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Antarctic on Prince Albert II

Penguins visit the saintsPenguins visit the saints (Ernst Keibel)
From charter flight into Ushuaia, straight into a string of buses and off to have a getting-to-know-each-other lunch in the Patagonian countryside. To finally walking up the gangplank of what everybody had been anticipating for more than a year. Would it do justice to expectations? Suffice it to say at this stage that Silversea's brochure seems to thrive on British understatement.

A real ship rather than condominium and no barked orders and jack-boots. Guest, rather than tourist. I wonder how many younger people nowadays know what the difference is. Then the shock of all shocks, our designate cabin wasn't ready. Some fool apparently had left the balcony door open during the preceding storm, flooding carpets and all. Would we mind awfully to accept one of the two owner's suites instead? Well, what can I say? Nothing I suppose, lest I wake up and find it to be a dream. Not that our designate Veranda Suit would in any way be inadequate, far from it. But our new abode is truly something else entirely. Having said that, I would like to ensure y'all that my further report back is in no way tainted by gratitude, and has no bearing on my views on how the bits and pieces of daily life on board come together.

Now you all know my fiercely independent nature, sometimes bordering on the pedantic. Sure as shit, my first encounter with the briefing style of the one who is known as the one who has to be obeyed, the Director of Operations, had the hair at the back of my neck standing straight up. Thankfully it didn't survive the day. I soon enough realized the guy just needed to get a routine going before we could all relax together. You simply can't believe how well oiled this operation is managed. I know, I've run my own construction company for 32 years.

Two days in the Drake passage, which, contrary to former south pole visitors' horror reports, were, well, swelly, but certainly manageable for most. Stabilizer or helmsman? I don't know, but few missed their meals. Speaking about which, how do you define an early twentieth century like service and a menu that keeps Americans, Chinese, Brits, Germans and then some, all coming back for more? Remarkable?

Then, at last, started what we all had come for. The Antarctic proper. Well sort of. The peninsular as furthest outpost of the real thing so to speak. Only the weather didn't play ball. More like a wintry Mariental in Namibia. +0'C where -15'C was expected. Sunshine, windless and unbelievable beautiful, in a harsh sort of a way, when the sun is shining, (the latter does not include Mariental). I took some photos of icebergs and surrounding mountains mirrored in the sea, where you can't tell the difference between real and mirror in the finished product. Photoshop eat your heart out.

Naturally, not everything is smelling all roses. As a 66 year old smoker for whom this anti-smoking mania, emanating from the Americas recently, is not only somewhat late in the day, but in my opinion purely unnecessary cheap political posturing. The published smoking policy of Silverseas was one of the salient points that clinched the deal of my choosing them above all others. Their recognition that the world consists of both, smokers and non-smokers, (individualists and collectivists) and their striving to accommodate everybody amicably, with half the lounge for each and pipes and cigars relegated to the Humidor, I thought was fair and equitable. Tragically and unexpectedly it wasn't to be, and the proffered excuse of that smoking causes setting fire to the ship, is grotesque enough to have better been left unsaid.

Also the weather didn't disappoint for too long. After three blissful sunny and windless days, a low descended and man did we get the point about what the south pole is supposed to be all about. A veritable blizzard descended on us within minutes. Snow, hail, 100km winds the lot. Something that really makes one appreciate this luxurious cocoon.

For me the most important facet of life on board would be the hostelry that looks after stabling and gorging, occupying 90% of your time on board. Probably the most sensitive arena, as here is where skimping can be an art and beautiful arrangements often hide inedible crap. Well, not on this baby, here you literally chomp at the bit for the next meal, to which you are treated like a king no less. Add to this the fact that your cabin is cleaned up every morning and readied before bedtime, and all this with nary a grumpy face. God only knows how management manage to maintain this so persistently. I forgive you if you think this to be an advertorial, but trust me, it isn't.

The often dicey psychodynamics regarding the fellow travelers was unproblematic and extremely well handled. Helped along by apt staff especially during meal times. Also the fact that there were no groups but only independent couples and no smart-ass 21stCentury spoiled brats, was a pleasant surprise. Except perhaps for a largish Chinese contingent, who's lack of English however precluded any meaningful interrelationship anyway.

Once underway the routine is to cruise between points of interest, weather permitting. Which ranged from abandoned scientific outposts and waling stations to even an operating British post-office with a couple of voluntary dollies in attendance. The assisted single-file excursions along flagged 'routes' isn't exactly my thing but then I didn't have to. And everybody else seem to enjoy it thoroughly. Peace! The guides aren't exactly Sergeant Major types either, instead they bend over backwards to accommodate everybody's foibles. Well, up to a point, but nonetheless. With quips about 'rather to avoid the mountain of paperwork' should somebody be clumsy enough to fall into the water. The occasional spin in a zodiac, to have a closer look at something or other without crawling all over the countryside on foot, were more to my liking and I was therefore not left-out entirely.

Money, chits, prices, forget it. The word 'all-in' has an entirely new meaning here. After the second day they all knew not only who you were but what made you tic. And dining, lounge, bar and cabin preempted your every wish. You never ask, you decline! Going over the foregoing I fear this all sounds too good to be true, well, for once it isn't!

Ernst Keibel
ewg@iway.na
+264 64 402416
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