Antarctica is full of superlatives and extremes. And because you can reach the continent only via a ship, getting there is almost like taking a regular cruise vacation.
Almost ... because this place is unique on the planet, and your adventure at sea will be unlike any other you've had.
Before you even get to the continent, you'll spend more than 24 hours grabbing for handrails or the top of the mattress as your ship crosses the Drake Passage, perhaps the world's roughest body of water. Instead of sailing a mega-ship featuring a casino, multiple dining choices and professional entertainment, you'll wend through icy waters on a vessel more like Hurtigruten's Fram: 318 passengers, compact cabins and an emphasis on lecture space and observation areas.
In the summer -- tourism's high season -- the temperature along the favored landing spots is usually around freezing, but the wind chill can easily hit 60 degrees below freezing.
The continent is sizable: if you placed the United States atop Antarctica, there would be about 1.5 million square miles not covered. But, while more than 311 million people live in the U.S., no one lives on Antarctica permanently. Its only residents are scientists and support staff staying temporarily at tiny outposts. That means you won't be going ashore to enjoy any cultural heritage, regional foods, traditional handicrafts or quaint villages. (Though your ship might drop you off at the ruins of old whaling stations.)
Antarctica does not have any significant vegetation because most of the land is covered by ice as much as two miles thick. Nor does the continent have indigenous wildlife. Rather, it has only marine animals like seals, penguins and other seabirds that come ashore to breed.
However, once you're on shore, you'll be astonished by the endless panoramas of mountains and glaciers marching to the sea, and you'll be entranced by rookeries of penguins or the occasional seal sunning along the coast.
Typical cruise? Not so much. But an Antarctica expedition is an experience to treasure.
--by Bob Jenkins, Cruise Critic contributor