finally step onto the Antarctic mainland.

To call this landscape dramatic would be to do it a disservice. The towering mountains of Neko Harbour absolutely dwarfed our vessel.

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour.

This was also the first time that I sensed things getting decidedly serious during one of our landings.

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour.

There is a glacier featuring some absolutely enormous cracks, which points straight down into the harbour. As we approached with our zodiacs were told that we had to immediately clear the landing site and get up hill, just in case a piece of the glacier fell off and caused a tidal wave!

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour.

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour.

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour.

This was the steepest hike of the trip so far and unbelievably a 90 year old gentleman by the name of Keith was leading the charge! He and his family wore matching commemorative t-shirts on the flight over, since this trip was his big birthday celebration!

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour hike

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour hike.

Even more impressive was the fact that he tested positive for COVID just after we set sail and had been confined to quarters up until testing negative on this very day. I know healthy people in their 30s that wouldn’t make it up this hill as quickly as he did!

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour hike

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour hike.

The view from the top was nothing short of spectacular….

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour.

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour.

And this was the perfect spot from which to take pictures together with all of our new friends from the ship!

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour.

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour.

On the way down we greeted the local penguins…

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour penguins

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour penguins.

…before heading back to Vega past a sapphire blue iceberg that looked like it had been placed in the water by an alien civilisation.

Swan Hellenic - Neko Harbour iceberg

Swan Hellenic – Neko Harbour iceberg.

Day 4 Morning – Portal Point

On our fourth day in Antarctica, our morning expedition took us to Portal Point, a place close to our expedition leader AJ’s heart, as he and his team spent several weeks stranded here during the early days of the pandemic.

As he tells it: numerous ships confirmed on the radio that they would come to rescue him and his team but as chaos took precedence over sanity, these ships would eventually disappear without a trace, scared to bring COVID onboard….from a group who had been isolated from society on an island in Antarctica.

The ship that eventually rescued his group was SH Vega and as a result AJ made the immediate decision to apply for a job with Swan Hellenic and the rest, as they say, is history!

Swan Hellenic - Portal Point

Swan Hellenic – Portal Point.

Not only was the mountain terrain here absolutely spectacular, we also spotted a group of whales feeding in the bay, the moment that we disembarked from the zodiacs.

Swan Hellenic - Portal Point whales

Swan Hellenic – Portal Point whales.

Swan Hellenic - Portal Point whales

Swan Hellenic – Portal Point whales.

Swan Hellenic - Portal Point whales

Swan Hellenic – Portal Point whales.

In addition to this we also got up close with some friendly Weddell seals:

Swan Hellenic - Portal Point Weddell seals

Swan Hellenic – Portal Point Weddell seals.

Swan Hellenic - Portal Point Weddell seals

Swan Hellenic – Portal Point Weddell seals.

This Albatross was also remarkably chilled:

Swan Hellenic - Portal Point whales

Swan Hellenic – Portal Point whales.

Day 4 Afternoon – Charlotte Bay

After departing Portal Point we sailed off to the number one most spectacular place that I have ever seen in my life: Charlotte Bay.

We were very unfortunate to pass through the famous Lemaire Channel in almost zero visibility but I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Charlotte Bay absolutely made up for it.

SH Vega - Charlotte Bay

SH Vega – Charlotte Bay.

What made this extra special was that none of us had ever even heard of this place and we had zero expectations, given that the weather in Antarctica is generally rather overcast.

SH Vega - Charlotte Bay

SH Vega – Charlotte Bay.

The entire time that we were at Charlotte Bay it felt as if we were the inhabitants of a waking dream.

Swan Hellenic - Charlotte Bay

Swan Hellenic – Charlotte Bay.

The weather and the view were so fantastic that lunch was served outdoors on the deck and the entire ship was in wonderful spirits. Even the locals were smiling!

Swan Hellenic - Charlotte Bay leopard seal

Swan Hellenic – Charlotte Bay leopard seal.

Swan Hellenic - Charlotte Bay leopard seal

Swan Hellenic – Charlotte Bay leopard seal.

Swan Hellenic - Charlotte Bay leopard seal

Swan Hellenic – Charlotte Bay leopard seal.

