The 'White Continent' is remote, icy and uninhabited by humans, with the exception of a few hardy scientists, so you might think that it makes little difference which part of Antarctica you visit. In fact there is a surprising degree of variety when it comes to landscapes, wildlife and the human history of each region, and many people find that one visit just isn't enough. There are a few different directions from which you can approach Antarctica, and an expedition cruise also offers the opportunity to visit fascinating subantarctic islands such as South Georgia en route.
Travelling to Antarctica is not cheap, so choosing the right itinerary is an important decision to get right. There are a number of factors to consider, such as the wildlife you want to see, how active you want your trip to be and what sort of ship you want to travel on - certain itineraries are only offered by the more specialist polar operators, and the more unusual options tend to get booked up way in advance. To help you figure out which Antarctic cruise to choose, we've put together this guide to the main options...
1. Scenic cruising only
This is not an option you will ever encounter with an expedition cruise line, but some of the more traditional cruise lines offer itineraries that sail from South America down to Antarctica for a few days of 'scenic cruising'. What this means is that you'll be able to admire the scenery from your ship and spot wildlife in the distance, but you won't be able to get off the ship and you won't make any shore landings. This can be a good option if your mobility is limited and you're unable to climb in and out of a Zodiac; otherwise, we would always recommend a true expedition cruise, with the opportunity to set foot on the Antarctic continent.
2. The Antarctic Peninsula
The Antarctic Peninsula is the classic Antarctica cruise itinerary; every expedition line will offer a version of this, and it's by far the most popular choice for those visiting Antarctica for the first time. Most itineraries sail round-trip from the port of Ushuaia, situated at the southern tip of South America, which will necessitate an overnight stay in Buenos Aires before (and usually after) your cruise. The crossing to Antarctica takes two days, and involves traversing the notoriously lumpy Drake Passage - cross your fingers and hope for good weather!
Once you catch your first sight of Antarctica, the crossing is soon forgotten. The Peninsula is the finger-like strip of land that extends northwards towards South America, and you'll visit a number of different landing sites on both the mainland and the surrounding islands. You can expect to see dramatic scenery, icebergs, seals, whales (depending on the time of year) and plenty of penguins, though do be aware that you won't see king or emperor penguins on the Peninsula. Itineraries will often include a stop-off in the Falkland Islands en route, rich in birdlife and of particular historical interest to British travellers.
3. South Georgia
Although it may stretch your budget and will add several extra sea days to your itinerary, you should seriously consider an Antarctica cruise that includes South Georgia, especially if this is likely to be your only visit to the region. This rugged and remote island lies some 800 miles to the east of the Falklands, and is renowned for its incredible wildlife. During the summer breeding season, South Georgia is home to some 5 million breeding pairs of macaroni penguins, over 100,000 pairs of king penguins and millions of fur seals, along with elephant seals, whales and a plethora of sea birds. South Georgia also has a fascinating human history, inextricably linked with Sir Ernest Shackleton's doomed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
As well as the standard South Georgia itineraries, which include time on the Antarctic Peninsula, you will occasionally find transoceanic voyages that cross the South Atlantic from Ushuaia to Cape Town, stopping off in South Georgia and other, even more remote subantarctic islands such as Tristan da Cunha. These cruises do not always visit Antarctica proper and they involve a lot of time at sea, so they are more of a collector's item and won't be right for everyone.
4. Fly the Drake Passage
For those who really can't stomach the thought of crossing the Drake Passage by sea, there is another way to reach Antarctica. Quark Expeditions and Silversea both offer the option of flying over the Drake by charter plane, landing at the airstrip on King George Island in the South Shetland Islands. It's an appealing option for nervous sailors or time-poor travellers, allowing you to embark your ship in Antarctica for a week cruising in the calmer waters around the Peninsula. It is worth noting, however, that flights can be delayed by the capricious Antarctic weather, and some people would say that if you haven't sailed the Drake, you haven't really been to Antarctica!
5. The Ross Sea
Voyages into the Ross Sea are far less common than cruises to the Peninsula, and this side of Antarctica is usually accessed from New Zealand or Australia. The Ross Sea is wild and remote, and you'll be landing on islands and coastlines where very few other people have ever set foot. There are things here that you simply won't see on other Antarctic cruises: Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on earth; the bizarre Dry Valleys, free of snow and ice thanks to the surrounding mountains and fierce winds; and relics of the 'Heroic Age' of Antarctic exploration, including Scott's hut at Cape Evans.
The Ross Sea is also one of the few places where you can see emperor penguins, and voyages normally call at some of Australia and New Zealand's subantarctic islands en route, with the chance to see rare penguin species such as erect-crested, yellow-eyed and Fiordland penguins.
6. The Weddell Sea
As with the Ross Sea, expedition cruises into the Weddell Sea are rare, and you are at the mercy of the sea ice; there is no guarantee that your ship will be able to penetrate very far into the sea, so you may end up spending most of your time exploring the Antarctic Peninsula instead. For those ships that do manage to navigate through the ice, the main goal is to reach Snow Hill Island, home to some 4,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguins. The chances of reaching Snow Hill are estimated at less than 50%, but what an experience for those who are successful - this is one of the very few places in Antarctica where it's possible to see an emperor colony on land.
7. Beyond the Antarctic Circle
You are already joining an elite club by setting foot on the Antarctic continent, but crossing the Antarctic Circle is an even more remarkable achievement. Several expedition cruise lines offer itineraries to the Antarctic Peninsula that continue southwards, with the goal of reaching that all-important latitude, 66°33' S. As well as being something to tick off your cruising bucket list, a voyage this far south is likely to reward you with even more spectacular icebergs and sightings of wildlife including humpback whales, leopard seals and penguins.
We are particularly excited about the launch in 2021 of Le Commandant Charcot, Ponant's revolutionary hybrid-powered luxury icebreaker, which is set to redefine polar travel. Her inaugural Antarctica programme includes voyages that go way beyond the Antarctic Circle, aiming for the emperor penguin colonies of the little-explored Bellingshausen Sea and remote Peter I Island. It's estimated that only around 600 people have ever set foot on Peter I Island - that's comparable to the number of people who have been into space!