I have a confession, dear reader. I have never been on, nor wanted to go on, a cruise. While I can see the appeal, it is just not my cup of tea. But, a voyage to Antarctica on board French company Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot is more than enough to convert a nonbeliever like myself.
[See also: Best Antarctic Cruises for Luxurious Adventures]
“You never come back from Antarctica disappointed,” quipped the affable and ever-so enthusiastic captain Etienne Garcia as he introduced himself in the 492-ft ship’s plush lecture theater. The first two days at sea, where we passed the notoriously rocky Drake Passage (be sure to bring anti-seasickness supplies even if you are a hardened sailor), were spent in a haze of captain and expedition team introductions; safety briefings; food, food and more food (beef Wellington, lobster and ‘iceburgers’); and exploring Le Commandant Charcot.
She has five chic bars on board; two wine cellars; a cigar and whisky lounge; a spa with a swimming pool, sauna, ice room and detox bar; and two restaurants, one of which is Nuna by Alain Ducasse, the first of the chef’s restaurants at sea.
Sailing across the Drake Passage provides a startling perspective of just how far off-grid you’re heading. I saw nothing but an endless stretch of ocean for two whole days — no other ships, no planes, no land, no people (apart from the other 154 guests onboard).
As Le Commandant Charcot is an ice-breaking vessel polar class 2 — meaning she is the strongest ice-breaking ship that has been built for passengers — she can go safely into the ice thanks to a 24-megawatt stainless steel propeller and is able to venture further and deeper into Antarctica. When we first glimpsed the gargantuan icebergs in the ocean, the excitement on board was electric.
Our first landing was at Rabot Point, on the east side of James Ross Island where, after a bracing Zodiac cruise, we embarked on a fairly strenuous hike over the rocky terrain; Ponant’s enthusiastic naturalists were waiting at various points of the hike to share insight on the area. The following day, we headed on a Zodiac cruise around the icy waters surrounding Snow Hill, where we spotted emperor penguins hanging out on the ice — the expedition guide cut the engine so we could gently glide through the water and get closer.
As landings and Zodiac cruises are at the mercy of Mother Nature, you have the sense of being truly part of an expedition. There’s an element of surprise — an announcement could see you rushing back to your cabin to throw on your outdoor gear. As we waited for announcements, guests gathered on the helideck to watch Le Commandant Charcot break through the ice — an astounding and seemingly impossible sight when the vast white plains creak and crackle as a path is created.
Come evening, we donned our glad rags for a gala dinner at Nuna restaurant and dined on the tasting menu; dessert was a mini reconstruction of the ship in chocolate cake form. The captain announced that we would be up bright and early — 7am — for a landing on Snow Hill the following morning.
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Following the captain’s wake-up call, I leapt out of bed and flung open the cabin’s curtains, and was greeted with the most inconceivable view I have ever seen — we were stationed in the middle of the ice at Snow Hill, stretching endlessly into the distance, peppered with big chunks of ice. The sun was shining so I had my breakfast in my fluffy robe out on the balcony (all cabins come with a balcony; the Suite de l’Armateur, or Shipowner’s Suite, has the largest at an enormous 2,000 sq ft).
Stepping right off the ship onto the ice, we made our way over a mapped-out route through thick ice and snow. (The expedition team had spent the previous night drilling into the ice to ensure its stability.) As with all landings, we were assigned to a specific group to ensure that only small numbers would be out at any one time — something that was especially important for this landing, as we were on our way to see a colony of emperor penguins.
Even while walking toward the colony, we saw sizeable groups of the seabirds. But upon arriving at the colony we saw thousands of them — including fluffy chicks. As the penguins have no land predators, they were unafraid and rather curious, and came up to inspect their visitors. A hush fell over our group as we listened to their chirping and took in just how many there were in this colony.
The following day, we headed to Murdoch Nunatak. On our arrival, the volcanic island was ashy with black-sand beaches, but as we hiked up the side of it, it began to snow, quickly turning the black sand white. Weddell seals were lying on the beach, seemingly uninterested in our presence. In the evening, a ‘Polar Ponant Parker Party’ was held in the outdoor bar, and those feeling emboldened by a few cocktails took a dip in the outdoor pool, aka the Blue Lagoon.
Heading north to the Larsen Inlet (named for Carl Anton Larsen, a Norwegian whaling captain, who reported the area in 1893), we took a Zodiac to the snow-covered land to discover a champagne bar that had been set up with magnums of Veuve Clicquot (chilled by the snow, of course). Later that day, there was an opportunity to step onto the continent of Antarctica proper — some guests braved a polar plunge into the icy waters; a warm drink was waiting upon reboarding the ship, or a visit to the whisky lounge was also an option to help warm the cockles.
I made the less brave decision to head to the spa and have a seriously soothing massage and a session in the sauna (which has floor-to-ceiling windows so you can keep a lookout for penguins and seals), followed by a bracing trip to the ice room.
The following day we stepped onto Paulet Island, home to such an astonishing number of Adélie penguins that it took my eyes a while to adjust. They are one of the few penguins (along with the emperor penguin) that are only found in Antarctica. The small penguins gather in large colonies to nest, which we were lucky enough to witness; the penguins create a nest in the ground surrounded by small stones and incubate the eggs by sitting on them. Other guests boarded kayaks and glided around the island, occasionally joined by a swimming Adélie alongside.
We began the journey back across the Drake Passage, spending languid days playing Scrabble in the bar and working our way through the delectable cocktail menu. During my trip, Oscar-winning French film director Luc Jacquet and his crew were aboard to film a new documentary, Magnetic Continent. The first public viewing of the trailer was held along with raw footage shot by the film crew during our trip.
As I begin to try and put this profound experience into words, I’m reminded of captain Garcia noting that it is hard to articulate just how magical it is — the only way to truly understand is to see for yourself.
Luxury cruise in Antarctica onboard Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot, from $21,000 per person. ponant.com
[See also: Exploring Antarctica with White Desert’s Robyn Woodhead]
This article appears in the 06 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Spring 2023