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The cruise convert

Think you don't like cruising? Think again!

The cruise convert
Snow time: Northern Norway is an Arctic playground © photolibrary.com

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We were halfway up a pass in the Peruvian Andes when — undoubtedly prompted by the lung-busting altitude and my wobbling knees — I remarked that my hiking companions should really have a go at adventure cruising. Their immediate yet considered collective reaction was one of horror.

“I don’t think I’d ever go on a cruise,” said one fast-paced 50something. “It’s not the kind of thing we do.” His wife nodded without comment. “But you get to see wonderful things,” I replied, “without all this hard work.”

“We love the hard work,” said the man, or the wife, or someone else in the group — I was too breathless to argue my point.

But I understood my trekker friends. They were visualising a massive, 2,000-berth cruise ship: the sort of behemoth whose maiden voyage is big news because it’s the biggest cruise ship ever, until the next one. They were thinking ports rammed with tourists, lobster for breakfast and on-board morgues for those who also had lobster, and cognac, for supper. Yet that wasn’t what I was thinking of at all.
Ten years earlier, I saw myself as a proud, boot-wearing, self-propelled stroller of high places. I loved feeling the pack on the back, the tent in the secret corner of the wilderness and the notion of utter independence.

It was only when I tried an adventure cruise — and I emphasise the word ‘adventure’ — that I realised there were significant practical advantages to be had, not to mention natural wonders to be seen, by exploring certain places on smallish-but-tough ships. The ideal, I’d say, is around 100 passengers: a big enough group to be alone when you wish but small enough to allow friendships to form and a sense of camaraderie to develop — and a voyage to a realm you cannot access by any other means.

My conversion to sea-going exploration was not slow — the very first adventure cruise I experienced was thrilling — but it wasn’t certain until I’d been on three great adventures. Without planning it that way, my cruises have been in the planet’s cold places, having been drawn to the upper and lower reaches of the globe. I think I’m saving the tropics for my later years.

With a respectful nod to the hikers in Peru, I won’t be boarding any floating luxury hotels to disembark on sun-baked islands in the Med or Caribbean. I can probably get to those swimming or in a pedalo. For me, as for Cook, FitzRoy and Scott, ships are for accessing places that planes, cars and coaches just can’t reach.

THE SVALBARD ARCHIPELAGO

Sailing in the ice-strengthened, 6,450-tonne Russian ship Akademik Sergey Vavilov in 2004 wasn’t quite my first ever adventure cruise. Ten years earlier I’d sailed for three days through the Chilean fjords aboard ‘ro-ro’ Puerto Edén. This was very much a backpacker’s experience — with the getting there on a budget more important than the stopping and seeing things — but it gave me a taste of the remote regions to which ships can voyage and of the pleasures of the on-board experience.

The 10-day voyage around the Svalbard archipelago was of a different order. For one, the emphasis was most definitely on the things we might see. Also we were going all points north, right up into the Arctic Circle, where only ice floes and tough ships are allowed.

Svalbard isn’t made for walkers. Almost devoid of human habitation, it has few trails, even fewer roads and is cloaked in ice and snow for much of the year. As it lies between 74-81 degrees north, it spends months in gloom or complete darkness. I went in July when winter has receded and the archipelago revealed what it had in the way of a natural world: grey volcanic rock, blue glaciers, green tundra and black, ice-cold seas.

However, the main reason the islands are not ideal for walking is that should you decide to go for a stroll, there’s always the chance you might bump into the Arctic’s biggest predator, the polar bear, and be eaten alive.

Nonetheless at our first stop, the scientific base Ny-Ålesund, we went for a walk. Martin, our natural history guide, explained: “Svalbard looks flat and empty, but get down on your hands and knees and you can see trees.”

As we did as he said, he traced with his forefinger the hair-thin branches of a willow — that is, a horizontal tree growing flat on the seemingly barren plain.

In the settlement proper, I saw an Arctic Fox. It was stood beside the post office — the world’s northernmost — unfazed by our small gang of fleece-clad cruise passengers. It was almost pure white and strikingly beautiful. After a few minutes posing for photographs, it skipped off towards the bleak outskirts.

Over the next few days I saw plenty more foxes. From the deck, I learned to recognise auks, kittiwakes and puffins. I went kayaking — my first sea-kayaking experience — and saw herds of reindeer. While always conscious that a swimming polar bear might come up and capsize me (“Polar bears tend to avoid you if they see a paddle,” said our guide), I was able to relax and experience the utter peace of the place.

Svalbard’s austere environment has an almost mystical beauty, as if creation has been limited to only essential items — rocks, ice and water — coloured in the coldest hues.

