We climbed the wooden stairway from the surf-beaten cobblestone beach up to the plateau that is South America’s southernmost tip. It was sunny right then, blue skies, and I was sweating in my impermeable arctic explorer’s suit, but an icy blast of wind made me reach for the handrail. This was my luxury vacation.
I’d reached for handrails on cruises before, but on the afterdeck overlooking tropical beaches, not cliff-side to keep me from tumbling to my death. And those times I gasped at the breathtaking scenery, not from breathtaking exertion climbing 100 steps. Or 200? I’d lost count.
The Stella Australis sat far below, bobbing in the unpredictable seas that made the passage around Cape Horn famous. Chunks of ice floated by. How big a chunk would it take to sink a ship and leave a landing party stranded? To get this far from any gift-shop-lined mega-dock, we’d shipped out of Punta Arenas, Chile, three days before. En route, we went ashore at Ainsworth Bay, where beaver dams formed mirrorlike pools. We saw penguins roosting on Tucker Islet. After each short landing, we reboarded and quickly pulled anchor for the next spot. This was no Caribbean cruise. There was no cabaret show, no movie theater, no bandstand. The real draw was just getting to these spots, preserved by their remoteness. We were alone everywhere we went.
Submerged seamounts and gusting winds were chopping the crosscurrents into 8-foot waves as we anchored off the cape. For centuries people avoided this route if possible, but exploring and trading vessels had to round Cape Horn to reach the Pacific. The Panama Canal’s opening in 1914 made this voyage unnecessary, but the challenge of the cape retained its allure.
Things looked so stormy, our captain almost canceled the landing, but the sun came out. Bundled up, we hustled into the inflatables and sloshed ashore. At the top of the stairs, we followed a boardwalk toward the monument featuring a cutout shape of an albatross, which sits on a bluff, the end of the world (not counting Antarctica). It began to hail. Another frigid gust of wind shoved me into the tundra. I had to sit down to avoid trampling fragile flowers that bloom about two minutes per year. It was late December in the Southern Hemisphere, so this was summer. I couldn’t feel my face.
Yes, this was my vacation. And huddled against the gale, wondering how I’d get back to the ship, it was the most fun I’d had on a cruise. No one said reaching the end of the world would be easy.