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Sailing through the ice — an epic Antarctic cruise on the stylish Viking Octantis

 (Viking Octantis)
(Viking Octantis)

It was about 10 hours into our voyage through the churning Drake Passage when I realised that I was experiencing a peculiar type of cabin fever. Sailing aboard the Viking Cruises’ ship Viking Octantis, we were a quarter of the way through the notoriously temperamental channel that connects the southern tip of Argentina to the immensity of Antarctica. Cruise-ship passengers on this route typically encounter “Drake Lake” or “Drake Shake” conditions; we were enduring the latter.

As 45-knot (50mph) winds shunted us, 16ft waves smashed against the ship like juggernauts. Pinned to my bed as the horizon trampolined outside, my brain had landed on a helpful dissociative tactic. I had become philosophical. I decided I wanted and needed this experience. Antarctica is somewhere few will encounter. I’d have felt undeserving if getting there was easy; this was the penance owed for the rewards to come.

I’d have felt undeserving if getting there was easy; this was the penance owed for the rewards to come.

My Catholic upbringing maybe had something to do with that masochistic take, but there’s no escaping just how demanding it is to access Antarctica. The types of travellers who can afford to visit are perhaps more accustomed to being mollycoddled in a Four Seasons, but you need to commit to some discomfort if you want to visit the frozen continent.

Sailing on Viking Cruises’ 13-day Antarctic Explorer voyage, we had flown from Heathrow to Buenos Aires (refuelling in Rio de Janeiro). Then after a night in Argentina’s capital it was a four-hour flight to Ushuaia, the world’s southern-most city, and then up to 48 hours navigating the Drake Passage.

That’s not to say that the Norwegian-owned Octantis itself is in any way lacking. The 189-cabin vessel accommodates 378 passengers and 256 crew. Though it was built to navigate extreme environments, it’s essentially a resort at sea, with a chic Scandi-style spa and two pools; a gym and exercise studio; a hi-tech lecture theatre; and multiple bars and restaurants. In the ship’s belly, “toys” include Zodiac inflatable boats, kayaks and two submarines. Viking Octantis is also significantly more stylish than various American cruise liners I’d sailed on previously.

A viewing deck on board the Viking Octantis (Viking Octantis)
A viewing deck on board the Viking Octantis (Viking Octantis)

Pale woods abound, there’s a sprawling top-deck library but no garish casino and a genuinely attention-worthy art collection which includes a selection of staggering photography from the earliest Antarctic exhibitions.

I was just about able to explore the ship when an announcement indicated that our first notable iceberg was drifting by. I looked out and there it was. As long as the Houses of Parliament, a slate-grey block of ice glinted under stormy skies. It had been cleaved into such a neat rectangular shape that I immediately imagined it as a colossal Five Guys chip. That comparison was possibly induced by starvation-induced delirium, but whatever the case the ephemeral landmark indicated we were about to breach the planet’s most extreme frontier.

Reaching such a significant milestone was also a reminder that we were entering a terrain where nothing is guaranteed. We’d been made aware that our itinerary would be adapted constantly in response to the weather and that passenger safety would take precedence over everything. Things could change in an instant — as we would later discover. Our tentative plan was to sail south-west along the outer expanse of the Antarctic Peninsula, and initially things went well. We dropped anchor to view thriving penguin colonies and were astounded one immaculate morning as we sailed past the towering basalt mountains that framed the Lemaire Channel. The dark, still waters around us had all the shimmer and solidity of a black-sand beach — an illusion that was corrupted in magical fashion when a pod of orcas breached the surface and shot water into the air like confetti.

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica (Octantis)
Gentoo penguins in Antarctica (Octantis)

On another dazzlingly clear day we sailed to Chiriguano Bay, where mountains were topped with ancient ice as glossy and smooth as whipped cream. In an inlet where brash ice had unfurled over the water’s surface like a lace curtain, we took to Zodiacs and kayaks to explore our surroundings. I have never seen blues as radiant and remarkable as I did then. In the distance, the light had refracted in a way I hadn’t known possible to coat distant snow-capped peaks of the Antarctic Peninsula in celestial gossamer golds. It was a perfect day. Then things changed with news that a passenger had been afflicted by a serious health condition. We needed to turn back.

Before joining Viking’s Antarctic cruises, everyone must undergo a health screening. But with the average passenger aged somewhere in their mid-sixties, a mishap is always a possibility. If someone dies, they’re placed in an on-board morgue and the cruise floats on. But for sudden, serious ailments, the individual concerned may require specialist care beyond what’s available on the ship. We needed to reach King George Island, back at the tip of the Peninsula, where resident researchers are served by a dinky air strip, so this person could be airlifted to comprehensive support in Chile. We were disappointed our schedule had been compromised, but we’d been relatively lucky. If the weather had been too bad for a plane to land, we would instead have sailed back to Ushuaia.

Admiralty Bay; King George Island covered in snow and ice (Alamy Stock Photo)
Admiralty Bay; King George Island covered in snow and ice (Alamy Stock Photo)

King George Island is a strange place, home to about 150 resilient specialists in summer and 40 or so hardcore occupants come winter. While we waited here for the plane, we heard tales of how the intensity of the weather can impact inhabitants’ mental health. Those vicissitudes came to prominence in 2018, when a Russian national was charged with attempted murder after stabbing a colleague. It was alleged his victim had repeatedly told him the ending of books he was reading.

I wasn’t much taken with King George Island, but our detour brought good fortune. Our captain decided we would proceed along a little-visited route into the Weddell Sea rather than repeating any of our original itinerary. Seasoned crew who had been to Antarctica 20 times or more had never seen these settings; we were truly reaching new horizons. We ventured onwards, navigating a map riddled with names that indicated peril and calamity — Exasperation Inlet, Cape Disappointment, Deception Island, Erebus and Terror Gulf. But for us it was smooth sailing, as we glided between colossal icebergs as broad as city blocks. I was reminded of how I used to “read” clouds as a child. Looking left, I saw a crystalline cathedral, complete with arches and spires; to the right, where my friend likened one vertical form to the Statue of Liberty I observed an upturned middle finger. I worried our sightings might be as revealing as a Rorschach test.

A Black-browed albatross flying past (Alamy Stock Photo)
A Black-browed albatross flying past (Alamy Stock Photo)

For days the beauty was never-ending and almost overwhelming. I kept my blinds open at night, so I wouldn’t miss a second of it. When not visiting their abundant colonies on land, I became accustomed to seeing penguins waddling, sunbathing and tobogganing on the ice floes that drifted past my window.

Though it was rarely dark, I admired long, dewy sunsets when the sky turned pink and amber and the waters swirled with iridescence.

And now back in the familiarity of London, I still remember one still, strange night as the end of our adventure approached and we prepared to again tackle the North Passage. I had woken with a start to find the ship encased in a fog so milky and dense I couldn’t fathom what was the horizon, sea or sky. Everything everywhere was a smoky white and in this curious liminal state, half asleep and still woozy on all the mystery and majesty that had already enveloped me, I had the strange sensation that I’d left the world I knew behind and was caught somewhere between dream and reality.

Viking Cruises’ Antarctic Explorer voyage costs from £10,095 per person. Prices include return flights from UK airports, one night in Buenos Aires, 11 nights on board, all on-board meals (with complimentary wine and beer during lunch and dinner), WiFi, gratuities, expedition gear and excursions. To book, call 0800 319 66 60, or visit www.viking.com