Travel: Antarctica or Galapagos? Choosing your trip of a lifetime – OCRegister

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Gentoo penguins or Galapagos penguins? Roald Amundsen or Charles Darwin? Cold or hot?
When deciding on a genuine, bona fide, honest-to-goodness trip of a lifetime, the two destinations that likely come up most often are Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands. These are places travelers dream about and save up for.
Antarctica and the Galapagos are must-sees even though few would say that getting there is half the fun, due to remoteness that adds travel days and expense to an already long and costly trip. Strict regulations that limit the number of visitors allowed per year, more so since the pandemic, also put a damper on options and opportunities.
Then there’s a matter of health. As sure as fresh snow and trails of uneven boulders make for challenging trekking, even with ski poles and walking sticks, exertion is required on landings. If that sounds like a deal breaker already, there are ways to see either region without ever stepping foot on terra firma.
Cruises offering itineraries called an “Antarctica experience” and the like allow passengers to see the continent and wildlife from the comfort of their balconies and outdoor decks. In December, for example, the Sapphire Princess will sail out of Los Angeles on a journey that includes four days of scenic cruising along the Antarctica peninsula, but with zero landings. In the Galapagos, plenty of tours take visitors to ports populated by people, though not to national parks where the celebrated wild things are.
While these scaled-down trips may qualify as check marks on a bucket list, is spotting a blue-footed booby or colony of chinstrap penguins through binoculars from the water how you really want to conquer Antarctica or the Galapagos? If that’s your only option due to physical or financial limitations, by all means go for it. Otherwise, consider taking an expedition cruise.
If Goldilocks had this pair of destinations on her must-see list, along with at least $10K for fares covering sea and air, she’d find expedition cruising aboard a 20-passenger Ecoventura motor-yacht to the Galapagos or 500-passenger Hurtigruten ship to Antarctica as “just right.” Not too big, not too small, not too posh, not too basic, not too expensive (relatively), not too cheap (subjectively).
Blessed this traveler has been to have visited both pinch-me-I’m-dreaming places three times right before and since the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent trip to Antarctica was on the penultimate cruise of since-defunct Crystal Cruises. Amazing as that $15,000 voyage was, it did make me appreciate the value of sailing with Hurtigruten on a near-identical itinerary even more. What the return trip didn’t do was help me decide which between Antarctica and the Galapagos is my favorite. May all of us be saddled with such a conundrum.
So, with our pretend negative test results for COVID-19 in hand, let’s explore these ultimate trips of a lifetime.
Antarctica is one of the most photogenic places on Earth, but “The White Continent” was really showing off on the final landing of a 12-day expedition Hurtigruten ( cruise that is now being shouldered by the 3-year-old M/S Roald Amundsen.
As I stood before the shoreline admiring the most amazing sunset in the South Shetland Islands, a baby Minke whale was swimming by in front of me, colonies of Gentoo and Adelie penguins were behind me, a sleeping elephant seal was to my left and a playful leopard seal was to my right.
The only thing more stunning than that memorable 360-degree view was the fact that so few are afforded the opportunity. In the year before COVID-19 travel restrictions were in place, a mere 56,000 visitors followed in the frozen footsteps of Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, making Antarctica perhaps the world’s least-crowded tourist attraction. More people visit Disneyland on an average day than Antarctica in an entire year.
The majority of visiting humans come off expedition cruises that usually embark from Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. A popular range for passenger capacity on Antarctica-bound expedition cruises is 350 to 500 guests. Besides being allowed to go ashore — the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators forbids ships with more than 500 souls to land — that size of ship makes for a good floating hotel for 11 or 12 days, the sweet spot in terms of duration.
Half of the passengers on our “Highlights of Antarctica” cruise were German or Scandinavian, and the majority of these folks were familiar with Hurtigruten from past voyages to Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Alaska. Most of the 89 Americans were first-time cruisers of the line.
Equipping hundreds of mostly senior-aged passengers of varying levels of vigor with boots, jackets, life vests and other personal gear is no easy task, but Hurtigruten makes suiting up rather painless. Zodiac rides to shore or for a harbor cruise are handled by groups, again very straightforward. Kayaking is offered for an extra fee on multiple days, weather permitting.
Perhaps the most memorable optional experience one can have is what Hurtigruten calls Amundsen Night. About 30 lucky and plucky passengers are selected by lottery to spend the night on land in tents while the ship is anchored out of sight. The upcharge of a few hundred dollars becomes priceless when it’s just you and nature in those precious moments of seclusion away — but not too far away — from camp. Hearing the ominous sounds of cracking ice and a seal taking breaths while on a hunt below the surface is life changing, no exaggeration.
