All went smoothly, though, and at 5am we were off to the Punta Arenas airport where we boarded a BAE-146 aircraft which was manufactured in the UK by British Aerospace. It has high wings, making it especially well-suited for very short runaways. It is operated by Aerovías DAP, which has more than 20 years of experience of flying in Patagonia and Antarctica.
Before boarding, you have to dress in layers for the Antarctica weather: there is no time or place to change once the plane lands, and it's not like you are walking off the plane into a heated airport. You step off the plane directly into the coldest, harshest climate on earth. Average temperatures in the interior of Antarctica vary between -70°C and -40°C during August and between -15°C and -45°C in February. Coastal temperatures are higher, from -32°C to -15°C in winter and between -5°C and 5°C in summer months.
The two–hour flight was unremarkable until the landing, where one look out the window had me a little quizzical—everything was blindingly white and what looked to be the runway was so short it could not possibly be the runway. An in–shambles Brazilian plane lying in a pile to the side did not exactly help to sell the situation. Thankfully our pilot landed smoothly with serious skill.
We were gathered in a group, and one by one like little ducks had to walk a kilometer or so through snow to the shore, where one of the seven zodiac boats in the fleet were waiting to take us out to the ship. On the way we passed the Russian Bellingshausen Station and its surreal Orthodox Trinity Church perched high up on a hill. I started jumping up and down like a five year old when I saw how many Chinstrap penguins were at the shoreline (hundreds!). They were just hanging out everywhere, just doing their adorable, charming penguin things. Best. Welcome. Ever.
We were shown the proper way to board the zodiacs, and the crew assured me that this would not be my last chance to see penguins, including Adelies and Gentoos. We were shuttled out to the Ocean Nova, a tough–as–nails 73 meter ship that was built in Denmark in 1992 to handle the ice–choked waters of Greenland. She was fully refurbished in 2006 and has an Ice Class of 1B, EO (Hull Ice 1A). I don't even know what that means, but I do know that when no other ship could make it down the Lemaire Channel due to dangerous waters filled with constantly shifting ice, we were the only ones that day to cruise on through.
The Ocean Nova has capacity for 68 passengers and 38 crew members. The ship offers three categories of accommodation: single cabins have one lower single bed, twin cabins have two lower beds, and triple cabins have two lower beds and one upper bed. All cabins have a picture window, a writing desk with chair, a closet, hooks to hang up wet clothing, an individually controlled heating system, and a private bathroom. The rooms are not exactly roomy suites (let's remember, you are in Antarctica. On a boat.) They are more than comfortable, however. You will find that you spend hardly any time in the room, and at the end of the day you will be so tuckered out physically and blissed out mentally that you would be able to sleep well anywhere.
Where most passengers spend their time in is a glass-enclosed observation lounge that has doors heading out to the decks. I lost track of how many whales I saw as I was just mindlessly enjoying a cocktail from the open bar, not even looking for whales. There is also a library that is well-stocked with books on Antarctica and it has comfy chairs and a coffee machine. There's a spacious dining room where delicious, hearty meals are served at banquet-style tables (and the Chilean wine keeps a-flowing), a small gym, an infirmary, and a gift shop.
One of the details that differentiates Antarctica XXI from other tours (besides the fact that you get to skip over the Drake Passage) is how many opportunities you are given to get off the boat. Many Antarctica tours offer primarily sightseeing from the ship. How very non-adventurey. Antarctica XXI tours get you off the ship every single day if the weather cooperates, and you can go on guide–led hikes, check out different stations or shipwrecks, or meander among penguin colonies. Guests over the age of 16 wanting even more action have the option to sign up for additional activities—sea kayaking or snowshoeing. It should be noted that this is a commitment: if you sign up for one of the programs, you are paying for the activity every day. There is no option to sign up for a one–day kayaking excursion or a one–time snowshoe hike.