Tasty seafood and stunning views at Gaaitje in Paternoster

The beach-side charm of Gaaitjie

Today we’re heading up South Africa’s West Coast to the charming seaside town of Paternoster at Cape Columbine. Known for its crayfish and white-washed fisherman’s cottages it’s a picture perfect little spot that appears in the distance as you come over that final hill. More about what to do in this beautiful place later. But first we are getting down to the important business of lunch. After our two-hour drive from Cape Town we were ready for some refreshment so we headed straight for the sea in search of Gaaitjie (which mysteriously means little hole in Afrikaans).

Gaaitje is quite simply the perfect restaurant for me. A basic white-washed fisherman’s cottage right on the beach serving food made using fresh local produce. And no holes in sight. Just expansive beach and ocean views.

Gaatijie: view

Welcome to Gaaitjie, beautiful in shades of blue and white

What’s on the menu

We settled in happily on the verandah with a bottle of Rose to peruse the menu which offered a lot of delicious fishy favourites. The local calamari came with charred corn, pickled red onion and garlic aioli. The prettiest of plates with calamari that literally melted in the mouth. Wow! Calamari will never taste like this again…

Gaaitjie: Calamari

Beautifully tender calamari with a slight crunch

My Saldanah Bay mussels were in a white wine broth with cumin and lime leaves, garlic and onions. I’ve eaten so many mussels in my time in Cape Town I’m thinking of writing a guide to mussel dishes around the peninsular! They are so tasty at this time of year and so versatile. Today’s choice came in a curry-style broth which I’ve never had with mussels before and it worked beautifully. I mopped up all those juices with our wonderful rosemary pot bread.

Gaaitjie: mussels

Plump mussels in a curry-flavoured broth

The special of the day was written up on the board as we walked in – Masala prawns. No need for Terry to look at the menu then, Indian flavours are his favourite. The prawns were enormous, juicy and beautifully spicy and served on the tastiest of savoury rice.

Gaaitjie: prawns

Giant masala prawns with savoury rice

To complement our meal these delightful little pot breads were delivered to our table piping hot from the oven. Soft and delicate, the fresh butter melted in creating little bites of heavenliness – all flavoured with fresh rosemary. It’s almost worth going to Gaaitjie just for the bread!

Gaaitjie: tin bread

Stunning little loaves of tin bread

The food at Gaaitjie is both simple and perfect. The best ingredients wonderfully cooked, a warm welcome and great service and those views! I want to go back there right now!

Gaaitjie: front

Gaaitje in its shades of blue

Gaaitjie: boat

The Gaaitje boat at the front of the restaurant

 

Gaaitjie: interior

Inside there’s a lovely beach-house feel

Today’s price point

Lunch for three which consisted of two starters, a main course and a bottle of Rose cost R565 (£34 at todays exchange rate).

As a general guide starters are around R80 (4.80) and main courses up to R200 (£12).

Gaaitje is off Sampson Street on the beach in Paternoster.

Mexico City and lunch at the San Angel Inn

Happiness is…chilling out at the San Angel Inn

I visited Mexico City on my way back from a wonderful trip to the stunning resort of Grand Velas Los Cabos. You can read all about my time on the beach there by clicking here. I was excited to be seeing my friend Lupita who I met on a cruise of the Baltic a couple of years ago and who had promised to show me around her home town.

Mexico City is a sprawling, bustling metropolis with a population of over 21 million which makes it the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. As you fly in it seems to go on forever and when you’re on the ground so do the traffic jams – there are a lot of cars in Mexico City and I mean a real lot of cars. Consequently, be prepared to spend time in the traffic – it’s certainly part of the city’s personality.

Mexico City: landing

Coming in to land in Mexico City

The city certainly has a unique energy – somewhat frenzied but with a laid-back, Spanish undertone. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming and there’s so much to see and do. Oh and the food is incredible!

It also seems like a grand city with wide avenues, a stylish mix of old and new architecture – some of which is simply dazzling. And it’s great to walk around with monuments and statues around every corner.

Mexico City: Angel wings

Me and the angel wings

We took a slow meander through the magnificent  Chapultepec Park. Mexico City has plenty of trees and green spaces making it easy to get away from hectic city life and chill out. This strikingly enormous structure is the Monumento a los Ninos Heroes – honouring six young men who were killed while defending Chapultepec Castle – the last major resistance to US troops who invaded Mexico in 1845.

Mexico City: Monument

The striking Monumento a los Ninos Heroes

This stunning monument perfectly lines up with Chapultepec Castle down the Paseo de la Reforma to the Angel of Independence. The Angel is a tribute to the heroes of the Mexican war of independence from Spain.

