Antarctica is the last untouched continent, making it a desirable destination for the intrepid traveler. It has no indigenous people, no politics and no economy, yet it covers almost one-tenth of the earth's surface -- making it 1.5 times the size of the United States. More than 30,000 tourists travel there each year -- a small number compared to Alaska's 1 million cruise visitors.
The history of Antarctica's exploration includes Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen's famous race for the South Pole, as well as one of the greatest survival stories of all time. In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew set sail aboard Endurance on a quest to be the first to cross the southernmost continent over land. They abandoned their attempt when the ship was trapped in sea ice, but incredibly, thanks to Shackleton's courage and determination, all crewmembers survived.
Today, cruise ships visit just the tip of the iceberg compared to the great explorers, traveling to the South Shetland Islands and the 1,000-mile-long Antarctic Peninsula. Typically, one-third of all visitors come from the U.S., and U.K. travelers rank second, closely followed by German adventure-seekers.
The "White Continent" has the world's largest concentration of marine wildlife, with hundreds of thousands of penguins, six species of seals and nine types of whales calling it home. You can expect to see three types of penguins -- chinstrap, gentoo and adelie, all from the Brush-tailed penguin family. Finding an emperor penguin this far north is unlikely, but it does happen. South Georgia is the place to find King penguins. Seals are commonly found on the beaches and lazing on icebergs, and if you're very lucky, a blue whale will breech alongside your ship.
You have to see the remarkable scenery to believe it. Icebergs come in shades of white and blue -- weathered by the sea -- and huge glaciers line the horizon. Most impressive are the immense tabular icebergs that break off from frozen ice shelves in huge chunks. Whether you go for the wildlife or the breathtaking scenery, you won't be disappointed.
Who Goes There?
Three main types of ship travel to Antarctica: small expedition ships with ice-hardened hulls, medium-size ships and large cruise ships.
Smaller ships carry inflatable landing craft (usually Zodiacs) so that passengers can venture off the ship and actually set foot on land. Look for the smallest vessels from lines like Aurora Expeditions, Oceanwide Expeditions and Antarpply Expeditions, but the more well-known sailings tend to be on the mid-sized ships of Hurtigruten, Silversea, Lindblad Expeditions
, Quark Expeditions, G Adventures, Noble Caledonia
, Orion Expeditions
and Seabourn Cruise Line
. Large ships from lines like Crystal Cruises
, Princess Cruises
, Holland America
and Celebrity Cruises
offer two to three days of scenic cruising with no landings.
Choosing an Itinerary
Most Antarctica itineraries (and fares) include charter flights to the cruise port of Ushuaia, Argentina, from (and back to) Buenos Aires, Argentina or Santiago, Chile. There is generally an overnight scheduled at a hotel in Buenos Aires or Santiago on the way to the cruise. Once you reach Ushuaia, there are two primary options for your actual cruise:
These itineraries feature 11 to 14 nights at sea, including the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands located off its tip.
South Georgia and the Falklands:
Longer 14- to 19-night sailings add the Falkland Islands, where you can check king penguins off of your wildlife sighting list, and South Georgia, where Shackleton is buried.
Around Cape Horn:
In the large-ship category, on lines like Holland America and Princess, the journey to Antarctica takes about six nights during an around-the-horn South America cruise. Remember, you won't have the opportunity to get off the ship in Antarctica.
It's worth noting that wherever you go is entirely weather dependent. If it's too windy and dangerous to land the Zodiacs at one spot, the captain will sail to another landing.
Whether you choose a large or a small ship from South America, there's no getting away from sailing across the Drake Passage -- roughly 36 hours of choppy seas and gale-force winds. There's a reason it's called expedition cruising. The area is nicknamed the Drake Lake on calmer days and the Drake Shake on wilder days. Come prepared with a supply of seasick patches or pills.
Best Time to Go
The Antarctic summer and cruise season begins in November and ends in March. It is too dangerous for tourist ships to visit in winter, when pack ice extends more than 620 miles around the continent. At that time, it's also dark, and temperatures can drop to as low as -90 degrees C.
