For aspiring globetrotters, nothing is more tantalizing than the chance to visit that big white blob at the bottom of the map. Antarctica - the White Continent - lays claim to being the most remote, least populated and undeveloped of all the continents. And while there are still no cities, towns or villages to be found (only research stations) cruise ships provide opportunities to visit this far-flung corner of the Earth. With a working knowledge of who, where and how much, anyone with the means and desire can complete the continental circuit by boarding a ship to icier shores.
Holland America Cruise Lines
Though a visit to Antarctica will always be pricier than visits to most other destinations, for those looking for a somewhat economical way to reach the continent - as well as get a taste of the lovely southern regions of South America - Holland America is a good option.
Holland America's the 21-Day South America & Antarctica Holiday begins in Valparaiso, Chile (Santiago), heads south along Chile's magnificent coastline to Tierra del Fuego and crosses the infamous Drake Passage (with a cruise past Cape Horn) to the Antarctic Peninsula. Cruisers can witness (weather permitting) the Antarctic Sound, the Danco Coast and Palmer Archipelago for a starting price of around $3299 per person.
While the Antarctic allotment of this 21 day journey makes up only about a third of the time onboard, visitors will have their fill of icebergs, penguins and the stark beauty of the mountainous Antarctic mainland. In addition, they get to see the gorgeous glaciers of Chile's Beagle Passage, the charming city of Ushuaia - the southernmost city in the world - as well as the desert-like but still lovely Falkland Islands. Note: passengers DO NOT disembark in Antarctica.
Hurtigruten - the cruise line famous for its Norwegian itineraries - also offers cruises that include Antarctica. The Great Antarctica Expedition is a 20-day cruise with a starting price of around $7,463 per person.
Starting in Buenos Aires, Argentina with flights down to the port of Ushuaia, the itinerary includes visits to the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas depending on which side of the conflict you're inclined to support), the aforementioned Antarctic Peninsula with opportunities to go ashore and view the scenery up close, as well as a stop in South Georgia, famous for abandoned whaling stations and for being the place where explorer Ernest Shackleton finally found rescue.
As opposed to modern mainstream cruise ships, Hurtigruten's vessels are smaller with a lower number of guests and a high level of service. Amenities include lounges, Jacuzzis and a well-stocked gym to keep you fit and comfortable as the icebergs glide on by.
For a blend of luxury and comfort with the ability to still go ashore, Seabourn Cruises - a luxury line with itineraries worldwide - has several offerings that include Antartica.
Their 21-day Ultimate Antarctica & Patagonia voyage departs from Buenos Aires with stops in Montevideo, Uruguay and the Falkland Islands before arriving in the vicinity of the Antarctic Peninsula. The itinerary includes stops at King George Island in the South Shetland Islands as well as a trip down the narrow but gorgeous Gerlache Strait. The return trip takes in Tierra del Fuego and the Chilean Fjords before ending in Valparaiso, Chile. You can enjoy all this for the mere starting price of $10,999 per person - tips included!
National Geographic Expeditions
For those seeking a chance to expand their knowledge in addition to their photo albums, National Geographic Expeditions offers 14-day itineraries such as the Journey to Antarctica (starting at $12,970 per person) that arrive and depart from Buenos Aires. In addition to having the option to hike the peaks of Paradise Bay or mingle with penguins on Petermann Island, guests will be enriched by the presence of a range of naturalists, historians, and National Geographic photographers onboard for each trip.
If visiting the Antarctic Peninsula seems too tame for your adventurous spirit, the chance to explore the even more remote Ross Sea region is available for those willing to depart from New Zealand and have 30 days and $20,000 per person to spare for the 'In the Wake of Scott & Shackleton' expedition aboard the Spirit of Enderby, which is operated by Heritage Expeditions.
Besides the opportunity to visit the Possession Islands, Mt. Erebus and the Ross Ice Shelf, guests are treated to stops at New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands as well as Australia's Macquarie Island - all excellent places for viewing penguin colonies. This area is considered among the remotest of the remote and would be the feather in any traveler's cap.
A successful trip to Antarctica requires more than being able to afford it. Knowing what to expect can do much to make sure your voyage to the bottom of the world is a good one.
When to Go
In a land of such extremes - temperature not being the least - it is obviously advisable to visit during what would be the Antarctic summer months of December through February. Some voyages will embark on the shoulder seasons, but bear in mind that, regardless of when you go, the weather will still be cold. Winds can range from strong to gale-force, often quite quickly. For less chance of frostbite, come in the summer or don't come at all.
What to Expect
While luxury cruise lines can guarantee guests' conveniences onboard the ship, don't expect anything on land. Some itineraries allow stops at research bases, but other than that, it is all Mother Nature in Antarctica. Remember that this is a fragile ecosystem and the environment, stark as it is, needs to be respected.
It is also worth noting that conditions can change rapidly and it is good to respect the power inherent in nature. Taking unnecessary risks is an even worse idea in Antarctica than it is elsewhere. Help is often too far away to do you any good.
What to Bring
As one would expect, dress warmly and in layers - especially in view of the wind. Waterproof boots are helpful for excursions on land and sunglasses are a must for all the reflective ice and snow. This would be the time to invest in a good camera, as the ever-changing landscape provides a plethora of photo opportunities not available elsewhere. You should also bring sea-sickness medicine for crossing the notorious Drake Passage and the fickle South Atlantic. It wouldn't hurt to also bring a spirit of wonder and adventure!
A cruise to Antarctica is an exciting endeavor for those who lovers nature and cruising, and for ambitious travelers everywhere. High prices mean that a trip here is likely a once-in-a-lifetime event, so choose well, bundle up, and get ready to join the short list of adventurers who have wandered the waters of the world's last real frontier.