AdventureSmith Explorations Adventure Specialist Nick Mitchell reviews his Antarctic Explorer expedition aboard the 199-guest Ocean Endeavour.

Tabular icebergs are awesome. Not like how a hotdog might be awesome but more in the original sense of the word. Going to Antarctica is like going to another planet and it’s hard to explain just how mind blowing it is. I’ve been all over the world, and for sheer wow factor, Antarctica is number one. If you have the slightest inkling that you might enjoy a trip to Antarctica, wait no longer. It will be the trip of a lifetime.

Tabular Icebergs seen from a small cruise ship in Antarctica.

While Antarctica shone as the lead, the Ocean Endeavour provided great comfort in the supporting role.

Antarctic Peninsula trips, like the Antarctic Explorer, are the most popular way to experience the white continent. They have the greatest number of departures, the widest date range and they are where you’ll find the lowest prices. I went on the 199-guest Ocean Endeavour, and while Antarctica shone as the lead, the Ocean Endeavour provided great comfort in the supporting role.

Two passengers on a land excursion in Antarctica walking along the shore with their small ship in the background.

The 10- to 12-day Antarctic Explorer is offered on several different vessels, including the brand new purpose-built World Explorer, set to first sail this route in January 2019. As on all of AdventureSmith Explorations Antarctic cruises, the focus is on getting off the ship and witnessing the wildlife and scenery up close, exploring by zodiac and on foot. Weather permitting, you’ll get off the boat at least twice a day on shore excursions and zodiac cruises while you are down there.

Guests from small ship on a skiff tour getting close to icebergs in Antarctica.

I went on the Ocean Endeavour in early December. Spaces on the Ocean Endeavour are sold with mandatory round-trip Buenos Aires-Ushuaia flights and a pre-night hotel night in Buenos Aires on day one. The benefit of this is ease. All you have to do is get yourself to Buenos Aires and the rest is taken care of; you don’t have to stress about getting to Ushuaia in time. If the flight is delayed, then everyone is delayed. You can’t miss the boat. You all fly down to Ushuaia together where you have a few hours to look around town before embarkation. I chose to do a little shopping and eat some King crab at Freddy’s Crab Shack.

The Bridge Deck was a superb viewing spot; very spacious with 360-degree views. It was my favorite deck and there were never many people up there.

The Ocean Endeavour is a comfortable, well-appointed polar expedition ship, and she has a spacious, modern feel. There is a wide choice of cabin categories, from economical triple cabins to spacious suites. There are also single cabins, which is a rarity on Antarctic vessels. I was in a main deck twin porthole cabin with an ensuite bathroom. It was clean and comfortable. I have to say, I did not spend much time in there at all. There was always something going on and I spent a lot of time on deck, which I recommend you do on any expedition cruise. There are lots of common areas, and plenty of deck space to watch wildlife, icebergs and ice-covered landscapes go by. There was so much deck space you could always find a little solitude if you wanted. You could also choose socialize with your fellow travelers and spot whales and penguins together. The Bridge Deck was a superb viewing spot; very spacious with 360-degree views. It was my favorite deck and there were never many people up there.

Happy guest from a small ship expedition smiling with icebergs in the background.

There were several comfortable lounges where our experienced expedition team gave presentations and slideshows. These ranged from Antarctic marine wildlife to photography workshops to the history of the Antarctic Treaty. They took place in the evenings and when we were crossing the Drake Passage. We even traveled with two scientists who were studying penguins. The expedition guides were professional and always around, engaging with the guests sharing their knowledge and stories at meals, on deck and in the common areas. Their enthusiasm was infectious and they clearly loved their jobs. There was a lot to learn and to entertain and never a dull moment.

We were spoilt for choice. Dinner was ordered from a menu. I wonder what Shackleton would make of such pampering!

The Ocean Endeavour is also the only polar adventure ship in Antarctica focused on health and wellness. Facilities include a spa serviced by organic spa provider VOYA, his and hers saunas with windows, so you don’t have to miss the glory of Antarctica, a warm saltwater pool, a gym, and a juice and smoothie bar. There were complimentary yoga and stretching classes. The food and service was excellent. With a large buffet for breakfast and lunch we were spoilt for choice. Dinner was ordered from a menu. I wonder what Shackleton would make of such pampering!

Penguins on land seen from a small ship expedition cruise to Antarctica.

On Antarctic Peninsula cruises you get cross the Drake Passage—twice. I wasn’t worried about seasickness, more that I’d constantly be terrified of capsizing. As it turned out, the Ocean Endeavour was reassuringly large, and I found the crossing exhilarating. No matter the size of the waves and the amount we rocked and rolled, I knew we would be fine. She has two stabilizers and is no waif. At 450 feet long, the Ocean Endeavour is one of the biggest ships AdventureSmith Explorations is partnered with, but the feeling of being on an expedition is not sacrificed. For those who are nervous of sailing the Drake, the reward of getting to experience Antarctica will make it all worthwhile. I guarantee it. When you look back you’ll appreciate that your adventurous spirit triumphed. At the time, you may feel different.

People cross country skiing on Antarctica with their small ship cruise in the background.

One of the unique things about the Ocean Endeavour, is the wide range of adventure activities offered on this standard peninsula trip. The adventure activities, at an extra cost, include kayaking, camping, cross-country skiing and stand-up paddleboarding. If you want to do any adventure activities you need to book early and sign up when you book your trip. Don’t delay. Spaces are limited (10-15 for each activity, with the exception of camping, which is 60) and they fill fast. One of the best things about doing an adventure activity is that you get to explore Antarctica in a small group. You’re also the first to leave the boat and last to return. They provide you with all the equipment and your safety is the guide’s main concern.  All the adventure activity groups had three guides and a designated zodiac.

