Exploring the ice on a rigid inflatable (Photo: Dreamstime)

Antarctica Travel Blueprint: 3 unmissable trips

Populated only by crashing bergs and vast colonies of honking, splashing, waddling wildlife, the white continent is one of the planet's most incredible places. Plan a responsible visit with our blueprint guide

Mark Carwardine | Issue 85 | February 2007

There is something very special and almost spiritual, about Antarctica. When asked why he returned there again and again to bitter cold and uncertain survival, Frank Wild, who was second-in-command of Ernest Shackleton's famed Endurance expedition of 1914-16, said he couldn't escape the 'little voices'. It's hard to explain to anyone who hasn't already been there, but the same little voices call many people back to the white continent time and time again.

It's difficult not to use clichés when talking about the sheer scale and magnificence of the last great wilderness on earth. It bombards you with sensory overload at every turn. Imagine cruising in Zodiacs (small, inflatable powered boats) among other-worldly ice formations, mingling with fur seals as they assert their dominance on wild and desolate beaches.

Antarctica's unmissables

Envisage sitting alongside rookeries of noisy penguins, watching families of orca patrolling the coast, or simply taking time to enjoy the breathtaking scenery of ice-choked waterways, glaciers, blue and white icebergs, and rugged mountains. Not only is it home to one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife in the world, Antarctica also provides a spectacular icy setting that lends the animals an incredible air of majesty.

I remember once sitting on a rock high above Paradise Harbour, on the Antarctic Peninsula. Down below me were several crabeater seals on a piece of floating ice. Beyond them, across the impressive sweeping bay, was a colossal glacier cracking and calving in the sunshine. Two humpback whales cruised by in the open water, their distinctive bushy blows clearly visible with the naked eye. Behind me, a veritable mountain of weathered rocks provided a home and resting place for sheathbills, giant petrels, kelp gulls, blue-eyed shags and other birds. It was breathtaking; but then, in Antarctica, so many places are like that.

On another occasion, I was standing on the deck of a ship late one evening, gazing at the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula in the golden glow of the midnight sun. We were cruising just offshore and the scenery was so unbelievably impressive that we could do little but contemplate and stare in stunned silence. There was nothing to say... until one member of the group quietly observed: "Isn't it amazing what God can do with an unlimited budget?" We collapsed in fits of giggles, but it captured our feelings perfectly. Several of us stayed on deck for most of the night. We were tired the next day - but it was worth every yawn.

The greatest thing about visiting the bottom of the world is that it's easy. Most of the expedition cruise ships plying Antarctic waters are like comfortable hotels. On board there are almost as many staff as guests, teams of international experts on everything from polar exploration to seabirds, mind-bogglingly magnificent views out of every window, superb international cuisine, and a range of facilities including well-stocked libraries and theatre-style auditoria. As far as once-in-a-life-time experiences go, it doesn't get much better.

Antarctica: a typical day

A normal day on an Antarctic expedition cruise - if, indeed, there is a normal day - begins with a friendly wake-up call and breakfast. Everyone will have been briefed the night before and, on some ships, a written itinerary will have been slipped under your cabin door. The morning might begin with an informative lecture, or a chance to watch as the ship crashes its way through the polar ice. Then comes the call to get ready and on go the brightly coloured Antarctic jackets, trousers and wellington boots for the first shore landing of the day.

Every ship carries a fleet of sturdy Zodiac craft, or rigid-hulled inflatables, to transfer expedition staff and passengers quickly and safely to otherwise inaccessible wildlife or scientific sites. At first, many people worry about getting in and out of the Zodiacs with their cameras and pride intact. But, after the first - often hilarious - attempts at stepping ashore gracefully, it soon becomes second nature.

Many people stay ashore for the maximum time allowed - typically from one to three hours depending on the day's itinerary -; but others are ready to return to the mother ship sooner. The Zodiacs make good water-taxis and ferry people backwards and forwards according to demand.

There's time to change before lunch - which will frequently be interrupted by ever-changing scenery and bountiful wildlife spied through the portholes - while the ship cruises to the next Antarctic venue. Then comes another call to get ready. It might be for a second shore landing at a different site, or for a Zodiac cruise. A highlight of many trips is the opportunity to glide through beautiful bergs, past seals and penguins resting on ice floes, or among feeding whales.

Evenings can be for relaxing or for more adventure. You can choose to curl up with a good book, take a sauna, spend a few hours chatting in the bar, or watch a movie. But there are some exhilarating alternatives too - another shore landing, a Zodiac cruise, a lecture in the auditorium or a few more bracing hours on deck before forcing yourself to turn in for the night.

1. Classic Antarctic Peninsula

Introducing the white continent (two weeks)

Ushuaia - Drake Passage - South Shetland Islands - Antarctic Peninsula - Ushuaia

This incredible journey begins and ends in the southernmost city in the world - Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego - which nestles between the dramatic summits of the Andes and the Beagle Channel. Passengers embark late in the afternoon and set sail a couple of hours later. The ship passes Cape Horn in the dark and heads south, spending the next two days crossing the Drake Passage. Depending on the size of the vessel, it arrives at the first stop, the South Shetland Islands, on the afternoon or evening of the third day.

The South Shetlands are an archipelago of about 20 islands extending more than 500km and lying roughly parallel to the Antarctic Peninsula. This is where most visitors see their first enormous penguin rookeries, land on beaches ruled by Antarctic fur seals and have time to observe wallowing elephant seals. If you are looking for a gripping day's adventure then sailing into the flooded caldera of Deception Island can be a tricky, adrenalin-fuelled mission, but you will be rewarded by a restful dip in the warm thermal waters inside.

