The frozen one

Hermès goodies and free-flowing fizz… Shackleton would turn in his grave. But does a luxury cruise spoil Antarctica, or will the White Continent still give Nick Redman the chills?

We were mid-sail across the choppy Drake Passage from Cape Horn, heading south to Antarctica to find penguins and petrels, when my hungry gaze spotted a bird of a different feather altogether: plumage-free, in fact. It emanated a golden aura as sunlight fell on the waves around our boat. One for the Instagram feed? For sure, but what was I going to caption it? The only classification was printed in French: dinde rôtie entière.

Served with exquisitely silky dauphinoise potatoes, it turned out to be turkey: delicately sliced into supermodel-slim slices, drizzled with jus by the head chef himself and worthy, I’d say, of Escoffier. A head-turning specimen, it may have come from as far as France: impressive mileage, even for a bird on its back in a cruise-ship fridge. In truth, it would never know how low it ranked in the pecking order of Awesome Antarctic Peregrinations. An albatross, I learned at an on-board lecture, was once tagged with a geolocator and found to have flown 13,000km in 25 days. I closed my eyes and imagined the air miles.

Although I returned from Antarctica with a new love of kelp geese and snowy sheathbills, it was never my intention to turn twitcher aboard Ponant Cruises’ 12-day expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula. A passion for the slow pace of holidays on the ocean wave was what nudged me south to this extreme new horizon. No longer the sole domain of scientists on Soviet icebreakers, eccentric millionaires on skis, or men with frozen beards and huskies for friends, Antarctica has come in from the cold.

Our ship, Le Boréal, typified this new wave in Antarctic sailings, with an ice-strengthened hull, as well as a fine line in free-flowing bubbly, luxury shower gels by Hermès, and delectable millefeuilles among the swathes of sweet things spread out each lunch and dinner. In 1915, penguins, plus the blubber of seals bludgeoned with axes, fuelled explorer Ernest Shackleton and the men of the ill-fated Endurance as it drifted for 10 months in the terminal grip of pack ice. For us, hardships amounted to running perilously low on Evian, while a vexing dearth of bananas one morning at breakfast meant switching to pears.

I’m sure Shackleton would have scratched his head at the cabaret laid on by Ponant — Streisand- and Piaf-tinged routines performed against porthole flashes of utter wilderness. Mind you, we were pretty stumped, too, not least by a Ukrainian ‘chanteuse’, shimmying on in a Britney fedora to mime Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman. By comparison, Antarctica crept up subtly.

Loping by in flashes, they put on a display far subtler than SeaWorld, vanishing then returning abruptly with a fin-menace

Our embarkation point, after a flight from Santiago de Chile, was Punta Arenas in southernmost Chilean Patagonia, with its French-fancy mansions around plazas. A turn-of-the-century gold-rush port made cosmopolitan by Europeans, it felt beautiful, but bleak, its pines, bent by nature, as if they’d been pressed in a memory book. Somewhere between us and the frozen continent was the 900km Drake Passage, better known as the Drake Lake or Drake Shake, depending on its mood — at this latitude there is no land to stop the winds from whipping the converging Pacific, Atlantic and Southern Oceans into a frenzy. Luxury ships are not exempt.

‘Tomorrow it will be shaky,’ said Maxim, one of several solemn types under the command of the loquacious Captain Etienne Garcia. As the two of us sat on the bridge (which was invariably open to guests, the welcome made clear by a green sign hung on the door), the islands of Tierra del Fuego slipped by at snail’s pace, beautiful to behold. Even on his pencil-flecked charts they were magnificent: amoeboid outcrops, intricately lobed, like wafer slices of walnut trapped in lab slides.

