During an endless, soft pink summer night when the sun never sets, with a view of Mount Français—one of the highest mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula—and a group of killer whales in the distance, I raise my glass of crisp sauvignon blanc. Legend, the only ice-breaking luxury charter yacht in the world, has brought me to this most hard-to-reach region, where the 254-footer (77.4-meter) feels completely in her element. Legend looks like an elegant and classic superyacht but charters like an explorer yacht on steroids: sleek and dark with teak decks, yet home to a commercial helipad, a submersible for three guests, personal watercraft and snowmobiles.
It feels great to be back in Antarctica. I was here twice before, but aboard ships, one with 65 passengers and one with almost 200. This is different. Legend accommodates 26 guests, which is still more than your standard superyacht for charter, but not nearly as many as the ships that typically offer itineraries here. The best part, though, compared to those ships is that aboard Legend, we skipped the vicious Drake Passage and the four boring days usually wasted crossing it by instead flying from Punta Arenas in Chile to King George Island in Antarctica, where Legend was at anchor.
That’s exactly the type of VIP experience that yacht owner Jan Verkerk had in mind when he bought the vessel. Having found charter success in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and beyond after converting 228-foot (69.5-meter) Sherakhan into a 26-guest yacht, Verkerk bought Legend in 2013 to expand the cruising grounds he could offer to charter clients, with a plan of alternating seasons in Greenland (heli-skiing charters, anyone?) and Antarctica. Legend was built in Holland in 1973 as a Class 1 icebreaker for use in the Baltic Sea during the Cold War. Verkerk, with two other investors, gave the vessel a two-year refit at the Icon yard in the Netherlands, adding a proper yacht interior along with a Balinese spa, outdoor hot tub (with built-in rain curtain), gymnasium and cinema for cozy evenings after long days in the cold.
My favorite spot on board is at the bar, a prime spot to watch the ocean and the “white continent” floating by. While having a steaming cup of rooibos tea, I see a Humpback whale playing in the icy waters. When more whales join in, the crewmembers lower a tender so guests can see the action up close. Being able to stop whenever we want, while respecting the rules that apply here in the protected waters of Antarctica, is just great—another option that bigger ships don’t offer. We have a biologist, Antarctica expert and ice pilot aboard, setting the course for each day based on the variable weather conditions and our personal interests.
Legend can do more than bigger ships that visit here, too. Cruising through the iceberg-dotted Lemaire Channel? No problem. Checking out the glacial Weddell Sea? It’s possible. Most ships have to skip some places that Legend can access because they exceed the passenger limits set by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which regulates where groups can go. Aboard Legend, we have more access to penguin colonies and scientific stations than almost anyone else, and the crew tries to get us on land as much as possible.
Late one afternoon, Legend nestles into a thick patch of ice in a remote bay. There’s no wind. The water is like a silver platter with the only ripples formed by minke whales feeding under the ice sheet and seals playing around the floe edge.
“Let’s set foot on land, or rather, on the ice!” says Thom Beerens, the purser of Legend. After we take a brisk hike on the frozen sea to spend time with the sleepy seals, Legend’s crewmembers build a natural bar from snow, much as a crew might set up a tiki scene on a beach in Tahiti.
“Who wants champagne or a Jägermeister to warm up?” Beerens asks. I sip a glass of rosé, thinking how insane this setting is. Next to us is Legend, firmly locked with her bow in the ice, and behind us are the towering mountains of Antarctica. The sky changes color every minute, and now and then we hear the sound of avalanches, along with the blow of a whale in the distance.
“Magical!” one guest says to another. “Let’s have another drink to heat up our cold toes.”
Another of my favorite spots on Legend is the outdoor deck that is just next to the inside lounge bar with grand piano and gas fireplace. This wind-free alfresco space has a teppanyaki grill where we have a fabulous barbecue. I sit here a lot, on the wooden deck chairs, enjoying the sun and gazing over the iceberg-dotted water. I could sit here for hours, taking in this intoxicating polar landscape. Sometimes, giant pieces of ice float by with leopard seals basking in the sun. When Legend’s wake hits their piece of ice, they barely move, too lazy to be afraid.
After a day of being outside, spending hours in the invigorating Antarctic air, there’s nothing better than retreating to my stateroom. Each one aboard Legend is named after a city. New York is sleek and modern, while my Tokyo stateroom has ruby-red ceramic tiles adorned with cherry blossom patterns. The decor of some suites harks back to the time of the great explorers. How brave Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott were, and how they probably never, in their wildest dreams, could have imagined cruising to remote polar regions aboard a luxury icebreaker like Legend.
I’ll raise a glass to them tonight while sitting on my favorite bar stool, sipping a pisco sour and, hopefully, watching a school of playful whales.
10-Day Antarctica Itinerary
Arrive with a commercial flight from Punta Arenas in Chile to Antarctica’s King George Island, where Legend is at anchor in Fildes Bay. See your first penguin on the beach, and have champagne and canapés on board.
Cruise to Iceberg Alley and Antarctic Sound, in the northeastern Antarctic Peninsula, where tabular icebergs drift north from the Weddell Sea. Tender ashore to see the Adelie penguin colonies at Paulet Island, Brown Bluff or Devil Island.
Explore the northern fringes of the Weddell Sea on the eastern side
of the Antarctic Peninsula. Emperor penguins are often on the ice floes. During winters, they come to breed on Snow Hill Island.
On the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, cruise amid icebergs in Legend’s tenders with views of glaciers and ice cliffs. Hot spots are Paradise Bay, Neko Harbour, Petermann Island and Pléneau Island.
Visit a gentoo penguin colony near an old whaling station in Mekkelsen Harbour, watch sea lions lounge on sheets of ice and take the tenders out to Wilhelmina Bay.
Visit the Argentinean research station Almirante Brown where you can get a stamp in your passport as a proof Antarctica is now a ‘have been’ destination.
Cruise to the tranquil Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage dotted with slabs of ice.
Tender to Deception Island, with its flooded caldera of a volcano
that last erupted in the 1970s. Swim in the Antarctic Sea, in spots warmed
by hot rocks below.
Cruise back to King George Island, where you meet your return flight to Chile.
For more information: camperandnicholsons.com, or any charter broker