My job is amazing, especially when I’m given the chance to explore the remote southern tip of Patagonia on a boutique Australis cruise! I couldn’t believe my luck.
Back in March, I set off on a 10-day trip that included one night in Santiago, four nights aboard the Ventus Australis sailing from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, one night in a traditional estancia in rural Argentina and two nights in Buenos Aires. If you’re short on time and itching to visit Patagonia, this trip really does tick all the boxes.
I flew directly to Santiago in Chile with British Airways from London Heathrow, which takes 14 ½ hours. The following day I took another flight down to Punta Arenas and checked in for the cruise. It’s a long journey, but it’s also pretty straightforward and one million per cent worth it!
Built in 2017, Ventus Australis is a very modern cruise ship that caters for a maximum of 200 passengers, with luxury cabins, a spacious dining room, a sky bar and two lounges with panoramic windows. Instead of portholes, all of the cabins come complete with oversized floor to ceiling windows, providing incredible views straight from your bed. I was bowled over and very impressed by the level of service from the moment I arrived.
After boarding, we were invited to a welcome cocktail party on the top deck which included a short speech by the Captain. The bar staff passed trays of pisco sours (a far-too-easy-to-drink mix of regional brandy, lime juice, egg whites and bitters). During the announcements, we were told that there would be no internet access or mobile phone signal for the duration of the cruise. Being cut off from the outside world adds to the adventure and the end-of-the-world feeling of the voyage.
As our ship departed, we watched a couple of dolphins jumping around the bow of the ship while the twinkling lights of Punta Arenas faded into the distance. Shortly afterwards, we were treated to a wonderful four-course meal complete with Argentinean and Chilean wines. The evening continued with a fascinating talk on the wildlife, history and geography of Patagonia and a description of our itinerary for the following day.
The educational talks take place daily, both on board (with audio-visual support) and on land during the shore excursions. The subjects ranged from the flora and fauna of Patagonia to the native people of the area, as well as geography and glaciology. Every single talk was engaging and packed with expert knowledge.
Waking up first thing in the morning and opening the curtains was an exhilarating moment. We were in Alberto de Agostini National Park, surrounded by uninterrupted views of pure beauty, and I could see it all from my very own bed!
After a hearty breakfast, it was time to get wrapped up in full weather gear for a brief introduction to Ainsworth Bay, with a focus on how to board the sturdy 15-passenger zodiacs that would ferry us ashore. Grab the arm of a crew member, step on the side of the boat, sit and shimmy. We repeated this mantra before each embarkation — grab, step, sit, shimmy.
Ainsworth Bay is home to a vast range of bird life as well as a colony of southern elephant seals that can sometimes be spotted from the zodiacs. We had a choice between two guided excursions. The first tour was a gentle walk along the edge of a peat bog, and beaver habitat to a waterfall and moss-covered rock face tucked deep inside a pristine sub-polar forest. I chose the second option, a more strenuous hike along the crest of a glacial moraine.
Along the way, our expert guide regularly stopped to talk about the flora and fauna and patiently answered all the questions we asked. It was a beautiful, remote hike that brought new meaning to my idea of the Great Outdoors. The view of the Darwin Mountains and Marinelli Glacier was breath-taking. I felt a real sensation of being in the middle of nowhere.
Before getting back onto the zodiac, we took a moment to sip a hot chocolate with an optional (and highly recommended!) splash of whiskey. Back on board, we were treated to a buffet lunch as we sailed west along the sound to the Tucker Islets. After a rest, set out on our second trip in the zodiacs for a close-up view of the Magellanic penguins that inhabit the tiny islands.
More than 4,000 penguins use the Tucker Islets as a place to nest, give birth and nurture their chicks. We were lucky enough to spend time watching these fascinating creatures, as a week later they would start to migrate elsewhere! All sorts of other seabirds also frequent the islands, including king cormorants, oystercatchers, Chilean skuas, kelps, dolphin gulls, eagles and even the occasional Andean condor.