Mexico City: angel of independence

The beautiful, shiny Angel of Independence

There’s so much to discover in this glorious city. I also explored the stylish Polanco neighbourhood which is where I stayed. It’s often called the Beverley Hills of Mexico City and is a  joy to walk around with the seemingly endless upmarket shops, hotels and restaurants.

The San Angel neighbourhood

On my second day in town we headed somewhere completely different. San Angel is a short drive away in the south-west of the city but it  feels like you’ve been transported to another world. The quaint, narrow, cobblestone streets are lined with elegant homes and an abundance of trees and flowers. There’s very little traffic, making it a joy to meander around.

Mexico City: San Angel

There are many beautiful homes in San Angel

There are plenty of lovely shops to browse through and the incredibly peaceful ex-convent of El Carmen to visit.

Mexico City: El Carmen covent

Take time out to enjoy the tranquility of this covent

You’ll also find Frida and Diego’s house, where famed Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived and worked. It’s been left as it was when they lived there and is fascinating to explore.  Plus you get the chance to see some of their work.

Mexico City: Frida and Diego's house

The brilliant blue that is Frida and Diego’s house

The San Angel Inn

One of the reasons for visiting San Angel was to have lunch at one of Lupita’s favourite restaurants, the San Angel Inn.

It’s loved by locals and tourists alike and you can see why as soon as you walk in – It’s the sort of place that instantly lifts your heart. The hacienda dates back to the 17th century and was originally a Carmelite monastery. A beautiful courtyard is surrounded by an expansive verandah and you’re basically in a tropical garden. I can think of no place I’d rather have lunch.

San Angel Inn: verandah

The beautiful verandah, the perfect spot to spend an afternoon

When in Mexico, drink margaritas. And this could be the best margarita in the world. Served in a little jug nestling in a mini bucket of ice you pour a little at a time ensuring your drink is always super cool. Heavenly.

San Angel Inn: margarita

The best margarita in the world? Possibly

As we sat on the verandah sipping on our margaritas we snacked on a delicious bowl of crunchy vegetables which we dipped into the beautifully creamy, cheesy dip.

San Angel Inn: crudités

Deliciously crunchy snacks with the creamiest of dips

What’s on the menu

As we pored over the menus soft warm rolls were served on one of their beautiful blue plates. I loved all the crockery here so much – how I would have loved to slip some into my handbag! No, of course I didn’t.

San Angel Inn: bread and butter

Bread and butter served on crockery in beautiful blues

I started with the Aztec tortilla soup. A rich tomato-based soup with crunchy crumbled tortilla and fresh chopped avocado sprinkled over. A wonderful combination of flavours and textures – and even more of those delicious Mexican avos.

San Angel Inn: Soup

Wonderfully rich soup topped with tortilla and avo

The caesar salad is for two and is made table-side. Quite a ceremony with the dressing also lovingly mixed in front of you. Seeing it being made with such love and focus makes it taste even better as a result.

San Angel Inn: Caesar salad

There’s plenty of activity as your salad’s prepared at the table

San Angel Inn: Caesar salad

Even the dressing is freshly made in front of you

Flaky white fish came with a hearty tomato and olive sauce.

San Angel Inn: Fish

The sweetest of local white fish in a rich tomato sauce

I tucked into the flavoursome grilled Mexican steak served with savoury rice, a sticky sauce and guacamole. Yes I am getting as much avocado in as possible while I’m in the land of the avo!

San Angel Inn: Mexican beef

Tasty beef with a side of extra guacamole

After mains the dessert trolley appears. What joy to see all those delectable dishes laid out – making it almost impossible to choose.

San Angel Inn: blackberry pie

Pie made with the plumpest of blackberries

San Angel Inn: chocolate cake

Chocolate cake to indulge in

I went straight from the San Angel Inn to the airport to catch my flight home. Which was all a bit surreal. It certainly was a whirlwind trip. Thank you Lupita for showing me around your wonderful city, I fell in love with beautiful Mexico and know there’s so much more I’d like to explore. Take me back soon!

Mexico City: Lupita

Here we are, reunited after two years

The San Angel Inn is at Diego Rivera No 50 y Altavista, San Angel, Mexico City.

Where to stay in Mexico: Grand Velas Los Cabos

Loving life at Grand Velas Los Cabos

I’m still slightly reeling from my fabulous year of travel in 2017. I visited eight new countries, two new continents and completed my full house of seven continents visited when I set foot on magical Antarctica. What a trip that was, you can read more about it by clicking here.

And one of my new countries was fabulous Mexico. An overnight flight to Mexico City, a short hop to the little airport of Cabo San Lucas on the Baja Peninsular and a drive through the cactus-lined desert and we arrived at the glorious Grand Velas Los Cabos.