It is usually warmest between December and January, when the first penguin chicks emerge, fur seals breed and the receding ice allows for more exploration. If you're keen on whales, go in February or March, when sightings are most likely on the Peninsula. Be aware you'll experience a wide variety of weather conditions -- rain, snow, sleet and sunny skies whenever you go. Temperatures can change by the hour, ranging from relatively mild to freezing and below zero with a high wind-chill factor.
Antarctic landings are unlike anything you will experience on a regular cruise. There are no cafes, no shops, no towns and no people, except at a handful of research stations.
Most ships drop anchor and take passengers by Zodiac to roughly the same spots. These are some of the shore excursions which may be included in cruise fares:
An active volcano made monochrome with black ash is one of the most popular landings, and arriving through Neptune's Bellows -- a 200-meter-wide gap in the wall of the caldera -- it's easy to see why. On the shore is an abandoned British Antarctic Survey base and crumbling boilers from a Norwegian whaling operation. It's a great hiking spot, and from the higher peaks you may be lucky enough to spot a pod of humpback whales in the sea below. You can even go swimming there -- if you're brave enough!
Now the habitat of chinstrap and gentoo penguins, this is where Shackleton's crew was stranded while he took five of his men in search of help. The men were eventually rescued from the island, but only after spending a grueling winter there.
A British station on Wienke Island was secretly established by Churchill during World War II to report enemy activity and provide weather reports. Now the rustic building is like a time capsule back to the 1960's, complete with original tins of food in the kitchen and peeling painted pin-ups in the bedroom. It is manned by a small team each summer that monitors the effects of visitors on the penguin rookeries. The building is part museum and part shop, so get your cash ready. There's a great selection of souvenirs, and you can even send a postcard!
Half Moon Island:
This crescent moon-shaped South Shetland island is the site of an Argentine research station, and you'll find the wreck of an old wooden whaling boat on its shores. It is home to a large chinstrap penguin colony, as well as nesting Antarctic terns and kelp gulls. You'll also find fur and elephant seals lazing on the beach or ferociously fighting in the surf.
The Lemaire Channel:
This is one of the most spectacular waterways on the planet. It's obvious why it is nicknamed Kodak Gap as you glide through clear sapphire seas among mountain peaks capped with pristine white snow and ice-blue bergs. This is not a landing, but the Zodiacs may be lowered for seal-spotting and taking photos of the boat.
It is possible to visit Antarctica for a few hours without going by sea. On a limited number of South American cruises, such as Victory Adventure Expeditions, you can book shore excursions (weather permitting) from Punta Arenas, Chile. The flight is 3.5 hours each way. Crystal Cruises also offers a 12-hour excursion, landing at the Chilean base on King George Island. The trip costs about $3,600 per person.
Extending Your trip:
One night isn't nearly enough time to explore the vibrant departure cities of Buenos Aires and Santiago. It pays to add a few days -- or even a week -- on your own. You won't regret it.
Check out our port profiles for things to do in Buenos Aires
What To Pack:
Essential clothing for Antarctica includes a winter coat, waterproof trousers (to keep you dry while riding in a wet Zodiac), two pairs of warm gloves (again, one to keep dry when the other pair gets wet) and a wool hat. You will also be lost without a pair of knee-high rubber boots (for all landings), but check with your cruise line if they rent these before you go. You'll also need thermal underwear, heavy socks, sweaters and wool pants or sweatpants (to wear under your waterproof layer). A few upscale ships supply windbreakers, which you get to take home after the cruise. If you find that buying all this gear adds up, you can either rent it from a snow-and-ski or adventure store, such as Outdoorhire
in the U.K., or order it online from Antarctic Equipment
in Ushuaia and pick it up before you embark.
Even if you are not a keen photographer, it's worth investing in a decent camera to capture what could be the most spectacular scenery and wildlife you will ever see. And if you have them, take binoculars.
You won't need hiking boots, as you will always go to shore in your rubber boots. A waterproof backpack to carry photography gear in the Zodiac is also recommended.
For more ideas, see our Ultimate Guide to Packing for a Cruise
Travel responsibly: IAATO
(International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) is an organization founded to advocate, promote and practice safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic. The continent is still unspoiled, and it's vital to keep it that way. So, before you go, clean and examine clothes and equipment thoroughly for dirt and other organic material.
--updated by Emily Payne, Cruise Critic Contributor