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First of two parts. Also see:
Some 40 ships carrying six to 500 passengers conduct pleasure cruises in Antarctica each year, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which sets tourism guidelines. Ships are limited to bringing a maximum of 500 passengers ashore.
Why go? Many passengers choose an Antarctic cruise for the most Everest of reasons: because it’s there. Still others are seduced by a relatively painless (although not inexpensive) way of adding an elusive seventh continent to their travel résumés. Virtually all succumb to astonishment once they get to the bottom of the world. I've cruised there, and it was one of the most memorable, mesmerizing experiences of my life.
Practically none of the considerations that normally apply to tourism apply to Antarctica. There are no hotels or restaurants. There is no nightlife. In fact, during the tourist season, there is no night at all. There are no cities. There isn’t even soil.
Sound perfect? You have a pretty wide range of options, but keep in mind that nearly all cruises take place during Antarctica's summer months of December to February — and they often sell out a year or more in advance.
Describing the appeal of the world’s highest, driest, coldest, windiest, emptiest, most isolated continent is like trying to put a verbal finger on something beyond comprehension. It’s not just the elemental beauty that makes an impression, it’s the overwhelming vastness, the fragile purity, the sense of privilege that comes with beholding one of the last pristine places on the planet, a frozen Eden.
OK, are you ready to cross this off your bucket list? In the second part of this series I lay out the logistics: how to get there, getting situated in Ushuaia, Argentina, wi-fi down there, shore excursions to Tierra del Fuego, what to expect when navigating the Drake Passage and what to bring on your journey.
The cruise season is the Southern Hemisphere's summer, December through February. The weather in the peninsular “banana belt” where most cruise ships sail is not as cold as you might guess, so long as the wind is not blowing. Blue-sky “bikini weather” —temperatures in the 40s, even low 50s — happens, too.
In Ushuaia, Argentina, ships dock at a long pier on the edge of town. Larger ships on longer cruises often depart for Antarctica from Valparaiso, Chile, or Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Passengers are brought ashore in inflatable expedition boats that make either “wet” (waterproof boots needed) or “dry” landings.
Ushuaia – the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, and the southernmost city in the world – is highly walkable, and taxis are abundant.
The cruise lines are good about making sure visitors don't disrupt Antarctica's fragile ecosystem (if only Washington's politicians would be so conscientious!). We like Hurtigruten's motto: "Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints."
Language: English on your cruise ship, Spanish in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego
Currency: In Ushuaia, credit cards or the Argentine peso. Change money at kiosks on the pier, at banks or at ATM machines in town.
Have you been to Antarctica? Please share your story, tip or discovery. What was the highlight for you? How did you fair across the Drake? Photos, too, are welcome, I'd love to see them!
Help improve this article! See anything wrong? What did we overlook? Be a co-creator!
“Once the ship passed the storm and reached the islands off the peninsula, the 122 passengers understood what Dorothy felt as she opened the farmhouse door in Oz: brilliant blue sky in a majestic land, its horizons defined by mountains and perennial winter.”
“A handful of the top luxury and expedition cruise ships have a one- or two-year wait list, say Lorenzo Urra of Global Noman. If you'd like to go in 2016, you'll have to put down a deposit this month.”
“No place on earth compares to this vast white wilderness distilled to an elemental haiku: snow, ice, water, rock. Antarctica is simply stunning.”
“I don't know how your remember the rumble of thunder on a sunny afternoon, the signal that somewhere a glacier is cracking. I don't know that anyone can fully remember the phosphorescent blue of an iceberg, or the motion of a ship in 30-foot swells, or the fading sound of 20,000 penguins as you sail away from them... It was all too much to grasp. ”
“Antarctica is probably the most accessible inaccessible place in the world. … Accessibility, though, doesn't take anything away from Antarctica's big drawing cards, which include endless stretches of ice, huge icebergs, an abundance of whales and other marine life, and penguins by the thousands.”