The act of visiting the polar regions has thankfully evolved. The journeys to the extremes aren't as harsh as they were for Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated Antarctic exploration. (Thanks, comfy cruise ships.) Nor is the landscape as endlessly icy as it was for John Franklin's Arctic expedition. (We see you, warming climate.) Also, you likely will not be hailed as a hero for your intrepid presence, like pioneering double-pole reacher Roald Amundsen.
Your Instagram shots will get a ton of likes, though.
Because we're seeing the polar extremes more and more in our social feeds, and we're building on the paths blazed by the giants of polar exploration, we now know a lot about these regions and how they differ from one another in intriguing ways. Technology helps, too. Just recently, for instance, researchers released the first, high-resolution terrain map of nearly the entire continent of Antarctica.
Still, Antarctica and the Arctic continue to confound and inspire travelers, much as they did the early explorers. Mysteries abound and adventure calls. If you're asking yourself what you should expect during a polar cruise to the Arctic or Antarctica, and which destination and approach might be best for you, we're here to break it down.
Here's our A-to-Z guide to the must-knows of two of the world's most remote and most compelling places. Learn some of the polar regions' secrets, and let them inform your journey.
That's not the combined size of Antarctica and the Arctic. That's roughly the size of each place.
The Arctic region, which includes the Arctic Ocean as well as northern reaches of land in Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States, is generally considered to span 5.5 million square miles. It's almost one-and-a-half times the area of the U.S.
Antarctica's a smidge smaller than the Arctic, coming in at 5.4 million square miles. It's not shared by any countries. It's its own continent, albeit one capped with a thick sheet of ice.
Whether you're interested in the Arctic or Antarctica, you need to get to know the Norwegian explorer. You're going to find his name attached to a sea and a glacier, a station and a mountain, and a coast and a bay, among other places. You should know why he's so popular.
Amundsen's entwined with the human history of both places. He's the first to lead a ship's voyage through the Northwest Passage. It took three years, from June 1903 to August 1906, for Amundsen and his crew to complete the journey. Along the way, he learned cold-weather survival skills from Arctic peoples, skills he used in his future endeavors. He eventually became the undisputed first person to reach the South Pole (in 1911) and the North Pole (1926).
Amundsen continues to be remembered for his achievements. Hurtigruten, which is designing a pair of state-of-the-art expedition ships, has named the first after Amundsen. The 530-passenger Roald Amundsen, which will debut in 2019, is, according to Cruise Critic, “purpose-built to sail in Antarctic and polar waters.”
Cruise Critic also tells us that “with its hybrid engines, Roald Amundsen is set to reduce fuel consumption by approximately 20 percent, and will be able to sail with solely electric propulsion for up to 30 minutes, to allow for absolutely silent cruising in areas passengers might want to hear icebergs calving or sea animals calling out. The ship will also feature an extra backup engine and 100 percent redundancy on all essential systems.”
If you're sailing to Antarctica you'll come face-to-volatile-face with the Drake Passage. It's where the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern oceans converge, and it is often a notoriously bumpy ride. They call going through it the "Drake Shake." If you're lucky enough to get calm seas, you'll experience the "Drake Lake."
There's no equivalent to the Drake Passage on the journey to the Arctic. If you want to avoid the Drake Shake, go north.
Gjøa is a significant stop on many Arctic journeys, particularly for polar exploration aficionados eager to follow in celebrated footsteps. Amundsen and his party parked here for two years during an expedition, and some members of Franklin's crew are buried here. You can trace the explorers' history on the Northwest Passage Territorial Trail.
About 1,500 people, mostly Inuits, currently live in the place Amundsen called "the finest little harbor in the world." During the summer, wildflowers bloom on the Arctic tundra, and various fauna can be found, including at the nearby Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Many native artists also create and sell their works in the area.
The region has been home to natives of the Arctic for more than 1,000 years.
It's still everywhere in the Arctic and Antarctica. But there's less of it in than there once was. It's only a recent phenomenon that the ice has melted enough for some cruise ships to make their way entirely through the Arctic. (See: Northwest Passage).
Count on seeing icebergs and other spectacular ice features no matter which way you travel.
In the Arctic, the Ilulissat Icefjord is among the highlights. The UNESCO World Heritage Site on the west coast of Greenland features a glacier that reaches the sea, as well as abundant icebergs. It's a stop on many Arctic cruise itineraries. Another highlight: Iceberg Alley, off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Typically, icebergs up north are oddly shaped.
In Antarctica, icebergs are larger, even supersized. They often consist of broken pieces of ice shelves or glaciers. One recent iceberg, named A-68, was the size of Delaware. The non-supersized bergs are just as photogenic as the ones in the Arctic, craggy and shimmering as the currents and winds push them around the edges of the continent.
If you're looking to meet locals during your cruise, choose the Arctic. Approximately 40 ethnic groups live year-round in the region, including indigenous peoples like the Inuit (Alaska, Canada, Greenland) and the Sami (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Russia). It's estimated that indigenous people make up 10 percent of the Arctic population. Cruise lines often stop in places where indigenous people live and work (for instance, see: Gjøa Haven).
