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Cruising Southern Patagonia Aboard the Stella Australis

PiaFjord
Pia Fjord © Charles & Mary Love

 

The cruise ship Stella Australis in Southern Patagonia
An excursion on the Stella Australis © Charles & Mary Love

UPDATED JUNE, 2019 (Updates in bold)

We recently returned  from an adventure in Southern Patagonia aboard the Stella Australis, a ship that cruises the Tierra del Fuego, that wild and scenic archipelago of islands at the tip of South America.

For over 25 years, Australis has been the only company to offer weekly cruises through this largely uninhabited area of remote fjords and mountainous, glacier-capped islands. In fact, the Stella is often alone in these waters.

Following the Early Explorers

If you remember sixth grade geography you’ll recognize the names of places the company’s ships—the Stella Australis and the Ventus Australis (launched January 2018)—cruise. The Strait of Magellan, a 350-mile-long passage, was discovered by 16th-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan when he became the first person to circumnavigate the globe. This strait would become the preferred trading route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans until the Panama Canal opened in 1914.

Australis’ ships also cruise  the Beagle Channel, named after the survey ship, HMS Beagle, which carried the young  Charles Darwin on his 5-year around-the-world journey as the Beagle’s resident naturalist. Darwin spent six months in Tierra del Fuego—much longer than the one month he spent in the Galapagos! His log is an entertaining read to this day.

Life on the Stella

Darwin, of course, didn’t have the creature comforts we enjoyed on the Stella, a ship which is luxurious without being stuffy. Staterooms are comfortable and easy to move about in. And its large windows offer IMAX-like views of the constantly changing landscape. In the dining room, the chef serves up Patagonian specialties like lamb and crabmeat accompanied by some of Chile’s finest wines.  All this, plus an attentive crew, adds up to a first-class experience.

Large cruise ships can’t navigate Southern Patagonia’s small channels and fjords, so passengers must content themselves with looking  out the window. But the nimble Stella  sends her passengers ashore in Zodiac inflatables. Once there, they “dial in” an activity to match their interests or fitness levels. Some will take an easy stroll along the shore; others will opt for a challenging climb through a forest of beech trees for a panoramic view of islands, glistening sea and sky.

Australis’ expert naturalists serve as guides on shore. Every day, we learned as much as our minds could take in about Patagonia’s native plants and trees, glaciers, Megallanic penguins, albatross, humpback whales–the list goes on.

There was plenty of human history to learn, too. Of particular interest was the little museum at Wulaia Bay. Here we learned about the indigenous (and long-gone) Yámana population whom Darwin encountered on his trip. Another highlight was a stop at lonely Cape Horn, the “end of the world” where we met the lighthouse keeper (so happy for the company!) and walked up to the Cape Horn Monument, a 7-meter-tall abstract steel sculpture in the form of an albatross. It ‘s dedicated to the hundreds of sailors who lost their lives “rounding the Horn.”

The ship’s manifest was anything but homogenous. We met passengers from around the world. In our opinion, that’s reason enough to book on Australis, since diversity makes for good conversation. It certainly livened up our cruise through Glacier Alley, a stretch of the Beagle Channel where each glacier is named for a different European country. As we glided past, the crew rolled out hors d’oeuvres, drinks and music to celebrate each nation: beer and wurst for Germany, champagne and quiche for France, pizza and wine for the Italians. (Did we mention that everything on board–from drinks to excursions—is included?)

Many people combine an Australis cruise with a visit to a South American city, such as Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Santiago, Chile. Or they round out their journey, as we did, with a trip to Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, an extraordinarily beautiful UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. (Tip: The best place to stay in Torres del Paine is the Explora Patagonia lodge. The only luxury accommodation in the heart of the park, it offers close-up views of the iconic Paine Range and daily guided hikes.)

2019 update: Australis has consistently earned top ranking in Travel + Leisure magazine’s World’s Best Award for Small-Ship Ocean Cruises—2016 (winner, ), 2017  (#3)  and 2018 (#3).  For information and a brochure, visit australis.com. Call toll free 800-743-0119 or email sales@australis.com.For more news, read their blog here.

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