We’ve been back a few weeks from a wonderful trip to Antarctica on Hurtigruten’s MV Fram (Antarctic Discovery, 12 days, Jan 11-23). I wrote this for cruisecritic but am posting here also.
I think the perma-smile I had on that trip is finally starting to fade so of course I’m busy looking into other possible itineraries for a return trip. My assumption was this would be a once-in-a-lifetime journey but I would definitely go back in a heartbeat -- and I really hate cold weather so that’s saying something!
What follows was meant to be a short trip report but it got a bit out of hand. I apologize. There could be spoilers ahead if you are already booked for this trip and want to be surprised along the way. I didn’t go into too much detail on the wildlife we saw - or individual landing locations because everyone’s trip will be different and you can’t get your heart set on hitting any particular island. Here is a link to some pictures (not too many compared to how many were taken!).
When I first started researching Antarctic cruises I fell in love with the Quark trips - a friend had gone with them and raved and there are several lengthy trip reports on fodors that made them sound unbeatable. However when I got down to the nitty gritty of pricing and cabins I couldn’t bring myself to pay that much -- the base price was not so crazy but that was for 3 in a cabin and no bathroom. So...the search continued and I read several good reviews of trips on the Fram and gradually shifted gears to choosing Hurtigruten.
When we booked I felt a wee bit that I was compromising a ‘real’ adventure on a small ship for something less authentic -- too many passengers, not enough time on shore, more of a cruise than an expedition if you know what I mean. Having only done the one version I obviously can’t compare and don’t know what, if anything, I missed. BUT, I can honestly say I felt completely satisfied - beyond satisfied, thrilled - with our trip with Hurtigruten.
I booked directly through Hurtigruten by phone. No problems with that. I considered having them also book our air from home to Buenos Aires in case there was a change in the sailing for any reason and we had to reschedule our flight but ended up doing our own flights. We flew in a day early to BA & I did have Hurt. book an extra night at the hotel for us which also got us the transfer from the airport to hotel through them.
Don’t forget to have your $140 entry fee ready when you land and make sure if you’re using cash you have very clean, unwrinkled bills. I had to provide an alternate $20 because one of mine had a little ink on one edge.
The Hotel Emperador is a very nice hotel in a good location. There are several restaurants in walking distance and ATMs. The Recoleta cemetery is a 15 minute walk away (which we visited twice -- it was quite interesting). The buffet breakfast was good. I would stay there again.
We had booked a guide we found on cruisecritic to take us around the next day so we could maximize our short time in BA. He was great -- we covered quite a bit of the city and learned a lot about Argentina’s history, current political & social situation, etc.
I would recommend him with one caveat - it was pricey. But I thought it was worth what we paid considering we may never get to that city again and we couldn’t have done nearly so much on our own. His name is Pedro Werberg and his website is amigodebuenosaires.com
Hurtigruten had a desk set up in the hotel to check in and get our flight info for Ushuaia the following day. They also made suggestions of restaurants, etc.
One note about BA -- it is expensive. Food, anything we looked at in shops, etc. The only thing that seemed cheaper than home were big bottles of beer sold in the local mini-mart.
An example: my husband’s suitcase didn’t show up on the baggage carousel when we landed in BA but after a few minutes of panic it was located. However, it had been fairly shredded to bits. Some kind soul had at least wrapped it in saran rather than just dumping it in a ‘destroyed suitcases’ bin. The lid was hanging by a thread, seriously, and it was a miracle all of his clothes were still intact. That caused us to do some emergency shopping the minute after we checked in at the hotel at the local shopping area, Florida St. We knew we couldn’t leave without some kind of suitcase but even simple smallish Samsonite pieces were $400-500. It really made us sick to spend so much on something we could get at home for way less but we finally found a Timberland store with a rolling duffel for $300. That ended up being the cheapest thing we saw after blocks and blocks of looking. A souvenir of Argentina! And yes, I saw the exact same one in TJ Maxx this weekend for $89.99 - sigh. I guess the lesson is try to use only carry-on bags and don’t plan on doing any bargain shopping while you’re in BA!
LAN flight to Ushuaia:
All Hurtigruten passengers gathered in the hotel lobby the next morning after breakfast and then we were bussed to the domestic airport only 15 minutes away. The luggage had been set outside our rooms the night before so we only had our carry-on bags to worry about. The flight was chartered and all 200 passengers were Hurtigruten travelers. Our experience with LAN has always been wonderful and this was no exception. There were roomy leather seats and they served a nice little snack even though it was only a 3 hr flight.