Getting food is a lot easier for passengers. Meals onboard are served buffet style except for two “Explorer Dinners” (reindeer steak or Arctic char one night, chateaubriand or halibut the other). Passengers were kept satisfied with some of the most lavish spreads at sea.
With sub-$10,000, 12-day itineraries that include flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, the overnight hotel stay and airport transfers, Hurtigruten offers tremendous value and literally runs a tight ship with more than a century of experience in expedition cruising. Other cruise lines happy to put your trip of a lifetime on ice include Quark, Viking, Ponant — each within a few thousand dollars of low-fare-leading Hurtigruten. With Crystal going belly-up a few months ago, the emperor penguin of the ultra-luxury market is Silversea.
Fact No. 1: When it comes to luxury expedition cruising, size matters. Capacity of the roughly 70 vessels permitted to sail in the Galapagos ranges from 16 guests on catamarans to the legal max of 100 on ships. Smaller is arguably better if seeing nature is foremost, and with passenger volume gradually being restored to pre-pandemic levels, more than 250,000 visitors are expected to be granted passage to the astonishing archipelago in 2023.
Fact No. 2: You flew to mainland Ecuador and took the short flight to the Galapagos Islands for one thing: seeing the unique wildlife that inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution.
Fact No. 3: With all the time already invested in days of travel and years of planning, saving and dreaming, the last thing you want is to wait to see the unique collection of animals upon which English naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin strongly based his Theory of Natural Selection.
Going small, but not too small, is the ticket, as in Ecoventura’s 20-passenger sister ships, the M/V Origin and Theory. The combination of sharing the vessel with such a low number and a crew that has the excursion process down to a science equates to virtually no waiting for one of two inflatable landing crafts that whisk guests to twice-daily nature walks sandwiched by an equally life-changing snorkel outing.
If there’s one cause for ship envy among those on ships carrying several times more passengers, it’s the speed by which smaller crafts execute outings. Exploring in groups no larger than 10 really is a Galapagos godsend.
With Ecoventura and other operators of similar-sized vessels, Aqua Expeditions among them, zero wait time applies on land, too. Observing iguanas that look straight out of an old prehistoric-set monster movie, only in living color, is best in small groups. That’s especially true when dealing with the skittish as any noise could scare away that albatross or blue-footed booby you’ve been wishing to see.
Another plus going small: Communication between the naturalist and sailor has your Zodiac pulling up the moment the guided hike or beach time is over. The captain welcoming you back on board with a smile and outstretched arm for hoisting is one of those nice touches that separate Ecoventura ( from most large operators.
While catamarans and single-hulled yachts offer the most intimate multi-day live-aboard cruises, bigger ships provide greater solicitation, services, space and, depending on timing and the deal, affordability on non-ultra-luxury lines. If those factors are important, we recommend looking at Celebrity Cruises, which sails the 100-passenger Flora and 64-capacity Xpedition, the latter offering voyages priced as low as $6,000 at press time. Also navigating the Galapagos Islands are Silversea’s Silver Origin (100 people) and Hurtigruten’s Santa Cruz II (90). All of these ships embark from Quito, Ecuador for sails from six to 16 days, most through fall 2023.
As for Ecoventura’s 3-year-old Theory, about $9,000 can book an eight-day, near-all-inclusive cruise with buffet-style breakfasts and lunches that were elegantly spread out with impressive variety on our voyage. While the waiter-served dinners were oddly lukewarm by the time they came to our tables, they were mostly delicious and beautifully plated. Passengers staying on the 6-year-old Origin shared similar reviews regarding the cuisine; the sister ships run relatively parallel to each other with staggered daily itineraries.
Our stateroom was modern and clean with an unexpectedly large shower. Hospitality was also a surprise, but in the wrong direction; among the 13-member crew, only the purser emulated the level of service promised by the company in the brochures and what should be expected from a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux group. The others seemed to turn on the congeniality only at the end when tips are usually handed out. Good thing for them that most of us kept our eyes on the prize during the adventure: the amazing animals.
Where Ecoventura excels is in bringing humans up-close and personal to mind-blowing wildlife. Other than safety, that’s the most important part of a Galapagos expedition because years later it won’t be the mode of passage you’ll remember so much, but the iguanas, boobies, penguins, giant tortoises, sea lions, flamingos, frigates, crabs, sharks and other fantastical nature friends made on your trip of a lifetime.
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