Of Antarctic Explorer vessels, the Ocean Endeavour is the only one to offer cross-country skiing and mountaineering.

Of Antarctic Explorer vessels, the Ocean Endeavour is the only one to offer cross-country skiing and mountaineering. These two activities, along with kayaking, are offered whenever there is a shore excursion or zodiac cruise for everyone else andwhen weather permits. The shore excursion usually focused on penguin rookeries, but no two expeditions are the same. Sometimes you’ll visit scientific research centers as well. Camping and paddleboarding are done once on the expedition. If you are fit and able, you can do any of these activities for the first time. I went cross-country skiing, mountaineering and stand-up paddleboarding, and in all the groups I was in some people were doing it for the first time. If you want to kayak you should have done it once before, but that’s all. The cross-country skis have skins on the bottom, which turn them into speedy snowshoes, so no experience is necessary. It is also worth noting that kayaking is very wind sensitive; mountaineering and cross-country skiing are not. Also, the skiing and mountaineering guides are the same and so they aren’t offered at the same time. They alternate daily. This means doing a skiing and mountaineering combo is great because you never have to choose one over the other.

Happy guest from a small ship cruise to Antarctica cross country skiing.

We skied along snow-covered beaches, past penguins and seals and up on ridgelines with stunning views across bays. As someone who loves to ski, it was dream come true.

I got to ski twice during my four days down there. We skied along snow-covered beaches, past penguins and seals and up on ridgelines with stunning views across bays. No one was in a hurry. We even got to ski on our continental landing at Brown Bluff. As someone who loves to ski, it was dream come true. All AdventureSmith’s Antarctica trips aim to do a continental landing.

People on a mountaineering excursion in Antarctica climbing uphill on snow with ice picks and ropes with their small ship in the background.

The mountaineering was also a great way to explore. I went three times in four days. With crampons, ice axes, helmets and harnesses, we left the rest of the boat behind and enjoyed some solitude. Again, no previous experience is necessary. You just need to be fit and able it’s not “extreme” by any stretch.

On one outing, we were the only people to go on land; everyone else went on zodiac tours. We climbed a modestly angled slope past an Adelie penguin colony to a peak. When we got to the top we were met by a “summit” penguin, and when we could see down the other side, which was all exposed rock, it was entirely covered in Adelie penguins, all the way down to the sea.

Up close penguin seen from a small ship in Antarctica.
Guests taking a break on their mountaineering excursion next to penguins in Antarctica.

A group of about 30 Adelie penguins hurriedly waddled behind us … this was clearly a group of the maddest ones on the hill.

As we continued along a saddle to a plateau, a group of about 30 Adelie penguins hurriedly waddled behind us to come and see what we were and what we were doing on their island. This was clearly a group of the maddest ones on the hill. They expended a lot of energy in crossing the plateau to catch up. We waited for them and soon enough they had us surrounded, giving us sideways glances with one eye, and then the other. I’ve never seen such charismatic birds before. After they’d had a good look, and discussed their theories as to what we were and what we were doing, they all took off as fast as they had arrived, sliding on their bellies back to where they had come from. Of all the penguins we saw the Adelies were my favorite.

Group taking a break from their mountaineering excursion and looking at the view from where they climbed in Antarctica.

We saw lots humpback and minke whales and orca. A juvenile orca even obliged us with a close-quarters visit by the bow. We followed a pod for quite a while as they hunted. We saw penguins leaping out of the water, escaping snapping jaws of death. When the hovering, attendant seabirds landed on the surface we knew one had been chomped. We also had a leopard seal swim right up to our zodiac before a shore landing. He was massive and looked me right in the eye before he shot off with a flick of his tail. He then breached like a whale, clear out of the water. Talk about jaw dropping! Others said they had seen him on an iceberg eating a penguin. Poor little penguins; it’s amazing they seem so cheerful.

Paddling past blue icebergs with penguins swimming next me and ice-covered mountains and giant glaciers in the pink light is something I’ll never forget.

I also got to stand-up paddleboard in Cierva Cove, and it was probably the most spectacular adventure activity I got to do. Paddling past blue icebergs with penguins swimming next me and ice-covered mountains and giant glaciers in the pink light is something I’ll never forget. You wear a dry suit so you don’t get wet if you fall in, which some people did. The boards are wide and stable. As with all the activities, there are several experienced guides to give instruction. A zodiac accompanies you as well in case you need a break.

Guest from a small ship stand up paddleboarding in a drysuit in Antarctica.

I also recommend the polar plunge. It was invigorating and exciting. You have to wear a safety belt. You don’t want to end up back home thinking, “I should have done that,” so do it. [Editor’s note: Yes, that is the writer of this review, AdventureSmith Specialist Nick Mitchell, backflipping into his polar plunge!]

Guest with safety rope attached jumping off a small ship during a polar plunge event in Antarctica.

People often say they don’t care about the ship, they care about the expedition experience. I’d say that’s right. Having an exceptional expedition experience should be your main concern when choosing a trip to Antarctica. But why not have both? If you want a comfortable, clean and spacious boat with an experienced and engaging expedition team, great service, excellent food and lots of adventure options, then the Ocean Endeavouris a great choice. If you are leery of crossing the Drake and a larger vessel will ease your mind—and you’d quite like having the option of a massage or watching Antarctica go by while in a sauna or enjoying a warm swimming pool while on your expedition—then the Ocean Endeavoris a great choice. Sometimes you can have it all.

For more images, view my Antarctic Explorer aboard Ocean Endeavour Facebook album.

This Antarctic cruise review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. Read all AdventureSmith Expert Reviews for more trip reports, or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about these small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-800-728-2875.