Wednesday, February 17, 2010

January 2010: Twenty Days in the Antarctric!

It was the best of trips, it was the worst of trips!

The cruise itself was a good as they get - I say this as a land lubber. This was my tenth boat trip and I would rather be ashore any day. I’ve traveled on the Rhine, Yangtze and Volga rivers, spent a week on a a Maine Windjammer, was overnight on a Stockholm-Helsinki ferry, spent time coming and going with a bunch of drunken Swedes on a Stockholm-St Petersburg Baltic cruise, did the Norwegian Coastal trip over the Arctic Circle one Christmas, and then there were several cruises in and about Washington-Vancouver Island -Island Passage. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed them, but I do get restless.

This Quark expedition was aboard the 110 passenger Lyubov Orlova, a retrofitted Russian ship, which was very comfortable. Since the cruise was entitled, Explorers’ Route, time was spent learning about various Antarctic expeditions. The itinerary included a number of trips ashore, limited only by the weather conditions.

The accommodations were comfortable, more so than most of the vessels I’ve been on. The food was great, too much so. My roommate was a joy. Staff was outstanding, both the Russian crew and the Quark staff. There were ongoing presentations about the flora, fauna, geology, birds, seals, whales and history of the region. And several good movies in the evening: I finally saw The Queen with Helen Mirran. and an excellent documentary on Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer who didn’t succeed in reaching his goal, but did succeed in saving his men. .

Everyone aboard had a camera and some, two. Several were professional photographers.
There were a plethora of birders who were snapping shots of various sizes and kinds of the winged set. Binoculars abounded. There were many opportunities to view the wildlife - up close and personal! And the passengers were from all over: US. UK, Portugal, Japan, China, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Russia, Israel - you name it.

My main interest was in the history and politics of the area though I did marvel at the diversity of wildlife. The stops at Stanley in the Falklands and Grytviken in South Georgia - where Shackleton is buried - were of most interest to me. I had West’s book on the Falklands war with me and had read both Asher and Geraghty on the SAS’ difficulties there plus Keegan on Intelligence mishaps.

Stanley was as English as Victoria BC, which outdoes the homeland. There was a small museum with momentos from the Falklands War. Also bullet holes in buildings were among the left overs. Grytviken was full of rusted, beached ships from the whaling era along with the wreckage of the Argentine submarine, Santa Fe (ex-US Starfish) which couldn’t be scuttled by the Brits for legal technicalities in the undeclared conflict with Argentina.

One of the staff aboard the Orlova was a real gem: a diver, naturalist and historian who had been in South Georgia during the Falklands War and aboard The Explorer, the GAP ship that sunk in the Antarctic several years ago. He had been around the area for at least twenty years; I found him extraordinarily interesting. But all the staff, with their varied backgrounds, were impressively knowledgeable.

My favorite time were the rides in the zodiacs. Sometimes, paced by whales. Often wet and occasionally, a bit hairy, the rides provided a change from the ship’s routine. When near land, there were usually two trips ashore per day where the penguins, seals and birds held forth for their audience of photographers. I did find my snow walking ability had gone down the tubes: the effort to climb up to a volcano with rubber boots was spectacularly unsuccessful. I was down more than up.

I was able to move about some aboard ship. There was an exercie bike and some weights in a room with space enough to stretch out. The deck railings were at such a height I could use them for an abbreviated ballet barre albeit a bit “fresh”outside as the Brits would say.

I had enough time in Ushuaia to visit their local museum, housed in an old time penitentiary. It was quite unique and included several art galleries as well as material on sea and ships. One block was left in the orginal condition while another block had material posted about the facility and former prisoners.

So the tour itself was a real plus. And I would recommend it!

But then there was the Santiago Aeroporto and the delay at LAX!

In twenty five years of traveling, I have never had such trouble as I had connecting flights in Santiago. both coming and going. Great confusion when I arrived at the International section as to where I was to go to connect with my Ushuaia (Argentina) flight and no system for connecting flights - you go through immigration and passport and security and pay $131 (as the US now charges $131 for Chileans to obtain a visa) and are left adrift. I missed my twice weekly flight to Ushuaia.

I was flying LAN Air, code share with American Airlines. Initially, LAN people assumed no responsibility for my plight, since AA had booked the flight. However, after AA was absent at the airport and incapable of assisting via phone and the Quark emergency number was non responsive, LAN kindly put me on their overbooked flight to Buenos Aires where there was an early AM flight to Ushuaia which allowed me more than enough time to make the boat.

Returning was just as bad, though I didn’t miss the flight. There was the same confusion in finding where I was to be to catch my LAN flight to the US. Again, through immigration and the like - during that procedure, I lost a sack with my medical records. trip notes and gifts and was not allowed to go back to pick it up though a bit later, the LAN representative arranged for look-see with negative results. At the Gate, I was informed I needed to pay $30 to bail myself out and as I left the Gate, my nicely packaged bottles per TSA, were confiscated, with the sniffer dog following me to the aircraft door.

The final frosting: I was held up several hours at LAX as there was a fog overlay at SFO, including an hour on the tarmac!

Ok, the tab: the twenty day Quark trip, booked through Adventure Center, cost $9075 for a double room but note that I had a $5000 discount. Airfare cost $1641. and I did pay an extra $84 for CO2 offset. That was it other than Airport fees in Santiago and Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires charges $100 per American as we now charge their citizens that amount for visas).

The next jaunt is in 10 days or so, out of San Jose via Jet Blue to Vermont - I’ll report back on that one.

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