Getting There: Silver Endeavour's "Antarctica Bridge" Sailing

In this first of a three-part series, we look at Silversea Cruises' "Antarctica Bridge" expeditions on Silver Endeavour. Traveling to the southern end of the Earth involves a multi-day journey, so we first lay out "getting there."  

After 10 days on our Silversea Expeditions’ voyage through Antarctic waters in late December 2022, guests gathered in the ship’s Explorer Lounge for a final recap by the expedition team. Asked by the voyage’s expedition leader to describe their Antarctica experience, they spewed a wealth of superlatives: “A once-in-a-life-time travel experience;" "spectacular polar scenery;" "amazing wildlife;" "a ‘bucket list’ journey;" "absolutely incredible;" "Akin to nothing else on Earth.”

Day after day, those guests had explored Antarctica from the lap of luxury on the 224-passenger Silver Endeavour (200 in polar regions) while at the same time, gazing at glacial-blue-twinged icebergs, “oohing” and “aahing” at dramatic, snow-covered mountain peaks and admiring massive glaciers. They’d walked along pebble beaches, climbed snowy hillsides for superb views and ventured out by Zodiacs or kayaks.

Most notably, they’d viewed and walked near massive colonies of penguins, some with cute fuzzy chicks. Guests also spotted seals and listened to the sounds of marine birds and "the blows" of humpback whales.

Luxury Travel Advisor was aboard to do all that too. But we also gathered travel intel to assist luxury advisors: How does an expedition trip to the end of the Earth unfold? What should clients expect? What's does the transit to Antarctica involve? 

On this three-part “Antarctica Bridge” series, we’ll look at three different elements of this journey to the southern end of the Earth: 

  1. “Getting There and Pre-Cruise" – Part 1 will provide details of the lengthy transit, steps in the journey, mandatory requirements, Silversea's charter flight arrangements and expedition gear distribution. 
  2. “Silver Endeavour, Ultra-Luxury Voyager” – Part 2 will focus on the ship itself. We'll review the ultra-luxury onboard experience and we'll look at what changes advisors will see now that the ship is operated by Silversea versus its former service as Crystal Endeavor.  
  3. "Penguins, Whales, Seals – The Silversea Expedition Experience" – Part 3 will cover the eco-experience in Antarctica, the dramatic scenery and wildlife, plus exploring by Zodiacs and kayaks. (We're saving the best for last.) 

Getting There: What’s Involved?

Winging one's way southbound in Chile on an Antarctica Bridge sailing.
Winging our way southward from Santiago to Punta Arenas was just one portion of the trip to Antarctica. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Travelers considering any Antarctic cruise need to clearly understand what’s involved in getting there and back. Heading to Antarctica isn’t akin to an overnight trip to Europe or South America, for example, where eager explorers get off their international flight, clear immigration and within an hour or two begin exploring the destination they've selected for vacation.  

Silversea's “Antarctica Bridge” expeditions involve a journey that can span three days southbound and at least two days on the northbound return. For instance, we departed Miami International Airport for Santiago, Chile, on a LATAM flight that departed at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night. After two additional Silversea charter flights on subsequent days, multiple transfers and two separate, one-night hotel stays in both Santiago and Punta Arenas, Chile, we finally arrived on Silver Endeavour, positioned near King George Island, South Shetland Islands.

The arrival time at the ship? It was 10:30 p.m. the following Monday. For us, that totaled a 73-hour, door-to-door journey. Even for frequent travelers accustomed to multiple flights, it’s a bit of a schlepp getting to the world’s most southern continent. 

That said, one plus for many travelers taking the "Antarctica Bridge" journey is no Drake Passage transit. Given the confluence of three oceans, the sheer volume of water in that water passage often creates rough seas. Silversea's Silver Cloud does sail from Puerto Williams, Chile, to Antarctica, so, that's an option for guests who desire to say they've "done the Drake Passage." For some travelers, it's considered a bucket-list experience. 

In our case, no. So, we set off on Silversea's “air-all-the-way” "Antarctica Bridge" option to catch up with Silver Endeavour. 

