I had the opportunity to cruise aboard the small and stylish SH Vega for their 10-night Antarctic Discovery Expedition Cruise in November 2022. We were one of the first expedition ships to visit during the Antarctic summer season, and it was just the second time the SH Vega cruised in the Antarctic region.
Late November is an ideal time to visit Antarctica by small ship, with seas iced-up from the harsh winter, glaciers and mountains glistening with brilliant white and shades of blue. Plus, the penguins return from the sea to be reunited with their lifelong mating partners. You’ll likely get to see the penguin mating ritual – which is quite interesting, as you visit the various Gentoo penguin colonies.
About the Swan Hellenic SH Vega
Swan Hellenic operates SH Minerva and SH Vega in the Antarctic, two identical 5-star Polar Code PC 5 expedition cruise ships with ice-strengthened hulls. Both accommodate 152 guests in 76 suites and staterooms, the majority with large balconies. A slightly larger PC 6 ice-class vessel, SH Diana, accommodating 192 guests with 96 staterooms and suites will be launching in 2023. All their ships have extra-large stabilizers to make cruising as smooth as possible.
Most of the 76 staterooms on the SH Vega are 302 square foot balcony staterooms, and there are 6 larger suites and 16 ocean view staterooms, including one that is wheelchair accessible. Adjoining staterooms are available for families. Children over 8 years of age are welcome aboard, although no children were on our sailing.
Accommodations – My Stateroom
Located mid-ship, my balcony stateroom #609, had 2 single beds configured side by side to create one king bed, a comfortable bathroom with shower stall, a pair of large closets with sturdy wood hangers, and loads of space to store shoes, clothing and expedition gear. I had not seen this much well-designed storage space in a ship stateroom before.
One unusually practical feature in our stateroom was a heavy curtain that could be drawn between the bedroom and the sitting area with a desk and small sofa, offering some separation when two guests share the cabin. The desk had a built-in make-up mirror compartment and an espresso machine. I was able to enjoy an espresso on our private balcony in a plush bathrobe without disturbing my sleeping husband.
Exploring the SH Vega
Deck 3 is basecamp for all water-based activities, including Zodiacs and kayaks and is equipped with personal lockers to store boots, parkas and other equipment. The beauty salon, science lab and library are also on this deck.
The Swan Dining Room and reception area are on Deck 4 along with staterooms and the launderette, which is free for guest use including detergent.
Deck 7 is where we spent most of our time while aboard. With the large, cozy Observation Lounge featuring panoramic windows, access to outdoor heated areas and an outdoor viewing platform, this deck was ideal for presentations, mingling and relaxing. The Pool Grill and Cafe, also on Deck 7 served lights snacks throughout the day, and tea service every afternoon from 4-6 pm. The outdoor pool was heated and the seating area around the bar had overhead radiant heat providing for comfort while enjoying drinks or dining alfresco!
The wellness center and sundeck are located on Deck 8 and include an indoor gym with state-of-the-art fitness equipment and weights. There is also a sauna room with large windows and an outdoor hot tub. An outdoor sunbathing and stargazing area, with a helipad in the event of emergency, can be accessed by stairs on Deck 9.
What is Expedition Cruising?
Expedition cruising is one of the fastest growing types of cruises. The ships used on these cruises are much more sophisticated than your average cruise ship, which allows them to navigate close to shore in shallow waters. This enables passengers to travel via Zodiac to the shore and explore remote natural environments, and return back to their ship in time for lunch!
The leader of our expedition team, Sam was from Quebec City, Canada, and the 12 members of his international team hailed from the UK, USA, Netherlands, Russia, Ukraine, Italy and South Africa. Expert photographers, polar meteorologists, ornithologists, naturalists and polar region specialists accompanied us on the Zodiacs and during our landings, and also enriched our cruise with fascinating presentations.
No two expedition cruises are the same
Expedition cruises have a degree of spontaneity to them, due to changing weather and water conditions. We listened intently at each evening briefing for the expedition leader to tell us our plans for the next day. While an itinerary is advertised and a daily program was delivered to our staterooms, we had no doubt there would be changes and some disappointments.
