Most vacationers leave home in search of endless summer, but believe it or not, the icy peaks of Antarctic glaciers might be just what you’re missing in your vacation life. In fact, the number of tourists visiting the South Pole has shot way up since the turn of the millennium; by the 2009 season, more than 37,000 people made the trek south. (Compare that to just 15,000 tourists a decade earlier.)
Well, nearly 40,000 tourists can’t be wrong. Antarctica features dreamlike landscapes, incredible wildlife, and, luckily for those of us who don’t relish the cold, amenity-packed cruise ships that make their way to the remote region on a steady schedule. Plus, think of the stories you’ll be able to tell -- if you’re hoping to brag about your vacation, you can’t do much better than Antarctica.
Here’s what you need to know to visit one of the world’s last remaining frontiers.
Where Is Antarctica?
Antarctica is located -- you guessed it -- in the Antarctic region of the Southern Hemisphere. The closest inhabited land mass is the tip of South America, so most vacationers leave from Ushuaia, Argentina, which is about 800 miles away.
Antarctic cruises generally stay near the sub-Antarctic islands, which is where you’ll find whales, penguins, fur seals, and other vertebrate wildlife. Farther south, the continent’s climate turns totally inhospitable, with temperatures reaching as low as -135.8 degrees Fahrenheit (which isn’t exactly ideal for vacationers).
The good news: Around the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica’s climate is relatively moderate. The annual average temperature around King George Island is about 27.9 degrees Fahrenheit, so if you’re worried about freezing to death, you can relax; just make sure to dress in layers, and you should be fine.
How To Get To Antarctica
Obviously you won’t find many direct flights to Antarctica -- nor would you want to spend an extended period of time on the mainland. It’s the most isolated, secluded continent, and all Antarctic vacationers visit via ship.
Sailing From Argentina
Most vacationers brave Drake Passage (more on this in a moment) and book a cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina. While cruise lengths vary, most last for 8 to 24 days. Stay flexible; Antarctic expeditions depend on the weather, and there’s a decent chance that you’ll encounter a delay (travel site Cool Antarctica estimates that delays affect 5 to 10 percent of Ushuaia cruises).
If you’re traveling during the Antarctic summer, your chances of a delay should be fairly low, but prepare for the worst and check your hotel’s policies -- you might have to spend a few extra days in Argentina, which certainly won’t ruin your vacation.
Sailing From New Zealand
If you’re visiting Australia or New Zealand anyway, you might consider booking an Antarctic cruise leaving from Invercargill, New Zealand. Located at the southernmost point of New Zealand, Invercargill offers a few cruise options, though you’ll spend about a week on the open sea before finally reaching your destination.
Obviously, this means that you’ll pay more than what you’d pay if you embark from Argentina. You’ll still have to brave difficult waters, but you’ll visit the eastern side of Antarctica, which is much less popular with tourists. If you’re hoping to see historic sites from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration -- and you’re willing to brave the elements -- this trip certainly has some appeal.
With that said, most vacationers will want to take the Argentinian route. It’s less expensive, faster, and better suited to tourism.
Sailing From King George Island
If you’re looking for a shorter trip -- or if you get seasick easily -- you can book a flight to King George Island, bypassing Drake Passage entirely. Sure, it’s not quite as exciting, but it’s convenient, and potentially better for travelers on a strict schedule.
To take this route, you’ll visit Punta Arenas, Chile, where Aerovías DAP offers flights to Frei Station on King George Island. You’ll fly in a fairly small plane and land on a rudimentary flight strip; from there, you’ll make your way to a cruise ship and enjoy the rest of your vacation.
The disadvantages of this route: Flights are subject to delays, and they’re expensive.
Preparing For Drake Passage
If you’re leaving from Argentina, you’ll have to go through Drake Passage, the body of water between the southern tip of South America and the South Shetland Islands. It’s a notoriously difficult stretch, and if you get seasick easily...well, brace yourself.
Sailors say that Drake Passage has two modes of operation: Drake Shake and Drake Lake. If you’re fortunate, you’ll experience Drake Lake, and you’ll have smooth sailing -- but Drake Shake is characterized by massive waves, strong winds, and general unpleasantness for everyone involved.