When we landed we all gathered our bags and wheeled them out to one central drop-off area and then we were assigned to different buses based on whether we had booked an excursion in Ushuaia or were just getting the quick tour on the way to town. We skipped the optional excursion (a picnic at a lake) and instead we visited the Maritime Museum in Ushuaia and then walked the main street and had lunch. It’s a cute town and you can easily spend a few hours (I guess unless it’s raining which might make it not so cute) on your own.
We met back at the bus to be driven to the pier and boarded the Fram at 4 pm.
We did the usual cruise check-in providing a credit card and getting a picture taken for the cruisecard you would wear on a lanyard (or have with you anyway) throughout the trip. After being out in majorly windy Ushuaia for hours I wish I’d had a chance to at least comb my hair
We dropped our carry-on in our cabin - suitcases were already there - and headed back out to explore the ship and to get our windproof/waterproof jackets. Before leaving home I had thought long and hard about the description of them as a shell but not insulated and not providing much warmth. I’m always cold so I dreaded making the mistake of not having enough warm clothes and kicking myself. So I ended up taking my own down parka along with a down sweater. I know, I was crazy. If you have layers under the Hurtigruten jacket you do not need a full winter coat of your own.
The ship is lovely - the decor is modern and Scandinavian feeling (go figure) - but not modern in a cold, sleek way. It’s just right. The lookout lounge where we spent most of our time was very nice with plenty of seating and a bar and small library. There are several wing-chairs along the front and sides which are the most comfortable and most sought after. Because of the sun coming in the walls of windows this lounge was always super warm. The rest of the ship is kept warm also but this area is so toasty it made it a little hard to stay awake. Between the temperature and the ship rocking you like a baby and the side-effect of the Bonine we were taking there was a fair amount of napping taking place in those wing-chairs.
We had opted for an inside cabin to save money and because we knew we wouldn’t be in them for more than sleeping. Also, I have a hard time sleeping without total darkness (have blackout shades in the bedroom at home) so I thought that being inside would be beneficial since it would never really be dark outside. And how odd that is - we’d be sitting in the lounge just hanging out and realize it was 11 pm and time for bed. But it was as bright as noon outside so we never got tired - our body clocks got very out of whack!
The inside cabin was certainly small -- we’ll call it cozy -- but with the built-in shelves and closets there was plenty of room to put everything away and it didn’t feel excessively claustrophobic (only mildly). There was a drying line in the shower and the hangers in the closets are able to be removed (I think someone wrote in an earlier report they were not and people should bring their own so I did - no need). So when we returned from landings & had wet clothes or did laundry in the sink there was a place to hang things.
The laundry pricing on the ship was not too high and I had a few things done (I think $5 for a pair of jeans).
There’s a TV in the cabin which had several channels of Antarctic documentaries and also satellite TV running. One channel is the ship cam off the bow and another shows each day’s itinerary (they don’t print them out and deliver them to your room).
Our cabin had 2 twin beds on opposite sides of the room, not pushed together. But by opposite side I mean they are maybe 2 ft apart so not far enough apart to not hear snoring...haha. There was no top sheet only a duvet -- which was a little too warm to sleep under. I’m sure if you ask housekeeping they would provide a top sheet.
The housekeeping staff and all of the other crew members could not have been nicer. Also, the ship’s officers and captain were very friendly and approachable and the expedition team was stellar.
The daily routine:
After setting sail from Ushuaia we had 2 days of fun in the Drake Passage. The higher the seas the better in my opinion so I loved the rocking and rolling. We were told it was considered ‘medium’ Drake. We heard there were a few sick passengers but as long as I have Bonine I have no worries.
On those 2 days the expedition team gave lectures several times throughout the day on various topics -- the heroic age of polar exploration, whales, birds, etc. We didn’t feel like we had a free minute. Between getting up to eat breakfast, going to 2 morning lectures, having lunch, 2 afternoon lectures -- we stayed very busy.
Dinner during the time in the Drake was served by waiters and we were assigned a table for the early seating.
Once past the Drake it was free seating any time and a buffet. That was perfect for different groups arriving back late from a landing, for example. Also, during the entire trip breakfasts and lunches were buffets.
