Dispatch: Voyage to the Bottom of the World -- A diverse niche

Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell departed for Santiago, Chile, Jan. 3 to begin a two-week adventure to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands, sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent. Hell be transmitting on-site reports to Travel Weeklys New Jersey headquarters on a daily basis (weather and Internet access permitting).

Our fourth and final day in Antarctica came too quickly, and I found myself wishing wed spent more time here and less in the Falklands. Others echoed the sentiment, and Abercrombie & Kent does offer such an itinerary.

I heard remarkably few complaints, considering the Explorer was carrying more than 200 passengers. About half were guests of A&K, most of the others were brought on by Australia-based Connoisseurs Travel. All Seasons Travel of Birmingham, Ala., brought a group of 30. All together, it was remarkably diverse for such a narrow niche market.

The niche is narrow, primarily, because of the remoteness and inaccessibility of the destination -- and because the price starts at $7,635 per person, double occupancy, for a standard cabin and runs to nearly $25,000 for the top suites when booking A&Ks program.

But despite those constraints, the group was widely varied, originating in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the U.K. Mostly they were 60 or older, but every age group was represented, from pre-teens on up.

Many were retired or semi-retired from traditional careers, such as lawyers, doctors, developers, insurance brokers, corporate CEOs and business owners. Others had followed more unusual callings: a human rights activist, a retired CIA agent, an international consultant on terrorism and a painter.

Political and cultural variations were also wide. Staff members told me that Antarctic travelers of a decade ago were people who had dreamed of Antarctica since their youth. But in recent years the increased accessibility has made it a choice of many more casual travel consumers and continent collectors.

With Antarcticas history of international cooperation in scientific research, and as a result of the continents significant vulnerability to global warming, Antarctic travelers tend to be environmentally sensitive. But there were exceptions, as typified by a guest who said, I dont care about global warming. In 40 or 50 years Ill be dead anyway.

One guest publicly upbraided one of the naturalists during a presentation because he had inadvertently muttered the words Jesus Christ in frustration after the PowerPoint system failed several times in a row.

Others had different concerns. A doctor disapproved of charging $80 for a visit to the ships doctor, while providing drinks free. If they give drinks away it just encourages people to drink more, he said. But if anyone is ill, its important to every one of the guests that he be treated. This is a closed environment and contagiousness is very dangerous.

Some said they would have liked more opportunities for active pursuits on the land. One said he would have preferred hiking rather than visits to the research stations of the U.S. and Argentina, which he saw as political showcases.

But the group bonded in its nearly unanimous appreciation of the glory of the destination itself, the intricacy of the planning that made the expedition so painless, the quality of the service staff and naturalist guides and lecturers and the consistent excellence of the food.

We closed out our visit to Antarctica on Friday the 13th with a last Zodiac cruise around Torgerson Island; an on-deck barbecue under thick falling snow; and a visit to the U.S. Palmer Station, which allowed such a large group because one of its veteran scientists, Jim McClintock, was a guest lecturer.

The visit to Antarctica was over. Ahead lay one last encounter with the Drake Passage.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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