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In the end, we got the Lake with a dash of Shake. While the ship rounded Cape Horn, as friendly and welcoming as a shark’s tooth, the wind shrieked, multi-tracked and mad — something Björk might work into a song. But for the next 48 hours the Drake was little more than a pedalling swell, Le Boréal harrumphing and shuddering into a nosedive now and then. As I wandered, I met the walking wounded, inching along, holding handrails, gazing absently, grasping apples in spare hands, faces coloured the beige of the chic interiors. Others were unaffected, and the deliciously slow, uneventful crossing was a chance to make chit-chat with guests among the 200 sailing: French and British empty-nesters with comfy pensions, a German couple who’d just sold their paper mill, and an earthy East Coast widow (‘spending my late husband’s inheritance’) who would be played, of course, by Kathy Bates in the movie of the voyage.

In the morning, we were woken at 6.48am. The click of a mic, an intake of breath, and Captain Garcia’s dulcet French tones hit the speakers: ‘Welcome in Antarctica. Land ahoy! Two degrees outside, but no wind; une bonne condition.’ Narnia-like, through the wardrobe we stepped — to explore the Aitcho Islands, pinpricks lying among the larger outcrops of the South Shetlands.

From the off I loved Antarctica: the biro-navy waters below Le Boréal’s marina deck whipped white by the propellers of the departing Zodiac boats as they took guests to the Aitchos (a routine manoeuvre in harbours and bays each day); the clarity around the hull, falling to a deeper void, reflecting nothing; the tadpole-tiny shapes of penguins — gentoo and chinstrap — in the transparent expanses. Ashore, I only adored those birds more.

Communities of comics, stinking of Copydex… So much about penguins is amusingly human. Some seemed to be waddling back from the supermarket, invisible carrier bags in outstretched wings. A bored-looking colony hung around, barely communicating, presumably waiting for the all-clear to return to their desks after the fire drill. Close by, a splinter group shuffled shiftily at my approach, obviously smokers who’d stamped out their cigarettes on seeing me. Surely they knew litter is illegal on Antarctica?

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No rubbish, no seeds on boot soles, no dust on jackets… yes, Antarctica is a special place. We’d spent the previous afternoon in the Grand Salon, vacuuming wellies and thermals by order of expedition leader Delphine (fluent in English, like all the crew and lecturers). On board, too, to fill us in more on the continent’s unique status, was Laurent Mayet, a Special Representative for Polar Affairs — and a suave, engaging Parisian, to boot.

In legal terms, he told a rapt audience, its closest neighbour is outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies. The terms of the Antarctic Treaty, forged in 1959, exempted the continent from claims of national sovereignty or military misappropriation, while devoting it to peace and science. In a curious paradox, the treaty, overseen by Eisenhower, took some chill off the Cold War, committing parties to it — East and West — to collaborative scientific research in politically frightening times.

Antarctica is a continent of seasons upside-down to our own. Its surface doubles, then shrinks by half, with each winter’s sea-ice creep around its shores, followed by each summer’s thaw. Natural powers of survival are miraculous: penguin and auk embryos, if too cold, can alert parents by singing to them, the vocalisations vibrating through their shells. Antarctic silverfish are among a handful of species that produce antifreeze to cheat death. The southern elephant seal, which can dive to a depth of 2,000m, holding its breath for up to two hours, ensures its lineage by establishing coastal harems.

Slowly, surrealism set in — that ringing, tingling silence, those incorporeal panoramas. Mountains could be mirages. They appeared, barely there, faint details embossed on a sky only marginally less pale. Plateaus of cloud, peaks of meringue, high meadows of pillowy mist — in places, it looked like a heart-chart of the sweetest dream ever. Or a watercolour of the perfect afterlife, some pure planet you’d float away to inhabit on dying.

One pale evening, I heard humpbacks rasping beyond the sliding door to my balcony, left ajar — it was a mother and child in union. I went to look and — pure fluke — saw a tail curl and disappear below the surface, two exotic monochrome leaves on a stem. Captain Garcia, on the mic from the bridge, was a kid at Christmas, filling the corridors with his gasps: ‘Ah, sublime! Soo-bleem!’

