Antarctic Vessels & Reviews Planning & Tips

What’s it like to sail on the Magellan Explorer ship

When it comes to planning a cruise to Antarctica, one of the questions that comes up most frequently is what’s the best size of ship to sail on? There’s no perfect answer of course, but if you want to maximise your time exploring off the ship, then we generally recommend ships that carry fewer than 150 passengers. But what is the experience like if you go really small? This season I visited Antarctica on one such ship, the Magellan Explorer, to find out. 

The Magellan Explorer on the Antarctic Peninsula

The Magellan Explorer was purpose-built for Antarctic cruising and was launched in 2019. It’s as pocket-sized as they come and carries a maximum of just 76 passengers. That sounds pretty cosy, but how does it translate when you’re cruising around the Antarctic Peninsula? 

Flying to Antarctica

The first thing that makes the Magellan Explorer different from the majority of the polar fleet is that it doesn’t sail from Ushuaia in Argentina. Its home port is Punta Arenas in Chile, but cruises begin on King George Island just off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. That means that passengers sailing on the Magellan Explorer start their trip by taking a quick two hour flight to Antarctica rather than the two day voyage across the Drake Passage. 

Antarctic Airways: the only way to fly

Before travelling, I was in two minds about this. While the Drake Passage has a slightly overblown reputation as a place where you’re guaranteed stormy seas, crossing it can also be something of a rite of passage for Antarctic travellers. I’d signed up for Swoop’s Original Fly & Cruise Luxury Adventure, but was I somehow taking the lesser option by just hopping over on a plane? 

Having now flown both ways, I can say absolutely not. It’s actually quite an extraordinary experience. I arrived the morning before the flight to Antarctica to give time to explore Punta Arenas as well as joining the group for our mandatory pre-departure briefing from the expedition team. The next day we checked in at Punta Arenas airport and walked out onto the tarmac to find a small plane painted like a penguin with the logo ‘Antarctic Airways’ written along its side. From that moment, the excitement truly began to build. 

Some of the larger ships that operate fly & cruise trips in Antarctica require two or three flights to transfer their full complement of passengers to the vessel. With the compact Magellan Explorer a single flight was enough to carry us all. It was a moment of instant bonding: everyone in the line to board or stowing their luggage next to you was someone you’d be spending the next week with exploring the ends of the earth. 

Landing on King George Island

The flight passed quickly with the chatter of new friends. It was only as we neared our destination that people grew restless with anticipation. Any thoughts of the slow passage across the Drake were instantly dispelled the moment we spotted our first icebergs. I just hadn’t anticipated just how beautiful Antarctica would look from the air. A distant archipelago resolved into white snow and black rocks, and as we got closer, the bright buildings of a scientific research base. And in the bay, close to the thin line of the landing strip, was the Magellan Explorer, looking as tiny and perfect as a child’s bath toy. 

And then suddenly, the wheels of the plane touched down on Antarctica and we had arrived. 

My cabin on Magellan Explorer

Within minutes of landing, we were out of the plane and hit by sharp clean polar air. Two buses took us from the airstrip to the beach, where zodiacs were waiting to transfer us onto the ship. A moment later, we were skimming across the bay. It was a terrific way to arrive: Magellan Explorer rising stylishly out of the water to greet us, and then a crew member on a platform on the waterline extending a sailor’s grip to help us on board. 

My cosy porthole suite

We were given a quick briefing and shown how to disinfect our boots and gear (an essential biosecurity procedure for all visitors to Antarctica) and then shown to our cabins. 

It was an awful lot to take in. As the cabin door shut I was suddenly alone with the silence. A couple of hours earlier I’d been in South America. Unpacking could wait: I actually had to rush out on deck to double check the view. Yes, this was definitely Antarctica. The speed of the transition felt incredible, I was quite overwhelmed by it all. Tears may have been shed. 

Back inside, I started to get my bearings. I was in cabin 311, a porthole suite. There was no worry about being claustrophobic; it was a very cosy space indeed. When the voyage was underway properly I visited a friend’s cabin that came with its own balcony and floor to ceiling window. There was a part of me that missed the views that afforded of course, but getting up to look through the porthole never failed to give me a sense of adventure, as if I was connecting with a type of expeditionary travel that seems to be disappearing from the world.

A veranda suite with balcony

Not that I was slumming it in any way! The bed was incredibly comfortable (no bunks or sailor’s hammocks here), the bathroom was generous with a great shower and plenty of well-chosen toiletries. I had all the plugs I needed to keep my gear charged, and plenty of storage. 

Just as importantly, the cabin was always warm and had been immaculately cleaned every time I stepped back in from an excursion. It was the perfect place to recharge after a long day. 

Life on board Magellan Explorer

Being on board a small ship definitely felt like we experienced Antarctica in a way that was so much more intimate than on the larger ships. I never felt like I was more than about 15 seconds away from being out on deck if I wanted to be. People would spend a lot of time in the observation lounge on Deck Five, which had tremendous windows for watching the scenery as we cruised to our next destination. As soon as something happened – a beautiful new iceberg or a whale sighting, everyone would be standing up and ready with the camera in a second. Even if you’d left your parka or binoculars in your cabin, it took no time to rush back to get it. On the Magellan Explorer there was never the sense that you might miss out on something. 

Always close to the action, even inside

The expedition team also did everything to ensure that we were immersed in Antarctica as much as possible. They were always eager to share their knowledge or an opportunity for a great photograph. The landings and zodiac cruises were terrific, and with such a small passenger complement it took no time at all to get everyone on and off the ship. Tourism regulations mean that no more than 100 people can land in one location at any one time: for larger ships this often means carefully balancing landings, zodiac cruises and activities, but on the Magellan Explorer that question simply never arose. 

Wherever we were, there was the option of attending two talks a day on everything from penguin biology to the natural history of glaciers – and sometimes guides would put on extra informal talks in the evenings for those who were interested. These were always well attended – not least when you could come along with a post-dinner cocktail. 

A lecture from the expedition team

Those a la carte dinners were excellent, incidentally. I’ll admit to being a picky eater, so I was both impressed and relieved to be so well catered for. Lunches were buffets, but in a nice touch there was an extra chef’s station where you could have a meal composed you while you waited – for instance, one day it was noodles where you could pick whichever meat, fish or vegetables you wanted, whether you preferred more or less garlic or so on, and the chef would cook it up right on the spot. It was a lovely extra touch. 

Who is Magellan Explorer suited to?

The Magellan Explorer is one of the most comfortable ships in the polar fleet and the quality of service on board is absolutely remarkable. It sits happily close to the higher end of the market, with the assurance of a more intimate experience that a larger luxury vessel can’t quite offer. For me it felt a lot like a floating boutique hotel, brilliantly staffed and made to handle the toughest conditions that Antarctica has to offer.

Getting the kayaks ready for some polar paddling

The high number and quality of guides balanced with the low passenger numbers always meant that we could squeeze the most out of every landing and zodiac cruise. Those who want to linger on the extended voyage across the Drake Passage might not be suited to the sudden immersive joy of getting off a plane to find themselves suddenly in Antarctica, but for travellers on a more condensed calendar and who are looking for a high quality polar experience, the Magellan Explorer might be the perfect fit.


Avatar photo

Stefano Silvente

Polar specialist

Stefano came to Swoop after a career in the luxury villa rental industry, and now puts that experience to work helping travellers put together the perfect Antarctic cruise.