My friend Catriona and I are well-practised travelling companions, with a history in backpacking and a shared talent for tent-pitching, but finding ourselves on a luxury cruise was without precedent. However, the best way to explore Antarctica is by water, so we signed up to join the Silver Endeavour on its inaugural voyage to the White Continent. As a new, comparatively small and state-of-the-art ship, it can fly through the waves at 19 knots, cut through metre-thick ice, and turn on a six-pence, meaning it can go further inland, or down narrower channels than most. It is named after Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour, though on this occasion, it was not carrying the pigs, poultry, two greyhounds, and a milking goat that the great seaman took with him in 1768. Instead, within its nine decks were 100 Dyson hairdryers, 300 fresh lettuces, 40 kilos of fillet steak, four restaurants, and 80 guests, including—of course—us.
It takes a while to even get close to this mystical place. Having flown to Santiago via New York, we made our way to Puerto Williams, the rural town at the southernmost point of Chile, where we boarded our floating home for the week. And what a splendid vessel: all velvet upholstery, soft lighting, and brushed brass with floor-to-ceiling windows in most rooms; our twin cabin had a glass door leading to the balcony. Once we had met the charming crew—including a resident ornithologist, marine biologist, historian, photographer, and Captain Niklas Peterstam, our rugged Swedish master of the ship—we set forth to the South Shetland Islands. This involved two days travelling down the fabled Drake Passage—a turbulent channel named after Sir Francis and the site of more than 800 shipwrecks. But, having been assured of Silver Endeavour’s cutting-edge underwater stabilisers, Catriona and I weren’t worried—although the tumultuous route did put our robust constitutions to the test.
As the skies got bigger and temperatures colder, with no land yet in sight, we swayed up to the top of the boat with cups of ginger tea—the recommendation for regaining one’s sea legs—to promenade around the rooftop running-track and swallow gulps of the chilly, salty air. At dawn the next day, I dragged a corner of our cabin’s curtain to the side to see what the weather was up to, and… there it was! In front of an azure sky, a gleaming white glacier. I went straight out onto the terrace to get a closer look, stretched with enthusiasm and nearly lost my arm to a passing albatross.
The days that followed were characterised by a perfect contrast of high indulgence and hearty adventure. Like two ladies of leisure, we took breakfast in bed—piping-hot coffee, slivers of grapefruit, and an omelette brought by Clayton, our wonderful butler, who wore a tux and an expression of magnanimity at all times. The best mornings began in the mud-room below deck, pulling on neoprene boots, special windproof parkas and trousers, and stepping directly out of the ship’s side onto a Zodiac—a 12-person military-level boat that would zoom us off to explore an island by sea, hike up a glacier or pay a visit to the penguins. Plump and very civilised, these idiosyncratic birds would commute back and forth from their colonies to the sea in pursuit of krill, along single-file ‘penguin highways’. All the breeds we met—gentoo, chinstrap, and adélie—were remarkably unafraid of humans and would bustle over to greet us; however, so as not to contaminate the land or its inhabitants with foreign germs, visitors here must not touch the wildlife, or even the ground, with anything but daily disinfected boots. I did not mind keeping a substantial distance from the elephant seals—particularly the slumbering males, who only stirred their three-tonne torsos to body-slam a rival or take a chunk out of his neck, in order to protect their respective harems.
Every evening before dinner, we gathered for an aperitif (a margarita, mixed by Moses the barman, was my drink of choice) to sip while our expedition leader Marieke briefed us on the following day’s plans, as once we’d reached Antarctica’s north peninsula, we had no set route. This being planet Earth’s highest, driest, windiest, and coldest continent, the weather reigns supreme and the forecast dictated our movements. One day at Neko Harbour, an inlet on the peninsula’s western side, we were having a superb morning’s kayaking, threading through icebergs as snow petrels swooped peacefully overhead, when it suddenly became clear that the wind had changed—meaning the drift ice was being swept inland, trapping us. A crew member radioed in, instructing us to return to the ship immediately, but despite repurposing our oars into temporary shovels, progress ground to a halt. A blizzard descended just as the Zodiacs came into vision, smashing through the ice to tug us back, where we were met with steaming cups of mulled wine.
Although the jaw-dropping landscape and its magical creatures were the main draw of the trip, life onboard the boat brought its own excitements. As well as delicious fish from the surrounding seas—including Chilean sea-bass and crab cakes with yuzu—an ossobuco pappardelle and tiramisu in the ship’s small Italian restaurant were particularly memorable. Catriona and I joined Pilates classes in the gym, but decided against a manicure in the salon, instead choosing to follow the scent of sandalwood to the spa for a restorative loll in the steam-room. We threw ourselves into Antarctic history via the library’s books, and ‘Explorer Lounge’ lectures from eminent guest speakers including Felicity Ashton, Silver Endeavour’s British godmother, who was the first woman to cross Antarctica alone. Most nights concluded with stargazing over a nightcap in the top deck’s observatory.
Towards the end of the week, Mother Nature stepped in—a fog was about to descend and we needed to go back a day early in order to catch the aeroplane from King George’s Island, the largest of the South Shetlands, back up to Chile before poor visibility left it grounded. This meant we had to skip the planned ‘polar plunge’—a bracing jump into the sea. But, as Silver Endeavour made her graceful way north, a humpback whale joined us en route, joyfully spouting and flicking its tail. Watching it gliding along, it occurred to me what an image of happy co-existence it was: if you can’t join the whale in the water, then slicing through the sea beside it on a boat does make an excellent second best. And anyway, leaving a few stones unturned provides further reason to return one day to this part of the world, which is somehow even more miraculous than I’d imagined.
Silversea’s 10-day Puerto Williams cruise aboard ‘Silver Endeavour’ (www.silversea.com), from 18 to 28 December 2023, from £16,500 (approx. ₹17,12,700) a person, including transfers.
This article first appeared in Harper's Bazaar in June 2023.