How’s the Food? A Popular Critic Weighs in on Antarctic Expedition Fare

April 5, 2017 Nicolas Singh

When you’re thinking of taking an Antarctic expedition, food probably isn’t the first thing on your mind. You’re more likely dreaming about Zodiac cruising, amazing wildlife encounters, and exploring the Antarctic Peninsula by kayak, skis or on foot.

As passengers start preparing for their trip--particularly when they’re deciding what to pack--they often have questions for us Polar Travel Advisers about their dining options.

  • Should I bring my own snacks?
  • Will the chef be able to accommodate my gluten-free, diabetic, heart healthy or other special diet?
  • Am I going to starve out there if I don’t like what’s being served?
  • Will I get sick of the food?

These are very real concerns, as you’re going to some of the most remote, pristine places on the planet. It’s not like you can step out to a restaurant if you’re hungry!

Passengers dine on deck in Antarctica when the weather permits.

Freshly grilled and carved meats, roasted vegetables, burgers and more on deck. Photo: Quark passenger Darrick

I had a chance to catch up with Derek Timm, author of popular food blog bluejeanfood.com and co-host of Small Bites with Glenn Cross and Derek Timm on Wildfire Radio, after his expedition. He had been concerned about the food as he prepared to head to Antarctica, so it was great to chat and hear what a bona fide foodie thought about the food onboard! 

Overall, he said:

“This isn’t just a trip for the people who are looking for an adventure; it’s a trip for people who like to eat well, too."

Here’s why.

Typical Cruise Food = Lowered Expectations

Previous experiences had left Derek’s expectations for cruise food pretty low, and the very term “expedition” set his alarm bells ringing.

“I’ve been on luxury cruise ships on the Mediterranean and the food was terrible. I thought, Man if this is what cruise ships consider luxury, I’m just not going to get anything to eat at all!” he laughed.

“So for an expedition, I thought, Maybe we’ll have some beef jerky, maybe we’ll have some dried fish, who knows? The bar was set low going in because of previous experiences that I’ve had on sailing vessels.”

Don’t worry--your dining experience is one major way today’s expeditions differ from those of the explorers who historically trekked to Antarctica.

Historic food supplies at Port Lockroy, Antarctica.
Port Lockroy museum. Photo: Miranda Miller

You can see what it was like in the old days and check out the typical Antarctic station diet on a visit to the preserved living quarters at Port Lockroy (pictured above), but you’re not going to be eating bacon or butter from a can like they used to.

Antarctic Expedition Dining a Pleasant Surprise

Onboard Ocean Endeavour, Derek immediately realized he was in for something special. His first impression of the dining room was that it was comfortable and well appointed, with knowledgeable, attentive staff.

“The first thing I noticed was a carved fruit sculpture that was a perfect caricature of the man in charge of the food, Chef Manfred,” Derek said. “It was probably better than I’ve seen in some five-star banquet rooms, the quality of that carving.”

That first night’s dinner was buffet style, but what he found was far from the typical buffet fare travelers have come to expect on a lot of cruises and in resorts. “I was surprised at how fresh the food was, especially considering how remote an Antarctic expedition is,” Derek said. “Each dinner was a three-course meal with a homemade soup or fresh, crisp salad to start, and your choice of entree. It was really well done.”

“There was a wide variety of food types and ethnicities represented and it was good… I mean, really good.”

Derek said his expectations were not only exceeded, but those initial concerns he had about starving out there on the ocean were totally unfounded.

“Chef Manfred took it to the extreme. His professionalism and all of his experience in the culinary world really shines,” he said. “He did all kinds of ethnic foods; there was so much variety. You could tell that everything was handcrafted and made from scratch with fresh ingredients, for the most part.”

Healthy, Fresh Meals Power Passengers on Expedition

Healthy and fresh meals power passengers on Antarctic expedition.

Passengers are often surprised at just how active and fast-paced expedition travel can be. On small expedition ships, you don’t experience the holdups it takes to get hundreds of people to shore or into the Zodiac cruisers. You’re not spending several days at sea just to experience one or two shore landings, either; often, you’re taking two excursions per day (sometimes even a third!). Passengers need healthy, fresh and plentiful options to keep their energy up.

Derek recalls that his expedition snacks and meals made sense within the group’s busy schedule. “We enjoyed a hearty breakfast and then, whether we were at sea taking in morning lectures or heading straight out on an excursion, had morning snacks like fresh fruit, pastries and brewed coffee mid-morning.”

IAATO regulations prohibit you from taking food onto the Antarctic continent, so lunches are always taken on the ship; most often in the dining room, but sometimes on deck, too. “There was no lack of food to be had and the availability and the variety was fantastic,” Derek said. 

“I also saw the staff meeting some special dietary restrictions needs, which was great. They really made sure everything was fresh and efficient, and that everyone was well fed. It was really top-notch.” 

Expedition and hotel staff organize an outdoor meal in Antarctica.

Setup for an on-deck lunch in Antarctica. Photo: Ocean Diamond, Miranda Miller

Depending on what your Expedition Leader has planned, you might head back out again after lunch, be in transit to another exciting destination and heading into an expert onboard lecture, or have free time to explore the library, use the gym or hang out on the decks taking photos.

In any case, a mid-to-late afternoon tea typically served in the lounge might consist of tea sandwiches, hors d’oeuvres and finger foods, or fresh baking. “The afternoon tea helped us prepare ourselves for the evening, with some much-needed relaxation and nutrition. It really elevated the experience,” Derek said.

In Antarctica, Food & Drink Are a Social Affair

“We all dined together at set times, but the open seating gave us an opportunity to get to know one another,” Derek said. “In my experience, even on luxury cruises the meals aren’t that impressive, but on Ocean Endeavour, we all really looked forward to meals. Each new menu was a pleasant surprise and you just never have to worry about what you’re going to find to eat. The meals were delicious, so we just focused on sharing our experiences with each other and enjoying one another’s company.”

On most expeditions, there’s also the opportunity for an on-deck meal or BBQ party.

BBQ lunch on deck in Antarctica (Ocean Diamond).

BBQ lunch on deck, Ocean Diamond; pictured: grilled chicken, sausage on a bun, Greek salad, fresh cut fries and corn medley. Photo: Miranda Miller

From the shore landings and Zodiac cruises to the food, friendship (and even the polar plunge!) Derek says his Antarctic expedition exceeded his every expectation. 

“I’ve eaten all around the world and on luxury liners, but the food we enjoyed onboard in Antarctica was far and away better than anything I’ve ever experienced on the seas.”

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