From the Aitchos, Le Boréal crossed Bransfield Strait, south along the Antarctic Peninsula next morning, and on into a stunningly turquoise, frosty afternoon. Between sky and sea the horizon was spirit-level straight. On my balcony, glancing up from a book, I gasped — it was like the Swiss Alps had come down to the coast, crumpled-white on ocean-blue. Among the unblemished innocence of this magical ice-coated continent, the real luxury of the cruise was becoming clear. Geography was growing meaningless, place names — Deception Island, Paradise Bay — surely plundered from adventure fiction. I can’t remember when exactly we reached Wilhelmina Bay, but I do remember bubbly on ice. Le Boréal can push through frozen surfaces to a thickness of 30cm, so of course Captain Garcia did. The prow wedged in hard, leaving traces of its bio paint red in the slush. We could get off and wander over the frozen bay, holding glasses of fizz dispensed from a pop-up bar. It was unforgettable, a day of radiance, of plump Weddell seals eyeing us mournfully, unconventional beauties with the gaze of Audrey Hepburn and the girth of Alfred Hitchcock.

Against a startling, almost tropical, orange sunset, we first caught sight of tabular icebergs the size and shape of cross-channel ferries, calved from shelves in the Weddell Sea. They looked so perfect, so machine-honed, that I wondered if they’d been secretly commissioned by Ponant in polystyrene. Whatever, they were worth the price of the voyage alone. No-one tired of photographing their mercurial beauty, from monster to minnow.

Some were caught in frozen mid-tumble, fissures emitting the blue glow of a nightclub, artificially intense, as if set to ooze sweet goo

I’ll always remember — in the waters off tiny Spert Island, in the vicinity of fathomless Mikkelsen Harbour — Petra, the guide, slowing our Zodiac in a canyon choked with fantastical specimens. Silence fell over the party as we drifted among them. Some were angled and caught the sun in panes, like modern architecture. Others were round and smooth, their big underwater bottoms now exposed, upturned by erosion and ensuing instability.

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‘What colour would you call them?’ How about Maldivian, where the underwater shelves reflect back sunlight, creating limpid paradise lagoons? And those smaller bulbous beauties bobbing by?

I tried to understand the alchemy behind this azure-ice phenomenon, explained during one of the expert lectures in the main theatre (brilliant additions to each day). But with the talk of spectrum absorption and optical properties, my thoughts were wont to drift — usually in the direction of a posh Ponant Burger and millefeuille in the comfy, cream-coloured La Licorne restaurant.

Glaciers I did get, becoming quite expert by the time we reached Paradise Bay, disembarking from the Zodiacs for a merciless hill climb above the metallic sea. The shores appeared to be edged with endless ice quarries, where the giant slabs, shunted over time, terminate and fall into the water with a supersonic-style boom. Some were caught in frozen mid-tumble, fissures emitting the blue glow of a nightclub, artificially intense, as if set to ooze sweet goo.

After solar days of polar bays, the outlook was grey for our last port of call before sailing north to end in Ushuaia, Argentina. Snow blew horizontally, stinging our cheeks as we drew close to Deception Island: a desolate ring of low stone peaks around a volcanic caldera bay. Access was between two forbidding pincer headlands, along a strait marked ‘Neptune’s Bellows’ on Maxim’s map. Was it a let-down in such monochrome weather? Not when we saw streaks of black-and-white come to life in the water…

As first one cry, then another, went up, the crowd lurched port and starboard on the bridge. Orcas had arrived. Loping by in flashes of piebald, they put on a display far subtler than SeaWorld, vanishing then returning abruptly with a fin-menace, making directly for the boat. Everyone on board was here for this grand finale: the elderly, the late risers; all up for a few last precious photos to show the folks back home, they beetled like ladybirds in those smart red Ponant parkas (who said Antarctica was just for anoraks?). I watched like a visitor from another planet — which in a way, I guess we all were.

Credit: Nick Redman / Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing