Antarctica For Sissies? Hardly, As Luxury Cruise Line Turns New Page

Antarctica

Antarctica draws the dreams of many and the visits of just a few. Located so very far from civilization, travel to Antarctica is the stuff of hearty explorers, burly men of substance and adventure travelers. Luxury cruise ships and their pampered passengers? Not so much. Until now.

Seabourn has a fleet of small ships that travel around the world to amazing locations in opulent luxury, something we rarely talk about here.

After all, does ultra-luxury cruising really qualify as “travel” anyway?

Probably so when it’s a 21-night expedition sailing from Buenos Aires, Argentina, stopping by Montevideo, Uruguay, then the Falkland Islands before spending five days in Antarctica, running Zodiac landings to a variety of ridiculously amazing places.

OK, maybe that’s sort of traveling.

Antarctica
Agreed, but that’s before continuing on to Ushuaia, Argentina, followed by scenic cruising in the Beagle Channel, then on through Glacier Alley and the Cockburn Channel before a stop in Punta Arenas, Chile, which of course you need before passing through the Straight of Magellan followed by scenic cruising in Canal Sarmiento where the ship passes by the Amalia Glacier followed by a day in the Chilean Fjords.

Do I have your attention yet? No? Let’s press on.


Up next is a day in Puerto Chacabuco, Chile, then on to Puerto Montt, Chile, for the day just before a day spent scenic cruising Reloncavi Sound. Finally, those left standing will spend a day at sea before disembarking in Valparaiso (Santiago), Chile.

AntarcticaSound like a bucket-list adventure? Operationally, it’s no big deal for Seabourn. Their small yacht-like ships run itineraries from just a few days to a year-long, around-the-world voyage and have had almost all the luxury cruise travel bases covered.

Now, adding to its destination-focused roster of itineraries, Seabourn is heading south. But make no mistake about it; they are prepared.

Antarctic sailings have traditionally been the exclusive domain of expedition ships for good reason. Fortified ship hulls are extra thick and ice rated, a designation that provides an extra measure of safety in what can be brutal sea conditions. This is not a part of the world where luxury liners float around with passengers lining the decks sipping umbrella drinks to be sure, and that’s not what Seabourn has in store for those they take to the white continent.

AntarcticaTo customize Seabourn Quest for these adventures, they transformed the marina built into the ship, normally used by passengers for complimentary water sports, to house and launch multiple Zodiacs.

Who is going on these voyages? Seabourn past-passengers who have been asking for it along with first-timers who want to knock Antarctica “off their bucket list,” Seabourn’s John Delaney told Gadling, as excited about the new itineraries as a kid on Christmas Eve. “It’s the one continent we did not sail to,” explained Delaney.

Each Seabourn sailing to Antarctica and Patagonia includes five days of zodiac landings and expeditions to selected Antarctic locations. As a bonus, Seabourn Quest‘s small size will enable the ship to get closer to land, offering unprecedented wildlife viewing and the photo opportunities associated with Antarctic expedition cruising … with a twist.

AntarcticaAlso on board, will be an expedition team that makes up a who’s who of naturalists, scientists, and political and historical experts with decades of Antarctic experience, including experts in wildlife and exploration – adventure travelers who have been there and done that.

Each night, they will choose from hundreds of landing areas for the following day, to bring ships up close and ensure that zodiac landings can happen, based on decades of experience.

Award-winning photographers will also be on board to offer digital photography coaching, helping guests capture exciting wildlife images while sharing their knowledge, guidance and passion for Antarctica.

Three 21-day sailings, like the one detailed above, are planned. They are filling up fast and look to be a staple on the Seabourn roster of itineraries in future years as well.

An even longer, 24-day sailing does all of the above plus a stop at South Georgia Island, arguably “as interesting if not more so than Antarctica itself,” added Delaney.

The Seabourn plan promises to be far more than a fancy ship with some extra safety measures slapped on for show too, although they will be running the only all-suite ship in the area. Each passenger will receive an expedition-grade parka (emblazoned with the Seabourn logo) and a backpack. In addition, for those who need the right gear, passengers will have access to an experienced outfitter via the Seabourn website.

So what will it cost to come along?

Prices start at $14,999 per person, a bit over $700 per person, per day.
Yes, you could buy a car for that.
Sissies would buy the car.




[Image credit - Seabourn]

Flight To Comet Sold Out But There Are Other Options

comet

Astronomers are calling 2013 “the year of the comet” as the first of two comets set to swing by Earth comes within view of the naked eye. Some avid sky watchers may be viewing with binoculars. Others may get an even closer view, thanks to a German travel agency.

On March 16, Eclipse Travel of Bonn, Germany, will have Air Berlin’s flight 1000 full of stargazers, giving them two hours closer to the comet than anyone else on the planet.

The company will fill just 88 of the 144 seats on board the Boeing 737-700, allowing everyone to have a window view at an average ticket price of $500 per person, reports TravelMole.

Wish you had booked a seat? Is astronomy your passion? You have options.

Closer to home, Spears Travel of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a Sky & Telescope’s Iceland Aurora Adventure set for April 7. Currently, the event is also sold out, but they are accepting names for a waiting list. The seven-night astronomy adventure to view the northern lights in Iceland sold for $2995 per person.Eclipse Tours of Houston, Texas, has more options, planning trips through 2015. Providing guided expeditions of astronomical events throughout the world, Eclipse Tours is the home of Ring of Fire Expeditions (ROFE), the longest consecutive astronomical tour organization in the United States.

This year, Eclipse will visit the island of Tarawa, Kiribati, for its 41st Annular Solar Eclipse Tour in May and space is still available. Another tour heads to Guadalcanal in the South Pacific’s Solomon Islands for a post-eclipse tour.

Even more exotic, Melitatrips, a Travel + Leisure world’s best-award winner, takes the road less traveled for stargazing excursions from Argentina to Zimbabwe. This year, Melitatrips has a Kenya Total Solar Eclipse Safari promising unrivaled views “from the place where man was born,” according to its website. An English Astronomers Tour returns to where the greatest scientific researchers once lived and worked, with stops in London and surrounding towns of Bath, Cambridge and Oxford, with a special visit to Greenwich Observatory and the Maritime Museum.

Sound interesting but not in the budget?

Northern hemisphere stargazers who look to the west as the sun sets should note that just to the left of the horizon they should be able to see the comet Pan-STARRS over the next few days.

“Comets visible to the naked eye are a rare delicacy in the celestial smorgasbord of objects in the nighttime sky,” says NASA on its Asteroid and Comet watch page that offers viewing tips and more information about asteroids and other near-Earth objects.

Another option? Google Sky.



[Photo credit - Flickr user ϟStormLoverSwin93ϟ]

The Patagonian Expedition Race: A Hellish Endurance Test In A Heavenly Setting

patagonian expedition raceIt starts at midnight with a 108-kilometer mountain bike ride into the teeth of a biting Patagonian wind. And then, in the morning, there is the brutal realization that there is another 593 more kilometers of mountain biking, trekking and sea kayaking to be completed in no more than ten days. Here’s your map and compass. Now figure out how to survive in the remote, untrammeled wilds of Patagonia.

Two years ago, I covered the Race Across America (RAAM), an insane 3,000-mile bike race that challenges sleep-deprived cyclists to sprint across the country within a 12-day time limit. The winner that year was Christoph Strasser, an Austrian bike messenger who caught a total of just 7 and a half hours sleep while crossing the country in eight days.

Earlier this week, one of Christoph’s friends sent me a message about the Patagonian Expedition Race, and after talking to Pete Clayden, a Brit who moved to Chile in 2011 to help run the race, I no longer think that the RAAM participants are the world’s craziest endurance athletes.


patagonia expedition raceThis year’s Patagonian Expedition Race is a 701-kilometer adventure that involves 300 kilometers of mountain biking, overland treks totaling 320 kilometers, and about 80 kilometers of sea kayaking across rugged, virgin terrain in Patagonia that includes majestic mountains, fjords, glaciers and ice fields. The race, which is considered one of the toughest endurance tests in the world, was the brainchild of Stjepan Pavicic, a Chilean geologist who has mapped out different courses in each of the 11 years the race has been held.

“Some of the areas we go into, we may be the first people to have gone there,” says Pete Clayden, who went to work for the race after his post in the financial sector disappeared during the Great Recession, in a recent Skype interview. “There’s a lot of completely virgin ground here, so we never have a hard time finding a new route. We try to showcase the best of the region while creating a unique, very difficult adventure for the racers.”


This year, eleven teams from around the world set off from Puerto Natales, in Chile, at midnight on Monday, February 11, for the first leg of the race – the hellish, aforementioned 108-kilometer mountain bike ride. Two days into the race, six teams were still active, two were thought to be active but hadn’t checked in, and three teams had already dropped out. Last year, 11 of the 19 four-person, co-ed teams actually finished the race.

Clayden said that this year’s race, which concluded over the weekend, was one of the toughest ever, with fierce winds and a difficult course that only three teams were able to complete in the allotted time. Team Adidas TERREX Prunesco, made up of Mark Humphreys, Sally Ozanne, Nick Gracie and Chris Near, won for the fifth consecutive year, crossing the finish line in Punta Arenas, Chile on February 20. The Japanese EastWind team finished third, with GearJunkie Yogaslackers in third.


Each team has to have at least one woman; one team has two this year. But while the women may be outnumbered, some female racers from previous years proved to be some of the competition’s fiercest competitors. Last year, a Japanese woman named Kaori Waki broke one of her ribs on the second day of the race.

patagonia expedition race“But she kept quiet about it and carried on,” Clayden says. “Her team still managed to come in third place.”

