Cruise from Argentina or New Zealand, fly across the Drake Passage or head straight for the South Pole. Clare Wilson shows you how to get to Antarctica
Route: Ushuaia – Drake Passage – South Shetland Islands – Antarctic Peninsula – Drake Passage – Ushuaia
How long? 10-12 days depending on boat/package
Why: The classic route, and the most affordable way in
This spellbinding journey begins and ends in the southernmost city in the world – Ushuaia, in Argentina. Passengers embark late in the afternoon and spend the next two days crossing the Drake Passage – which may be blessedly placid (the ‘Drake Lake’) or not (the ‘Drake Shake’).
First stop is the South Shetland Islands, an archipelago of about 20 islands extending more than 500km from, and lying roughly parallel to, the Antarctic Peninsula. Popular stops include King George Island, Aitcho Island, Half Moon Island and the flooded caldera of Deception Island. You’ll see your first enormous penguin rookeries, land on beaches ruled by Antarctic fur seals and have time to observe wallowing elephant seals.
Next, the ship heads across to the Antarctic Peninsula, a mountainous wilderness the length of New Zealand. There are several days to experience the Peninsula’s magic: highlights include the Lemaire Channel, Plèneau Bay, Neko Harbour, Paradise Bay and Port Lockroy. Wildlife is here in abundance: as well as penguins, seals and Antarctic birds, humpback, Antarctic minke and killer whales are seen regularly around the Antarctic Peninsula.
Depending on your trip, there may be opportunities for camping on the seventh continent, kayaking, diving, climbing, skiing, photography or even a ‘polar plunge’ for the brave. There’s also more ice and breathtaking scenery than it’s possible to imagine, and usually at least one visit to a working scientific station.
It’s another two-day crossing of the Drake on the return voyage, including rounding Cape Horn. And then you can start downloading your many memory cards…
Route: Further south down the western Antarctic Peninsula
How long? 12-14 days
Why: Join just a handful of intrepid souls who have been further than 66° south
Curiously, most Antarctic cruises don’t actually cross the Antarctic Circle, which lies on a latitude around 66° south of the equator and defines the area that receives at least one day a year of 24-hour daylight. But towards the end of the austral summer, when the sea ice at the southern end of the Antarctic Peninsula melts, you can give it a try, weather permitting.
This itinerary gives you an extra couple of days on the Western Peninsula, and the chance to see explorers’ huts and massive ice formations in areas visited by only a few hundred voyagers per year. Then there’s the added thrill of potentially crossing the Antarctic Circle line – an achievement that bestows some enjoyable bragging rights – plus there are all the highlights of the classic Antarctic Peninsula route: shore excursions, overnight camping and sea kayaking.
Route: Ushuaia – Falkland Islands – South Georgia – South Shetlands – Antarctic Peninsula – Drake Passage – Ushuaia
How long? 18-21 days
Why? To combine the Antarctic with the wildlife hotspots and history of the Falklands and South Georgia
Departing from Ushuaia or, occasionally, Buenos Aires, your first port of call on this itinerary is the Falkland Islands. Explore the world’s smallest and perhaps most isolated capital, Port Stanley, battlefield sites from the 1982 war, and West Point, where penguins and albatrosses nest in profusion among tufts of tussock grass. There might also be a stop at the outer islands.
South Georgia, the next stop, is an extraordinary place – for some, it even tops Antarctica proper. The uninhabited 150km-long island is one of the most impressive wildlife sanctuaries on the planet, a breeding ground for 4.5 million fur seals and 50 million seabirds. There are some 40 visitable spots along the north shore – depending on weather conditions.
Most visits include Grytviken, home to an abandoned whaling station, a wonderful museum and the graves of explorers Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild.
St Andrews Bay or Salisbury Plain are also must-sees; here, breathtaking colonies of colourful king penguins crowd the beaches. Elephant Island, where 22 men from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition were stranded for five months in 1916, is also a highlight – if you can get ashore.
