Welcome to the first in our new article series, ‘Inspired’. Each month we’ll be exploring unrivalled experiences and fascinating trends from the worlds of luxury travel, fashion, food, art and property.
We start 2023 in Antarctica, onboard a passenger-carrying icebreaker with a difference.
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As accidentally hilarious as they can be, penguins live lives devoid of comfort. Nesting on bare rocks, subjected to polar blizzards, endlessly harassed by giant petrels and skuas on land, then by leopard seals and orcas in the water… the world’s most popular bird may be regarded by many as cute, but their life is an unending trial.
These days, the same cannot be said of human visitors to Antarctica. The men of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration had more than their fair share of hardship, too, but today’s experience is literally a polar opposite. Standards in this highly specialised sphere of tourism have risen steeply in the last decade – once the domain of converted naval vessels and antique Soviet spy ships, the fleet today is far newer and greener. Wi-Fi and hot tubs are now common features; helicopters were once big news, but now it’s submersibles.
Despite all this, the continent remains a genuinely adventurous destination, a rare chance to experience what the explorer Sir Douglas Mawson described as ‘a rapturous wonder, the rare thrill of unreality’1.
Epic and exclusive
For the first time in a few years, a passenger-carrying icebreaker is sailing, allowing its passengers to push further into what were once unimaginable realms. Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot is currently in the middle of its first full Antarctic season, the highlights of which are two trips that are, even by the lofty standards of the continent, epic. Their ship, which uses a potentially industry-changing hybrid electric drive with liquefied natural gas, will navigate from the tip of South America, down to the Antarctic Peninsula, then push on to the Antarctic Circle. This is the point where most tourist ships must turn back, but the Charcot will delve deeper, into the Bellingshausen, then Ross seas, before crossing the date line and finally looping north, eventually docking in New Zealand one extraordinary month later.
Several times over the course of these 30-day journeys it will almost certainly be the most remote vessel on the planet. It will also be the most luxurious ship in Antarctica, an expedition cruise ship capable of reaching extraordinary latitudes while serving menus designed by the darling of the Michelin Guide, Alain Ducasse.
A fascinating nod to history
For all the comfort, there’s also a philosophy of contributing to wider Antarctic understanding during the voyages. Already in its early career, the ship has been used to clear ice for the British Antarctic Survey’s RRS Sir David Attenborough.
Not by accident, Ponant has named its ship after one of France’s most successful Antarctic figures. Jean-Baptiste Charcot’s name perhaps does not ring through history in the same manner as Amundsen, Scott or Shackleton, but that is partly because his two expeditions (1904-1907 and 1908-1910) passed without much of the drama endured by his nominal rivals.
While other expeditions were stalked by madness, starvation, and death, Charcot’s were remarkable chiefly for their successes. Some of the surviving images from those missions give a sense of their relative comfort, none more so than one of Ernest Gourdon and Paul Pleneau celebrating Bastille Day in 1904. The men are not gnawing on penguins, nor are their clothes in rags. Rather they are sitting on wicker chairs, the geologist Gourdon reading a newspaper, photographer Pleneau with pipe in hand, looking passingly irritated by his own camera. On the table between them sits a bottle of Mumm champagne.
The men were travelling for science and glory, and in a way modern Antarctic visitors do the same. Most modern ships now offer citizen science programmes through which their passengers can gather scientific data on everything from the abundance of whales to concentrations of phytoplankton. Some of it is simply observing from a distance, while other experiments require the collection and analysis of ocean water. Le Commandant Charcot pushes this further with a whole scientific lab aboard, which is often a workspace for PhD students as well as guests. Research and comfort together – the French leader after whom the ship is named would surely have approved. “In the South we are certain to succeed, for very little exploration has been done,” he wrote in the build-up into one of his long trips to the end of the world. “We have only to get there to achieve something great and fine.”2
Adventure is back on the menu
Antarctic tourism has come roaring back after a pandemic-enforced slowdown, and while flying has grown in popularity, those looking to follow in the mighty wakes of the continent’s heroes still prefer to sail. Yet, regardless of how a person chooses to travel to Antarctica now, they will spot other ships amid ‘that sweep of savage splendour’. The most exclusive place on Earth is getting busier.
The challenge now is how to offer the singular experience of travelling in the world’s last pristine place while avoiding others – and how to keep the destination as flawless as possible. Antarctica is not a country, and, without a police force or army, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators essentially governs the industry in the region. A complex booking system lets ships know each other’s plans, hopefully reducing pressure on the fauna and their environment, but the majority of conduct is self-policed.
All passengers, no matter their vessel, are briefed on proper conduct while off the ship. A typical day might include cruising between icebergs or along untamed shores in small boats or landings, where expert naturalists and professional photographers lead visitors across some of the least explored parts of our planet. The more distant the ship's course, the less will be known about these wild places – safety is paramount, but this represents genuine modern adventure.
“A sense of the uncanny”
For their part, the animals – especially the penguins – still offer a sense of the uncanny, being curious and unafraid when visited by humans. To see their vast colonies for the first time is to alter your sense of what a maximum can be. Months, or even years later, catching a whiff of their guano is an emotional and pungent exercise in nostalgia. Part of the reason they are so beloved is because people tend to see themselves in the penguins. The great Antarctic journalist Apsley Cherry-Garrard memorably described them in a way that could easily apply to a guest aboard a luxurious modern-day ship. “They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children, or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirt-fronts – and rather portly withal.”3
In next month’s ‘Inspired’ article, we look at ‘the aesthetics of going green’. Join us as we take a closer look at some unique and special houses that are both easy on the eye, and gentle on the planet.
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