After a perfect day of fresh air and extraordinary sightseeing, we were invited to visit the engine room on the ship. Having never been on a cruise before, I found it very interesting to see how everything works below deck. The evening lecture was all about glaciology in Patagonia, followed by another fantastic meal. The atmosphere was very social, and we all chatted about the events of the day before retiring to the bar for a nightcap.
Again, I opened the curtains to fabulous views as we prepared to enter the Pia Fjord. The scenery was out of this world, and I was super excited to board the zodiac for our shore excursion to Pia Glacier.
As before, we were offered two excursions; a short hike to a panoramic viewpoint of this spectacular glacier or a longer, more difficult walk up a lateral moraine of the old Pia Glacier. Again, I selected the more challenging hike, and it certainly didn’t disappoint! Standing at Pia Glacier and hearing the vast chunks of ice crashing into the sea, when everything is so quiet around you, was just incredible.
Back on board, we continued east along the Beagle Channel to Glacier Alley, usually considered to be the most amazing part of the journey. Living up to its name, Glacier Alley features dozens of tidewater glaciers flowing down from the Darwin Mountains and Darwin Ice Shelf. As we slowly made our way between the icebergs, the brilliant crew handed out drinks and snacks tied in with the name of each glacier that we passed (France, Germany, Spain, Holland and Italy).
That evening, there was lots of speculation about whether or not we would be lucky enough to land on Cape Horn. Getting ashore on Cape Horn is a rare treat, as the vicious wind, lashing rain and roiling sea that pounds the cliffs, often makes landing impossible. As a result, many visitors to South America’s most southerly point have to content themselves with a glimpse from the deck.
We were all feeling very positive, as the sea conditions and weather had been kind to us so far, but we knew that we had the turbulent waters of the Drake Passage yet to come. We would only know for sure the following morning.
The ship arrived very early the next morning, and we waited with bated breath for the announcement to tell us if we could land on Cape Horn. Some of the crew set off in a zodiac to check the weather and landing conditions while we waited with our life jackets on and fingers crossed. Finally, the chipper voice announced, “we are clear to land on Cape Horn.”
Once again, we had lucked out with the weather. The zodiac trip to Cape Horn took about 10 minutes, and we managed to step onto the beach with dry feet. Next, we climbed the 154 wooden steps to the top of the cliff, where there’s a long boardwalk over a grassy field that connects to a working lighthouse, a chapel and a modern monument at the very tip of Cape Horn. We even met the Chilean naval officer and his family, who live on this isolated headland.
Back on board, the Captain announced that he was going to circumnavigate Cape Horn. We soon realised that this was a really rare occasion because all the staff were out on deck excitedly taking photos. Standing in the howling wind and rain (the weather changes so quickly here), observing the open vastness around me, I felt so lucky to be at the end of the earth — what an experience.
In the afternoon, we dropped anchor at Wulaia Bay, one of the few places in the archipelago where human history is just as compelling as the natural environment. Originally the site of one of the region’s largest Yamana aboriginal settlements, Wulaia Bay was described by Charles Darwin in the 1830s and sketched by Captain Fitzroy during their voyages on the HMS Beagle.
Onshore, we trekked up a steep hill through a forest of evergreen beech trees to a spectacular viewpoint over the islands and channels of the Bay. Back down at the jetty, we were once again greeted to hot chocolate with a generous glug of whiskey before preparing for our final night on the ship. The Captain gave a wonderful speech at our farewell dinner, making the perfect ending to a fantastic trip.
My trip aboard the Ventus Australis was the adventure of a lifetime, and I loved every minute. Whatever your age or fitness level, I would highly recommend a boutique Tierra del Fuego cruise. I believe that everyone should treat themselves and visit this incredible part of Patagonia. You’ll be blown away by the wildlife and scenery at the end of the world.
We are experts in planning round the world flights, multi-stop holidays and tailor-made trips. We can combine an Australis cruise into a larger South America adventure or help you build the voyage into an extraordinary round the world trip. To get started, give our friendly travel consultants a call on +44 1273320580 or send us a quote request by email and we’ll get back to you.
If you’re specifically interested in an Australis cruise, you can also contact Grainne directly and discuss her experiences further. It's also possible to explore Patagonia aboard the Stella Australis, sister ship to Ventus Australis. For more details, just ask.