Well-organized without being regimented, the cruise is informal in both dress and behavior. As the start, passengers sign up for meal tables; places are fixed for the duration except at the buffet breakfast, when people tend to straggle in at different times. In general, passengers are grouped according to language, though they often place together people who speak English as a second language. The staff themselves can handle Spanish, English, German, French, and occasionally other languages.
After introduction of the captain and crew, and an obligatory safety drill, there’s a welcome drink and a brief folklore show (in Punta Arenas ) or tango demonstration (in Ushuaia ). Smoking is prohibited everywhere except outdoors and at the rear of the fourth deck pub; bar consumption is now included in the package.
The cabins themselves are spacious, with either a double or twin beds, built-in reading lights, a closet with hangers and a small lock box for valuables, and a private bath with excellent hot showers. Some rooms also have a fold-down bunk for children or a third person. The food is abundant and occasionally excellent, though breakfasts are a little monotonous; the wine is superb, and the service exceptional. Vegetarian menus are available on request.
For those who tire of the landscape or when the weather is bad, onboard activities include karaoke, slide lectures on flora and fauna, engine-room tours, and culinary demonstrations of cucumbers, peppers, zucchinis, and other vegetables carved in the shapes of birds and flowers. The farewell dinner is a gala affair, followed by champagne on the topmost deck.
Punta Arenas  is the homeport for fjord-bound cruises; check-in takes place at Turismo Comapa (Magallanes 990, tel. 061/20-0200) 1–5 p.m., while boarding takes place 5–6 p.m. at the entrance to Muelle Prat. Some passengers begin or end the trip in Argentine Tierra del Fuego, where check-in takes place at Comapa’s Ushuaia office (San Martín 245, tel. 02901/43-0727, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.); boarding takes place at the Muelle Turístico 5–6 p.m.
Usually this popular cruise runs full October–April, but the global recession has meant occasional last minute bargains; in this case, it may be possible to negotiate a deal in Punta Arenas , getting a private cabin without paying a single supplement, for instance. The best time is around Christmas, when days are so long that it’s possible to enjoy the landscape until after 11 p.m., and there’s sufficient light to read by 4 a.m.
Make reservations through Cruceros Australis (Avenida Bosque Norte 0440, 11th floor, Las Condes, Santiago, tel. 02/442-3110, fax 02/203-5173, www.australis.com ), which also has offices in Buenos Aires  (Carlos Pellegrini 989, 6th floor, Retiro, tel. 011/43-25-8400) and in Miami (4014 Chase Ave., Suite 202, Miami Beach, FL 33140, tel. 305/695-9618 or 877/678-3772). Per-person rates for four days and three nights start at US$840–1,510 in low season and go up to US$1,330–2,390 in high season. For five days and four nights, the comparable rates are US$1,120–2,010 in low season to US$1,770–3,110 in high season..