I was lucky enough to take another fantastic trip to my favourite continent. This time I travelled 8314 miles from Heathrow to the ‘end of the world’, landing in Ushuaia, Argentina, to experience one of the much sought after Cruceros Australis Patagonian cruises. After a wonderfully hot and sunny two day stopover in Buenos Aires we made the journey down south to Tierra del Fuego, a large land mass split between Chile and Argentina.
The view from the plane when we were coming in to land has to be up there with one of the most impressive I’ve ever experienced. The aeroplane gets so close to the tops of the snow-capped mountains you feel as though you could touch them. Stepping into Ushuaia airport is already a huge contrast to the large, bustling hub of Buenos Aires domestic airport; it almost feels cosy, being built out of wood and less than a quarter of the size of that of the capital.
Ushuaia is the most southerly city in the world, with a population of around 57,000 and a very interesting and colourful history. A key event in the city’s history is, of course, the Falklands War with Britain in 1982. Although there is a prominent memorial and a museum to honour the fallen, I certainly felt no animosity towards us as British travellers. In fact, I even made a couple of local friends…
Embarkation for the cruise starts in the afternoon at the pier, after you have checked-in your luggage at the downtown office. Upon boarding the ship a member of the crew escorts you to your room to welcome you. My cabin was surprisingly spacious and very comfortable! The big window above my bed framed many incredible, ever-changing views throughout the cruise. After settling in everyone was invited up to the Yamana Lounge to meet the crew and learn about the navigation route. There are less than 200 passengers on board of various nationalities, so to make things simple you can choose to attend all the briefings in Spanish or English, which take place in different parts of the ship.
The atmosphere on board is very relaxed and friendly, with enough time between each activity to spend some time exploring the ship, watching the scenery and wildlife outside or just chilling out in your cabin. Aside from the flocks of Cormorants that can be found flying or feeding alongside the boat, you will also see Sea-lions taking a break on the rocky shores, but if you are vigilant and patient, you might catch sight of the odd Magellan penguin passing by like I did!
On this particular route, the Stella Australis’ first stop is the Garibaldi Glacier, accessed by navigating the world famous Beagle Channel overnight. After a very filling breakfast in the ship’s Patagonia Dining Room, we meet in the Sky Lounge on the upper deck to listen to instructions for the morning’s disembarkation. Before we are assisted into zodiac boats we all spend some moments admiring the view of the glacier from the ship and take some photos. Having chosen the most active of the two-morning excursions, we land on a rocky beach and start our climb up to an impressive waterfall. The view from the top is incredible and there is absolutely no-one else around. The only movement we can see on the fjord is the Stella Australis, which looks tiny from this distance.
The first day is packed with impressive sights and there is never a dull moment. Between excursions you can be quietly sitting on one of the ship’s comfy sofas, enjoying a gin and tonic when suddenly someone catches sight of a school of Chilean dolphins and the surrounding passengers all rush over to get a glimpse. At 12.30 the passengers convene in the dining room for a delicious all you can eat buffet lunch. The wine is flowing!
In the afternoon we disembark in the zodiacs once again to greet the almighty Pia Glacier. The guides are brilliant and the scenery is breathtaking. While we are standing listening to the fascinating facts the guide is giving us there is a loud crash and what looks like a tiny piece of ice breaks away from the face of the glacier and falls into the water below. In reality, of course, the piece of ice is bigger than a house, but from where we are standing the perspective leads you to believe otherwise. With the rain and mist coming down we are delighted when the guides start handing out hot chocolate with whiskey – it warms us up instantly! Back on the ship everybody freshens up and settles into the sky lounge for the best view, ready to pass through the famous Glacier Alley. Dinner is served at 8pm and afterwards, with people feeling merry, we persuade our group to join in Karaoke!
The next morning it’s an early rise as we disembark on Cape Horn. This is quite an impressive operation. Although not everyone who comes this way is able to land at Cape Horn, the Stella Australis has a 90% success rate. We are against all the elements this morning as we climb the stairs to the monument and I feel as though I could get blown away at any moment! Still bleary-eyed I make it into the lighthouse and get some respite from the Gail-force wind and rain! The resident Chilean Navy officer is in there to greet us, dressed smartly in his naval uniform, along with his son for company. Each year a different Officer is given the job of manning the tiny island’s lighthouse, where he will reside for 365 days with his family.
After a hearty breakfast and some downtime, we are invited to the bridge to meet the ship’s Captain and crew. I find the experience very interesting and the crew are extremely friendly. While we are in there they receive the results of the latest national football game through the radio… they have to stay connected they tell me. Our very knowledgeable guide shows us our route on a nautical map before we say goodbye to the Captain and make our way to the dining room for another excellent lunch.
The afternoon is comprised of an optional film screening about Shackleton and his adventures in Antarctica, followed by our final excursion. We are given two options for the last excursion, historical or active. Having already done some fairly challenging physical activity on the first excursion I chose the more educational activity. We get in the zodiac boats for the last time and as we are zipping over to the jetty, to everyone’s delight we see a dolphin leaping out of the water. The sun is shining and it is quite easy to see why this particular remote part of the world was named by the natives as Wulaia, meaning ‘beautiful bay’. Over the next hour and half, I am intrigued as I learn about the history of the bay and the famous characters in it. The excursion ends with a visit to the old radio control building, which Australis have recently renovated and converted into a private museum.
For the last evening, we attend a farewell dinner, where once again we stuff ourselves with incredible food and wine! In the Sky Lounge, the Captain makes a farewell toast and we all come together for the last time. The Stella Australis navigates through the Beagle channel while we sleep and at 9am the next morning we disembark back in Ushuaia. The experience felt totally unique and I came with some fantastic memories (and photos!) and a lot more knowledge about the fascinating history and geography of Patagonia.
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