This five-star all-inclusive resort overlooks the sparkle of the Sea of Cortez and has everything you could possibly want for a heavenly beachside escape.

Here’s what I loved about it.

The views

The hotel is designed so that no matter where you are there’s always a stunning azure sea view, punctuated by the blue sparkle of the pools, the greens and vibrant colours of tropical plants and palm trees and of course the perfect white sandy beach. What a combination!

Grand Velas: pool and sea

Views in different shades of blue

I even found myself up early in the morning (extremely early) watching the golden sunrise from my balcony and taking endless sea vista pictures. Views don’t get better than this for beach babies like me.

Grand Velas: balcony view

The stunning view from my balcony

The beach

The beautiful white sand was perfect for early morning meanders – especially as often I was the only person around. How I loved leaving the first footprints of the day in the sand.

Grand Velas: beach

The pool leads on to the quiet beach

And little cabana-style beds on the beach are the perfect place to chill and enjoy a cocktail or two.

Grand Velas: Beach beds

Chill out on your private beach bed

Grand Velas: Beach

My footprints on the beach early in the morning

The pools

There are plenty of beautiful lounging opportunities at the cleverly designed beachside infinity pools with their tempting, comfy beds. And of course the chance for an instantly refreshing dip any time of day.

Grand Velas: pool and sea

Escape to a land of blue sparkle

My personal concierge

Grand Velas Los Cabos is all-inclusive and that includes all food and drink and your own personal concierge. We swapped mobile numbers at check-in and I was instructed to text or call her if I wanted anything. Not that I ever needed to as she seemed to appear as if by magic every time I even thought about asking a question. These angels will make all your wishes come true, bring you food and drink anywhere on the resort, book spa sessions, print out boarding cards (and anything else you may need printed)…generally make sure you want for nothing. Superb.

The suites

The rooms are beautifully decorated in shades of blue and white with huge beds, a desk and seating area, great wifi and a large balcony with totally stunning sea views.

Grand Velas: Room

How I loved my beautiful, spacious room

The mini bar

And a mini bar…worth a mention on its own. Constantly restocked, it has a wide choice of liquor and soft drinks, tea and coffee making facilities (with a wide range of beautiful teas to choose from) and a stylish bottle of local tequila. Delicious it was, too!

Grand Velas: Mini bar

Happiness is…a fully stocked mini bar

The fabulous food

Grand Velas Los Cabos is culinary heaven. It has seven restaurants – yes seven, and eating at all of them is included. You’ll find Mexican, French and Italian cuisine as well as fabulous seafood and steaks. Cocina de Autor does an amazing tasting menu with some truly inventive dishes inspired by local ingredients. The presentation was a sight to behold and the flavours so beautiful. Plus we had the chance to try plenty of Mexican wine – a first for me. I’m now definitely a fan.

Grand Velas: Cocina de Autor

Delightfully exotic dishes at Cocina de Autor

Grand Velas: sole

Delightfully sweet sole in a delicate foam

If you can’t drag yourself out of your stunning suite you don’t have to! Of course you wouldn’t have to – Grand Velas Los Cabos is that sort of place. It’s like they have anticipated every wish you could have and are ready to make them all come true. The 24-hour in-suite dining menu offers so many choices. I couldn’t resist this beautiful tuna tartare served with guacamole, salsa and tortillas. Every fish dish I sampled was out of this world – and as for the guacamole. Mexican avos rock.Grand Velas: Room service

Room service for tartare and guacamole

The food by the pool is also fabulous. There really is something special about lying on a sun lounger looking at the ocean and tucking into a fabulous fresh ceviche while sipping a mango daiquiri. Really – does life get better than this?

Grand Velas: poolside food

More fresh tuna, this time at the pool

The breakfast spread in Azul is jaw dropping. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a bigger array – it’s seriously a three-course breakfast type of place. And with more spectacular views it’s the ideal way to start your day.

Grand Velas: Azul

Sunny breakfasts on the terrace at Azul

The spa and gym

After all that breakfast feasting it’s just as well there’s a superb gym. Large, packed with equipment and with blue views over the sea to keep you motivated to work off some calories so you’re prepared for your next foodie treat. And yes, I did use it.

Grand Velas: Gym

The view from the gym makes exercise more enjoyable.

There’s also what the hotel describes as a lavish Water Ceremony. It’s basically the biggest jacuzzi I’ve ever seen with plenty of clever ways to massage different parts of your body and loungers to relax on if it all gets too much for you!

Grand Velas: Spa

The best jacuzzi in the world in the stunning spa

And the spa is like paradise within heaven. We had amazing massages and lay back afterwards with warm pillows and the softest of throws. Boy was it difficult to get up off that bed.

