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Virtual Antarctica: Come Along on Our Cruise to the Lost Continent

Sponsored by Hurtigruten

Antarctica is a place etched in the imagination, carved there by early explorers and adventurers who risked their lives to forge a path into an unknown world. Scott. Shackleton. Amundsen. Their names ring down through the years for their daring exploits on the most remote and inhospitable continent on our planet. Almost two centuries after its discovery in 1820, the White Continent remains so mysterious that NASA may well know more about Mars than the entire scientific world knows about this desolate, frozen landmass.

These days, however, ordinary travelers can forego starvation, deprivation and frostbite to fulfill their exploration fantasies from the safety and comfort of a modern-day expedition vessel, such as Hurtigruten’s 970-passenger Midnatsol (in Antarctica, Midnatsol only carries 500 passengers).

Updated November 30, 2018

In this day-by-day itinerary, beginning on November 14 and updated daily (so come back to see what's new while we're experiencing it, in the moment, as literally as possible) we’re taking you along on Midnatsol’s 13-day voyage, Adventure to Antarctica -- Highlights of the Frozen Continent for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. After an overnight in Buenos Aires, we’re boarding the ship in the Argentine port of Ushuaia, at the southern tip of South America, and crossing the infamous Drake Passage, considered the roughest seas in the world, to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s especially fitting to sail with a storied 125-year-old Norwegian line like Hurtigruten, given Norway’s glorious seafaring heritage of expedition and discovery going all the way back to the ancient Vikings.

Although the elements -- wind, weather and ice -- will dictate our final itinerary, we can expect to see day after day of heart-stopping #bucketlist scenery along with plenty of penguins and seals and whales. Oh my! Let the Instagram moments begin!

Day 1: We Start in Buenos Aires

It has all the elegance of the Old World in its buildings and streets, and in its people all the vulgarity and frank good health of the New World. All the newsstands and bookshops -- what a literate place, one thinks; what wealth, what good looks.

--Paul Theroux, American travel writer and novelist

Here in November in the Northern Hemisphere, it's springtime in the Southern Hemisphere. Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, is bursting with new life. It makes this, our first port of entry, the perfect counterpoint to the barren wasteland we will face ahead in Antarctica. Lilac jacaranda blossoms, dripping from their tree branches, festoon the city’s elegant avenues and shady plazas like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

BA, as it is called, is one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, teeming with stylish restaurants, glamorous bars, historic cafes and pulsing nightclubs. In other words, the ideal place to get my last dose of civilization before heading off to the ascetic polar south.

Since my last visit here was nearly 15 years ago, I’ve signed up for Hurtigruten’s three-hour tour for a quick refresher on the city’s legendary charms. We head out on 9 de Julio Avenue, the widest avenue in the world and the hub of numerous political demonstrations, which our guide, Hector Basavilbaso, says are a national sport. He points out city icons along the way: the obelisk, a Washington Monument lookalike; the landmark Colon Theatre; and the beaux arts French Embassy, as ornate as a wedding cake. Resembling the grand capitals of Europe, this is a city of leafy parks, tree-lined avenues and monuments -- 6,000 of them! At once cultured and earthy, prosperous and gritty, Buenos Aires pulses with an energy all its own. Its nearly 3 million residents worship at the altar of soccer with 12 -- count ’em -- stadiums scattered around the city.

We drive through the cafe-laden neighborhood of Palermo (each cafe attracts a different profession, Basavilbaso tells us, from writers to lawyers to architects) before a brief stop at the labyrinthine La Recoleta Cemetery. Among the 4,700 above-ground graves, you’ll see everything from columned Greek temples to mini baroque cathedrals to art nouveau granite tombs, all packed cheek by jowl. And, of course, the burial site of the nation’s beloved first lady, Evita Peron.

Next stop is La Boca, the vibrant La Plata River port area, which was originally settled by Italian immigrants. I wander its cobblestoned, pedestrian-only streets, which are a riotous jumble of cafes, bars, clubs and shops -- all painted in colors as vivid as a box of Crayolas. Oversized mannequins -- here’s Juan and Evita, there’s Che Guevara and soccer legend Diego Maradona -- wave from ornate, wrought-iron balconies draped on corrugated-zinc former tenements. Crooning buskers, stylized tango dancers and an array of street vendors and artists compete for your spare change. A plaque shows that the most famous street, El Caminito (or “little path”), was romantically named for a 1926 tango song. Bohemian and buzzy, the barrio is part street museum, part performance art, part New Orleans wannabe. Yes, it’s touristy, but oh, so fun.

As a dramatic contrast, we head for one of the city’s wealthiest areas, Puerto Madero. Here, old brick warehouses lining the riverfront have been converted into tony restaurants and shops, surrounded by modern-chic condo buildings.

Our tour ends at the stately Plaza de Mayo, site of the Casa Rosada presidential mansion, from whose balconies Evita Peron famously addressed her adoring throngs. Its distinctive pink color is said to come from white paint mixed with cow blood. Flanking it is the Metropolitan Cathedral, where native son Pope Francis once served as archbishop.

With my jolt of cosmopolitan life complete, I'm ready for the trip south.

Tomorrow we fly south to Ushuaia, at the tip of Argentina. We’ll board our ship there.



Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...


Currently onboard Hurtigruten's Midnatsol in Antarctica, award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.


Day 2: Ushuaia -- We're at the End of the World

Keep right on to the end of the road,
Keep right on to the end.
Tho’ the way be long let your heart be strong
Keep right on round the bend.

--Sir Harry Lauder, Scottish singer

As we fly into Ushuaia on the island of Tierra del Fuego, or Land of Fire, on one of three staggered planes chartered by Hurtigruten, I’m acutely aware that we’re arriving at the end of the earth. After deplaning from the three-and-a-half-hour flight, I overhear a fellow passenger say, “This place feels really far away and exotic.”

