Antarctica -- a k a "The White Continent" -- may very well be the last frontier for cruise travelers. Don't get us wrong -- it's a big destination, but we mean that in the most literal sense, with hundreds of thousands of penguins and icebergs that dwarf even the largest of mega-ships. Still, fewer than 20,000 cruise passengers make it onto Antarctica annually, and it's often a once-in-a-lifetime notch in a cruiser's belt.

Quite simply, Antarctica is unlike any other cruise destination in the world, and choosing and planning an Antarctica cruise is also unlike anything else a cruise traveler -- veteran or novice -- will face. The reasons for this include the distance to the port of embarkation (typically more than 12 hours of flying time), possibly harsh weather conditions at sea and on land, and non-traditional ports of call -- you won't find duty-free shopping centers on Antarctica.

"More so than any other cruise destination, choosing the right line, ship and itinerary is the key to an enjoyable Antarctica experience," says Chuck Cross, owner of Expeditions, Inc., a company that specializes in booking small- to medium-sized ships in Antarctica. The style and size of the line and ship (from casual to relatively formal and from very soft adventure to hardcore) can greatly influence what he recommends to cruisers considering Antarctica. For example, mainstream cruisers looking to try something new might find the comprehensive experience onboard Hurtigruten's ships an easy transition, whereas Antarctica veterans or adventurers looking for total immersion might choose to swim in a thermally heated spring or hike on South Georgia with Intrav's Clipper Adventurer.

Find a Cruise
We did learn some lessons along the way while planning for -- and enjoying -- our two-week journey. First a couple of key facts to know about visiting Antarctica:

Located in the Southern Hemisphere (and how! It's just about as far south as you can go), Antarctica's summer occurs during our winter. On the Antarctic Peninsula (where a large majority of ships go), temperatures generally range from 23 to 41 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and from -25 to 5 in winter. The annual cruise season runs from December until February; it generally stays light until midnight or later in summer, and visitors can expect about 20 hours of daylight a day.

As for key places to visit, Antarctica isn't like the Caribbean, where itineraries are generally followed to the minute (when they say "All aboard" in Grand Cayman, they really mean it). In Antarctica, weather conditions often dictate whether a scheduled stop is made or bypassed for somewhere with better landing conditions. However, some possible destinations to look for in itineraries include the Antarctic Peninsula in general; Hope Bay, a popular and typically calmer destination for lots of ships; Lemaire Channel (beautiful cruising); Elephant Island; Deception Island; and Coronation Island. A bit further afield, but no less dramatic, longer cruises might include South Georgia (which we loved), the South Shetland Islands and the Falkland Islands (which we've heard are both well worth the additional days at sea).

As for packing, the specific line you choose will provide advice, but some essentials include: a variety of casual clothes that you can layer (some ships do have more "formal" evenings, but Antarctica cruising is generally casual); fully waterproof rubber boots (Wal-Mart actually sells a good pair and we saw many passengers wearing them); a waterproof rain jacket; waterproof pants (worn over other pants or long underwear and needed for almost every landing); one or two sets of thermal underwear; two pairs of gloves (they will get wet); one or two pairs of sturdy sunglasses (the sun reflecting off the ice is incredibly bright -- and warming!); a camera (we recommend digital so running out of film isn't an issue) and lots of batteries; a set of mini-binoculars (carry them with you at all times); a waterproof backpack; plastic bags for added protection; sun block; and a bathing suit (for that hot tub!). Most -- if not all -- ships do provide a take-home parka to each passenger, so leave that heavy mink coat or huge North Face parka at home.

Here are some dos and don'ts:

Don't be shocked by prices. Compared to most destinations, Antarctica cruises are quite expensive to run and often include many more things than typical cruises -- like charter flights, pre-cruise overnights, and shore excursions. Expect to see pricing in the $250 - $500 (and more!) per person per day range -- and that's for the older, less amenity-laden ships.

Do consider a pre- or post-cruise stay in Santiago or Buenos Aires (one or two nights are often included in the package, and we wish we'd stayed in BA longer).

Do pay close attention to the packing list provided by your line, and the hints provided above. There aren't any outdoor adventure gear stores on Antarctica.

Do take along one or more pairs of binoculars -- Antarctica combines the dramatic landscapes of Alaska with the wildlife of the Galapagos, from towering mountains and glaciers to thousands of unique animals including -- of course -- lots of marching penguins!

