Ah, the joys of summer. Never ending sunshine. Balmy temperatures in the twenties & thirties. The refreshing feel of gale-force winds upon your skin. Such are the perks of spending a summer (i.e. winter for the northern hemisphere) visiting the White Continent. Antarctica, duly nicknamed not so much for its demographics as for the fact that everything is covered in snow and ice, is seeing more visitors than ever before. With the addition of mainstream cruise lines offering visits to this remote wonderland, even people who don’t earn six figures a year can afford passage onboard. For many world travelers that big white spot at the bottom of the map is the last place left to go to complete the continental circuit. But is it worth the time, money and windburn to get there? What can you expect to see?
First, let me say that you will not be seeing any polar bears. If for some reason you do, immediately inform the captain that he’s drifted into the wrong hemisphere, yet be polite, as you wouldn’t want him to leave you with the bears. That said, what you will see as far as wildlife goes are whales, albatross, seals and literally thousands of cute little penguins of all sorts swimming, standing around, and in some cases, marching.
Most cruises leave from the Argentinean ports of Ushuaia or Buenos Aires, which are worthy destinations in themselves if you don’t mind being surrounded by good-looking people. Expeditions departing from the latter generally stop at the charming yet mostly-desolate Falkland Islands—or Islas Malvinas depending on which side of the conflict you’re inclined to support. Here you can take in starkly beautiful desert–like scenery, several penguin colonies, and perhaps the southernmost pub offering fish and chips.
From the tip of South America it is about a day’s voyage across the Drake Passage—notorious for its rough seas. Seasickness medicine and/or an iron stomach will likely come in handy here if you’ve brought them. Before stopping at Antarctica proper, you will probably first cruise or visit the South Shetland Islands, including Elephant Island made famous by Ernest Shackleton and his crew. One look at the dreary landscape and you’ll think they were actually sane in attempting to pull off their amazing journey toward rescue.
At these latitudes a scan of the horizon will likely yield some stunning views of distinctly-shaped icebergs, ranging from the slushy ‘bergy bits’ that could have run off from anyone’s driveway, to the mammoth tabular bergs that boast dimensions—with no exaggeration—roughly equal to those of Queens, N.Y. No need to fear visions of the Titanic, as bergs of that size are quite easy to see and even more easily avoided. The same cannot be said of Queens.
Across the Bransfield Strait lies the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, which rises northward like a cold bony finger. Most cruises will navigate the iceberg-riddled passages of the Gerlache Strait and Neumaier Channel, formed by a line of mountainous islands running parallel to the equally-mountainous coastline. Here the icebergs are predominantly glacial in origin. The bluer the berg the denser it is, and appropriately, the more photogenic it is as well. On the many ice floes drifting by you are likely to find sleeping Weddell seals or Gentoo penguins preening themselves as they float on by, rather undisturbed by your presence. As you stare up at the thousand-foot plus cliffs on each side and breath in the crisp, freezing summer air, there will be no doubt that you are truly in one of the last places on earth you’d ever think to be.
The only habitations on the continent are research stations manned by scientists and students from a rainbow coalition of your major developed nations. By all accounts they get along quite well, and I imagine national and racial boundaries blur when you’re huddled together in a building while outside its 200 below. Smaller ships usually offer guests the chance to alight onshore at certain facilities, allowing an in-depth look at Antarctic life and the people crazy enough to live it.
If you’re considering an Antarctic cruise, the following are some practical tips. First, dress warmly and in layers. Wind is constantly a factor here, and those balmy temperatures in the twenties can drop quickly with the wind chill. Also, sun block is highly recommended, not only for the sun, but for the strong reflection of the ice and snow. Seeing as this is a summer vacation that should be a no-brainer.
As was mentioned earlier, sea conditions can change surprisingly fast, so some motion sickness medicine is a wise investment even if you never use it. Also, a camera with a substantial zoom—preferably in the 200-400 mm. range—can transform that picture of the iceberg with little black spots into the showcase of your album when the black spots are revealed as cute little penguins posing just for you.
No doubt about it, a trip to Antarctica is a travel highlight anyone who has the means should not miss. With a little money, time, and sense of adventure, you can experience one of the last true frontiers on earth in a style and comfort far above the early explorers who clued us in to its existence. But if your idea of a summer vacation is lying on a beach somewhere with your feet in the water, you’re better off staying in Northern Hemisphere. I’m sure the polar bears will appreciate the company.