The planet’s southernmost city at 54 degrees south is a lively little port where the jagged, snowcapped Martial Mountains, part of the Andes range, screech to a halt at the famous Beagle Channel. Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, it’s named for the British ship HMS Beagle on which Charles Darwin explored the area on his way to the Galapagos in the 1830s. To the south, the open-ocean Drake Passage threatens with its belligerent lapping currents between here and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Adventurers, pirates and missionaries all left their mark on this town of 85,000, which began as a mission in 1869 and later became a notorious prison for Argentina’s most dangerous criminals. Today, apart from being the gateway for 90 percent of all Antarctica-bound cruises, it’s an adventure hub for hiking, skiing, sailing, kayaking and even scuba diving. The Argentine Navy also has a base here, using the former barracks of onetime prison officers.

Before boarding the Midnatsol, we have about an hour-and-a-half to explore town. I quickly discover that businesses aren’t shy about their end-of-the-world bragging rights: There’s the End of the Earth Museum, which charts the history of the town and its indigenous population; the End of the World Train, a narrow-gauge journey to Tierra del Fuego National Park; La Posada del Fin del Mundo (End of the World Inn); the World’s End gift shop; and souvenir T–shirts that trumpet the obligatory, fin del mundo.

The 16-block-long San Martin Avenue is Ushuaia’s main street, where a parade of shops sell souvenirs, outdoor clothing and gear, jewelry, camera equipment and quite surprisingly, luscious artisanal chocolates -- all supported by the growing tourist industry. It’s all a duty-free zone. I buy myself a thick neck gaiter, an extra-warm fleece tube that encircles the neck, to replace the wimpy scarf I packed. Several cozy restaurants serve local specialties: king crab and lamb, which thrive in the cold waters and mountain slopes here.

Meanwhile, fleece- and down-jacketed tourists crawl through the hilly streets on their way to expeditions, treks or other adventures. There's a heady sense of anticipation in the air -- as exciting as Christmas morning -- as we make our way toward the ship at last.

Check-in is seamless, and I’m happy to find my luggage waiting for me in my cabin. After unpacking, I retrieve my new Hurtigruten-provided wind- and water-resistance parka in cherry red. Bright colors are easier for the crew to spot against the snow and ice. Then I turn in my required medical permission form to the ship’s medical staff, a first for me. Because of the remote nature of the cruise, Hurtigruten wants to ensure that every passenger is healthy and fit enough to make the voyage. A medical emergency could mean returning to Argentina mid-cruise for an air evacuation -- which would cheat the rest of the passengers of their full experience. So the cruise line tries to minimize that risk.

The sun peaks out from the clouds just as we set sail out of the Beagle Channel, scattering shards of light on Ushuaia’s snowy mountains. Smaller hillocks line the channel on the way south, resembling dark green gumdrops iced with white frosting.

After joining the obligatory safety drill, where we learn how to don the life vest and a waterproof bodysuit that resembles a mummy’s coffin , it’s time for a buffet dinner. A sumptuous array of seafood is spread out: mussels, boiled shrimp, shrimp salad, crab legs, fish roe, herring in cream sauce and salmon smoked, grilled and in salad. There’s also a carvery station for the meat lovers and plenty of side dishes.

At Captain Kai Albrigtsen’s evening welcome, he informs us that we’ll be hitting open water about midnight. “The most common question we get,” he continues, “is about the weather in the Drake Passage. Will it be the Drake Shake [rough and tumble] or the Drake Lake [smooth and calm]?” Nervous laughter fills the room. “We’ll be somewhere in between,” he says, calmly. “With westerly winds, we can expect some swells, but not too bad. But we have Plan A, B, C and D and will do our best to fulfill your expectations.”

Then, one by one, the diverse expedition team introduce themselves, a veritable United Nations of experts: biologists from China, Chile and Iceland; two Canadian ornithologists; polar historians from Wales and Germany; an Australian “rock star” geologist; a pair of Danish photographers, two Norwegian expedition leaders; and activity guides from Norway, the Netherlands and the U.S.

We may be at the end of the world, but we’re bringing the world with us.

Most passengers turn in early, hoping that the weather gods smile on us tomorrow as we spend a full day crossing the Drake.

Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic..._


Currently onboard Hurtigruten's Midnatsol in Antarctica, award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.



_


Day 3: The Drake Passage -- Wind, Waves and Weather

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas, where storms will show your mastery, where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

--Sir Francis Drake, English sea captain and explorer

I awaken at 5:30 a.m. by the significant swaying of the ship. So, this is it -- rock and roll time, folks! On the theory that the best prevention for seasickness is a full stomach, I head to breakfast to fill up. Hand railings that line the long cabin corridors are a huge help. As passengers stagger around the ship, I overhear someone say, “It’s like we’re all in a drunken stupor.” Another chimes in, “It’s so strange not to be able to walk in a straight line.” So when our expedition leader, Karin Strand, tells us that we’re in the Drake Lake, we all look at each other incredulously.

According to Filipino bartender Anna Lynn, this is nothing compared to really rough weather. That’s when “you’ll be asking yourself why you’re here,” she says, as she recounts the time a tray of drinking glasses flew into the air from behind the bar and landed in front of it, smashed to pieces.

At 9 a.m., Strand briefs us on what to expect in the days ahead.

“We’re guests in a continent with very little human activity where the wildlife rules,” she begins. “They are the inhabitants. We’re here under their conditions. It’s quite hard for humans to do that, because we’re on top of the chain and we rule wherever we go. For once, we’re going to let some other creatures that are a tenth of our size rule.

“Typically, wildlife flees when we approach. But the wildlife in Antarctica doesn’t because they’re not used to seeing us. That’s the big difference.”

She explains that Antarctica is governed by the cooperative Antarctic Treaty, which dates to 1959 and now includes 53 countries. In 1991, the treaty parties adopted the Protocol on Environmental Protection. That year, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) was formed to promote responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic. That translates into strict ground rules for all shore and water excursions.

