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Antarctica has always been on my bucket list. I may be a religious Jew, but that doesn’t mean I’m satisfied limiting my travels to the same boring spots every time, just in order to have kosher restaurants. My most memorable trips aren’t to Miami, LA, or Cancun. They’re the ones to Tasmania, Palau, Svalbard, Dubai, Kobe, Lofoten, Florionopolis, Banff, Iguazu Falls, Kwajalein, Guam, and the Whitsundays Islands. But I also don’t care to live off of Tuna and Peanut Butter. I’ve traveled to those places with double sealed gourmet kosher meals that I have warmed up in hotels, vacation homes, etc.
Sure, I have incurable wanderlust vice. But I also love doing mitzvos (good deeds) and davening (praying) in remote parts of the world that have never seen a Jew before. And over the years I have racked up countless stories of hashgacha pratis (divine providence) along the way.
My first attempt at going to Antarctica was in October 2016 when Starwood auctioned off a cruise for 2 to Antarctica. Earlier that year I had taken a 12 hour snowmobile from Longyearbyen in Svalbard, which is home to the northernmost airport in the world by a long shot. We saw polar beers, reindeer, and crossed vast glaciers on an epic adventure. It seemed aprops to conquer the southernmost continent the same year.
Unfortunately cruises to Antarctica don’t offer any kosher food options. We contacted the cruise line and asked if we could bring our own kosher meals, to which they responded that we could not bring our own food.
A friend and me decided to bid on the auction anyway and try to smuggle shelf-stable food onboard and we decided to bid up to 770K Starpoints. In the end we were outbid, but the seeds had been planted.
Earlier this year, Morris Hersko, better known on DDF as “Something Fishy,” asked me if I wanted to help him organize and market a cruise to Antarctica:
From past research I knew that going privately with proper food would be nearly impossible. We needed leverage in the form of a group to make this happen. Other kosher cruise lines shunned Antarctica as the logistics involved are daunting and the market is limited.
Most cruises depart from Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost commercial airport in the world. It’s the closest point to Antarctica. From there it takes 2 days to travel to Antarctica, which allows 6 days in Antarctica, and 2 days to travel back.
We looked into options to fly to Antarctica, but weight and Shabbos constraints made that impossible.
We set out contacting every Antarctic cruise line and most had zero interest in accommodating kosher passengers. Of the ones that were willing to figure out kosher logistics, we had to rule most out due to other reasons.
For example we needed to find a boat that departed from Ushuaia on a Monday and returned on a Thursday. A Sunday departure would have required passengers to be in Ushuaia for Shabbos. A Tuesday departure would have arrived back into Ushuaia on Friday, requiring passengers to be in Ushuaia for Shabbos. Halacha (Jewish law) requires that you not board a ship 3 days before Shabbos, which ruled out Wednesday-Friday departures. The reason for that is so that you can acclimate to the waters and have a pleasant Shabbos. There are leniencies potentially available on modern stable cruise ships, but as we would be crossing the infamous Drake Passage where the waters can be quite violent, where no such leniency would apply.
The Drake is known as either the Drake Lake or the Drake Shake. It can be calm or the waves can toss the boat around violently. The reason for the rough waters is that there is a large open space on the Oceans between Antarctica and Australia or Africa. However the small passage between South America and Antarctica get all the storms from that open space funneled through it, which can create intense storms. There is also no land at that latitude, so there is nothing to slow down those storms.
We also needed to go earlier in the season, before boats made their way past the Antarctic circle. Traveling south of the circle would mean that there would be no sunset, which would create serious questions about when to observe Shabbos. There are many opinions about that, including keeping Shabbos according to Jerusalem time, keeping Shabbos for 24 hours starting from 6pm, keeping Shabbos for 24 hours starting from midnight, keeping Shabbos according to the time in your home, keeping Shabbos according to the time of the nearest point that does have a sunset, keeping Shabbos according to your last departure point, keeping Shabbos for an entire year every 7 years, etc. We wanted to avoid that thorny question if possible.
Another problem would be that bringing food into Ushuaia is very tricky due to special customs involved for travel to Patagonia. Meat, fruits, and vegetables are all banned and customs officers may be even more strict than that. Kosher caterers in Buenos Aires said that they could not provide catering for Ushuaia. That meant we would have to load kosher food on the boat from another point.
After exhaustive research, we found only one option. OneOcean Expeditions had a cruise aboard the RCGS Resolute that would depart from Ushuaia on Monday, December 10, and return on Thursday, December 20. The dates were not exactly ideal. We would have to light menorahs on the 8th night of Chanuka in Ushuaia. We would have to fast on the 10th of Teves for a grueling 24 hours on Tuesday, December 18, rather than for less than 11 hours in the US due to the long Antarctic day. However it was the only day that worked for 2018 and 2019, so we ran with it.
