Enjoy one of the last truly wild places left on Earth. Admire the towering mountain peaks and towering glaciers of the driest, coldest, windiest continent. Step out of our comfort zone and feel small. But traveling to this ice heaven reminds us that even the most remote places on our planet are still connected by the atmosphere and oceans. And that by visiting one of the most extreme environments on the planet, we are always at the mercy of Mother Nature
When Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, and other intrepid polar explorers ventured south to explore Antarctica in the early 20th century, they endured months of hardship-cramped quarters, stormy weather, bad food, loneliness, and treacherous sea ice, to name a few. As I relaxed in the open-air hot tub onboard the Viking Polaris as it sailed smoothly among the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula in mid-January, I thought of these bold men. I wondered what they’d make of my luxurious voyage to the White Continent, which included fine-dining meals, a plush private stateroom, spa treatments, and Scandinavian interior design. Differences aside, I imagined we shared many of the same motivations for visiting Antarctica: to enjoy one of the last truly wild places left on Earth. To see towering mountain peaks and imposing glaciers on the driest, coldest, and windiest continent. To get outside our comfort zones and feel small. To be reminded that even the most remote places on our vulnerable planet are still connected by the atmosphere and oceans. And I’m not alone. More people than ever before not only want to travel to Antarctica, but also have the time, money, and means to do so. Over the last three decades, the number of people visiting the White Continent has been steadily increasing, growing from roughly 6,700 in 1991 to an estimated 75,000
visitors during the 2019-20 season, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tourism Operators (IAATO), a nonprofit membership organization promoting safe and responsible travel on the continent. The Covid-19 pandemic briefly dampened visitation. In 2021-22, 23,500 people reached the continent, but as travel rebounds, interest in Antarctica is surging once again. In 2022-23, more than 105,000 people—including me—visited the continent. That demand shows no signs of slowing down, either.
My journey began with a transatlantic flight to Buenos Aires, followed by a chartered flight to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world and the main launch point for cruises heading to the Antarctic Peninsula. In Ushuaia, I boarded the Viking Polaris, the new, purpose-built, 378-passenger ship that would be my home for the next week and a half. After settling into my room, I headed out onto the bow as the ship set sail through the Beagle Channel, named after the British ship Charles Darwin sailed on while circumnavigating the globe from 1831 to 1836. Within minutes, I spotted several Magellanic penguins, as well as a pod of dwarf minke whales, which Viking’s onboard naturalists helpfully identified. When I awoke the next day, the ship was already well on its way through the Drake Passage, which has some of the roughest seas in the world. Though Viking’s staffers promised that we were experiencing the «Drake Lake» (the nickname for relatively calm periods in the passage, as opposed to the «Drake Shake», when huge swells toss ships around like toy boats) I was miserably seasick for the entire day. Still, even from bed, I enjoyed looking out the floor-to-ceiling window in my cozy stateroom. After sailing through the night, the ship reached the much calmer waters of the Antarctic Peninsula the following morning. Our first stop was Fournier Bay, a protected cove off the coast of Anvers Island. As a naturalist guide carefully steered an inflatable Zodiac boat around massive, icy-blue icebergs, I peered down at the inky-black water, which was covered in thin, flat pieces of sea ice, known as pancake ice, that formed stunning geometric patterns on the surface.