“We try to keep Antarctica as untouched as possible,” Strand says, as she shares the extensive list of do’s and don’ts, as follows:

  • Secure all belongings from blowing away in the winds, which are some of the severest on the planet.
  • Don’t drop or throw any litter overboard or on land. “We don’t need to pollute another continent, so let’s keep it pure,” Strand says
  • Don’t use any plastic ashore. It could blow away and get entangled with the wildlife and harm them.
  • Don’t remove anything -- no rocks, bones, fossils or feathers.
  • Leave things undisturbed and untouched.
  • Don’t step on vegetation, such as snow algae and lichens.
  • Don’t build, paint or mar anything. “No graffiti tagging,” she says. “Don’t paint or engrave anything on rocks or even in the snow.”
  • Don’t take food ashore to avoid introducing non-native species (unless absolutely necessary).
  • Don’t feed, touch or bother the wildlife. It’s all protected.
  • Stay 15 feet away from all wild animals. If you accidentally get too close, some may get aggressive. “It’s the golden rule,” says Strand. “That includes selfie sticks, which also have to stay 15 feet away.”
  • Never walk between a mother seal and her pup.
  • Stay 130 to 165 feet away from bird nests. Some species are vulnerable to disturbance. If a bird attacks you, put your hand straight up in the air and retreat in the direction from which you came. The bird may go for your hand, but it’s protected by a glove.
  • Don’t step on, remove or damage anything of historical value (such as abandoned whaling rescue boats).
  • Don’t smoke ashore. “It’s the driest continent in the world and is actually considered a desert,” Strand says.
  • Don’t enter any heritage huts unless invited by the guides. Same goes for research stations.
  • No recreational drones are allowed.
  • Inspect and clean your clothing and equipment before going ashore (more on that later).

Strand reminds us that Antarctica is very inhospitable and unpredictable. Weather can change quickly and we could even get stranded ashore due to difficult landing conditions. “We always carry water, food and shelter for 100 people for 24 hours,” she says. That’s only happened once in her experience, when cruisers were stuck on land for seven hours.

Then come the dressing instructions. It all boils down to layers, layers, layers.

“And don’t forget sunglasses and sunscreen due to reflection on the snow even if it’s semi-cloudy,” she says.

Hurtigruten provides heavily insulated rubber boots, which we keep in our cabins for the duration of the cruise. Just wear medium thick socks inside and put your waterproof pants over your boots to keep your feet dry when wading ashore. Because of the slippery and uneven terrain, Hurtigruten also provides good walking sticks.

To preserve the purity of the environment, we have to vacuum all our outer clothing and gear, and wash and disinfect our boots before and after each landing.

Regulations permit only 100 people to be on land at a time. Everyone is assigned a landing group with a window of time to go ashore. We can stay as long as we like within our allotted time and shuttles go back and forth continually from ship to shore to facilitate this. Weather and ice conditions determine all landings.

Finally, Strand reminds us to simply stop and reflect on where we are -- to take in the majesty and grandeur of it. “There are very few people that ever get to see this,” she notes. “Only about 35,000 people per year, including flyovers. You’re not going to a different continent, you’re going to a different planet. It will stick with you the rest of your life.”

For now, we all relax and get into the spirit of the crossing. The number one topic of conversation is -- what else -- the condition of the winds and waves, not to mention of our stomachs. Because the currents in the Drake Passage meet no resistance from any nearby landmass, they are some of the choppiest waters in the world. But, they can also be eerily calm.

Named for the legendary 16th-century sea captain Sir Francis Drake, the deep, 600-mile-wide waterway connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between Cape Horn (the southernmost point of South America) and the South Shetland Islands, about 100 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Water within the Drake Passage forms the most voluminous current in the world with about 600 times the flow of the Amazon River.

But, for those of us on the Midnatsol, crossing the Drake is just the price of admission to the coldest, driest and windiest continent on earth. As the winds noticeably pick up during dinner, cancelling the evening entertainment, we turn our thoughts to preparing for our first Antarctic landing at Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands tomorrow.



Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...


_Currently onboard Hurtigruten's Midnatsol in Antarctica, award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.*


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Day 4: Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica -- Hello, Penguins!

They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children, or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirt-fronts -- and rather portly withal.

--Apsley Cherry-Garrard, British Antarctic explorer

Today dawns overcast, with light snow showers, as the ship passes through the Nelson Passage on the way to Half Moon Island. Captain Albrigtsen announces that the temperature will be 30 degrees when we arrive at noon -- well ahead of schedule to everyone’s delight. (With many German and other European passengers, all announcements are in both English and German.) We have survived the Drake!

The morning is filled with interesting presentations, which whet our appetite for our first landings in the afternoon. The two Danish photographers onboard offer useful tips to a standing-room-only crowd. Stefan Dall advises us to include a point of reference in our shots to provide a sense of size and scale. “Everything in Antarctica is big and mind-blowing,” he says. Karsten Bidstrup, meanwhile, gives helpful pointers on photographing wildlife. “We’re going to a place with an incredible intensity of life,” he notes.

Next, Canadian ornithologist Dan Busby explains how penguins survive in the harsh Antarctic climate against all odds. “It’s the windiest place on earth with gale-force winds,” he says, while explaining how this warm-blooded seabird, whose body temperature is actually higher than a humans’ at about 102 degrees, has adapted to its environment. “I hope you get to experience that, being really cold and wet,” to understand what they’re up against. The audience laughs nervously. We also learn that penguins mate in the, ahem, missionary position and that they flap their wings, like mini symphony conductors, to cool off in summer.

As we approach land during lunch, we see our first penguins a-leaping and whales a-breeching in the distance. Everyone rushes to one side of the ship, cameras in hand.