After lunch we went on a zodiac tour to get up close with the icebergs…

Swan Hellenic - Charlotte Bay

Swan Hellenic – Charlotte Bay.

Swan Hellenic - Charlotte Bay

Swan Hellenic – Charlotte Bay.

Swan Hellenic - Charlotte Bay

Swan Hellenic – Charlotte Bay.

…and the icing on the cake was when a Minke whale starting following us!

Swan Hellenic - Charlotte Bay Minke whale

Swan Hellenic – Charlotte Bay Minke whale.

Day 4 Evening – The Polar Plunge!

After retuning from our zodiac cruise we were advised that the time had come, this was the perfect spot for us all to try the Polar Plunge!

SH Vega - Charlotte Bay

SH Vega – Charlotte Bay.

For those who may not be aware: the Polar Plunge is something of a rite of passage for all adventurous souls who make it down to the frozen continent. Jumping straight into the icy waters of the Antarctic ocean is said to be an invigorating and life-affirming experience.

What makes this different to a regular ice bath is that the salt content of the water means that it actually stays liquid at temperatures below freezing.

I was surprised at how many people ended up assembling to take the plunge and I was very glad to be the first one in!

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The shock upon entering the water was quite something. What I hadn’t expected was the instant rush of blood to my skin, rendering me the same lobster shade of red as British sunbathers on the Costa del Sol.

Not only did I feel oddly warm upon clambering back into the ship, I also felt like I’d had ten hyper focused shots of non-jittery espresso. The sensation lasted for a good hour afterwards and the feeling of euphoria that swept across the ship was palpable for quite some time.

 

Day 5 Morning – Hydrurga Rocks

On our 5th day in Antarctica we visited Hydrurga rocks. Somewhere that from a distance looked rather barren but actually ended up delivering an incredible variety of wildlife sightings!

Swan Hellenic - Hydrurga Rocks

Swan Hellenic – Hydrurga Rocks.

Swan Hellenic - Hydrurga Rocks

Swan Hellenic – Hydrurga Rocks.

Something really interesting about our progress through Antarctica was that as we moved further North, into warmer regions, not only did the scenery begin to change (ice giving way to rock), we also noticed that the penguin chicks were much further along in their development.

On our first couple of days we had seen tiny chicks, no larger than a human hand. Here we saw fluffy grey juveniles that were almost as large as their parents!

Swan Hellenic - Hydrurga Rocks

Swan Hellenic – Hydrurga Rocks.

One particularly surprising inhabitant of Hydrurga Rocks was this Elephant Seal weaner, its current size belying the fact that it would one day grow to weigh up to 4 metric tonnes!

Swan Hellenic - Elephant seal weaner

Swan Hellenic – Elephant seal weaner.

The weaner cut a lonely figure as it flopped around the rocks looking for another seal to play the role of its mother.

Swan Hellenic - Elephant seal weaner

Swan Hellenic – Elephant seal weaner.

Amazingly, it stumbled upon a Weddell seal who was in labour, as evidenced by the ‘midwife’ birds surrounding it in the hopes of eating the placenta.

Swan Hellenic - Elephant seal weaner

Swan Hellenic – Elephant seal weaner.

The Weddell seal soon chased him away though, posing for a few pictures before going back to focusing on the task at hand. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the baby seal being born but this was an incredible drama to watch unfold, nevertheless.

Swan Hellenic - Weddell seal in labour

Swan Hellenic – Weddell seal in labour.

On the zodiac trip back we were told that another zodiac had run into trouble and that we needed to assist them…it turns out that this was a ruse as this zodiac had been turned into a floating bar, serving us drinks en-route back to SH Vega!

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Swan Hellenic-324

 

Day 5 Afternoon – Two Hummocks

The afternoon brought some spectacular weather as we headed to Two Hummocks.

Swan Hellenic - Two Hummocks

Swan Hellenic – Two Hummocks.

Immediately upon disembarking we were told to watch out for numerous penguin highways, which criss-crossed the lower regions of this landing site like a river delta.

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Swan Hellenic-327

Given the beautiful sunshine, this hike got hot enough that most people were in their t-shirts by the time we finished our ascent of the the steep hill.