Each team is required to bring their own cooking gear, tents and supplies and there are six resupply opportunities spread out over the course. Clayden says that most teams sleep for just an hour or two per night and some suffer from sleep-deprived hallucinations.

“But a lot of the racers tend to enjoy their hallucinations,” he says. “They call them the sleep monsters.”

Teams are required to stay together, leave no trace in the pristine wilderness, and assist other teams if they are in distress. (Time spent helping other teams is deducted from a team’s race time.) Each team gets a GPS and a satellite phone but they can only use them if they’re in deep trouble and are no longer vying to win the race. Weather conditions are often brutal; on a few occasions Patagonian winds of more than 100 mph actually knocked riders off their bikes (see footage below!) and temperatures can dip below freezing.


“But the thing that really gets the racers is the terrain,” Clayden says. “For the first third of the race, they’re trekking across a glacier, working their way alongside a long section of mountains and lakes, with many river crossings. And there’s one iceberg-filled lake they’ll be crossing on a kayak. It’s an adventure playground.”

patagonia expedition raceIt costs $1,000 per team to enter the race, which attracts an eclectic mix of adventurers from around the world who work 9-5 jobs as teachers, tradesman, entrepreneurs, guides and almost any other job you can think of. And what is the prize for enduring this brutal, self-guided race?

“There is zero prize money,” says Clayden, who had just started his own sports massage business when he got the phone call that lured him down to Patagonia to work for the race. “The race is run in the Olympic spirit, solely for the honor of winning it. But there is a trophy and those who finish get a medal. People make enormous sacrifices to compete.”

A British team called Adidas TERREX Prunesco has won what is often referred to as the “Last Wild Race” four years in a row but there’s a plucky quartet of Americans who has also been in the running for the last four years. Gear junky Yoga Slackers are a husband and wife led team comprised of yoga instructors from Bend, Oregon (see videos). In most cases, however, spouses refrain from competing on the same team.

“Generally speaking this is not something you want to do with your life partner,” Clayden says, with a laugh.

When the racers reach the finish line, their feet are sore, they haven’t had a shower in a week or more and they want beer – sometimes, several beers. But Clayden says that more often than not, they come back for more, year after year.


“For most people, it’s to have a great adventure and to have it here in Patagonia,” he says. “They love the wildness of the country, the savageness of it, the intense weather and the way they are immersed in nature. It’s the world’s greatest race, because you compete in mind-blowing scenery and with three of your best friends.”

[Photo credits: Alex Buisse, Chris Radcliffe, Ulrik Hasseman and Alex Karelli from the Patagonian Expedition Race]

London’s Hippest Places To Eat Right Now

London‘s food landscape is constantly changing. As new restaurants come and go, it can be hard to keep up with what’s hip and happening. If you happen to be stopping through in the next few months, here are some of London’s trendiest restaurants right now.

Ceviche
This small Soho restaurant is London’s only pisco bar and cevicheria. Besides plenty of Peru‘s national drink and dish, visitors can dine on small plates packed with flavor, including chancha (crunchy corn), yucas (fried cassava), lomo saltado (sirloin marinated in soy sauce and spices), octopus skewers and quinoa salad. Just don’t come expecting servers donning hokey ponchos and serving roasted guinea pig to a background of music on the pan flute: here you’ll find a chromed-out bar that resembles a fish market and walls filled with screen-printed posters from classic and modern Peruvian artists, all of which were handpicked by proprietor Martin Morales. Morales makes sure all of the music is 100 percent Peruvian, from ’60s psychedelic rock to the latest Afro-Peruvian electronic music, and he even goes so far as to put some of the bands out on vinyl under his record label Tiger’s Milk, a moniker that gives a nod to the nickname for leftover ceviche marinade.
17 Frith St., London W1D 4RG


Duck & Waffle

This new restaurant serves tasty British-influenced dishes, but what really draws visitors are the amazing city views. The restaurant is perched on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower, a high rise in the heart of London near busy Liverpool Street Station. The building is set very close to London’s famous Gherkin, and from high above you can see all the landmarks along the Thames River. Even better, you can take in the birds-eye-view morning, noon and night: this place is open 24/7, meaning you can stop in late after a night of club hopping or drop in early to get breakfast before a day of sightseeing. If you stop in for breakfast, the steak & egg benedict (above) was perfectly poached and smothered in delicious hollandaise sauce, and you can’t go wrong with an English breakfast, a traditional dish that includes two eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, trotter-braised beans, hash browns and Scottish black pudding.
110 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AY

