Adventure By JEN MURPHY for OLTRE Magazine

An Antarctica Adventure with Atlas Ocean Voyages

Icebergs, Penguins, climate change... The pull of Antarctica is different for everyone. But whatever your reason for sailing to the freezing end of the earth, don't forget your swimsuit.

Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" reverberates from the live grand piano in the bar. Blenders whir. Here comes another frosty drink. A few decks below, whoops fill the air as guests cheer each other on, cannonballing off a gangplank into the glassy, cobalt sea.


The festive atmosphere could be mistaken for a Caribbean cruise, but instead of swaying palms and white sand beaches, the panoramic windows of Deck 7's observation lounge frame the snowcapped peaks and icebergs of Antarctica. It's December, summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The water registers 30 degrees.

Ernest Shackleton would have thought he was hallucinating had he crossed paths with Atlas Ocean Voyages' 100-suite World Navigator. The interiors of the expedition-style ship ooze Gatsby-era glamour. Creature comforts include the first L'Occitane spa at sea, warm towels and hot cocoa waiting after chilly excursions and a restaurant where we're wined and dined each evening with dishes like poached lobster tail and souffle au Grand Marnier.

Each of the 100 rooms and suites is done up in art deco furnishings with luxe hotel touches like mosaic glass rain showers with body jets, a choice of two types of bathrobes, cloud-like beds, and blackout curtains to ensure a good night's sleep during the 24 hours of summer sun. Every detail feels luxurious yet there isn't an ounce of pretension.

The new brand, just three years old and with two ships, combines the ease of luxury sailing with the thrills of an expedition and the joy of pleasure cruising. That combination might explain the younger demographic on board. Our group ranges in age from mid-20s to late 70s. I'm guessing the average is 50 at most.

The pull of Antarctica, I learn, is dramatically different for each of us. I meet some who've come to tick off the seventh continent. Others feel a sense of urgency to see the White Continent before it's lost to climate change. But most are here to see the wildlife, specifically the penguins. I spot guests at every turn wearing penguin-patterned backpacks or fuzzy penguin hats. One woman even brought sequined penguin shoes. Penguins are cute, I agree, but what lured me here was the remoteness. Cruising to the end of the earth sounded like the perfect antidote to a stressful year.

Relaxing is surely not a word Shackleton could have used to describe his expeditions to Antarctica. But 10 Wi-Fi-free days at sea spent ogling icebergs while being doted on by staff who remember my every preference (sparkling water with a slice of lemon, red Burgundy, the quilted bathrobe) make this feel like a wellness holiday.

"Iceberg, dead ahead!" shouts my shipmate, abandoning her grass-fed filet to dash to the top deck.

Whale watching 2

When we departed the harbor of Ushuaia, Argentina, the staff had announced there'd be a prize for the first iceberg sighting, and the guests have gotten quite competitive, donning binoculars around their necks at all times - even at meals.

By the second day, 11:24 a.m., the first floating ice chunk is spotted just off the Shetland Islands. We've crossed the nearly 600-mile Drake Passage, notorious for its rough waters, in remarkably calm conditions (what the captain calls the "Drake Lake") and in extraordinary time, cruising at 15.5 knots to outrun a massive swell behind us. Not only is our ship fast, she's also one of the most environmentally conscious vessels on the water today.

We head to the Mud Room - which a fellow passenger and I have nicknamed "the Club," because a soundtrack of techno beats blares at all hours to pump us up for excursions - to don our lime-green snowsuits and life jackets. "My only recommendation is don't fall over. It's cold," says Marcos, our Argentinean guide with a goofy knack for understatement, as we board Zodiacs for Half Moon Island. Until now, I've been content to ooh and aah at spouting pilot whales or playful gentoo penguins from the balcony of my suite. But braving the elements and stepping foot where few have stepped before to witness chinstrap penguins waddle up and down the Penguin Highway makes my skin tingle with excitement. Goosebumps upon goosebumps. Our team of 14 guides - naturalists, photographers, historians - keep the penguin paparazzi at bay as they snap photos. The adorable but terribly stinky birds are veteran celebrities, ignoring us as they ferry rocks to their nests. Each day our excursions and the surrounding landscape feel increasingly surreal. We kayak the mirror-like waters of Mikkelsen Harbor through a thick fog and listen to the soft rumble of glaciers calving in the distance. A curious Weddell seal trails us as we paddle through ice shards. At a remote lookout at Portal Point, I try to distinguish the clouds from the snowcapped alps of the ocean.

I worry I'll get iceberg fatigue, but no. Constant marveling at the ice becomes a highlight of the journey. Our Zodiac outings in search of orcas and blue whales double as tours through Mother Nature's sculpture park. While others gaze hawkeyed through binoculars in search of spouts, I sit mesmerized by the ever-changing colors and shapes: a honeycombed teal cube, a silvery anvil, a white-and-turquoise striped block, a Seuss-like cerulean ice tree... I find beauty everywhere in the impermanence of the cold, stark landscape.

During the return passage across a much more tumultuous Drake, Chris, the resident historian, entertains us with lectures on the early polar explorers and their hardships. On my final night, as I sip a negroni at the Dome bar and gaze out at the black-bellied petrels swooping down to surf the waves, Shackleton enters my thoughts again. From my cocoon of comfort, this place of survival feels like a playground. Did the legendary explorer see the same beauty I observe in this harshness? Share my sense of peace or feel fear? Of one thing I'm certain, we shared the same sense of awe.


"Contact your travel advisor to learn more."

Originally published in OLTRE magazine