Arrival in Santiago

Upon arrival in Santiago, Silversea’s ground representative, DMC Chile, greeted us outside the airport's baggage claim. Transfers, charter flights, most meals and hotel stays from this point forward are included within a guest's "Antarctica Bridge" cruise fare. The line and ground operator also adeptly handle all mechanics of the trip transit from here on out.

The airport is about 10 miles northwest of downtown Santiago. Guests are whisked by private car on a 35-minute drive from the airport to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Santiago. Once there, as baggage is handled by hotel staffers, guests enjoy a welcome drink and visit the lobby's Silversea hospitality desk. Here they receive an informational welcome packet; a letter briefly explains some details about both that day's and next day's activities, including transfers, baggage collection for the upcoming charter flight, pre-embarkation testing requirements, weather and more.  

For our December 19 voyage, the hospitality desk staff also checked our COVID-19 vaccination cards/documents. Plus, parents of any children ages three to 11 needed to present a negative COVID-19 test (antigen or PCR) for those kids. TipL Check Silversea's and Chilean requirements for any subsequent voyage, as those requirements may change.

After this initial process, guests then head to a different meeting room on a higher hotel floor for the actual “hotel check in." We provided our credit card for any incidentals and, when the room was ready, we received our room key. Rooms are expected to be ready after 3 p.m., so guests can wait in that hotel check-in room at several tables or in other areas of the hotel. Or, they can head out for sightseeing or shopping while waiting. 

That's doable, but clients must know that there are two “mandatory” Antarctica Bridge tasks that must be completed on the Santiago arrival day. Here's more on that. 

Two Mandatory Tasks

Given strict Antarctica bio-security requirements, one mandatory task is for guests to take any clothing or a camera cases—anything to be worn or used ashore in Antarctica—to a dedicated hotel meeting room for “vacuuming.” During our time at the hotel, the room was open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Traveler’s Tip? The key for deciding what to take for vacuuming is "exterior use" ashore. We made the mistake of taking slacks and shirts that we planned to wear ashore, but staff explained that anything worn “under” a parka or waterproof pants doesn't require vacuuming. 

The cleaning removes any trace of outside elements (soil, dust, microbes, algae and so on) that authorities want to prevent from being introduced into the sensitive Antarctica ecosystem. One good resource to read before an Antarctic trip is the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators’ (IAATO) “Don’t Pack a Pest” fact sheet.

A second mandatory task on arrival day is to attend Silversea’s mandatory early evening “IAATO and Safety Briefing” about the Antarctica journey. During our trip it began at 6 p.m. and lasted about an hour. Attendance was taken. 

IAATO has very specific requirements for travelers. For example, we were told to stay 15 feet away from wildlife, to move out of the way to let penguins or seals pass, not to touch or feed wildlife, not to throw anything in the ocean, and not to collect rocks or anything else ashore, among many other requirements.

In addition, only 100 people are permitted ashore in one bay, harbor or landing area of Antarctica at any one time, per regulations. The goal is to not disturb wildlife and lessen impact on the environment. Interestingly, we later learned from the expedition leader that cruise lines must go onto the member section of the IAATO site in advance and "reserve" a particular landing site or island, bay, harbor. That way, two ships are not arriving at the same time. 

Pre-Cruise: Mandarin Oriental Santiago

Mandarin Oriental, Santiago
This is the lovely tropical pool and sundeck area of the Mandarin Oriental Santiago.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

The luxurious Mandarin Oriental, Santiago was a lovely property for a pre-cruise stay. Accommodations were spacious and well-appointed. Large windows afforded views of the tree-lined avenue outside. Our room's bedroom area and bathroom were at the level of the entry door, while the living room was a few steps down. The hotel's Wi-Fi was complimentary and worked well during our stay. 

We particularly liked the hotel’s tropical pool and deck area, quite a pretty setting. We wish we'd have brought a swimsuit for an afternoon dip, as the weather in Santiago is warm during summer time (wintertime in North America). In the evening, we watched from the hotel's lobby-level cafe as a large wedding unfolded on the pool deck.

