My Solo Cruise to Antarctica and South America on the Azamara Journey
3/14/2008 3:11:41 AM
Solo to Antarctica
I like my adventure not just soft; I prefer mushy. But from what I’ve heard, to get to Antarctica -- the coldest, highest, windiest, driest, and iciest continent on earth, I’ll be rocking and rolling on the world’s roughest waters, The Drake Passage around Cape Horn. The fact that I flee cold weather whenever possible, and can get seasick in the shallow end of a pool is troubling.
But here’s the icebreaker, so to speak: My ship, the Azamara Journey, unlike Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, offers high tea and aromatic massages, and I’ll be in a cabin with a verandah. I imagine chocolates and a goodnight message on my pillow: “Sweet dreams. The wind chill tomorrow will be minus 50.”
And I certainly hope not to become icebound, as Shackleton’s sailing ship did almost 100 years ago. I figure my grand style of Antarctic exploration will mitigate the dangers and discomforts, so I’m pleased to treat myself (more about that later).
Why am I leaving 76 degree Miami? Why not go to Pago Pago or Easter Island or some other exotic, hard-to-get-to place? Well, I’ve traveled to over a hundred countries, and when I twirl my globe – and I do, quite often -- that jagged white landmass at the bottom always, taunts me: Come on down already, you wimp. What’s a little frostbite?
I got hooked on reading about South Pole explorers, and about the ozone hole, and I love penguins. (I have a thing for nurturing, formally- attired, vertically-challenged males.) Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth stirred me. And then, a study published in January in a journal called Nature Geoscience showed that changes in water temp and wind patterns have begun to erode vast ice sheets in western Antarctica at a much faster rate than previously detected.
The ice loss is small compared with the continent’s miles-deep ice sheets. But global sea levels could rise higher and more swiftly than previously supposed. These findings give more urgency to a new global agreement limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. And, urgency to my dream trip, too. I want there to be there when I get there. If not now, when?
My 18-day itinerary starts in Buenos Aires, goes on to the Falkland Islands, then to Antarctica. Then around Cape Horn to Ushuaia, Argentina -- the southernmost town on earth --and to Chile, Uruguay, ending back in BA.
Okay. But why solo? Why not with someone to keep me warm? Because right now, going on my own suits me best, to journey in the quiet of my thoughts. I’ll go forth, spirit unencumbered, with silence and time for inner exploration. And when I seek company there will be, I gather, a few hundred other adventurous hedonists in overpriced gear, happy to share stories and adopt me for a meal or two
Prep for this voyage has been minimal; With guidance online I bought gloves within gloves, pants within pants within pants, polarized sun gIasses, and a balaclava, which sounds like a dessert but I’m told will keep my nose from falling off. The polar explorers made do with smelly sealskin.
A doctor will be on the ship of course, but I brought an extra month’s supply of prescription meds and lots of transderm patches to stave off that almost certain sea sickness. I set up my cell phone, but aside from ports I assume “Can you hear me now?” won’t be relevant. I’m bringing my computer to write as I go, but who knows.
There’s another reason for this adventure right now. Exactly one year previous to my ship’s embarkation, surgeons successfully removed an early-stage cancer, found by chance. My cheerful oncologist tells me I’ll have plenty of years to become a Great Old Broad. Still, these past months I’ve been flying the world like a manic albatross, from the Med to Australia and a dozen places in-between. But Antarctica, frozen and far, is the challenge I seek.
So I’ll celebrate my newest and best anniversary soloing to the southern end of the earth in high style. For the next couple of weeks when you open your freezer maybe you’ll envision me, barfing, triple-layered, but undaunted. I’ll keep you posted along the way.
Solo to Antarctica: Argentina to the Falklands (Part 2)
My Antarctic cruise on the ship called the Azamara Journey begins in Buenos Aires. I had traveled there 10 years ago with an introduction from a world-famous architect. Truth is, I had sat next to him a dinner party in New York, and when I arrived in that grand South American city I was feted by the owner of the best hotel, and a bunch of socialites and creative types who took me to dinner and toured me around, assuming I was a good friend of the architect. I felt like the con guy who passed himself off as Sidney Poitier’s son in Six Degrees of Separation.
Buenos Aires, I do believe, is South America’s most elegant city, with an overlay of European architecture, colorful neighborhoods such as La Boca, wide boulevards, an elaborate opera house, a strange cemetery of little houses including Evita’s, and a passion for tea shops as well as tango bars. Its decades of troubles seem to be over.