Swan Hellenic - Two Hummocks

Swan Hellenic – Two Hummocks.

I once again noticed the difference in terrain here, with some rocks even having moss and lichen on them:

Swan Hellenic - Two Hummocks

Swan Hellenic – Two Hummocks.

Although this was quite a long and hot hike, the views from the top were absolutely worth the effort and once again served to highlight how mountainous Antarctica really is!

Swan Hellenic - Two Hummocks view

Swan Hellenic – Two Hummocks view.

Day 6 Morning – Hannah Point (South Shetland Islands)

Day 6: our final day in Antarctica before sailing back across the Drake to the sweltering Argentinian summer.

Although we were still in the continent of Antarctica, it was abundantly clear that the South Shetland islands feature a substantially different climate and topography to the continental mainland.

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point.

It had been over a week since we’d set foot on anything resembling dry and even land and the sensation of walking across this expanse of sandy beach was nothing short of exhilarating.

The local inhabitants however were as far from exhilarated as it is possible to be. There were hundreds of juvenile penguins here undergoing the molting process whereby they shed their baby fluff and grow their waterproof feathers.

Apparently this process is highly stressful and as a result, these penguins were silent and almost completely motionless. Their gaze followed us as we walked along the beach but they never seemed to flinch.

The whole effect was deep unsettling; it was like being surrounded by the Children of the Corn.

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point penguin molting

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point penguin molting.

Elsewhere on this beach there was a huddle of gigantic Elephant seals who were undergoing a similar process, whereby they shed their skin to accommodate their ever expanding body mass.

During this process the Elephant seals are susceptible to hypothermia as all the blood rushes to the surface of their skin. In order to alleviate the danger they huddle together for warmth (and constantly emit gas from any available orifice).

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point elephant seals

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point elephant seals.

I wasn’t prepared for just how gigantic these creatures would be. The fact that they can weigh up to 4 metric tonnes and still dive to a depth of almost three times the height of the Burj Khalifa is absolutely wild to me.

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point elephant seals

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point elephant seals.

Moving on from here we passed a bachelor group of fur seals, who we had expressly been told to stay away from, since they were likely to try and assert their dominance…

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point fur seals

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point fur seals.

…of course some passengers ignored the warning and ran away screaming when the seals did exactly what we were told they would do.

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point fur seal

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point fur seal.

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point fur seal

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point fur seal.

As we made our way down to an area of rocky shoreline we saw some penguins trying out their swimming feathers for the first time.

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point penguins

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point penguins.

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point penguins

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point penguins.

The juvenile Elephant seals here were almost done with their shedding cycle and were starting to get quite boisterous too.

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point elephant seals

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point elephant seals.

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point elephant seals

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point elephant seals.

This was also our first and only opportunity to see giant petrels in action, since they had nests all along the clifftops here.

Swan Hellenic - Hannah Point giant petrel

Swan Hellenic – Hannah Point giant petrel.

Day 6 Afternoon – Deception Island (South Shetland Islands)

After 5 wonderful days in Antarctica, finally the time had come for us to embark on our final shore excursion: Deception Island.

Not only is this place named like a Bond Villain’s lair, it’s also the caledara of a still active volcano, as you can clearly see in this satellite image:

Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2023.

The scenery en-route was even more epic than usual, with the warm volcanic soil of Deception contrasting against the pristine white mountains of Livingston island in the distance.

(According to Wikipedia: “The first land south of the parallel 60° south latitude was documented by Englishman William Smith, who sighted Livingston Island in the South Shetlands archipelago on 19 February 1819.”)

Swan Hellenic - Deception and Livingston Islands

Swan Hellenic – Deception and Livingston Islands.

More than one ship has fallen afoul of hidden rocks on the entrance to the caldera of Deception Island, the equally awesomely named Neptune’s Bellows.

Despite the navigational complexity of entering the bay, the ship’s Captain opened the bridge for this very special moment:

Swan Hellenic - navigating Neptune's Bellows

Swan Hellenic – navigating Neptune’s Bellows.

Swan Hellenic - navigating Neptune's Bellows

Swan Hellenic – navigating Neptune’s Bellows.