The sunsets and sunrises

How I love a good sunset (or rise), though being more of a nighttime sort of person I don’t see many of the rises. However at Grand Velas Los Cabos I found myself awake and ready to witness the dawning of the day before my early-morning walk on what felt like my private beach.

Grand Velas: sunrise

The best sunrises and sunsets ever

The excursions

Grand Velas Los Cabos is halfway between the towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Both lovely places to visit with trendy shops and boutiques, bars to try and lots of water-based activities to enjoy. We went sailing out into the blue, saw amazing jumping manta rays leaping all around us, plunged into the balmy waters for a swim and sipped myriad cocktails as we sailed into the wind. Tequila Sunrise anyone?

Grand Velas: Sailing

Sipping cocktails while sailing the ocean blue

Grand Velas: Arches of Cortez

The Arches of Cortez against the azure sky

The Spanish-ness

Okay here’s a different one. Of course I was aware that Spanish is the language of Mexico but I guess I hadn’t computed that it would remind me very much of Spain. And my love of Spain is well documented – I visit at every opportunity I get. So I immediately felt so at home in this beautiful Spain-like country on another continent. And fell in love with its people too.

I really, really loved the paradise that is Grand Velas Los Cabos. Here’s my happy, sun-kissed  selfie to prove it.

Grand Velas: Beach selfie

And of course…a beach selfie

I flew to Mexico with AeroMexico, direct from London to Mexico City with an easy connection to Cabos San Lucas.

Check out the website at grandvelas.com

Peninsular touring and seafood at Live Bait

Cape Town is frequently ranked one of the most beautiful cities in the world in those never-ending Best of… lists that pop up everywhere. I’ve spent a lot of time here – I know, lucky me – and it’s pretty much impossible to beat, there’s so much going for it. .

It’s scenically stunning and diverse with myriad beautiful beaches, the ever-present majesty of Table Mountain, forests, mountain trails and gardens and some of the most stunning drives you’ll ever experience. It has a warmth to its soul, a great energy and welcoming people. There are hundreds of fabulous restaurants which are great value – and of course there’s all that wine that has to be sampled.

I was recently reminded that African penguins live here (I didn’t mention the wildlife yet, did I?) so the purpose of today’s outing was to say hi them at Boulder’s Beach in Simon’s Town. I think I’ve been suffering from penguin withdrawal!

Our journey took us from Sea Point to the other side of the peninsular. It’s a magnificent drive through Camp’s Bay, past Llandudno and over Chapman’s Peak. The road clings precariously to the mountainside –  an amazing feat of engineering – and the sea shimmers down below.

Live Bait: Chapman's Peak Drive

Chapman’s Peak Drive, one of the most stunning drives ever

Once you start your descent Noordhoek Beach appears on your right. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it, and even though I know it’s coming, the view elicits an involuntary gasp. And I always wonder who lives in that house! What a view they must have.

Once you’ve crossed over the peninsular it’s a slow meander through sleepy seaside towns to penguin-land on Boulder Beach. Hello little penguins! I felt instantly happier on seeing them.

Live Bait: Penguins

African penguins lap up the warmth of the sun

Penguin fix sorted we headed back towards Cape Town Central following the coast road until we got to Muizenberg. Famous for its beautiful beach and warm Indian Ocean (the other side of the peninsular sits on the Atlantic and is decidedly chilly), Muizenberg is considered the birthplace of surfing in South Africa. There’s a big surfing community here all centred around Surfer’s Corner. Which is where we’re headed – for a spot of beach-side lunch at Live Bait.

Live Bait is right in the middle of all the action with a long glass front looking out over the sea. It’s a beautifully blue view and there’s plenty of surf-related action to observe. Inside it has a rustic beach house feel which so perfectly matches the surrounding seaside vibe. There’s a lot of fish on the menu and a great selection of sushi which is freshly made in front of you.

Our delectable light lunch today started with a portion of Thai fish cakes to share. Shaped more like fish balls, they were lovely and light with well-balanced Thai flavours and a nice crunch.

Live Bait: Fish cakes

Soft and flavourful fish cakes with Asian flavours

For mains we shared a portion of tempura prawns – and a very generous one it was, too. Served with crispy fries, the prawns were perfectly cooked in the light batter and served with a dipping mayo. We asked for some chilli and mixed it into the mayo, making for a delightful spicy hit.

Live Bait: tempura prawns

The large pan of juicy tempura prawns

Live Bait: Prawn tempura

Close up on the delicious prawn crunch

There’s a relaxed vibe at Live Bait, it’s the sort of place I could see myself spending many an hour drinking wine, feeling fine and absorbing some of that Muizenberg chilled-out surfing attitude.

Live Bait: Interior

Beautiful blues and whites inside and out

Live Bait: Beach house

There’s a beach house feel throughout

This is your sea view. Which goes on  much further on both the left and right of this picture.