Guests are "on their own" this first night for dinner, although breakfast the following morning is included. So, we enjoyed a savory salmon dinner at the lobby cafe. We also learned firsthand how favorable the Chilean exchange rate is for American travelers. Our luscious dinner with wine, including tax and tip, totaled $33—a real bargain.

Before retiring for the night (prior to midnight), cruisers must put their checked bag outside their hotel room. These bags are then collected by Silversea’s ground operator, transported directly to Santiago's airport and placed onto the next morning’s charter aircraft flight to Punta Arenas, about 1,363 miles to the south in Chile. We didn’t see our bag again until we arrived at the Punta Arenas hotel. Tip: Don't pack any essential clothes or shoes, documents, a passport or any medications in the checked bag.

On the morning of departure from Santiago, guests check out of the hotel, gather in the lobby and are assigned a motorcoach time for their airport transfer. Several coaches are used as to not fill to capacity, a nice touch. People can spread out. 

During the coach ride to the airport, a Silversea ground operator representative will hand each guest their charter flight boarding pass for LATAM. It displays their seat assignment, which is automatically assigned based on their cruise suite category. So, there's no need to check in at the airport. 

Charter Flight to Punta Arenas

Only one checked bag is permitted per guest on the "Antarctica Bridge" chartered flights. The maximum checked bag weight is 50 pounds. Each guest may also bring one carry-on bag of up to 17 pounds. A purse or laptop bag is permitted, too. 

Good to know: Where possible on the charter flights, Silversea specifically does not book the middle seat between two passengers who are seated in an aisle or window seat. Again, luxury guests have a bit more room to spread out. 

On the flight, guests receive a menu and are then served lunch and beverages (including wine and pisco sours, for example). 

Approximately three hours later, the charter flight arrives in Punta Arenas, which has a smaller airport than Santiago's. It's easy to transit. Near the terminal exit, guests will stop at the Silversea hospitality desk, pick up a packet with details about the day's and next day's activities and requirements, along with their hotel key.

Motorcoaches outside will transfer guests to their individual hotels, with Silversea's ground reps assisting guests onto the right coach.This destination has more limited accommodations choices, so Silversea uses the "best available." "Antarctica Bridge" guests are typically booked into one hotel on the outbound journey and a different one on the return trip. Each has a Silversea hospitality desk. 

We stayed at Cabo de Hornos on the trip southward and Dreams del Estecho on the return trip, for example. The Dreams property was modern and had a casino. Personally, we loved Cabo de Hornos, which wasn't ultra-luxury but it was upscale. We found it clean, comfortable and with appealing decor and a nice ground level lobby, restaurant and bar. Accommodations were clean and comfortable for a one-night stay. 

Important for clients to know: Guests who “missed” the mandatory briefing or bio-security “vacuuming” session and IAATO/Silversea briefing in Santiago are given one last chance to complete both these tasks at the Punta Arenas hotel. Otherwise, they're not permitted to fly out the next day to Antarctica. 

For dinner and breakfast, included within the cruise fare, we dined at reserved tables within the restaurant at Cabo de Hornos. We were able to order select items from the regular menu. We had a choice between two appetizers/salad, two entrees and several desserts. The food (in our case, the fresh salmon) was quite good.

During our return stay at Dreams del Estecho, meals were served as a buffet in a meeting room or in the lobby level cafe for breakfast.

Parka, Pants and Boots

Since Antarctica is an expedition vacation, about a month prior to departure, Silversea guests are asked to provide sizes for ordering a line-provided parka and pants (which guests on "Antarctica Bridge" expeditions can keep and take home) as well as loaner waterproof boots.

When we opened the door to our hotel room in Punta Arenas, presto, the parka, pants and boots were waiting on the bed. So was an attractive backpack, which many of us used going forward as our carry-on bag.  

Tell clients to save the cloth bags that the pants and boots are in, as they’ll need to use them later (leaving the loaned boots in the blue bag during the return charter flight, and the pants in the red bag if they wish to donate them after the cruise is finished).

