If you’re geographically challenged like I am (as my husband always tells me I need GPS to get out of a parking lot) you probably think of Antarctica being in the frozen northern sector of earth.
But it’s actually south of South America, in the southern hemisphere. (The Antarctic Peninsula, where most cruises explore, is off the tip of South America.). And this ice-covered landmass with more penguins than people is one of the most otherworldly places on planet Earth.
There are two ways to get there by ship: on a large, ocean-going cruise ship, or on a smaller, expedition-style ship.
OCEAN-GOING CRUISE SHIPS
Ocean-going cruise ships have casinos and rock walls and multiple dining venues, which are nice diversions; but they can only take people to the outer rims of the Peninsula. They’re also not allowed to “land” passengers (meaning, no one can go ashore), so all you can do is view the landscape from the ship. I mean, seriously, if you’re gonna come this far, do you want to just sail past some icebergs? You could do that in Alaska.
EXPEDITION CRUISE SHIPS
[World Explorer – debuting 2019]
if you want an in-depth look at Antarctica, you have to go on an expedition ship. Expedition ships are smaller (generally carrying 100 to 200 passengers), with big, ice-breaking hulls. Even though the passenger count is similar to a European river ship, these are certainly not river ships; they look like a smaller cruise ship, with around 6 decks. And some, like the not-yet-completed World Explorer, which Brand g is using for its 2020 Antarctica expedition, are luxury ships that give you the best of both worlds: the ability to get up close and personal with both the landscape and the wildlife; and the high design and creature comforts of an ocean-going ship. Because really, who doesn’t want to come back after meeting penguins in 20-degree cold and have a spa treatment and a steak?
[World Explorer standard cabin]
[World Explorer cabin bathroom]
Expedition ships also have expert naturalists and polar historians onboard, so you’ll actually know and understand what you’re seeing. You won’t hear your “expert” screaming out things like, “Big white bear!”
Is a luxury expedition cheap? Not really. But that’s due to the limited size of the ships, the level of luxury, and the fact that, like the Galapagos islands, tourism is heavily restricted, which increases the price. On the plus side, IAATO – the body that oversees Antarctic tourism activity – only allows 100 passengers to go ashore at the same time, so your photos won’t have thousands of bumbling tourists wandering through them.
And most importantly, you’ll have wildlife experiences unlike anywhere else on earth. Think of this as the winter version of Africa, where it feels like a zoo full of cold-weather wildlife has exploded.
Is an Antarctic cruise safe? Absolutely. IAATO has strict guidelines for safety for the ships plying these waters. Assuming you don’t try to do a backwards jackknife into the Southern Ocean, you have nothing to worry about.
A tip for those considering an Antarctic expedition: book one that avoids the Drake Passage. Brand g’s expedition, for example, includes roundtrip flights from Punta Arenas, Chile to King George Island so that guests skip the two-day “sail” through the Drake Passage (one of the roughest stretches of water on the planet, where virtually everyone ends up hurling). You’ll thank us later.
In another upcoming blog post, we’ll give you some really valuable tips on traveling to this extraordinary winter wonderland!