A Polar Expedition Aboard SH Vega
Let me start by saying this: I am not a cruiser. Leisure cruising hasn’t had a huge appeal to me mostly because I prefer something more immersive. I love falling into the rhythm of a place and trying local cuisine, plus the idea of being on a cruise ship with hundreds – nay, thousands – of other people, sounded like the antithesis of well, me. The cruises that we’ve done in the past have all been specialty: a cruise down the Nile on Nour el Nil, an overnight cruise on the Mekong, an expedition down the Amazon with Aqua Expeditions on our honeymoon, and a week cruising the river in Bordeaux. Enter Antarctica, a trip that’s virtually only possible on an expedition vessel (there are exceptions but they’re very costly alternatives). The idea of expedition cruising had long intrigued me and when the reimagined Swan Hellenic entered the scene, we made our bucket list trip to Antarctica a reality. Considering a trip to Antarctica? Keep reading to see the inside scoop on our trip to Antarctica on Swan Hellenic’s SH Vega.
Considering a trip to Antarctica? Please reach out and say hello so we can chat about options!
The Ship, SH Vega
Let’s start with the vessel itself. Swan Hellenic has three ships (we sailed on the SH Vega), all designed with polar expeditions in mind. With capacity for just 152 guests (and nearly the same number of staff), the ship is very boutique which means you’ll have an opportunity meet other guests on board. Between their polar region sailings (November through March in Antarctica; North American summer months for the Arctic), they explore the rest of the globe, never repeating an itinerary. The fact that the polar regions are their focus means that the ships are intentionally designed with expeditions in mind, from the ship’s ‘Basecamp’ to the lab.
There are 7 decks on board, and decks 3 – 8 are the core decks used by passengers. Deck 3 included core expedition and research-focused common spaces: Base Camp, where we each had lockers to store our muck boots, jackets, and other outerwear; the Library, housing books about destinations around the globe including a number on Antarctica; plus the lab, where some research work is done. The spa is also located downstairs, perfect for those quiet hours not on excursions.
Deck 7 is home to the Club Lounge and the Swan’s Nest. The Club Lounge offers snacks in between meal time and a place to work while watching the world float by. Suffice it to say, you’d find it hard to go hungry on board with constant coffee and tea service, early breakfast offerings, late lunch options, and evening bar service. The Swan’s Nest and Observation Lounge were a constant hangout for passengers where nightly recaps would take place, daily lectures, and evening sips with entertainment. Swan Hellenic is all-inclusive so you’ll have a broad range of cocktails and wines available at the bar here.
Deck 8 is home to the sauna, fitness center and hot tub, perfect for watching the world go by.
The SH Vega is a Polar Class 5 (PC5) vessel, which means they can go a bit further earlier in the respective seasons. The stabilizers on the ship mean that crossing the Drake Passage is a bit friendlier of a proposition. Stabilizers are deactivated near icebergs so there are brief intervals, particularly departing Antarctica en route back to South America, where you’ll feel the shake a bit more if it’s ‘Drake Shake’ weather.
With just 152 passengers on board, Swan Hellenic captures a luxury boutique feel and the rooms are a wow, thoughtfully designed with tons of storage space (more than we’d ever need), a desk, sitting space, and a bathroom (suites have bathtubs but most staterooms have showers only). Our room – and the majority on board – had a balcony which was amazing for watching glaciers go by while sailing in Antarctica. Plus, icing on the cake, all rooms had these picture-perfect little ‘fireplaces’ that added to the cozy ambiance.
Our cabin steward, Rolando, was incredibly attentive, taking care of us for daily housekeeping and daily turndown. The general feel is luxury hotel on the water. Expect the range of in-room amenities you’d find at a luxury hotel. The beds are super comfortable and while we had a king-size setup, our room was equipped with German-style bedding (a pro for some, a con for others).
