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Gina Robinson

Age: 33

Occupation:Cruise Enthusiast

Number of Cruises: 6

Cruise Line: Regent Seven Seas

Ship: Explorer II (retired)

Sailing Date: n/a

Itinerary: Antarctica

Previous cruises
May 2000: Celebrity Mercury - Los Angeles, Alaska, Vancouver
Nov 2001: Norwegian Sun - Boston, Eastern Caribbean, Miami
Sept 2002: Carnival Legend – London, Transatlantic via Iceland, New York
August 2003: Celebrity Constellation - Mediterranean
August 2004: Jewel of the Seas – Scandinavia/Russia

After looking at various options for cruising to Antarctica we decided that we wanted the comfort of a larger ship without forfeiting the ability to be on an expedition ship with an ice-strengthened hull that also allowed zodiac landings. We found these requirements in Explorer II and looking back we definitely made the right decision. This review is divided into two sections. The first is a review of the ship and the second is a description of our itinerary.

Notes about the ship: Explorer II
The Explorer II was originally intended as a spy ship for the Soviet Navy. With only the basic hull completed by the end of the “Cold War”, she was instead taken to Italy for completion. She later sailed for Swan Hellenic as Minerva and then as Saga Pearl. She undertakes Antarctic expeditions from late November to February as Explorer II. What follows is a description of what you will find on each deck.

Deck 4 / B Deck
The first passenger deck is Deck 4 or B Deck. This deck contains Category B cabins as well as the Medical Centre. Category B cabins are twin/queen cabins with a double porthole. We were in cabin B18 which is comfortable but with very limited space (140 square foot). The en-suite facilities are rather cramped and the shower is tiny. While crossing the Drake Passage the cabin was also very noisy (which was unexplained.) However, the cabin is spotlessly clean and the beds very comfortable. Toiletries like shower gel and shampoo are provided as bath robes and slippers. There is also a telephone and television with DVD. DVD’s can be obtained at reception. A great idea is that the lectures are simultaneously broadcast on the TV’s so that you don’t have to attend lectures in the main lounge if you don’t want to. Packing space is very limited but is adequate. Plenty of hangers are provided.

Deck 5 / A Deck
This deck contains Category A cabins which are similar to Category B cabins except that they have picture windows instead of double porthole. There is also a free launderette available on this deck with two washing machines, two tumble dryers, ironing board and iron. (The ship also provides dry cleaning / washing and ironing services at reasonable rates.) The reception desk is also located on this deck.

Deck 6 / Main Deck
At the aft of main deck is the main dining room. All passengers are accommodated at one sitting and you can request a table for two or join a larger table. (There are no assigned tables). Dinner usually takes place from 7:30pm. You can also choose to have breakfast or lunch here.

Ahead of the dining room is two small shops which sell Antarctica branded clothing as well as perfume, toiletries, postcards, etc. The Aquarius beauty centre is alongside the shops and has a hair salon as well as massages, facials etc.

Next is Shakleton’s Bar which is very cosy and a nice spot to enjoy a cocktail while observing the beauty of the Antarctic. The Main Lounge is located forward and this is where the very informative enrichment lectures are given on Antarctic wildlife and birds as well as Antarctic explorers (such as Amundsen and Shakleton) and the geography of the region. Don’t miss Patti Hostuick’s lectures – she has an incredible wealth of knowledge on the area and her love for Antarctica shines through.

Deck 7 / Bridge Deck
The South Cape Bar and Verandah restaurant are located aft. The Verandah restaurant serves buffet breakfast and lunch (no dinner was served here on this cruise). It is also the place everyone heads to after being out on deck as hot drinks and biscuits/pastries are available here. The South Cape Bar is another favourite place to have a drink and admire the view. Snacks are also provided.

The card room and library are located amidships. The library is popular and also houses the computers from where you can send emails (at $5 each). There is no charge to receive emails and these are promptly delivered to your cabin. The cinema is also amidships and movie times are published in the daily bulletins. Located forward are the Concerto and Symphony suites.

Deck 8 / Promenade Deck
This deck has Superior cabins (SP) located aft and amidships as well as Deluxe (D) cabins located forward. There is also the jogging track on this deck.

Deck 9
A small gym is located forward with a treadmill, two exercise bicycles and limited weight-bearing equipment.

Cabin descriptions
Superior cabins are larger than A and B deck cabins (162 square foot) and have a walk-in closet, bar fridge and bathtub. Deluxe cabins (226 square foot) also have a separate sitting area in addition to the walk-in closet, bar fridge and bathtub. Both these categories have picture windows. Suites (290 square foot) have the added bonus of a balcony.

