Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Ultramarine opening photo courtesy of Quark Expeditions
The time has come...
The Walrus said
To talk of many things:
Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax --
Of cabbages -- and kings --
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings
The Walrus and the Carpenter
a narrative poem by Lewis Carroll
Through the Looking-Glass (1871)
Yes… keeping a respectful distance I spoke with a sea lion (same zoological group as the walrus) during our recent Antarctica trip on board Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine, an expedition vessel plying the waters of the Beagle Channel and the Drake Passage at the tip of Argentinean Patagonia, the Tierra del Fuego, Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula.
We made small talk as he laid on a rocky little promontory covered with ice and snow, among the females of his harem!
And no, the sea was not “boiling hot” it was actually frozen with ice floating around our vessel and the Zodiacs that ferried us around. But then, again, the sea lion had so much blubber enrobing him that to him, I’m sure, the sea was warm!
One of the items in my bucket list has been a visit to Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica.
When I was a teenager, I had read Jules Verne’s “Le Phare du bout du monde" i.e. The Lighthouse at the End of the World and that book became the basis for my desire to visit the southernmost tip of South America and the frozen Seventh Continent. So when Quark Expeditions invited us to embark on a trip on their newest “Ultramarine” a luxurious expedition vessel that usually sails the Antarctic or the Arctic, both Barbara and I jumped at the opportunity.
Unfortunately COVID happened, so the sailing was postponed a number of times until the opportunity to board the ship resurfaced this past October.
We flew to Buenos Aires for an overnight stay at the Alvear Art Hotel in Buenos Aires, an urban luxury property in the financial and cultural center of the city. From Buenos Aires we flew on a charter to Ushuaia (see story in current issue) a town at the Southernmost tip of Argentina which is the port from which the Ultramarine, starts and ends its peregrinations.
The Ultramarine is a luxury ship purposefully built for voyages on frozen seas.
It’s exceptionally good stabilizers kept the vessel almost in balance, even while there were gales at up to 70 miles per hour and the notoriously rough seas at the Drake Passage and Cape Horn were producing 6 to 10 foot waves. For a few days the ship was rocking to the point that the passenger elevators had to be turned off and we had to climb numerous stairs to get to the dining room and the theater on the 5th floor or the Panorama lounge on the 7th floor, from our spacious stateroom on the 3rd level.
Once we arrived to a destination point, the 2 helicopters onboard the Ultramarine were launched for flights to visit the glaciers that were the subject of our explorations and the platforms in the back, which are the Zodiac’s launching points, were lowered so that the Zodiacs, kayaks and stand-up-paddling-canoes could carry intrepid travelers to locations they could visit famous landmarks or view the Arctic fauna such as penguin colonies, seal and sea lion colonies. It was too early in the season for humpback whales but a night-owl passenger saw and recorded a pair of minke whales frolicking at 4 a.m. And there was plenty of light at that hour, as our journey took place in what passes for late-Spring in Antarctica under what we know as the midnight sun.
I would like to give kudos to the crew and the 34 expedition guides. They were all patient, very informative, always friendly and extremely professional. The daily lectures given by this impressive group headed by Shane Evoy the Expedition Leader, were all by highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic chronicler’s of the area.
We spoke and shared the restaurant’s tables and lounge areas with many other passengers and all, without exception, were very interesting, many highly experienced cruising travelers.
The only fly in the ointment was the kitchen. Many of the dishes were definitely not up to snuff!
This has not been our first rodeo! We started cruising on the QE II, then enjoyed numerous Mediterranean and Caribbean cruises and very recently a number of Viking river and Western Mediterranean cruises. The kitchens in all these ships were mostly exceptional.
The Greek cruise lines had legendary midnight buffets, the QE II was well known to gastronomes for flaming dishes and the Viking ships and Uniworld had chefs that knew what outstanding shipboard meals should be.
On the Ultramarine, the ingredient quality was there, but the preparation left a lot to be desired. The pâtissier was exceptional and the soup-maker was very, very good, but many of the dishes were not really up to the execution level we expected. They did not seem to know for example that fish should not be completely cooked and then kept in a steam table otherwise it would become overcooked and dried up while waiting to be served; and who ever heard of beef parmigiano with a tasteless brown sauce on top? Many of the main courses were quite underseasoned. I think an Executive chef is desperately needed to revamp the recipes and supervise the execution or create an entire new menu.
Another little problem was at the bar. There was a list of cocktails that the bar was supposed to be able to make. I ordered three on separate occasions. The bar did not have the proper ingredients on hand, nor did the barman know how to properly make any of the three. I had to instruct him on how to make a proper Bellini and a proper Pisco Sour! In all fairness, most people ordered wine or simple shots so either remove the cocktail list or have the necessary ingredients on hand and teach the barmen how to use them.
Yes, when it comes to food and beverages, I’m picky. I know good food and wines and expect a luxury ship’s kitchen and cellar to be up to a very good level. Perhaps not at the level of a Michelin-stared restaurant but reasonably high end.
But I loved the espresso, cappuccino and hot chocolate the coffee-maker machine made at the Panorama lounge. And, of course, the little pastries and cookies that were always available by the machine, just in case anyone got hungry during the day or night or someone with a sweet tooth had sugar-withdrawal symptoms.
All things considered, this was still a spectacular cruise defiantly living up and exceeding expectations. Kudos to Quark and kudos to the exceptional crew of the Ultramarine.
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