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Gorm

Explorer II: Falklands, South Georgia, South Shetlands & Antarctic Peninsula

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We were not able to find a review of Explorer II on the Boards, notwithstanding that it is one of the principal ships touring the Antarctic region during the Southern Hemisphere summer. Since we have always valued the opinions we find on the Boards, we hope this posting will be of some use to those contemplating a cruise to the Antarctic.

 

We have just completed a 15-day cruise from Ushuaia to the Falklands, South Georgia, South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula aboard Explorer II. The ship (which is re-named Alexander von Humboldt during the Northern summer, when she caters to the German/European cruise market) was built in 1989 in Ukraine as a Soviet spy ship. She was extensively re-built in 1996 by Marrioti in Genoa, Italy (the same shipyard that built the Silversea ships, among others). She then sailed as Minerva II for Swan Hellenic for a number of years, before her present owners, Atholl of Monaco, purchased her for expedition cruising. She is managed by V. Ships, which operates many other cruise ships. Explorer II is 12,000 tonnes (gross), 135 metres long and 20 metres breadth. She usually travels at about 14-16 knots when cruising between stops.

 

The ship has accommodation for over 400 passengers, but she carries a maximum 199 in the Antarctic, to comply with International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) regulations that permit her to land passengers at all sites, except those designated as off-limits to tourists for scientific or environmental reasons. We were looked after by a multinational crew of 195. The very congenial and informative Captain, John Moulds, is British; the equally personable Staff Captain, Giovanni Viasutti, is from Italy; and most of the other officers are from Eastern Europe. The majority of the service staff are Filipino (and excellent), with European bar staff (some quite grumpy).

 

We boarded in Ushuaia, then sailed down the beautiful Beagle Channel through open waters for a day, before reaching the capital of the Falkland Islands, Stanley. This is a small (pop'n 2,500) town, mainly serving British military personnel, fishing fleets and tourism. Most interesting for us was our visit to a 23,000 acre sheep farm. We come from Sydney, Australia and often visit friends with large sheep properties, so it was fascinating to compare Australian and Falklands standards and practices! The Falklands have a bleak beauty, like the Highlands of Scotland and the inhabitants are intensely proud of their independence and British heritage. The war with Argentina is a very recent memory and comes up frequently in conversation. The effects of the conflict (e.g. landmines) are still quite visible. Other passengers had the choice of visiting penguin colonies, nature and bird reserves, or strolling the town (which doesn't take very long!) to see the interesting Christ Church Cathedral, next to which is the enormous whale bone arch, made of the jaw bones from two blue whales. We hoped to find a lovely woollen sweater or two, but they were not as comfortable as we hoped and the patterns were somewhat restricted to local geometric designs.

 

The next stop, South Georgia, came after a further two days on the Scotia Sea. This is paradise for those anxious to see Antarctic wildlife (e.g. penguins, elephant and fur seals and many sea birds such as the wandering albatross; storm petrels and the ever-present and attractive cape petrels), spectacular scenery and whaling history. We made five landings in Zodiacs, including one at Salisbury Plain to see the huge King Penguin colony that stretches up into the hills from the beachfront. We also landed at Elsehul, Gold Harbour (another highlight), Stromness and Grytviken (our other favourite "port" with Shackleton's burial site and the justifiably famous Whaling Museum). We were very fortunate with good weather allowing all planned landings to take place and for us to take some amazing photos. We were told that such good fortune is uncommon in South Georgia, whose weather is readily changeable. As we had chosen this cruise specifically because it included South Georgia, we were delighted with the outcome.

 

After a further two days at sea during which we saw many birds and some whales (during the cruise we saw Sei, Fin, Southern Rights and Humpback whales), as well as beautiful blue-ish icebergs, we made landfall at Half Moon Island in the South Shetland chain. After spending an excellent morning there, we travelled to Deception Island, which is known for its volcanic activity and the traditional "Antarctic swim" in the thermally heated waters alongside the beach. We were told that it can be quite pleasant but for us, given the incoming icy tide diluting the warm waters, it was still darn cold, but fun!