Live Bait: Muizenberg beach

Looking out at beautiful Muizenberg beach

While Muizenberg is great for swimming and surfing, it’s also home to Great White Sharks (more wildlife)! The area is well monitored though with shark spotters on high and at the beach who seem to know where the sharks are. I’ve been on the beach when the shark siren goes and it is a bit of a scary experience if any of your party happen to be in the sea. That Jaws music creeps into your subconscious! There are experts on hand to tell you about these powerful creatures and there’s plenty of shark-related advice posted all over the place (in several languages). Like how to be shark smart – do remember not to swim at night or if bleeding! The presence of the Great Whites certainly adds to the Muizenberg adventure.

Live Bait: Sharks

Beware of the sharks!

Oh and before I go, here I am with my latest penguin friends.

I can’t imagine there’s another journey more filled with beautiful views, lovely food and exotic wildlife. What joy – Cape Town I love you!

Live Bait: Boulders Beach

Me visiting the African penguins on Boulders Beach

Today’s price point

Starters range from R45-R85 (£2.70-£5.10)

Main courses range from R99 to R225 (£6.00-£13.60)

White wine starts from R125 (£7.50) a bottle and red wine from R130 (£7.85)

All conversions are at the today’s exchange rate.

Live Bait is at 70 Beach Road, Muizenberg

Antarctica: a blue and white wonderland

So 2017 was an amazing year of travel for me when I explored eight new countries and two new continents. Which gave me a full set of continents visited when I landed on the wild and dazzling Antarctic peninsula. Serious lump-in-the-throat stuff.

We went on a never-to-be-forgotten cruise from the bottom of Argentina (Ushuaia) via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia to the Antarctic and back again through the infamous Drake Passage. You can read all about my time on the magnificent island of South Georgia by clicking here.

Antarctica isn’t owned by anyone – it’s a continent dedicated to peace and science. It’s uninhabited by humans, except for during the summer when there are a few stations where scientists stay while studying the wildlife and the changing shape of our planet.

When you say you’re going to Antarctica, the immediate reaction is: Ooh, polar bears. Although some of my friends did react with: Are you mad!? Wrong in both cases. The bears live up in the Arctic, rather we were heading for the land of penguins, seals, mountains, ice shelves and, most beautiful of all, myriad icebergs in different shades of blue.

Antarctica: icebergs

Icebergs come in many shapes and sizes; and many shades of blue

That first sight of an iceberg is impossible to capture, either in words or pictures, though obviously I’m trying. Who knew they’d be so beautiful? I was entranced by every one and took another million pictures, including way too many iceberg selfies. Like taking pictures of penguins, you just can’t help yourself.

Antarctica: chinstrap penguin

A dainty chinstrap penguin with a glacier in the distance

We had five onshore expeditions around Antarctica at Yankee Harbour, Deception Island, Cuverville, Paradise Bay and Port Charcot.

Communing with gentoos at Yankee Harbour

Yankee Harbour has a natural stone gravel spit that extends for about a kilometre and protects the harbour. We had our first sighting of chinstrap penguins – so cute and delicate. My love for penguins was growing by the day.

There was also several thousand pairs of gentoo penguins nesting and inspecting their latest visitors. These curious little creatures come right up to you without fear. I felt so in harmony with the natural world in this magical place.

Antarctica: Le Lyrical

The perfect combo of gentoos, ice and Le Lyrial

Antarctica: Chinstrap penguin

Chinstrap penguins having a little rest

Deception Island is out of this world

Next stop, Deception Island – by now it felt like we were on another planet! It’s one of the most famous islands of the South Shetland archipelago which was originally discovered by sealers in the 1820s.

The deception is in the fact that it has a doughnut-like shape, like someone’s taken a small bite out of the doughnut which forms a narrow entrance into the flooded caldera of what is an active volcano. The entrance is so narrow that many early visitors sailed straight past, unaware of what was waiting inside.

The volcano is still active which makes for the weirdest natural phenomenon I’ve ever witnessed. The day we went ashore it was cold and snowing and as we stepped off our little boats we noticed the steam rising from the water. The water was hot – in the snow! We wandered around this otherworldly place with its ramshackle buildings, graveyard and whirling snow. Such an incredible experience.

Antarctica: Deception Island

The graveyard in the snow of Deception Island

Going onshore was always incredible, and everywhere was different. And once we’d headed deeper into the icy blue world our boat journeys in the seas around our ship (which were always glass-calm) also become a highlight. All that ice with its unique beauty that we were so fortunate to get so close to. Now I know exactly what ice blue looks like – and I really do need the addition of garments in that exact shade to my wardrobe.