With that said, while you should prepare for the worst, know that most travelers see Drake Passage as part of the Antarctic adventure. Pack some Dramamine patches, don’t drink alcohol, and try to enjoy the rocking and rolling. Remember: The waters will be much calmer when you arrive at the continent proper.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Antarctica?
Antarctica really only has two seasons: a chilly summertime and a dark, freezing winter. These seasons don’t quite line up with those you’ll find stateside, either.
Vacation season in the Antarctic stretches from November to March, with 20 hours of sunlight per day in December and January. If you want to avoid the worst of the cold, plan your trip during the holiday season.
Of course, you’ll encounter bigger crowds if you head for the pole in December. It’s considered the best month for Antarctic tourism, so if you’re looking for a more isolated experience, consider going in spring or fall.
Typically the only people who travel to Antarctica between April and September are scientists and photographers. During the Antarctic winter, temperatures plummet to -40 degrees Fahrenheit around the coasts.
If you think that’s bad, try heading inland toward the high ground in winter (don’t actually do this). At the inland scientific outpost, Vostok Station, the temperature once hit -128.5 degrees Fahrenheit. That was the coldest natural temperature recorded on Earth, at least until satellites measured an area of -135.8 degrees Fahrenheit in 2010.
In other words, you’ll want to plan for a visit in the Antarctic summer unless you’ve got a very, very good reason to do otherwise.
What Is There To Do In Antarctica?
You’ve booked your trip, survived Drake Passage, and you finally arrive in Antarctica. Now what?
If you’ve booked a cruise, your itinerary is probably fairly strict, and you’ll probably spend most of your time touring and experiencing the incredible beauty of the South Shetland Islands. That’s not to say that Antarctic vacations aren’t packed with adventure -- you simply need to plan any excursions in advance.
Whale Watching In Antarctica
Antarctic waters are home to multiple species of whales, including the iconic orca and the awe-inspiring humpback. Along with penguins and dolphins, these animals are at their most active between December and April, with the best chance of sightings in February and March, according to tour group Responsible Travel.
Choose a tour that takes you through Wilhelmina Bay and the Lemaire Channel, both krill-heavy hotspots for hungry whales. Be sure to keep your camera at the ready; you never know when the next humpback will roll or spray.
Get Up Close And Personal With Coastal Life
When you’re ready to leave the comforts (and warmth!) of the cruise ship, try booking a coastal tour on a small, 10- to 12-person vessel called a zodiac boat.
These smaller, lighter boats can take you closer to the glaciers and landmasses where whales gather and penguins roam. Be sure to keep an eye -- and a camera lens -- out for leopard seals lounging on the ice floes.
Photographing In Antarctica
With magnificent icebergs, incredible wildlife, and lighting that a filmmaker would kill for, Antarctica is a photographer’s dream. The cruise industry has taken notice, and you can book a number of Antarctic cruises designed specifically for photography enthusiasts.
Tour group Lindblad Expeditions has even teamed up with the undisputed champions of nature photography at National Geographic to build packages around capturing unbelievable Antarctic images.
Brush up on your skills while you travel with onboard clinics led by certified photo instructors. Real-life National Geographic photojournalists accompany tourists on every trip to give them a professional edge.
Environmentally Responsible Tourism In Antarctica
Growing interest in Antarctica’s wonders has, ironically, contributed to the environmental degradation of the region. There’s no single government in charge of protecting Antarctica; it’s considered a “scientific preserve” and belongs to all nations.
That doesn’t mean you have to stay away, though. Since 1991, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) has pursued its mission to “advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic.”
As long as you book your tour with an IAATO-registered provider and follow the guidelines and rules your tour operator shares with you, you can enjoy the region guilt free. In fact, the IAATO credits tourism with strengthening conservation efforts in the Antarctic.
“First-hand travel experiences foster education and a better understanding of the destination and the need for responsible tourism,” the IAATO writes on its website. “Visitors to Antarctica -- representing more than 100 different nationalities on average per season -- return home as ambassadors of goodwill, guardianship, and peace.”
That’s as good a reason as any to book your trip. It’s the adventure of a lifetime, and a great way to expand your perspective.
Photo Credit: Cassie Matias / Unsplash