General
All in all this ship is very cozy and very suited to cruising in Antarctica. It is very comfortable, very clean and has an excellent Captain and crew. The service is exemplary and restaurant as well as bar staff are absolutely top notch. They go out of their way to make your cruise experience very special.

The food is excellent, the menus imaginative and the desserts delectable. Most drinks are included in the cruise fare and the wines and cocktails are excellent. Tips are also included in the cruise fare but the fantastic service will see you wishing to add a bonus for those whose service has been exceptional.

“Yesterday and today have been two fine days. Yesterday especially the colours of sky and sea and glacier were wonderful, far surpassing anything I ever saw before. I will not make an attempt to describe this, for I could not possible convey an accurate impression of these splendours …”

Diary entry, Alexander Macklin, surgeon, Shakleton’s Endurance expedition.

It is indeed difficult to put into words what you experience in Antarctica. I hope that I will at least be able to do it a little justice with this review.

We arrived at Ushuaia’s airport at about 2:30pm and were transferred to the town to explore and do some souvenir shopping before boarding the ship. Boarding was done literally within five minutes and we were met by assistant cruise director Sally who also showed us to our cabin.

Our cabin (B18) was a standard double porthole cabin on deck 4. Although the beds were set up as twin, Sally quickly organised for this to be corrected to the queen we had requested when booking. While this was being done, we went to the Verandah restaurant on deck 7. The Verandah has a garden restaurant feel with light green being the dominant colour. There was a variety of sandwiches, salads, cheeses as well as hot meals available.

All over the ship, staff were most welcoming and very attentive to your every need. This we would come to find as the six star service you receive on the Explorer II.

We returned to our cabin to find the queen bed in place and our cabin stewardess (Cleo) providing queen bed sheets and a lovely duvet. Our luggage was also at the door and we decided to get unpacked as soon as possible as the cabin is quite small and it’s best to store the luggage under the bed to save space. Packing space is certainly limited, but we managed to find a place for everything. (The trick is to keep everything in its place!)

At 6:30pm, Jannie Cloete the cruise director introduced the expedition staff led by Dennis Mense. It was plain to see that they are all highly qualified and also very excited to be on the Explorer II. They sure did whet our appetites for what we would be experiencing.

After the introductions, we went out on deck for our sailaway, armed with a cocktail. (Most drinks are included in the cruise price.) Dennis kindly took a lovely photograph of us with Ushuaia in the distance. Then, time for dinner and we realised that we were in for a treat with the delicious food on board Explorer II. After a busy day, it was wonderful to sink into bed and fall asleep with the promise of an amazing cruise ahead of us.

We awoke during the night to feel the ship rolling and I feared this Drake Passage crossing was going to be a rough one. However, the rolling was gentle and it was easy to get back to sleep. The Explorer II does have stabilizers which do help coupled with the fact that the Drake Passage was relatively calm prompting Dennis to call it the Drake Lake!

Tuesday. December 14
We had breakfast at the Verandah restaurant where there was a good selection: fruit, yoghurt, cereals, pastries, pancakes, coldmeats and cheeses and eggs made to order. Next was an opportunity to change the parkas we were given for a more suitable size if this was needed. (Explorer II provides lovely parkas and backpacks to all cruisers. The parkas proved to be fantastic protection against the Antarctic cold and they are both wind- and water-proof. Regarding clothing, the best advice is to layer: thermal underwear then two other layers and the parka were always sufficient. You will also be sent a list of other requirements such as waterproof pants and boots. We also recommend two pairs of gloves – one thin pair and then “ski” type gloves to wear over. ) I then went to the hair salon while my husband,Willy attended a lecture on Antarctic seabirds. At 11:15, Dennis gave a general info talk on IAATO (International Association for Antarctic Tour Operators) guidelines, the use of zodiacs and our expected route (subject to weather conditions).

After lunch, we had a much needed nap. There is the very useful option of watching the enrichment lectures on your cabin television (broadcast simultaneously). We thus decided to stay in our cabin and watch Patty Hostuick’s lecture on the seals we may see, which was very interesting. We then watched Patti’s husband Tim’s lecture on the first Antarctic explorers and how Antarctic place names got on the map.

