We inched our morning a bit earlier with the expectation of finally being able to check-in for our journey to Punta Arenas with Hurtigruten, and hopefully get some more details about our trip. It was the butt crack of dawn, 9:30AM on Thursday, February 3.
Note: the night before we had realized that we didn’t have great directions on what was happening as the trip grew closer and approaching Punta Areas with Hurtigruten was imminent. We tried emailing Hurtigruten Wednesday morning, but received no response, so we ended up calling them Wednesday night prior to grabbing dinner. After 20 minutes on hold, we got an absolute rotten peach of a person by the name of Anne. She was abrasive and rude, essentially saying that we had already been sent information, and that we should have everything we needed, talking over us, interrupting, and when we asked for details of the information sent, she didn’t even know them. It was some of the worst customer service we have received, even during the dearth of customer services in Covid times, but thankfully we can say that she was the exception when working with Hurtigruten. If most of Hurtigruten is a scrumptious meal of popcorn, Anne is the irritating kernel that gets stuck in your gums. Go pound sand Anne! The one thing we did painfully glean from her was that there should be a Hurtigruten desk at the hotel the next day. We then stopped by the front desk on our way to dinner, and the receptionist was MUCH more helpful and confirmed where and what time Hurtigruten would be available and even confirmed we’d have dinner provided the next night and took our orders for that dinner. We provided the details of meal and beverage selection four times over the next 24 hours – apparently nobody could write anything down.)
We went to the Hurtigruten room in the lobby and immediately saw a board with the bus we were assigned to, and were quickly routed to conduct our PCR test for the trip to the ship. (Quick note: Hurtigruten told us that if our PCR test was negative we wouldn’t hear anything, but if it was positive, we’d be notified, we assumed through a call to our hotel room. This was awful from a psychological standpoint as we were left wondering all day the status, and every little call to our room, and there were a lot around the coordination of our dinner, set us on edge). Thankfully, all the testing went smoothly, and we were then given a packet that essentially had all of the details that we had been looking for the night before. Not sure why those couldn’t have been shared before, but Hurtigruten did tend to operate with a “just in time” methodology to their info that was frustrating to people like us who like to plan and be aware ahead of time, especially with CJ trying to work that week. We have previously found that just going with the flow and trusting the tour company often leads to bad things when traveling. However, that is how Hurtigruten did it, and once we were on the ship that made more sense given the ever changing weather and conditions of the Antarctic.
While checking-in to the journey to Punta Arenas with Hurtigruten and the cruise made everything real, we did chance the breakfast buffet at the hotel again that morning, but instead took our meal back up to our room to be a bit more careful. They encouraged the passengers to only eat in the room or the Hurtigruten designated conference room that provided light snacks.
I had originally planned to hike all over Cerro San Cristobal on this day, and leave CJ to work for the day, but given the reality of the cruise and the ever lingering specter of Covid and it’s risk weighing on my shoulders, I ultimately decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and decided to skip it. The hiking, gondola, and trying some mote con huesillo would have to wait ‘til another time sadly.
I spent the day streaming and reading while CJ worked through a stressful last day of work, with a lot of things blowing up or remaining unexpectedly unresolved. Last days before vacations are always tough, but CJ had some especially challenging items to close out.
As the evening came I busied myself ensuring everything was ready to go for the trip, bringing in our dinner when it was delivered to our rooms, and putting our big suitcases out for porters by 8pm that night. Our bus was thankfully the last bus to leave the next morning, but still was departing at 5:40AM, which meant a 4:45AM wake-up call for us.
We did our best to get to sleep, but it was a restless night.
We woke up extremely early at 4:45AM of February 4th after a mostly sleepless night. We wanted to conduct our own antigen testing prior to leaving, so we felt secure in our ability to get on the ship. Worst case scenario we figured was to get all the way to Punta Arenas and not be able to board the ship. We used our recently delivered Federal antigen tests, and both were negative, as we had expected/hoped. We stressed a little about using 2 of our 3 remaining Covid tests for this purpose, since we were not sure if the ship would be able to provide a test for us to re-enter the US and we would have to arrange a virtual option.
CJ went down to check out, and I did one last once over of the room ensuring we had everything.
We promptly boarded the number 5 coach at the prescribed 5:40AM time, and were on our way to the airport and onward to Punta Arenas with Hurtigruten. It was great to see everyone taking the mask policy seriously, and this is something that continued throughout the trip, everyone was conscientious of the policy and did not flaunt the rules or need to be reminded, like we’d typically seen in the US. Similar to us, everyone paid a lot for this trip and had waited so long that small inconveniences were not going to be indulged.
Upon arrival to the airport, they directed us to the proper check in for our chartered flight that was efficient. We went through a relatively quick security queue, and got to our gate only to learn that the gate had changed and we needed to head to another one.
The flight left more or less on time, and was a good flight, the only slightly strange bit being that CJ and I sat across the row from each other, and right next to other passengers. We had a light lunch on the flight, and primarily read, fell asleep, tried to read again, and promptly fell asleep again, but all in all it was a great way to spend the flight, and the roughly 3 hours and 15 minutes passed quickly. Mid-flight there was a passenger scramble to locate the ship entry forms required by Hurtigruten, with some temperature checks happening as well by the Hurtigruten contracted tour agency. Some passengers stupidly kept their forms in the overhead compartments so everyone was in the aisle all at once getting stuff and dropping stuff everywhere. The people next to CJ couldn’t seem to realize that CJ needed to get out of the seat for them to get back in, and did a bit of a dance until they realized they each needed to be on one side for them to effectively get back in to the middle and window seat.
