Antarctica is the adventurer’s choice for adventure. The pristine wilderness of the White Continent, the planet’s coldest, driest and windiest region, makes it one of the most beguiling but inhospitable destinations on earth. A mere 5,000 people reside at research stations scattered across the 5,400,000 square mile area, but there are no towns, no cities and no permanent inhabitants in the traditional sense. It was just 100 years ago that the explorers Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen raced to the South Pole, and tourism only began here in the 1950s and 1960s.
While cruise may be the best way to see many destinations, it is virtually the only way to see Antarctica in any depth. Modern expedition cruise to the region was pioneered by Lars-Eric Lindblad in 1969 when he launched the MS Lindblad Explorer, something his son, Sven, would continue under Lindblad (see Opinion, p16), but today there are a number of options that sail the short season between November and February, operated in accordance to the rules of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). The diversity among the body’s 48 members is as pronounced as it is anywhere else in cruise – from former polar research ships to ultra luxury yachts.
But the seasons are short, and costs are high (even the cheaper options start at around £5,000pp for 12-night cruises), meaning these trips are usually a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Home to razorback and humpback whales, Weddell and leopard seals and, of course, penguins, the region is one of the world’s richest for wildlife, meaning many itineraries have a animal-spotting slant. Cruises most often sail from Argentina (sometimes taking in South Georgia, home to a colony of no fewer than 300,000 king penguins), before heading to the breathtaking Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of the mainland. There’s also the small matter of navigating Drake Passage, which connects the southwestern part of the Atlantic Ocean with the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean – one of the roughest stretches of water anywhere.
Geographically, guests may only see a smidgen of the continent, but this is a destination to immerse yourself in, with experts – lecturing in everything from geology to climate change, wildlife to photography – on most itineraries.
“Our team of naturalists, historians and polar specialists bring the destination to life through their knowledge and passion,” says Emma Savage, marketing manager at Aurora Expeditions. “Antarctica is a place of beauty and inspiration, but it is only by learning about the significance of the continent’s environment, history and scientific research, can you truly understand what makes it so magical.”
There are also some very special shore excursions. Cruise operators typically only allow 100 people on land at any one time in order to comply with IAATO agreements, which is an advantage of small ship cruises, where everyone is allowed off. (One Ocean’s Akademik Ioffe hosts 96 guests; Aurora Expedition’s Polar Pioneer hosts 54, both offering expedition experiences).
Although Hurtigruten’s Fram is bigger, at 400 guests, it boasts some of the best shore excursions going. On a 16-night sailing (where guests, like on many Antarctic voyages, are invited to explore beautiful Buenos Aires first), there is the chance to spend a night in a tent on the ice and, as the company promises, “feel like a true polar hero”. The line also offers kayaking in the icy waters, as does Seabourn, the ultra-luxury line, which has just rolled out its Ventures programme. It pairs 21 and 24-day sailings to the region plus Patagonia, in Argentina and Chile, as well some extravagant (42 and 66-day) sailings to include the Amazon. Crystal offers a sailing that starts in Valparaíso, Chile, taking in the country’s fjords, to Antarctica, and ending in Buenos Aires.
More than anywhere else, a cruise to Antarctica with one line differs greatly from the next. Savage adds that it is crucial that customers do their homework – and agents, of course, also play a key role in this. “Researching thoroughly is so important for this type of expedition,” she says. “Imagine forking out thousands of dollars to find that your holiday is to revolve around schedules because only 100 passengers are allowed on shore at any one time. Don’t just rely on the glossy brochures; read blogs, online reviews and talk to each company to decide what experience sounds like the right type of experience for you.”