 

The next day we navigated to Neko Harbour, where we took our first steps on the continent of Antarctica. It happened to be 1 January 2006, a very special way to start the New Year. At Neko, we saw a Weddell seal and a colony of gentoo penguins, as well as kelp gulls and skuas. During lunch, we sailed to Paradise Bay and anchored off an abandoned Argentine research station. During a Zodiac tour, we visited the cliffside blue-eyed shag colony and saw colourful green and blue rock formations.

 

We then proceeded through the stunning Lemaire Channel. Even though it was cold and late at night, we stayed awake to watch the ship's progress through the narrow, ice-packed channel, which is seven miles long and only 400 feet wide at its narrowest point. The Explorer II's lack of a forward-facing observation lounge was most acutely felt that evening, as we stood in the freezing wind above the bridge for over two hours, with fog swirling around us, trying to capture the experience on film.

 

By the way, we found our digital camera worked much better and was easier to use under Antarctic conditions than was our film camera. We took four gigabytes of memory and used most of it. We had no battery problems, but make sure you take several spares and a charger. We did not carry a laptop or card reader, but many other passengers did, notwithstanding the problems passing through airports. We were able to view each day's photos by hooking up the video cable from our camera to the TV monitor.

 

On the final day in Antarctica, we stopped first at Petermann Island to see Adelie penguins and then at Port Lockroy, home to a fascinating historic British research station, surrounded by a colony of nesting gentoo penguins with chicks. Port Lockroy is also known for its small gift shop and postal facilities, enabling one to send a postcard from the world's most southern post office at latitude 65 degrees south!

 

The best was yet to come (for those of you worried about seasickness, as we were): the two-day voyage across the notorious Drake Passage back to Ushuaia. Instead of the legendary monster waves and huge storms, our luck held and we were treated to the "Drake Lake", with smooth conditions and only 3-4 metre swells. In fact, for the whole of our trip, the seas were generally calm and the weather, though often cloudy and sometimes snowing, was conducive to extensive tours and walks ashore.

 

Against this background and bearing in mind that the opportunity to closely observe the wildlife and natural beauty of Antarctica was for us a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we have the following comments on the cruise aspects of our trip. We should begin by saying that Explorer II's advertising (at least in Australia) bills her as one of one of the most luxurious small ships in the world. Far from it!

- The ship's interior is quite run-down, with worn furnishings and threadbare carpets in places.

- Cabins are small and utilitarian. We were in a Suite (one of the ship's largest) that measured just 290 square feet and which, in our opinion, was poorly laid out and decorated. The furniture, linens and amenities were not luxurious. The cabin's good features were a very comfortable queen-size bed and the balcony, which we used often for viewing and photography. We had an excellent cabin steward from the Philippines.

- The food, while adequate, was again not up to first class standards, as exhibited by luxury lines such as Silversea and Seabourn. The cuisine was generally heavy and somewhat bland and typical of mass-market cruise line food, notwithstanding the small size of the ship. Non-European dishes were infrequent and generally poor.

- The complimentary wine selection was limited to mostly South American wines, which we found to be of low quality, with some notable exceptions. The complimentary "champagne" was a sweet sparkling white burgundy. (We discovered by accident on the last day that a container with high-quality food and wine had missed the ship in Ushuaia, which may explain our disappointment on this front.) Drinks are complimentary, except for premium wines, champagne and spirits.

- The expedition staff and naturalists were a mixed bunch. While some were excellent, others were overbearing and arrogant, which became irritating, especially when ashore. We had done extensive research about Antarctica and its ecology prior to the trip and were generally disappointed to find that we often knew as much or more than many of the "experts" aboard.

- Communication about landing logistics, procedures and rules within the expedition team and from them to the passengers was often frustratingly confusing. On many occasions, we found that we had to regroup or wait while something was clarified via walkie-talkie with the ship or the expedition leader, Suzana D'Oliveira, who persisted on running a tight programme.

- We felt that the many enrichment lectures (which we had looked forward to) were often "dumbed-down" to accommodate the many passengers who appeared to know little about the trip or what they were likely to see and do. To us, it was one of the most surprising and disappointing features of the trip that so many had come so far and paid so much for an expedition cruise that highlights learning without educating themselves at least somewhat beforehand. We often watched the lectures on the small TV in our cabin.

- The Captain was always available to answer questions and we and several other passengers enjoyed a lot of time with him and his Staff Captain. Both are extremely enthusiastic about Antarctica and its wildlife and went out of their way to steer us to the best observation places.

