Cruising Patagonia: the trip of a lifetime

by Gareth Rose

Sailing along the icy coast of southern Patagonia, taking in Cape Horn and Glacier Alley, and meeting seals, whales and penguins en route, is one of the most spectacular journeys on the planet

The cruise through the breathtaking wilderness of Cape Horn is billed as a journey to "the uttermost part of the world". And in the cold Chilean town of Punta Arenas, with its skeletal trees and dogs sleeping by the side of the road, it really feels like you are about to set sail off the edge of the world. What actually lies in store is a beauty so bold, striking and otherworldly, that it has to be seen to be believed.

Setting sail

I booked on the luxurious Mare Australis, which sailed for four days and nights through Glacier Alley and Cape Horn to Ushuaia, in southern Argentina. Visits to the shores of Ainsworth Bay and Tucker Island led to encounters with elephant seals and penguins, while trips to the contrasting environments of Magellanic Forest, Pia Glacier and Wullaia Bay were topped off with complimentary hot chocolate or Johnny Walker whisky served with glacier ice.

While so many holidays have their natural rivals - from different beaches to competing cultural centres or adventurous activities - it is hard to imagine a journey on a par with this. The trip only runs from September to April, as the bitter southern winters make it impossible for the rest of the year. Even in season the captain reserves the right to bypass the spectacular Cape Horn if conditions become too rough.

When sunlight broke through the clouds, it was piercingly bright and contrasted with the grey matt finish of the sea. Ainsworth Bay provided the first treat - gigantic elephant seals that roared, snorted and lumbered around just yards from the water. The females weigh up to 900 kilograms, and the males up to an incredible 5,000. They may seem clumsy and awkward on dry land, but we would soon discover they have a dolphin-like elegance in the water, as they could often be seen bobbing around and diving for fish alongside the ship.

Natural passion

One of the welcome characteristics of the cheery crew was their clear passion for, and knowledge of, the area. The guy who poured your drinks at the bar last night is likely to be donning a wet suit to help moor the Zodiacs the following morning. This passion and knowledge helps to give the guests a real insight into the animals and plant life, the working of the glaciers, and the history of Patagonia – the area of wilderness across southern Chile and Argentina.

We learned how elephant seals mate for life and if the female dies, the male dies soon after from a broken heart - although some cynics claim it is because he is not as good at finding food. Females have no such problem, finding a new mate soon after their partner has died.

The Magellanic Forest, which lies beyond Ashworth Bay, has an extraordinarily diverse range of wildlife and vegetation, from dam-building beavers to plants that smell of cinnamon when you crush their leaves, false mistletoe, and Indian Bread, which the native Chileans called llao-llao. The name translates as sweet-sweet, although it would not have been particularly sweet to our palates – they did not have sugar.

Glacial grandeur

When you are on the ship itself, it is the variety and grandeur of the surroundings that are so striking. Glaciers top huge mountains - the start of the Andes range - that are either bare and rocky or lush with green trees and bushes. The skies are usually overcast and stormy - although rain was rare - but occasionally a small streak of sunlight would break through, illuminating a glacier or patch of sea.

The sea itself is generally dark and flat, but often peppered by pieces of ice that have broken off the glacier and float - seemingly without melting - like cubes in a drink. At Pia Glacier, so much ice had broken off and landed in the approaching cul-de-sac of water that it looked as though you could hop from piece to piece all the way to the glacier itself.

Like the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers in New Zealand, Pia is constantly moving like a giant wheel, the ice from the top working its way to the bottom through a series of avalanches. When a piece breaks off, there is absolute silence for a second and then a crash like thunder as it hits ice or water below.

The shore visits may be highlights - on day four, landing at the stunning Cape Horn revealed a family living in a lighthouse and an albatross statue, while the hill on Wullaia Bay provided a spectacular view of the various tiny, uninhabited islands that dot its coastline - but life on the cruise ship was certainly never boring. As well as the seals, dolphins and whales can also be seen swimming alongside sometimes. And the trip through Glacier Alley, which has no fewer than 16 of the ice giants, was the most awe-inspiring moment of the entire journey.

Patagonia also has a huge collection of birds to entertain its visitors. The wandering albatross - the biggest bird in the world, with a 14ft span from wing tip to wing tip - can be found there, as can 10ft condors. Thousands of Magellanic penguins, which are small compared to other penguins (particularly emperors), make their home on Tucker Island during the summer. The island is a birthing ground and too delicate for tourists to go ashore - all the tunnels the birds build under the surface to incubate their young would collapse under the weight of a human boot.

Travel tips

The weather in Patagonia is unsurprisingly cold but probably not as bad as you would imagine. It will also probably rain at some point. It is best to take layers of clothing, including a waterproof coat and trousers. Hiking boots are a must if you want to enjoy some of the shore trips.