For example, we could not leave the ship for a day and a half due to unsafe weather conditions. While disappointing, we understood that we were sailing in the Antarctic and that the priority of the captain and the expedition team was safety. The real-time adjustments based on weather, wildlife, snow and ice ensure that no two voyages are ever the same.
Pack your sense of adventure and be prepared for surprises along the way.
Our Daily Routine
A breakfast buffet started our day, followed by dressing in our expedition gear for a morning excursion. We left the ship by Zodiac to either do a landing where walkers stayed largely on the rocky beaches, and hikers climbed up the neatly cleared paths to reach the snow-covered peaks. Some days when a landing was deemed too challenging and unsafe, we stayed on the Zodiacs for an excursion on the water to see glaciers and wildlife, and the kayakers glided along the frigid icy waters beside us.
Watching penguins going about their daily routine of mating, bowing to their partners, and carrying stones to build nests for their eggs was a highlight. Spotting elusive varieties of seals lazing on bergy bits and ice flows was more challenging than finding thousands of penguins in their pungent smelling colonies.
We could stay on shore for a few hours, however, Zodiacs shuttled passengers back to the ship at regular intervals if they felt cold or got wet.
Lunch was always served on board either in the Swan Dining Room or on sunny days outside on the aft at the pool grill. I chose dining al fresco, even with snow falling around us on the deck. Overhead heaters kept us quite comfortable at our tables.
The afternoons were generally a repeat of our morning routine, returning to the SH Vega between 4-5 pm. A debrief of the day and a preview of the next day’s plans was attended by most guests at 6:30 pm in the Observation Lounge, followed by cocktails and dinner at 7pm.
A singer/pianist entertained in the lounge with loud dance parties nightly. There was even a pajama party on the dance floor with guests in bath robes and slippers partying late into the night, something not typical for an expedition cruise. The demographic on our sailing ranged from 17 to almost 80 years of age, and at least half of the guests onboard were under the age of 40!
With three dining venues, the Swan Restaurant, Club Lounge and Pool Bar & Grill, there’s something for everyone. For early risers, a light breakfast selection was also available in the Club Lounge. At 7:30am in the Swan Restaurant, a full breakfast could be ordered a la carte at the table, or from a large buffet that included fruit, yogurt, breads, pastries and eggs.
We enjoyed lunch al fresco at the Pool Bar and Grill when the weather cooperated.
Dinner was served in the Swan Restaurant from a menu that included daily specials.
A choice of two red and two white complementary wines were offered by the wait staff – however, for wine aficionados a cellar of vintage wines, premium spirits and craft beers were also available, at additional charge.
You can also choose to enjoy your meals with the 24-hour room service.
From Ushuaia it took us two full days to cross the infamous Drake Passage. Many passengers, including my husband, were seasick, keeping the ship’s doctor very busy attending to their needs and providing medication. This is one of the downsides of Antarctic travel, however this was our third time and we cannot wait to go back.
Our itinerary called for us to visit the South Shetland Islands once across the Drake Passage, however, due to the weather forecast, our Captain changed our itinerary to go to the South Shetland Islands at the end of the cruise instead. You should expect to have your itinerary modified – especially so if you are traveling between November and December.
On the morning of our third day, we crossed the 60th parallel and were officially in Antarctica to make our first morning landing at Mikkelsen Harbor with penguins greeting us in their small colonies. Some passengers kayaked around the area and were also able to do a landing. During lunch the ship repositioned to Curtiss Bay where we were only able to do a zodiac cruise to see seals and penguins on ice flows.
The following day we arrived in Neko Harbor, where only Zodiac cruising was offered in the morning. From our zodiacs on our two-hour cruise, we saw giant sleeping humpback whales in a bay that was surrounded by jagged icy mountains.
Over lunch the ship repositioned to Paradise Harbor, one of the most famous places in Antarctica, for a continental landing. We had 3 continental landings planned on this itinerary (Neko Harbor, Paradise Harbor and Portal Point) however Paradise Harbor was the only one we were able to complete due to the weather. We hiked around Paradise Bay with groups of Gentoo penguins all around us. Some guests attempted to reach the hilltop which was quite a climb!