- Zodiac landings are quite easy and soon became routine. The crew were excellent assisting passengers on and off. However, we found the Zodiacs to be less suitable for sightseeing cruises along the shoreline, given that at any given time half the passengers will have their back to whatever is being pointed out and discussed by the guide. During sightseeing cruises, the smell from the aged outboard motors on the Zodiacs is quite nauseating.

- Explorer II is a no tipping ship - officially. Unofficially, some of the staff spend considerable effort ingratiating themselves for tips by bestowing what they claim are special favours (such as reserving a certain bottle of wine or arranging seats in the dining room) when in fact these are normal courtesies of the ship. The Captain, at the end of the cruise, invites passengers to contribute to the Staff Welfare Fund, which provides well-earned amenities for the crew. We accepted his invitation, as we think most other passengers happily did.

- Clothing aboard ship was very casual, with only a few male passengers wearing coats and ties at dinner; women wore comfortable pantsuits and skirt/sweater combinations. There were no "formal" evenings, as is common on many other cruise ships. For going ashore, three to four layers of lightweight material (e.g. silk, polypropylene, microfibre and fleece) topped off with waterproof pants and the excellent parka provided by the ship is perfectly adequate. Air temperatures were around the freezing point and the wind chill factor was low. The ship also provided comfortable, well-fitting Wellington boots and a useful lightweight backpack. When going ashore you will also be required to wear a small lifejacket over your parka for the Zodiac transfer. We spent a lot of time worrying about clothing but realised that simply following common sense is sufficient. Make sure you take a good warm hat, a neck gaiter (rather than scarf), wraparound sunglasses and two pairs of thin gloves you can wear over each other (particularly if you are an active photographer). There are only two ancient washing machines and driers aboard for passengers' use. We used the laundry service instead, which was excellent and very reasonably priced (e.g. US$2.50/shirt).

 

The bottom line is that an Antarctic expedition (including especially South Georgia) is a wonderful experience. It's not cheap, but if you can take the opportunity to see the animals and natural beauty, you will be well rewarded. However, don't expect too much from the ship itself. This cruise is all about the destination and not luxury aboard.

 

We will try to respond to any queries posted on the Board.

 

Gorm & Geoff

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Thank you so much for writing such a comprehensive review - I've been having trouble while researching Antarctica cruises myself, and really appreciate it. I hope you've added this to the review section of this board for everyone to enjoy.

 

I have one question for you - did you research other ships when you were planning your trip? We had just about narrowed it down to Explorer II, but I noticed that for the same price, Corinthian II has all suites over 235 square feet, even the lowest category. I can't find any reviews on the food or excursions for them though.

 

Amy

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The only other ship we seriously considered was the Hanseatic. However, they only guarantee English-speaking guides if a certain minimum number of non-German passengers book for any given voyage and we were concerned this number might not be reached. We decided early on against any of the older and / or Russian ships. At the end of the day, itinerary is the most important consideration, we believe and would strongly encourage you to include South Georgia on your trip to Antarctica - it is very special.

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Hi Gorm

 

Your review was very interesting particularly because my husband and I cruised Antarctica on board Explorer II in December 2004.

 

(I tried to post a review on cruisecritic but the ship did not appear on their list and I was not able to submit it. I therefore submitted it to: www.cruisereviews.com. Go to Radisson and then ExplorerII).

 

The main difference I found comparing your experience to ours was that we had the most wonderful food. We had been on five prior cruises and were not expecting much when it came to the dining experience, but were pleasantly surprised. Also, we were very happy with the knowledge demonstrated by the expedition staff (save for one member) but perhaps that does have alot to do with how much pre-cruise research you have done. My husband and I have hugely stressful jobs and work long hours and so had no time to do any of our own research.

 

You echo my sentiments exactly when you say that this is a wonderful experience and that it really is more about the destination than the cruise itself. We would love to go back!

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Gorm - I've eliminated the Hanseatic for the same reasons you did. We're also not interested in the Russian ships at all. I've been looking at the Corinthian II mainly because the smallest cabin is 230 square feet, but I can't find out much more about it.

 

Mercury - I believe that when Radisson charters the Explorer II they bring their own chefs and catering aboard. That may explain the differences.