Antartica: icebergs

Our little Zodiac inflatable is dwarfed by an iceberg

Antarctica: Icebergs

The most beautiful iceberg in Antarctica

Playing in the snow and ice on Cuverville Island

Cuverville Island is at the northern end of the Errera Channel. By now it was getting icier and snowier – though not terribly cold – it was the middle of summer after all. Here we saw loads more breeding gentoos, perfectly at home in the snow and ice, protecting their eggs from the large and sometimes aggressive skuas (birds) homing in for a nice eggy dinner.

Antarctica: Le Lyrical

Gentoo penguins, icebergs and beautiful Le Lyrial

Antarctica: reflections

Snowy, crystal clear reflections

Antarctica: Ice

A Christmas-day expedition among the ice

Antarctica: Icebergs

Big ship, little boat in iceberg heaven

Antarctica: gents

Antarctica: Icebergs

A towering iceberg and its reflection

Antarctica: icebergs

And there’s even archway icebergs

Antarctica: Christmas

Christmas Day iceberg selfie

Antarctica: Leopard seal

A leopard seal chills out on his iceberg

Antarctica: Leopard seal

We got oh-so-close to the leopard seal

Antarctica: Paradise Bay

The snowy mountains of beautiful Paradise Bay

Antarctica: Iceberg

Another splendid iceberg

Antartica: my seventh continent

Cheers Antarctica: A toast to landing on my seventh continent

Antarctica: penguin highways

The gentoos follow their penguin highways

Our luxurious home from home – Le Lyrial

We cruised on the beautiful Le Lyrial on an Abercrombie & Kent expedition. On Christmas Day we were anchored in Port Charcot and after our expedition morning in the ice and endless Christmas hat iceberg selfies we came back on board to a Christmas Day BBQ lunch served on the deck of La Comete Restaurant (one of two onboard restaurants). I can’t imagine anyone had a more beautiful venue for their festive lunch.

Antartica: Christmas Day

The deck all ready for our Christmas Day lunch

Our time onboard Le Lyrial lasted 15 days and many of those were at sea. We travelled over 3,000 nautical miles with an expedition team of experts on every subject Antarctic-related. Every day at sea there were talks in the plush theatre so I learnt about all the explorers of the region, the birds, mammals, geology, well pretty much everything that there was to learn. I wish my brain was less full (by which I probably mean younger) and I could have retained it all! How I loved the passion and knowledge those people hold deep in their souls – I salute them all.

And then there was the food. Fabulous, diverse, gourmet, exciting…and never-ending. Every meal was an event, and all accompanied by amazing wines. There were also never-ending cocktails, gin and tonics and hot drinks after onshore expeditions. One of our new on-board friends Mike introduced me to hot chocolate with a dash of peppermint liqueur. So good I had three one day – only one day as I did feel a little over-indulged afterwards! The perfect Antarctic beverage.

Antarctica: Le Lyrical

The sparkling La Celeste where we enjoyed many a delicious dinner

Our staterooms were spectacular with large comfy beds, balconies with never-ending views, bathrooms stocked with never-ending Hermes products and 24 room service. Oh and a Nespresso  machine just in case you needed a quick caffeine hit.

Antartica: Le Lyrial

The luxurious bed and expansive views from the stateroom

The breakfast buffets in La Comete were the breakfasts of dreams. And we often had them on the deck (fully decked out in our cold-weather gear).

Antarctica: Le Lyrial

Bottomless bountiful breakfasts and buffets in LA Comete (Deck 6 aft)

The ship had special stabilisers so it could cope with the potentially rough crossings. Drake Passage is particularly notorious for its wild seas so we came prepared with a bagful of seasick tablets – we did take a few “Just in case”, but they were left largely untouched. In a perverse sort of way we were looking forward to seeing how we’d cope when the going got rough, but it never did. The biggest the swell we experienced was three metres and that made for really fun sailing. Also, the weather was very kind to us. The worst it got was on Deception Island, with lots of wind and some snow, but somehow that seemed so perfectly appropriate. The ship provides jackets, over trousers and boots to suit the conditions and of course you make sure to dress appropriately (something you are briefed in detail about). I was never cold or uncomfortable and did enjoy wearing my selection of newly-acquired hats!

What more can I say? The trip of a lifetime indeed! I’d never have believed as a child growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe that I’d get to visit all seven continents in my lifetime. And that I’d toast my landing on Antarctica with champagne on a small boat within touching distance of the magnificent icebergs. What a moment that was.

Antarctic v Arctic the differences

Antarctica is a continent surrounded by the ocean at the South Pole. The South Polar ice sheet covers 98% of the land. The mean annual temperature at the South Pole is -50C. Yes -50! It’s home to marine mammals (whales and seals) but there are no terrestrial mammals and there are less than 20 bird species. And most beautiful of all, it’s the land of penguins. I miss those penguins every day.