Don't expect the itinerary to run like clockwork: Weather can change everything (they don't call Drake's Passage "Drake's Shakes" for nothing!). We actually had to skip two landings during our cruise because the crew couldn't safely get the landing crafts into the water, much less the passengers into the landing crafts. Our hands-on captain simply explained the situation and we continued sailing. The first missed landing actually led to more time on the Antarctic Peninsula proper, and every minute there turned out to be precious.

Don't fret if your itinerary fails to include rounding Cape Horn -- many passengers find it quite anticlimactic, in that you don't really get very close and the weather out on the deck can sometimes be quite daunting.

Do consider itineraries that feature more than a quick trip to the continent. South Georgia and the Falkland Islands are actually almost as interesting as Antarctica proper. The wildlife found in both destinations makes it worth several days at sea, and cruisers who crave a bit of history and civilization will find the small populations living on the edge quite interesting.

Do mull over ship size quite closely. Smaller ships generally have more frequent landings on the continent. On the other hand, larger ships typically handle high seas better than small ones (but any ships venturing to Antarctica are built to withstand sometimes punishing conditions -- this is not the Caribbean or even Alaska).

Do think twice about bringing the family. Antarctica cruises simply aren't targeted to parents or grandparents traveling with kids. Having said that, children and grandchildren often go and love it for the same reason adults do -- those marching penguins again! Generally speaking, a larger ship will offer more diversions to any easily bored kids. Given our research (we don't have kids), we've heard the National Geographic Endeavour might be best for those who want to bring the whole family, and we've been told 12 years old and up is best. There was a 9-year-old on our trip who honestly seemed quite bored at times.

We would not recommend a line or ship that simply sails near the Antarctica coast, but never allows land exploration. That would be like looking at a menu, but never getting to order a meal. Why go that far and not march with the penguins?

All in all, we loved our Marco Polo trip. Our trip had a "Shackleton" theme (between 1914 and 1916 Ernest Shackleton completed what is now considered one of the greatest boat journeys in history -- a treacherous 800-mile ocean crossing to South Georgia Island) and so it was enjoyable to visit many places we'd read about or seen in movies, and to learn about the wildlife and history of South Georgia. We also liked the flexible nature of the itinerary, where our ports of call could literally become the captain's choice. Of course, everywhere we went, the sheer volume of the wildlife was even better than expected. Another unexpected pleasure was the weather -- we had many sunny and relatively warm days, several outdoor lunch buffets and relatively calm seas.

There were a few disappointments: long lines for tenders (something smaller ships don't have) and the limited amount of time we had on land (driven by the number of passengers, but also by ecological concerns and regulations). That being said, we would discourage anyone from going to Antarctica who expects a "typical" cruise experience -- stick to the other six continents if you're looking for bustling casinos, shopping 'til you drop, or typical shore excursions.

We've rounded up the best options available to help you choose the right Antarctic cruise for your lifestyle and interests. Editor's Note: While we've listed company names wherever possible, some ships in Antarctica don't sail under the banner of a particular line. When booking, especially on small ships, keep in mind that they may be chartered (space sold through specialized companies such as Expeditions, Inc., Abercrombie & Kent or Regent Seven Seas Cruises).

Ships by Size

Best Small Ship (less than 150 passengers): Ioffe and Vavilov
Why: Even though there are lots of even smaller ships going to Antarctica, these two offer the most cruise-like experience onboard and ashore, including any amenities and services that could be expected on this size of a ship. These former Russian research vessels are as technically advanced as any sailing Antarctica, but modern touches include all outside cabins, excellent observation decks and inflatable rafts for excursions.

Who Will Like It? Anyone who enjoys the small-ship experience should do well with either of these options.

Itineraries: As mentioned, itineraries provided by the lines are only a general plan. Generally, each cruise has a different basic itinerary (and, often, a theme), but it's still all based on weather conditions and it's generally quite flexible. A mainstay for Ioffe and Vavilov is, of course, the Antarctic Peninsula; other possibilities include the South Shetland Islands, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.

Best Medium-sized Ship (150 - 249 passengers): Explorer II
Why: This well-respected upscale ship typically carries more than 300 passengers, but limits Antarctica expeditions to 198 guests -- all in outside cabins! The ship has a country house feel, with lots of gleaming brass and polished wood. Built in 1996, the ship builds on the Antarctica reputation established more than 30 years ago by the original Explorer--a pioneering vessel in Antarctica cruising for the general public.

