Winter wonderland

Winter wonderland

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Intrepid explorer Donna Beaufoy set off to Antarctica with EYOS in search of adventure, wilderness and wildlife, and discovered more than a touch of luxury thrown in for good measure

The pristine, icy seascape of the Antarctic might not be the first vision to come to mind when contemplating your next luxury cruise, but a charter into this remote wilderness is an adventure that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Around 30,000 people travel to Antarctica annually on cruise ships, but if you want to get up close and personal with the wildlife, to be able to tailor each day’s activities to your own taste, and to experience the genuine solitude of this vast icy horizon then a smaller charter is the only way to travel. Formed six years ago by experienced expedition leaders Rob MacCallum and Tim Soper, EYOS Expeditions specialises in luxury travel to wild, remote and culturally intact areas of the world, lead by skilled, knowledgeable and passionate expedition leaders.

Antarctica is the most challenging cruising ground for any expedition yacht, but I travelled in complete comfort on the Hanse Explorer with a small group of guests. Ice-classed and built to handle the most challenging waters, the Explorer is a ‘go-anywhere’ yacht that is a firm favourite of EYOS Expeditions. Built for both tropical and polar waters, she carries two Mark-IV Zodiacs, which are used for landing on beaches, enabling you to explore penguin colonies, and visit research stations and historical sites. They also mean you are in the best position on the water to witness and photograph a humpback whale fluke.

Below decks, my ensuite cabin was spacious and comfortable. The saloon was the perfect place to enjoy a warming coffee or shot of Baileys over the glacier ice that we collected from the sea on our adventures earlier that day. Chef Luis Galigo catered for all guests’ dietary requirements and preferences, providing an informal buffet breakfast, homemade soup and light lunches, freshly baked pastries and biscuits, and three-course dinners that any fine-dining restaurant would be proud to serve (which we washed down with a glass or two of refreshing Chablis!)

Antarctica’s appeal to me was the opportunity to get up close to creatures that I had only previously seen on the television. Having the Zodiacs at our disposal meant that the EYOS team could quickly respond to what nature threw at us, and our expedition leader’s knowledge and experience got us closer, quicker to some incredible spectacles. On our first day on this frozen continent we came close to killer whales, and spotted one lone king penguin surrounded by hundreds of chin strap penguins and fur seals.

Adélie, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins all breed here, and we were fortunate to find many healthy colonies on our travels. As well as watching the chicks being fed, we also spotted a rare ‘blonde’ Adélie penguin. Each encounter was an incredible privilege, and our expedition leader Richard White was on hand to offer fascinating snippets of information. While penguins and seals dominate the land, the sky frequently fills with birds: Antarctic tern, kelp gull, brown skua, pale-faced sheathbill, Antarctic shag, snow petrel, Antarctic petrel and cape petrel all thrive in this seemingly inhospitable place.

On various days from both the Hanse Explorer and up close from the Zodiacs we were fascinated to observe how different whale species behave. A pod of killer whales with a calf cut through the icy water, and I was surprised to see they were discoloured yellow by a build-up of algae on the skin. They would soon journey to the warm waters off the coast of South America and return as clean as a whistle after sloughing off their outer skin. We witnessed the breathtaking spectacle of humpback whales circling deep underwater rounding up krill, forcing them up to the surface where the whales rose up out of the water open-mouthed to feed. We also spotted a lone minke whale, long and slender, swimming alongside us as I enjoyed freshly ground coffee on the bridge.

Ice breaking

We travelled on at an apparently leisurely pace, drinking in the vistas of rugged yet delicate icebergs through Fridtjof Sound, Mikkelsen Harbour and Gerlache Strait. Overnight we covered 100 miles, blissfully unaware as we slept the deep sleep of exhausted adventurers. Again the Zodiacs come into their own when exploring the craggy coastline of Spert Island, enabling us to pass through an archway of cliff rock – a truly exhilarating experience. Out on the water I was colder than I have ever been, and thankful for my layers of technical clothing, but nothing warms the cockles more than the delicious rum-spiked hot chocolate we all gulped down when back on board the Hanse Explorer. As we continued through the Lemaire Channel, Grandidier Channel towards the Ukrainian Vernadsky Research Base, we watched our yacht cut through the ice with ease. Travelling in the Austral summer you avoid the worst of the polar weather, and although I was always safe and comfortable on board, it was reassuring to witness her deal with this harsh environment with such ease! Ensconced in the comforts below deck, it’s easy to forget that this is a working yacht, built to withstand whatever this extreme environment throws at her.

From weather to wildlife, Antarctica is a land of extremes, a place that really does have to be seen to be believed. For me, this was a unique, awe-inspiring trip of a lifetime, and one that I would urge anyone and everyone to experience.

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