Outdoors

A Trip to the Bottom of the Earth

Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot breaks the ice for an unparalleled polar cruising experience.

Kayaking at sunset. Photography by Olivier Blaud.
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“YOU MUST DESERVE to go to Antarctica,” says Florence Kuyper, expedition leader on Ponant’s new polar explorer ship, Le Commandant Charcot, during an introductory presentation in the ship’s amphitheater after departing Punta Arenas, Chile, for an 11-night sailing to Antarctica. While Kuyper wryly references the famously turbulent Drake Passage crossing, her message could also apply to the obstacle course one must advance through to board a polar cruise in Chile during the age of COVID-19. By comparison, the summer of Drake was a piece of cake.

The prospect of venturing to the most remote and uninhabited place on Earth and following in the footsteps of the famed early-twentieth-century “heroic” polar explorers — such as Roald Amundsen and Sir Ernest Shackleton — is both thrilling and a bit daunting. The first clue that this is not your average cruise is a required testimonial from a medical doctor that you are healthy enough to venture to such an isolated region, and, more intriguingly, capable of walking in an immersion suit weighing about 11 pounds — extreme survival equipment in case an emergency requires abandoning ship.

Then there are the pandemic requirements one has to meet before even reaching the dock. First, you must obtain a Chilean digital mobility pass that verifies your vaccination status to enter the country. Then, there’s the obligatory testing gauntlet to attain a negative PCR test before flying and upon landing in Santiago, plus another antigen test before boarding a charter flight the following day to Punta Arenas. Chilean authorities make a final document check before you are cleared to ascend the stairs to the waiting ship. The relief is palpable realizing you earned your passage to the Last Continent, and my personal last continent after traveling the world for more than two decades. When constant travel becomes a lifestyle, it’s possible to become a bit blasé, but there is nothing routine about a trip to the bottom of the Earth.

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A few dozen other passengers were not so fortunate, getting hung up at some point in the process. We set sail with about 125 guests, roughly half of Charcot’s capacity, most coming from France — though the previous sailing was predominantly American. There were groups of friends, families, couples, and singles eager to escape civilization and kick off the new year by sipping Billecart-Salmon Champagne while surrounded by huge tabular icebergs, the summer sun dipping to the horizon and painting the ice a radiant golden hue before rising again.

Antarctica has become a popular destination for luxury cruising in recent years, with ships operated by Silversea, Lindblad Expeditions, Scenic Cruises, Aurora Expeditions, and Viking, which launched the Octantis this year. The French line Ponant sails other ships there as well, but the Charcot, which made its maiden Antarctic voyage last November, is unlike any other vessel sailing the austral seas.

For starters, the Charcot is the first luxury hybrid electric polar exploration ship powered by low-emission liquified natural gas for low-impact sailing in pristine polar seas. It’s also the first, and only, passenger ship rated Polar Class 2 (PC2), meaning its ice-breaking capacity allows it to sail through ice floes as thick as eight feet to places where other ships — which typically are limited to sailing along the western/northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula —simply cannot go.

The Charcot can explore further south through the Bellingshausen Sea, the Amundsen Sea, and all the way to the Ross Sea bordering the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice platform on the continent. On the east side of the peninsula, Charcot plows through the ice of the Weddell Sea, where Shackleton and his crew were stranded in floating pack ice for almost a year before their ship Endurance sank, crushed by the ice. What followed was the Antarctic’s most epic tale of survival. After nearly two years of enduring unimaginable conditions, against all odds, every crew member survived.

“Some ships have PC6 classification, but we are PC2,” says Captain Etienne Garcia as he shows off the high-tech bridge he helped design. “No other ships have our ice capability — not only the hull but also the power of the engines. The icebreaking hull allows us to safely go beyond the heavy ice and explore new places.” That spirit of exploration infuses the Charcot experience. With ice and weather conditions constantly changing, so too do the ship’s landing spots as it ventures further south in the Weddell Sea to the Larsen Ice Shelf.

Captain Garcia keeps an eye on ice conditions via satellite, and his helicopter team flies off each morning to confirm that the reported conditions have not changed (since the ice is constantly moving), and to scout for a suitable spot to go ashore. “We land in places where nobody goes, so we have more flexibility,” says Garcia, explaining that other ships that stay on the more crowded western peninsula compete to book preferred, established landing sites. Once a landing spot is chosen, Kuyper and her team go to work planning activities for the afternoon. Depending on your taste for adventure, you can opt for various-level hikes or paddle alongside penguins and seals in a kayak. Those who submit healthy EKGs can don dry suits and float in the icy currents or take a polar plunge wearing only a swimsuit. If the ice is thick enough, the ship can make an ice landing, allowing guests to walk down the gangplank onto the ice pack like Shackleton’s crew.

