It tops most travellers wishlist, and more than lives up to the hype. Set forth to Antarctica, be awed by the ice, whales and penguins, and venture where few others have yet visited
Unlike its northern cousin, the Antarctic is no friend to the traveller on a whim. This is a land of grand voyages, ice-strengthened hulls and icebreakers, requiring time, planning and the resources to match (typically £2,500-£23,000) – and therein lies its appeal. Antarctica is the trip of a lifetime.
In the west, ships barrel out of Ushuaia (Argentina) or Punta Arenas (Chile), rounding Cape Horn for the wildlife-packed sub-Antarctic islands and the Peninsula beyond; to the east, they depart Hobart (Australia) and Bluff (New Zealand) for the longer, more unpredictable Ross Sea and its vast ice shelf. The larger ships offer a more stable ride, but only 100 people are allowed ashore at a time, so it pays to go small. However, while there is less autonomy in the south (cruise season lasts November to March), there are an increasing number of ways to get there.
Flights to the western sub-Antarctic islands cut long journey times in half, meaning you can squeeze the rugged, wild beauty of the White Continent into a week’s escape. Charter flights from Cape Town even let you crowbar the South Pole into just three days. What was once a region that drove even the hardiest of explorers to despair is now reachable by anyone. And we didn’t even mention the penguins…
There are few experiences in travel to match pulling away from South America and entering the roiling seas of Drake Passage: that sense of anticipation for sights beyond mixed with two days of trying to keep your breakfast down. It’s a rite of passage, however, joining every bone-shaken Antarctic voyager back to the great explorers of old.
Next comes the South Shetland Islands, where you’ll catch your first glimpse of the region’s vast penguin rookeries, and beaches washed grey with Antarctic fur and southern elephant seals bellyflopping the sands. The collapsed caldera of Deception Island is particularly impressive, its lunarscape great for hiking and taking the odd hot-spring dip; and see if your itinerary includes a visit to its colony of 50,000 pairs of chinstrap penguins at Bailey Head.
The tip of the Peninsula rears out of the icy horizon without fanfare. Take a ‘polar plunge’, clamber into a kayak and paddle the ice floes or even hire a helicopter to sweep the great white wastes. There are usually two excursions per day, whether hopping off at the Second World War-era base of Port Lockroy to set foot on the Peninsula proper, or rattling a Zodiac through the grounded bergs of Pleneau Bay. Routes then typically drop down through the dramatic Lemaire Channel, an 11km funnel of ice just 1,600m wide in places. From then on, every second brings you closer to home, so make the most of them.
Duration: 8-14 days
Start/ finish: Punta Arenas (Chile) / Ushuaia (Argentina)
Why go? The go-to Antarctic cruise where all newbies begin.
Most Antarctic cruises tend to drift the Peninsula’s western side; far fewer venture into the Weddell Sea to the east. The reason is simple: this can be a treacherous region of crashing tabular icebergs, vast ice floes and unpredictable conditions – not for nothing did Shackleton’s ship Endurance meet its end here, crushed by ice. But these same conditions are exactly what make it such an incredible wilderness.
The Weddell Sea is home to enormous swarms of krill that draw baleen whales and other wildlife, while the thick pack ice is ideal for penguins and seals. Colonies of chinstrap, gentoo and Adélie penguins are commonly spotted, with some 200,000 of the latter nesting at Paulet Island. A group of emperor penguins (not usually seen in this area) was recently discovered on Snow Hill Island, and now helicopter side trips to find them are inching onto cruise itineraries.
More typically, ships head to the likes of Dundee Island, where an uninhabited station overlooks a shoreline patrolled by Antarctic fur and southern elephant seals. But it’s at sea where some of the most amazing sights can be found, with whales (blue, humpback, fin and more) and predatory orca and leopard seals sheer the busy waters, while native Weddell and crabeater seals haul out onto the protective ice floes.
Duration: 11-14 days
Start/ finish: Ushuaia (Argentina)
Why go? Incredible wildlife and some monster icebergs.
Flightseeing trips are pretty regular and launch from Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. But an increasingly common option is the fly-cruise, which takes off at Punta Arenas and skips two days of sailing the rough seas of Drake Passage to land at Frei Station (King George Island) in the South Shetland Islands. It cuts four days off a return trip to the Antarctic, letting those short on time squeeze a Peninsula visit into just one week.
But the most adventurous Antarctic flights involve a pair of seasonal tented camps equipped with ice runways. Union Glacier Camp lies within sight of the imposing Mount Vinson (4,892m), while Whichaway nestles below a 60m-high ice cliff in Queen Maud Land, a vast central region claimed by Norway. Reached by air from Punta Arenas and Cape Town, it’s a chance to hike, ice climb and even kite-ski across a part of the continent rarely seen, bedding down in heated fibreglass pods by night – you can even do Whichaway in just a day. You will have to dig deep, though, with prices running to around £40,000.
These camps have connecting flights to the South Pole, leaving you free to revel for a few hours where only a lucky few have set foot, some 107 years after Amundsen beat Scott in their famous race to the pole.
Duration: 1-8 days
Start / finish: Punta Arenas (Chile) / Cape Town (South Africa)
Why go? For those without weeks to spare – and cash to burn.
Top tip: Those prepared to hang around a few days in Ushuaia (Argentina) can sometimes find last-minute Antarctic cruise cabins for a third of the usual cost.
Wild shores and tales of explorers past make Britain’s sub-Antarctic islands some of the best reasons to head south. One classic route is to loop up from Ushuaia to the Falkland Islands, where routes – depending on the weather – typically build in visits to its raw west. Here, visits to the penguin breeding grounds (gentoo, king, Magellanic, rockhopper) of Saunders Island, and hikes along the tussocked shores of Carcass, yield close encounters with a gabble of seabirds. Some routes squeeze in visits to colourful capital Stanley too, with 4WD trips across the island to spy wildlife and clippers stranded here about a century ago.