Later, we attended Captain John Mould’s welcome cocktail party followed by dinner where we were invited to join Jannie at the cruise director’s table. Dinner was enjoyable and everyone exchanged anecdotes about their travels. As time progressed, it became clear that the Drake “Lake” would revert to its true name and by the time we got to bed, the sea was decidedly more rough.

Wednesday, December 15
Sleep was rather restless with a rolling ship and morning brought no reprieve. The only food I could face was toast and a few strawberries which Willy brought for me. The restaurant staff were also more than willing to bring anything to the cabins. (Most people I spoke to agreed that it was best to remain horizontal and not walk around as it is then that you realise just how much the ship is moving. The chairs in the Main Lounge, Main Diningroom and Shakleton’s Bar as well as the pianos are chained to the floor to prevent them moving when the ship passes through the Drake Passage.) Thank goodness for motion sickness tablets!

By lunchtime, the sea had calmed and it was possible to walk to the Verandah restaurant and have a small meal. Then it was back to the cabin to sleep. Willy woke me at 3:30p,m for a tour of the bridge. It was wonderful to see a whole new world from the bridge: our first real icebergs on this cruise. We watched as the bridge officers negotiated a safe course through the massive icebergs, but as the Captain pointed out: it is more important to be aware of the little icebergs.

After being on the bridge, we decided to go out on deck and get kitted up to brave the cold (1° C and a wind chill factor of much worse). How beautiful to see icebergs of all shapes and sizes with varying shades of white/grey and blues. Pointed icebergs, tabular icebergs, icebergs that look as if they have been expertly carved. We took so many photographs on this cruise, but they will never be able to convey the sheer beauty and magnitude of this ocean.

We enjoyed some delicious biscuits and hot chocolate to warm us up and then went through to the Main Lounge to listen to Tim talk about Amundsen, Scott and Shakleton. We then returned to our cabin and saw penguins diving in and out of the ocean from our cabin windows as well as birds (Cape Petrel and Wandering Albatross) swooping down almost touching the sea and our window! Next was a briefing in the Main Lounge on the wildlife seen during the day as well as what was expected for the next day. After dinner, we went out on deck to watch the sunset (only at about 11:30pm). We marvelled at the sunset casting rays of orange glow onto the icebergs. Antarctica is truly an area of changing beauty.

Thursday, December 16
After an excellent night’s sleep, we enjoyed breakfast of pancakes, fruit and yoghurt at the Verandah Restaurant. We then went to our cabin to get kitted out into the warm layers that are so necessary for this cold weather. Of course, the parkas are fantastic. Not long after we got on deck, Dennis made an announcement that a pair of Emperor penguins had been spotted and that the Captain was going to try to bring us in as close as possible to see them. It was awesome to watch as we made our way through sea ice surrounded by icebergs. By 11am, Captain Moulds got us really close and we were able to see the penguin (the other had swum away) and we realised just how lucky we were to be witnessing this little seen species of penguin. (Emperors are found further south in Antarctica where few ships are able to go.) The Verandah was very popular after spending one and a half hours out on deck and we enjoyed a hot chocolate whilst chatting to fellow passengers.

After lunch, we again went out and the Captain took the ship within metres of a tabular iceberg – an amazing moment. Patricia Silva then gave part 2 of her lecture on penguins and at 7pm, we attended the recap and briefing for the next day. Dennis told us that our first landing would be the next morning and everyone was very excited. There were 140 passengers on board and we were divided into two groups; Discovery and Endurance. (The reason for this is that only 100 people can be on land at one time in terms of IAATO). These two groups alternated as to who first went on a landing.

Dinner was very enjoyable – it’s great talking to your fellow cruisers; sharing your day’s experiences, your hopes for the next day and your highlights.

Friday, December 17

There was much buzz and excitement in the morning and we enjoyed our breakfast whilst watching the Discovery group making their way to Devil’s Island on zodiacs. (Zodiacs take ten passengers at a time.)

Our cabin did tend to get very hot (we had already requested on three occasions for it to be made cooler) so it was quite an experience getting all kitted up in our warm clothing and parkas while we were already too hot! Nevertheless it was all good fun and there was much anticipation as we all lined up ready to board the zodiacs. (You first step into an antiseptic bath to clean off your boots each time you leave and re-enter the ship.)

It was exhilarating to make our way to Devil’s Island and there were even two groups of penguins at the landing point who seemed to welcome us! We made our way up a small but steep hill and what a sight to see: five thousand pairs of nesting Adelie penguins and many with chicks. We were briefed to keep at least fifteen feet between ourselves and the penguins and to move slowly and give them the right of way. The best is to just find a spot and sit down to observe them. The expedition team were on hand to answer any questions and to give us numerous interesting facts. It was a very special experience for both of us.