Evans & Peel Detective Agency
An American phenomenon is taking a hold on London: speakeasy-themed bars and restaurants set in 1920s prohibition-era hideaways. One such place is Evans & Peel Detective Agency, a restaurant under the guise of a private investigation agency. Visitors need to make an advanced “appointment” with a detective and state their case before even being approved for their reservation. The unassuming entrance is to the side of busy Earl’s Court Road, and diners are buzzed down into a room where a stern detective leads an interrogation about your case (it’s okay if you giggle while lauding him with a made up tale about your search for a runaway husband, like my friend and I did). From there, I won’t ruin the experience for anyone wanting to check this out for themselves, but I will say the owners spared no expense at making this seem like a real, candlelit safe house for illegal boozing. The menu is mostly American-style finger food, plus some inventive cocktails using whiskey as the main ingredient.
310c Earl’s Court Rd., London SW5 9AQ

The Wilton Way Café
This independently owned cafe is filled with young artists and bohemians who inhabit Hackney, one of London’s up-and-coming hipster havens. The tiny cafe is notable because it is also home to London Fields Radio, a station broadcasting podcasts filled with eclectic musical selections and conversations about London’s creative community. If you want to find the pulse of London’s creative heart, this is the place to be. Luckily, the food and coffee match the vision of these creative types; Wilton Way Cafe serves up fresh croissants and cakes from nearby bakeries, and makes their coffee with locally roasted Climpson & Sons beans.
63 Wilton Way, London E8 1BG


Sunday (Up)Market
If you find yourself in London on a Sunday, heading to Brick Lane is an absolute must. Rain or shine, young Londoners flock here to shop for new and second-hand wares, making sure to stop for a bite to eat at what is called the Sunday UpMarket inside the Old Truman Brewery. Here, you’ll find a collection of small but tantalizing food stalls, each with artfully crafted displays of everything from hand-rolled sushi to Spanish paellas and empanadas. You’ll also find Mexican, Ethiopian, Turkish, Indian, Argentinian and more. My suggestion is to bring a friend so you can sample more than just one type of cuisine. When you’re finished, browse more than 140 stalls selling fashion and accessories, also located in the building. If you’re up for more, Old Spitalfields Market is also nearby.
The Old Truman Brewery, London E1 6QL

If you’re looking for additional suggestions on where to eat in London, check out Visit London-I found several of the above restaurants through their website.

[Photo credit: blogger Libby Zay]

Cruise Ships Steer Clear Of Troubled Waters

cruise ship
Travel via cruise ship has a number of advantages. For one example, you can unpack once but visit multiple destinations on a floating hotel. Doing so safely is another, causing cruise lines to constantly consider life as it is at ports of call around the world. What was once a safe place to visit may not be six months from now. That’s when cruise lines alter itineraries and steer cruise ships clear of troubled waters.

Argentina’s Ushuaia has been referred to as the southernmost city in the world with attractions that include the Tierra del Fuego National Park, Lapataia Bay and a host of wildlife viewing, fishing, skiing, hiking, biking, dining and shopping opportunities. Ushuala is also a South American cruise port. When the decades-old tension between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands heated up recently, cruise lines chose to go a different direction.

“Information had come to our attention that demonstrations may have occurred in Ushuaia that could have impacted the ability of Veendam to enter and leave the port in accordance with accepted maritime practices,” said Sally Andrews, Holland America spokesperson in a TravelPulse report.

But what happens when ports are not accessible?

Cruise lines commonly compensate passengers for missing a port deemed unsafe, substituting another port in its place or adding an extra day at sea.

“As a result of this change, guests onboard were refunded for any shore excursions booked in Ushuaia and the government taxes and fees for the canceled port,” added Andrews.

We saw the same moves made by cruise lines after political unrest in Egypt caused ships to skip a destination many passengers had on their bucket list. Yes, those booked got “a cruise” but it was not “the cruise” they had planned on.

So what to do if my port of call is canceled?

  • If port cancellation happens before sailing, check with the cruise line, they may be offering booked passengers the ability to transfer their booking to a future sailing.
  • Check the details of your travel insurance. While “political unrest” rates run about as high as “weather disruptions” on the easy refund list, some travel insurance policies take into account such matters and while the cruise line may not offer a complete refund for cancellation, insurance can help.
  • Carefully consider cruise line offers to cancel and rebook without penalty. While potentially missing one port of call does not a bad cruise make, if that missed port is the one you were looking the most forward to, the hassle of rebooking and planning different time away from home might be worth it.
  • Negotiate with the cruise line. There is no rule that says booked passengers cannot try to make a case in favor of consideration by the cruise line when a port is canceled. Legally, the cruise line has that covered in the Passenger Contract all travelers agree to before booking. Still, cruise lines know that a little good will goes a long way to smooth over what could be a deal breaker itinerary change to a passenger.

What did those planning on visiting Ushuaia miss? Check this video to see:


[Photo Credit- Flickr user Benjamin Dumas]