A steaming mug of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream - it's one of the little things that make travelling on L'Austral so luxurious.
The frothy cup is handed to me as I step back on to the ship after a long day visiting the penguins on the Antarctic ice. Even though it is summer, the outside temperature is still below zero and I'm grateful as the first sips of chocolate begin to warm me from inside to out.Cruise Guide:
L'Austral is one of the new breed of Antarctic cruise ships - offering passengers an adventure, but minus the discomfort that used to go with it.
The 142m French ship is the newest in the fleet operated by luxury cruise specialist la Compagnie du Ponant. Launched in May last year, this is its maiden voyage to the frozen white continent - a route it will travel regularly during the summer cruising season from November to March.
Our journey started in Ushuaia on Argentina's southern tip, about 1000km north of the Antarctic continent.
Walking on board is a welcome relief after two days of air travel from Perth. The five-star service promised is evident from the moment you arrive. Staff offer warm hand towels and the receptionists welcome guests by name without checking their computer screens after you provide your cabin number.
This 10-night trip to the Antarctic Peninsula in November was also a maiden voyage for me - my first visit to Antarctica and also my first time on board a cruise ship. Now, having experienced a five-star vessel, it's going to be difficult to travel any other way.
After checking in, I head straight for my cabin, desperate for a rest after the effort it's taken to get here.
The modern decor, with shades of white, taupe and grey, provide a light and warm feeling. The cabins are fitted out with flat-screen televisions, an iPod dock, adjustable heating, bathrobes and L'Occitane or Sothys beauty products. Glass-walled bathrooms enable passengers to watch the spectacular ice sculptures floating past their balcony doors while enjoying a hot shower.
The ship has 132 ocean-facing hotel-style cabins or suites, all with king-size or twin beds and private bathrooms. Most cabins also come with private balconies. Passengers can choose from six types of rooms; the most expensive have a butler service.
After a chance to rest and freshen up, it's time to explore the boat. Public areas include a panoramic lounge and library, a theatre for lectures and after-dinner performances, a cocktail bar lounge, a sun deck with swimming pool and a gym and beauty centre.
There is wi-fi access but we are warned that internet and telephone access is spasmodic and expensive.
Captain Jean-Philippe Lemaire delays the boat's departure for several hours to wait for passengers' luggage that did not make the morning flight to Ushuaia. This is the type of cruise where missing clothing will ruin the trip, preventing shore excursions to see the spectacular wildlife.
The first two days of the cruise are "sea days" through the notoriously rough Drake Passage and sea-sickness tablets are recommended. The time is spent attending briefings for the expedition landings or enjoying the facilities.
Unsurprisingly on a French ship, the majority of passengers on our cruise were French-speaking. Announcements and nature lectures are provided in French and English.
Meals, including 24-hour room service, are included, as are wine, beers and soft drinks during meals. The ship does not have the open bar policy of some high-end vessels but the bar prices are about the same as Australian bars, with cocktails cheaper.
The two restaurants on board both serve buffet breakfasts and lunches. The main restaurant offers four-course dinners with choices for each course, while the grill is more casual with themed dinners. Some savoury dishes are stand-outs but others are hit and miss.
The highlights of the French- influenced cuisine are the delicacies created by the pastry chef.
Eclairs, tarts, cakes, chocolate mousse and giant pink macarons with yoghurt ice-cream filling make the ship's gym - with its treadmills, bikes, fit balls and Kinesis equipment - start to look like a necessity.
The chefs also accommodate dietary requirements, cooking extra dishes for vegetarians and baking gluten-free bread.
When I'm back in my cabin I can't help but think what a far cry all this luxury is from how the pioneers of this region had to travel. This year is the 100th anniversary of Sir Douglas Mawson's first Australasian expedition, when they were forced to eat the sled dogs. Nowadays about 34,000 tourists safely visit Antarctica each summer.
Our cruise takes us to the Antarctic Peninsula, the northern tip of the icy continent, and nearby islands. All shore excursions are weather-dependent and melting ice, rough seas and high winds can prevent outings. Despite being early in the season, we are lucky enough to have calm weather most days and have close encounters with gentoo, adelie and chinstrap penguins as well as weddell and leopard seals.
Even though L'Austral can accommodate up to 264 passengers, numbers are limited to 200 for Antarctic voyages. That's because only 100 passengers are allowed on shore at a time to reduce the human footprint on the area's ecology.
There were 132 people aboard my cruise, which meant trips ashore were limited to about 1.5 hours so that everyone had a chance to explore. L'Austral offers "soft expeditions" (passengers experience shore visits or tours in zodiacs) but there are no sea kayaks or nights spent camping in the snow.
And shore excursions are catered to the least agile - although passengers must be able to get in and out of zodiacs themselves.
For those worried about their footprint on one of our last pristine environments, L'Austral has attained international Clean Ship status, minimising its environmental impact by recycling water, treating waste and sewage on board, using low-energy light bulbs and reducing the use of chemical cleaners.
The chocolate eclairs really are the only thing I have to feel guilty about.
• A 10-night Antarctica round-trip cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina, departing on December 11 costs $7535 per person, twin-share in a prestige stateroom on the Pont Chandernagor deck, with meals, shore excursions and a parka included.
• For information or bookings on Compagnie du Ponant, go to traveltheworld.com.au or phone 1300 950 622.Gabrielle Knowles travelled courtesy of Compagnie Du Ponant and Travel the World.
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