Our first stop is Paulet Island, discovered by a British crew led by James Clark Ross during his 1839 expedition. As we approach the shore on inflatable Zodiac boats, the hillsides appear shaded black. Drawing closer, a sea of black dots comes into focus as a few members of the enormous penguin colony furiously swim ahead of the boat. During breeding season, Paulet Island is home to about 100,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins, an Antarctic penguin species distinguished by their classic tuxedo attire and white circles around their eyes, imparting a googly-eyed look. The cheeky birds chirp and honk, some hovering over their fuzzy chicks, others hurriedly marching around like proverbial March Hares on an undisclosed mission, practically tripping over our feet — clearly oblivious to the rules that require us to stay 15 feet apart for their safety. Others on the shoreline hop in and out of the water with athletic finesse. Meanwhile, predatory skua birds circle overhead, searching for lax parents who provide openings to swoop down and steal their eggs and chicks. “Skuas have babies to feed too,” notes our expedition guide.


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As the rocky volcanic landscape and sculpted ice formations glide by your table, you might spot a group of emperor penguins or a leopard seal floating by.

Halfway up the hill, we come across the ruins of a stone hut built by survivors of Swedish explorer Otto Nordenskjöld’s ship Antarctic, which sank offshore in 1903. The hut provided shelter through the punishing Antarctic winter, while hundreds of penguins and seals were slaughtered for food and heating fuel until the crew’s rescue some nine months later. Imagining their bleak existence draws a sharp contrast to our comfortable quarters aboard the Charcot, moored in the distance among the bergs. The ship’s 123 suites and staterooms are beautifully designed and range in size from about 215 square feet to the over-the-top 1,237-square-foot Suite de l’Armateur (Shipowner's Suite), each with private balconies or terraces. Interiors by leading French architectural firms Studio Jean-Philippe Nuel and Wilmotte & Associés were conceived to blur the lines between the stunning polar landscapes beyond the expansive windows and the chic, contemporary spaces within. The light, neutral polar palette — cream, gray, and brown with accents of black and blue — complements rather than competes with the views. In a nod to the ship’s Arctic destinations, the common spaces have Inuit names.

A member of the ill-fated Shackleton expedition described their rations as a single biscuit per day: “For breakfast, you looked at it; for lunch, you licked it; and for dinner you ate it.” In stark contrast, Charcot passengers have the choice of two restaurants and a walk-up grill on the pool deck, with a culinary program conceived by the legendary French chef, Alain Ducasse.

Most frequently, we opt for the restaurant Sila (sky), where you can serve yourself at an expansive buffet of various fish and meat dishes, pastas, and fresh salads and soups. As the rocky volcanic landscape and sculpted ice formations glide by your table, you might spot a group of emperor penguins or a leopard seal floating by. On more celebratory evenings, we indulge at the gastronomic restaurant Nuna (earth), sampling Ducasse’s signature dishes, such as Albuféra-style chicken breast with poached vegetables and the Oeuf 65°C with whipped potatoes, black truffle, and parmesan cheese. On formal gala-dinner nights, we dress up and choose between classic or vegetarian five-course menus with wine pairings selected by the sommelier. The polar wilderness passes by the windows, the sheer decadence of it all enthralling.

We spend most of the at-sea time on Deck 9 in the Anori (wind) observation lounge, keeping an eye out for whales, seals, and other wildlife, while sharing tales of our outings over drinks with fellow guests. When an announcement goes out about a large pod of orcas spotted ahead of the ship, there’s a surge of excitement as we rush to the windows and brave the high winds on the foredeck for a better look as they swim off to the horizon. During the sailing downtime, families play Scrabble and other board games, and some peruse the pages of polar-themed books while sipping tea.

On the same deck, there’s a wellness space with a spa where you can book a massage or take a sauna followed by a bracing visit to the snow room, an icy cabin serving to stimulate blood flow Finnish-style. Next door, you can sip a healthy smoothie at the Detox Bar, take a dip in the indoor pool, or simply lounge by floor-to-ceiling windows gazing out at the captivating views. For those looking to work out, there’s a fitness center with a view, offering yoga and Pilates classes.

Aside from the lavish comfort of the ship and the enthusiastic and attentive crew, there is a sense of privilege in being in a place that few tourists will ever see.

Despite the Charcot’s hedonism, the spirit of adventure remains. As we anchor in a bay near Snow Hill Island, I sip a crisp sauvignon blanc with my Caesar salad as the Zodiacs are lowered outside the window for the afternoon’s activities. We opt for a Zodiac tour, while others venture out to board kayaks. Our Norwegian guide, Arien Ramnefjell, explains the different ice formations, from glacial ice — which can appear blue because time and pressure have compressed it to the point that it only reflects the blue light spectrum — to sea ice that is clearer and filled with air bubbles. As we pass solitary Weddell seals lounging on floating ice, we learn the size differences between an iceberg, a bergy bit (a smaller chunk ranging in height from about 3 to 16 feet), and growlers (smaller fragments up to 3 feet tall and 15 feet across).

The wind picks up as we motor by jaw-dropping towering glaciers and ice shelves. Floating sea ice starts to pack in. We can see the Charcot far in the distance, but our path back is increasingly obstructed by ice. “Everyone got very quiet all of sudden,” Ramnefjell says, noting the group’s nervous silence as we slowly plow in a zig-zag fashion through brash ice that makes the boat and motor shudder. Our hands grow numb and the wind stings our faces. She assures us the inflatable boats are purpose-built for this with reinforced steel hulls, but one can’t help but ponder the what ifs. There is little real concern about safely reaching the ship in the care of such experts, but you quickly gain an appreciation for the harsh conditions the early explorers endured and can’t help but feel spoiled. Aside from the lavish comfort of the ship and the enthusiastic and attentive crew, there is a sense of privilege in being in a place that few tourists will ever see. The guides share how they got bitten by the polar bug, feeling compelled to return again and again, and it’s easy to understand why.

