Top travel scribe sails to top of the world for first time and loves it
Patti Pietschmann edited this Q&A with Pico from a Silversea release
Prior to the coronavirus cruise pause Antarctica voyages were one of the hottest tickets around. Especially with veteran seafarers who have been there done that. The region continues to attract tourists with bookings being made for 2021 and beyond. People just want to see what it’s like to be on top of the world.
And noted travel journalist Pico Iyer gives us the answer below.
Pico takes first Antarctica Cruise on Silversea’s Silver Shadow
Pico Iyer has written more than a dozen books and his work has been translated into more than 20 languages. Yet, one continent eluded him: Antarctica. But not any longer. Pico sailed aboard Silversea’s Silver Cloud on a 10-night itinerary in January 2020.
He shares shares his insights with us from his unforgettable trip to the Final Continent.
You once wrote: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.” How did you both lose and find yourself in Antarctica?
I really felt I lost myself by being transported into views of such silence and purity and calm. I forgot all my worries and distractions and chatter, and returned to my better, most quiet self. I’ve been traveling, almost constantly, for 45 years now. Since I was in my teens, and I can remember very few places, if any, as humbling and serene as Antarctica.
Bigger than life
Antarctica is bigger than any landscape I’ve seen. Larger than Alaska and Namibia and Mongolia. It was impossible not to lose oneself in both the grandeur and the hush. Which means I found myself, too. In the sense of finding that better, deeper, more spacious self.
What struck my wife and I is how attentive and quiet every one of our fellow travelers were. So often there were quite a few of us in the Observation Lounge, just holding our breath as a member of the Expedition team pointed out whales or penguins or even dolphins by the side of the ship.
As a travel writer, being a cultural outsider is often a key element. How did it feel to encounter a place where humans are the ultimate outsiders?
I loved that sense. Because, at some level, we always felt like insiders in Antarctica—right in the heart of everything around us. For many of us there were many wonders of the trip. Like walking among colonies of 20,000 penguins. And the endearing birds just go about their business as if no human were there. They walk by busily on their way to the ocean, fluffing their wings and guiding their chicks and just standing beside us as if we were part of their community.
Riding around Pléneau Island and other places in a Zodiac, we were encircled by beauty. On every side of us were scenes as uplifting and beautiful as I have seen anywhere on this planet. So we never had the sense of being outsiders, or alien to the world around us.
Why should people visit Antarctica?
First, because it puts one in place, reminds one of how much larger the elements are than we puny humans, and expands our sense of wonder. I’ve never felt myself so small and so awestruck as when surrounded by miles and miles of snowy mountains and emerald icebergs and penguin rookeries and gleaming sapphire-jade water.
The second reason to go there is that it’s impossible to be there and not to be reminded how precious our planet is and how essential it is that we look up from our screens and protect an environment without which there’d be no us. Nature, over thousands of millennia, has established a balance and an order—more apparent in Antarctica (a kind of trans-human landscape) than anywhere I’ve been.
Advice for anyone dreaming of cruising to Antarctica
Throw out every expectation. Both my wife and I had certain ideas of Antarctica before we arrived, fashioned out of images from polar expeditions and notions of endless deserts of snow. So we were stunned to find how varied it was, how much grander than our conception of it, and how much warmer.
It’s good to come prepared. Bring lots of warm clothing and scarves and gloves. Also it’s good to know that the 36-hour trip across Drake Passage isn’t always smooth (though now you can fly over even that stretch of water if you like).
How did Silversea enhance your Antarctica experience
I hardly need to say how remarkable the Silversea experience is. I had taken four cruises with a different company before I boarded my first Silversea vessel. And even on very large ships I had found the service to be excellent, the food tasty and the whole cruise-experience remarkably comfortable and friction-free.
But Silversea sets a whole new standard when it comes to impeccable service from breakfast-in-bed to glasses of fine wine and canapés. Not to mention staff members ready to serve you. Like serving us non-alcoholic Singapore Slings and exquisite roast duck.
What’s special about the Antarctic trip, though, is a captain who knows just how to steer through choppy waters. This helps avoid most turbulence. The captain also knows how to change course for thirty minutes so we can watch pods of 50 orcas gliding by.
And, most of all, an Expedition staff that will do everything. The take you by the hand across a penguin colony and snap fifteen pictures of you in every kind of light. When we took a Zodiac around one harbor, the person steering the craft was a botanist, pointing out lichen and nests made out of fishing lines from the 1930s.
The most interesting moment onboard
Again and again there’d be an announcement over the public address system in our cabin that a pod of whales or something remarkable was on view at the prow of the ship. We could often watch all these surprise visitations from the huge terrace outside our suite. But sometimes we’d go to Deck 5. That’s where you could stand in the best possible positions to get astonishing views while sipping the prosecco.
I tried to attend every lecture available. The historians and scientists on board had such specialized knowledge to impart. For example a Ph. D. ornithologist on our cruise gave a fascinating lecture on the birds of the area. We would find him on shore all day, ready to point out things of interest and to answer every question.
You were accompanied by your wife on this voyage. Does a cruise of this magnitude allow for bits of connecting vacation experiences with a loved one? What were they for you?
If my wife were answering these questions she would say that Antarctica was one of the best shared experiences we’ve had in our 32 years together. When we were at sea, and the winds came up, we just stayed in our suite and watched wonderful movies together and ordered in some of Silversea’s rightly famous filet mignon, to go with the bottle of champagne we’d been given.
Every evening we received a table for two by the window—and we hadn’t quite worked out before we arrived that, in the southern summer, the sun doesn’t set till long after 10:00 p.m. (and rises before 4:00 a.m.), so we could look out at the silver light and take walks together for 18 hours a day.
Sometimes, we’d read side by side on the couch; often one of us would see a whale next to the ship and call the other out to the terrace; we could tramp across snowy slopes next to one another in the afternoon and then dress up for dinner and share what we’d experienced over celestial desserts and lobster salad.
Antarctica is wilder than I’d expected, and much less rough; much vaster, but also more intimate; and more inspiring and surprising than anything I’ve seen on cruises. I know the two of us will be sharing memories, images and stories of it till our final breath.
Antarctica Bridge a luxury ride to the top of the world
Silversea Cruises’ Antarctica Bridge is the world’s first ultra-luxury fly-cruise service to Antarctica. It gives discerning travelers the fastest, most direct route to the White Continent. The business class flight goes over the Drake Passage two hours each way.
In December 2021, the collection of fly-cruise voyages debut aboard Silver Explorer.