The food was all good to very good. There’s a bit of repetition especially at breakfast but I had no complaints at all. Beer or house wine was around $5 a glass; there was also a wine list but I stuck to the half-carafe of house white and it was okay (a little sweet for my tastes but not bad). I do think the desserts were pretty great and unfortunately I couldn’t resist trying multiple desserts at each lunch AND dinner.
Luckily, once we got into calmer waters I was able to get a quick workout in the fitness center each day to mitigate the dessert damage. It was small but well-equipped and had walls of windows so I could see everything as I exercised and did not feel guilty about missing anything going on outside. There was also a heated sauna and 2 hot tubs which were out on the deck. Several people used them on calm days.
The 200 passengers were divided into groups of 20 or 30 people depending on language and we did our landings as a group each day -- 8 people to a polar cirkel. They rotated the groups so each time a different set of people got to go out first. We attended a briefing on how to behave on the landings -- no trash must escape one’s pockets like plastic bags for example, no picking up rocks or bones or anything off the ground, waterproof pants are required to land, you must have nothing in your hands in the polar cirkels so you could use both hands to hold on & also to grab the forearms of the team member helping you get out of the boat onto shore, etc.
And then it was time to be fitted for our boots. They’re in European sizes so if you know yours that helps. The boots are rubber muck boots and were pretty darn great. I thought they were surprisingly comfortable and very warm. I brought insoles from a pair of my running shoes and put them in (and left them for the week since you have the same boots the whole time) and I think that also helped with comfort/warmth. We brought chemical toe warmers and hand warmers from home and did not need them. What a waste of money and weight in our luggage they turned out to be!
After selecting the best fitting boots we were shown where our rack was (cabin # marked) and we stashed them until landing time. The rubber boots are mandatory - they don’t want anyone wearing, for example, leather hiking shoes of their own that aren’t really able to be scrubbed clean and might introduce some kind of disease to the penguin colonies on the islands. Boots are scrubbed or sanitized each time you get out of or return to the ship.
I struggled with deciding what to pack. I was trying so hard to pack light but had read that you should have two layers of everything in case you got wet on one landing and needed dry clothes for the next one a few hours later. Well, if I’d gotten a dousing from a wave or fallen down trying to get on or off the polar cirkel I’d have been prepared -- but as it was I really only needed & wore one set and the rest was unnecessary. If you're trying to pack light and don't need variety in your longjohns & fleece items I think one set would be enough.
Here’s what worked for me (YMMV) -- on top a long underwear shirt (smartwool), a Patagonia down sweater, and the Hurtigruten blue jacket. On the first landing I also had a fleece layer and almost suffocated I was so hot. I walked around with everything unzipped the whole time we were out. Unless you get very bitterly cold weather it seems like 2 layers under the jacket are enough. Also factor in the lifevest that you wear the whole time -- that also insulates you.
On the bottom I wore smartwool long underwear, fleece pants, and waterproof pants (mine were an uninsulated version - not ski pants).
Two pairs of socks, one a liner, one a thicker wool. I had thin wool glove liners and then big waterproof mittens over top. To take pictures I had no problem taking off all gloves - it really was not that cold.
Wore a hat and scarf but took the scarf off usually. It was good on the polar cirkel ride mainly since that was windy and I could cover my face.
Sunglasses - mine were polarized - I think that makes a big difference.
Anything you wore and washed in the sink would be dry the next day -- the air there is so dry and the ship so warm. So really having 2 or 3 pairs of long-johns like I did was excessive. Also, on the ship the dress is very casual so there’s no need to bring a lot of different outfits. We wore jeans and flannel shirts or t-shirts with fleece jackets around the ship mostly.
We had a waterproof backpack from Outdoor Research that worked well to hold our cameras and extra gloves in case they got wet on landings.
Our landings were usually an hour or two long and then we had to go back to the ship. At Deception Island we had longer and there were 2 hikes to choose from - each took several hours. If there was a downside to this trip at all it was that the number of people limiting landings. It was especially disappointing on that first one - an hour flew by and it was very hard to turn back. Of course it’s an honor system - I guess as long as there are enough people filling the boats to go back to the Fram they don’t come looking for you and say “your time is up!!!” If that length of time on land is very important to you it should be a factor to consider and imagine how fast an hour will go by.
