Background

If you hate those holidays where sand gets everywhere or the heat make you prickle, stick a pin in Antarctica. First glimpsed in 1820 and 58 times the size of the UK, it is a vast, alien landscape of mountains, icebergs and nature not so much in the raw as stark naked and slightly deranged. Think -70C temperatures and winds shrieking at 200mph in winter. It’s the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent on Earth. During the summer tour season (November to February), February is popular as the whales are frolicking and the penguin chicks grow fluffy and cute. It is in this season that the winter population of around 1,000 scientific people is swollen by 25,000 tourists. These visitors jump in inflatable Zodiacs and go ashore, to nose around the research stations and see which boffins have gone mad. A visit takes careful planning even before choosing one of the numerous tour operators, and the commonest route is to fly to Argentina and depart on a ship from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Bear in mind that any itinerary is entirely dependent on climatic conditions and can alter at the drop of a barometer. But a more beautiful, wild and thrilling adventure would be hard to imagine.

Where to Stay

Best Luxury Options

If you want to find 6,000 Emperor penguins in an area previously only seen by scientists, or stay in the tents of the early explorers, White Desert are the people you need. This is the first luxury tourism camp in the interior, run by polar explorers and away from the cruise ships. You fly into Antarctica on a private jet from Cape Town, six hours away. Perched at the top of a 60-metre icefall, the tented camp has wooden beds, a mess tent with a library and that vital spot by the stove to relax with a glass of something strong in the evening. Their first 10-day tour focuses more on wildlife and trekking, including walks and picnics on the edge of the continent surrounded by vast ice cliffs, short flights in a DC3 and rides on skidoos. The highlight is setting up camp at Neumeyer and spending three days surrounded by the Emperor penguin colony and the hatching chicks. The second 10-day tour caters for the more adventurous. You head into the remote mountain range of Ulvetanna and spend time in the tents of the early explorers, surrounded by traces of Scott and Amundsen. Activities include ice-climbing previously unclimbed mountains, abseiling into open crevasses and finding ice caves. Those who still have itchy feet can kite-surf across the endless polar plains or ski in virgin snow… utterly exhilarating! In the evenings you can chat with wild-looking scientists from nearby bases and spend a night in an igloo, where you wake up bathed in soft blue light.
Travellers more interested in the ecology and wildlife should look to Antarctic Dream – Cox & Kings. This small expedition ship has 39 cabins, each with views. The larger ships take 1,000 people, so Antarctic Dream retains an intimate atmosphere and, crucially, there is less fighting at the buffet. A smaller craft also means greater flexibility with the itinerary (important when you are at the mercy of the weather); you are thus often able to spend longer on land. There are daily lectures about the local wildlife and geology and one of the highlights is Deception Island, an active volcano in the South Shetlands. The island consists of volcanic slopes, steaming beaches and glaciers. The distinct horseshoe shape forms a natural sheltered harbour and allows vessels to sail directly into the centre of the volcano. While the average annual air temperature on the island is -3C, an extreme microclimate exists around the steaming volcano, and water temperatures of up to 70C have been recorded. The ace up the ship’s sleeve is that it gets you close to the wildlife, including Weddell, crab-eater and leopard seals, minke and humpback whales, chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo penguins, blue-eyed shags, petrels, Antarctic terns and the rarer albatross. Back on board, in the evenings the mainly Chilean crew play folk songs while you gather with fellow passengers to read, play games or find out what Chilean cocktails are all about.

Also Worth a Look

Imagine what went through Shackleton’s mind back in 1914 on the infamous Endurance expedition when his ship was trapped and destroyed by the ice. Fans of his epic adventures can get closer to the action with Hurtigruten. On board the MS Fram you can enjoy all the comforts of a modern vessel as you learn how the first Antarctic explorers had to tough it out. You get to see historic sights including polar cabins, bases and, if conditions permit, Elephant Island, where Shackleton’s crew wintered while awaiting the rescue that eventually came. For pushing the boundaries, their Antarctica Polar Circle Quest, also on the MS Fram, is an extraordinary journey into a world that few people have ever seen. It travels the furthest south of any of their itineraries, across the Antarctic Circle to Marguerite Bay and the ice-packed channels of the southern oceans. The 24-hour daylight allows you to take a bewildering amount of photographs of one of the last great frontiers.

