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Antarctica is the ultimate destination for adventurous travelers. This vast, White Continent is the highest, driest and coldest territory on earth, owned by no one and uninhabited by people, except for scientists carrying out research at various outposts. From December to March, the Antarctic summer brings with it sunny days and bearable temperatures, perfect for exploring a landscape which is, quite simply, like nowhere else on earth (it's home to the largest single mass of ice; 2 miles thick in some places). And at this time of year, the light is as extraordinary as the scenery, sparkling over icebergs, glaciers, mountains and wildlife -- a scene so powerful that, for some people, coming here feels almost life-changing.
Antarctica's physical isolation makes it time-consuming to reach, and the majority of visitors to the frozen Seventh Continent come on a cruise. A typical journey there involves an overnight in Buenos Aires followed by a flight to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. This is the embarkation point where ships sail to and from Antarctica -- a journey which takes about 48 hours. Post-cruise stays in Santiago, Chile, are another popular add-on.
Larger liners offer a "sail by" experience, allowing passengers to admire the landscape from onboard, but only ships carrying 500 passengers or less have permission to land. An increasing number of tourists are choosing the latter, more intrepid option, which allows them to disembark on polar mountains and glaciers like great explorers did before them. Lindblad Expeditions offers immersion with expert guidance. Want to do it on the cheap (or at least cheaper)? Hurtigruten and Quark Expeditions are slightly more affordable options. If luxury is more your thing, Silversea, Scenic and Ponant offer a variety of itineraries.
Antarctica might not have any indigenous natives, culture or cuisine, but what you'll get instead is a plethora of experiences which can't be replicated anywhere else in the world -- and which will gain you bragging rights like you've never had before.
Here are 10 amazing things to see and do on an Antarctica cruise.
(If you're looking for even more ideas, check out the best Antarctica shore excursions.)
There's something about these little guys that make us fall in love at first sight. Maybe it's because they're so human-like -- standing on two feet and all dressed up in tuxes. Or, perhaps it's their goofy walk or that they mate for life. Whatever the reason, penguins are a major Antarctic draw and a sight that's impossible to tire of. Cuverville Island and Orne Harbour, where expeditions frequently visit, are home to penguin colonies, where tens of thousands of these flightless birds can be observed waddling, mating and sliding belly-first down icy highways. Even when there are only a couple of them hanging around like the star attraction, there's no argument that, however many, penguins make great photos. While passengers are told to keep 5 meters (about 16 feet) away from wildlife, penguins commonly approach humans. Chances are that on the Antarctic Peninsula (where most cruise expeditions happen), you'll only bump into two or three of the world's 17 penguin species: the gentoo, the chinstrap and the Adelie. Expedition team members, as well as onboard lectures, will help you tell them apart.
If Antarctica is the ultimate destination, then its polar plunge is the ultimate challenge. This feat involves stripping down to swimwear and daring to dunk in the subzero Antarctic sea. If this doesn't sound like fun to you -- in truth, it's not -- think of the photo op. In many instances, you'll also receive a certificate to prove you did it. Hurtigruten has passengers plunge from a black, volcanic beach on Deception Island (under supervision by medical staff), while other liners have a platform from which those braving the challenge can jump straight into the sea from the ship. Get lucky and there might even be a penguin or two porpoising (leaping in and out of the water) when you do it.
Most expedition ships use Zodiacs (small, inflatable boats) to ferry passengers to and from land. These Zodiacs can also be used for cruising around places the big ships can't reach. This includes the seascape of icebergs near Cuverville Island. Cruising between and among these bergs is an otherworldly experience (some icebergs are scarily big, others are more petite). Look closely and all are nature's answer to sculptures, with intricate markings, contours and stalactites dripping off them. Moreover, all are tinged with an ethereal, iridescent turquoise -- a shade which would be hard to replicate on an artist's palette. The vision of them is so fantastical that you'll be left wondering if the White Witch from "The Chronicles of Narnia" might appear.