Leaving South Georgia, some trips then include visits to the South Orkney Islands on the way to the South Shetlands. From there you’ll cruise on along the Antarctic Peninsula, experiencing the same sights as the classic route. Between calving bergs and breaching whales, the return crossing of the Drake is bound to come too quickly.
Route: Bluff (South Island, NZ) – The Snares – Auckland Islands – Macquarie Island – Antarctica’s Ross Sea region – Campbell Island – Bluff
How long? 30-32 days
Why? A frontier feel, Heroic Era history and the towering Ross Ice Shelf
Only a handful of ships per year head south from New Zealand or Australia to the Ross Sea – if you’re after an adventure, this is it. The voyage takes a month, and the exact itinerary will vary considerably according to conditions. Seas, winds and the cold are considerably stronger here than they are around the Antarctic Peninsula.
En route to Antarctica, ships typically call in at several sub-Antarctic islands, although there are long days at sea between landings. First stop is often the pristine Snares Islands (home to an endemic penguin), followed by Macquarie Island, Campbell Island and the Auckland Islands.
Macquarie has 100,000 seals (mainly southern elephant) and four million penguins (including the only breeding colony of royal penguins). Campbell has almost the entire world population of southern royal albatrosses, as well as a 6m-high Sitka spruce, planted over a century ago and dubbed the ‘world’s loneliest tree’. Most of the world’s Hooker’s sea lions breed in the Auckland Islands, which also has yellow-eyed and rockhopper penguins and more huge colonies of albatrosses.
Known as the ‘Gateway to the South Pole,’ the Ross Sea region is where Antarctic explorers of the Heroic Age made history. Their wooden huts still stand on Ross Island: Scott’s at Hut Point and Cape Evans; Shackleton’s at Cape Royds.
There may be a visit to New Zealand’s Scott Base and the US McMurdo Station, or helicopter flights into the other-worldly Dry Valleys and over the Ross Ice Shelf. Any excursions will depend on the ship and, crucially, the weather. But, overall, you’ll be rewarded with a journey like no other.
Route: Ushuaia – Drake Passage – Antarctic Sound – Weddell Sea – Antarctic Peninsula – South Shetland Islands – Drake Passage – Ushuaia
How long? 12 days
Why? Emperor penguins and truly mighty icebergs
Welcome to the Peninsula’s wild side! After embarking from Ushuaia and spending two days crossing the Drake Passage, your ship will cross over to the less-visited east of the Antarctic Peninsula: the Weddell Sea. This icy wilderness is home to dramatic tabular icebergs and ice floes, as well as huge colonies of penguins. Expect to see Adélie, chinstrap and gentoos, as well as southern elephant, fur, leopard and Weddell seals – not to mention humpback, minke and killer whales, plus sea birds galore.
Among the many highlights is a visit to Paulet Island, at the tip of the Peninsula, where some 200,000 Adélie penguins nest. These endearing creatures were memorably described by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in his classic The Worst Journey in the World:
"They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children or like old men, full of their own importance."
There may also be land excursions to research stations such as the Argentine research station Esperanza, at Hope Bay, before returning to Ushuaia.
Weather and ice conditions change fast in the Weddell Sea; in 2009 the (now retired) icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov made news when it was stuck in ice for nearly a week, with a BBC Frozen Planet film crew on board.
Route: Fly in from Cape Town, South Africa, or Punta Arenas, Chile
How long? 1-8 days
Why: Getting to the South Pole has serious bragging rights
100 years on from Amundsen and Scott’s epic race to the South Pole, you can now fly there. Two private companies have seasonal tented camps on Antarctica, reached by plane, and used as bases for climbers, scientists and well-heeled visitors. From the camps, weather permitting, you can fly on to the South Pole proper.
Adventure Network International runs the Union Glacier Camp, the only fully privately operated camp on the continent. Lying at the foot of the Antarctic Peninsula, near 4,892m Mount Vinson (Antarctica’s highest point), the camp consists of relatively luxurious pod tents. Activity options here include cross-country skiing, hiking, climbing and snowmobile tours, as well as lectures and photography. You fly in from Punta Arenas, Chile, on an Ilyushin jet, and land on a natural blue-ice runway. It’s a five-hour flight from Union to the Geographic South Pole, where you can spend three or four hours.
