Nearly twice the size of Australia, Antarctica, the 7th Continent, is a mythical and awe-inspiring destination. The coldest, driest, windiest, and most remote place in the world, it’s the closest you’ll feel to being on another planet without leaving Earth. Antarctica is an ice-covered landmass and the only continent without a time zone, without permanent residents, and without reptiles. Antarctica is also on the bucket-list of many travelers and although the continent is open to tourists, you can only travel there by specialist ships and planes – and they need a permit to operate there to prove that they’re fully prepared and have the expertise on-board needed for the extreme polar conditions. Nonetheless, it’s easier to travel to Antarctica than one might think.
Get the most out of your (luxury) trip to Antarctica with my travel guide. Find out more about:
- How to get to Antarctica
- Best time to visit
- Getting around & camps
- Travel documents
- What to pack?
- Best things to see & do in Antarctica
HOW TO GET TO ANTARCTICA
The most common way to travel to Antarctica is by cruise ship from South America, usually Ushuaia (Argentina) or Punta Arenas (Chile). Departing from Ushuaia is by far the most popular route to take when going to Antarctica, as this port city is located closer to Antarctica than Punta Arenas, hence less time is spent traveling to Antarctica and more time is spent on the continent itself. In most cases, these trips (ranging from 9 to 25 days) are offered by smaller companies specialized in expedition cruising, such as Lindblad Expeditions, G Adventures, Hurtigruten Expeditions, Oceanwide Expeditions and Intrepid Travel. Over the past years though, several more-traditional cruise line – including Silversea Cruises, Viking and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises – have entered the Antarctica travel market with expedition ships specifically built for travel to the polar regions. It’s important to realize that with a cruise ship, your visit is ‘limited’ to the shore of the Antarctica Peninsula, where you’ll see icebergs, glaciers and wildlife.
The biggest disadvantage (or advantage for some) of traveling by ship from South America to Antarctica is that the Drake Passage needs to be crossed, an oceanic journey which takes about 2 days (one way) for the average cruise ship. It means that at least four full days will be spent on open sea when traveling by cruise to & from Antarctica. On top of that, the Drake Passage is often hit by violent storms, earning the waterway its reputation as one of Earth’s roughest seas (with waves that can be up to 18 m or 60 ft tall). It is possible though to avoid the sailing across the notoriously choppy Drake Passage by choosing a flight-cruise package. First, you’ll fly from Punta Arenas in Chile to Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva base on King George Island in the South Shetland (flight time is only two hours as opposed to two days of sailing). The airport has a gravel runway that is just long enough to handle smaller jets. Next, you’ll be transferred by a Zodiac boat to an awaiting expedition ship for a cruise along the western Antarctica peninsula, where waters are calmer and where you’ll see the same wildlife and landscapes as you would with a longer cruise. At the end of the exploration, a plane will fly back to Punta Arenas.
It’s also possible to travel to Antarctica by boat from Australia or New Zealand, which involves an eastern approach via the Ross Sea. However, there are fewer vessels departing from Australia or New Zealand as compared to South America, and thus less choice with regard to dates and itineraries. Also, because it takes longer to reach the peninsula from the east than it does from the west (sailing to Antarctica and back takes around 12 days), the entire trip takes about a month and tends to be more pricey. The journey between Oceania and Antarctica is more of a true expedition than a the traditional type of a cruise, and you will probably not see any other ships and you almost certainly won’t see any people apart from those on your ship and the scientists in research stations. The polar experience is staggering though as you’ll see huge icebergs, Mount Erebus (an active volcano), the Ross Shelf, emperor penguins, scientific bases and the sites of historic 20th century Antarctic expeditions.