It seems fitting that the ship is named for the French scientist and polar explorer Jean-Baptiste-Étienne-Auguste Charcot, who led the French Antarctic Expedition at the turn of the twentieth century. A photo in the observation lounge shows his crew sitting on wicker chairs on the ice pack, nonchalantly drinking Mumm’s Cordon Rouge Champagne and reading Le Figaro. As I sip a flute of chilled Veuve Clicquot while gazing at the Weddell Sea’s mesmerizing, massive tabular icebergs, a toast to Charcot and his contemporaries seems in order. Santé!

The Top Cruises for Arctic Exploration

The latest and greatest ships sailing to Antarctica.

As Antarctica increasingly tops the bucket lists of travelers with a taste for exploration and adventure, cruise operators are meeting the growing demand by launching a number of ships designed for remote polar exploration. They are also placing heightened emphasis on environmental sensitivity, expert lecturers and expedition leaders, and scientific research initiatives. Here’s a sample of the latest ships that are sailing to the White Continent.

  • Viking Octantis

    With its first sailing in January, Viking’s Octantis kicked off the cruise line’s Viking Expeditions division, which will add a twin-sister ship, Viking Polaris, later this year. Each PC6 ship is purpose-built for polar exploration and can accommodate 378 guests with 189 staterooms designed in airy, contemporary Nordic style. The ship boasts extensive indoor and outdoor viewing areas for taking in the scenery, and two submarines for underwater exploration.

  • Lindblad National Geographic Endurance

    Last summer, Lindblad launched its first new polar ship, National Geographic Endurance, named for Ernest Shackleton’s famed ship. The PC5 ship’s quirky X-Bow not only gives it a distinct appearance, but also enhances stability by eliminating bow impact and reduces noise. In addition to the requisite kayaks and Zodiacs, the ship has infinity-edged hot tubs and twin geodesic glass igloos where you can spend a night under polar skies.

  • Seabourn Venture

    After a series of delays, Seabourn’s Venture, the line’s first purpose-built expedition ship, is scheduled to make its maiden voyage this summer. Built to PC6 standards, Venture offers 132 oceanfront suites, all with verandas. It carries 24 Zodiacs, a fleet of double sea kayaks, and two six-seater submarines. Venture’s sister ship, Pursuit, is scheduled to launch next year.

  • Quark Expeditions Ultramarine

    Ultramarine is the newest ship to join the fleet of Quark Expeditions, which has specialized in polar expeditions for three decades. With a capacity of 199 guests, the PC6 Ultramarine ups the adventure ante with a pair of Airbus H145 helicopters that flies guests deeper into remote polar regions, and a high-octane roster of off-ship activities that includes heli-skiing, alpine kayaking, and heli-hiking.

  • Viking Octantis

    With its first sailing in January, Viking’s Octantis kicked off the cruise line’s Viking Expeditions division, which will add a twin-sister ship, Viking Polaris, later this year. Each PC6 ship is purpose-built for polar exploration and can accommodate 378 guests with 189 staterooms designed in airy, contemporary Nordic style. The ship boasts extensive indoor and outdoor viewing areas for taking in the scenery, and two submarines for underwater exploration.

  • Seabourn Venture

    After a series of delays, Seabourn’s Venture, the line’s first purpose-built expedition ship, is scheduled to make its maiden voyage this summer. Built to PC6 standards, Venture offers 132 oceanfront suites, all with verandas. It carries 24 Zodiacs, a fleet of double sea kayaks, and two six-seater submarines. Venture’s sister ship, Pursuit, is scheduled to launch next year.

  • Lindblad National Geographic Endurance

    Last summer, Lindblad launched its first new polar ship, National Geographic Endurance, named for Ernest Shackleton’s famed ship. The PC5 ship’s quirky X-Bow not only gives it a distinct appearance, but also enhances stability by eliminating bow impact and reduces noise. In addition to the requisite kayaks and Zodiacs, the ship has infinity-edged hot tubs and twin geodesic glass igloos where you can spend a night under polar skies.

  • Quark Expeditions Ultramarine

    Ultramarine is the newest ship to join the fleet of Quark Expeditions, which has specialized in polar expeditions for three decades. With a capacity of 199 guests, the PC6 Ultramarine ups the adventure ante with a pair of Airbus H145 helicopters that flies guests deeper into remote polar regions, and a high-octane roster of off-ship activities that includes heli-skiing, alpine kayaking, and heli-hiking.

Our Contributors

Laurie Kahle Writer

Laurie Kahle is a freelance writer who frequently covers watches, fashion, and luxury travel. A former editor at Robb Report, her work has been featured in Barron’s, Cigar Aficionado, Departures Intl., Hodinkee, and Centurion, among others.

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