OneOcean has worked tirelessly with us to figure out kosher accommodations and it has been a task that has taken hundreds of hours of research and discussions. In the end we decided to use L’Orchidee Traiteur of Montreal. The boat would dock in Canada after the Arctic season to journey down to Antarctica, which would make for a perfect opportunity to provision food and wine on the boat.
Cruises to Antarctica cost north of $10,000 per person. Would there be a big enough market to make this trip feasible? We would need at least a dozen passengers for the plan to work and we would need to find them fast. We only had a few weeks to confirm that we had enough interested passengers before all of the details had to be finalized.
I wrote about the trip on DansDeals and the response was overwhelming. We received thousands of inquiries about attending, though many of those were hoping to offer a service to come for free. We had requests from Rabbis, Doctors, Lawyers, Lecturers, Scientists, Babysitters, Massage Therapists, Bloggers, Instagramers, Influencers, Thought Leaders, a Yoga Instructor, and many more offering their services in exchange for a comped trip. Publications started pressing us to advertise our trip on their website or magazine. Now that may work on a cruise where prices are low and there are thousands of passengers, but it doesn’t work on a cruise that is planning on having just a dozen passengers to be feasible and make an awesome unprecendeted trip happen.
But we also found dozens of serious inquiries from people who also had Antarctica on their bucket list and the trip was quickly a go, despite not advertising anywhere besides DansDeals. Some people paid with miles. Some paid with cash that they had saved for just such a trip. Other won raffles that collectively raised well over $100,000 in profits to the 3 charities that auctions off spots on the cruise.
In total 56 kosher passengers booked space on the cruise, out of 146 total passengers on the ship. Halacha requires that Jews be the minority of passengers on a boat that travels over Shabbos, so we had to remain well below half in order to ensure that we wouldn’t run into that issue.
We completely sold out the cruise, though due to some last-minute cancellations we will have 51 people on our trip. We did have many waitlisted passengers, but unfortunately we weren’t able to add any of them to the cruise due to various last minute constraints.
Originally I planned on flying to Ushuaia on Saturday night, but Moishie convinced me that it was too risky for me not to be in Argentina before Shabbos, so I booked travel for Thursday and made plans to spend Shabbos in Buenos Aires.
Of course I would be remiss not to thank my amazing wife Mimi for allowing me to fuel my travel addiction.
So I booked travel on American from Cleveland to Buenos Aires in business class on a 77W for 51,750 miles after a 5,750 miles rebate from having an AA credit card. Due to my incredible streak of bad luck with American, I also booked a backup flight on United from Cleveland to Buenos Aires via Newark on a 767 in business class for 60K miles.
I booked 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Buenos Aires for 20K points/night and made arrangements with Chabad of Recoleta for Shabbos meals.
I still needed to book a separate ticket from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, where we would board the ship. Delta is partners with Aerolineas Argentinas and charges 12.5K miles each way in coach. You can’t book business class online, but you can call to book that for 25K miles.
I let others on the trip book up the award space and rolled the dice on buying a ticket from their Aerolineas Argentinas Argentine website, which sells tickets for less than half the price of their US website. There are some horror stories online from people saying that they were forced to pay the difference in price if they don’t have an Argentine passport, but I decided to roll the dice due to the massive savings.
We opened up a private forum on DDF for our passengers, where we discussed everything from saver award availability alerts to where to eat in Buenos Aires during a stopover.
For the next several months there were thousands of logistics that we had to work through, but we dealt with every issue one by one and were hopeful that we had everything under control.
Finally, after months of exhaustive planning it was go time!
We had to bring all of our clothes we would need for the cruise along with menorahs, souvenirs, and food for Ushuaia.
This past Thursday I flew from Cleveland to Miami and lit menorah at JJ’s condo there, where we had a Chanuka meal. After he put his son to bed we went to the Kosher Food and Wine event at the Turnberry Isle. We had an amazing time sampling incredible wines and food. Many people there wished me good luck on the Antarctica adventure.
I stayed at the event for as long as I could before heading back to Miami airport. I really wanted a quick shower but Pre-Check was closed, so I only rolled into the the American Flagship Lounge 45 minutes before the flight. The flight was already boarding, but I told lounge agent that I’d be quick and she let me into the shower room. I took a quick refreshing shower, changed into United pajamas that I received from a flight earlier this year to Israel, and went to board the flight to Buenos Aires.
I was in seat 3A, which is a business class mini cabin behind first class and in front of the main business class cabin.
Moishie Hersko, who towers over everyone at 6’8”, was in first class. The seats are nearly identical to business class on the AA 77W, except they’re slightly wider and longer and come with pajamas and a mattress pad. It’s not worth the premium for most people.
American 77W business class:
They were still serving pre-departure drinks when I boarded, though for some reason I didn’t get one despite asking for one. Perhaps they didn’t like my United Pajamas 😉
The purser on the flight was a real stickler and refused to warm up the double wrapped heavenly BBQ burger that I brought for us from Backyard BBQ due to unwritten “Security reasons”. It’s the first time I’ve failed to get a double wrapped kosher meal warmed up on an airline that isn’t named Cathay Pacific.
