What's better than standing amid hundreds of chinstraps on an Antarctic ice floe? Reveling in the perky penguins knowing that an aromatherapy massage, craft martinis, a lobster dinner and designer bedsheets await back onboard. With interest in expedition cruising at an all-time peak, cruise lines race to unveil posh new ice-class ships that provide both jaw-dropping bucket-list experiences and sumptuous cruise travel. Check out our alphabetically arranged insider's list on the best luxury Antarctica cruises. Then you decide which cruise ship and expedition style capture your White Continent fancy.
Updated October 5, 2018
Abercrombie & Kent
Admired for its expertise and experience, luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent has run about 200 polar sails in more than two decades. The company charters Ponant's Le Lyrial, a stunningly sleek ice-class yacht with a chic interior design, and amenities like private balconies for all accommodations, two restaurants and an open-air bar. Although Ponant is a French bilingual line, on A&K charters, only English is spoken. Plus, A&K brings its own expedition lecturers and experts onboard, ensuring that they meet the company's high standards. With just 199 passengers onboard, all cruisers can easily participate in every shore excursion.
Onboard lectures by historians and Polar Medal winners (honorees for major achievement in polar regions) -- not just expedition scientists -- are an A&K hallmark. Cruisers receive complimentary use of rental boots, waterproof pants and trekking poles. An open bar, all shore excursions and gratuities are also included in the fares. A&K Antarctica sails also add a pre-cruise, one-night luxury hotel stay in Buenos Aires, and round trip charter flights and transfers between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, Argentina, the embarkation and debarkation ports.
Cruises run between 12 and 17 days. In 2020, plans are in the works for an exploration even farther south, crossing the Antarctic Circle and venturing where few expedition cruise ships go. This luxury tour operator's pre- and post-cruise packages are worth perusing; A&K seamlessly moves cruisers between land and sea exploration. Consider the four-night Iguazu Falls stay, which includes luxury hotel accommodations and engrossing tours, as a notable pre-cruise adventure.
If you like the idea of sipping Veuve Clicquot on an iceberg, you'll love Ponant. This French bilingual expedition line sails four luxury yachts to Antarctica: L'Austral, Le Boreal, Le Lyrial and Le Soleal. Amenities for the 199 passengers onboard include two restaurants and bars, a swimming pool, library, tea room, hair salon, gym and a spa with a hammam. Ships feature both cabins and suites. Ponant provides complimentary flights to Ushuaia (some one-way, some round trip, depending upon the embarkation port), airport transfers, a polar parka and free boot rental.
In 2021, the debut of Ponant's Icebreaker marks a greener -- and more adventurous -- approach to sailing, with advanced technologies allowing the ship to deliver new itineraries delving far deeper into remote regions of Antarctica not yet reached by passenger vessels.
With so many Ponant ships sailing luxury Antarctica cruises, expect plentiful opportunities to find your perfect sail date. Ponant does offer some longer itineraries, which can run up to 21 days (these can include the South Orkney Islands, besides the Falklands and South Georgia). One route, creating much buzz, crosses the Antarctic Circle, a far south marker that's rarely visited by expedition cruise ships. Ponant also offers a sail embarking in Montevideo, rather than the usual Ushuaia, and a four-night pre-cruise land program including Patagonia tours.
The luxury expedition cruise world is abuzz over the game-changing 2018 launch of Scenic Eclipse, a custom-built all-inclusive luxury ship that's whisking polar exploration to an exhilarating new level. The 200-passenger (in polar regions) vessel features butler service, all-suite accommodations with verandas, 10 dining experiences, a movie theater, an indoor heated pool with a retractable roof, plunge pools, a gym and even a yoga and Pilates studio. And yes, there's a pillow menu, too. Sister ship Scenic Eclipse II debuts in 2020.
Passengers venture off-ship twice daily (as always, weather permitting) in custom-made Zodiacs and kayaks. There's even complimentary snowshoeing. Scenic Eclipse ups the expedition ante by offering two seven-seat helicopters and a seven-seat submarine for eye-popping exploration; note that these extreme outings come with an extra fee. All passengers receive complimentary parkas and beanies to keep, and boots to borrow. Flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia and airport transfers are also included.
