Antarctica is still uncharted territory for many travelers, but the destination has seen a boom in recent years driven by an increase in affordable tour options and millennial wanderlust. The quest to visit all seven continents sparked my interest in the White Continent, so I decided to visit Antarctica via a method that most people don’t even know is possible: cruise ship.
I knew a few things going into trip planning: I had to touch land on Antarctica, I wanted an affordable excursion with the comforts of home, and I could only spare two weeks of vacation to do it. “Affordable” in Antarctic cruise terms generally means a range of $6,000 to $9,000 (plus the cost of flights to your departure port) per person, and the most popular Antarctic cruise provider in this category is undoubtedly Quark Expeditions.
Quark’s Ocean Adventurer, with just 63 outside cabins and a capacity of 132 guests, is a fraction of the size of popular Caribbean cruise ships but built to plow through icy waters — and we definitely did just that. My cabin was clean and cozy, with ample closet space, two comfortable twin beds and a TV that played only a funny assortment of movies on repeat. There were a handful of public spaces to relax, including a library full of Antarctic travel and history books and — my favorite — two hot tubs on the rear deck of the ship. One of the biggest differences between a traditional cruise and an Antarctic voyage is the programming: comedy shows and cabarets are replaced by educational talks on glaciers and penguins.
Though my cruise was labeled as 11 days, it was flanked by an overnight hotel stay at the town of embarkation on one side and an 8 a.m. ship disembarkation the final day. So really, you are looking at a nine-day cruise — probably the shortest recommended duration, because the ship takes at least two days in either direction to reach Antarctica.
After emerging from my voyage aboard the Ocean Adventurer, there were definitely some things I wish I knew in advance.
Antarctic travel season is November through March, which is summer in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, most days during my trip, the temperature was higher than back home in New York! Couple this with treks in beautiful sunshine while you’re likely overdressed in your finest sub-zero attire and you will be downright warm.
Many Antarctic cruises begin in Ushuaia, Argentina, and traverse the ocean southward. The itinerary made clear that we would be boat-bound for four of the nine days of our voyage, most of that time spent in the infamous Drake Passage. I was prepared for relaxing time spent reading, playing board games and starting cocktail hour early. Instead, I slept for about 36 of those 48 hours in either direction, waking along with the rest of the passengers only for sustenance. The seasickness-medicine-induced haze can only be described as just that: a fog that prevents you from doing anything remotely engaging.
I hate to burst your bubble if, like me, you were expecting a nice break from the regular pace of life while in Antarctica. Short of sending hi-res photos, communicating with friends and family back home is easy. Quark even offered free WhatsApp service. But hey, if you never actually connect, no one back home has to know, right?
Antarctica tourism is governed by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), a group that works to protect the region in lieu of Antarctica actually being “owned” by any one country. Beginning on day one, our expedition staff held briefings on how to conduct oneself while ashore, complete with a required certification signing by each passenger. Before leaving the ship and upon each return we were required to clean our boots in a trough of disinfecting liquid.
Part of IAATO’s plans to maintain the ecosystem of Antarctica include a strict mandate not to disturb the wildlife. That means no penguin hugs. Now the loophole: While you cannot approach a penguin, if you happen to be sitting quietly and a penguin approaches you on his/her own (this happens frequently) you can feel free to bask in the glory and take a (non-hugging) selfie. I could not believe how close these guys got, and how curious they are.
The ship’s staff was well equipped to feed the passengers and expedition team; and our meals, while not always flavorful, had variety. But Quark Expeditions is not a leisure cruise to the Caribbean, and meals are on a schedule, with few opportunities for snacking throughout the day. On my excursion, a buffet breakfast was usually scheduled for 7:30-8:30 a.m., a buffet lunch from 12:30-1:30 p.m. and a seated dinner from 7:30-8:30 p.m, prompt.
On my excursion the Ocean Adventurer hosted guests of 21 nationalities, an approximately even split of men and women, and three honeymooning couples(!). There were many opportunities to interact, from seminars hosted by the expedition team to open seating in the dining room. I was excited to find many passengers with the same sense of adventure that brought me to Antarctica, and left with friends I will keep in touch with for years to come.
Ever see skiers with a red face after a day on the slopes? Multiply that by 10. The Antarctic ozone hole allows strong UV rays to beam down, and they also reflect off the water and crisp white snow. Luckily, all Quark Expedition ships have a small gift shop with reasonably priced sundries, outerwear and some fun gift items.
Safety and weather permitting, Quark Expeditions and most tour operators will offer an opportunity to do a “polar plunge” leap into the 35-degree water. You’re crazy if you do it — and crazy if you don’t. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had.
The first time you touch land in Antarctica will exceed any expectations. The air is crisp, the landscape is vast, and experiencing its majesty up close is hard to put in words.
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Angela Tucciarone is a former food blogger who lives in Manhattan. She has traveled to over 40 countries, and her favorite food item to try in each local cuisine is cheese.