L.A.-based reader Sandra Kossacoff got the early 50th-birthday gift of her dreams when she embarked on an adventure-packed cruise to Antarctica with her husband, Howard, and sons, Alex and Casey.
Our favorite part... Each landing that we made on the continent and on the surrounding South Shetland Islands. The local names have an incredible allure, from the Drake Passage and Half Moon Island to Deception Island and Port Lockroy. We felt the history pages come alive! It was the thrill of a lifetime to explore the glorious ice- and snow-covered landscapes and to spot the abundant wildlife: chinstrap, gentoo, Adélie, and emperor penguins; Weddell, crabeater, and leopard seals; pelagic sea birds; and humpback and orca whales. Navigating from the ship to shore via Zodiac boats and kayaking among the icebergs were part of the extraordinary adventure.
Worth every penny... Splurging to travel with Lindblad Expeditions on the National Geographic Explorer. After comparing various programs, we found that Lindblad offered the best value. Our trip included one night at the Grand Hyatt Santiago; a lunch allowance; an afternoon city tour; a welcome dinner; all airport transfers; a charter airfare from Santiago to Ushuaia; a cruise of the Beagle Channel with lunch on a catamaran in Ushuaia prior to boarding the National Geographic Explorer (an extremely comfortable and well-equipped ship); all meals and nonalcoholic beverages on the ship, including afternoon tea; two captain's receptions; special expedition parkas that we got to keep; kayaking; a visit to a local museum in Ushuaia followed by lunch after disembarkation; the services of the naturalists and Zodiac drivers; and the presence of special guests on the ship, including Peter Hillary, National Geographic photographer Ira Block, and underwater naturalists, whose videos we watched during our nightly cocktail hour.
Wish we'd known that...Every expedition has a different itinerary depending on the movement of the other ships in the area and the daily ice and weather conditions. We were so eager to see it all, but could visit a particular area only if the captain and expedition leader were able to negotiate the right to land and if the weather complied. One day, ice conditions hampered our ability to visit a second location that we were looking forward to seeing in the afternoon, so we had to stay at our morning location for further activities. We learned to be flexible.
What we should have packed... We actually packed very well because we are a skiing family. Essential clothes: ski pants, thermal underwear, gloves and liners, wool ski socks, ski goggles, ski hats and ear muffs, waterproof backpack. We purchased inexpensive rain boots instead of expensive insulated arctic boots, and our feet were very comfortable with thick wool ski socks for insulation. Our only complaint: We needed to bring two suitcases each to account for the hot, summery weather in Santiago and Valparaiso.
Great local meal... We spent an extra night in Valparaiso, Chile, after our trip to Antarctica ended, and had two memorable meals there. Our best lunch was at Allegretto, a cheerful, funky restaurant evoking a '50s-style diner with wooden booths and a jukebox playing old rock 'n' roll songs. The large stone-baked, thin-crust pizzas are delicious and meant to be shared. We ate a late dinner at Pasta e Vino, enjoying the lively atmosphere at the family-run restaurant. Every dish was excellent and flavorful, and the pisco sours were amazing!
Fun surprise... The captain's willingness to modify the itinerary so that we could follow whales and search for emperor penguins in the Weddell Sea. These were especially memorable experiences because both took place in the evening after dinner with the sun still high in the sky (in December in Antarctica, the sun does not set until very late and only for a brief period of time). We would all be out on deck hanging over the bow of the ship, our noses and fingers freezing, snapping photos and thrilled to be watching nature as it is intended to be appreciated.
We're still laughing about... My husband driving in the hills of Valparaiso! The streets are extremely curvy, narrow, and steep. Dogs run around without leashes and stop traffic. One-way streets come up suddenly. Street names are very difficult to find, much less to see in time to turn, especially at night. It was so funny to watch him navigate this incredibly difficult city for drivers!
Hotels we liked... At the Grand Hyatt Santiago, we were lucky enough to get an upgrade to the Business/Concierge level because it was my 50th-birthday celebration. We had a lovely family lunch on the patio overlooking the pool and a delicious welcome cocktail hour and dinner in an open-air restaurant. The pool was gorgeous, with a giant waterfall cascading into the deep end. For our stay in Valparaiso, I'd found the Robinson Crusoe Inn on the Internet and was very pleased. We were assigned to the newer of the hotel's two buildings and had a gorgeous view of the harbor. It was a two-bedroom, two-bath suite for approximately $260 per night, including a full breakfast. There was a patio with outdoor seating that overlooked the city and the harbor. The entire hotel had a bit of an eclectic, charming feel. It was walking distance to quite a few of Valparaiso's attractions, including Pablo Neruda's house, San Sebastián, and the Open Air Museum.