People who like an educational slant to their holiday should look at Imaginative Traveller, which has ornithologists, naturalists, historians and glaciologists who will impart a wealth of knowledge in their daily presentations. The 11-day Classic Antarctica: Discovering the Peninsula tour leaves from Ushuaia and voyages through the Beagle Channel to the Drake Passage, the famous route between the tip of South America and the South Shetland Islands named after Sir Francis Drake. After the Drake Passage you can enjoy up to two land expeditions per day (if the weather is behaving), on which you will be accompanied by a historian who talks about the development of the region, an ornithologist who helps passengers identify the many different species of animal and bird and a glaciologist who explains what on earth all those extraordinary geographical features are. The company uses only small specialist expedition vessels with a maximum capacity of 110 passengers, meaning that everyone can offload onto land at the same time. As there are strict limits on numbers allowed on land at any one place in the Antarctic, this makes for a more communal experience.

Best Short Tour

The six-day Antarctica Air Cruise by South American Experience from Punta Arenas in southern Chile is a quick option. You fly to King George Island in the South Shetlands in a couple of hours instead of crossing Drake Passage by sea. This notorious stretch of water can become very rough at times, and, during the 48 hours it takes to travel it, only those with an iron disposition can be seen at lunch when it’s playing up. Another more luxe (and thus expensive) option is signing on to Kensington Tours’ day trip or five day trip. Both leave from Capetown, the shortest route to the frozen south; the day trip is by 727 jet, the five day trip by Gulfstream4 and includes accommodation in heated tented camps and Polar explorer guides.

Cheap Option

(1) Cheap is relative here, because of distances and taxing logistics. However, Kumuka Worldwide has an 11-day Antarctica Exploration trip which is good value. Starting and finishing in Ushuaia, you travel by ship along Drake Passage to the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, seeing humpback and killer whales, penguins, leopard seals and icebergs.

(2) Of course, if you happen to be in Australia, New Zealand or Chile or are prepared to travel there, the quickest way to see Antarctica is an overflight from one of these destinations (see www.antarcticaflights.com.au for an example). The plane drops to 10,000 feet but doesn’t land. They do flights for eclipses and New Year’s Eve and a camera in the cockpit gives you a bird’s eye view of things. Economy-class seats work on a rotational basis, switching at the halfway point, so everyone gets a view of the extraordinary landscape unfolding below.

Best of the Rest

Best Kit

A windproof and waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, thin and thick socks, fleece tops and trousers, good waterproof boots for landings, backpack, ski gloves, sunglasses, binoculars, lip balm, sunscreen, seasickness tablets and plenty of batteries and memory cards for cameras. Comfortable casual clothing is ideal on board the ships, and lots of thin layers works best on land.

Best Wildlife

Only the southern elephant seal is larger than the leopard seal, which is fast, has large teeth and hunts penguins. Minke whales, the second smallest of the baleen whales, are more benign and sieve for krill. Humpback whales are an unforgettable sight when they breach and the lucky few might get to see killer whales hunting. Nearly all the 21 species of albatross are threatened with extinction, so seeing one is a special event. Emperor penguins are lovable but the smell comes as a surprise in the gin-clear air.

Best Reads

Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler. But also Skating To Antartica by Jenny Diski, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford, Scott of the Antartic by Elspeth Josceline Huxley and the real deal by Sir Ernest Henry Sackleton: The Heart of the Antarctic and SouthShiver by Nikki Gemmell is a semi-autobiographical novel based on a journalist’s voyage to Antarctica