Svalbard is the only place in Europe where polar bears can be seen in the wild. We spotted them from the ship and on hikes along the shoreline. At Worsleyneset, on the northern tip of Svalbard’s largest island Spitsbergen, we saw a full-grown male bear sunning himself off the starboard. We thought we were downwind, but he sniffed the air knowingly and watched us with the confident gaze of an efficient predator.

At the Moreno glacier, I sometimes confused lumps of ice with possible sightings until we approached a bear close up and saw the difference between ‘bear white’ and ‘snow white’: polar bears glow, alive and full of light. In the moody, iceberg-strewn Hornsund fjord, the captain steered the huge vessel to within yards of a female polar bear and her cub resting on a drifting floe. They weren’t white but bright pink, covered in seal blood from a recent feast.

I love wildlife and always feel privileged when close to the planet’s most beautiful, powerful and threatened species. And like any traveller, I feel humbled when I find myself in regions famous for heroic endeavours.

At Ny-Ålesund, I saw the pylon from which Amundsen and Umberto Nobile launched the dirigible Norge on their 1926 flight across the Pole to Alaska. At Smeerenburg — ‘blubber town’ in Dutch — I’d peeked into the world of 17th- and 18th-century whalers. Seeing awesome expressions of nature such as the massive ice shelf at Nordaustlandet in north-eastern Svalbard can’t fail to move you.

For all these obvious draws, the high point of my experience on board the Vavilov was something subtler and less precise. For several nights I allowed my body clock to go awry. I stayed up into the small hours, often out on deck (it was cold, but not bitterly so) and gazed at the oblique rays of the midnight sun. Eventually I went into a sort of zen mode.

On that far-flung voyage I discovered the joys of enforced idleness and the beauty of the planet’s emptier spaces. So many adventures are hectic, hyperactive even — much like ordinary working life — but this cruise was both peaceful and permanently engaging. If travel is about seeing new horizons, I’d seen a huge one beyond 80 degrees north.

ANTARCTICA AND THE SOUTH ATLANTIC

I lived in Buenos Aires between 1991 and 2001 and had almost gone to Antarctica on two occasions.

Work and life, as they do, got in the way, but I’d dipped into the literature of the heroic age and had also read contemporary accounts of trips to Antarctica, including Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita and Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica. I much preferred the women’s narratives to any of those written by men.

On trips to Patagonia, I’d seen a hint of what the ice continent might behold. I’d witnessed huge glaciers, lenticular clouds and angry skuas, and been buffeted in small boats by williwaws — the notorious sudden, violent winds that hurtle downwards off icy peaks. In 2006 I’d visited the Falklands, and again felt I was in the vicinity of the white continent.

When an opportunity arose to visit Antarctica in 2008, I jumped at it. That the cruise would also take in South Georgia and the sub-Antarctic South Shetland Islands was a huge bonus. I shared a cabin with my stepfather Joe — not a seasoned sailor but a salty chap, having spent 20 years on offshore oil rigs in several seas. He could quaff the Argentine malbecs, eat lavish steak lunches and sit and read when we hit the big seas of the Southern Ocean; I lay still and turned as grey as the weather.

On the sixth day of the voyage, I had the feeling that the cruise had only just begun. After four days on open seas and two at the Falkland Islands we crossed the line of the Antarctic Convergence, where currents change and the sea turns icy cold.

When we sailed onto the supposedly protected eastern flank of South Georgia, it was being battered by Force 10 winds. Seeking refuge, the captain steered the ship into Possession Bay, claimed for Britain by Cook in 1775. Here a katabatic wind, produced when cold air hurtles down steep slopes, was blasting down from the mountains and glaciers that hem the bay at Force 11. This was my welcome to the far south.

The sheer power of the wind was something to behold: imagine a 6,000-tonne-plus Russian ship with all its engines at full tilt not being able to move at all. The sky was cloudless, the sea free of swells, but the wind was skimming the tops of the waves and creating long streaks of white surf. On the bow, I closed my eyes and faced the katabatic blast. It was invigorating in an unearthly way. We were so very far from home and unable to go anywhere: a perfect moment of stasis on a three-week odyssey.

From then on, everything about the cruise was remarkable.

On South Georgia, Salisbury Plain was penguin city: 40,000 king penguins fishing and flapping near the shore or shuffling, flirting, clapping, trumpeting, feeding, squatting and generally creating havoc on the beach.