 

I've never had such trouble selecting a cruise line/ship before. I guess I'll just wait until the 2008 itineraries are out and see who's still in the game.

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Mercury - I believe that when Radisson charters the Explorer II they bring their own chefs and catering aboard. That may explain the differences.

( Partial

 

We were on a Radisson charter of Explorer II last month and had a wonderful experience. Radisson did supply one chef, who worked with the regular chef - both were Austrians. They did good!

 

While our cabin was smaller than we usually have, it was quite adequate. Explorer II can hold some 400 passengers, but capacity is limited for Antarctica - there were 167 on our voyage.

 

Explorer II is one of the larger ships that goes to Antarctica and allows landings. Larger is better when the seas get rough in Drake Passage, as they often do. We had relatively smooth seas, except for one night heading back to Ushuaia. Being on a lower deck was an advantage that night.

 

This was our 21st cruise, but first on Radisson, and we were favorably impressed. If you have any questions please ask.

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Having returned from my trip on Explorer II last week, I am happy to report that I did not encounter the same problems that Gorm did. After reading his review, I was concerned as to the condition of the ship. Perhaps it has been refurbished since Gorm traveled.

 

The washer and dryers in the launderette are new. It's a bit confusing learning how to use them properly, and finding them empty is a challenge (only 2 each for 199 passengers), but they work quite well.

 

The food was very good, and the service by most waiters was excellent. I have not sailed on Seabourn or other 'high end' cruiselines, but I have been on Celebrity many times, and it's cuisine is always top rated. It truly amazed me that several waiters learned passenger's names within one day. Explorer II has an open seating policy so you don't get the same waiter each time, but they still learned our names. I think the most amazing one was Lito. If I couldn't remember a passenger's name, I'd go to him and ask. He always knew! The service at the buffet was very good, with waiters finding seats for you and carrying your plates to the table.

 

I was in the least expensive cabin available. That means 140 sq. ft, B deck, aft. Although the size is smaller than I'm used to and I had 2 port holes instead of a balcony, the cabin was actually better than I had expected. At least my friend and I could get dressed without knocking each other over! :D

 

The expedition staff on our cruise was excellent! And I do not think they 'dumbed down' the lectures. Pat, the geologist, talks were over my head, but that could be because geology is not an interest of mine and I have little knowledge of it to begin with. Tim, an Antarctic historian, is an excellent story teller and his 'lectures' were very well attended. He made you truly 'feel' the tales of Shackelton, Scott and Amundsen. Patricia, orinthologist and penguin expert was entertaining as well as informational. It would take too long to list the others, but I can say without hesitation that I don't think we could have done better. Ignacio Rojas, expedition leader, was great!

 

As for clothing, it is casual, but there were 2 'formal' evenings. However, any attire was acceptable and they tell you that in the information that is sent prior to sailing. The only tuxedo I saw was on Jannie, the cruise director. Otherwise the men wore everything from sweatshirts to suits, and the woman from casual slacks and blouses up to cocktail dresses.

 

Captain Moulds could have a second career as a stand up comedian. He was very entertaining and approachable. An open bridge is no longer allowed due to security concerns, but did allow people on the bridge at certain times.

 

As for tipping, it's true that all gratuities are included although you do have the option of tipping extra for extraordinary service. I did do that for the gangway crew who literally had our lives in their hands while getting into and out of the zodiacs. They were excellent! And I also gave an extra tip to one of the waiters who I thought went above and beyond. As for the raffles at the end of the cruise, that's certainly optional. The prizes were very nice for all 3 raffles. I think the nicest was the map done by a crew member for the crew welfare fund. Tickets are $10 each and our cruise raised over $4000 for the welfare fund. I think that's a tribute to the quality of the crew and service.

 

If anyone is thinking of going to Antarctica, you must include So. Georgia. I knew nothing about So. Georgia, but I had been advised to include this and I am so happy I did. The wildlife there is better than in Antarctica. The scenery is better in Antarctica than on So. Georgia.