In Antarctica, home to no native population, you'll still have a chance to interact with people from different nations. But they'll likely be scientists working at various stations in Antarctica, which cruise passengers on some itineraries can visit.
They don't get nearly the love that cuddly penguins do, nor do they earn the same awe as polar bears, but narwhals deliver a unique kind of awesome.
The "unicorns of the sea," so-called for the long, narrow, sword-like tusks that stick out of their heads, live in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. They can be spotted on some Arctic cruises.
Until a little more than a decade ago, it typically took a ship with icebreaking capabilities to make it all the way through the Northwest Passage, the famed and once-mythical route from Baffin Bay in the North Atlantic, though the frozen Arctic archipelago of Canada and out past Alaska and Russia, through the Bering Strait and into the Pacific.
It wasn't until the early 1900s that a party made it through (see: Amundsen, Roald) over the course of three years. And it wasn't until the last decade or so, with the changing climate, that ships routinely now make it all the way through from one side to the other over the course of weeks.
It's a bittersweet opportunity. You'll be able to experience a trip few people have ever experienced. At the same time, that ability comes with a sense of loss, as the Arctic adapts to its new climate reality.
If you want to see penguins, go south. They're only found in and around Antarctica.
Many cruises cater to penguin lovers, stopping at places like Deception Island and Danco Island, where you can leave the ship and commune with these creatures. Because contact between humans and penguins has been relatively limited, the waddlers aren't very afraid of visitors; you can see them up close.
Sea lions, whales, seals and elephant seals are among the other fauna Antarctica cruise-goers can hope to see.
If you want to see polar bears, go north. These marine mammals, the undisputed stars of the Arctic fauna, live most of their lives on the sea ice. They're great swimmers, too. They're also endangered, as their habitat is shrinking. Arctic cruises often offer the opportunity to see polar bears in the wild.
In the Arctic, you can also potentially see walruses, Arctic foxes, whales, reindeer and other animals, including the "unicorns of the sea" (see: Narwhals).
In Antarctica you can commune with the spirit of another of the legendary polar explorers, who's renowned for his efforts and bravery with the famed and ill-fated Endurance expedition. Various cruises follow in his footsteps.
Shackleton's heroics and travels surrounding the Endurance are among the most engrossing tales of polar exploration. During an attempted journey across the continent via the South Pole, ice trapped the ship, which eventually sank. Shackleton and his crew survived on the ice, then found isolated refuge on Elephant Island via three small boats. In a search for help, Shackleton and five crew members traveled more than 800 miles to a whaling station, which led to the rescue of the rest of the Endurance's crew.
Every member of the expedition survived.
Opportunities are available in both directions to get off-ship and explore. In both destinations you can paddle in a kayak or walk around the icy landscape.
However, there are more opportunities to get out and about in the Arctic, just because of the more diverse nature of the region. Cruise lines offer options ranging from boat trips to glaciers, to summer dog sledding, to horseback riding, to a king crab safari.
Of course, if you're looking to spot specific fauna, one destination will be preferable to the other (see: Narwhals, Penguins, Polar Bears).
It's the peak season for most polar cruises (but not all, see: Winter.) Just remember: two different hemispheres, two different summertimes. If you only have time enough to go during one season, that will dictate where you might want to go.
For the Arctic, summer cruise season runs from May through September, and peaks with the long daylight hours of midsummer. During the early part of the Arctic travel season, you may still be able to see pre-migration Arctic birds.
For Antarctica, summer cruise season extends from November through March. The first penguin chicks (for more on penguins, see: Penguins) can be spotted in December. That's when the whales arrive, too.
Both places are typically cold year-round. Cruisers to Antarctica experience wide-ranging temperatures, from sub-freezing up into the 30s, while the Arctic is typically slightly warmer (and getting warmer, see: Climate Change). During the peak summer months, temperatures in both places can reach into the 50s. In recent years, Antarctica has even seen incredible temperature spikes, including a peak of 67.6 degrees.
That's a heat wave compared to off-season lows, which dip well below zero. Let the polar bears and penguins enjoy those days on their own.
When it comes to polar travel, you're not limited to the summer months.
Arctic cruises during the colder months have become popular, as people are willing to brave the much-colder days and nights to see aurora borealis, aka the northern lights. Score another plus for the Arctic.
The polar regions, at their core, share a lot: uncommon animals, a sense of adventure, ice. It's the subtleties that you should pay attention to when making your decision.
The bottom line?
If you're looking for a polar trip that's a little more of a travel challenge, with a starker palate and, of course, penguins, go to Antarctica.
If you're looking for a more accessible adventure with a more varied landscape and more potential encounters with people -- and polar bears -- try the Arctic.
*Michael Yessis' features on travel have appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine, USA Today, and the Travel Channel. He's the co-founder of the digital travel magazine World Hum, and he runs the This Week in Podcasts newsletter.
Updated October 10, 2019