Time On Board vs. Time Sightseeing
The biggest question I’ve gotten so far: what does the day-to-day look like on Swan Hellenic sailing to Antarctica? Well, each day is different in a sense but the format was generally the same. Breakfast is offered daily from about 7:30 – 10AM (room service available, too); lunch is from around 12:30 – 2:30PM, and dinner begins around 7PM, following the nightly briefing. I’ll go into this in-depth in my day-by-day itinerary recap but here’s the general flow of the days on board.
- Two days crossing the Drake Passage: These two days are exclusively on board; there are no excursions, but there are on-board lectures and on-board entertainment. If you’re experiencing more of a Drake Lake than a Drake Shake, these are the perfect days to head to the gym, enjoy the sauna, sit in the hot tub, or read a book in the lounge. We brought Scattergories with us so had a few times we gathered small groups of newfound friends to play a game. If you’re someone who gets stir-crazy, bring a book you’ve been meaning to read or plan on doing some work with a view! We had a number of people on board enjoying their morning coffee, getting a few emails out while watching icebergs go by. Wifi on board was solid – shockingly so – so you’re able to stay connected. Each night we had a briefing about what would be happening the next day, and one day included a mandatory IAATO briefing and outwear inspection (more on that in a future post).
- Four days exploring the Antarctic Peninsula: Once you arrive at the peninsula, if you’re on the same sailing format that we were on, you have four days of excursions with two excursions planned each day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon, each for about 90 minutes to 2 hours. The best note they shared with us was that flexibility is key. Things rarely go as planned on these expeditions as weather changes quickly and dramatically, and the team is on board to adapt and make excursions possible and safe. About half of the excursions were designed to be zodiac expeditions while the other half were intended to be landings (getting off in Antarctica for a walk/hike). Weather will dictate what ultimately happens but the team adapts based on the environment and conditions. It’s worth noting that excursions can be canceled at any time. 2 of 8 of ours were canceled for safety reasons. 1 of 8 of our excursions was very brief given we had to head back to the boat quickly as weather conditions shifted dramatically while we were out. It can feel disappointing to have the excursions canceled but realistically when you’re on board, you’ll not want to be out if the conditions are bad enough to cancel an expedition; usually, this involves high winds, heavy snow/low visibility, etc. Nightly briefings continue on these days around 6PM.
- Two days crossing the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia: Same as the first two days but by this time you’ll have made lots of new friends so you’ll have no trouble filling your days chatting, going to trivia, and having a tipple at the bar.
Who’s On Board?
Before boarding Swan Hellenic, my expectation for Antarctic expeditions that was the average traveler would be older (65+). I think I likened it a bit to the Norwegian fjords but more of a true expedition. That wasn’t the case for us, and I suspect this isn’t the case for many sailings. The average age on board was probably around 45 – 50, and all of the travelers we encountered were incredibly well-traveled and interesting. There are a few factors to consider here: Antarctica is a costly trip which skews the demographic slightly older generally (this can be prohibitive for many), but it also requires a level of dexterity which I downplayed before our visit. Getting on and off Zodiacs requires mobility and decent stability (though the crew is very helpful), and disembarking for landings requires a slight level of agility walking in the snow. None of these activities is extreme by any means, but for anyone with mobility issues, it can be a challenge. The majority of people on board are very well-traveled (about 15% were experiencing their 7th continent) with their own stories to share which makes your time at the lounge or the bar fun for exchanging tales.
Food + Drinks
Before our trip, a friend asked us if they would be offering ‘local’ fare on our cruise to Antarctica. Spoiler: no penguin or whale served on board — and by the way, you’re not missing out on any ‘local ‘cuisine since there is no local cuisine in Antarctica. The food on board Swan Hellenic was very good from start to finish. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style with lunch offerings changing daily. Expect a great salad bar that lines up with the day’s theme (French, Middle Eastern, Greek, Indian, etc.), and a standard but generous breakfast spread with sweet and savory options. Dinner is a la carte with a changing menu. Wines were changed up daily, too, with two whites and reds profiled each day. Some nights were bigger stars than others, but in general, the food was very high quality — and impressive for the limited resources that the kitchen has to work with given there are no ports to restock at along the way!