At Grytviken, the South Georgian capital, I saw sooty albatrosses, explored an abandoned flensing factory and spent two hours in a whaling museum — I even got to do a proper hike up a low mountain called Brown Hill. A fierce westerly blew us helpfully up the steep slope, but once on top the rain came down; it was like icy needles stabbing your cheeks and eyes.

In the South Shetlands we also visited Elephant Island, the impossibly gloomy refuge spot for Shackleton and his crew in 1916. Inside the flooded caldera of Deception Island, a recently active volcano. I walked through what looked like a Pink Floyd album cover: an empty beach strewn with the ruins of a huge whaling and sealing factory. As well as huge fur seals reclaiming their site, there was a sizeable chinstrap penguin colony; we were able to dive in and join them in the surf for about five seconds.

Then came Antarctica proper. The Gerlache Strait is one of the Antarctic Peninsula’s most unmissable mini-voyages. A narrow channel lined by low peaks wrapped in glaciers, it’s littered with icebergs. During a morning cruise, we saw humpback whales blowing water along one side, a Weddell seal and plenty more fur seals. The light, though, was the thing: it was gloomily beautiful and the ice glowed blue-green against a dreamy grey sky.

I loved hanging over the edge of the Zodiac boat, just gazing at the shape and colours and peering down through the translucent water to try and make out the bases of the icebergs. I never did. Antarctic ice goes deeper and higher than you’ve ever dreamed. At times, I forgot where we were; I even forgot the wildlife, my co-passengers and everything else. I was far from the internet, mobile phones, roads, the financial crisis, friends, loved ones — far from everything that made life normal and predictable, in fact. Antarctica — or at least the few channels and bays I was able to explore — was the ultimate refuge from the ordinary.

Most of the cruise was around island, but my moment on the Antarctic continent came with a fairly steep walk up to the top of a snow-covered hill overlooking Argentina’s Almirante Brown base. A huge sky-blue wall of glacier was to my right and below the sea was full of chunks of ice of all shapes and sizes.
Again, the light was soft but incandescent and the panorama was unearthly, almost alienating. For a moment I couldn’t help but think of what would happen if you were left there, as many of the old explorers were.

It was April and I’d already felt the oncoming winter chill gather around us as we voyaged south. Fear and awe are similar emotions, and in Antarctica they mix with delight and an urge to reflect on your travels, routines and ordinary ice-free life.

When you get back to your cosy cabin on your rock-solid ship, you value these things all the more.

TIERRA DEL FUEGO: PUNTA ARENAS TO USHUAIA

Having run up quite a drinks tab in Antarctica, I boarded the Via Australis in October 2009 with two carrier bags of Chilean wine and a smile on my face. Apart from tips, booze tends to be the biggest extra expense on a cruise, so I’d planned for this one.

At the briefing for our four-day voyage from Punta Arenas in Chile to Ushuaia in Argentina (both claim to be the southernmost city in the world), we were told there may be rough weather at the eastern entrance to the Strait of Magellan, that we’d be focusing on Darwin in lectures and landings as it was the bicentenary of his birth, and that we’d hopefully be able to round the Horn. And that on-board drinks were free. Realising my preparations pointless, I gave my wine to the crew.

What also made the Via Australis different from most cruises out of southern South America was that the company that owned the ships, Cruceros Australis, was homegrown. The crew was Chilean and many passengers were Chilean and Argentine; this was not your typical operation in foreign seas.

“We can afford to offer canilla libre, or free drink,” explained one of the waiters, “because Chileans don’t drink heavily and tend to just have a drink with dinner and maybe a nightcap.” I didn’t bother to tell him about British ‘booze cruises’.

There were many other surprises to come, not least the sheer beauty of Tierra del Fuego. I’d been to Punta Arenas before, had read about the island and had even written a book with several chapters about the Fuegian Indians and the particular history of this remotest of regions. But with hardly any roads south of the Beagle Channel, few towns, a small population and extremely rugged topography, Tierra del Fuego was exactly the sort of place you could only see properly from the deck of a ship.

The last place to be colonised by Argentina and Chile, it remained a sheep-farming backwater until the late 19th century, with British landowners exercising governance right into the early 20th century when Buenos Aires and Santiago divvied it up and hoisted their respective flags. Sadly, the same process led to the dwindling and, ultimately, extermination of the many native populations either through disease, murder at the hands of European settlers or landgrabbing forcing them off the countryside and into reservations.

We were at a latitude similar to the north of Scotland in our hemisphere, but there was lots of ice — from immense tidewater glaciers such as the Marinelli, which we saw at a distance, and the Pia, which we saw up close from small boats, to a ‘glacier alley’ of hanging ice sculptures along the Beagle Channel. Tierra del Fuego was one of the last places to emerge from the last Ice Age, and the relative proximity of Antarctica and two cold oceans occasionally send it back to that frigid time.