Each landing had it’s own special moments - tons of penguins, a few seals, Port Lockroy was interesting, there was a hill to climb and slide down at one stop, Deception Island was like walking on the moon, the polar plunge opportunity (brrrrrrr - still can’t believe I did that). Such varied landscape (not all white!) and different experiences at each landing.
Sadly, we had a day where neither landing was considered safe due to high swells. Major bummer. As a consolation prize we were taken on a polar cirkel cruise through the pack ice. Actually, before they announced that to everyone they had offered a special polar cirkel cruise for only 32 people at $170 pp. They had enough sign up that they had to draw names. I’m sure their cruise was longer and ‘better’ and they got to wear fancy survival suits but I wonder if they were annoyed that later everyone got to do the same (but shorter) cruise for free.
Well, there really wasn’t any - I’m sure you know that. After dinner we would go up to the lounge and have a cocktail and enjoy the view. That was enough entertainment! A few nights they did have the ship’s Filipino crew doing variety shows - ice carving, some singing, dancing. Oh, and one night the officers and expedition team did a fashion show wearing items available in the shop. The last night there was an auction of the captain’s chart from the trip and also a Hurtigruten flag.
The library (a few bookshelves in the lounge) is very small but has a good selection of books on Antarctica in several languages along with shelves of bestsellers people have contributed along the way.
We didn’t use the internet - I heard it was quite slow.
There’s a small bistro that was open 24 hrs with (only) coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and cookies. There are tables and board games to borrow. They do sell bottled water but we were told the water from the taps is treated by reverse osmosis and it is fine for drinking.
The lecture halls are smallish and they provided lectures in different languages (English, German , or French) in different rooms. The breakdown of nationalities on our trip was something like 70 Americans, 20 French, 50 Germans, some Austrians, Australians, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Brazilian.
The passengers were a good mix - everyone seemed to really be enjoying themselves. We made several new friends and hope to stay in touch with them.
Back to the real world:
Too quickly we found ourselves heading north again through the Drake (Drake lake this time - BOO!) and then back on terra firma in Ushuaia. We opted for an excursion the last day since we had several hours before the flight out and it was a Sunday and all of the shops would be closed. The National Park visit was - again - not cheap - I think $90 pp but we were glad we went. Such a beautiful beautiful park it is. After a short drive there we walked around for maybe an hour and thoroughly enjoyed it.
After another fine LAN flight we were returned to the Hotel Emperador for a last night in BA. We took a taxi to the Puerto Madero area which has lots of restaurants lining a narrow harbor or canal with boats docked along it -- including the Uruguay which is the Argentine wooden sailing ship that rescued the Nordenskjld expedition in Antarctica in 1903. It’s now a museum and we thought it was interesting to board and see the conditions that might’ve been similar to Amundsen’s Fram (we’ll have to go to Oslo to find out if that’s at all true!).
After a final morning/afternoon spent wandering around the hotel’s neighborhood and hanging out in the Hurtigruten hospitality room in the hotel (coffee, water, and pastries provided) we were transferred to the airport for our flight home.
The traffic was insane and there is a 4 hr pre-flight check-in required at EZE airport but we did get there in time. Our flights home were uneventful but adding insult to injury Continental did not get my husband’s new, very expensive replacement luggage on our last flight (not sure how since we had a 7 hr layover in Houston and mine made it). At least it did show up later that night. When they delivered it at 2 am we both were so disoriented we thought we were still on the ship...haha. And still had sea legs so I watched him lurching from one side of the hall to the other and prayed I wouldn’t hear him tumble down the stairs!
Excellent, amazing, wonderful trip (I’m at a loss for adjectives I haven’t used a hundred times already). If we could go again tomorrow I would -- only this time I’d want a longer itinerary. I felt there was true value for the cost of the trip - that we got everything I expected and more. Antarctica is breath-taking, humbling, just incredible. The landings were so much fun and felt like little adventures (all right, in the scheme of things very small adventures but still!!), the expedition team taught us a lot, the ship was top-class and Hurtigruten provided us with a wonderful experience and memories that will last a lifetime.
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12-days on Hurtigruten's MV Fram - Antarctic Discovery
We’ve been back a few weeks from a wonderful trip to Antarctica on Hurtigruten’s MV Fram (Antarctic Discovery, 12 days, Jan 11-23). I wrote this for cruisecritic but am posting here also.