Our planet's vast, remote, southernmost continent - larger than Europe - is a much-coveted "final frontier" for many travelers. And booking Antarctica vacation packages via cruise ship offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see frozen landscapes that can't be seen anywhere else along with a plethora of polar wildlife. With vacation packages typically ranging from one to three weeks, cruise ships departing from Argentina's Tierra del Fuego make the two-day crossing through the powerful swells and waves of the often turbulent Drake Passage - some 800 kilometers (500 miles) wide and 1,000km (600 miles) long, during which you may spot whales and dolphins - you arrive in a land like no other you've ever experienced.
This is a string of more than 70 small islands, some easier to get to than others. Cruise ships - some leaving from Tierra del Fuego, others from New Zealand - moor off several, launching Zodiac excursions for guests, and highlights include Cuverville with its gentoo penguins and brown skua sea birds; Danco with Weddell and crabeater seals; Petermann, where most cruises end up and Adélie and gentoo penguins like to hang out; and Ross, home to McMurdoe Station run by the United States, New Zealand's Scott Base, Scott Hut, the 112-year-old base of the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole led by British Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the 115-year-old Shackleton's Hut (above) of the British Nimrod Expedition.
The easiest area of the main continent for visitors to reach is its northwest coast's curving Antarctic Peninsula, dominated by the 3,500km (2,175-mi.) Antarcandes Mountains, actually an icy extension of the Andes of South America, whose tip lies some 980km (609 mi.) north - and reaching a height of 3,239 meters (10,627 feet). There are various scientific research stations here (some manned year round, others only in summer), and the main fauna which visitors can spot include killer whales, Antarctic Minke whales, Dward Minke whales, humpbacks, sperm whales, leopard and Weddell seals, and of course various species of penguins such as Adélie, chinstrap, emperor, gentoo, and king.
Another popular destination, of course, is the South Pole, which many visitors access by plane from several Southern Hemisphere cities - and which are far more expensive even than cruises (see below). In addition to wildlife spotting also includes a visit to the "Ceremonial South Pole" (above), a modest chromium orb on a pedestal surrounded by the flags of the 12 original signitory countries of the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, It's also the location of the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station, dating back to 1957 and rebuilt in the first decade of the 21st century.
There are also several basic but comfortable camps for overnighting, as well as a pair of exclusive lodgings in Queen Maud Land called Whichaway Camp and Echo - hundreds of mile east of the Antarctic Peninsula and reachable only via private charter - with luxury amenities, gourmet dining, and "eco pods" sleeping up to a dozen guests at a time.
The South Shetland Islands
A separate archipelago 120km (65 mi.) to the north of the Antarctic Peninsula, several of the 25 South Shetlands are often included in a voyage to the great white continent. They're largely ice-covered and uninhabited except for the personnel at 16 research stations operated by a dozen countries. The main ones of interest include Elephant Island, 60km (37 mi.) long and 40km (25 mi.) wide, best known for its large chinstrap penguin rookeries, 2,000-year-old moss banks, and for being the place where nearly two dozen members of the doomed 1915 Shackleton expedition were stranded for more than four months. Deception Island, 12km (7½ mi.) in both length and width, is actually a flooded volcanic caldera where visitors can take a dip in thermal hot springs as well as spot wildlife including whales, penguins (especially chipstraps), and seals. Then, at 95km (59 mi.) long and 25km (15½ mi.) wide, there's the largest, King George Island. There's plenty of wildlife, of course, such as penguins (Adélie, chinstrap, and gentoo), seals (leopard and Weddell) and a variety of birds (gulls, cormorants, and giant petrels), along with the arresting sight of mosses and lichens growing in the tundra. King George is also home to research stations operated by a dozen countries either year-round or in summer; Antarctica's only true hotel; and several landmarks like Russian Orthodox Trinity Church, the world's southernmost Orthodox temple, built in Russia and transported here in 2004. And finally, here you'll also find the continent's only established airfied - a two-hour flight from Punta Arenas, Chile - to which visitors can fly into to avoid the often rough Drake Passage crossing.
The Falkland Islands
Not part of Antarctica but in the neighborhood - some 1,210km (752 mi.) from the Antarctic Peninsula's northern tip - East Falkland, West Falkland, and 776 smaller, mostly uninhabited islands are a British Overseas Territory (though also claimed by Argentina as the Islas Malvinas) blown by the wind and waves and with a population of just under 3,700. Wildlife here includes Commerson's dolphins, huge albatrosses, and four species of penguins, and capital Port Stanley on East Falkland, where there are red phone boxes, shipwrecks, fish and chip shops and other eateries, pubs, the Falkland Islands Museum, and a Whalebone Arch, built in 1933 from the jawbones of two blue whales to commemorate the centenary of British rule. There are also two hotels, several bed and breakfasts/guesthouses, and apartment rentals.
How Much Does Visiting Here Cost?
Not cheap, for sure. Numerous ships offer itineraries - from small expedition vessels to large ships operated by well known international lines such as Celebrity, Princess, and Silversea - ranging in price from $5,000 per person (for a weeklong "express cruise," which typically sells out quickly) to nearly $40,000 for longer/more comprehensive sailings - and that doesn't even factor in airfare to/from cruise departure/arrival poirts. Small expedition cruises tend to cost less than larger ships. You can also expect a packing list from your cruise company, on whose items you can expect to spend from $500 (on a strict budget) to $5,000 (on a lavish splurge).
The other option is flying, and this can cost more than upwards of 6,000USD per person and as high as $200,000, depending on time of year, origin/destination, etc., and are usually included in the cost of a fly/cruise package. Most flights are into/out of King George Island (two hours from Punta Arenas, Chile), but for a premium there are tour operators which will fly you directly onto the continental mainland. Flights are also available from various airports in other relatively nearby Southern Hemisphere countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
When Is It Best to Go?
Virtually all tourism activity in Antarctica takes place during the Southern Hemisphere's summer, roughly from October through March, with December-February being the high (and most expensive) season. October marks the beginning of extended daylight hours and the seasonal melting of sea ice, and January is the "warmest" month, with temperatures averaging a mere 2⁰ Celsius (36⁰ Fahrenheit). Visitors can enjoy the weather for as much as 24 hours straight and see more wildlife than at any other time, particularly when it comes to penguin chicks, breeding elephant seals, and whales. On the flip side, high demand and a limited supply of ships, particularly during high season, necessitate a good deal of advance reservation and planning if you want to guarantee your preferred ship.
By contrast, Antarctica's cold season begins in early April, when the sea ice surrounding the continent and sunlight starts declining to nearly zero for weeks at a time. Average temperatures are coldest in August, dropping to -7⁰C (19⁰ F) during the day and -15⁰C (5⁰ F) at night. No tour operators/cruise lines run tours during this period.
And a Word About Communications
Your mobile phone will not work down here, but if you really need to stay in touch, there are many satellite phone rental options out there, or your ship may allow you to use one of theirs on a pay-per-minute basis (you may want to check with them about this ahead of time, however). Many ships also have Wi-Fi in certain areas for accessing the Internet, although connecting can be slow and intermittent, and since it's usually charged according to data usage rather than time online, it's cheapest to stick to text only, as usage involving photos and videos can become quite expensive.
Get more information about Antarctica vacation packages here - and have a great if frosty time on your adventure of a lifetime!