But I’m off on the 18-day cruise, no time to linger. And here’s the first blog of my solo journey to Antarctica:
I board the Azamara Journey, a medium-sized luxury ship, in the afternoon, and –hurray-- my stateroom is tasteful and comfortable – for one. Reminds me that cruising with a companion is cramped at best, and 18 days at sea is a long time to be so close, unless you’re in love. (And even then you’re pushing it.)
At the lifeboat drill, the captain welcomes us aboard the wrong ship, which makes some of us a bit uneasy. Here we are, heading into iceberg country with a captain who may think he’s headed for the Brazilian coast. I think of the Titanic.
As we enter the white-capped open waters I enjoy a seven-course tasting menu with paired wines, figuring I may be too queasy to indulge this way later in the voyage. On the walls: David Hockney prints, and throughout the ship, museum-quality art, glass sculptures and photographs. Considering the journey ahead, these artworks make me feel safe. (There’s that Titanic thought again.)
I put on my Transderm patch which I’ll change every three days as instructed. I relax, read The Audacity of Hope, Obama’s book which I borrowed from the ship’s library; I’m trying to get the gist of this charismatic man. I do like both Dem candidates and have the audacity of hope they get together on a ticket so I don’t have to choose.
Write, nap, and meet fellow passengers at a lecture about The White Continent. Enjoy four courses (sea air!), in the steakhouse dining room with glass-wall views of the Atlantic below. Walk the stairs constantly, and around the pool area as the sun sets (late). Moving is my antidote to chocolate soufflé with crème fraiche.
Listen to a young Israeli pianist interpret Chopin in the literally rocking cabaret before I drift off in my king bed to the slap of the ship, pushing its way through these far southern waters. So far, this is a civilized way to reach the bottom of the globe, enjoying the mix of solitude and companionship.
The water is calmer and the sky bluer than yesterday. I sit on my verandah, slathered in sunscreen, enjoying the cool breeze and hot sun. Floating the seas is a decompression from the hype of the land. So is having a “butler” as well as a steward. Mine’s from India. Way to go, Lea.
Join a group at tea time playing a musical trivia game. I have a memory for trivia (unless it’s yesterday’s) and sure enough I win by knowing the theme from Animal House). I’m rewarded with a book light. Reminds me of when I was a runner up on Jeopardy! as a twenty-something, and was given a carton-full of bubble bath. I’m still bathing in it.
Dine in the main room with three nice couples who cruise frequently, and seem close. One Englishman is a retired pilot who has built his own small plane. About half of the 600 passengers are from outside the US, and the staff of over 400 comes from 52 countries. With a smile and a couple of questions I’ve been adopted for most meals and activities. Works just fine, as long as I don’t spend too much time with any particular couple.
Last night the sea swelled to over 30 feet, The ocean was smeared with whitecaps to the horizon, and the sky, speckled with stars, including the Southern Cross. The ship rolled and shuddered. I felt a bit vulnerable – but not seasick
First excursion: The Falkland Islands. The last ship that came here couldn’t get to port in the rough seas. But we are luckier, I dress in layers, but the weather changes and the temp is about 70 when I board a tender. Mutterings of “global warming.”
Dolphins, seals and sea lions live in these waters, and four types of penguins inhabit the Falkland’s rocky coves. I choose to see the Rock hoppers, with their yellow highlighted heads that remind me of surfer dudes.
On rutted roads and then off-road over peaty hills we end up staring at fifty or so young penguins, standing around, looking ar the water, waiting for their moms to come back with some fish. I had walked among thousands of penguins on a previous trip to Patagonia, so I’m not sure this bone-crunching ride in the Land Rover was worth it.
The Falklands scene: treeless moors, isolated farms, old lighthouses projecting from the shore, and flocks of sheep; the landscape reminds me of the peaty Burren in Ireland. One recognizable sign: Thatcher Road.
Seems the three thousand islanders here protect their privacy. Word is that the locals decided to leave land mines from the 1982 war with Argentina on the sandy beach to discourage tourists. Penguins may be too light to set these off, but supposedly a cow exploded a mine recently, and the capital, Port Stanley, lost electric power.
Buildings are colorful --many have red roofs and school-bus yellow walls to fight the drab surroundings. Some are built from wood salvaged from storm-damaged ships. Dozens of battered hulks in the harbor are a legacy of lost battles with fierce South Atlantic storms. (Not looking forward to those two days through the Drake Passage, on return from Antarctica!)
What to buy as a souvenir? Aha: To raise money for education and to send kids to the UK for studies, the locals produced a Full Monty calendar of sheep shearers in the buff. I like Mr. September, but November isn’t bad either.
I dine in my stateroom. So cozy. CNN is no longer viewable (yeah) as we head toward Antarctica. I watch in-house videos and The Lake House, a movie I didn’t understand the first time I saw it, and which makes less sense the more I see it.
