Conrad Combrink on Antarctica Bridge, Silversea’s New Fly-Cruise to the White Continent
The reasons to visit Antarctica are as vast and compelling as the White Continent itself. The stunning, unique wildlife is reason enough to explore the southern reaches of our planet. Similarly, the breathtaking ice formations, the inspiring sense of remoteness and solitude, and the allure of following in the footsteps of legendary explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen have long been worthy motivators. And Silversea has added yet another reason: the allure of flying to the Seventh Continent on the luxury cruise line’s new Antarctica Bridge Program.
Starting in December 2021, this exciting new program will offer guests a fast-track to Antarctica. Travelers will fly from Punta Arenas, Chile to King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands, thereby going over the Drake Passage in business-class comfort and saving a total of four days at sea on the return journey. This in turn will allow Silversea’s guests to benefit from shorter, nine-night holiday options, while spending the same amount of time discovering the White Continent in luxury.
Conrad Combrink, Silversea Cruises’ Senior Vice President of Expeditions, Tour Operations and Destination Management, masterminded this new initiative to bring Antarctica closer to the luxury line’s guests. He recently experienced Antarctica Bridge on a scouting voyage and, still in awe at the novelty of landing at a place he has so often visited by sea, he shared his thoughts about the experience and what it will mean for intrepid travelers.
What inspired you to create this program?
We’ve been doing expeditions for the past 12 years and, naturally, we started with Antarctica. With the growth of our fleet and the expedition industry, I’m always looking for ways to enhance our product offering. Whether it’s in Antarctica or Oceania, it doesn’t matter where in the world, we’re always looking at doing things differently. So (Antarctica Bridge) was almost an easy one for us to decide. I looked at fly-cruise, which only a few other companies do. We’re not inventing fly cruise; it’s been done for a while already, but I realized that there’s not a single luxury operator doing it. So over the past year I started working with Antarctic Airways, our local partner, and they are the only company that has aircraft capable of operating this unique experience. And we just came to the conclusion that we could offer this to out guests: an enhanced air service on a business-like product. So it really is an evolution of our Antarctic experience.
You’ve been to Antarctica 70 times. How did it feel to fly there for the first time?
It was one of the most incredible experiences. I was surprised at the feeling of taking off in South America and an hour and 45 minutes later being in Antarctica. It’s just… I actually still now don’t know how to describe it. It’s so unique; you have this preconception, this notion that Antarctica is two days by ship, although we sometimes do it in a day and a half with our ships. But we have this preconceived notion that it’s 2 days on a ship across the Drake Passage. And for me having been in the expedition industry for over twenty-odd years, to get on a plane and fly down to Antarctica is quite amazing.
Something that made me smile on the plane is that you see people going to the bathroom and they come out with parkas and rubber boots. And they actually make an announcement on the plane that we will be starting our descent in 15 minutes, now is the time to put on your rubber boots. Those kind of experiences that you don’t have crossing the Drake Passage, but also not an experience that you’d have on a normal flight. It’s quite impossible to describe the feeling, the sensation of excitement on the aircraft because everybody’s sharing that. Then, all of a sudden, you see Antarctica. We fly into the South Shetlands, the first group of islands that you get when you come down to Antarctica. We had very low-lying clouds and you just break through the clouds and then poof! there it is. It was quite spectacular.
What can you tell us about the aircraft?
Over the past year I started working with Antarctic Airways, our local partner, the only company that has aircraft capable of operating this unique experience. Of course, their aircraft are completely, 100% adapted for this. The aircraft is comfortable, it’s incredibly quiet. It is one of the quietest jet aircraft ever designed. I think also what impressed me was the amount of legroom, just far more comfortable than any economy class flight I’ve ever been in. The BAe 146 are built for short runway take off and landing. The landing in Antarctica in itself is something that I never experienced on a jet aircraft, because it’s a gravel runway. But Aerovías DAP (or Antarctica Airways), our partner, modified the aircraft, adding rubber protection to the belly of the aircraft and the landing gear.
