The first Indian cruise to Antarctica
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As it happens, about 750 million years ago, India and Antarctica were joined at the hip. Covered in ice, thick and inseparable. Cut to the present: They are at least three flights and one spectacular voyage apart. A distance that few—fewer than 200 out of 20 million—outbound Indian tourists cover every year. A poor showing by all accounts, and certainly no way to treat old, if glacial, loves.
So when The Q Experiences, a Mumbai-based luxury travel company, announced plans to send “the first Indian ship” with 200 voyagers to the seventh continent between 9-19 December this year, we were curious. Turns out, it’s an Indian ship all right—if only with a few riders. Chartered by an Indian company, with the tricolour flying aloft, it’s better to qualify it perhaps as the first luxury vessel sailing to Antarctica aimed squarely at Indians with deep pockets. Interested parties from other countries won’t be turned away either. But the largest pool of fish will invariably hold blue passports with Asiatic lions emblazoned in gold. In a country where luxury travel is expected to grow much faster than plain vanilla travel over the next decade, there are plenty of fish to be had yet, of course.
Setting sail from Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, Le Soléal, a French yacht with lush interiors by Jean-Philippe Nuel, will also carry, among other things in its cargo, a significant shipment of—wait for it—rajma and rice. With fellow Indian Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar on board, and several desi ingredients shipped in from the UK, its wealthy passengers need not bring a maharaj (personal chef) to ensure their culinary comfort. Kochhar will be serving up regional Indian fare, with just as many vegetarian as non-vegetarian dishes. Those who care to try other cuisines will also be served by a team of chefs from the French kitchens of Alain Ducasse, no less.
One imagines, however, that no matter how crisp the linen and wonderful the food, in Antarctica, the greatest inducements will be found outside the windows—in expanses of blinding whites and glassy blues. Think chinstrap penguins on Deception Island (December is hatching season in penguin colonies) and Weddell seals in the Weddell Sea, singing whales and Antarctic terns, and a couple of tiny ports in the South Shetland Islands where tourists get mock visa stamps on their passports and postcards to send home. To make sense of all things unfamiliar, the ship will have 12 researchers to guide and inform passengers on everything from wildlife to safety rules—and there are plenty of those too. Understandably, travel on the white continent is not without its perils, and restrictions, most of which are put in place by organizations like the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (Iaato). Opinions have been divided for years over whether tourism should be encouraged here at all.
The most inviolable rule, though, is to take nothing and leave nothing behind. Both of which seem easy enough—except in Antarctica. Even on this ship, one of the youngest and greenest vessels in these waters, passengers will have to follow a strict regime of cleaning up and vacuuming each time they deboard, lest they carry germs from other continents. With a cap on the total number of visitors per year—40,000—and the diktat of allowing only 100 people to land at any given time, there’s little room for error. If there is a slip, however, there’s always a researcher or even a responsible traveller on the watch, we’re told. Vasim Shaikh, founder of The Q Experiences, who was in Antarctica earlier this year, remembers, for instance, how a young guide once spotted and picked up a single strand of hair from the endless sheets of white.
But exactly who are the Indians signing up for a trip that costs at least Rs6.9 lakh, Buenos Aires onwards? All kinds of people from all over the country and abroad (or NRIs), from five-year-old children and solo travellers to honeymooners (who have specifically requested to be shot in the Titanic pose). They also include entire families from Hyderabad and Bengaluru, and at least one person who has sold his assets to make this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Shaikh, however, is most excited at the prospect of welcoming on board a scientist who had last travelled to Antarctica to set up India’s Dakshin Gangotri Antarctica Research Base in the early 1980s. Waiting for his two-week leave to be sanctioned, he hopes to show his wife what all the fuss is about. And clearly, there is lots to fuss about—on this luxury yacht and off it.