All the landing groups are assigned animal names -- for the variety of penguins, seals, albatrosses and whales that frequent these parts -- along with an order of landing. As part of the "gentoo" penguin group, I’m slated for the first excursion of the day. Meanwhile, other groups go kayaking or snowshoeing.

Then the fun starts: It’s time to suit up. First comes thermal underwear, followed by a wool sweater, a down parka, a heavy waterproof windbreaker, all topped by a life vest and a small backpack. On my feet I have knee-high woolen socks inside my heavily insulated knee-high boots, covered by a pair of waterproof pants. My head is covered with a woolen hat and my neck with a thick fleece tube. On my hands, I have two pairs of gloves -- a thin liner pair and a heavy-duty Thinsulate pair. I’m positively boiling! Even when I step ashore in a light snow, I’m too hot and vow to eliminate some layers tomorrow.

After a short tender ride, we arrive at Half Moon Island, where expedition leader Karin Strand welcomes us. She asks us to stick to the trails laid by the guides, follow the flags and cones that they’ve placed in the snow, and avoid making deep footprints, which can be hazardous to penguins.

Tucked into a bay alongside the heavily glaciated Livingston Island, Half Moon is just a speck of land, home to an estimated 2,000 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins. Shaped like a crescent, the island is still covered in pristine winter snow when we arrive.

We march single file up the hillside, like a row of candy-red lollipops on an expanse of whipped cream, to see the rookeries. It’s blissfully still, except for the penguins’ squawking. We take our time to watch them waddle and pose and loll about, so adorable with their distinctive chinstraps resembling perpetual smiles almost as broad as our own. The landscape here is otherworldly -- stark, spare and stunning in its white-on-white desolation. My first taste of Antarctica is a pinch-me moment. I let it sink in.

“It’s kind of like visiting the Grand Canyon,” observes Sue Bradley, a passenger from Vancouver. “It’s so big you can’t capture it.

Upon returning to the ship, we go through the rigid boot cleaning system. It’s like walking through a mini car wash for your feet, as the brushes scrub you clean. Then we step on a spongy disinfectant platform and we’re good to go.

Tomorrow, we cruise to Deception Island, an active volcano with a colorful whaling history. More adventures lie ahead.


Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...


Currently onboard Hurtigruten's Midnatsol in Antarctica, award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.


Day 5: Deception Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica -- Whalers and Volcanoes

Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective unconscious of so many people, and it makes this huge impact, just like outer space. It's like going to the moon.

--Jon Krakauer, American writer and mountaineer

Today begins with drama. We’re welcomed to Deception Island with an early-morning announcement: “Congratulate yourselves for being part of an exclusive group that has sailed right into an active volcano!

Deception Island, an active volcano that erupted as recently as 1970, is notorious for its gruesome whaling past. It was first explored in 1820 by U.S. sealer Nathaniel Palmer, who named it Deception Island because of its outward deceptive appearance as a normal island. But it actually has a small entrance into a flooded volcanic caldera called Whalers Bay, via a narrow channel of rocky outcroppings named Neptune’s Bellows. The old whalers called it that after the gusts that can blast through. It’s treacherous to enter.

As we glide through the channel, everyone rushes to the open decks to watch Captain Albrigtsen skillfully steer the Midnatsol through the 755-foot-wide passage, which reveals a spectacular sight. Ice-hardened glacial sheets cover jagged volcanic rock walls that rise up sharply around the bay, punctuated by the ghostly remains of a whaling station. The abandoned, decaying houses and giant oil silos, in which the whale blubber was processed into whale oil, litter the shoreline. They hint at the once-thriving whale-hunting past in an eerily post-apocalyptic scene straight out of Mad Max. But despite its bleak appearance, we can only imagine the relief of those 19th-century whalers who found safe harbor here after crossing the terrors of the Drake.

“There’s no other place in Antarctica that you can mistake for Deception Island,” says ornithologist Dan Busby near the dramatically collapsed Biscoe House that once belonged to Norwegian whalers. “The zebra stripe patterns [of snow and lava] on the rocks and the volcanic gray ash on the snow. There’s nothing else like it."

By the time I go ashore in the afternoon, a driving snow shower shrouds the scene in a mantle of misty gray. “This is the best way to experience it like the whalers did,” says Line Overgaard, one of the guides. Indeed, I marvel at the thought of those rugged seamen who made their living under such harsh conditions. Two crosses -- all that’s left of a small cemetery -- remind me just how harsh.

But not all is lifeless. I spot seabirds and small clusters of gentoo penguins on the black volcanic sand, which is littered with pink dead krill. The gentoos seem to have the place mostly to themselves, as they preen for their human visitors. Because of the volcanic activity, 18 species of moss and lichens that haven’t been recorded anywhere else in Antarctica also live on the island.

A few brave souls from our cruise partake of the infamous “polar plunge” at the end of their shore excursion. A rite of passage for bragging-rights collectors, the polar plunge requires that you strip down to your bathing suit and quickly run into the frigid water at Whalers Bay. No fanfare. No certificate. No ceremony. Just a chance to join an elite club.

“I was nervous and just started running,” says Leanne Mercadante of Boston, one of only a handful of plungers. “I got to my shins and my brain just turned off. When I couldn’t feel the bottom, I started to panic. So I swam back quickly and ran back to the towels. All of a sudden, I was warm again, since my skin was warmer than the air. That’s when I realized that I had done a polar plunge very near the South Pole, which was so meaningful to me. I felt invigorated.”

And speaking of stripping down, given the blustery weather, I’m so glad I’ve layered up just like yesterday. Lesson learned: You can’t psych out the weather, so go with more layers that you can peel off as needed.

When I return to the ship, I’m ever-so grateful to have hot tea waiting for us as we step off the tender.