The level of skill of the pilots is incredible. These are former Chilean navy pilots who each have more than ten thousands of hours of flying time. In the summer, these guys do it on a regular basis because it’s a short flight, so they do one flight a day down south and back, so they can almost fly every day. So the skill levels that they have are incredible. It’s very, very impressive.
Did your recent experience match what you envisioned for this program? Were there any aspects that surprised you?
The experience is really quite astounding. The excitement at Punta Arenas airport… I mean, checking in for a flight at a counter that says Antarctic Airways. That in itself is super exciting. Few people do this; in the big scheme of things, you’ve got 50,000+ people a year going to Antarctica as tourists and only a few thousand of them, single digits percentage, actually fly. So, if you think about it, out of all these billions of people on the planet, only a few ever get a chance to fly on Antarctic Airways. So there is a real sense of excitement.
I was also impressed by the service onboard. It’s only a one-hour and thirty minute flight, but they served really good, hearty breakfast. And on the way back, full bar service. They also had champagne to celebrate people’s departure from Antarctica. I knew that it is a very solid airline, a very solid operator. But in my mind, because I never experienced it, we would have had to do a lot of work to upgrade the offering. Although we are still going to upgrade the offering, the level of service that they have onboard is incredible. So I’m really excited, I’m very happy with our choice, I’m very happy with the relationship. And I can’t wait to put the Silversea logo on plane. We’ve agreed to put the cabin crew, although the cabin crew are very smartly dressed, we’re going to put the cabin crew in Silversea uniform. So it’s going to be a real Silversea experience.
Is Antarctica Bridge more appropriate for first-time travelers or repeat visitors to Antarctica?
I think it’s going to appeal to the traveler who wants to avoid the Drake Passage. It’s going to appeal to the traveler who has limited time, who wants to reduce the amount of time that they are away from home but would like to still have the full Antarctica experience. Or it will appeal to the traveler that maybe wants to have a wider South American trip and only wants to dedicate 4-5 days to Antartica. I also think it’s important to realize that we have 12 departures for Antarctica Bridge and we don’t have intentions to do it with our other ships, Silver Cloud or Silver Wind (the program is only available on Silver Explorer). We just simply don’t have the airlift to offer it on Silver Cloud or Silver Wind where we have larger passenger numbers. And we can use two, maximum three aircraft to fly to Antarctica, so with Silver Wind or Silver Cloud you’d need more, so we don’t want to do that.
What was the significance of this experience for you? How would you compare it to previous groundbreaking moments you’ve led with Silversea?
We’ve had a few significant moments in our history. Firstly was when we launched Silversea Expeditions, to be the first luxury expedition company. And that was a very emotional and incredibly proud moment when we operated our first Silversea expedition cruise as of July 2008. Since then, we were the first company to do West Africa and I remember having a lot of kickback from the industry and it was a very proud moment, very exciting. Bangladesh, it was the first time any company did that. These are some of the examples of how we’ve pushed the boundaries. Our world cruise on Silver Cloud, the first-ever expedition World Cruise (coming in 2021). It’s incredible to work for a company that allows me to do these things. So on a personal level, I like to challenge myself and I like to challenge the incredible team that I work with. Antarctica Bridge is going to be a challenge for us purely because we want to raise the bar. We want to take something that is being done and we want to raise the bar on how it’s done. And that for me is exciting.
In terms of the product, it’s simply one of the most spectacular products out there. To bring Antarctica closer and within easier reach to our guests. To offer Antarctica to guests that in the past maybe would not have considered it because it is too long or they were afraid of the Drake Passage, which sometimes is a fear that can’t be rationalized because we would never do anything that’s unsafe. But the reality is we’re bringing Antarctica closer for guests that would not have considered it. And just that alone is gratifying to know that some people that would have never done it, will now do it and get to experience Antarctica. Because that is ultimately what we do, we open up possibilities for our guests to explore these incredible parts of our world. Whether it is Antarctica or South Georgia through our regular voyages. Whether it’s Antarctic Bridge, which is purely spectacular. Whether it’s the Russian Far East, Kimberley region, Papua New Guinea… these are experiences that we offer to our guests that normally they would not have considered. And that’s ultimately what we strive to do.