The sky changes from violet to black, as it swallows the Martial mountain range. Ushuaia’s lights are dots in the distance, as our ship, Stella Australis, cruises over Ushuaia Bay.
As we power towards the Beagle Channel, up on deck, I shiver. I’m not sure if it’s from the cool breeze or whether it’s because I’m excited about the adventure before us.
From my research, I know that we will encounter a white wonderland of mountains and glaciers and already there’s a nip in the air. I’m looking forward to seeing snow-covered peaks, glaciers, frozen lakes and icebergs on my cruise aboard Stella Australis.
It is a region that has breathtaking scenery. It has been a popular destination for keen hikers for many years. Fortunately, these days, Patagonia’s frozen beauty is much more accessible to the average traveller.
You can still camp out under the stars if you wish but there’s another way to access these remote areas.
For most people, the comfortable way to discover Patagonia is on a luxury cruise such as aboard Stella Australis. The expedition-style ships journeys between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas Chile.
You can watch the scenery drift past aboard the 100-cabin ship. It’s a luxurious way for adventurous travellers to see Chile’s southern attractions.
Cabins have large windows – some have floor-to-ceiling glass panels – that allow you to lie back in bed and drink in the landscape.
The ship has three lounges, a gym and a dining room. The service is warm and friendly but somewhat disorganised.
There’s a buffet breakfast and lunch while dinner is a three-course meal. Chilean and Argentinean wine are included in the price of the luxury cruise.
Spanish is the main language on board but the guides and service staff speak enough English well enough. The only complaint I have is the reception desk staff are a touch aloof for a cruise of this quality.
Twice a day, passengers are transferred ashore in zodiacs. These excursions are led by knowledgeable and friendly expedition guides who tell us about the region’s flora, fauna and history.
At 7.30am on the first morning, I’m bundled up in a waterproof jacket and pants, thermals, hats, gloves and rubber boots.
The sky is grey as we board zodiacs and zip across to Hornos Island, where Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) is a highlight of this luxury cruise.
In fact, a quick survey of fellow passengers tells me it’s the reason many on board Stella Australis have chosen this cruise.
Cape Horn was an important navigation point for ships before the Panama Canal was built.
Many consider it a badge of honour to sail around the cape as the sea is treacherous. There are over 800 shipwrecks in the waters around the cape.
The weather can be so moody that rounding the cape or even being able to step ashore is not guaranteed. as it depends on the weather, which can be treacherous.
We’re very lucky on this occasion as it’s only drizzling. We’re transferred ashore and we climb 160 steps to the plateau.
Cape Horn is a soaring rocky promontory that is part of Cape Horn National Park, a World Biosphere Reserve.
There’s not much there except for a light house, a small chapel and the Cape Horn monument. The monument is a steel albatross memorial.
We spend some time chatting to the island’s only inhabitants, the lighthouse keeper and his family. And by 8.30am, we’re back on board the ship for breakfast.
In the footsteps of Charles Darwin
In the afternoon, there’s a choice of activities between a hill hike or a coastal walk.
Navarino Island’s Wulaia Bay is the place where Charles Darwin landed while on his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1833.
There’s a jetty outside a 1930’s naval radio station, where we disembark and begin our hike. The old building was converted into an information centre.
We walk through the Magellanic forest, marvelling at the autumn colours of the nothofagus trees.
Some areas are muddy and slippery and there’s a steep section where there are ropes tied between trees that you can use as hand rails.
Our walk is a chance to stretch our legs and brush up on the flora.
We learn about the parasite fungi and the calafate plant. The latter is a shrub with tiny yellow flowers and a dark fruit.
There are it both an abandoned beaver dams and active ones.
Beavers were imported from Canada over a century ago for the fur trade and have caused a huge amount of destruction in the forest.
But the climate was not ideal for beavers and the quality of fur was not good enough for the luxury market. The beaver hunters lost interest and the beavers were allowed to multiply uncontrolled.
Stella Australis – Day 3
On the third day, the sun is shining and storybook vistas of the Darwin Range fills the ship’s windows.
As we cruise, a knot-tying class with the boatswain is in full swing. This activity is followed by a Chilean wine appreciation lesson with the ship’s sommelier.
I’m quite content to sip pisco sours while feasting my eyes on the scenery. The snow-capped mountains and glaciers are soothing to the soul.
Agostini Sound is home to the Aguila Glacier, which stretches down towards a forest of olive-green tree tops.
It’s a patch of paradise within Alberto de Agostini National Park where there are no roads and the only access is by ship.
It’s a big blue sky day and cotton candy clouds brush the tips of the sugar-sprinkled mountains.
We walk along the lagoon, wide-eyed with wonder at the scenery.
Every so often, we come across a large chunk of ice that has washed aground. From every angle, the enormity and beauty of the landscape fills me with awe.
Our final excursion while cruising aboard Stella Australis is a visit to Magdalena Island to see the imperial and rock shags and a colony of Magellanic penguins.
The pockmarked landscape is filled with burrows that the penguins return to between October and April.
When we arrive, the season is almost over and there are only a few hundred penguins left waddling across the moonscape. The others have long gone on their annual migration to the north.
Most visitors to Chile are likely to spend some time in Santiago, the country’s capital. Santiago is a fun city with a rich culture and lovely architecture.
Here are some things to do in Santiago.
Stella Australia has four routes to explore Patagonia. Find out more about them here.