From there, ships plunge then down to South Georgia, with landings at the Grytviken settlement, a former whaling station with plenty of rusted reminders of its past. Get your passport stamped at the post office and pay your respects at explorer Ernest Shackleton’s grave, before exploring the coastline. Here, the shores shiver to some 4.5 million fur seals and 50 million seabirds. But it’s the sight of hundreds of thousands of king penguins huddled on the grey sands of Salisbury Plain that you’ll never forget, even as you continue on to the wonders of the Peninsula itself.
Duration: 18-21 days
Start / finish: Ushuaia (Argentina)
Why go? King penguins, Shackleton heroics and far-off UK outposts.
Port Lockroy boasts the southernmost post office in the world. Browse the museum, see gentoo penguins at the boat shed, then mail a postcard from Antarctica.
In the sub-Antarctic west, trek from Fortuna Bay to Stromness and retrace the final steps of Ernest Shackleton’s famous hike across South Georgia to save his crew, then pay your respects at his grave in Grytviken. In the east, visit his hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island – his jacket and those of his crew still hang here.
There’s nothing like seeing the ice floes from the water. Plenty of Antarctic cruises offer kayaking options, while paddling the fjords of Buchanan Bay reveals ancient Inuit and Viking ruins, as well as a plethora of Arctic wildlife.
While the Arctic region is mostly defined by a sea and a latitude, its southern equivalent is different. It’s a continent – if you see it or set foot on it, you’ve been there. Yet, curiously, parts of Antarctica don’t actually fall within the Antarctic Circle, with the tip of its great Western Peninsula actually lying outside 66° south. This is also as far as the majority of cruises get before turning back, so by a bizarre quirk of geography, a large number of people who set foot on the Great White Continent don’t cross the Antarctic Circle.
In the eastern Antarctic, all routes that make landfall pass 66° south. The western side is a different story, but there are a few ‘Crossing the Circle’ itineraries that acknowledge this conundrum. These typically follow the usual Western Peninsula itinerary but loop further south via the Lemaire Channel (the ‘inner route’) or perhaps out in the Bellingshausen Sea depending on how icy the conditions are. The moment you hit 66° 33’ south, though, the sound of popping champagne corks will tell you exactly where you are.
Duration: 11-14 days
Start / finish: Ushuaia (Argentina)
Why go? Achieve a milestone that few others (even those who have set foot on Antarctica) have.
For anyone capable of spending over four weeks on an expedition ship, this is the ultimate feather in your cap. Trips don’t come around all that often, though, with just a few ships capable of the journey. The next one goes in 2020, with the MV Ortelius inching its way from Ushuaia (Argentina) to Invercargill (New Zealand) the hard way.
It’s a heck of a ride, first crossing Drake Passage for the Peninsula and then the Amundsen Sea, crunching past huge ice floes as groups of seals flop into the water and minke whales dive off your bow. Then it’s on to the Ross Sea, Cape Adare, and the sub-Antarctic islands off New Zealand. A helicopter trip to the lesser-seen Peter I Island reveals colonies of cape pigeons and fulmars, but the real coup is bagging three continents in one trip. Not bad for a month’s work.
Duration: 33 days
Start / finish: Ushuaia (Argentina) / Invercargill (New Zealand)
Why go? Short of going into outer space, this is the next best ‘brag’.
Compared to the western Antarctic, a tiny fraction of cruises cross the Ross Sea in the east; strong winds, rough seas and its sheer distance from land (it takes up to ten days from Bluff, as opposed to four from Ushuaia) complicate matters. Sea voyages last a month in total, with itineraries at the mercy of the fickle weather, though day-long flightseeing trips are an option for those short on time.
It’s not all being stuck at sea, though. Australasia’s sub-Antarctic islands hold plenty of wild appeal, with Macquarie home to 100,000 seals and around 4 million penguins (it’s the only breeding ground for royal penguins), while most of the world’s southern royal albatrosses make their roosts on Campbell. It’s a big consolation for long days at sea.
Most voyages approach the Ross Ice Shelf, which is better known as the ‘gateway to the South Pole’ among the explorers of old. The huts of Scott (Hut Point) and Shackleton (Cape Royds) both still stand here, and a stop at Cape Adare reveals the largest rookery of Adélie penguins in the world – they often waddle close out of curiosity.
An alternative route follows in the footsteps of explorer Douglas Mawson, whose hut still stands on Cape Denison, west of the Ross Ice Shelf. This was sadly cut off in 2010 when a part of the Mertz Glacier broke away, but conditions have improved and ships are again making attempts to land, with stops at the Balleny Islands – known for their humpbacks and colony of chinstrap penguins – a welcome extra.
Duration: 27-30 days
Start / finish: Bluff (New Zealand) / Hobart (Australia)
Why go? To skip the crowds and see the towering Ross Ice Shelf.
The huge rookeries of South Georgia are famous, with the island home to some 400,000 pairs of king penguins. In the east, Macquarie Island sees about 3 million royal penguins.
Ten of the world’s Albatross species breed in the isles of the eastern sub-Antarctic. Half are unique to the islands of Macquarie, Chatham, Campbell and others.
This bird migrates between the poles (about 70,000km), flying from its breeding grounds in Greenland to the shores of the Antarctic.
As many as 300 humpbacks were once recorded in a single visit to Wilhelmina Bay. Large concentrations of krill draw them to feed in the bay, with numbers peaking in February/March.
Living on the ice floes of the Weddell Sea, this docile seal typically spends its life within just a few kilometres of its birthplace. It’s also very laid-back around people, so usually let you get very close if you see them onshore.