Our exit from the aircraft in Punta Arenas with Hurtigruten was quick, we found our bags easily, and while most people timidly waited for directions in the airport, we headed out and quickly found more people with Hurtigruten signs, and were the first out and to board our new number 5 coach. We did a quick drive through Punta Arenas to the port, and had a great guide telling us a bit about the area. She touched on sheep and wool being a critical industry to the area, and said that had recently been replaced by Llamas and Alpacas. Oil was also a big industry, but they kept and used all of their oil, because it was too hard to export to other parts of the country. You cannot actually drive from Santiago to Punta Arenas straight through Chile. Chile ends at certain points with the Andes becoming islands, and no roads to this southern tip, the only way to drive is through Argentina. Our guide also stressed the impact that climate change is having on the region, drying things out, and mentioning that they now get much less snow in the winter, along with creeping desertification happening in Santiago as the Atacama desert creeps ever southward (as we had seen on our flight from Houston to Santiago). For such a quick zip around the town, she did a great job giving us a slice of the local flavor.
We stopped at a big warehouse on the dock in Punta Arena with Hurtigruten, ran our bags through scanners, and then used our passports to obtain labels for our Covid antigen tests.
This was the moment of truth, would our trip happen, or be thwarted before it even had a chance to begin? In an interesting twist, the test was a spit test, which was the first that Chandra and I had done. We must say, the spit tests are much easier than the nasal swabs. A loogie or two, and you’ve pretty much what you need. We delivered our samples and migrated to another room to wait on pins and needles. Thankfully it was quick, only about 10 minutes, and we were in the first group to get the welcome news that we were cleared and good to board the ship! Hallelujah! Lot’s of stress immediately sloughed off our shoulders, we had done it, and celebrated with a well earned high five! We immediately went to a new desk to hand over our passports for safekeeping by the ship, and received our badges on a nice lanyard, which would serve as our entrance to the ship and our room along with entrance into the restaurant as we’d later find.
Being the first bus to arrive in at the dock in Punta Arenas with Hurtigruten, we boarded the MS Fram around 2:20PM and were some of the first passengers on the ship, which was a great experience. We quickly deposited our bags in our surprisingly spacious cabin, number 504, with a much better view than we had anticipated, and then went roaming around the ship to get a lay of the land.
. Way larger than our tiny hotel room in Zurich a few months prior.
Our cabin not only came with a number, but a name as well, Martin Ronne. As we found in our room, Ronne was a sail maker on 4 of Roald Amundsen’s voyages, and in addition to sails, he made pretty much anything else that needed sewing, including the tent that was left at the south pole, which along with a letter, provided the proof to Robert Scott that he had been beaten to the pole by 33 days. CJ enjoyed that he was called the “busiest man on the ship” and felt he was a kindred spirit.
It was a small ship with only 7 decks, and we quickly got our bearings. We then returned to our cabin, and started to unpack. Might as well get comfortable for 21 days at sea.
Unpacked and feeling good, we went up to the Explorer Lounge on deck 7, which had the best views, and received some complimentary champagne and finger sandwiches, which hit the spot as we had started to feel a bit peckish. Later in the voyage we came to realize that the Explorer Lounge was clearly the best place for cheesy schmaltzy love songs south of the Mississippi, and as much as we hated it, we also caught ourselves humming many of them hours later around the ship. Darn you Explorer Lounge, ultimately getting the best of us!
Later in the afternoon we had the ubiquitous first day muster station drill on what to do in an emergency. However, this one was the least painful that I have ever experienced. It was primarily a 30 minute lecture on what to do with demonstrations of the gear, and then a quick walk to ensure you understood where your station was. I have endured much longer and much less comfortable drills on every other ship I have been on. I think one of the primary reasons this was easier is that because of the arctic conditions, there weren’t simply life vests, but actually whole dry suits to don, and they weren’t going to make us go through all of that just for a drill. So memo to me, maybe only take cruises in arctic conditions?
As the voyage went along we discovered that the biggest contingent of guests were from Britain, but there were Germans as well, a handful of Canadians, and a gaggle of French (that is what we call a group of French people, right!?). All announcements on the ship were in English first, then German, and then a separate announcer would do it in French. The French often stayed more insular within themselves, which was ironic though, because most of them did in fact speak English. Overall it was a fun mix though, we loved hearing the various accents, continually getting mistaken for Canadians (because of course Americans don’t travel on adventures like this, we supposed was their thinking), and had a friendly laugh hearing all the Brits continuously end their comments as questions, as they are wont to do.
We shoved off from Punta Arenas at 7PM that night on our way to the great white continent.
We found that our meal sittings were the later time of the two, and this agreed with us perfectly since we usually eat later at home as well. Our dinner was at 8PM. We lined up and found that Hurtigruten had everyone wash their hands and take a temperature check prior to entering the dining room. The temperature checks were obviously due to Covid, but we really appreciated the step to make people wash their hands, very hygienic, and sometimes building it into the process is the only way to ensure compliance.
You did have to take off your mask to do the temperature check so it could verify your identity via facial recognition, which we found silly in that this was a great way to expose each other to Covid in a small space. The best part was, most of the time, one or both of the machines were broken, and/or the temperatures showed a fever and you had to retest until you tested normal. We knew there was a better way – for example, the hotel had a similar temperate check system that did not require one to take off one’s mask.
For dinner, CJ had a plant based starter, and then a kind of deconstructed nachos or Mexican risotto, it was very tasty! I started with a pork belly appetizer, and then proceeded to a haddock main dish. We both finished our meals off with a cheesecake (a much lighter version than what we typically get in the US) and some vanilla ice cream.
A quick peek outside for a beautiful first sunset on the ship, and we nestled into our cabin for a wonderful night’s sleep, and departed Punta Arenas with Hurtigruten.