A voyage to the frozen south is infinitely more comfortable when you cruise on MS Hanseatic, the world’s highest-rated expedition ship. Words & photos: Richard Rosebery.
I had always wanted to explore the Poles and was lucky enough to go to the Arctic in 2008 on Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ MS Bremen, MS Hanseatic’s sister ship. So when the opportunity arose to undertake the big adventure south, I grabbed it with both hands, even though this cruise was a German-speaking departure and English speakers would be in a small minority.
Why MS Hanseatic? After experiencing the camaraderie and great service of the four-star Bremen, travelling on the five-star Hanseatic was an easy choice, given its reputation as the world’s highest-rated expedition ship (according to the authoritative Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships). I expected great food, great service, great facilities and German expedition efficiency: in short, a thoroughly luxurious adventure!
Destinations: From Punta Arenas to Ushuaia via the Magellan Strait, the South Atlantic, Falkland Islands, South Georgia, South Orkneys, Weddell Sea, South Shetlands, Antarctic Peninsula and Drake Passage.
The ship: When travelling literally to the world’s end with the possibility of encountering huge seas, ice and storms, you need to ensure your ship is the best possible for extreme conditions.
MS Hanseatic has the highest ice-class rating for passenger vessels (E4) and was on her 181st Antarctic voyage. Captain Thilo Natke was skippering his 70th cruise to Antarctica. The expedition leader, David Fletcher, had spent four full winters and some three dozen summers on the Antarctic ice and had worked for the British Antarctic Survey for 15-odd years.
Food and drink: I must confess that guilt was never too far away when I was experiencing the gastronomic delights of MS Hanseatic. Though I did attempt to order lighter choices, such as fresh mango, pineapple and melon combined with natural muesli each morning, it was difficult not to hoe into the wide selection of German breads, cheeses, meats and fish, or the various sweet pastries. For lunches, I attempted to stick to salads and soups but was often tempted by heartier meals, such as ‘schnitzel and pomfrits’. What can I say about the dinners? The main dining room, the Marco Polo, offered an extensive menu that changed each night, with a selection of six courses if you so desired. Amazingly, throughout the 21-day voyage, the same dish was never offered twice. This was high-standard international cuisine prepared for discerning German palates. Up on the Bridge Deck, the Columbus Lounge was the venue for breakfast and casual lunches. On several nights, this restaurant hosted internationally themed dinners, from Italian and Asian to ‘American’ and even Scandinavian – often fun and creative but not especially authentic. Overall, though, dining was a highlight. Given the chilly Antarctic weather, hearty German-style cuisine was ideal for this voyage.
Service: There were 125 crew members to serve the 160-odd passengers. Nearly all were European and most were German: bilingual, knowledgeable, exceptionally well trained, efficient and caring. It was five-star service, always with a smile, from the captain to the deckhands.
Lecturers and expedition leaders: This expedition ship didn’t just offer passengers the chance to get among nature; it also gave us plenty of opportunities to learn more about our experiences. A range of well-read academics plus several skilled polar experts sailed with us, and conjointly ran a highly informative series of lectures throughout the voyage. All the experts were on the Zodiacs, too, imparting valuable information.
MS Hanseatic offers German-speaking as well as bilingual cruises on which English is spoken. This was a German-speaking cruise only, which meant that lectures and most announcements were in German; however, all the crew and lecturers spoke English, English menus were available and important safety messages were also relayed in English.
The voyage: Our first ports of call were the remote islands of the Falklands, including its very British capital, Stanley. Though they were interesting in their own right, the focus of these first visits was to prepare new passengers in the use of expedition equipment and let them gain familiarity with the ship’s safety procedures. We undertook several fun Zodiac landings with walks to view rockhopper penguins, black-browed albatross and Falklands farm life.
A day out of Stanley on our three-day crossing to the remote islands of South Georgia, we got a glimpse of our ultimate destination. Everyone crowded on to the deck as the ship cruised by the biggest iceberg I have ever seen – an immense wall of ice eight kilometres long that had broken off an Antarctic ice shelf several years previously.
South Georgia was our first true taste of the wild. This remote, glaciated island lies within the Antarctic Convergence (current) and is renowned as the best place to encounter many of the world’s cold-loving birds and animals.
We had 120km/h winds and rain on the first day and then the weather cleared. Dressed warmly in fleecy pants, with waterproof over-pants, expedition-quality hooded jackets, insulated wet-weather boots plus gloves and beanies, we spent our second, third and fourth days on South Georgia making multiple Zodiac trips. These visits ashore account for some of the most vivid memories I have of the voyage. At Gold Harbour, I stood on a beach surrounded by 30,000 breeding pairs of king penguins – an absolute thrill. Glaciers swept down from high ridges and before me, a sea of black-and-white squawking birds were oblivious to our presence. We also visited Stromness Bay, where we found colonies of Antarctic fur seals, sea lions and southern elephant seals sunbathing together – for them, it was a warm February day. Seal pups challenged us at every step, while Gentoo penguins came to inspect another new set of intruders.
Another happy recollection is of standing on deck as the ship glided down the mirrored surface of Drygalski Fjord at the southern end of South Georgia, surrounded by towering peaks and glaciers beneath blue skies. The weather conditions were highly unusual and the experience profoundly beautiful.
A lasting memory is of huge seas as we cruised south toward the South Orkneys and the Antarctic Peninsula. Our 8,378-GRT ship was literally surfing waves with sheer walls as high as 14 metres. My cabin was forward and for one night, I experienced being in a bed that plummeted eight metres each time the ship surged over the gigantic waves. Any bathroom activity became a real challenge; wet tablecloths featured in the dining room as waves broke over the ship, while plates, glasses and fearful passengers were tossed around. Admirably, the staff retained absolute composure and managed to continue their five-star service.
As we approached the South Orkneys, the wild seas abated, and by the time we arrived in the South Shetland Islands, the sun had broken through. We spent most of the next week in the icy Shetlands and Antarctic Peninsula region beneath clear skies.
I spent a fabulous afternoon on Penguin (aka Georges) Island walking among Antarctic fur seals, Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, southern elephant seals and giant petrels. Their combined smell was overwhelming and, after a short while, an uphill trek to the island’s 170-metre-high volcanic crater became a necessity. The view from the crater’s rim looking out across the ice-sheeted plains and peaks of nearby King George Island, with spellbindingly beautiful icebergs floating just offshore, was amazing.
By far the most astonishing scenery on the entire voyage, however, was that of Paradise Harbour on the Antarctic Peninsula. Here, blue skies were reflected in a sea of ice. The harbour is surrounded by spectacular snowy mountain peaks and cascading rivers of ice. Our day here was spent visiting the local and deserted Argentinean research stations, then viewing glaciers, penguins, Weddell seals and a solitary leopard seal.
Little minke whales were sighted all day and, that afternoon, my ambition of seeing killer whales was fulfilled as we came upon two separate pods of frolicking orcas. This was a day to celebrate, and a party ensued that afternoon, with beer, schnapps, Champagne and hot dogs on the ship’s sundeck as we cruised out through yet more amazing white-coastline vistas.
I can’t wait to do it again!
Favourite cruise ship: MS Hanseatic
Favourite destinations: Antarctica, the Arctic, the outer islands of Fiji, Italy, the Swiss Alps