Travel to Antarctica might seem like a far-fetched dream to some, but those who actually make it will discover a wealth of activities and attractions to see and do in this icy land. Paying a visit to this cold and dry continent represents some of the most unique things that one can possibly do in the world. And it’s not all frigid snow! Depending on the time of year, you can easily find yourself exploring in a T-shirt. A trip like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so here are some of the best things you can do at this incredible travel destination, plus tips every traveller needs to know when they start their research.
This is undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights for all trips to Antarctica. Watching these cute little creatures in their natural habitat is fascinating. Probably the most exciting thing of all is how close you can get to these curious animals if you sit tight and let them approach you. While penguins are often characterized as little cuties in tuxedos, 7 of the world’s 17 varieties of penguins can be found in Antarctica, representing a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and even colours. Keep an eye out for the delightfully named “Rockhopper” variety, which has bright yellow eyebrows!
No travel to Antarctica is complete without having explored the icy cold water in a kayak. Pass by floating icebergs, watch the leopard seals swim around, and paddle with penguins right next to your boat. It’s a truly unique experience. With a little luck, you’ll see unusual cloud formations, have a close encounter with whales, and even have some downtime with hot chocolate and Baileys!
Swim at Deception Bay
This island is actually an active volcano and was previously used as an old whaling station. It definitely has an ominous air, as you can find oil drums, boilers and whale bones on its shores. Some people even go swimming here due to the warmer temperature of the waters from the volcano (warmer -but not warm, per say!) If you’re not convinced on the merits of a polar plunge, the scientific history of the area is fascinating. And if you do decide to take the plunge, know that bragging rights are forever yours. Friends back home don’t need to know that the water isn’t quite as icy as they might imagine!
Go whale watching
What better place to partake in this activity than in Antarctica? Whales are in charge in this part of the world and getting a sighting of a whale in such a wild environment is a magical experience. Since whales haven’t been hunted here for decades, they aren’t shy about showing off near boats. Humpback, Antarctic minke, and orca whales are commonly sighted. If kayaking isn’t your thing, most Antarctic expeditions include the option to ride out in a small Zodiac-style boat for an up close and personal experience.
Stop by the bar at Vernadsky Research Base
That’s right. A bar! In fact, it’s the world’s most southernmost bar. Originally founded in 1947 as an Antarctic expeditionary base before it was sold to Ukraine for one British pound, if you can make your way over to this remote station, you can ask for a vodka (distilled on site) for just three bucks. Female passengers dedicated to maintaining a strict budget will be reassured that undergarments are also accepted as currency here.
Run a marathon
No, really! Antarctic Ice Marathon is the only official marathon run on mainland Antarctica and is a member of the Association of International Marathons & Distance Races (AIMS). If you’re up for running in -20 degrees, you’ll have bragging rights for completing the southernmost marathon in the world! And if you’re a passionate runner, you’ll be joining only a small handful of people who have run marathons on every continent - assuming you’re up to completing the other 6 runs in slightly less chilly locations.
Send a postcard from the world’s coolest post office
In this case, “coolest” may just apply to the temperature as well! Port Lockroy, a former British research station which ceased operations in 1962, is now a museum and home to the world’s southernmost post office. If you’re especially keen on experiencing Antarctic life, you can even apply to work there - no post office experience required! Their website has a helpful list of travel tips and information on what you can expect when you’re visiting the Antarctic.
When to go:
For bearable weather, travel to Antarctica in the summer - summer for the southern hemisphere that is! That’s November to March. Late January is a nice mix of longer daylight hours and falls around the conclusion of the penguin baby season and the start of the whale season.
Cruise ships depart mostly from Ushuaia (Argentina), as well as Hobart (Tasmania), Christchurch (New Zealand) and Cape Town (South Africa).
Suitcase restrictions are stringently enforced on the Antarctic cruise ships, which are much smaller than your typical tourist cruise ship. It’s wise to add some money to your travel budget to invest in quality clothing pieces which minimize space and maximize versatility. An outdoor adventure sporting goods store will have everything you need but it won’t be as cheap as a stop at your local mall. Most ships offer laundry services. It will be expensive but well worth it to stretch a limited wardrobe.
In particular, don’t skimp on your jacket if one isn’t included for you on the ship. A great fit that allows easy movement and that’s friendly to walkers and kayakers is important. It has to keep you incredibly warm, reasonably dry and - let’s be honest - make you look good as you’ll be sporting it in a ton of photos. A solid primary or jewel tone colour will look great against the clear blue skies and the bright white snow. If you ever wanted a bright yellow or pink jacket, now’s your moment!
Waterproofing isn’t only important for your jacket - it also extends to your technical gear. Dry bags and camera protection bags are essential. And don’t forget your boots. You’ll be stepping off Zodiac boots into water that’s a foot deep or more.
The choppy seas around the Drake Passage are notorious for their ability to trigger crippling motion sickness in even the staunchest of stomachs. Even if you’re normally very resistant to the sways and swells of boat travel, packing over the counter motion sickness remedies is highly recommended.
Last but not least - don’t forget your sunscreen! And sunglasses will come in handy as well. Clear skies mean bright sun.
Costs can vary on any kind of trip but Antarctic cruises are especially multifarious. A basic 10-day cruise in bunk-style accommodations might be as low as $6000 per person, while a 22-day adventure in a cabin suite might be closer to $40,000 - per person!
Rest assured that there are still excellent options at the lower end of the price spectrum. The most important thing is that you have the package which best matches your needs and expectations. Not all expeditions actually traverse the Antarctic Circle, while others include extra stops in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.
Despite the high costs, the prices are rarely completely inclusive. Excursions like kayaking or zodiac trips can often cost extra - and usually sell out before the trip actually starts. Reading the fine print will help you avoid any unpleasant surprises and reserving any optional activity you’re keen on well in advance is highly recommended.
A Dream Well Worth Waiting For!
Maybe you're a travel bucket list junkie or perhaps you just love doing something a bit off the beaten path. Whether or not you just love the cold weather or your intrigued by the idea of exploring the most untouched place on Earth, the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands and South Georgia have a lot to offer and are well worth the visit. A trip to Antarctica is hardly the stuff of a spontaneous, last minute discount vacation. For some travelers it can take years of saving and some considerable planning. But the reward is the ultimate trip of a lifetime!
Cover Photo Credit: Unsplash / henrique setim