At Cape Horn, where we were able to disembark thanks to a brief lull in tempestuous weather, we met a Chilean family living in a lighthouse before walking up to a metal albatross-shaped monument to sailors lost in the infamous seas when rounding the Horn. The Cape is a bleakly beautiful and lonely spot, and to stand on a promontory breathing in the gusting wind felt rather momentous.

For me, though, the convivial-looking cove at Bahia Wulaia, visited on the voyage back towards Argentina, was at least as important: it was here that FitzRoy abducted Fuegian natives, and having read and written about the tragedy of Orundellico, or ‘Jemmy Button’ — taken to England to be civilised only to wind up in court for murder — to see where the story began was moving. There are no roads to Wulaia. If it’s no longer quite the ‘uttermost part of the earth’ of legend, it still feels forlorn and uninhabitable.

As on all the ships mentioned, we dined like kings. Centolla, or Spider Crab, is the caviar of the South Atlantic. At last, you’re thinking, he’s admitting it: a big crustacean on a cruise ship. But the Via Australis sleeps only 136 adventurers and I had only one king crab, and it was a third the size of a lobster. Smaller is always beautiful when it comes to cruises, as long as the hull is thick enough to take the weather and the swell.

Food apart, it might sound as though cruising is about some kind of quasi-mystical inner voyage, staring into icy voids, taking on evil weather, riding dangerous seas. Of course it isn’t.

Between seeing these mystical moments, I went to a few lectures and learned a lot, had a few late drinks (and early hangovers), played quizzes, made new friends and took thousands of photographs. I remember now the stranger feelings and wilder thoughts. Cruises are stripped of the logistical and trivial hassles of most travel; perhaps that’s why they allow so much time for communing and space for slowing down.

That, then, was my conversion. A trio of life-enhancing voyages to wild, unpopulated, mythic shores across sometimes unpleasant seas in the company of like-minded adventurers. These experiences just happen to have been polar — or bipolar, if you like. But what binds them together even more vitally is the fact that you simply cannot explore Svalbard, Antarctica or Tierra del Fuego by any other mode of transport. Sure, you can fly — but you won’t get very far. The same goes for walking or driving or other ways of moving. A ship is the safest, surest and most exciting way to find secret coves and lonely bays. You’ll have noticed that on all of my cruises we also got to walk — up hills, on snow, across beaches of volcanic sand, in the company of polar bears and penguins — so a voyage on the ocean needn’t mean abandoning the most natural mode of transport we possess. But I’m glad I got my sea legs too.

I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to adventure cruises but sometimes they’re the very best sort of travel experience; this summer I’m going to Greenland, a magical-sounding place we spend our lives flying over. Once again it’s white and grey, barren and empty, melancholic, cold and lonely. I can’t wait.

Six cool sea-going adventures

SVALBARD
Steppes Discovery’s 11-day Spitsbergen Explorer cruises to Svalbard on the 84-berth Antarctic Dream in July and August 2011. From £4,150 excluding flights.
www.steppesdiscovery.co.uk

SOUTH GEORGIA TO WEST AFRICA
Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic’s 33-day cruise aboard the new 148-berth National Geographic Explorer visits South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, St Helena, Ascension Island and West Africa. Departs from Ushuaia on March 7 2011. From $15,590 (£9,842) excluding flights.
www.expeditions.com

FALKLANDS TO THE ANTARCTIC PENINSULAR
Shackleton’s Antarctica sails from Argentina towards the Falklands and south to Antarctica itself. From £3,631 (excludes international flights) for two sharing and includes 20% early booking discount valid until 31 March 2011.
www.hurtigruten.com

TIERRA DEL FUEGO
Cruceros Australis offers three- and four-day cruises in Tierra del Fuego on the Via Australis and the new Stella Australis. These operate between Punta Arenas in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina from September-April. From £630 excluding flights.
www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk

GREENLAND & ICELAND
Exodus’ 15-day Spitsbergen, Greenland and Iceland cruise on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, from Longyearbyen to Reykjavik, takes in glaciers, observations of walruses and polar bears, and a walking tour of the Westman Islands. From £4,530 excluding flights.
www.exodus.co.uk

CHILEAN FJORDS
Navimag’s four-day Chilean fjords cruise aboard the 224-berth Puerto Edén from
Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales stops at the remote and indigenous Alacaluf settlement of Puerto Edén. From $400 (£253) excluding flights and transfers.
www.lastfrontiers.com

Published in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)