Two more excellent lectures round out the day. From Australian geologist Dominic Barrington, we learn more about Antarctica’s immensity -- 5.4 million square miles huge, or 50 percent bigger than the U.S. About 98 percent of it is covered in ice, 1 mile thick. It holds 90 percent of the world’s ice and 70 percent of the planet's fresh water. Which is why it’s so important to the rest of the planet. Alas, Barrington tells us, the ice is melting due to climate change at a rate of 175 billion tons a year. In some places, the continent is 8 degrees warmer than it was just 50 years ago.

Later, Dutch polar historian Tom Warmolts gives us a colorful introduction to the continent’s human history and the Golden Age of Exploration -- highlighting the polar legends Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton. Since I’ve just finished reading "Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage," I was thrilled to see photos of his odds-defying 1914–1916 expedition as part of the slideshow.

This evening, when Overgaard tells us that there won’t be any wind for our visit to Orne Harbour on the Antarctic Peninsula tomorrow, a loud cheer goes up. We hope she’s right.


Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...


Currently onboard Hurtigruten's Midnatsol in Antarctica, award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.


Day 6: Orne Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula -- Icy Wonderland

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d,
Like noises in a swound!

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Bergs! They’re everywhere as far as the horizon when we awaken on our approach to Orne Harbour. This is what we’ve been waiting for, this fairyland of ice nymphs gliding in the water.

When we reach the harbor, it’s ringed with steep peaks and soaring glaciers, untouched masses of black and white that form an unfathomable panorama. Great cathedrals of ice rise all around us whose lofty spires, elaborate turrets and extravagant towers make this place feel sacred, reverential. They shimmer and shine in the early morning sun against a brilliant azure sky. The vast, frozen wilderness, as remote as it is elemental, fills with me awe.

“This beats Africa,” says Sandi Vaessen of Littleton, Colorado, as we tender over to a glacier for our morning landing. Indeed, I’ve been lucky enough to see a good part of the world and this ranks among my peak experiences -- summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, flying by Angel Falls in a small plane, caravaning across the Sahara. And I’ve visited my share of landmarks, both natural and man-made. But this surreal, wintry wonderland can put all of those to shame.

Today, we’re climbing a glacier to view the scene from the top. As we approach the shore, expedition leader Karin Strand greets us. “This is a tricky landing, so I may have to grab your bums, but it’s not meant for a #MeToo moment,” she says, with a chuckle. “We’re doing the zipper method here to get out of the tender.” That requires going from guide to guide stationed in the water and on land by alternating arm grips with each one, left to right to left and so on. It’s a secure and efficient system.

We set out up the snowy steep face of the glacier, picking our way up, while leaning on our walking sticks as we go. From a distance, we resemble a line of red-coated army ants marching one by one, hurrah, up the hill. It’s slow going and treacherous in places as the snow-and-ice trail gets steeper and slicker. (Note: If you’re not a secure climber, skip this excursion.) But the views of the harbor fanning out around us are a rich reward.

Our afternoon excursion is just as inspiring. We set out in the Zodiacs to cruise the waters of the bay. Small bergs and bergy bits (the term for those that are 16- to 47-feet long) float around us like a marvelous sculpture garden luminous with icy white and translucent blue carvings. I never knew that ice could be so blue -- with sharp slashes of indigo, soft aquamarine shadows and deep turquoise undertones, all reflected in the inky dark sea. “It’s because only blue lengths of light can penetrate the ice,” geologist Dominic Barrington explained to us in his morning lecture. ‘The other colors get absorbed.”

But the shapes are equally astonishing. Whipped by wind and water, they assume fantastic forms: I spot a delicate swan, a massive whale and a dinosaur head, replete with reptilian skin. Others are adorned with arches, crevasses and grottos within which the water sloshes and gurgles.

It seems hard to top today, but Cuverville Island awaits tomorrow. “It’s one of my favorite places,” guide Line Overgaard tells us in her evening briefing, “full of nice bergs, glaciers and high mountains.” Not to mention, 7,000 nesting pairs of penguins.


Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...


Currently onboard Hurtigruten's Midnatsol in Antarctica, award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.


Day 7: Cuverville Island, Antarctic Peninsula -- Camping in the snow!

Antarctica still remains a … place where it's possible to see the splendors and immensities of the natural world at its most dramatic and, what's more, witness them almost exactly as they were, long, long before human beings ever arrived on the surface of this planet. Long may it remain so.

--David Attenborough, English broadcaster and naturalist

The magic continues today on Cuverville Island.

Threading our way through a field of icebergs, our tender pulls up to a small bay surrounded by massive snow-covered ice cliffs. A cloudy haze blankets the scene, providing a moody feel.

We’re in gentoo heaven. Some of them welcome us by leaping out of the water, porpoise-like, showing off on cue. When we step ashore, thousands of the orange-beaked birds, the largest colony on the Antarctic Peninsula, are everywhere -- clustered by the water, perched on the mountain, crossing our pathways. They waddle and fight and nest and mate. A few stray ones climb their “penguin highways” up the steep slopes. It’s the beginning of breeding season and they’re here to find their mates. Cameras click as we photograph them solo, in couples, in groups, in masses -- and yes, even in the missionary position! We can’t seem to get enough of them.

When I find ornithologist Dan Busby at the end of the trail, I ask him what he likes most about these entertaining creatures. “That they’re birds that can’t fly but still found a way to be successful,” he answers. “That amazes me every time I see them.”

Hurtigruten day 7 Orne Island (photo via Hurtigruten On my way back to the tender, I catch up with Captain Albrigtsen, who’s just married a couple on a secluded spot on the island. “Cuverville is one of my favorite places, along with Nico Harbour and Paradise Bay,” he tells me, as penguins strut all around us. “We’re surrounded by glaciers; it’s so beautiful.”

When I ask him what he loves most about Antarctica, he answers, “The light, the dimensions, the wildlife and the color. This is the best light to see the blue color on the glaciers. It makes a special contrast.” Then he adds, “When it’s quiet, you can hear the ice talking to you, cracking in the water. The glacier is speaking. It’s moving all the time.”

