What would be the odds that the most frigid cruise destination is categorically red-hot? Chalk up Antarctica's soaring popularity to multiple factors: adventuresome travelers seeking more far-flung destinations, cruisers craving less crowded ports, the ticking clock of climate change and baby boomers checking off their travel bucket lists.
Such intense interest in Antarctica has motivated expedition lines to amp up their offerings. Cruisers can now choose from economical to extravagant expedition ships, varying cruise lengths, diverse itineraries and uber-active excursions -- mountaineering, anyone? We've done all the research on the best cruise lines sailing Antarctica, so you get the fun part -- choosing which one best suits you. Just remember that all promised ports and excursions are based on weather conditions. In the Antarctic, the real boss is never the ship captain; it's always Mother Nature.
Why: The only tour operator on our list, Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) specializes in luxury Antarctic expeditions, chalking up about 200 polar expeditions in more than 25 years. For these Antarctic expeditions, A&K charters the 199-passenger Le Lyrial, a French ship from Ponant. With A&K, you enjoy this stylish ship's sumptuous amenities (such as a salon, spa, fine dining and pool), in an all-English-speaking sail. (Cruise directly with Ponant, and the cruise will be bilingual in French and English.) And, here's another major plus: A&K brings their own distinguished lecturers and expedition team members onboard, guaranteeing A&K's notable quality.
Who Will Like it? Luxury cruisers who prefer all-inclusive sailings, staterooms with balconies and included pre-cruise hotel stays with sightseeing. A&K devotees who like personalized attention and excellent pre- and post-cruise extension offers. Passengers who want lectures not just by scientists but also by historians and Polar Medal winners (honorees for significant achievement in polar regions), too. Lastly, families seeking a family-friendly cruise during the December holidays, with youth-focused onboard workshops and excursions.
Itineraries: Cruises run from 12 to 17 days. The 12-night cruise includes a pre-cruise stay at the luxurious Palacio Duhau-Park Hyatt Buenos Aires and round trip charter flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. Cruise extension possibilities include a four-day Iguazu Falls pre-cruise package. The 17-night expedition adds South Georgia and the Falkland Islands to this Antarctic itinerary.
Why: Hurtigruten's history sure is impressive; its founder began polar explorations some 125 years ago. Hurtigruten's price point is lower than luxury lines, but new ships -- the 530-passenger Roald Amundsen in 2018, and its near identical twin, Fridtjof Nansen, in 2019 -- provide a more modern Scandinavian ambiance and coveted features such as outside cabins and private balconies. Fancier aft suites possess private outdoor Jacuzzis. As the world's first cruise ships to run on hybrid battery technology, these new ships are also more environmentally sensitive, designed to cut CO2 emissions and fuel consumption by sailing with electrical propulsion. And, they move quietly, allowing passengers to revel in nature with reduced ship noise.
Who Will Like it? Cruisers who care more about active, adventuresome polar explorations than a frilly onboard experience, or seek a more economical expedition. Passengers seeking longer cruises and a smaller environmental footprint.
Itineraries: Expeditions run from six to 23 days. Some begin in Montevideo or Buenos Aires; others start in Santiago and include more of South America, such as Patagonia and the Chilean fjords. One itinerary attempts a rare landing on Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, marking the boundary between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.
Why: Combine Lindblad Expeditions' 50-plus years of experience with National Geographic's iconic photographers, experts and, often, researchers and scientists, and we're talking a match made in an educational adventure heaven.
The near-identical, casually elegant 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer and 102-passenger National Geographic Orion both sail Antarctica. Among the amenities are a hot tub (Orion only), yoga classes, massages, a gym, lectures and fine dining. Equipped with kayaks and Zodiacs, the ships also possess ROVs (unoccupied remotely operated underwater vehicles) capable of reaching 1,000 feet (far beyond a diver's reach) to reveal vast stretches undersea. Videos captured are shared with passengers and transmitted to aid scientific research. Onboard naturalists use a video microscope to magnify images of the marine ecosystem -- another science geek wowser. Families are welcome, too, with many activities designed for multigenerational cruisers to enjoy together throughout the Antarctic cruise season, not just during the December holidays.
Who Will Like it? National Geographic devotees -- from magazine admirers to those who've already toured or cruised with National Geographic -- who like the scientific bent. Photography enthusiasts, who want to learn from and shoot pics with a National Geographic photographer. Kayakers scoring multiple opportunities to paddle -- count on 36 two-person virtually untippable kayaks onboard National Geographic Explorer and 24 double kayaks aboard National Geographic Orion. Active explorers, who care more about adventure than fancy-pants cruising. Families, who can feel specially accommodated no matter when they sail.
Itineraries: Itineraries run between 14 and 24 days. The shortest include an overnight hotel in Buenos Aires or Santiago, and the longest visit the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. There's an occasional one-way flight via a private charter plane from Santiago to the Royal Air Force base in the Falklands. Passengers then transfer to Stanley, the capital, for sightseeing before boarding the ship, to further explore the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica. These itineraries are best for those with a strong interest in visiting Stanley because on regular voyages, the waters can be too rough for ships with cruisers onboard to stop as planned. This way, you're guaranteed to visit Stanley, and the ship is already waiting for you.
Why: French line Ponant unveils two new luxury expedition ships in 2018 (Le Laperouse and Le Champlain) -- the line's 30th anniversary year -- and two more in 2019 (Le Bougainville and Le Dumont-d'Urville), each with 92 cabins. These elegant ships showcase the first underwater multisensory lounges, located 8 feet below the water line. Called Blue Eye, each lounge features two glass portholes shaped like a whale's eye looking out to the marine world. Walls digitally project images filmed live by underwater cameras. Special microphones (hydrophones) transit the sounds of the sea into the lounges. Sofas (dubbed body listening couches) subtly vibrate in sync with the aquatic acoustics.