As we entered the caldera, we spotted the rusting remnants of a ship that fell afoul to Raven’s Rock, hidden deep within the Bellows.

Swan Hellenic - navigating Neptune's Bellows

Swan Hellenic – navigating Neptune’s Bellows.

After successfully avoiding a similar fate, SH Vega dropped anchor in Whaler’s Bay, initially the site of a whaling station and later a British military base.

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

A volcanic eruption destroyed the base in 1967, leaving a series of derelict structures in place for a select few visitors each year to marvel at.

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

Not only was the land here clearly volcanic in terms of its colour…

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

…there was even steam rising up from the beach!

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

Walking along the steaming beach of an Antarctic volcano is definitely up there with my most memorable travel experiences ever.

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

Unlike other shore excursions where paths had to be clearly marked in the snow by guides, in order for us to avoid potential hazards, here we were left free to roam.

The only instructions we were given were not to enter the buildings since they were at risk of further collapse.

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

The scale of some of these buildings was truly extraordinary.

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to live here in the same year that Jimi Hendrix released ‘Are You Experienced’, only to see the place demolished by a volcanic eruption.

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

One building that particularly intrigued me was this aircraft hangar, which has remained relatively intact since the eruption.

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

Peering in through the windows I was able to get a great look at this derelict building, which once supported Antarctica’s first ever runway.

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island aircraft hangar

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island aircraft hangar.

After allowing me to satisfy my #avgeek urges, we decided to hike up to Neptune’s Window right at the entrance of Neptune’s Bellows.

On the way there we spotted another group, led by our ship’s expedition leader AJ. He said he’s always wanted to climb to the top of the highest peak on Deception Island and asked for volunteers.

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

They’re a little hard to spot in the picture above but you can see them clearly here:

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

Our hike wasn’t quite as adventurous but it did give us a view of the Antarctic mainland on one side…

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

…and a pretty cool view of Deception Island when we looked back behind us:

Swan Hellenic - Deception Island

Swan Hellenic – Deception Island.

The Voyage home

As we got back to the ship, I couldn’t help feeling like it was the last day of school, before everyone moved to different cities to go to university.

The mood onboard was half sad and half celebratory. Before dinner we all assembled to hear a farewell presentation from the crew and to enjoy some champagne and caviar.

Swan Hellenic - farewell from the crew

Swan Hellenic – farewell from the crew.

The Captain took the time to come around to individual tables, to thank us for travelling with Swan Hellenic and even wowed us with some of his card tricks!

Swan Hellenic-384
Swan Hellenic-383

After this we took the opportunity to enjoy a very leisurely dinner, knowing that we could relax and have a few drinks, since there was no evening excursion and no early morning wake-up the next day!

 


Conclusion


Overall this was without a shadow of a doubt my favourite trip ever.

Honestly, it’s not even close. At the time of writing this review, I’ve been to 23 different resorts in the Maldives and there’s not a single one that I would rather visit instead of coming on this trip.

Going to Antarctica combined a lot of the adventurous, wildlife-focused elements of going on safari to somewhere like Silvan and added the feeling of remote exclusivity of visiting somewhere like Lizard Island.

If you’re looking for the world’s best room hardware or food to rival the Ritz Carlton Kyoto, you’ll be disappointed but honestly that’s not how you should be approaching a trip to Antarctica. Ultimately, there are thousands of great hotels around the world designed by star architects, featuring Michelin starred chefs.

Taking an adventure cruise to Antarctica is about so much more than this. It’s about following in the footsteps of a select few people in human history and venturing into a continent that most will never see. Doing this whilst sipping on espresso martinis, with a heated outdoor pool, glass-fronted sauna and delicious food, all whilst being led by world-record holding expedition leaders is nothing short of remarkable.

Swan Hellenic has done something really special here and their pricing is borderline larcenous, given what it must cost to run an operation like this.

I feel like anybody who travels with them in the next couple of years is getting the deal of a lifetime. Given the quality of our experience, Swan Hellenic’s prices will only continue to rise over time, closing the gap with the likes of Silversea and Seabourn.

I genuinely can’t imagine how any trip I ever take again will top this.

 


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