Most people visit the Great White continent on a cruise ship, hereby exploring the shoreline of the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches toward South America. However, the company White Desert takes a totally different approach and takes it guests by private plane to the majestic interior of Antarctica, home of spectacular mountains and the magnetic South Pole. These flights are operated in privately chartered jets – either a Gulfstream G550 or an Airbus A340 – with White Desert’s staff members accompanying the guests all the way from Cape Town, South Africa to Wolf’s Fang blue ice runway, a journey which takes around 5 hours. Guest can book the flight as a day trip (with three hours on the ground in Antarctica) or opt to stay at one of White Desert’s luxury camps in Antarctica (more on that below). Visiting Antarctica’s inland is an incredible privilege experienced by only a few hundred travelers per year as compared to the 120,000 visitors who explore Antarctica by cruise. Read here my review of my flight with White Desert to Antarctica.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
The austral summer months – November to March – are the not only the best time for a cruise trip to Antarctica but also the only time it’s possible as the ice breaks up, allowing ships to pass. Within this narrow travel window, there are considerable variations in what you might see on an Antarctica cruise expedition:
- November is when most cruise lines kick off their Antarctica season and when Antarctica’s coastal landscapes are at their most beautiful with large, sculptural and surreal Icebergs. The continent is colder but at its most untouched, with pristine ice and snow, and wildflowers blooming on the southernmost islands.
- The months of December & January bath in 24 hour daylight, bringing welcome warmth with temperatures hovering above freezing. These months are the best time to observe wildlife in Antarctica (especially penguins and whales).
- In February & March, the season begins to wind down, and you’ll not only see fewer ships but also less wildlife (especially pinguins, although whales and fur seals are still abundant on the Antarctic Peninsula). With snow cover at its lowest, this is perhaps not the best time to see Antarctica at its most photogenic.
When you travel to Antarctica’s majestic indoors with White Desert (from South Africa), the season is even shorter: mid-November to early February. The months of December and January are the only months in which you can also take parts in White Desert’s excursions to the emperor penguins and the legendary South Pole.
GETTING AROUND & CAMPS
When you travel by cruise to Antarctica, you won’t be ship bound once you’ve reached the shores of the White Continent. The whole idea is to spend as much time off the vessel as possible during the day, taking daily excursions (with other guests) in small Zodiac boats to get you up closer to the wildlife, walk across the islands, and kayak alongside whales and seals. The usual daily schedule during a cruise is breakfast on the ship, a morning landing for a few hours, come back to the ship and have lunch, an afternoon excursion, and then dinner on the ship (often followed by entertainment).
The overall best land experience in Antarctica is offered though by White Desert, since this company is taking you to Antarctica’s majestic interior (away from the shore), an insanely beautiful landscape dominated by massive glaciers and Nunataks (these are summits or ridges of a mountains that protrudes from an ice field or glacier that otherwise covers most of these mountains or ridges). Guests can participate in activities (e.g. hiking, mountaineering, abseiling, fat biking, and excursions to the South Pole & emperor penguins) while staying at one of the company’s three camps in Antarctica – the only camps for travelers on the 7th Continent:
- Whichaway is a collection of cutting-edge pods with breathtaking views across the freshwater lakes of the Schirmacher Oasis
- Inspired by austronauts, Echo – White Desert’s newest luxury camp – sits on a massive glacier in quiet solitude encircled by ice-covered rock formations.
- Wolf’s Fang is White Desert Antarctica’s adventure camp, with heated tents, showers and a welcoming dining and relaxation area serving delicious.
There are no visa requirements for visiting Antarctica. There may be visa requirements though for the country from where you depart to Antarctica (Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa), so please check with your local Government Authority as to what these are, as far in advance of your trip as possible.
WHAT TO PACK
Having the right gear will ensure that you are both comfortable and safe throughout your adventure on the White Continent. But packing can be a daunting task for any holiday, let alone to one of the remotest places on Earth. No matter what type of trip you book, a cruise or a land journey, your tour operator will provide you all a list with a kit that is right for your journey to Antarctica. Must have items include:
- 50+ SPF sunscreen (the lack of ozone means the UV rays can be quite strong)
- Polarised sunglasses to counteract the intense glare of the white ice and snow
- A buff to protect your face and keep you warm
- Lots of natural materials in your base layers and socks (think wool thermals)