By John O’Ceallaigh
The windows are scratched and dirty, the tray tables broken and there’s a problem with the lavatory, but everyone is grateful to be on board. We’re just about to take “the world’s most exclusive transcontinental flight” and this, by some margin, is the most comfortable way to reach our destination.
Departing from Punta Arenas on the heel of Chile, we have boarded an Antarctic Airways aircraft for the two-hour flight to King George Island on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. For cruise ship passengers to reach this desolate outpost, it’s a two-day journey – notoriously nauseating and at times frightening – across the churn of the Drake Passage. We will get there in just two hours.
Like seemingly everybody else on board, I had heard tales galore from survivors of the sea voyage – of broken bones and tilting ships shaken for hours by relentless 10ft waves. Many who undertake the journey consider it a rite of passage, a test of commitment and a way of “earning” the right to witness the unblemished splendour of Antarctica. I doubt the super-rich sitting near me, swaddled in Moncler winterwear and Canada Goose parkas, feel the same way.
That so few people make the journey by plane is more likely due to price, capacity and practicality. Departures are often delayed by bad weather – we’re relieved to take off just two hours behind schedule – so synchronising landings with cruise ship itineraries is impossible.
Most air passengers fly in for a brief day tour or an overnight stay on King George Island, arriving on a dinky Beechcraft King Air 300 aircraft. The experience includes an amble to a research station and a boat tour to some penguin colonies, but this barely scratches the surface of what Antarctica has to offer. Fares start at $5,500 per person for a day trip, or $6,500 if including an overnight stay; private aircraft charters are significantly more.
My experience is different. I’m flying with a group on a larger BAe 146-200 as part of a trip organised by Eyos Expeditions. The plane, with livery matching a penguin’s plumage, accommodates 70 passengers. (Though the airline doesn’t currently share charter I was previously told they began at $125,000 for this aircraft). For us, a delayed departure from Punta Arenas isn’t an issue: We’re not joining a tightly regulated cruise schedule; the superyacht Legend is waiting for us at King George Island and our one-week voyage south will only commence when everyone is on board. Even for the exceptionally well-travelled – and there are plenty of them on board – this journey is trip-of-a-lifetime stuff. The mood is celebratory.
The cabin crew are soon bounding down the aisle with booze. There’s champagne of course, but the stewardess informs me that her homemade pisco sour has medicinal qualities: “If you drink it you won’t get a cold.” It seems sensible to take the precaution. It packs a punch too; I’m tipsy after just one glass.
Like the flight itself, the food on board feels both highly indulgent and devoid of pretension. Alongside an array of meats and cheeses, a slab of tiramisu and a salmon salad, we are presented with a single After Eight chocolate and can take our pick from a packet of Quality Street sweets. Although I’m full, I am later compelled to ask for a second mug of chicken soup. It is so comforting and delicious.
We fly on, with breaks in the clouds occasionally offering glimmers of the Drake Passage beneath us. From above it seems innocuous, even peaceful, but everyone still agrees that this is the preferred way to reach Antarctica.
That impression is cemented when we begin our descent. The clouds part and suddenly we can make out crags of black rock jutting from indigo waters, and bleak tracts of barren land coloured a curious blanched green. In the distance are insurmountable ice-covered cliffs in pristine white. For everyone on board, it’s an unforgettable introduction to the frozen continent.
Antarctic Airways typically offers flights to King George Island from December to March. Eyos Expeditions offers various customisable Antarctica itineraries and they are exceptional. You can read more about my trip to Antarctica with EYOS Expeditions in this Superyacht Life article or this Telegraph article.
LUTE is a luxury-travel consultant and content agency that works with hotel groups, tour operators, tourist boards, airlines and more. You can learn more about LUTE here. For frequent luxury-travel updates, follow LUTE and LUTE founder John O’Ceallaigh on Instagram.