The ship then sails across the Bransfield Strait to the Antarctic Peninsula where you can spend several days experiencing the magic of this wilderness. Here there is plenty of opportunity to see Antarctica's assortment of wild birds: blue-eyed shags, kelp gulls, cape petrels, snowy sheathbills and many others fill the skies while on shore you can visit gentoo, chinstrap and adélie penguin rookeries.

There is also a good chance of seeing Weddell, crabeater and leopard seals - and whales. Three whale species are seen regularly around the Antarctic Peninsula - humpback, Antarctic minke and orca - and many people experience close encounters with at least one of them from their Zodiacs. Humpbacks are extremely common in some areas and it's not unusual to see dozens of them in a single day.

There are many different wildlife, scientific and historical landing sites in the South Shetlands and around the Antarctic Peninsula. But due to changeable weather none of them are guaranteed. Most visits do include a plethora of penguins, close encounters with whales and seals, more ice and striking scenery than it's possible to imagine and at least one visit to a working scientific station. Then it's back across the Drake with a short stop (weather permitting) at Cape Horn on the home stretch. Virtually no one returns disappointed.

2. Southern Ocean islands & the Antarctic Peninsula

Following in Shackleton's wake (three weeks)

Ushuaia - Falkland Islands - South Georgia - Scotia Sea - South Orkney Islands - Antarctic Peninsula - South Shetland Islands - Drake Passage - Ushuaia

This increasingly popular journey combines the classic Antarctic Peninsula itinerary with the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and, in some cases, other Southern Ocean islands.

The trip is a clockwise journey around the islands and the first destination is the Falklands. Here there is time to explore the world's smallest and most isolated capital, Stanley, before jumping back on board to start a three-day voyage to South Georgia. The 1,400km journey is likely to include a stop at one or more of the outer islands. West Point Island is a particular favourite, where rockhopper penguins, Magellanic penguins and black-browed albatross nest in profusion among tufts of tussock grass. But there are many other possible sites.

There is never enough time to experience South Georgia's phenomenal wildlife. The weather can be bad, so it's not unusual to lose at least one day of landings from the planned itinerary. Likened to a piece of the Alps dropped in the middle of the South Atlantic, the island is widely regarded as one of the most impressive wildlife sanctuaries on the planet.

Most visits include Grytviken, which is home to an abandoned whaling station, the wonderful South Georgia Museum and the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton. St Andrews Bay or Salisbury Plain are also highlights, where colourful king penguins crowd the beaches in overwhelming numbers. Other possible landing sites include Albatross Island and Prion Island - home to the wandering albatross - as well as Fortuna Bay, Gold Harbour and Larsen Harbour.

Moving away from South Georgia and across the Scotia Sea the boat heads for the South Orkney Islands, but landing is possible only if the weather cooperates. Most of the time it is cold, windy and overcast in the South Orkneys, but the wildness is part of the island's appeal. Birds are a major attraction and there is a recently discovered breeding ground for Weddell seals.

A few trips attempt an intrepid landing at Elephant Island, on the north-eastern end of the South Shetlands, where 22 men from Shackleton's Endurance expedition were stranded for about four months nearly a century ago. It's worth the effort, but it is notoriously difficult to get people ashore. Then it's on to the Antarctic Peninsula before heading back towards Ushuaia over the Drake Passage.

3. The Ross Sea

Icebreakers & historic huts (four weeks)

Christchurch or Hobart - Southern Ocean - Macquarie Island - Campbell Island - Auckland Islands - Ross Sea - Christchurch or Hobart

Ross Sea journeys are far more adventurous (but just as comfortable) than those to the Antarctic Peninsula - the temperatures are colder and the winds are stronger - and they are considerably more expensive. An icebreaker (special ship designed to navigate frozen waters) or ice-strengthened vessel will take you from New Zealand or Australia and many carry helicopters for aerial sightseeing and transfers to otherwise inaccessible places on shore. Wildlife is abundant and the region's historic heritage is particularly rich.

Most trips include a visit to at least one of three sub-Antarctic islands - Macquarie, Campbell and the Aucklands - on their way to or from the Ross Sea. Macquarie has 100,000 seals (mostly elephant) and four million penguins (including the only breeding colony of royal penguins, around 850,000 pairs in total).

Campbell Island has almost the entire world population of southern royal albatross, as well as several other albatross species, and what is reputed to be the 'world's loneliest tree' (a single 6m Sitka spruce planted more than 100 years ago). Most of the world's Hooker's sea lions breed in the Auckland Islands, which also has yellow-eyed and rockhopper penguins and is home to huge colonies of several different species of albatross.

There may be time for a quick stop at Cape Adare - home of Antarctica's first buildings and its largest rookery of adélie penguins - if weather and sea conditions permit. Most tours then head into the Ross Sea for stunning views of the ice edge. Then it's on to Ross Island where visits are made to Scott's Discovery Hut and his Terra Nova Hut on Cape Evans, as well as Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds. There are also likely to be helicopter flights into the desolate Dry Valleys - the oases of Antarctica - and over the Ross Ice Shelf.

As if all that isn't enough, you can visit the lime-green buildings at New Zealand's Scott Base and, just a few kilometres away, the US McMurdo Station. With a summer population of about 1,100 people, McMurdo is Antarctica's largest base and looks more like a small town with a hospital, church, post office, fire department, video store and ATMs. It's quite a contrast to the surrounding wilderness of the Ross Sea.

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