Cruises range from 12 to 19 days, with the longest cruises adding South Georgia and the Falkland Islands to the polar itinerary. For an even bigger adventure, check out the 30-day Ultimate Chilean Fjords & Antarctica cruise that delivers six days in the Antarctic Peninsula and one day in the South Shetlands.
Imagine spotting breeching whales, gobbling up superstar chef Thomas Keller's lobster thermidor and playing poker -- all on the same day. These perks are de rigueur on an all-inclusive Seabourn Quest Antarctic adventure. Carrying about 425 passengers during the polar season, Quest offers every posh Seabourn amenity, including complimentary caviar; two swimming pools and six outdoor whirlpools; a fitness center with complimentary yoga, Pilates and stretch classes; a spa (with a Dr. Andrew Weil enrichment program including complimentary meditation practice and wellness seminars); and even a buzzy casino.
As a larger and heavier ship (32,000 tons) than most traveling to Antarctica, Seabourn Quest may provide more protection from possibly rough seas. Although this ship carries more passengers than most Antarctic vessels, cruisers still enjoy a daily complimentary landing or Zodiac tour. Add in the kayaking opportunities, and you could spend about 3.5 hours a day off-ship. With 19 expedition experts onboard, expect to attend many compelling lectures on the Antarctic environment.
Seabourn provides cruisers with an expedition-grade parka and backpack, offers digital photography workshops and lends Swarovski Optik long-range, high-precision binoculars to passengers for use during the cruise. Quest's drone shoots seascape videos to provide passengers with a different perspective on their polar journey. All passengers receive a complimentary commemorative video of their voyage highlights.
Seabourn's six-day exploration of Antarctica (many expedition ships offer only five days) is included in a 21- and 24-day South America/Patagonian itinerary, which counts the Chilean fjords as another highlight. Seabourn's Antarctica sails also tempt with an amazing South Pole Land Journey package, where you explore the South Pole via polar vehicles, hikes and cross-country skis, and sleep in a camp. Weather permitting, this journey also includes a ski-plane ride that lands near the South Pole marker -- a moment experienced only by a fortunate few.
Silver Explorer and Silver Cloud Expedition are both all-suite and all-inclusive, including complimentary Wi-Fi and designer perks like Bulgari toiletries and Pratesi linens. There's even a nine-choice pillow menu. No matter which category accommodation you book, a white-gloved butler can stir a custom martini, serve dinner course-by-course in-suite and generally spoil you rotten. On both ships, passengers can enjoy the spa, beauty salon, fitness center, boutique, cigar bar, afternoon tea service, whirlpools and multiple lounges.
Cruisers are provided with a parka, rain jacket, exploration hat, neck gaiter and water bottle. They're lent binoculars and can rent waterproof boots for free. A one-night pre-cruise hotel stay and round trip charter flights from Ushuaia are also included.
Despite the abundance of onboard amenities, passengers are keen to explore with expedition team members who not only possess advanced degrees but also extensive polar experience. The 144-passenger Silver Explorer, which underwent a refurbishment in 2017, carries an 11-member expedition team. With 12 Zodiacs onboard, all cruisers can go exploring at once.
Silversea spent more than $40 million transforming luxury yacht Silver Cloud into a 200-passenger (in polar regions) ice-class ranked expedition ship, also in 2017. Among the onboard amenities differing from Silver Explorer, count a more spacious gym, heated outdoor pool, five dining choices and a comprehensive photo studio offering classes, editing software, image-printing and even private lessons on shore excursions. Expect twice-daily outings in the 16 Zodiacs led by the 22-member expedition team, and kayaking (10 kayaks onboard) guided by an expert.
Silversea offers 10- to 18-day luxury cruise itineraries, mostly round trip from Ushuaia, Argentina; longer cruises include visits to the Falkland and South Shetland Islands. Some Antarctic cruises offer pre-and-post-cruise land programs to the Chilean wine region with both sedate and active (trekking, cycling, horseback riding) activities scheduled.