Moishie asked if I could join him in first class for dinner as there is seatbelt on the legrest in first class for that purpose, but was told that option is not available on international flights. Good luck finding the 77W operating a domestic flight…
The appetizers were served frozen and inedible. The entrée was braised short ribs, which were surprisingly decent for a kosher meal
An amazing BBQ Burger from Backyard BBQ:
The seat itself is spacious, though I found the space between the top part and middle section of the bed to be uncomfortable when trying to sleep.
I did get a few hours of shut-eye though before waking up for the inedible kosher breakfast served on the plane.
American 77W business class middle seats:
American 77W business class middle seats:
American 77W first class:
American 77W first class middle section:
Moishie and I landed in Buenos Aires and met up with Shua Lurie and Armond Kadoch of L’Orchidee Traiteur along with a mashgiach that we also brought along. Together we had about 20 suitcases of provisions and needed to find a way to get it all to the hotel.
My Uber app kept erroring out when trying to reserve a car, but we found 3 taxi vans and paid $40 each for the transportation to Recoleta.
Later on I found out that Uber doesn’t accept AMEX in Argentina and that you need to add a non-AMEX card to your payment methods for the app to work properly. It’s pretty dumb that the app doesn’t say that anywhere when giving the error message.
We got to the Park Hyatt and had them freeze the suitcases of frozen food. Our room in the Posades Tower section of the hotel was not ready and the offered to move us to a room in the Palace section of the hotel for $100/night. I asked for a manager as I was surprised that I didn’t receive a suite or at least a standard Palace section room as a Globalist member. In the end they moved us to the Palace room for free. The Posades Tower section of the hotel is more modern, while the Palace section has more of the original character. More importantly for us though given that we would be in the hotel for Shabbos, we moved from a 7th floor Tower room to a 3rd floor Palace room.
After davening, we took an Uber to the Jewish community in Once (pronounced Un-say) and stopped at Malena bakery. Unfortunately, they were out of their signature dish, churros. However they did have other pastries that we picked up for Shabbos morning. Like most stores in Argentina, you’ll need to pay in cash, though nearly every place is happy to accept payment in dollars.
Pastries from Malena:
Pastries from Malena:
The food here is not good at all, but it’s still a fun experience:
Next to the kosher McDonald’s is a kosher dairy Empanada restaurant.
And after passing by my corner:
I picked up an old favorite from my Sao Paulo days, a can of Guarana. Given the antarctica brand name it seemed even more apropos for this trip.
14 people on the trip ate at Chabad of Recoleta and a wonderful time was had by all. The meals were hearty and the company was even better. It was also great to get to know some of our fellow travelers before the official start of the trip.
Even more amazing is that the Rabbi’s daughter is getting married this week, but he was still able to prepare an amazing Shabbos for us.
On Saturday evening 7 of us went out to Milk & Co.
The Fettuccine Alfredo was not up to par:
But the Pappadelle was much better:
We requested 2 large taxis to take us from the Park Hyatt to the domestic airport at 8:10am Sunday. We had 4 frozen suitcases of food in the Park Hyatt freezer and asked that they be brought out then as well.
When we got outside and there was no sign of our bags, so we asked for them again and were told they were on the way.
By 8:25am I went back to the front desk and they said they were having trouble locating our bags. I told them they were 4 large suitcases and the agent was surprised. She had them looking for 4 small bags, not suitcases.
Finally by 8:35am the bags were located. The hotel paid off our taxis to the airport including the 25 minutes of waiting time. It was a nice gesture, though the rides only cost 300 pesos, or about $8 each.
At the airport I went to checkin my bags and on the final bag the agent felt that it was cold. He asked what was inside and I explained that there was chicken and dairy. No-go he said, you can’t take any animal product to Ushuaia.
I knew he was wrong. We had done our research and knew that red meat, fruits, and vegetables were verboten, but chicken was just fine. However the agent didn’t want to hear or read anything I had, he was convinced that he was right and said that the bag would not be flying on Aerolineas that day.
No problem I thought, I ran the bag over to our caterer, who was booked on LATAM. But at his counter the agent was in middle of explaining that they were oversold and that they were being transferred over to Aerolineas.
So I brought them back to another Aerolineas counter where we only declared that the bag had dairy, and we had no issues.
Through security we went until I heard my name being paged at the gate. I went over and the agent there said the airport police need to see me immediately.
Our caterer and mashgiach said that it was nice knowing me and that I would look great in orange as I was led off to the bowels of the airport. I pulled up the relevant pages about what can be brought to Ushuaia and got ready to face an interrogation. There was only 20 minutes until our flight departure time at this point and my main goal was saving our food for Ushuaia and getting on that flight.