2nd verse, not quite the same as the first. ~Herman Hermits, modified
Up and at ’em! It’s time the get The Really Big Trip up in the air….or on the water. Okay….on the bus…to the airport.
But first, we had to show up ready or not with our luggage promptly at 5:00am. Luggage was weighed, tagged, and we were measured to see if we were worthy of this grand adventure. Kidding about the last part but when face-to-face with the grandeur that is Antarctica, one can feel very insignificant and under the right (or wrong) circumstances get swatted like a gnat. Those manly men who were the first to explore this most beautiful unforgiving land (with really, really crappy equipment compared to modern standards) were made of sterner stuff not often found today. I tip my hat to them.
So breakfast is over, everyone is checked out from the hotel, buses are loaded….and at 6:00am we are on our way for our 9:00am charter flight operated by Andes Airline out of EZE. If everything went according to plan, we would be in Ushuaia around Noon-30-ish….and we were!
Ushuaia…one of two locations that was the genesis of The Really Big Trip…we’re back for round two. Love that name….along with Ulaanbaatar…but that is another story for way later on.
Going from close to 100°F in BA to 49°F with rain sprinkles in Ushuaia, added to the dynamics of the trip. Most of us were prepared for the extreme change in weather with the exception of a few fellow travelers (out of a group of seventeen) from India. A few of them were operating under the not-reading-the-briefing induced misconception that they would have immediate access to their luggage after landing. Wrong! The luggage went straight to the boat so no jackets or rain gear. Mr. TxP had chatted with one of the men back in BA, so meeting up with him on the street and seeing his not-correct-clothing choice, Mr. TxP loaned him one of his many layers.
It’s past Noon…the first priority was to eat lunch. Of course. After walking in and out of a few cafes, we settled on Andino Gourmet. I wouldn’t call it ‘gourmet’ by any stretch of the word but it served the need. Andino has a crazy setup, two restaurant concepts sharing the same space, same entryway with only a step dividing them. One was a little pricier and a bit more wanna-be-upscale than the other. We were seated in the upscale portion unbeknownst to us but when I saw that the menu did not match what I had seen through the window, I questioned a waiter and learned of the difference. Absolutely no menu crossover so we switched to the other section without too much fuss and waiting. The menu looked right this time…basic but exactly what we wanted. We happened to have a pleasant enough server but observing other diners having to flag down a waiter (or do the neck crane thing), we knew we needed to initiate a course of action every time our waiter walked by. Following that strategy, service was okay: Bring the water > place food order. Bring food > ask for check. Bring check > ask for any refills, etc. I have to say, the onion soup was delish! Stars? Service 3.5. Food 3.75. Location/Vibe 4.0. Pretty mediocre overall but knowing what to order, I would eat there again for a lite meal.
After lunch it was time to walk off a few calories, shop for souvenirs we didn’t need and then head to the shuttle bus for a 4:00pm departure that would take us down the restricted-access pier to the boat. The pier is smack in the middle of town and all of about two blocks from pier entry to the boat but rules are rules.
Once onboard and duly logged in, we headed to our home for the next thirteen days. Cabin 5067. Cabin selection was another thing I did to make the trip a little more palatable for Mr. TxP. In looking at cabin categories –something less than a suite– I spotted what was called a Twin Window Plus 2. The ‘Plus 2’ turned out to be two bathrooms. Why not! It was the same price as a Twin Window with only one bathroom. Wow! I surprised myself. I knew there would be a chair or small sofa but it turned out we had a partitioned sitting room…our cabin was more like a mini-suite. And there were two televisions! Not that there was much programming but it was impressive. Terry robes were nice and fluffy….nicer than what I’ve had in many hotels. Towels were thick and absorbent. Plenty of hot water. There was built-in bath gel and shampoo dispensers. There was a small boo-boo in that the wrong length shower curtains were shipped and being about two inches too short, allowed water to splash on the floors. No big deal but I heard a few passengers complaining. Sheesh.
A few hours prior to boarding, we had darkish clouds and a light sprinkle. Not a great portent for crossing the Drake Passage. But just as everyone was gathering on deck for the sail away, we saw this:
And then the skies turned to this.