In 2021, Ponant plans to debut an environmentally friendly -- almost zero emissions -- 135-stateroom electric hybrid icebreaker ship that runs on a blend of electric and liquefied natural gas. Designed to explore the extreme regions of the Northern and Southern hemispheres, it can safely cut through ice more than 8-feet deep and may reach destinations previously unimagined by polar cruisers. This new ship features 16 Zodiacs and two helicopters.
Who Will Like it? French-speaking passengers or Francophile cruisers who love Gallic flair and cuisine. Passengers who love buzzy new ships, or want to see and hear Antarctica's underwater life over cocktails. And, with the newest reveal in 2021, cruisers keen to explore Antarctica on uncommon routes with minimal environmental impact.
Itineraries: Itineraries run between 11 and 17 days. Longer cruises can depart from Montevideo rather than Ushuaia, and include South Georgia.
Why: Quark Expeditions offers many ways to explore Antarctica, from budget-minded vessels to more upscale ships. This line notably features late winter (Antarctica's late summer) sails -- a chance to see the region in a different season, with nesting penguins and returning whales.
Wellness cruisers should check out the extensively renovated Ocean Endeavour. It's got an organic spa, complimentary yoga and stretching classes, his and hers saunas, a saltwater pool, gym and even a juice and smoothie bar. Quark's 176-passenger World Explorer debuts in the 2018–2019 season and includes a polar library, gym, pool, sauna and spa, plus activities such as kayaking, camping and stand-up paddleboarding. The line also offers options for those with weak stomachs. The eight-night Antarctic Express itinerary lets travelers fly over the Drake Passage (and skip the potentially turbulent crossing) to land on King George Island and then hop aboard a short cruise on the 132-passenger Ocean Adventurer or 140-passenger World Explorer.
Who Will Like It? Passengers seeking a gentler-on-the-wallet experience, or prefer some cruise ship comforts, but care little about private verandas or butlers. Uber-active cruisers eager to camp overnight, snowshoe, mountaineering and cross-country ski. Those who prefer flying over the Drake to either save time with a shorter vacay, or avoid seasickness concerns. Cruisers wanting bragging rights for crossing the Antarctic Circle -- many expeditions don't venture that far south.
Itineraries: Itineraries can run between eight and 23 days. The shortest voyages fly over the Drake Passage (about four hours versus two days sailing). Longer voyages include the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and South Shetland Islands.
Why: Known for its eponymous river cruise line since 2008, Scenic next conquers the ocean by debuting two expedition ships, Scenic Eclipse in late 2018 and Scenic Eclipse II in May 2020. Billed as "six-star discovery yachts," the two glam ships feature 114 all-veranda suites (200 passengers in polar waters), nine restaurants plus 24-hour room service, eight lounges and bars, a spa, indoor and outdoor fitness areas and plunge pools. Exploration amenities include a marina deck, two six-passenger helicopters and one six-passenger submarine. Count spacious suites -- it's an eye-popping 345 square feet for the smallest -- and butler service for all passengers among swank amenities.
As new-builds, both ships have stepped up exploration capabilities and comfort. They possess zero-speed stabilizer fins (when anchored, ship movement is limited) that are more than 50 percent larger for even greater stability (less chance of getting seasick) and an ice class 1A rating.
Who Will Like it? Cruisers seeking the ultimate hybrid of a luxury cruise ship and a technological state-of-the-art expedition vessel. Passengers with seasickness concerns. Adventurers wanting to try more unusual Antarctic experiences, such as snowshoeing, viewing wildlife from a submarine or soaring above ice floes in a helicopter. Workout devotees, who love swimming, yoga and Pilates. Big spenders, who long to see Antarctica from a 2,099-square-foot suite, including a 646-square-foot terrace.
Itineraries: Itineraries run from 12 to 25 days. The shortest itineraries are round trip Ushuaia, delivering six days in the Antarctic Peninsula. Longer cruises either sail round trip Buenos Aires and include South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, or cruise Santiago to Buenos Aires and add the Chilean fjords and the Falkland Islands.
Why: With $40 million, Silversea transformed the posh Silver Cloud into its newest polar exploration vessel. The now ice class-rated, 200-passenger Silver Cloud Expedition teems with enviable amenities: a Photo Studio for taking individual, couple or group classes, and editing and printing pictures; five dining choices (including a wildly popular alfresco grill where you bundle up, sit under heat lamps and cook steaks over lava rock); an outdoor heated pool with two whirlpools; and a New Agey spa where everything from a body wrap to teeth whitening is offered. With 22 seasoned expedition experts (many with doctoral degrees) onboard in Antarctica, passengers receive personal attention. Plus, 16 Zodiacs and 10 kayaks ensure much exploration time.
The 144-passenger ice-class Silver Explorer also cruises Antarctica, and while facilities such as the spa and fitness center are smaller, this ship still provides an all-inclusive, all-suite luxury experience along with a savvy expedition team and 12 Zodiacs. This ship also possesses butlers, lavish meals served course by course via room service, elaborate afternoon teas, two outdoor hot tubs and even a cigar lounge.
Who Will Like It: Silversea or other luxury-ship aficionados who embrace an all-inclusive, uber-pampering cruise style, wherever they travel. Expedition buffs seeking an extravagant adventure. Photography enthusiasts who want onboard or onshore lessons to better capture the beauty and wildlife of Antarctica. Foodies, who savor foie gras and caviar on every vacay. Spa fanatics, who love the idea of combining pampering bodywork with an expedition.
Itineraries: Itineraries range from 10 to 18 days. All are round trip Ushuaia. Lengthier cruises include visits to such destinations as the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.
Updated February 22, 2018