A place of wonder and natural beauty, Antarctica is like no other. The freezing temperatures and rushing winds are no obstacle to the adventure-seekers who visit every year. A selection of luxury cruise lines — including Antarctica XXI, Quark Expeditions, and One Ocean Expeditions — service the continent during the austral summer months, allowing true world travelers a glimpse of some of the last remote and untouched landscapes on the globe.
A trip on an expedition vessel is a unique experience in and of itself. The ships are small, usually no more than 120 passengers, making your experience an intimate one.
The ships are typically rated a 1C ice class or above, making them uniquely suited for traveling through icy waters. Even though these ships are not icebreakers, they can crush through certain levels of ice bobbing in the Antarctic waters. Cabins are spacious and well-equipped, but you’ll find you don’t spend much of your time there. When you’re not off the ship cruising by zodiac or exploring on land, you’ll be listening to incredible lectures by some of the world’s leading scientists and historians.
If you travel aboard a luxury Antarctic cruise, between lectures, cruising and land visits, you’ll enjoy some of the best cuisine around. Meals are plentiful and delicious, from buffet breakfasts and lunches to three- or four-course meals at dinner. Tea is served in the afternoon, and you can expect to find the bar open for post-excursion drinks.
On land, there are no real predators, so the animals are naturally curious. Travelers can expect to see penguins by the hundreds. Common varieties include Adélie, gentoo, chinstrap and macaroni, among others.
If you visit in November or December, you’ll see mating rituals and eggs as well as chicks starting to hatch. Later in the season you’ll spot older chicks learning to feed and play while parents protectively watch for preying skua, an aggressive seabird sometimes known as avian pirates. You might also spot a few beached elephant seals, bulls surrounded by their harems, and witness blue-eyed shags (a species of cormorant) wander the beaches.
In the deep blue water, predators lurk. Leopard seals inspect zodiacs from the comfort of an iceberg, waiting for their next penguin to swim by. Majestic whales surface periodically, their sleek fins breaching the smooth surface of the water. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a pod of whales following your ship, playing by the bow. The most common visitors are orcas, humpback whales and minke whales.
Several companies offer expeditions to the White Continent. Major tour operators include One Ocean Expeditions and G Adventures. Most cruises leave from Ushuaia, Argentina, which you can take a plane ride to via Buenos Aires. Journeys typically range from 11–21 days, depending on the remoteness of the ship’s ports of call.
Antarctica XXI is the first company to offer a fly-cruise option. The departure point is Punta Arenas, Chile, and from there you fly to King George Island, Antarctica. This flight saves the ship from having to cross the infamous Drake Passage, which requires four days at sea. Fly-cruise options generally take six to eight days, not including travel time.
Tours only happen during the austral summer, that is, between November and February or March each season, and it’s best to book far in advance. Temperatures are usually in the range of 25–36 degrees Fahrenheit (-4–2 degrees Celsius). Your experience will vary depending on the time of season you choose to visit. Penguins mate at the start of the season in October or November. Eggs begin to hatch around December, and chicks grow as the season progresses.
Excursions and Activities
Once you arrive, you can expect to go on one or two excursions per day, split between zodiac cruises and landings. Both offer a unique perspective of this incredible place. All tour operators offer some sort of education component onboard, with expert scientists and historians speaking about the environment around you.
You can also try weather-dependent activities, such as kayaking, snowshoeing and camping. If the conditions are right, plunge into the icy polar waters for a swim you’ll never forget.
As your ship makes the trip back to South America, take a last glance at Antarctica receding into the horizon. The snow-capped, craggy peaks and wheeling seabirds rise above you, and looming icebergs sink into the aquamarine depths below. An Antarctic cruise is an incredible opportunity to visit one of the last frontiers of true wilderness, and if you do it in style, the journey will be truly memorable.
Photos: Volodymyr Goinyk / Shutterstock.com, G Adventures, Photodynamic / Shutterstock.com, MZPHOTO.CZ / Shutterstock.com, Rodrigo Moraga, Karine Bengualid, Matt Berger / Shutterstock.com, Volodymyr Goinyk / Shutterstock.com