Both were a good portents. Our Really Big Trip is officially underway.
So if it’s evening time, what happens next? Dinner! Dinnertime was a seated/menu affair. One open seating…if you didn’t eat then, you were out of luck. Tables ranged from two-tops to a few tables for six. The two-tops were close enough to the four-tops that one felt that six were dining together. Expedition Staff made it a point to mingle with the passengers and often shared table space. Wine was served with dinner as was a non-alcohol beverage-of-the-day. Executive Chef Manfred Umfahrer was genius. Being able to take on provisions only once for a fourteen-day trip challenged his planning and culinary skills. It’s not like one can pull to the nearest iceberg for milk and eggs. He passed with flying colors. The vegans/gluten-free/lactose intolerants/carnivores were all taken care of. The only thing….desserts especially the cookies were a little on the weak side. But ice cream with sprinkles and toppings was available lunch and dinner to help make up. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet style with an imaginative selection. The kitchen even made Indian cuisine on a regular basis as there was a group of seventeen on board. Fifteen were vegetarians, two ate meat. They were happy.
After dinner it was time to get suited up against the cold. Besides being fond of saying….’depending on the wind and ice’….the word ‘waterproof’ is also heavily used. Making life much easier for the passengers, Quark supplies waterproof parkas to keep and arctic-rated Muck boots on loan. The original parkas have a nice zip out fleece liner, the newer updated style has a zip-out quilted liner. The only thing, the large outer patch pockets are not waterproof so you have to watch what you store in them. Ask me how I know. The Muck boots were terrific and comfortable. I have a tendency to be cold-natured but one pair of thick wool socks kept my feet plenty warm.
No picture to illustrate, but by groups we headed to the Nautilus lounge to try on parkas for sizing and then went to another area to pick up our jacket. Afterwards, we moved to the Mud Room to try on boots. Unless one has weirdly sub-human feet, there will be a pair of boots to fit. I did read on a forum somewhere that one lady had really massive calves and smallish feet which made for an impossible fit, so she sourced her own boots and traveled with them. So unless you are 2000% out of the norm, these boots should fit. ~Let me interject that not all expedition cruises loan boots. For the others, one has to either rent them, or purchase and take up precious luggage space. I guess the boots could always be worn as your primary travel shoe. Hmmm. Stylish!~ We were assigned lockers where our gear lived when not being out on an adventure.
Previous to this Project Runway moment, we queued up to be assigned to zodiac groups which in a very egalitarian manner allowed us to rotate being first on shore. ~200 peeps (or less), divided into four groups, each group broken down to ten to a zodiac plus a Expedition guide/driver. And that is how we would roll daily after the Drake Passage crossing.
Oh…and remember my toe issue that kept being put on ignore? Well, it turns out that I had bruised the nail during the 7+ mile walk. I finally examined more closely why my toe hurt while trying on my boots and discovered a nice lovely purple-colored nail. The Merrells let me down and the walking in Ushuaia was the last straw. Because of the tender toe, I had to go up a size for my boots which made for a sloppy fit and doesn’t facilitate scrambling around the rocks you’ll see in upcoming pics. I was very careful. No way was I going to wipe out on this trip like I did in Mongolia…another story for another time. ~ No need to honor the bruised toe with a pic.
Side note about our cabin: Only two issues…as we got closer to the peninsula, our cabin become really, really cold. We thought it was just a proximity thing…to be expected…it was the Antarctic after all. But when the hallways were warm but our cabin was freezing, we decided it wasn’t a whole ship temp thing. It was a vent-stuck-open issue and was promptly repaired. Further into the cruise, I started smelling exhaust fumes which eventually drove us out of the cabin and to the Passengers Services Desk. By the time Maintenance came –which was pretty darn quick– other passengers were stepping out of their cabin complaining of the same issue. The problem was discovered, rectified and life continued. Great crew!
After a really long, amped up day…it was good to hit the sack. Instead of good night wishes of sweet dreams, the final words of wisdom from our Expedition Crew was to anchor down anything that could break because one never knows when the Drake would go from being a calm lake to feeling like we were in a martini shaker.
The Southern Ocean was straight ahead!