Antarctica is the only continent your faithful correspondent is unlikely ever to reach.
There are myriad reasons, chief among them my distaste for cold weather — unless there is plentiful indoor distraction in the form of opera houses, cafés and museums.
But travel to Antarctica is exploding in popularity. For many people, the allure of the exotic and extreme, and the opportunity to explore one of Earth’s last virgin territories, eclipse the considerable expense and complexity of an Antarctic trip.
About a year ago — just past the solstice, when Southern Hemisphere days are longest — my friend Barbara made the 10-day voyage, and she’s been raving about it ever since. So as New Yorkers shiver through the Polar Vortex, I thought it appropriate to ask Barbara what it’s like to visit somewhere truly polar.
My first question, naturally: How cold was it?
“It wasn’t that cold, actually,” Barbara said with a laugh. “Certainly not as cold as it is in New York today.” Daily highs during her trip fluctuated between the 20s and 30s, which doesn’t sound terrible for a place where penguins live — except, of course, that this was midsummer.
And unlike New York in January, Antarctica is a place where you actually want to spend hours at a time outdoors, savoring the otherworldly beauty of blue glaciers, glistening ice sculpture and (of course) those adorable penguins. So Barbara and her husband, Geoff, heeded the counsel of their tour operator — Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, a venerable outfit with long experience in the Antarctic — and came prepared with thermal clothing.
There was plenty of opportunity to sightsee. In the Southern Hemisphere summer, daylight never fades completely — “not that I stayed up all night to look,” noted Barbara (cabins are equipped with blackout shades for sleeping). The sun dipped, but never set, casting a pink glow over the icy, watery landscape. “There’s a sort of austerity about it that is beautiful,” said Barbara, speaking of the scenery overall.
Her long-anticipated journey began with a flight to Buenos Aires, an overnight stay with sightseeing in the Argentine capital, and then a flight to Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city and a common jumping-off point for Antarctic trips.
From there, the M/S National Geographic Explorer took Barbara, Geoff and about 150 fellow travelers across the Drake Passage — a notoriously stormy and windswept waterway — to the Antarctic Peninsula, which reaches northward toward South America. The island archipelago that surrounds this spit of land is home to various scientific stations, including a U.S. base, Palmer Station, on Anvers Island.
Tourists are increasingly common at Palmer Station, but the scientists still seemed thrilled to meet new faces, presenting tanks full of krill and updates on local research to a captive audience. Lest voyagers go into retail withdrawal, the base even boasts a gift shop — a very popular activity, given how infrequently the opportunity arises for Antarctic postcard shopping.
Nearby, a British research station was abandoned more than a half-century ago when supply interruptions necessitated a total evacuation. The station is now a curiosity for sightseers, an eerie time capsule complete with underwear hanging out to dry, like Chernobyl without the radiation.
But the biggest thrills come courtesy of the stunning natural surroundings — which the Lindblad travelers explored during five days of professionally guided photography, small-boat cruises, fjord passages and hikes up snowy mountainsides. Massive ice formations, said Barbara, “are just like sculpture. It’s like an outdoor art exhibit, and they’re this unearthly blue, the most gorgeous turquoise you’ve ever seen.”
Spontaneity is an essential element of Antarctic adventure. The itinerary can from trip to trip, even day to day, as the captain makes calculations based on forecasts, currents and wind direction. Some harbors are only accessible, for instance, if weather is good; the same goes for activities like kayaking amid the ice floes. And travelers keep their all-weather boots handy for sudden announcements over the P.A. system: “Orcas off to the left!” can be a serendipitous photo-op.
With tour operators proliferating, Barbara advised looking for those with solid experience in the Antarctic — a place that remains, as a recent incident with a stranded vessel illustrated, a perilous and unpredictable corner of the world. A truly satisfying trip will include lectures by expert naturalists that put the scenery into context, as well as the good food and creature comforts that Shackleton — the British explorer whose legendary Antarctic voyages are the subject of a PBS documentary — could only dream about.
Most modern-day explorers are thrilled just to cross Antarctica off their list. “For many people, this was their seventh continent,” said Barbara. While she still has one or two to go, she acknowledged that apart from its natural thrills, Antarctica retains a singular and ineffable mystique.
“There’s something about the fact that it’s so difficult to get there, that so many people tried to get there and couldn’t,” she said. “You think, ‘Wow, I have been somewhere very few people will ever go.’”