South America is well and truly on today’s travel ‘hot list’. And to cruise through Latin straits that have seen historic navigators meet the ‘new world’ is something special. Tricia Welsh reports.

Try booking a flight to South America any time soon and you might be surprised at how few seats are available. Not long ago, the South American airlines had this southern continental market to themselves, but in recent years, Qantas has introduced regular flights – even now flying direct from Sydney to Santiago three times a week – greatly opening up this exciting ‘virtually new’ market for Australians.

With cruising being the fastest growing sector of the travel industry, cabins on-board the increasing number of cruise lines that sail around this exotic Latin region are understandably at a premium.

Hence it was with some degree of smugness that my husband and I secured Premium Economy seats on-board one of the new Qantas flights direct to Santiago in time to board Holland America Line’s Veendam for a 20-day cruise down the west coast of the continent via the Chilean fjords, through the Magellan Strait to Ushuaia – then three days cruising the icy waters of Antarctica before heading back to Puerto Madryn on the east coast of Argentina with our final destination – the tango capital of the world – Buenos Aires.

After settling into our Lanai Veranda stateroom, I make a spur of- the-moment visit to the ship’s library where, as if waiting for me, is a copy of Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World – the story of Ferdinand Magellan’s terrifying yet historic circumnavigation of the globe in the 1520s.

Parallel adventures

The Portuguese explorer’s search for an inland waterway was through the very same waters of South America that we were headed. Finding the strait would give access to a new sea route sailing west of Spain to the fabled and fabulous Spice Islands and at the time was considered the greatest contribution to world navigation.

As Magellan and his company of some 260 sailors set sail in the five-ship Armada de Molucca (the Spice Islands) from Seville via the Guadalquivir River, our Dutch Captain Peter Bos with his complement of 1238 passengers and 565 crew departs the historic port of Valparaiso via the Chilean fjords for Ushuaia.

Although 500 years apart, we seem to share parallel adventures: the Spanish dealing with the ‘giant-feet’ natives or Patagonians and surviving the odd mutiny, while we meet modern-day inhabitants and delight in excursions to the villages of Castro, Dalcahue and Coyhaique en route with nary a thought of mutineering. By coincidence, we arrive at the Strait of Magellan at the same time – the Spanish from the east and after many months at sea and me from the west after just a few days and 178 pages!

Today there are constant reminders of this historic voyage including Magellan Island, the Magellan named Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins and the appealing ring-eyed Magellan penguins, which we visit in a secluded rookery near Punta Arenas where low flowering shrubs house underground burrows.

Our thoughts soon move on to other regional explorers such as Sir Charles Darwin as we navigate breathtaking Glacier Alley in the beautiful Beagle Channel, and Sir Francis Drake as we cross treacherous Drake Passage around Cape Horn whose waters are considered the roughest in the world – en route to Antarctica. And then of course we move on to more recent adventures of Shackleton, Mawson and Scott whose stories come to life via daily talks by on-board polar expedition specialists.

Wildlife sightings are announced over the PA system, eager passengers sprinting from one side of the ship to the other for a closer look. Countless humpbacks glide and fluke in the icy waters, and we spy orcas and the odd minky whale too. Elephant, Weddel and crab eater seals float by on small icebergs, adelie and chinstrap penguins constantly dive around us while albatross swoop and curious petrels fly overhead.

It’s easy to slip into shipboard life with leisurely breakfasts, the occasional shore excursion, then relaxing with a good book on a sun lounge, casual poolside lunches, a couple of cocktails for Happy Hour before changing for a la carte dinner (five nights on the cruise are formal, the others smart casual), finishing each day with a live show in the plush two tiered Showroom at Sea.

We learn that three-quarters of our fellow passengers are repeat HAL cruisers and belong to the Mariners Club which offers cruise benefits and on-board credits. While figures show the average HAL passenger is 57 years of age, there are several multigenerational families on-board, a smattering of honeymooners and even one lady who turned 94 during the trip. Confirmed cruisers know all the lurks: making dinner reservations at the two specialist restaurants on embarkation day, pre-booking laundry and drinks packages and spa treatments – some even delaying booking the cruise itself to take advantage of substantial last-minute savings.

By the time we disembark in Buenos Aires, I’ve read three fabulous books, had more than my share of indulgent sleep-ins, hopped into countless eggs Benedict, been serenaded or entertained each night by top performers and joined a special league of travellers – perhaps not even 100,000 worldwide who have enjoyed the beauty of the Antarctic wilderness. It’s the most relaxed real holiday I’ve had in years.

The writer was a guest of Holland America Line and was assisted by Qantas.