Antarctica is a continent that rightly deserves each and every single superlative bestowed upon it.
Majestic, dramatic and untamed, it remains the world’s most pristine and wildly unpredictable wilderness – and, arguably, the ultimate bucket-list fantasy.
Sitting like a snowy temptress at the bottom of the earth, the so-called White Continent reigns supreme, attracting a growing number of cruise ships that arrive each winter to pay homage to its unique allure.
One of the newest expeditionary ships to Antarctic waters this winter is Silversea Cruises’ opulent 200-passenger Silver Endeavour, it’s arrival to southern Chile in November marking its maiden season of voyages to this icy wasteland.
I’m on-board as this elegant newcomer drops its lines from the Chilean port town of Puerto Williams and eases out into the narrow Beagle Channel, framed by snow-dappled mountains lining the horizon, before striking out across Drake Passage.
The excitement among us all is palpable, but so is the feeling of trepidation at crossing this notorious 550-mile or so stretch of water separating the tip of South America from the Antarctic Peninsula, whose mercurial moods have given it a legendary reputation.
Our apprehension grows as we learn that an approaching weather front threatens high winds and rough seas.
Needless to say, seasickness pills are universally consumed as we wait apprehensively, but the Drake takes pity on us, providing a mesmerising spectacle of powerful six metre swells and brutal whipping winds that draw soaring albatrosses in our wake, yet falling short of the dreaded “Drake Shake”.
Silver Endeavour holds up well, slicing through the waters at speed, to such an extent that we reach Antarctica’s outer reaches – the South Shetland Islands – in 36 hours instead of the usual two days.
The thrill of spotting that first mysterious shadow of land on the far horizon, and feeling the hand of history on my shoulders knowing that I’m following in the footsteps of legendary explorers who came before, will never leave me.
Just a couple of hours later, I’m excitedly boarding a Zodiac boat for my first trip ashore to Robert Island, craning for a better view as we draw closer to land, anticipation levels rising, especially when we spot a clutch of diving penguins zipping through the waves as we get closer.
Silver Endeavour’s expedition team has already prepared the ground for our arrival, marking permitted routes with red flags and digging pathways through the snow which, much to our amusement, penguins start to use too.
There are three species on this island, cute-looking gentoo and adelie penguins, plus the more distinctive chinstraps and I’m agog as I wander past rookeries where hundreds are standing in huddles, occasionally throwing their heads back to break into choruses of cawing.
But the main action centres on colonies of ginormous slumbering elephant seals littering the stony beach where aggressive young males – some sporting bloodied wounds from earlier skirmishes – square up to each other with menacing growls.
It’s gripping stuff and I feel as though I’m watching one of David Attenborough’s nature classics as the tumultuous scenes unfold in front of me.
The following morning serves up another pinch me moment as I wake to see a crush of small “growler” icebergs floating past my balcony in a tranquil wintry scene of the utmost beauty while sailing into Neko Harbour on the “mainland” of the Antarctic Peninsula.
In the crisp, cool air, the silence is broken only by gentle lapping as our ship – with its strengthened hull, designed to cope with such extreme conditions – pushes through the ice-laden waters.
The next two days follow a similar routine of riding ashore in Zodiacs, fully togged up in scarlet Silversea polar jackets and waterproof trousers (which are ours to keep), with sturdy rubber boots, and marvelling at the enchanting antics of resident waddling penguins that resemble scenes from the film Happy Feet.
Clear conditions perfectly showcase the stark beauty of soaring cliffs topped with a thick ivory blanket of snow and glaciers tinged with vivid slashes of aquamarine, but the continually blasting wind is a reminder of Antarctica’s capricious mood that can wreak weather changes in an instant.
After experiencing nature at its most raw, there’s something infinitely appealing about the sumptuous comfort of Silver Endeavour as we retreat back to the lavish environs of our suites, served by our own butlers.
The Observation Lounge, with its vast windows is a perfect vantage point where I spy spouting humpback whales, but one of my favourite spots is the pool deck and grill at the back of the ship where the glass walls and roof give it a light conservatory feel.
With such all-round views, it’s my favourite choice for dining at any time of day, but I’m not so sure it’s the best setting for the swimming pool as I can’t really see how bathers and diners mix. It’s not surprising that I don’t see anyone taking the plunge during my stay.
Silver Endeavour was originally built for luxury line Crystal Cruises, which ceased operations in early 2022, and this explains its different feel to other ships in the Silversea fleet.
Most traces of Crystal’s ownership have disappeared and Silversea intends to put its stamp more firmly on Silver Endeavour with additional onboard changes once the ship leaves Antarctica in the spring.
But in the meantime, this is a stylish and effortlessly luxurious haven, with one crew member for every guest and a choice of five dining venues, including the stylish main restaurant, speciality Italian Il Terrazzino and gastronomic fine dining haunt La Dame.
I soon fall into the habit of grazing the tasty snacks available in the Arts Café, while early evenings see everyone congregating in the Explorer Lounge as the excellent expedition team recaps the day’s events and briefs us on the next 24 hours.
Having slotted so easily into this routine, it comes as a shock when the team delivers the bombshell that we have to depart a day earlier than planned.
We are due to fly from Antarctica’s King George Island to Punta Arenas on Silversea’s new “air bridge” private charter service for guests not wanting to sail across the Drake, but fog is predicted for the next few days and we have to depart before it descends.
The following afternoon we are standing by the rudimentary runway, watching as our jet appears out of the gloom to collect us and before I know it, we are soaring skywards through a break in the clouds.
I take one last look back as the rays of the setting sun illuminate the craggy outlines of this incredible continent I feel so fortunate to have encountered. My time there has been cut short and I’m not ready to leave – but I know I’ll be back, one day.
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