The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents at the North Pole. It has limited land ice. The mean annual temperature at the North Pole is -18C. It’s home to terrestrial mammals, including reindeer, wolf, musk ox, hare, lemming and fox as well as marine mammals (whales and seals). There are more than 100 bird species. And of course there are polar bears.

Find out more about this life-changing cruise to the land of penguins, seals, icebergs and peace by clicking here.

South Georgia: the land of penguins, seals and explorers

The entrancing wildlife and stories of South Georgia

“South Georgia is for those who grew up dreaming of a Garden of Eden where you would walk unharmed among abundant and fearless wildlife in a beautiful wilderness – an oasis of serenity in a world increasingly out of step with nature.” Tim and Pauline Carr, Antarctic Oasis, Under the Spell of South Georgia.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) is a British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean. South Georgia is 165km long and between 1 and 35km wide. Captain James Cook made the first landing here in 1775 and claimed the territory for the Kingdom of Great Britain, naming it the Isle of Georgia in honour of King George III.

For a while it was an important base for whaling which thankfully ended in the 1960s – these stations were unpleasant and dangerous places to work and nearly destroyed the whale population.

Now there’s no permanent population on the island. It’s an isolated and rugged (inhospitable even) place, especially in the winter. Around 10-20 scientists, support staff and museum staff come and go through the year. And of course travellers like me, coming to visit the penguins, seals and whales in their natural environment.

Nothing can prepare you for South Georgia. That first glimpse of Salisbury Plain from the ship’s deck takes your breath away and you can hear and even smell the penguin life in the distance. Oh and some little gentoo penguins swam serenely past my window when I opened my curtains. We’d made it to this magnificent island where few humans ever go. Time for our first on-shore expedition.

South Georgia: first sight

My first sight of South Georgia

Welcome to penguin heaven

Jumping into little Zodiac inflatables it started to feel like this was really happening. We were about to step foot on the land of penguins. Salisbury Plain is home to one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world – there are tens of thousands of them! It’s impossible to explain the impact that first penguin sighting has – with what looks like a carpet of them stretched out towards the mountains – a very large carpet.

South Georgia: Kings

Clusters of Kings with some furry babies

King penguins aren’t scared of humans – who they don’t see that often. Some look at you curiously – in a “What are these big red things doing in our house” kind of way (we all wore the red expedition jackets that came as part of the cruise), but mainly they continue going about their daily business like there’s nothing unusual going on.

It’s incredible how close you get, touching distance, though we were told not to touch, gotta leave them alone to live their lives! It’s just so much fun watching their interaction. I felt I could stand there all day. The onboard photography coach, Richard, told us not to take millions of pictures of penguins as we’d see endless amounts of them and they all pretty much look the same. A sound piece of advice that’s impossible to take – you can’t help yourself and the snapping soon gets out of control! Millions of pictures later…

South Georgia: penguins and glacier

A carpet of penguins under the glacier

And now it’s seal time

As well as king penguins (so many of them) we also communed with seals. Fortuna Bay was home to the elephant variety. The biggest of them are out at sea feeding at this time of year so we only saw babies (weighing in at about 1000kg) and juveniles (weighing in at up to 3000kg). These are big, quite smelly and noisy animals that emit a sound like a cross between a sneeze and a burp.

South Georgia: elephant seals and ship

Looking over the elephant seals towards the ship and the mountains in the distance

The babies are so tame and curious they come right up to you trying to suckle – their mothers are out at sea feeding. They look pleadingly up at you with their big brown eyes before latching on to your boot or trousers, obviously with disappointing results.

South Georgia: elephant seal baby

The elephant seal is probably the biggest baby I’ve ever seen!

South Georgia: King penguins

The wide-ranging king penguin colony

South Georgia: elephant seals

Juvenile elephant seals snuggle together

And then there’s the fur seals. By far the cutest-looking of their species, they’re also by far the  most aggressive. Fierce about protecting their territory, the adults have no hesitation in charging you and have even been known to bite. And like the penguins you get incredibly close to them – though we tried to keep our distance! Didn’t like the look of them getting ready to charge.

We saw lots of babies on this trip! The fur seal babies were unbelievably cute, the sort of animal you want to take home with you with their pretty faces and soft-looking black fur. Of course you’d never be able to do that and actually you really wouldn’t want to as they are born aggressive. The vicious-sounding growls that come from them as you walk past are quite startling!

South Georgia: baby fur seals

The cutest of cuddly baby fur seals

You’ll be noticing that I also couldn’t resist taking pictures with our lovely ship Le Lyrial in the background.

