I did a lot of research before I finally settled on the M/V Polar Star, built in Finland to serve in the Swedish Maritime Administration’s fleet of icebreakers. Polar Star Expeditions purchased the ship in 2000, and retrofitted it as an expedition cruise ship.
Research indicated there were primarily three different classes of ships that make the Antarctica trip; 1.) research vessels that hold around 50 people, but are typically more expensive with fewer creature comforts, 2.) ice breakers, also known as “adventure ships” which typically carry around 100 people, and 3.) larger, more luxurious expedition ships, some so large they don’t even make landfall! I knew I wanted to stay as far away from the casinos and black tie event-type cruises as I possibly could.
My priority was to find an “expedition” ship that was small enough to offer an intimate atmosphere and be able to get to the more remote destinations, yet large enough to handle the infamous two day Drake Passage crossing, oftentimes referred to as “the Drake Shake.” The M/V Polar Star seemed to meet all this criteria. With a maximum of 100 passengers and ten 12-person zodiacs, or rubber landing craft on board, I knew this would more likely guarantee me of getting to make every possible landing without a long queue.
Also high on the priority list was finding a ship that offered the polar circle crossing as part of the itinerary. Even though there are no guarantees when trying to make the journey this far south into what can be heavy pack ice, I figured I might not make it to this part of the world again, so I should go for the most gusto I could afford during this one chance opportunity.
The only way I could afford this trip was to share a cabin, so having a public space where I could “retreat” was important to me, should the roommate situation turn out to be unpleasant. The M/V Polar Star had a cozy little library, an observation lounge with panoramic windows with a bar and a 24 hour tea station, and even a “mini-gym” with a treadmill and bike on board.
The other draw was the Polar Star’s 24 hour “open bridge” policy. The Bridge is the top deck with a 360 degree view where the Captain and ship’s officers command the ship. All the sailors hung out there looking over the First Officer´s shoulder with all the fancy radar and GPS gadgets overhead, watching as he plotted our course the old fashioned way, with spreaders and a mechanical pencil.
I was very pleased with the little Polar Star. The Expedition Staff was fun, interesting, and professional, and during the days at sea, they gave four lectures a day on fascinating subjects like global climate change, living and working at research stations, historical expeditions like Scott and Shackleton, and the complete life cycles and mating rituals of every single wildlife species we would expect to see in Antarctica.
I was warned that while more than adequate, the food on the Polar Star was not exactly recognized as outstanding haute cuisine, however I found it surprisingly good — MUCH better than the Holland America ship I had just taken to Alaska six months prior. There were three great meals a day, along with a cookie or pastry break, hot out of the oven, every afternoon at tea time. I appreciated that the size of the meals was adequate without a lot of wasteful “midnight buffets,” or continuous trough-style feedings typically associated with cruise ships. Happy Hour in the ships bar included a reduced price on their “Drink of the Day,” which was rarely over $2.50 a drink. I heard not a single complaint from the passengers for the entire 11 days regarding the food service.
I also loved their slogan, “In the spirit of adventure, we renew ourselves.”