In the afternoon, as others go kayaking, take photography or art classes, or go on geology field trips, I opt to cruise the bay. Bring on the icebergs. I marvel at how they’re honeycombed, striated, flattened and rounded. They rear up suddenly like startled stallions. They drip with icicles sharp as fangs. They dazzle with blues Picasso would envy.

Suddenly we hear there’s a rare emperor penguin nearby. Our Zodiac, along with five others, races to the spot, where we wait…and wait…and wait. Just when I think this emperor has no clothes, there he is, head bobbing above the water.

“This is the holy grail of ornithology,” says our guide Tom Warmolts, excitedly. “It’s the most expensive bird in the world to add to your life list. You pay $50,000 to fly to the South Pole to see an emperor. They almost never get this far north. I’ll be talking about this for years.”

On our way back to the Midnatsol, we catch a mighty leopard seal napping on an iceberg. It seems almost an afterthought given the day’s events.

But the biggest thrill comes tonight, when I join 29 fellow passengers for a rare opportunity to camp out on the snow. About 9:30 p.m., we tender over to a minuscule island outcropping in Leith Harbour, a pocket cove of towering walls of ice. We’re advised to wear thermal underwear, warm sweaters and woolen headwear, and bring extra hats, gloves and socks. No food allowed, just a bottle of water.

As a solo traveler, I’m assigned a female tent mate. Like the rest of the campers, the two of us set up our tent, liner, inflatable mattresses and sleeping bags. “It’s top-of-the-line gear used on expeditions around the world,” explains our excursion leader, Will Baker. Then he introduces us to the two open-air Porta Potties set up in the snow. (I decide to forego the indignities and tough it out for the night.)

Then we check out our enchanting overnight home, bathed in an eerie twilight by the late-setting sun that heightens the drama of this glacial world. The water around us is so still it resembles mirrored glass, perfectly reflecting the ice mountains. We all share the unspoken sense that we’re experiencing something extraordinary, something once reserved for hard-core explorers.

By the time we turn in near midnight, the silence and stillness is almost deafening. The Midnatsol has disappeared out of sight and there’s not another soul around, save our hardy crew. From my little room with a view, I look out over the frozen landscape with rapturous wonder. I’m overwhelmed by the raw, untamed power of nature in a place untouched for eons.

Comfortably warm, I awaken from a light sleep at 4 a.m. by the thunderous calving of a huge sheet of ice followed by the birds greeting the early sunrise. We get up about 5:30 a.m. to see a light snow has fallen overnight. As we pack up, we fill in any large holes our footprints made in the deep snow so that penguins won’t get trapped in them, and tender back to the ship at 7 a.m.

“I’ve always wanted to come to Antarctica since I was a child,” says Graham Spooner, a fellow camper from London. “Shortly after I got married, I took my wife to Machu Picchu where she’d wanted to go as a child. I’ve now achieved my Machu Picchu moment. And camping here is the absolute icing on the cake, or should I say, the snow on the top.”

Tomorrow we visit Paradise Harbour, the setting for Brown Station, an Argentine research station -- and more penguins. In her briefing, guide Line Overgaard confirms what we already know: “We’ve been very lucky so far to go ashore at all our landing places.”


Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...


Currently onboard Hurtigruten's Midnatsol in Antarctica, award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.


Day 8: Base Brown, Antarctic Peninsula -- Whales, Ahoy!

It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.

--Charles Darwin

(Photo: Hurtigruten)

Yes, Antarctica may seem like a fairy tale, but sometimes even intrepid travelers on a trip of a lifetime need some downtime. After my night in the elements, I decide to take it easy today. I nap and relax in the morning, and skip the afternoon Zodiac cruise due to heavy snow. And I don't feel a moment's guilt, either. It helps to pace yourself on an expedition this overwhelming. Apparently, I'm not the only one to feel that way as I see plenty of fellow passengers doing the same. Truth is, you can revel in the scenery from the comfort of the ship if you're just not up for the rigors of a land excursion.

While a cruise like this necessarily focuses on the destination, not the vessel that's your home-away-from-home, the Midnatsol (Norwegian for "Midnight Sun"), though not fancy, makes a cozy harbor at sea. Several lounges and quiet spots offer places to enjoy free time: read a book, play games or gather with friends. Wraparound two-story windows make the Panorama Lounge on the bow a coveted spot to have a drink while taking in the view. Deck 8 also features a small library, two bars and a dance floor, though the only dancing we've seen so far has been of penguins.

Afternoon tea in the Paradis lounge, where pastries, cookies and fresh fruit are served, is a popular gathering spot from 3–5 p.m. Not least because desserts are stars on this ship and generally follow the culinary theme of the day: Italian, Norwegian and Spanish, among others.

The food, in general, has been better than I expected, a viewpoint shared by others. We bow gratefully before the talented soup maker for the daily homemade specials -- creamy tomato lentil, corn chowder, zesty gazpacho, delicate mushroom and more. Buffets are rich with choices, heavy on fish and seafood in the Scandinavian tradition (with fish roe at every lunch -- be still my heart!). Meals are all buffet-style with just two a la carte dinners so far. One night I sample the small specialty dining room, The Pampas Grill, and feast on ceviche, salmon with avocado salsa and churros dipped in chocolate. (King crab must be ordered a day in advance.) Virtually all the food for this 13-day voyage is provisioned in Norway, which makes us marvel at the fresh fruit and salads thousands of miles and many days from their source.

(Photo: Hurtigruten)

I find my way to a small sauna and fitness room on the Outdoor Explorer deck, which also has an open-air Jacuzzi (out of service on this cruise, alas), and a tiny bar, "the best on the ship," says Filipino bartender Poyan, who's in his second season here. "My eyes exploded the first time I saw Antarctica," he tells me.