Talk with Captain Leif today. The vibrations that we felt for about an hour last night were caused by a fishing net which was floating on the ocean and caught in the propellers. After great effort, the crew was able to reverse the engines and dispel the netting, but it was a close call. If they had been unable to fix it, the cruise would have been aborted.
Also, the captain explains that he named his previous ship at the lifeboat drill because this is his first time at the helm on this one. This voyage is his first to Antarctica. I meet Ule the German ice pilot, our ship’s very own iceberg expert. For fourteen years Ule had been captain on the Explorer, the Canadian ship that had struck an iceberg and sunk in November. Ule was not on that ship when it went down.
The captain says we are currently sailing between four low pressure systems, and there’s no way to know how the systems will move. At over 30 thousand tons, the Azamara Journey is probably the largest vessel ever to travel to Antarctica. There’s no icebreaker system, so ice pilot Ule will be on the lookout constantly for any stray icebergs, which are 90 percent under the water.
“What if you get sleepy?” I ask.
“Someone will elbow me,” he smiles.
He’s kidding. I think. Tomorrow morning we’ll be at the Antarctic peninsula. Hope Captain Leif and ice pilot Ule get a good night’s sleep. Hope I do, too. Will let you know.
Wake up at 7 am, open my curtains and in front of me is a mile-long, 100- foot-tall rectangle of floating ice -- smooth and massively white in the sunshine. I feel its coldness from my verandah. Thousands (millions?) of years old, this enormous slab broken from Antarctica’s western ice shelf floats ever-so-slowly northward toward warmer seas. It is our introduction to the wonders to come.
(Wicked thought: Bush and Cheney and scientists with political agendas sitting on the top, insisting there’s no global warming as the ice melts below them.)
The water is kind today, small waves, and the sky reflects the glacial blue edges of the berg. I don my layers, speed to the open deck and gaze 360 degrees around. Snow suddenly falls for a few minutes, as petrels and albatrosses fly by. Now hundreds of small bergs pass close to the ship, sea-and wind-sculpted beyond the talents of Gaudi or Gehry or Calatrava: sliced, curved, swooping, hollowed -- magnificent.
We reach Elephant Island, where Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 28 rowed three small boats after pack ice crushed their ship, the Endurance. From here, he and five men sailed 800 miles in an open lifeboat to icy South Georgia island, which they trekked across to reach help for the men left behind. All did endure.
In the afternoon we enter Antarctica Sound. Foggy. Scary. Can’t see much for hours. We glide through gray mist and water as if on a ghost ship. When the fog lifts, two huge rectangular bergs glow nearby like incandescent sentinels. Thousands of penguins aboard one of them appear like specks of dirt as they leap into the sea, putting the iceberg’s mass in perspective.
Next day the weather holds and we venture into the Gerlach Strait --mountains, glaciers and ice cliffs, and Paradise Bay --which sounds like a Caribbean destination, but was once a favorite anchorage for whalers. Raw, jagged peaks, maybe 10-15 thousand feet loom over us on both sides of the channel throughout the day. These mountains are the end of the Andes, which submerge at the tip of South America to startlingly arise again here. A surprise to all.
We are cruising on the western side, along the Antarctic peninsula, and enter the narrow, fjordlike Lemair channel past 65 degrees south latitude, joining maybe .0003 per cent of people who Captain Leif tells us have ventured this far. He congratulates us: Azamara Journey is the largest vessel ever to reach this point so close to the South Pole.
All through the day Humpback whales spout near the ship, as if to claim their territory, and penguins jump through the narrow passage like tiny dolphins. The scene: chocolate-colored mountains, iced in white, tinged with blue, Unexpectedly, the only other color on this gray day is an occasional watermelon blush on ice fields, from algae. And a couple of red buildings, base camps of international scientists, long deserted.
I stay outside for almost two hours in my thankfully warm gear, my face covered, watching the silent flotilla of small bergs and ice chunks. (Ule, our ice pilot, are you watching too?) One Englishman next to me on the rail of the top deck says that last night six whales played tag below his verandah. A whale story, I figure.
Antarctica, an ice desert one and a half times the size of the states, was once part of a super continent including Africa, Australia, India and South America. The ice here is not melting as fast as in the Arctic -- I heard the crack of calving only once. But huge waterfalls thunder, and scientists report the temperature is steadily rising.
Twice a day lecturers have been explaining the history, flora and fauna, but if the captain announces a whale sighting the room empties as if someone screamed “fire!” Activities, games, entertainment and meetings are just breaks for warmth from the outside panorama.