The time went all too quickly (one and a half hours on the island) and we then needed to make our way back to the zodiacs. With such perfect weather we didn’t even need our gloves or parka. We could not have asked for a more perfect first landing.

After returning to the ship, we enjoyed another delicious lunch. Our group (Endurance) was first off for our first continent landing at Brown Bluff. In fact, we were very luck to be able to go on our zodiac landing to Brown Bluff as the landing beach was almost entirely blocked with chunks of ice. The expedition team did an incredible job in manouvering the zodiacs through a narrow path to the beach area. It was spectacular to see the Adelie penguins playing on the ice mounds and almost using them as vantage points. Also a very different experience to the morning landing. Brown Bluff is home to both Adelie and Gentoo penguins. The Gentoos are a little larger than the Adelies and have an orange beak. There was also a Weddell seal laying lazily on the water’s edge. It was amazing to just watch and listen and take in the beauty all around us.

The swells were a lot larger than when we had left, the tide was coming in and it was getting much colder so we were lucky to be in the first landing group. A hot cup of coffee at the Verandah was much needed.

Later, during dinner, the Captain announced over the public address system that there were Minke whales to the port side of the ship. Everyone rushed to the nearest window or went out on deck to catch a glimpse and we were freezing cold! It was lovely to watch the Minkes who are the smallest Antarctic whales and who do not migrate. A wonderful ending to another amazing day in Antarctica.

Saturday, December 18
This morning we had a very early wake-up call: 4:30 am. Endurance group was first to board the zodiacs for Half Moon Island and our first view of Chinstrap penguins. Half Moon Island is very picturesque with the penguins scattered amongst the hills, a huge lake and of course, the sea. The Chinstraps make their way to the sea by the special paths they have trudged into the snow and are aptly named for the black “strap” which looks like it is drawn with a black fountain pen under their necks. We decided that they are our favourite penguins! The island has thick, icy snow that “crunches” as you walk through it and it is also the home of blue-eyed shags.

At 6:30am, we returned to the ship and another delicious breakfast. At our morning briefing, Dennis announced that we would try to land at Bailey’s Head to see 100 000 pairs of nesting Chinstraps – he said that chances to land at Bailey’s Head are rare because of the high swells; however the sea was at present unusually calm. Unfortunately, when the team sent out a scout boat, it became evident that the swells had become too large and it would be unsafe to land – such is the weather changes in Antarctica.

Instead we made our way into Deception Island’s Whaler’s Bay where we could walk around for two hours. It was interesting to see, but sad too, to think of what was done by man to such majestically beautiful animals. There were remains of whale bones and small boats as well as machinery and storage tanks. The area is now a research station for geological purposes. There was also an opportunity for those who wanted to swim to do so in the warmth of a trench specifically dug out by the crew to trap the warm waters along the shore. This water is geothermically heated and is a result of volcanic eruptions in the 1960s. This proved popular, but only a few braved the icy waters of the sea – Willy being one of them!

The whole entrance into Deception Island (which forms part of the South Shetland Islands) is very picturesque and it was a very good day. The weather had also been very good and we were constantly amazed by the beauty around us. No matter that we were up so early – this was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Sunday, December 19
We had another excellent night’s sleep, a great breakfast and then … a whole new experience: as we entered the Neumayer Channel we had to slowly make our way through ten-tenths pack. Ten-tenths pack meant that the whole Channel was surrounded by ice. Everyone was out on deck fascinated by what we saw: the white ocean, crunching and cracking as it was moved by the ship’s ice strengthened hull. The sight of seals resting on the drifting ice: mainly crab eater seals (who actually eat krill), but also the odd elephant seal and leopard seal. We also saw South Polar Skuas and the odd penguins (Gentoos) leaping and diving into the cracks of white frosted ocean.

All this made it very clear that if you choose to go to Antarctica, make sure you go on a ship that is able to negotiate such icy seas and with a very experienced Captain and expedition team. You will get all of this on board Explorer II.

Due to the thick ice, we were not able to make our afternoon landing at Port Lockroy. This is the place where the mail is loaded off for posting and also the place where we could buy souvenirs. (The zodiacs did try to bring on board a couple of people stationed at Port Lockroy to tell us about life there, but it took forty minutes just to reach the landing beach and so this idea was abandoned.) It was slightly disappointing to miss this, but for us to be making our way through all the ice was quite fascinating: despite the cold we were drawn to the front of the ship to savour this new experience.

