Recapping Antarctica aboard Hurtigruten’s FRAM
I’ve purposely waited nearly three weeks before writing my recap of my voyage to Antarctica aboard Hurtigruten’s purpose-built polar expedition ship, FRAM. As I write this, I couldn’t be further removed from the entire experience – I’m sailing aboard a ship that holds well over 3,500 guests and is, at this moment, cruising through the sweltering waters of the Caribbean.
So why wait so long? Simply put: my voyage aboard the FRAM was overwhelming in so many ways. I needed to step back, look at the entire voyage, and figure out how to possibly encapsulate that entire experience.
I didn’t file day-by-day reports of our last three days of the voyage, for the simple reason that there wasn’t much to say about them. We sailed the Drake Passage early due to a medical situation onboard, and shipboard life generally followed a sedate pattern.
Upon arrival in Ushuaia, we were offered a small selection of complimentary tours as compensation for our missed day in Antarctica. The tours weren’t terribly special (Ushuaia’s pretty small, after all), but to their credit, Hurtigruten did pull something together at the last minute and offer their guests these experiences on short notice.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: service levels are disappointingly uneven aboard the FRAM. Some crew members go the extra mile for you, while others are barely going through the motions. You really never know whether you’re going to have great service or dismissive service. On a product that costs as much as this, Hurtigruten can do better. In fact, the line does do better: service on my cruise aboard their Midnatsol through Norway a few winters ago was exemplary.
Some policies also seem designed to really rattle experienced cruisers, like the push to charge for what is essentially tap water in the main dining room, and the practice of billing onboard accounts in Norwegian Kroner. Even the strange internet access policies seemed to aggravate guests. Who ever heard of a ship turning their internet off from midnight until two in the afternoon every day?
FRAM Saves The Day
Now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you why I still recommend Hurtigruten in Antarctica. Simply put, the quality of the FRAM herself catapults Hurtigruten to the head of the pack. This is a ship that, as constructed in 2007 at Italy’s Fincantieri shipyards, was designed to handle the worst weather the Polar Regions could throw at her. And she does, with a blunt bow and squat, tank-like appearance that gives her incredible stability in inclement weather.
She’s also a remarkably beautiful ship, with some of the nicest interior design of any expedition ship in Antarctica. Paying tribute to Norwegian polar explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, the ship is chocked full of artifacts and historic photographs to the extent that she’s almost a living, breathing tribute to the glory days of Norwegian polar exploration.
Her other great advantage: FRAM’s onboard Expedition Team is tremendous, and ranks right up there with my experiences on other expedition lines. They’re passionate about this region, eager to show it to their guests, and they can command two, three and sometimes even four languages. They’re truly world-class.
Hurtigruten’s Optional Excursions Ashore in Antarctica are also well-worth the additional cost. From camping on the ice in Antarctica to in-depth Zodiac cruises that take you further into the ice than you’d ever expect, these world-class experiences aren’t available on every line in the region. In fact, I only know of one other line that lets you camp out on the ice for an evening in Antarctica – and their ships are far more utilitarian. Here in particular, I feel the extra cost is both justifiable and warranted, especially as far as the Camping is concerned. If Camping didn’t come with an additional cost, all 199 people would probably want to go. The $600 fee is as much for “crowd control” as it is for offsetting the costs associated with this activity.
To me, the ship, expedition team and the overall experiences ashore are most important on an Antarctic expedition. Hurtigruten provides them in spades, and sets the bar exceptionally high in doing so.
If Hurtigruten could fix the service levels and do away with some of the extra surcharges that aren’t very well explained in the brochure, their product in Antarctica would be world-class.
Antarctica, I Miss You
What is Antarctica? It’s more than a merely a destination; some nondescript white continent tucked away at the bottom of maps and globes. For a land with no people whatsoever, the range of emotions you’ll experience here is nearly beyond human grasp; I have never been to outer space, but I suspect that only a journey into our own solar system could match Antarctica’s raw power, beauty and majesty.
Antarctica is transcendental. Its rugged terrain speaks to a land of great hardship and sorrow; one that has left the bodies of many a fallen explorer in its wake. Its ice floes, bergs and growlers adopt an almost antagonistic role here, crushing ships and carving up the land in much the same way that the glaciers did to Alaska, centuries ago.
What will stay with me forever, though, are the skies. Skies that run the gamut from feminine beauty to murderous rage. Skies that change in an instant, bringing with them the all-too-frequent possibility of weather both good and bad. It all depends on the colour.
And yet, Antarctica is exactly what you would expect it to be: Peaceful. Reflective. Desperately lonely.
I wasn’t ready to leave. More importantly, I find myself worrying greatly about when – or if – I will return.
Antarctica is something ethereal and hard to pin-down. It speaks to your every sense. It’s your first kiss, your last dance, your favorite song, and your most cherished memory all rolled into one. Jealously guarded by her volatile lover, the Drake Passage, she sits off in the distance, at the bottom of the Earth.
Our full journey:
Hurtigruten's FRAM, Antarctica
|January 15, 2015||Buenos Aires, Argentina|
|January 16||Buenos Aires - Ushuaia, Argentina|
|January 17||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 18||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 19||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 20||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 21||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 22||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 23||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 24||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 25||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 26||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 27||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 28||Ushuaia - Buenos Aires|
|January 29, 2015||Buenos Aires, Argentina|