With two small-ship polar South America expedition vessels carrying 130 to 210 passengers
In 1990, Patagonia wasn’t even on most cruise lines’ radars when a Chilean family involved in port services and cargo ships realized the potential for dedicated passenger cruises between Ushuaia, Argentina and Punta Arenas, Chile. Switching gears from ground services to operating a vessel, the family purchased – and named – the Terra Australis, refurbished the ship, and began taking passengers onboard. There was never a second thought as to the focus of the expeditions: the ships would travel to the remote regions of Patagonia and explore the fjords of Tierra del Fuego.
Over the course of 20 years, Australis has been owned and operated by the same family who continue to offer four-night eco-tourism cruises. However, until recently, little has changed with the routes and itineraries. New land-and-sea adventure programs are being introduced that provide “pre-cruise” combination trips with guided tours. For example, the five or six-night “Gauchos, Penguins, and Glaciers,” experience takes passengers to a King penguin colony as well as a traditional estancia where they can try a classic Argentinian barbecue and witness gauchos (cowboys) tending sheep.
In addition, three-night, round-trip cruises from both Punta Arenas and Ushuaia were introduced in 2013 that make return flights easier for travelers.
The current fleet consists of two ships: the Via Australis (built in 2005) is the smaller of the two with a passenger capacity of 136, and the new Stella Australis (built in 2010) carries 210 passengers. The ships are very similar, but the Stella also boasts a fitness room and additional cabin options with more space and larger windows. Both ships are specifically designed to navigate fjords, and have zodiacs on hand to transport guests to shore for excursions.
While more and more cruise ships equate to floating amusement parks, this is not the case with Via Australis. The intimate size and interior décor – like polished brass railings, lantern light fixtures, and anchors on the hallway carpets – remind passengers that they are indeed on a ship.
One surprise during a visit to the bridge (which is always open) is that the captain and crew still use a traditional map (as well as modern technologies) to navigate. The map is then auctioned off at the end of the voyage to the highest bidder. It makes a truly unique souvenir that proves they sailed to “the end of the Earth.”
Patagonia feels like a time warp – days will pass without seeing other humans, ships, or buildings, and with sunsets as late as 10:15p.m. (December and January), it is all too easy to forget that the modern world exists.
During daily briefings, expedition leaders talk about what to expect on the next excursion and provide information about the area. Passengers can learn about glaciology, Darwin’s travels, Tierra del Fuego, the native people who inhabited it, and the importance of protecting the region. Australis works closely CEQUA (Center of Quaternary Studies Fuego-Patagonia and Antarctica) for the development of top-level sustainable, scientific tourism.
Besides movies and informational lectures (which are fascinating), time onboard is spent gazing out the windows at the scenery, reading, and mingling with other passengers. Both vessels are equipped with high-powered viewing telescopes on the observation deck. When the ships pass through Glacier Alley, special hors d'oeuvres, theme music, and beverages are served that match the country each glacier is named after. So, wine and pizza are served when the vessel glides past the Italy glacier, and beer and brats for Germany. It’s a nice touch.
Lectures and events take place in one of two lounges on the Via Australis: the light-soaked Yamana aft lounge, and the Darwin lounge – where complimentary drinks are served at the sparkling wood bar. Karaoke and bingo nights (with a twist on traditional bingo) keep things lively in the evening.
The staff is bi-lingual, and informational lectures are separated into the two lounges based on language preference: Spanish or English.
The Patagonia dining room fits all guests in one seating, who are paired together at the same table throughout the cruise (that seat around eight people). One waiter attends to guests, and wine is served at lunch and dinner (included in the cruise fare).
The breakfast line begins forming before it is even announced. It is served buffet style and –although ample – is practically identical each morning: scrambled eggs, pastries, changing juice options, a limited fruit selection, bacon or sausage. Prior to breakfast, an “Early Risers coffee” kicks off around 7a.m. in the Yamana Lounge, and is a peaceful place to catch the morning sunrise.