Today, instead of taking excursions, I watch the BBC movie "Frozen Planet" and take in a lecture by Icelandic biologist Saga Svavarsdottir on the whales of Antarctica. Perfect timing. Later that evening, we hear, "Whales on the bow!" A stampede heads for outside, clutching cameras, while a pod of humpbacks puts on a showstopper as we motor through the Gerlache Strait. Few sights on earth are as thrilling as seeing these behemoths breach the water in their native habitat. With its nutrient-rich waters, the Antarctic serves as nature's dining room for whales during the summer months.

Turns out that even a day of downtime can be filled with discovery.

Hurtigruten whale sightings (Photo credit: Hurtigruten)

So that makes humpbacks, check. Gentoo, chinstrap and emperor penguins, check. Leopard and Weddell seals, check. Not to mention skuas, blue-eyed shags and Antarctic terns, check, check, check. What a wonder.

Tomorrow, we'll reach Damoy Point on Wiencke Island in the Neumayer Channel, known for a historic British transit hut. Until recently, the passage was blocked by ice. If we can't get through, it's time for Plan B -- which even the crew doesn't know until they determine the conditions. When they say weather and ice dictate the itinerary, they really mean it.


Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...


Currently onboard Hurtigruten's Midnatsol in Antarctica, award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.


Day 9: Damoy Point, Wiencke Island, Antarctic Peninsula -- Heritage, History -- and More Whales

If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.

--Andrew Denton, Australian TV producer and host

Damoy Hut, Antarctica (Photo by: Hurtigruten)

We make it to Damoy Point as planned to visit a fascinating little heritage hut. Reaching the facility requires trekking through a vast expanse of snow, which dramatizes just how isolated it is. Built by the British Antarctic Survey in 1975 as a summer transit station to support a nearby airstrip, it was last occupied in 1993. Up to 15 men once lived in the tiny house, which still contains their kitchen (with a special drawer marked "chocolates"; these men had their priorities right), living quarters (triple bunk beds for 15), scientific equipment, books and other artifacts. It's a fascinating reminder of the challenging living conditions humans endure in these parts. Not the least of which is the intense stench wafting off the penguins' dung today.

With no more excursions scheduled for the afternoon, passengers relax, take an art workshop, hear a lecture on animal adaptations or join scientists in the microscope-outfitted science center to examine phytoplankton, the bottom of the food chain here.

I'm fascinated by Hannah Johns, a representative from the nearby Port Lockroy base also on Wiencke Island, who comes aboard to talk about her life there. She serves as postmistress for the southernmost post office in the world, run by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust, where she stays busy stamping 70,000–80,000 postcards during the summer season. She and her seven colleagues run the restored 1944 base as a museum and small gift shop, selling postcards, stamps, commemorative coins, ball caps, magnets and paperweights, which help support their charity. It's one of the most popular Antarctic tourist destinations for the expedition ships that find their way here. Their conservation members also work to preserve six Antarctic historic sites, including Shackleton and Scott huts.

Johns and her colleagues live at the base during the four summer months -- with no running water or fresh food and limited self-generated electricity. No wonder the expedition ships that visit on most days are a lifeline -- not to mention a welcome source of showers. So what do they do for entertainment? "Well, I have three TV channels," says Johns with an impish smile, "my three windows facing the natural world," as she points in three different directions.

Antarctica Sunset (Photo by: Veronica Stoddart)

Later in the evening, the bridge announces whales off the bow. We throw on windbreakers and race to the outdoor decks to discover a blazing setting sun pouring liquid fire over the sea and sky in a scene that could shame a volcano. An incendiary explosion of color lights up the earth -- molten reds, flaming oranges and deeply glowing golds. "All I can think of," says passenger Kelsey Knoedler of Medford, Massachusetts, (with a nod to Lennon–McCartney) is, "Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies."

Oh -- and are there ever whales! Not only humpbacks, those showoff acrobats of the deep but also a pod of playful orcas, among the world's greatest predators. Boom, boom go the deep rumbles of the humpbacks against the distinctive high-pitched clicks of the orcas. Whoosh go the behemoths as they explode out of the sunlit sea. For a half-hour, the maximum amount of time our ship is allowed to stay in their vicinity, they perform their primordial rituals for a mesmerized audience. Even the members of the bridge, veteran visitors of the Antarctic as they are and visible through their windows above us, can't stop smiling.

We're told that whales are also likely in Wilhelmina Bay tomorrow. But even if we don't see another one, we'll hardly complain.


Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...


Currently onboard Hurtigruten's Midnatsol in Antarctica, award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.


Day 10: Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctic Peninsula -- Picture-Perfect Weather

It was like visiting Disneyland, Las Vegas and Mars simultaneously.

--Victor Boyarsky, Russian polar explorer

As I board a tender (boat) for the last excursion of the cruise, someone in line says, "The only good thing about this is that it's the last time I have to put on all this gear." Talk about bittersweet. Once in the tender, I discover I've forgotten my warm woolen hat. No matter. In a swift Plan B move, I pull up my parka's hood instead. I've fully embraced "polar practicality."

The weather today is giving us a star-studded send-off. The sun is out, there's not a whisper of wind and it's a positively balmy 34 degrees as we motor into the expansive 15-mile-wide Wilhelmina Bay. It's called "Whale-mina Bay" for its large number of humpbacks, one of which was spotted earlier this morning. Snowy mountains and sky-high glaciers curtain the landscape. Sculpted by the wind, the snow resembles sand dunes, undulating sensuously along the horizon. The glassy water is littered with icebergs and islands.

I remember that polar explorer Ernest Shackleton hoped to reach Wilhelmina Bay when his ship, Endurance, was crushed by ice and sank in the Weddell Sea. He was hoping to be rescued by one of the many whalers that frequented the bay, but he never made it there.