The next day we enjoyed a landing at Damoy Point. We visited the old Damoy Hut used by previous explorers and scientists, and then did a gentle hike to watch the penguin shenanigans and admire the breathtaking snow-covered scenery surrounding us. Some used hiking poles provided by Swan Hellenic.
During lunch the ship repositioned to Port Lockroy to visit the Penguin Post Office and the British Museum. I purchased and mailed postcards to my grandchildren there. Once again, we were surrounded by gentoo penguins, always yielding the right of way to penguins running up and down their “penguin highways”.
Reaching Enterprise Island for our last operation, we did a Zodiac cruise in the morning to see an old coal shipwreck with a small sailboat tethered to it. We also visited Foyn Harbor, better known as the Iceberg Graveyard, with the most spectacular blue-colored icebergs all around us. By the afternoon we were in Portal Point however it was unsafe for any excursions.
We cruised near Half Moon Bay and Deception Island, however once again the weather did not cooperate and the swells were too high to venture off the ship. We waited for 2 hours but the precarious weather conditions were changing rapidly and the captain finally decided to proceed into the Drake Passage for our return to Ushuaia.
Cruising the Drake Passage, the captain routed us by Cape Horn, Chile. Some guests attended presentations in the lounge while others, like us, watched on the TV screens in our staterooms.
The SH Vega was an ideal expedition ship for this Antarctic adventure. It felt intimate and personal at all times, and everything was first class, with attentive housekeeping and restaurant staff, along with knowledgeable and experienced expedition team members. If you are thinking about an expedition crise to see what others don’t in the polar regions or other off-the-beaten-path destinations, and you have the desire to do it in luxury and comfort, choosing one of Swan Hellenic’s expedition ships would be an excellent option.
All photos credit Judi Cohen unless otherwise noted. Cover photo SH Vega waiting patiently as passengers are hiking with penguins.
Ed. Note: See Swan Hellenic cruises here Swan Hellenic Cruises (cruisecompete.com)
About Swan Hellenic
Swan Hellenic was relaunched in July 2020 to proudly continue the spirit of cultural expedition cruising the company pioneered in the 1950s. Building on its British roots, the new company has a global cultural cruising outlook dedicated to providing guests with the opportunity to ‘see what others don’t’.
Swan Hellenic’s purpose-built ships feature elegant Scandi-design interiors, extensive outdoor spaces and dedicated expedition facilities. SH Minerva and SH Vega, two new 5-star Polar Code PC 5 expedition cruise ships with ice-strengthened hulls, respectively launched in December 2021 and July 2022, each accommodate 152 guests in 76 spacious suites and staterooms, the majority with large balconies. A slightly larger PC 6 ice-class vessel, SH Diana, accommodating 192 guests in the same distinctive comfort and style in 96 staterooms and suites will be arriving in early 2023.
All three ships feature 3 dining venues – the Swan Restaurant, Club Lounge and Pool bar & Grill – and are being built in full compliance with SOLAS Safe Return to Port requirements. Dedicated to guests with a passion for adventure and cultural exploration, the company’s meticulously planned itineraries explore the wild landscapes, wildlife, peoples and unique cultures of the world’s less traveled regions.
The crews each include a team of 12 seasoned expedition guides, expert speakers and lecturers, for a total complement of 120 and 140 persons respectively, offering outstanding staff-to-guest ratios to deliver the highest standards of attentive personal service.
Headquartered in Cyprus with offices in London, Dusseldorf, Monaco, Fort Lauderdale (serving the North America market) and Hong Kong (serving mainland China, Taiwan, Vietnam and South-East Asia), as well as partnerships serving India, Japan and Australia-New Zealand, Scandinavia and Iceland, Swan Hellenic supports the travel trade with specialist local partners to provide customers with expert personal service worldwide.
Ed. Note: See Swan Hellenic cruises here Swan Hellenic Cruises (cruisecompete.com)