We all had an enjoyable barbecue dinner after which Jannie organised the Liars Club: Five members of the expedition team each gave their definition of a highly unusual word/term and we the audience had to guess who gave the correct definition. Fun was had by all and the team managed to bluff us four out of five times!

Monday, December 20
We awoke to another sunny, gorgeous day. Our first landing for the day was at Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula (our second continent landing). It was clear as we came in with the zodiacs that it is very aptly named. Fresh snow had fallen and together with the mountains and immense glaciers this truly is a paradise.

We also got to see Gentoo penguins and enjoyed observing them while Patty fed our constant thirst for knowledge on the penguins. Those who wished could hike up the hill and “toboggan” down (more appropriately slide down) and Willy said he enjoyed this. There is also an unmanned Argentine base here called Almirante Brown. We then had a zodiac tour around the bay and it was stunning. The cherry on top was seeing a leopard seal dozing on the floating ice and Stephanie brought us in close to observe it and take photographs. Then we had another special experience when we went to see a Weddell seal and pup about two months old. It was wonderful.

We then returned to the ship where we had a Filipino themed lunch (very good). Our afternoon landings started at 3pm at Cuverville Island.

The weather was absolutely perfect for our landings at Cuverville. The snow was soft and thick and in parts you would go knee deep inside as you stepped. The area is punctuated by penguin paths which are orangey-pink in colour: marked by the penguins’ guano. It was great to observe the Gentoos again and we also had another zodiac cruise afterwards. This time we were observing the glaciers. Willy asked Susannah to turn off the zodiac’s engine at one stage and we just drifted with the awesome beauty surrounding us; letting the beauty touch our souls.

It was sad to leave Antarctica after so many treasured experiences. As we were leaving, we all stood out on deck with cups of hot gluwein and Dennis confirmed what we already knew: No photographs are going to capture what we have seen. We take it for ourselves: this is our experience; our memories.

After dinner, we went out on deck to see our last Antarctic sunset on this cruise. The sun casts a soft orange glow over the snow-capped mountains; then there are soft pinks and lilacs on the horizon. The cold, clear air is crisp against your face – you try to breathe it all in and imprint it forever in your memory.

Willy also stayed up to watch the sunrise at about 2:30 am – you can never really get enough of Antarctica.

Tuesday, December 21
This morning we ordered room service breakfast and slept in late. We also watched Stephanie’s interesting lecture on her whale research (on the cabin TV). After lunch, the Captain announced that there were Orcas out on port side. Another awesome experience. Everyone was out on deck again enjoying the calm Drake Passage crossing and these imposing whales.

We could not believe that that night was the Captain’s farewell party. Could the time really pass so quickly? We had a very enjoyable dinner chatting to Susannah and Bob on the expedition team. Susannah is from Brazil and also does Amazon expeditions. Bob is the onboard Geologist.

Wednesday, December 22
We awoke early in the morning to feel the motion of the Drake Passage. We realised just how lucky we were to be on a ship that has stabilizers. In addition, the Explorer II has the best of both worlds: a larger expedition ship that is also able to negotiate the ice.

Room service was greatly appreciated as it was not easy to walk around the ship. We would definitely recommend ordering room service during Drake Passage crossings. By lunchtime, the sea had somewhat calmed and we went for lunch at the Verandah. Tim made an announcement at about 1pm that we were passing Cape Horn so we quickly finished our lunch and headed out on deck. Cape Horn is a piece of rock rising out of the conjunction between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The sea was remarkably calm by this time so we enjoyed standing outside and taking some photographs.

In the afternoon, we were treated to an absolutely divine Austrian Strudel buffet in the main Lounge. There was a choice of Apple, Cherry, Poppyseed and Cheese strudels. The lounge was set for afternoon tea and everyone indulged and enjoyed. At 5pm, the expedition team put together a summary of our cruise in the format of a “slide” show. It was so special to look back with fond memories on all the amazing moments of this cruise.

We sailed through the beautiful Beagle Channel accompanied by many different species of birds and arrived in Ushuaia at about 10pm that night, knowing that in the morning we would have to leave the ship. We gazed at the small town, at its brightly lit Christmas Tree and our eyes fell on a banner at the port which says: “Ushuaia the end of the world the beginning of everything”. And we felt privileged to know the truth of these words. Antarctica is the beginning of something you cannot possibly imagine: Yes, these are our moments, our memories; and we will treasure them forever.

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