Friday, March 04, 2005

Antarctica and Lindblad Cruise Observations

I'm back today (March 4) from my cruise on Lindblad's MS Endeavor to Antarctica, South Orkney, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands with a few observations on the trip, before getting back to the L.A. Times and other journalistic issues.

First, I should make the earnest point that the 22-day cruise, as virtually all such ventures, went only to the fringe of Antarctica. We never got to the Antarctic Circle. The furthest south we went along the Antarctica Peninsula that juts toward South America was 65 degrees 11 minutes south, and had we gone further I was assured by ship personnel who certainly seemed reliable, we could well have been stuck in the ice for the Southern Hemisphere winter that is even now approaching. As it was, we saw a lot of ice and some of it was even alarming, such as when an iceburg turned over right in front of the ship, and winds once reached 100 mph.

So I tell you this not to be making claims of being too great an adventurer. Compared to the polar explorers, or the researchers who are in Antarctica today, we don't rate at all.

But that said, this was still a tremendous cruise, enjoyed by almost all the 110 passengers aboard, mostly Americans with a few British, Australians, Swedes and others. South Georgia, with its millions of seals and hundreds of thousands of penguins, was probably most enjoyable, because it is a little warmer than Antarctica, 40 degrees in late February rather than 25-30. It snowed three of the six days we were along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Shorter cruises are offered by Lindblad and other lines out of Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica, but if you're going so far, it certainly makes sense to take a wider cruise to South Georgia and the Falklands.

Last year, I took a cruise from Valparaiso, Chile, around Cape Horn to Buenos Aires on Silversea, touted repeatedly by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the top, if not the top, luxury cruisers. But when I reached Ushuaia, Argentina, in Tierra del Fuego, "the Southernmost city in the world," I noticed the smaller scientific vessels tied up to the dock and that seemed a better bet than Silversea, which, frankly I found disappointing, with its over-fancy food, obsequious service and failure to keep the passengers timely informed, such as of our 6 a.m. arrival at Cape Horn.

Conde Nast is in error, I think, to rate Silversea so high and Lindblad further down. The Lindblad cruise was simply superior. Its food was essentially just as good, the comfort of its accommodations only a little less palatial, and (and this is what really counts) the service from its crew and the lectures and movies from its naturalists far superior to any I've received in the past from Silversea, Princess, Cunard and other cruiselines I've sailed with.

The weather in Antarctica and the other places we went to, the infamous Drake Passage, etc., was not tropical, to say the least. It was cold and usually rough. Some passengers got seasick, although a dramamine or two on a very few occasions kept me well clear of any discomfort or nausea. Some passengers said they had expected more blue skies. We had just two really nice days toward the end of the voyage in the Falkland Islands. But if you want to go to Antarctica fringes and are willing to bear the expense, which is considerable, then you should be prepared for bad weather and not be too surprised and disappointed by it.

Lindblad recommended the purchase of substantial winter clothing, and even sent along a complimentary red parka to every passenger. I bought most everything they recommended except the long underwear (about a $700 investment), including boots, and found they kept me fairly dry and quite warm. We had about 25 land excursions, landings by zodiac on some mightly spectacular shoreline, sometimes in a full gale, and they were a highpoint of the cruise, and numbered many more landings than most cruiselines offer. The Zodiac drivers of Lindblad are without fear; not a single passenger fell overboard.

From an information point of view, I think cruise director Tom Ritchie was superb. He and Captain Leif Skog told us nearly everything, except they left the news that we had passed through a 100 mph hurricane one night to the end of the voyage. They had ropes up all over the ship so we could hang on while walking around, and some meals were punctuated by crashes in the kitchen.

An added dividend of the cruise was Lindblad's experimentation with an undersea camera that can show the sea life thousands of feet below the ocean surface, a real revelation.

I'm high on Lindblad, as you can see. It's doing far better these days than the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times. It's an honest, well-informed, well-meaning company and I hope its forthcoming merger with National Geographic, also a good organization, doesn't do it any harm.

We stopped in Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands, one day and it was inspiring to hear about the war Britain fought there in 1982 to keep its few thousand citizens from falling prey to an Argentine invasion. I bought a wonderful little book by Falkland Islander John Smith, his 74-day diary of what it was like to live in Stanley during the Argentine occupation of that duration. The Falklands war was yet another sign that no one should ever underestimate the determination of the British to protect their freedom and the freedom of their protectorates.

I found, incidentally, during the voyage that there were certainly people aboard who were critical of U.S. and British policies in the War on Terror. But there were also people in considerable numbers who believe in those policies, as I do. We all had some good discussions.

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