What if the clothing and boots don’t fit? Silversea's ground staff at the the Cabo de Hornos hospitality desk in the hotel lobby assisted many guests on our voyage. Some guests were able to exchange items for different sizes. Our boots were too small, in fact, so they ordered another pair and we received them a few hours later. 

For the next 10 days, our hooded, bright red parka kept us warm and comfortable throughout our time ashore or on a Zodiac adventure in Antarctica. One thing we liked? The parka had a circular cord hooked to a red plastic cell phone sleeve. This waterproof sleeve kept cell phones safe (no dropping them accidentally ashore or in the sea, while angling for a wildlife photo as the cord looped over one's head). A clear plastic panel within the sleeve allowed for camera shots while the phone remained safely cocooned.  

Chartered Antarctic Air Flight

After the one-night overnight stay in Punta Arenas, Silversea guests on "Antarctica Bridge" sailings will board an Antarctic Air chartered flight from Punta Arenas to King George Island, South Shetland Islands. Three BAE-146 aircraft operate this service. The workhorse plane with four engines can land on a small gravel runway. 

Our best advice? Travelers readying for this last charter flight to Prince George Island need to "go with the flow." The aircraft’s take-off time depends solely on Mother Nature. Antarctic air regulations require that the pilot must visually see the runway to land there.

No instrument landings are allowed.So, weather delayed our trip southward until late in the day.

(By way of background, Antarctic Air has been flying for more than 45 years to Antarctica. Pilots flying this route also are experienced at handling local wind and weather conditions.)

Boarding the aircraft, guests are permitted to bring one carry-on bag plus their purse/briefcase, parka, waterproof pants and boots. Luggage has been already handled, having been picked up the night before at the hotel. Just prior to landing, guests don their parka, pants (which go over their regular pants) and boots. Personal shoes are placed in guest backbacks or carry-on bags.  

Arrival on King George Island

Antarctic Air's BAE-146 is shown on Prince George Island, South Shetland Islands

Arriving in the South Shetlands Islands, we felt we'd finally arrived at the promised land! As we disembarked the aircraft on King George Island, small shuttle coaches were waiting. They transported us about a mile along a gravel road to a beach area where Zodiacs were waiting to take us to Silver Endeavour.

Guests making the brief shuttle ride will transit an area with a Russian research/military base on one side, and a similar Chilean base on the other side. Rocky hillsides and snow patches are visible. We didn't see any people. That said, we spotted a small Russian church atop one hill.

At the beach, Silversea guests don life jackets, are assisted by the expedition team in walking atop pebbles in shallow water and swinging their legs into the Zodiacs. Then, the Antarctic adventure begins as the Zodiacs head for the ship, viewable from the beach.  

And by the way, one lone penguin showed up to greet our party on the beach. It was a signal of what was to come! 

Traveling to Antarctica

As this was only the second "Antarctica Bridge" revenue departure for Silver Endeavour, we felt that it helpful to lay out the "getting there" details. One Silversea ground staffer leading the first briefing in Santiago told the group: "We know it's a lot for you to absorb." 

Our best advice is for travelers to just relax, ask a lot of questions and take things one day at a time. Be ready for multiple days of travel. Be ready for structure and mandatory requirements. Simply put, it is a process to get to the end of the Earth.

The return from Antarctica is similar in terms of the charter flights and one night’s hotel stay in Punta Arenas, but not necessarily a stay in Santiago, as that depends on each guest's air arrangements. In our case, we traveled back to Miami on a late night flight, so we didn't stay overnight in Santiago on the return.

Look soon for Part 2 of this series focused on Silver Endeavour. We'll review the 10-day onboard experience—everything from cuisine to service, expedition briefings to entertainment and other aspects of the seagoing experience. We’ll also detail what’s different on Silver Endeavour since the nearly new ship's former life sailing as Crystal Endeavor. Our final installment in the series will be the Antarctica experience itself—what’s to see, do, experience, and how time ashore unfolds.

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