As we glide by a particularly dramatic berg on our Zodiac cruise, our guide, Will Baker, says, "I try to figure out the story of that iceberg, how it's rolled over the years and broken off." Indeed, each iceberg has its own history, its own tale to tell, like a living organism of the sea. As I look deep into the cold, clear water, I remember that 90 percent of an iceberg is submerged below the surface. It's startling to think what we see is only the tippy top.

Soon, we spot a pair of kelp gulls perched on a small outcropping, followed by a Weddell seal, lounging nonchalantly on his gondola of ice. Click, click go the cameras. We make our way to Enterprise Island, which has the semi-submerged wreck of the Norwegian whaling ship, Guvernoren. The 3,344-ton ship functioned as one of the largest whaling factory ships of her time, processing some 22,000 gallons of oil per voyage. In 1915, the ship caught fire during a night of hard partying and was run aground to save the men and supplies. All 85 men survived unharmed and were rescued by another whaling vessel. The eerie, rusted hulk, tucked into the snow and ice, has now become a home to Antarctic terns that flit around it.

Early in the afternoon, we leave Wilhelmina Bay via the Gerlache and Bransfield straits while a megawatt sun lights up the landscape like a runway. Forget Montana. This big sky country goes on forever, pierced by razor-sharp ice mountains like humps across the horizon. The air is so clean, so free of impurities, that the light is intoxicating. There's no other light on earth is like it.

We take it easy the rest of the day and soak in the picture-perfect weather. I actually spot a couple sunbathing on the outdoor deck -- fully clothed! On our way toward the Drake Passage, we pass a tubular berg the size of Manhattan, with sharply sheered sides as flat as an iron. We stare at it with awe, contemplating the lethal power of that behemoth of ice. What a fitting farewell from this icy kingdom.


Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...


Currently onboard Hurtigruten's Midnatsol in Antarctica, award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.


Days 11–12: Drake Passage: Homeward Bound

The Lone Trail lures you on.
And somehow you are sick of the highway,
With its noise and its easy needs,
And you seek the risk the by-way,
And you reck not where it leads.
… And sometimes it leads to an Arctic trail,
And the snows where your torn feet freeze.

--Robert William Service, British-Canadian poet and writer

On the return to Ushuaia, we get one final going-away present: the dreaded Drake Shake, with swells of 32 feet. It gives us the dubious distinction of having experienced both ends of the spectrum -- so appropriate for this land of extremes.

Midafternoon of our second day on the Drake, it's land ahoy! We finally spot Cape Horn, the rocky headland at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet. From the 16th to the 20th centuries, the passage around Cape Horn was so dangerous that an estimated 10,000 sailors were lost in 800 shipwrecks caused by gale-force winds and unexpected streams. "Rounding the horn" became a legendary feat in the maritime world. But for those of us on the comfortable Midnatsol, the conditions are calm and it's just another splendid photo op on the way back to civilization.

As our polar expedition comes to an end after 1,700 nautical miles, fellow traveler John Bloom of Richland, Washington, sums it up best: "This is something that's going to be difficult to share with people because what you get is an emotional response."

Then he adds, "It's going to take months to wipe the smile from my face."

Epilog: Lessons Learned

As I reflect on the cruise, here are my takeaways to help you prepare for your own:

• The weather dictates the itinerary, not just day by day, but hour by hour. It can be clear sailing when we set out for a 90-minute landing and threatening by the time we return. It changes that quickly.

• Expect weather in the Antarctic Peninsula's early summer (November) to average in the low 30s. But the wind factor can make it feel considerably colder.

• Be flexible and leave your expectations at home. The expedition team does an excellent job of providing the best possible experience, but they're up against unpredictable weather and ice conditions. Because of that, they can only plan the itinerary a day at a time.

• This is a highly participatory cruise, not a pampering one. It's an expedition cruise, after all, with the emphasis on expedition. Weather permitting, each day is filled with landings and Zodiac cruises, which are included in the cruise cost. The landings require walking and/or climbing on the snow. Optional excursions include kayaking, snowshoeing and camping. At the same time, there's no pressure to do anything beyond your comfort level, and some passengers went ashore only occasionally.

• The expedition team is extraordinarily supportive of everyone and will ensure that you are able to join every excursion you want to, even if you're hesitant about your ability to do so. They do an amazing job of facilitating shore landings, which can be tricky when moving from a bobbing tender directly onto a steep, snowy landing spot. But they succeed in getting everyone ashore.

• On the other hand, be realistic about what you can manage. For example, the snowshoe excursions can be two hours long up and down hills, which require considerable physical fitness. Detailed briefings on all these activities will help you decide if you want to do them.

• Bring strong hand and face lotion and ChapStick. The air is extremely dry.

• Buy medical evacuation insurance. Despite all the safety precautions, the amount of physical activity on this cruise increases the odds of an accident.

• In addition to following the helpful Hurtigruten packing list, I recommend bringing a neck gaiter instead of a scarf. It's better for pulling up to protect the lower part of your face -- especially on the Zodiacs when the wind can be strong while you're zooming across the water.

• Bring both light and heavy gloves. I was happy to have thin liner-type gloves, which were easier to use (or pull off) to shoot photos. On some days, I didn't need the heavier ones.

• Bring good thermal underwear. For one thing, that's all you wear under your waterproof pants. An extra pair is nice, but not necessary because you only have to wear them during excursions. I rinsed out my thermal top midway through the cruise, and it dried in a flash. Bathrooms have clotheslines.

• Internet access is very spotty, so you may want to consider doing without, considering the cost. This is the perfect cruise for a digital detox.

• Unless you're an avid birder, consider leaving your binoculars at home. I brought a pair that I never touched, simply because I was shooting photos all the time.

• Standard cabins on the Midnatsol are simple and quite small by cruise standards. But they're comfortable and the heated bathroom floors are a big plus.


Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...


Currently onboard Hurtigruten's Midnatsol in Antarctica, award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.


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