STEPPING FOOT ON THE WHITE CONTINENT
The next day, the Polaris arrived at Petermann Island, home to a thriving colony of gentoo penguins, as well as a handful of Adélie penguins. After a quick Zodiac ride from the ship, I finally stepped foot onto the Antarctic Peninsula. As light snow fell, I took in the incredible sight before me: Penguins waddling to and fro, gathering small rocks to add to their nests—some of which already contained tiny, fluffy hatch-
lings. A Weddell seal lounged lazily on the snow, apparently unperturbed by the flurry of penguin activity all around him. Brown skuas flew menacingly overhead, searching for any unattended penguin eggs that might make for a quick snack. Our subsequent landings on the peninsula were equally as magical. One day, we visited Damoy Point, home to stunning glaciers, more gentoo penguins, and historic British and Argentinian field huts. At Cuverville Island, I had the opportunity to ride in one of the two, high-tech submarines kept onboard the Polaris. Along with five other passengers and a pilot, I dove 402 feet below the surface of the Southern Ocean inside a bright yellow U-Boat Worx Cruise Sub 7 MK II, cheekily named after The Beatles’ Ringo Starr. Throughout the journey, I also attended intriguing scientific lectures in the ship’s beautifully designed auditorium, indulged in gourmet meals from the many onboard dining options, played board games in the light-filled library, and sipped cocktails in the speakeasy-inspired bar called The Hyde. And, a lot of times, I simply gazed out the window, keeping an eye out for humpback whales and admiring the whimsical shapes of passing icebergs.
WEATHER RULES ALL
One night toward the end of the cruise, the ship’s captain made a rare appearance at the evening briefing to explain a severe storm was forming over the Drake Passage. As a result, the Polaris would need to head back to Ushuaia a day early. Though some passengers grumbled about the change of plans, the situation was a good reminder that, while visiting one of the most extreme environments on the planet, travelers are always at the mercy of Mother Nature. Our trip back across the Drake Passage was blessedly smooth— and, by this point, I’d been taking daily seasickness meds—so I spent the day blissfully soaking in the spa, reading, and gazing through binoculars out on deck. As I reflected on my bucket-list trip to Antarctica, my thoughts returned once again to the Antarctic explorers who came before me. Though we had vastly different experiences—shaped by more than a century of innovation and technological advancements we undoubtedly shared a deep, human connection for our appreciation of this special, otherwordly place at the bottom of the world. The Antarctic season runs from November to early March, which coincides with the Southern Hemisphere’s summer.
WAYS TO REACH ANTARTICA
The majority of travelers visit Antarctica on expedition cruise ships, which typically depart from South America. A variety of cruise lines now offer Antarctic journeys that range in price point, duration, ship size, and focus, including Viking, Ponant, Hurtigruten, Abercrombie & Kent, Quark Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, Silversea, Seabourn, and Scenic. Some are luxurious, while others are more bare-bones. Some offer more active and adventurous excursions—like camping on the peninsula—while others are more low-key. Some ships simply sail past the Antarctic Peninsula, without stopping, while others regularly let passengers set foot on land. The main downside of cruising from South America is crossing the infamous Drake Passage. To avoid this inconvenience, some companies such as Quark Expeditions and Silversea—offer «fly-cruise» trips, which allow travelers to take a short flight over the passage and then board the ship. Travelers who want to skip the cruise altogether can fly aboard a private jet and stay inside high-end, heated tents with White Desert. The company has created three ultra-luxury camps on the continent, which feature gourmet cuisine and an array of customizable activities, such as snowmobiling, ice climbing, mountaineering, skiing, fat biking, and more.
Some onlookers have raised concerns about the growing popularity of Antarctic tourism amid human-caused climate change—and rightfully so. As the planet gets hotter because of trapped greenhouse gases, Antarctica’s glaciers and sea ice are melting at alarming rates. Some of its species are at risk of disappearing completely. Ironically, Antarctica’s vulnerability to climate change is what’s driving some travelers to visit the continent in the first place: They want to see the White Continent before it’s gone but, by visiting on greenhouse gas-emitting expedition ships, they’re also contributing to its demise. The Antarctic tourism industry is working hard to minimize the impacts of travel to the continent. For example, under IAATO rules, only 100 passengers from a single cruise ship can be on the continent at any given time. The ships also take turns visiting landing sites, a process that’s organized through a well-or- ganized scheduling platform. Individual cruise lines are also making strides, such as by developing ships that can run on clean energy.