A First-Timer’s Cruise to Antarctica: Insider Tips for the ‘Ultimate Journey’
Barbara Muckermann will tell you that travel is her biggest passion, and yet Antarctica was absent from her travel resume.
Understandable, because even for the most adventurous travelers, a trip to the White Continent, the most remote place on Earth, poses challenges. A job precludes long and leisurely getaways, and obligations to family and friends, among the complications of a busy life, are ever present.
In December 2021, she filled that hole in her personal travelogue. Muckermann, Silversea’s President and CEO, joined the Antarctica Bridge itinerary. This seven-day trip is unique because it offers the same destination immersion experience as the usual 10- to 14-day itineraries but in less time. That’s because Antarctica Bridge skips the usual sea-going path across the sometimes-stormy Drake Passage (at least two days from the embarkation point in South America to its first Antarctic stop and two more days back).
Ultimately, Antarctica Bridge tipped the scales in favor of the trip and persuaded her to take the plunge, a word that also has taken on new meaning for her, thanks to the expedition experience.
In this candid Q&A, she explains why she embarked on this trip to the White Continent, why she jumped in the frigid waters around Antarctica and how the White Continent changed her perspective – so much so that she’s returning less than a year after her first voyage there to experience Silver Endeavour.
You love travel. but you hadn’t been to Antarctica. What figured into your decision to go?
Barbara Muckermann: Not understanding it was an issue for me because you can only really sell and market what you understand. You can’t go to the Galápagos and Antarctica and think it’s the same. Also, I do not have good sea legs and so crossing the Drake on a plane was, as a consequence, a big draw.
On a more personal level, Antarctica is the ultimate journey. It’s really a trip you want to do. Less than a million people in the whole history of humanity have been to Antarctica. So, the real driver for me was the fear of missing out.
What was your big takeaway from your trip?
BM: You understand how small you are. You think you’re this “big guy” and you get there, and you realize, my God, how small humans are in front of this vast view.
I think the big thing about Antarctica is Antarctica itself. It’s the power of the elements, the power of the mountains, the strength of the sea. It’s the most powerful landscape I’ve ever seen. There’s nothing that has the intrinsic energy of the continent. It’s something you can read about, but you don’t understand it until you find yourself there.
What was expected and what was unexpected on your Antarctica Bridge journey?
BM: I would say the whole trip was very different from what I was expecting. You fly, land in a military station, you walk for like 45 minutes, you arrive on a beach, then you’re in a Zodiac and finally you land on the ship completely drenched. But the flying/cruise is the best program we have because it’s the best way to experience Antarctica if you don’t otherwise have the time. It immediately brings you inside the country.
Did you choose this option partly because of concern about the roughness of the Drake Passage, which connects the Pacific and the Atlantic and is known for exceptionally strong currents?
BM: I know statistically that the “Drake Lake,” when seas are calm, is as frequent as the “Drake Shake,” when seas are rough, so I’m optimistic when I go for the shakedown cruise of the Silver Endeavour (the latest ship to join the Silversea fleet; this particular voyage will cross the Drake Passage). But the flying cruise also saved us four days round trip. It’s an amazing product.
Did you do the traditional Polar Plunge? (Imagine, jumping off the marina into the freezing cold waters of the Antarctic Sea.)
BM: I actually did the polar jump! I never thought I would do it. And it’s not as bad as I thought because it’s so cold it’s like getting general anesthesia. [After jumping into the frigid water] I rushed to the suite, and I took a very hot shower, and I didn’t feel it.
One of the safety things is that they put a safety harness on you. That’s the worst thing – because the safety harness just came out of the water with the previous person who did the Polar Plunge. It’s so big and so cold. Then you get into the water and everything else is a blur.
I think I might do it again, actually. It’s so energizing.
What about wildlife?
BM: I can watch penguins for hours and hours because they are just so cute and fun. You know when they say that stressed people should watch pandas? For me it’s penguins.
Did you see whales?
BM: We did not see whales. I went in December, the early part of the season when everything, because of the snow, is clean and pristine. Whale activity comes later.
There’s concern about global warming. Did you feel the fragility of Antarctica?
BM: In Antarctica, there’s so much ice, so much snow, such big mountains that I didn’t get any sense of fragility. What felt fragile to me felt personal, because the environment is so hostile and strong. So, it’s important to be with a top operator on a ship with comforts.
What’s it like to enjoy butler service in such an environment?
BM: Sometimes people ask us why you might need a butler in Antarctica. Well, your butler enhances your experience. When you come back to the ship, you may be drenched because the ride back on the Zodiac may not have been as dry as you were expecting. Your clothes are full of mud because that’s what happens. Having the opportunity to dump everything and finding it warm and pressed the next morning? It’s a plus.
And an additional advantage of traveling with a luxury operator in Antarctica is that luxury is so contextual. A perfect espresso is not a luxury in New York, but it takes a completely different value in a region where, 100 years ago, some of the early explorers died.
Anything else that surprised you?
BM: Just to get dressed takes you about two hours. You have at least two expeditions a day, and you also might kayak, so you’re actually spending half of the day dressing and undressing. There’s not much time left between wardrobe changes!
Was there anything you had with you that you’re especially glad about?
BM: Silversea provides the boots for Antarctica passengers, so I didn’t have to lug them and that was a plus. I brought a pair of Uggs, the fantastic surfer shoes. Your feet probably are wet or damp when they come out of the boots we wear ashore. And, you know, just putting your feet in these Uggs that are so woolly and warm, it’s really nice. My Uggs are coming back for the Endeavour inaugural for sure.
What about evenings?
BM: The evening briefing is amazing, especially the way we do it at Silversea. It’s really the core. Our lectures are incredible, and the information is always interesting and relevant. I would almost miss an excursion before I would miss a brief. That’s really the highlight of the evening. Then you have dinner and…you’re really knocked out. But remember, you have light all the time in Antarctica [in summer]. It’s a little hard. We probably did the Polar Plunge at 10 o’clock at night… and the sun was still shining.
Silversea recently acquired the Silver Endeavour, the most luxurious expedition ship ever to ply polar seas. What’s your impression of the vessel?
BM: I checked it out before we bought it! I spent three days on the ship, and she is so luxurious that it almost feels unreal. It’s like bringing a top luxury city hotel with you to the most remote area of the planet. I’m looking forward to going back on the Endeavour and 100 percent enjoying the Silversea experience.
What advice would you give a first-time traveler to Antarctica?
BM: Take your time. Antarctica is such a complex and strong destination, you don’t want to rush it.
Also, bring good photographic equipment, but don’t always look at the camera. Enjoy the experience, be present.
One of the things I most remember is sitting on the balcony and just watching the ice. It’s the most amazing painting… it keeps changing. The Impressionist painter Claude Monet gave the city of Paris these four huge wall paintings, the Nymphéas, the Water Lilies. And the city put them in a museum called L’Orangerie. You walk inside, and the painting of Monet is all around you.
Antarctica is like that. It’s that kind of beauty but much bigger than anything you ever imagined.