Antarctica is wild, remote and ripe for exploration, reports Jane Archer
Antarctica is the coldest and windiest place on earth, a frozen world that’s dark for six months of the year and cut off from South America by the 550-mile-wide Drake Passage.
A voyage here is one of the most prized bucket-list holidays for both seasoned cruisers and travellers who would not normally consider setting foot on a ship, because it is the last great wilderness on earth, a unique environment only a privileged few will ever visit.
Over the course of 10 nights, they can sail past snow-capped mountains, through deep ice fjords and up close to floating icebergs the size of six-storey buildings. They will spot giant albatrosses, glimpse whales and walk through penguin colonies teeming with these comical birds. Those cruising with Hurtigruten and Seabourn can go kayaking among ice floes, while the Norwegian line also allows passengers to camp out on selected nights.
During the sea journey there – it takes two days to sail across the Drake Passage – passengers will learn about the wildlife, history and geology of the continent during talks by their ship’s expedition team.
Crossing the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough piece of sea, is all part of the adventure, but clients who don’t want to cruise can fly. Quark Expeditions operates sea voyages from Ushuaia in Argentina, but also has 11 Antarctic Express holidays between December 2017 and February 2018 that combine a cruise with a one-way or return flight from Punta Arenas in Chile.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators says 38,478 tourists visited the White Continent with its members in 2015-16. That’s an increase of 4.6% on the same period the previous year, and it expects numbers to rise to 43,885 this year. Almost 99% travelled by ship.
A fifth were on big ships that are allowed to offer sightseeing trips only. Holland America Line, Celebrity Cruises and Crystal Cruises are among those sailing to Antarctica this winter, as part of longer cruises around South America.
The rest were on ships with fewer than 500 passengers, which are allowed to take people ashore. Landings are made in inflatable Zodiacs (Hurtigruten uses rigid Polarcirkel boats) into water or on to rocks, so visitors not only need wellington boots (these can usually be rented on board) and warm clothing, but they must have a good level of mobility. Some companies insist on a doctor’s certificate confirming a passenger is fit to travel.
As landing is a slow process and only 100 passengers are allowed ashore at once, agents should advise clients that the best experience is on ships that hold no more than 200 people. Also, make sure customers are aware that the itinerary and landings can change, as they are governed by the weather.
The rules for going ashore are strict. Clothing must be cleaned and boots disinfected to avoid introducing any non-native species, no food is allowed ashore and taking anything away, even a rock or a feather, is forbidden. Visitors must also avoid walking on vegetation and keep at least 15 feet from wildlife (although fearless penguins often don’t respect that rule).
Visitors on the ice must keep at least 15 feet from wildlife – although fearless penguins often don’t respect that rule
Antarctica cruises operate between November and March, and range from 10-night to three-week voyages that also take in South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. They could be on anything from Quark Expeditions and Explore’s polar expedition vessels to the luxurious Silver Explorer operated by Silversea and Seabourn’s Seabourn Quest.
Hurtigruten will have two ships in Antarctica this winter, as it has new voyages from Punta Arenas on Midnatsol, in addition to sailings from Ushuaia on Fram. Ponant has three ships in Antarctica in winter, while Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Hanseatic will cruise the region from January to March 2017 and again next winter.
Silversea’s Silver Cloud will make its Antarctica debut in November 2017, after switching from the company’s classic to its expedition fleet. Scenic’s first ocean-going yacht, Scenic Eclipse, will be in Antarctica in winter 2018-19, offering explorations by helicopter and submarine.
Whichever ship clients choose, this is not a holiday for those on a budget. Hurtigruten’s 14-night Frozen Land of the Penguins voyage in January 2018, onboard expedition ship Fram, starts at £5,054 per person, while Ponant has a 10-night Emblematic Antarctica cruise departing February 22, 2017, from about £8,490 per person. Both itineraries are round trips from Ushuaia, and include flights from Buenos Aires, but not international air fares.
For those who want to see more, Silversea has an 18-day voyage to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctic peninsula on Silver Explorer. Departing November 20, 2017, cruise-only prices start at £15,795 per person.
Alternatively, clients can combine Antarctica with Patagonia on a Seabourn cruise from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso, in Chile. Departing next November, the 21-day cruise spends six days exploring the Antarctic peninsula, with landings each day. Cruise-only prices start at £10,601 per person.