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Why cruise to Antarctica? Many passengers choose an Antarctic cruise over a world of other choices 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.
My cruise was with Discovery World Cruises (now Voyages of Discovery) aboard a ship that has since been retired, but many of the sights and experiences that came our way are universal to voyages visiting the Antarctic Peninsula, a "panhandle" of land extending to within 600 miles of the tip of the South American continent.
Passengers on our cruise gathered in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for a couple of days before boarding a charter flight to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Other cruise lines muster their guests in Santiago, Chile, and depart from the military town of Puerto Williams. Antarctica is regulated by terms of the Antarctic Treaty System, founded in 1959, and a dozen nations have claims or rights to claims of areas defined like slices of a pie radiating from the South Pole. The Chilean, Argentine and British slices overlap, leading to recurrent friction, and on most cruises, passengers will spot at least one military ship bristling with radar and other intimidating equipment juxtaposed against an iceberg. Yes, it's downright weird.
There are two main obstacles to Antarctica cruises: weather and the Drake Passage. Antarctica is the highest, driest and windiest of continents, and foul weather can strike suddenly and at any time. The cruise season is in the Southern Hemisphere summer, but still, you take your chances: You may get days in a row of gorgeous bluebird weather (as we did on our January cruise), or never see the sun. (A tip: although not included on packing lists furnished by the cruise lines, it's wise to bring ski pants and goggles. The former will keep your bottom half warm and the latter protect your eyes while standing on windy decks watching some of the most bewitching scenery you will ever see glide by.)
As for the Drake: The 600-mile passage between Ushuaia and the calm waters of the peninsula can be merely uncomfortable or absolutely horrid. This is the only place on Earth completely encircled by water, and conditions can get scary-wild. Best advice: Come prepared with strong medication for seasickness and be prepared to roll around in your bunk and ping-pong down hallways for about 36 hours. Believe me, what waits on the other end is more than worth it.