ANTARCTICA'S WHITE WILDERNESS
My wife and I had been thinking about visiting Antarctica for many years and when we saw and read of the Grand Circle trip to the White Continent we decided to explore the advantages of the Grand Circle Cruise Line (GCCL) in greater detail. As we have traveled with Grand Circle's Overseas Adventure Travel 23 times, we made the decision to sign-up for the Antarctica's White Wilderness.
All communications with GCCL were very thorough and complete. They try to make all details of cruising and embarkations known before one departs. There was a medical release that everyone has to have his or her doctor approve prior to departure. We were especially pleased that two weeks prior to departure, GCCL upgraded our room from the 4th to the 5th deck. Very nice!
We flew Delta Airlines and all went well on every segment of their itinerary. When we arrived in Buenos Aires we (and the nine other tour members) were met by Adrian from GCCL. He was very courteous and professional, and always smiling. He showed us where we could change money and use the restrooms. He called the mini-bus and the driver quickly arrived and took us to the NH City Hotel in the center of the Buenos Aires. During the long drive Adrian was very dedicated in giving us information on the capital, its history, and the traffic.
When we arrived our Tour Director (TD) Sebastian (Seba) greeted us, helped us to register and gave us our room keys. At 4 PM we met for our welcome meeting. From this first meeting we felt this was going to be a special and close-knit group. There was a level of respect and we found out that there were two couples from Denmark - an occurrence we had never before experienced with GCT/OAT. They added a new and enriching perspective to the whole trip. Our two concerns at this initial meeting were that the introductions were almost an afterthought and were hurried and there were no beverages or food offered as was the usual for OAT.
Saba walked with us to our welcome dinner and we got to know more about our new travel companions. The following day we had the usual GCT/OAT tour of Buenos Aires with Seba and the smiling Soledad, our city guide. As we had seen all these same aspects in our previous trips, we tried to talk to members of our group of 23. As was always the case with Seba, at the end of the day he told us the schedule for the following travel day.
With a very early wake up and transfer to the airport we were on our way to the End of the World - Ushuaia. No one had any trouble having all of our luggage checked in without fees and we made the almost 4 hour flight without any difficulty. Once we landed we were taken on a short excursion before going to the Cilene del Faro Hotel. We found out that all four different groups scheduled to travel on the Corinthian stayed in different hotels. Our room was very spacious but faced the main street. The bars in Ushuaia stay open until daybreak so if one wishes to have a good night's sleep, ask to have a room facing the harbor.
The 5th day we visited the Tierra del Fuego National Park and had a chance to do some serious walking. Our local guide, Valeria was also very pleasant and welcoming. For our noon meal we met all three other groups and ate an Argentinean meat lunch. Unfortunately, as we were the last group seated, we only got the limited first serving. All other groups had their food replenished when they asked. We heard: "I am sorry, we have no more." After lunch we were bussed to downtown Ushuaia and had a lot of free time to kill before boarding our ship. There was no planned activity so we were sent to explore the city again.
Late in the afternoon we were the last of the four groups to board. The ship's crew was very busy, but took time to greet us when we came up the gangplank. There were flowers and a bowl of fruit when we arrived in our room. We also saw a printed agenda for the day in our cabin - something we received each evening. We were called for a general meeting in the main lounge and heard a very dry presentation on the ship's rules and regulations. We then had an evacuation drill as we sailed out on the Beagle Channel.
We quickly found out that the ship's crew were fantastic and would do anything to make our stay on board pleasant. Sami, our cabin steward, always had our room in perfect condition. The dining room staff knew our names after the first evening. The front desk crew always smiled and went out of their way to help us out. Unfortunately, the general maintenance of the Corinthian was a negative. We saw a lot of rust and areas that were not painted. Our cabin - 519 - had veranda sliding doors that were highly speckled with paint and many light fixtures on the ship had flies and bugs at the bottom.
The expedition staff led by Claudia gave a presentation on what to do and not do in Antarctica that was helpful. We were asked to bring our wearables and carry-ons that we would use on land in Antarctica to be vacuumed and cleaned. This was efficient and well done. Overall, this staff was helpful and knowledgeable. They were pleasant about reminding people about rules when we disembarked and landed on Antarctica.
Claudia, the Expedition Leader, was extremely serious, did not smile, and in group presentations, our Zodiac landings, and personal interactions was very aloof. We understand hers is a very critical and imperative position on the ship, but her personality led us and other passengers to wonder why she seemed so angry and unapproachable.
The lectures were interesting but too dry - PowerPoints need to be listener centered. If the information is on the screen, one does not have to read it. The main lounge, where presentations occurred, was dark and warm. Over half the attendees were asleep soon after the presentations began As a general rule, after 30 minutes, there is a need to get people involved and moving again.
Our two major concerns were the disregard of the off-ship guidelines and the use of walking sticks by the other passengers. Not many, but several people totally disregarded the rules as we walked and "interacted" with the native animal and bird population. The use of walking sticks also led to people tripping and swinging their sticks at other hikers. I got hit twice when people tripped or got their feet buried in the snow.
Unlike our other trips with GCT/OAT, our Tour Leader/Director, Seba had very limited interaction with us once we were on board the Corinthian. He had dinner with each member of the group one night. During the general presentations he was usually in the back of the room with other Tour Leaders. The same was true in the dining room where he hung out with his pals. During our excursions one could see him, but once again, he was usually with other members of the expedition staff or tour leaders. With GCCL suggesting daily tips for the Tour Leader between 10 and 12 dollars, they might reconsider this recommendation based on interactive time with the group while on the ship.
All of our excursions were excellent. The manning of the zodiacs, wet landings, and the established paths once we landed, the support was top notch. Even though we had only one truly sunny day, everyday was a great experience. Our planned Polar Plunge was called off on our last day in Antarctica as the winds and seas suddenly required everyone to leave Deception Island and board the ship.
The return to the Drake Passage was somewhat more difficult with high seas, which caused the ship to pitch and roll a great deal. The staff was able to continue to do their job but in the dining room food and beverages crashed to the floor. We heard the kitchen staff had problems with cooking and serving items. Many people chose to stay in their cabins, ordering room service instead of trying to walk down stairs to the dining room.
The organized and efficient manner in which we departed the ship is another testament to the skill of the crew. In no time at all, we were off the ship and headed to the airport and our flight back to Buenos Aires.
By the time we reached the hotel, it was almost 2:30, not long enough to do anything, but wait in the conference room until our transfer to the airport at 4:00. Because our flight was not until 9:15, the day was not very productive. Perhaps a change in the itinerary could help to eliminate this wasted day?