One interesting meeting abruptly brings me back to reality, a conversation about current events. The topic: sexism versus racism. A bearded guy insists there’s no such thing as sexism, all the while not letting me speak. Unfortunately he reminds me a bit, in the midst of this glorious journey, of Chris Matthews. (Ha! and Ick!) So nice to be away from all of that. In fact, I hereby recommend that the loser of both the primaries and the presidency, and their staffs, and pundits and pollsters and snarky media and know it-all extremists go to Antarctica to get their priorities straight and get beyond themselves.
I retire to my cabin (the staff calls it a stateroom, but I forget to) for tea every day to watch the scene in quiet and warmth. I read, write, sleep, smile. This small space has become my refuge.
Next morning we enter into perhaps the largest active volcanic caldera in the world, at Deception Island. The last eruption was in 1970, and through the sleet I can still see plumes of steam among the cinder cones around us. The snow is dirty looking –black, white, gray everywhere except for ghost hamlets of small red cabins: deserted Argentine and Spanish expedition camps.
Here whalers kept their captured carcasses, and the water is supposedly warm enough to swim in -- some staff and passengers take the “Penguin plunge” to earn a certificate. I hand them a towel.
Chinstrap penguin and seal colonies reside near Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow entrance to the caldera where our captain claims many ships have sunk. We see remains of rusty vessels, and a sea plane. Just a year ago a Norwegian ship hit the rocks here, so we maneuver gingerly northward, back into open sea.
Captain Leif announces in a choking voice that this voyage to Antarctica has been the highlight of his lifework. Now, he reminds us, we must head toward the world’s windiest, roughest waters – the open sea where the Atlantic and Pacific collide, and especially The Drake Passage around Cape Horn. Conqueror of ships. Subject of countless captain’s logs and sailor’s lore. Since the Panama Canal was built few vessels venture in these southern waters, and I do not want to spend two days seasick, or fearful in a cyclonic storm. Maybe we’ll get lucky. More to come ,,,,
Up from Antarctica: Cape Horn, Chilean Fjords, Uruguayan Riviera, Patagonia -- and a Magical Eclipse (Part 4)
We enter the 600 mile stretch of water separating Antarctica from Cape Horn, the southern tip of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago at the bottom of South America -- perhaps the worst water passage on earth. Storms can intensify the westerly winds and whip the sea into massive, fast-moving swells unhindered by landmass.
A larger vessel than our 700-passenger Azamara Journey just lost 12 windows in these waters, but coming up from Antarctica we have no choice. During the night the ship dips and rolls, and to stop imagining what lies at the bottom of the sea I awaken at 5 am, hand wash some panties (beats whistling in the dark), then fall back asleep till 10 am. When I wake up, the worst is over and I didn’t get seasick. Love that patch.
Midday, dead ahead, Cape Horn looms ever closer on the horizon, and the waters get really rough for about an hour – the Atlantic and Pacific battling each other in the Drake Passage. As we make it past, Captain Leif congratulates us as new “Horners.” Traditionally, sailors are entitled to the bragging rights of a gold earring in their left ear and a tattoo of a full-rigged ship. I settle for a certificate and a Cosmo.
The rest of this remarkable cruise is a succession of interesting land tours and ever-warmer days at sea as we head north. My steward brings me a rose on a solo Valentine’s Day, but unknown to me, romance lies ahead.
Ushuaia, Argentina- The Andes rise above “the world’s southernmost city.” Several museums to visit, and wild Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego to hike, but I’m a wildlife fan in more ways than one, so choose to ply the Canal Beagle on a catamaran. Darwin found this waterway while voyaging to the Galapagos; thus the channel was named after his ship. I closely view sea lions, sea elephants, penguins and look-alike black and white cormorants (they can fly; penguins can’t).
Back on ship, we dine along the Chilean fjords, viewing six huge glaciers and cascading water on our way to the Magellan straits. The last big ice we will see on this cruise, and an awesome backdrop in the fading light.
Puerta Arenas, Chile- This southernmost continental town’s fierce Patagonia winds can force residents to hold onto ropes along the streets. I again opt for wildlife, and drive two hours to view penguin colonies. A couple of hundred birds hang out, but disappointing.
In late afternoon a Japanese whaling boat docks alongside the ship. I see the lifts that hoist whales from the sea and the cavity to store the mammals. Several of us wonder whether any of the majestic creatures we’ve admired along the way will wind up butchered.
A long-haired English comedian named Mike Goddard, who used to tour with the Beatles, has come aboard and entertains us with drollery. Classical musicians and small revues have been fine, but with all this awesome scenery we’re ready for some yuks.
