The Best Ways to See Antarctica, From Photography Journeys to Luxury Ships

(Travel + Leisure) For most practical travelers, Antarctica is beyond the boundaries of civilization, beyond the limits of imagination and beyond the realm of possibility. It exists more as an abstract collage of penguins, glaciers and icebergs than it does actual terra firma. And so it remains the ultimate bucket list daydream to anyone with insatiable wanderlust. But here’s a little secret this mysterious continent keeps well guarded: it’s way easier to get here than you imagine. In fact, there are so many manageable, cost-effective options to access this part of the world, you can pick yours based upon the type of adventurer you are.

Are you the outdoorsy type? Perhaps you opt for wildlife over wilderness? Do you prefer to straighten up and fly right? Would you like champagne with that? So long as its in season (between November to March of every year), all these choices are on the table. And if you plan right, a trip here could cost you less than an elaborate vacation to Europe or Asia. Or it could cost a lot more. Either way, no one should be deterred. Here’s the best way to access Antarctica for any type of traveler.

The Environmentally Conscious

Of course, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you ought to. “Antarctica is a fragile ecosystem," warns naturalist Christina Garcia, who has never made the voyage. “By visiting we are pitting it’s wildlife and plants at risk.”

To allay these concerns, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) was formed in 1991. Today it includes more than 100 members, all of which adhere to restrictions designed to minimize any lasting affect on the continent. But since there is no government in this part of the world, enforcement is self-regulated. Some operators seem to take it more seriously than others. Silverseas Cruises is a notable example. “Our aim is to preserve natural environments and encourage sustainable travel,” said Conrad Combrink, Vice President of Strategic Development. “[We’ve] invested in a number of innovative product solutions to reduce impact.”

In addition to carbon-footprint reducing technology on Silverseas' two ships, the crews include more than a dozen biologists, zoologists, and conservationists. They offer daily seminars during cruises, educating guests on everything from penguin migration to how climate change is altering the landscape. And when it’s time to come ashore, the team surveys ahead — scouting the surroundings for natural curiosities prior to passenger arrival.

The two luxury-liners also offer one of the more intimate cruise experiences into this part of the world. On the Silver Explorer, 144 passengers are serviced by more than 118 crew-members, and on the Silver Cloud 200 passengers and 212 crew-members take to the sea. And all guests are treated to white-glove butler service throughout the journey. Their 10-day Classic Antarctica Cruise disembarks from Ushuaia, Argentina, and starts at $8,800 per person.

The Birdwatcher

The world’s largest wildlife colonies can be found in Antarctica. Some rookeries contain upwards of 100,000 birds, typically overrun with the regions most popular species: King and Adelie Penguins. “For many birders and nature enthusiasts, Antarctica is the ‘holy grail’ of natural places,” says Brian Sullivan, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “It is forbidding in its harsh climate and austere landscape, yet powerfully alluring in its outright wildness.”

In 2018, scientists discovered a previously unknown sanctuary in the Antarctic Peninsula which is thought to hold more than a million Adelie Penguins. Naturalist Journeys hosts an excursion over New Year’s, leading passengers through these so-called "mega-colonies." Book a spot on this year’s cruise and you’ll be among the first adventurers to see this particular patch of penguins up close. It pulls anchor on the 31st of December for 18 full days at sea. After an overnight in the Falkland Islands — also known for its world class bird-watching — most of the journey is spent in the Weddell Sea region, off the northern tip of the peninsula. Prices start at $21,195, including airfare from Santiago, Chile into Ushuaia.

The Well-Heeled

Even the most exclusive of Antarctic vessels hold no less than 100 passengers. If you prefer a more private experience, you might consider an 11-day charter trip with Jacada Travel. This one kicks off in Cape Town, South Africa, where your own guide leads you around the city for two days prior to a chartered flight direct to Antarctica.

You land at Whichaway Camp — a series of six luxuriously appointed sleeping pods with space for no more than 12 guests at a time. The setting, as you might suspect, is surreal. Into the distance, a field of white, as far as the eye can see. Overhead is a 200-foot ice cliff, rising up from a frozen lake. This is your home for seven days, to do as much or as little as you please. Explore ancient ice caves, try your hand at kite-skiing, or make a leisurely visit to the nearby science research bases. When you need refueling, gourmet chefs are on-site preparing meals in the kitchen pod.

You’re breathing rarified air. Of the relatively small number of adventurers who make it the continent, even fewer are able to explore its interior features. Indeed, this is a memory shared by only a handful of people on earth. But it will cost you. Jacada’s itinerary will set you back no less than $55,712 per person, exclusive of return airfare to Cape Town.

White Desert Antarctica offers an even more comprehensive version of the interior experience, as the only tour company flying directly to the geographic South Pole — which is an additional seven hour flight from Whichaway Camp. An 8-day trek with them books at $92,500/person.

For the Family

Taking the family on a lengthy voyage at sea can be tricky, particularly if you have small children in tow. Currently, no Antarctic cruise-liner offers designated childcare on board. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to leave the little ones at home. Aurora Expeditions encourages young ones to be involved. On their 13-day cruise, they offer multiple educational seminars intended to promote awareness and excitement for scientific exploration. Icebergs and orcas floating by in the background form a far more compelling argument than what you’d find in a typical classroom.

Christmas In Antarctica is an especially enticing option for the spouse and kids, leaving Ushuaia on December 17. All-inclusive packages start at $11,900/person. And while minors are charged at the same rate, if you’re only traveling with one child, the ship offers triple cabins with an ideal layout.

For the Seasick

Before embarking for Antarctica, take heed: one sizable obstacle stands in your way: “You’re on the comfort of a cruise ship, but ‘comfort’ can be a relative term,” warns travel writer and author Carey Jones. “It all depends on how feisty the notorious Drake Passage is feeling.” The 500-mile wide stretch of open ocean separating Cape Horn from Livingston Island can be a nasty stretch of sea. Even in a big ocean liner, things can sway violently and decks can get messy, especially if you’re prone to motion sickness.

Antarctica 21 provides a novel workaround: a two-hour chartered flight from Punta Arenas, Chile to the South Shetland Islands, in lieu of two days floating over the Drake. From there you’ll hop on a proper cruise-ship and enjoy the placidity of the Bransfield Straight. Make your way through iceberg-filled fjords over three full days of gentle sightseeing. Then it’s just an easy return back to Punta Arenas, taking nothing but photos — and leaving the Dramamine behind. Best of all, the aerial boost isn’t prohibitively expensive. The air and sea combination starts at $11,395 for trips taking off this December.

Those with a serious predilection for photography should consider booking through Open Sky Expeditions, Antarctica 21’s US-based partner. Their annual voyage from December 13-20 brings together a global band of gearheads struggling to capture this other-worldly grandeur in hi-def. Though if you’re fortunate enough to make it here in person, a camera might seem redundant. This is a scene that will forever imprint itself on your mind.

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