South Georgia: Fortuna

Hanging out together in South Georgia

After our magical penguin and seal-filled day we headed for Stromness and Grytviken.

Stromness was a whaling station from 1907 to 1931. It is also known as being the arrival point of Ernest Shackleton after his epic journey from Elephant Island. Now this an amazing story!

The legend of Shackleton

In April 1916, Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition became stranded on Elephant Island which is about 1,300km (800 miles) south-west of South Georgia. Shackleton and five of his men set out in a small boat (I mean a very small boat) to summon help and on 10 May they landed at King Haakon Bay on South Georgia’s south coast.

I did a similar journey on this cruise and we passed by the hostile-looking, isolated Elephant Island on our way from South Georgia to Antarctica. It’s a long way and there’s nothing in between! Okay it was highly enjoyable onboard a luxury ship, but I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for them to get there alive! Especially as they’d already had some epic travels.

And to make matters worse they discovered on landing that they were on the wrong side of the island. So Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley had to walk 22 miles over the spine of the mountainous island to reach help at Stromness.

Legend goes they were welcomed at Stromness by Norwegian Thoralf Sorlie with the words: “Who the hell are you?”. They definitely weren’t looking their best!

They’d left 22 members of the expedition on Elephant Island who were subsequently rescued. They’d survived living under two of the upturned boats and were all still alive when Shackleton returned.

Shackleton’s story is one of hardship and endeavour, I guess that’s obvious in any exploration of the white, icy wilderness of Antarctica. The fact that he never lost a crew member reflects the bond he built with his fellow explorers and his determination to be a solid leader.

It’s interesting if you google him – there are myriad sites about him, his obsessional mission to reach the South Pole first (a mission he failed to achieve – in fact he never reached the Pole at all). And some dubious personal decisions including the fact that he allegedly cheated on his wife and more or less abandoned his children. How he had the time and energy for any of that is another mystery. Whatever the truth, he was undoubtedly someone you’d want on your side when trouble came, trouble we can’t possibly even understand in today’s world. I could discuss this forever but it’s time to move on..well, sort of.

Grytviken: Shackleton’s resting place

Our next stop was Grytviken, home to Shackleton’s grave, a museum and the rusty remains of a whaling station.

Shackleton died onboard ship in January 1922 while moored in King Edward Cove, South Georgia. His body was on its way home to England when his wife was informed of his death and she insisted that he was buried in South Georgia, saying: “Antartica was always his mistress.”

It’s such a moving experience visiting his grave, surrounded by a white picket fence in the desolate remains of the whaling station.

We all had a toast to “The Boss”, as he was known, with a shot of Jameson’s Whisky, half of which we poured on his grave (as is the custom), while pondering how it was physically possible to do what he did with the very limited resources he had available.

South Georgia: Ernest Shackleton

Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s last resting place

The ashes of another noted Antarctic explorer, Frank Wild, who had been Shackleton’s second-in-command on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, were interred next to Shackleton in 2011.

These explorers were made of different stuff! The stuff of legends.

South Georgia: Frank Wild

Frank Wild’s resting place next to The Boss

Our final onshore expedition in glorious South Georgia was in Gold Harbour. An amphitheatre of hanging glaciers and cliffs rises from the sea creating the most beautiful backdrop for the ever-abundant wildlife.

By now I was totally in love with the gentoo penguins, smaller and daintier than the kings, with their bright reddy-orange beaks and beautifully curious personalities. We found their nesting grounds in the tussock hillside (after wading through a lot of mud!).

South Georgia: gentoos

The gentoos breed under the fluffy tussock grass. 

And we spent more time communing with the lovely kings and their families. Some of them nesting their eggs under their down, balanced on their feet. The edge of the colony had plenty of the brown, fluffy chicks, yet to moult their fur and become elegance in black, white and yellow.

South Georgia: Young king penguin

Fluffiness in brown – a young king penguin

The elegance of the king penguins on shore mirrors the elegance of our ship in the distance

I cruised The Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica aboard Le Lyrial on a fabulous Abercrombie & Kent expedition. We embarked and ended in Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, an island at the bottom of South America approximately a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires. Tierra de Fuego is half owned by Chile and half by Argentina. Ushuaia is officially called “The End of the World”, because it’s the southern-most populated city on our planet. And it does feel like you’re in the  middle of nowhere – that is until you start heading east and then south discovering even more remote places.

What an adventure. One that you will never truly understand until you’ve been there yourself. So go, seriously you have to go, and discover more about our fabulous planet and why we should be doing more to preserve it. Escape to the land of penguins and seals, whales and albatrosses, absorb the peace and harmony and try to keep it in your soul. Well that’s what I’m trying to do.

One of the expedition leaders Richard (AKA Black Jack) made a video of our unique experience which you can watch on YouTube by clicking here.