The weather is very much in charge in Antarctica. It can be unpredictable and downright inhospitable. When wind or ice prevents a scheduled stop from taking place, expedition teams come up with a Plan B, which might involve an ice landing, where passengers are ferried by Zodiacs to a floe, or a floating ice sheet roughly the size of a tennis court. Standing on a floe is off the scale in terms of surreal factor. Not only might the floe you're standing on be drifting, so too might smaller floes which are surrounding it. Fear not, though, expedition teams only choose the sturdiest of floes to negate the risk of unexpected polar plunges.
Sleeping under canvas in subzero conditions might seem a ludicrous proposition, but think harder and the appeal sinks in. Not many people visit Antarctica in the first place, and of those that do, only a tiny percentage get to spend the night on land as opposed to on a ship. A handful of expedition ships offer this experience but despite the hefty price tag, it's usually oversubscribed. Those who win one of the prized places will be dropped ashore to watch their liner disappear for the night, which adds even more authenticity to the sense of remote isolation. (But no need for alarm as the ship doesn't go far in case of emergency.) No light pollution, no noise pollution, no Wi-Fi; just you, a few other campers and some penguins with the whole White Continent to yourselves. The experience is so amazing, it won't matter if you don't actually sleep.
It's not all about the penguins -- whales are another star attraction here. Even before a cruise reaches the Antarctic Peninsula, it's likely you'll spot some from the ship. Expedition teams make regular onboard announcements about exactly where these marine mammals are hanging out, so be sure to have your camera at the ready to take the perfect whale-breaching, lob-tailing or water-spouting photo. For a closer look, go Zodiac cruising around Cuverville Island or Wilhelmina Bay, and boats are regularly surrounded by so many whales -- humpback, Antarctic minke and fins are the most common -- that passengers don't know where to point their cameras.
Many expedition cruises offer kayaking, and there's nothing like getting your backside in the water (in a two-person kayak) to help see Antarctica from a different perspective. There's something special about exploring with no engines and no sound -- apart from oars splashing into the cold, clear sea and occasionally whacking into a lump of floating ice. As kayaks circumnavigate icebergs and glide near glaciers, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the power and majesty of the surrounds. This really is kayaking like nowhere else on earth. Other highlights might include paddling past the wreck of an early-1900s whaling ship or having whales, penguins or seals swim up close to your vessel.
There might not be shops or settlements in Antarctica, but what there is (for three months of the year only) is a single, solitary post office with a small, adjacent museum. This British-owned and run former base at Port Lockroy is accessible to small expedition ships from December through to February, depending on ice. There are a few knickknacks to buy (think toy penguins, compasses, etc.), but the main draw is to mail a card from here. Not only will that card travel half-way around the world (or more) to reach its destination, it will also be franked with a very rare, remote postmark. Cards and stamps can be bought for $2 apiece -- the same price to send anywhere in the world. Alternatively, bring your own card and just buy the stamp. For those cruising Antarctica outside of the post office's opening months, not to worry: The post mistress (or master) also boards ships to offer the same service.
Now if only Ernest Shackleton, an early polar explorer, had been able to post a letter, his team might have been rescued far sooner. It's not often that one gets to feel like an explorer, but go hiking during an expedition cruise and that's exactly what you can imagine being. It's a common misconception that Antarctica is flat; in reality, it's a continent of mountains. There are small summits to climb at several landing spots, one of which can be found at Damoy Point overlooking Port Lockroy's post office. Not everyone has the desire or strength to make the snowy ascent, but you can still part from the pack and imagine what it would feel like to be nearly alone in a vast, frozen landscape at the end of the world.
There are so many rare, exciting birds to spot in Antarctica (aside from penguins) that non-enthusiasts quickly convert into keen ornithologists. Expedition team members, including naturalists, can be found up on deck offering binoculars and expert knowledge. First to appear is the wandering albatross (made famous by Samuel Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"), which follows the ship's wake as it sails across the Drake Passage. Their long wingspan (nearly 11.5 feet) and life span (50 years) are equally impressive. Petrels and fulmars can also be seen swooping around the ship (or gliding past your cabin's porthole). Once land has been reached, snowy sheathbills (penguin poop-eaters) and Antarctic terns are common sightings, as well as the skua, the bad bird of Antarctica. Why bad? Skuas constantly harass penguins to try to steal their eggs. Naughty!