Antarctica travel guide
2 minute summary
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Rosy & team.
What we rate & what we don't
Our best & worst of Antarctica holidays
NZ Subantarctic Islands
If Antarctica is the forgotten continent, these specks of land are the least explored part of it. Collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these five groups of islands nurture strange megaherbs and are a haven for seabirds, as the only land for thousands of miles. Further south, Macquarie Island – once considered too “harsh” to be used as a penal colony – shelters huge penguin and seal colonies.
Wherever you’re from, Antarctica is a long, long way away. So take advantage of having travelled halfway round the world and squeeze in a tour in South America. At the “end of the world”, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego are utterly magical – but if you’ve had enough of chilly wildernesses, you could always spend a few days warming up in the seductive city of Buenos Aires.
When you sign up for an outdoor adventure in a wild landscape, lecture programmes may sound rather dull. But the ships’ biologists, geographers, photographers, historians and geologists share fascinating insights about the land and creatures around you. You’ll learn to identify species, and a little knowledge means you will be even more amazed by the world passing you by on deck.
We don’t think that bigger is better in Antarctica. Larger boats (over 100 pax) may reduce seasickness, but a smaller vessel gives a more personalised service, the chance of one-on-one time with the scientists and lecturers, and access to shallower harbours. Additionally, only 100 people may step ashore at a time, so passengers on bigger ships must take it in turns.
The power of Antarctica is never clearer than to those venturing out in tiny inflatable zodiac boats – surrounded by whales and towering bergs. Cruises tend to include one or two zodiac trips a day, allowing you to get up close to seals, penguins and step onto the endless Antarctic continent. Your schedule is dictated by the weather and the ocean – simply thrilling.
Cruising through the stunning Lemaire Channel is a trip highlight. Icebergs, glaciers and sheer cliffs are the giants above the water, while humpback whales are the behemoths below. Keep an eye out for orcas too. As narrow as 1,600m in places, with plenty of loose icebergs, the channel is precarious. The scenery and mirror like waters are a dream for photographers, however – earning it the nickname “Kodak Gap”.
In the rush to reach the Antarctic, don’t miss the desolate and beautiful South Georgia along the way. A 3,000m mountain ridge discharges glaciers into sheltered harbours, home to king penguins and enormous, barking elephant seals. The resting place of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton is found here, along with a museum revealing the island’s fascinating history.
The fact that any creature can survive this extreme landscape is incredible enough – but the animals themselves are awe-inspiring. Orcas and huge humpback whales breach beneath huger icebergs and 3m-long leopard seals hunt penguins beneath the waves, while giant albatross and petrels patrol the skies. On-board lectures explain more about life on the planet’s least hospitable continent.
Want to see these enormous bears prowling the ice? Head north, waaaayy north – polar bears are only found in the Arctic.
South Pole fly-ins
The ghastly journey to the South Pole, which once took months and killed many who attempted it, can now be done in a few short hours. Yours for £30,000 – a flight to the bottom of the world. Ironically, this is designated a “Specially Managed Area” to protect it – but we’re not sure how flying all this way for a few short hours fits in with this. Likewise with day-long “flightseeing” tours.
Antarctica cruise travel guide
WHAT DO ANTARCTIC CRUISES ENTAIL?
There may be entire days at sea, and the view from the deck may be of endless water followed by endless fields of ice – but an Antarctic cruise is anything but monotonous. Setting sail from South America, the long journey south may be broken up with visits to remote southern islands including the Falklands and South Georgia, where you’ll get your first glimpse of Antarctica’s wildlife.
If you head straight to the Antarctic Peninsula, you’ll spend two days and nights navigating the notorious Drake Passage. While some passengers emerge unscathed, most experience seasickness – although it could be argued that this just adds to the expedition feel of the voyage, and makes arrival on the frozen continent all the more anticipated. Thankfully, the waters around the peninsula are generally calm – with lake-like channels meaning you can concentrate on holding your camera steady – rather than your stomach.
If you really can’t face the crossing, direct flights to King George Island are available – reducing the crossing time to two hours rather than two days.
Once at the Antarctic Peninsula, you’ll be exploring the channels, islands and setting foot on the continent itself. All landings are made by zodiac – carrying roughly ten passengers plus a guide. These allow you to get up close to seals and penguins, and really feel dwarfed by icebergs. You may also visit research stations, staffed year-round by intrepid researchers, who can share details of their work.
Growing in popularity are activity-based cruises, with optional extra activities. These include kayaking, diving and snowshoeing – and are ideal for those who want to experience the Antarctic just that little bit closer.
Read more about life on board an Antarctic cruise.