The cruising sector has taken a real body blow from Covid 19 and will take many years to recover but it is a mistake to tar all cruises with the same brush. Size truly does matter when it comes to ship choices. There is a world of difference between the megaliners carrying 6000+ passengers and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, ships carrying less than 100. With fewer passengers and the ability to cover more remote, less-visited parts of the world, small ship cruising and especially expedition cruising looks set for a much swifter recovery. Here Cathy Bartrop of travelguru.tv recounts her experiences onboard Noble Caledonia's Island Sky cruising the Chilean Fjords
Our Patagonia and Chile adventure began with two days acclimatising in beautiful Buenos Aires before flying to Ushuaia in the southern tip of Argentina to join our cruise ship, the 118 passenger Island Sky. By anyone's standards, this is truly a small ship! But to cruise this part of the world she needs to be - larger ships simply cannot navigate the labyrinth of islands, peninsulas and narrow channels that make up the lace doily that is the Chilean Fjords. We were following in the wake of the early 19th century explorers onboard HMS Beagle accompanied by the young Charles Darwin as he shaped his revolutionary ideas about natural history and geology. Not much has changed since that time - the region is largely untouched by humans and, even for seasoned sailors in modern ships, remains a nautical challenge. So much so that no matter how experienced the ship's captain, two local pilots accompanied the ship's crew throughout.
She may be tiny but, rest assured, Island Sky still offers all the facilities you could want for cruising in considerable style. There are 59 surprisingly spacious and comfortable en suite cabins, a bar, lounge and library. the food is good and there is open seating dining both in the restaurant on deck 2 as well as outside on the Lido Deck (weather permitting). Unlike many other expedition ships, there is also plenty of open deck space.
The latter is crucial as much of our time was spent outside (no matter what the weather) observing the passing scenery and wildlife spotting. Expedition cruising is no 'holiday' - if we weren't on the lookout for whales, dolphins, sea lions and all manner of birdlife, we were donning multiple layers and wet gear and heading out on the ships fleet of 10 zodiacs to explore glaciers and get close up to the shoreline. There is always something happening, even when nothing in particular is planned. Flexibility is key - the itinerary is fluid - at least six days were simply described as 'continued exploration of the fjords'. That's because things can, and often do, change depending on the weather and the wildlife. Our Expedition Leader Hannah, who has done this route over a dozen times told me that no two cruises are ever the same. How could they be? The wildlife here have a huge playground to move around in, so they can pop up literally anywhere. Over our two weeks at sea, every day there would be at least one or two significant wildlife sightings where the ship would slow down or even stop so everyone could dash out on deck to take a look. We were all on permanent watch - there was a certain kudos to being the first to spot something and, after all, who would ever want to miss out on the chance to see blue whales or dolphins surfacing right alongside the ship?
Led by our trusty expedition team, it was one adventure after another - from landing at Cape Horn and making the winding trek up to the sculpture that marks the 'end of the world' (next stop Antarctica) to being out on the zodiacs collecting breakaway glacier ice (later broken up for G&T's in the bar ). We walked right up to glaciers, eyeballed sea lions, marvelled at the speed of Steamer Ducks skimming across glassy water and stormed through the tightest of narrows on a slack tide before witnessing the jaw-dropping beauty of the mountains in Torre del Paine National Park.
Back on board, our adventures were backed up by lectures and recaps delivered by the Expedition team, each an expert in their different fields - filling in the details, providing context and, in the most lighthearted and engaging way, educating us. There was plenty of knowledge to be shared among the passengers too - mostly retied professionals, many with nautical backgrounds either as sailors or in the forces. There were historians, marine mammal enthusiasts and a high proportion of bird lovers, their level of dedication given away by the strength of their binoculars or length of camera zoom lens. At times it was like being with the paparazzi - over lunch out one day there was suddenly a mass exodus from the tables as word spread of a sighting in a tree outside. The star attraction, it turned out, was a red-necked woodpecker. Whatever turns you on!
As we eased our way out of the calm waters of the fjords, the final portion of the cruise took us along coast of Chile. Long and thin, Chile could have been made for cruising, the driving distances from port are short and each offers an opportunity to tour a different portion of this remarkable country with its incredible, diverse landscapes. We cruised from Chiloe to Valparaiso, our final port of call before flying back to London from Santiago. Many of our fellow passengers opted to stay on and explore other parts of Chile on land tour extensions. Oh how I wish I could have done the same.
An expedition cruise really is in a league of its own and Patagonia and Chile make for an eye opening and memorable experience. The vast dramatic skies, the astonishing landscapes, the lack of people, the mesmerising beauty of ever changing weather, the excitement of witnessing rare creatures in the wild. It certainly left me craving more...
Cathy travelled as a guest of Noble Caledonia. The next date for the same cruise is scheduled for 12 March 2021. Prices for the 18-night cruise inclusive of flights, full board including wine and beer with meals, all activities and excursions and gratuities start from £8695 per person.
For details visit https://www.noble-caledonia.co.uk/tour/2215/passage-to-patagonia-&-the-chilean-fjords.