The other operator is South Africa-based White Desert, whose Whichaway Camp is in Queen Maud Land, and reached by flying from Cape Town. Again, you can fly on to the Pole, visit the Amundsen-Scott research station, and revel in being somewhere only a handful have ever reached.
Route: Ushuaia-NZ or Ushuaia-Cape Town
How long? 32-52 days (depending on route/ship)
Why? Water-cooler conversation on an epic scale
If you’re looking for a truly epic voyage, and don’t mind many long days at sea, you can sail to three continents in one trip. This ‘semi-circumnavigation’ can be done on a handful of ships, between Argentina and New Zealand (and the reverse) or Argentina and South Africa.
The Argentina/New Zealand route, between Ushuaia and Bluff, takes around 32 days. After crossing the Drake Passage, you’ll explore the Antarctic Peninsula before crossing the Antarctic Circle and heading to the seldom-visited Peter I Island. Next you’ll sail the Amundsen Sea, cruise along the Ross Ice Shelf and explore the Ross Sea (including Ross Island, to see Scott and Shackleton’s preserved wooden huts).
From there you’ll head north, visiting Cape Adare and the sub-Antarctic Balleny and Macquarie islands before arriving in New Zealand.
The Ushuaia-Cape Town voyage visits the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands, the Weddell Sea and South Georgia before hitting open ocean. It then calls at Tristan da Cunha, the world’s remotest inhabited island, before finally docking in Cape Town.
A classic shortcut for the queasy If you’re pushed for time or don’t want to court seasickness on the Drake Passage, you can now fly to the South Shetland Islands and join a cruise from there. Most flights run from Punta Arenas in southern Chile to King George Island in the South Shetland Islands (1.5hrs).
You can choose to fly one way (making the trip around seven days long) or both (as few as five); once you’ve embarked, you’ll get all the highlights of the classic Antarctic Peninsula tour.
“It’s all about the boat. If your holiday is a ‘cruise’ gauged by shopping, shuffleboard and two sittings at dinner, opt for the 500-berth gin palaces. But if you’re after a real expedition, look for a small ship. The Antarctic treaty says no more than 100 per landing, so if there are fewer than that on your ship, you can go ashore every time. It must be designed for these waters, with a proper ice rating, and there should be at least one staff member to every five passengers.”
Tim Carryer visited Antarctica during a round-the-world trip
“We organised our trip last-minute in Ushuaia, through a local agency. It depends on the season if there are any spots left and how much you pay, but we got 60% off our booking this way. There’s more availability early and late in the season.
“Don’t forget to explore the Ushuaia area, too. There are lots of day trips: you can visit the national park, cruise the Beagle Channel, visit Penguin Island, trek up to the lagoons in the mountains and walk on some of the glaciers.”
1. Gritvyken, South Georgia
One of the best museums on earth, extolling the legacies of Shackleton, whaling and the Falklands War, plus rare albatross nesting sites, king penguins and excellent walking.
2. Paradise Harbour, Western Peninsula
A large gentoo colony, a spectacular walk above the Argentine station and a bay choked with ice-blue bergs with a percussion of groaning glaciers behind.
3. Neko Harbour, Western Peninsula
Vies with Paradise as the most beautiful and accessible on the peninsula. Rimmed by towering mountains and glaciers, bountiful penguin colonies and superb for cetaceans.
4. Paulet Island, Eastern Peninsula
Needs the right ice-strengthened ship to get here but a remarkable rookery of 150,000 Adélie penguins makes this prime avian real estate, especially early in the season when the bergs are breathtaking.
5. Gold Harbour, Salisbury Plain or St Andrews Bay
The three massive penguin rookeries of South Georgia – two million kings can’t be wrong. Perhaps the finest wildlife spectacle in the world.
6. Lemaire Channel
A remarkably beautiful navigation, bisecting huge cliffs and mountains, up a channel choked with glacial ice with a million crab-eater seals looking on.