Lunch is where the kitchen shines, with more robust options and a seemingly endless array of desserts – although items are often not labeled so guests may be left guessing what they are eating. The special Chilean lunch buffet is popular among cruisers (offered one day during the trip).The waiters often request that the main dinner course is pre ordered at lunch to help the kitchen prepare.
For dinner, a varied menu often incorporates Chilean dishes and local fish, as well as “signature” international favorites. It is served in courses, with starters like king crab and avocado salad or shrimp soup with pinto beans, followed by mains such as salmon, sea bass, or lamb with risotto. Vegetarian options are often limited to an unimaginative salad, but special requests can be made as long as guests do so more than one week in advance. Extreme cases will be difficult to accommodate.
Between dinner and morning coffee, there is no food available (except small bar snacks), so those who get the midnight munchies should bring their own snacks.
On the Via Australis, four types of cabins are available on four different decks for 64 in total – although there is little variation in each category. They all contain 161 square feet of space, some with two comfortable twins or one double bed (facing the door); others have Pullman beds for third passengers.
There are no televisions, phones, or alarm clocks in rooms so it would be easy to lose track of time if it weren’t for the announcements (from the small ship radio) and oversize windows letting in the scenery. Bottled water, daily room service and frequent, but unobtrusive check-ins (turndown service) are provided by the cabin steward. Bathrooms with separate showers are a manageable size and bath products are provided. Furniture includes a dresser, nightstand, and small chair.
The Stella Australis offers similar accommodations, however since it has 36 additional cabins, there are also a few more category options. Rooms are slightly larger than the Via Australis (177 square feet for most), and higher cabin categories feature floor-to-ceiling windows and up to 220 square feet (Superior cabins). Beds face the side wall instead of the door so guests can lie in bed and look at the views outside.
There is an interesting mix of international travelers on Australis cruises, so don’t be surprised when there are 15 or more nationalities on a relatively small ship. The majority of the passengers are from the United States, Europe, and Chile, and the age range is varied as well. Many are active travelers around ages 50-65, but there is surprising amount of younger people (under 45-50).
In fact, Australis’ General Manager, Matias Bambach cites the recent increase in itinerary options as a response to greater age diversity and interests on board – particularly those seeking more adventurous travel experiences.
Australis’ expedition leaders are experts on the region and are very passionate about preserving the land. After disembarking zodiacs, passengers typically follow the guides on “sacrifice trails” in a single file (to not disturb the ecosystem) as they learn about the flora, fauna, indigenous people, and evolution of the region. The cruise follows closely the path of Charles Darwin, who spent significantly more time in Patagonia formulating his theory of evolution than he did in the more widely-publicized Galapagos Islands.
Depending on itinerary, cruisers can get up close to an active glacier to watch (and hear) the ice calving. Condors, elephant seals, dolphins, and Magellanic penguins are common sightings on the voyage.
Some excursions include strenuous hiking up a mountain but other options like exploring the small museum are available for those who don’t want to hike. After each land excursion, hot chocolate and whiskey – which are delightful when mixed together – are served on shore.
It is important to note that landing at Cape Horn is not a guarantee: weather conditions at “the end of the Earth,” can often prevent the ship from anchoring. When it does, expect high winds and rain, and be sure to spend time in the lighthouse chatting with its keepers.
Excursions are included in the cost of the cruise. Most last an hour or two (at most), and allow some free time to take photos and soak in the beauty – although it never seems like enough. Patagonia is a truly magical place.
All passengers go on the same excursions, although some hikes are divided into various skill levels.
Past Passenger Programs
There is no official program for repeat customers.
Attire on Australis is very casual and comfortable, since most of the time guests are layering up to brave the elements (the weather is constantly changing). Waterproof clothing is highly recommended for excursions.
A rate of $15 per person per day is split up among the hard-working crew – who often take on more than one job title.