Is a Swan Hellenic Journey to Antarctica For You?
If Antarctica has been on your bucket list, do it. It’s an amazing, untouched destination that very few people get to see firsthand. That said, I think many people have it on their bucket list without fully understanding what the journey, day-to-day, and expectations for sightseeing are. Swan Hellenic’s approach to the polar regions is luxury expedition, focusing on both equally with top-notch expedition leaders plus luxe, comfortable on-board offerings to keep guests comfortable along the way.
- Antarctica is not a cultural trip. If you’re looking for a polar expedition that offers a cultural aspect, head to the Arctic where you can find indigenous cultures and communities to connect with as well. Antarctica is about wildlife and nature and is great for photographers wanting to capture some special landscapes.
- Get to know Antarctic itineraries. If you’re considering Antarctica, get to know the itineraries. We chose a 9-night itinerary that included 4 nights on the Antarctic Peninsula. Longer journeys include time in the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas along with the South Georgia islands, which other passengers noted was a serious highlight. If time and budget permit, try to do the longer itinerary (more on that below).
- Remember that flexibility is key. This is true for any sailing to Antarctica. As I referenced above, things change quickly with weather conditions and the #1 priority for all leaders on board is safety. That means excursions can be canceled at any point. If time permits, opt for a longer sailing to give yourself more opportunities for outings and some room for the unexpected!
- Know the Antarctic seasons. Okay, you don’t really need to know a ton about seasonality as sailings go November – March only, during the summer months of the region when conditions are suitable for travelers. That said, there is a difference between November and February, for example, with landscapes, wildlife, etc. If you’re keen on whale watching, you may be more inclined to February or March. If pristine, untouched landscapes are your focus, perhaps November works given the landscapes feel very untouched.
- You’ll get to know your fellow passengers. You’re not anonymous on small ships like this. The vibe on board is quite social so expect to get to know other guests — and embrace that sense of travel community! As I mentioned above, Antarctica is arguably never someone’s first trip. No one is getting a passport for the first time to go to Antarctica. The vast majority of your fellow passengers are extremely well-traveled and have amazing stories to share, so take the opportunity to learn from other guests as well as the leaders on board.
- The ship is luxury, and all-inclusive. When you’re planning for Antarctica, there’s no doubt that it’s a hefty expense any way you slice it (and it has to be considering all of the elements that are involved in a journey like this) but Swan Hellenic is all-inclusive, which means all food and virtually all drinks (including nice wines and a great cocktail selection) are included. You’ll pay out of pocket for spa services, kayak expeditions ($250 per person), and specialty wines and champagnes.
- You’ll be able to stay connected. For better or worse (probably for better!), the Wifi on board Swan Hellenic SH Vega was excellent. We had connectivity all the way down to Antarctica which I was not expecting in the slightest! This doesn’t mean you can stream movies on Netflix but you’ll be able to get out emails, do a bit of research, and post some photos while you’re away!
All in all, Antarctica was a major bucket list experience for us and Swan Hellenic did an amazing job providing us with our first-ever journey there. For most people, this journey is a once-in-a-lifetime, though I suspect we’ll be back! On a future sailing, I would opt to include the Falklands and South Georgia for a more complete itinerary… and I’d go in a different season to see the contrast and to compare the two. Next up for us: the Arctic! And we’re looking at taking a group, likely in 2025! If the Arctic is on your list, please say hello — we’ll likely be going with a small group of 12 – 18 people to explore up to Greenland and/or Svalbard. And, if Antarctica is on your list in the coming years, please reach out so we can plan together and I can share all the deets with you!
Have you been to Antarctica? What did you think? What would your tips and takeaways be?