At Sea- Last night dozens of us gathered at midnight on the top deck to observe a total eclipse of the full moon above the South Atlantic. The Milky Way, which I rarely see anymore, spreads across the black sky. I am ok being alone but suddenly a dashing, much younger mystery man sits next to me (not Captain Leif or ice pilot Ule). We had chatted during the past days, and now spend two hours of fading and re-emerging moonlight holding hands and –oh my-- sweetly kissing. (I guess if a werewolf evolves under a full moon, a cougar can come out under a full eclipse of the moon.) For the rest of this blessed adventure think romance novel -- and smiling, plucky (surprised!) heroine.
Puerta Madryn, Argentina- A two hour drive from the ship is the place in Patagonia I have been longing to return to: Punta Tombo, a protected peninsula with the world’s largest concentration of Magellan penguins –up to half a million. When I came here 10 years ago I was charmed by these adorable little creatures who hang at the beach, swim in the clear water and Charlie-Chaplin-walk among us to their burrows. I finally get to interact with my fill of penguins. Life can’t get much better than this trip.
Punta del Este, Uruguay- The Azamara Journey docks way earlier than planned in this glam resort city of wide beaches, fancy houses and low-rise luxury condos. But perfection is impossible. In the early morning our ship comedian Mike Goddard suffers a major heart attack and is brought here, near death. The passengers buzz with the scary saga of Mike. Is he ok? Nobody is sure. Captain Leif says he had flatlined onboard before he was taken off ship.
I hang around the harbor, where sea wolves – the name locals call their sea lions – beg for fish, swim and sunbathe on the rocks. Stroll, poke around, view some Latin American art and a quirky house called Casa Pueblo, the home of artist Carlos Paez Vilaro. Ponder life at a café table over a “salad” of nuts, apples and pure cream.
We are subdued tonight because of Mike, but I dine with another solo woman who practically inhales two orders of foi gras, two orders of Brazilian stone crabs, and crème brulee. Comfort food?
The Oscar awards follow, and the cabaret is set up with huge screens, unlimited popcorn, champagne, and a huge ice-carved Oscar; the ship’s version of a Vanity Fair party. For an on-ship video I walk a red carpet and the cruise director playing Joan Rivers giggles when I brag “I’m wearing Chico’s.” Later I win a prize for guessing the most correct awards. Since I missed a bunch, I can only assume this crowd is more into whales than movies.
Montevideo, Uruguay- The most impressive thing about this small, riverfront capital city is its open-mindedness. Many ethnic groups have found refuge here, and a Holocaust memorial is surprising by the beach. At lunch, an old marketplace filled with bars and parilla restaurants – open fires, ceilings fans, and meat, meat, meat. Captain.Leif in a red shirt, sits with crewmembers digging into a steak. He is still so happy to have steered our ship past 65 degrees south latitude – a record accomplishment.
My last dinner onboard, and as usual, I wait while the maitre d seeks interesting people for me to sit with. With open seating, each night I’ve met new people. But what’s this? I do a double-take. Next to me is Mike Goddard, the comedian who’d been evacuated with a major heart attack! He’s going into the dining room! Maybe it’s the fluids, but he looks better than before! Those Uruguayan hospitals must be on to something. We are all mystified.
The in-stateroom movie tonight on a satellite station: Titanic, with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. Better now than when we were heading to Antarctica.
This remarkable cruise ends where it began, in Buenos Aires, A trip to a country “estancia” to eat more beef and dance with the gauchos. A sexy tango show. We’ve covered over 5,000 nautical miles and have probably gained a collective ton (I’ve contributed at least five pounds). We’ve played games, enjoyed among others, a Paraguayan harpist, Israeli pianist, Australian singer, British violinist, Argentine flutist, Chilean dancers, and a comedian back from the dead. The moon eclipsed, and I scored. Dozens of whales, hundreds of icebergs, and hundreds of thousands of penguins later I’m humbled and mind-boggled.
As I wrote in the first segment of this blog, this trip was an extravagant anniversary present I gave myself in gratitude for good health, to a destination I’d always dreamed about. A celebration of life.
I fly back to appear on a panel on women’s travel at the New York Times Travel Show. With newfound conviction I tell the eager audience about this trip, and that traveling solo --whether around the corner or to the bottom of the earth -- isn’t the best or worst way to go. It can be the ultimate way.
Update: Mystery man emailed, texted and called, but he lives halfway around the world. A beautiful memory. But hey, there’s another full eclipse of the moon in 2010!
Lea Lane is founder/editor of www.sololady.com and author of Solo Traveler: Tales and Tips for Great Trips (Fodor’s)