Who Will Like It? It's a nice ship for singles, with enough passengers for company and some solo cabins available at just a 15 percent surcharge.

Itineraries: Along with the Antarctic Peninsula (several landings), the Explorer II also heads to the Falkland Islands.

Ships by Style

Best Luxury Ship: National Geographic Endeavour
Why: Lindblad has a long legacy and reputation in the region and the National Geographic Endeavour is one of the top ships regularly sailing there. The 110-passenger ship offers as many luxuries as can be found in Antarctica, including all inside cabins; no assigned seating in the dining room (where the pan-European and Scandinavian-leaning cuisine is top-notch); large National Geographic atlases in each cabin; and what must be the largest library afloat for Antarctic cruises. The ship has several spacious suites, as well as three excellent "sole occupancy" cabins.

Who Will Like It? National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler magazine readers. Endeavour passengers like the finest things in life, whether that means seeing rare penguins or dining on lean Argentinean beef paired with a fine Malbec.

Itineraries: The Antarctic Peninsula gets plenty of time on every cruise, while the Falkland Islands and South Georgia are included on some of the longer itineraries.

Best Budget Line (Small Ship): Quark Expeditions
Why: An Antarctica cruise is not cheap, with per person per day rates generally ranging from $250 to $320 on the 110-passenger Orlova. For our dollar, Quark delivers the best bang for the buck. Quark will have five ships in the region this year, offering a range of experiences and prices.

Who Will Like It? For those who want to experience Antarctica on the "cheap" without sharing a bunk room with a dozen others, Quark (and especially the Orlova) won't break the bank and will deliver a high-quality Antarctica experience (including some of the region's most experienced guides).

Itineraries: Because they have so many ships in the region, Quark offers more varied itineraries than any other line or ship. They even head further south than any other cruise line, with lots of longer itineraries targeted to the adventurous set (as well as Quark's many repeat Antarctica visitors). Quark even has sailings out of New Zealand ("Ultimate Antarctica") that head to southern Antarctica.

Best Budget Line (Large Ship): Hurtigruten
Why: This popular Scandinavian line offers great value for your doller, with trips that include a 67-day cruise from Iceland to Argentina from $10,999 per person.

Who Will Like It? Veteran cruisers like us (see Marco Polo above). We weren't comfortable committing to one of the smaller ships and our research (correctly) showed that a larger ship was a great choice for veteran cruisers looking for a new destination experience. We haven't sailed with Hurtigruten anywhere yet, but we've heard very good things about the Norway (and, now, Antarctica) offerings.

Itineraries: The Antarctic Peninsula is on every itinerary, but other possibilities might include South Georgia, the South Shetland Islands, the Falkland Islands and more.

Best Line for Antarctica Veterans (unique itineraries): Quark Expeditions
Why: Quark continues to create innovative itineraries every season, so that repeat passengers keep coming back for more of the White Continent. In 2005, Quark became the first line to circumnavigate Antarctica twice (these itineraries take five years to plan and last 60 days!). This season, their Far Side Semi-Circumnavigation expedition has been nominated by National Geographic Traveler as one of the 50 tours of a lifetime. This incredible adventure includes helicopter flights in which cruisers explore the Weddell Sea and some of the largest ice shelves in the world by air!

Who Will Like It? Anyone looking for "more" Antarctica than is seen on a typical cruise ship, large or small.

Itineraries: With numerous ships in the region, Quark offers a great variety of itineraries. If there's a part of Antarctica you really want to see (except for maybe the South Pole), Quark can likely get you there.

Best Ship for Total Immersion: MV Sea Adventurer
Why: Most onboard programs and shore excursions are included in the package price of Antarctica-bound cruises (except for, say, scuba diving or an overnight stay on the continent), but that does not mean the lines skimp on the offerings. Lindblad (including National Geographic specialists), Quark, Abercrombie & Kent, and Fathom Expeditionsare all known for their excellent onboard (and ashore) lecturers, scientists and adventure leaders.

Who Will Like It? Anyone who likes casual small-ship cruising with others who are looking for intellectual and physical stimulation on and off the ship.

Itineraries: The line's 122-passenger MV Sea Adventurer is an ideal base for programs and excursions, including the appealing 16-night "Antarctica and the Falklans Expedition."

--Photo was taken by Wayne Papps and is copyright:
Australian Antarctic Division 2002
Kingston Tasmania 7050.