 

This trip is by far the best experience I have ever had and I do not think I could ever top it. If I could afford it, I would go back next year. So now I'm buying one lottery ticket a week. ;)

 

I think that Explorer II combines the best of 'big ship' and expedition cruising. I highly recommend it. One caution is that if you are booking on "B" deck, choose an odd number cabin. On the even number side is where everyone lines up to board the zodiacs and I would think that could be very annoying. I didn't hear anyone complain about it, but if you have the choice, pick odd.

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Amyr - you might take a look at the Clipper Adventurer. It is a smaller ship at 122 passengers which I prefer for expedition cruising. I did the shorter trip last February which didn't include South Georgia. But, there is a longer trip including South Georgia mid December - www.intrav.com. Zegrahm has leased the ship for a similar cruise mid November - www.zeco.com. It is not a "luxury" ship but is very comfortable. The food and service are wonderful.

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We're thinking about a 16 day Antarctica cruise on Explorer II. The cabin we're looking at is on the Promenade deck. It appears that this deck is the main observation deck for the ship. Does anyone have experience with this? How much time do people spend outside on the Promenade deck? Is it crowded, is noise a problem?

We really appreciated the previous postings about the ship from former

passengers.

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Hi!

 

I sailed on Explorer II last January and I can guarantee you it will be the trip of your lifetime. However, I really can't answer your question regarding noise on the Promenade deck as we were on "B" deck.

 

The ship really isn't crowded as it's capacity when not cruising Antarctica is 400 passengers. For Antarctica they limit passengers to 199. Yes, people do go outside on the Promenade deck to view scenery and wildlife. However, you will probably be out there too! You certainly aren't going to spend much time in your cabin.

 

The only place I wouldn't recommend a cabin would be port side of B deck. That's where everyone lines up to get on the zodiacs. Starboard side is fine.

 

If you have any other questions, don't hesitate to ask.

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Thank you for the reply that is exactly the kind of information we are interested in knowing. Did you spend much time on the promenade deck or the other decks for viewing? Do you have any other tips about the cruise or cabin selection?

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It's hard to say how much time you will spend outside. It all depends on the weather, the whales, the penguins, and the icebergs. We had great weather and even have pics of ourselves on deck without sweaters or jackets. A couple of brave souls even went in the pool. (Not me!;) )

 

I guarantee you that when someone yells 'whales', EVERYONE will be running out to see them! A lot of viewing was done from the comfort of the South Cape Bar and the Veranda Cafe.

 

When are you planning to go and who are you booking with? I think deciding on a cabin would be dictated by your travel budget. The cabin we were in is only 145 sq. ft. But it would have cost us each thousands of dollars more to get 20 more sq. ft. and it wasn't worth it. I didn't see any of the larger cabins, but we did manage to fit all our 'stuff' in the small one. It was a challenge, but we did it and never bounced off each other either!

 

To get an idea of what to expect, go the the Abercrombie and Kent website, click on Antarctica, scroll about halfway down and click on 'ships log'. It will all be from last year, but it's fun to read.

 

Remember that every trip is different. Landings and zodiac tours are dictated by the weather which can change in minutes. But they try their best to give you as much as possible. If the first plan doesn't work, they look for another.

 

BTW, the food was very good and the service excellent. :D

 

Again, if there are any other questions, don't hesitate to ask. And please let me know what you decide.

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Thanks for your reply. It was very helpfull. We looked at the A and K ships logs. The trip sounds wonderful.:D

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Thank you very much Gorm and Linda, for those reviews.

 

I've booked on the Explorer II for 8-20 December this year. Unfortunately I won't be going on the extended trip via Sth Georgia and the Falkland Islands because I'm short of time, so my cruise will just be to the Antarctic Peninsula and back.

 

For anyone travelling alone, one of the main points of difference between Explorer II and all the others, is that the single supplement I had to pay to have a cabin to myself was significantly cheaper than on any other cruises. This may be because I booked through A & K though, rather than Radisson, so I'm not sure how all that works.

 

I'm not too concerned about the standard of food and accomodation on board, as long as it's very clean and the food is edible. I'm also not planning to spend too much time in my cabin, unless the dreaded seasickness strikes while crosing the Drake Passage. Anyway I have a cabin on the A deck so if anyone wants to compare notes please let me know. It may be small but if there's only one of me in it I figure it will be OK!

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Enjoy your trip! Pray for Drake's Lake! You have to cross it twice. I only had to do it once!

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