The continent of Antarctica is a glacial world of glistening icebergs and frosty mountain peaks. Its barren snow-covered landscapes are broken up by bitterly cold polar seas inhabited by blubbery seals, majestic whales, exquisite birds and shuffling penguins. Located at the South Pole in the Earth’s southern hemisphere, 98 per cent of Antarctica is covered by the Antarctic ice sheet, which in turn holds a staggering 61 per cent of the world’s freshwater. Clusters of Antarctic and subantarctic islands surround this icy land mass and eight different countries lay claim to territories in this region: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. The undulating Transantarctic Mountains crawl through the middle of the continent between the Ross Sea and the Weddle Sea and hundreds of subglacial volcanoes lurk underneath the region’s ice sheets. Below the Antarctic Peninsula in West Antarctica, the extraordinary Marie Byrd Land is blanketed in volcanic rock and is the only territory not yet claimed by a sovereign state.
Antarctica is one of the most remote places on Earth and its frosty temperatures and unforgiving terrain are some of its biggest draws. For cruisers who feel they have spent enough time lounging in the sun or exploring chaotic cityscapes, Antarctica presents its own unique adventures, challenging visitors to discover its magnificent natural landscapes. Cruise ship passengers are introduced to the continent gently, experiencing a gradual drop in temperature as they depart the cruise ports of Ushuaia in Argentina and venture down the infamous Drake Passage. For the expedition of a lifetime, lose yourself completely in the chilly wilderness of epic Antarctica.
Why cruise Antarctica
The only way to truly discover Antarctica is by cruise. The continent is surrounded by sea, providing cruise ships with the perfect means to call at all of Antarctica’s spectacular attractions. The majority of cruise ship itineraries take in the cities of Punta Arenas in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina, offering passengers a glimpse of the heel of South America before heading south. A vast number of cruise companies including Celebrity Cruises, Silversea, Norwegian Cruise Line, Iglu Cruise, Seabourn, Quark, Ponant and Princess Cruises, curate fantastic itineraries that sail via Chile’s Cape Horn and Britain’s Falkland Islands down to South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Shetland Islands. Glide past towering ice shelves and desert-like islands at the Earth’s southernmost point.
Top cruising countries in Antarctica
Most Antarctic cruising journeys begin in the Patagonia region of southern Argentina. This sparsely populated region has a vast array of snow-dusted mountains, crystalline lakes and eye-catching glaciers. The trendy tourist hubs of El Calafate and Ushuaia are Argentinian Patagonia’s key highlights, each a gateway to some of the region’s most beautiful natural phenomena. The mighty Glaciar Perito Moreno can be found in this area, a 30 kilometre long and 60-metre-high glacier that rises majestically from the sea in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares on the Tierra del Fuego peninsula. The park, situated in the Austral Andes, is home to 356 more glaciers, which feed into the two large lakes of El Chalten and Lago Viedma. The serene Lago Argentino is also one of southern Argentina’s showstoppers, while the exhilarating Reserva Faunística Península Valdés offers visitors the unique opportunity to watch humpback whales swim along the coast.
Argentina shares the Southern Cone with Chile’s Aysén, Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica regions. Chilean Patagonia has its own distinct identity, an untamed, barren landscape characterised by verdant grassy steppes, rugged seascapes and glacial peaks. The region’s crown-jewel is the stunning Torres del Paine National Park where three gigantic granite spires puncture the ground. It is located between the Magellanic subpolar forests and the Patagonian Steppes. The azure Lake Pehoe lies grandly in the centre of the park and flamingos, rheas and guanaco camels graze for food in the park’s grasslands while Andean condors grace the skies above. Chilean Patagonia’s two largest settlements are Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, each offering their own fabulous tourist attractions.
Iconic ports in Antarctica
Located in Argentina’s south Patagonian Tierra del Fuego province, Ushuaia is wedged between the Martial mountain range in the North and the green Beagle Channel in the south. The Straits of Magellan separate the province from the mainland and the area has been nicknamed the ‘End of the World’ owing to its close proximity to Antarctica. Keen hikers can trek up rugged terrain to the peaks of the Martial Range, from where the views of the remarkable Martial Glacier are astonishing. Those who prefer sailing along tranquil waters to navigating steep mountaintops will enjoy visiting the enormous sea lion colony at Isla de los Lobos and the birdwatching hotspot of Isla de los Pájaros. Ushuaia’s jumble of steep streets and colourful seaside buildings host a hive of activity. Key attractions include the former prison turned Maritime Museum, which exhibits collections on the region’s indigenous people and the main town’s Museo del Fin del Mundo.
Punta Arenas, Chile
Straddling the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and on the banks of the Strait of Magellan sits the subpolar former penal settlement of Punta Arenas. Harsh, strong winds have given the city a windswept feel and the port serves as an excellent starting point from which to explore the remote Magallanes region. Nature lovers can take a two-hour boat journey to Isla Magdalena, home to Chilean Patagonia’s largest Magellanic penguin colony, or hire a mountain bike and cycle up to the top of Mount Fenton in the Magallanes Forest Reserve. History buffs might prefer to stick to the mainland and wander around the opulent mansions of the city’s former sheep barons at Plaza Muñoz Gamero. Punta Arenas is renowned as one of the world’s largest sheep-farming areas and the city has thrived since the lucrative wool boom of the 19th century. Punta Arenas also boasts a vast selection of fascinating museums, including the Naval and Maritime, the Regional Salesian and the Braun-Menéndez Museum.
Cape Horn, Chile
A visit to Chile’s Cape Horn on Hornos Island is a truly exhilarating experience although a cruise to this isolated island is not recommended for those who struggle with seasickness - owing to the gale-force winds and roaring waves. The adventure begins as soon as you approach this craggy island. Inflatable boats will transport you to the edge of a steep cliff from where you can climb up several flights of steps to reach flat land. Hornos island is covered with wooden walkways leading to all the area’s top sites. Head over to the lighthouse on the actual ‘horn’ from where you can see the point at which the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet, before paying your respects at the Cape Horn Memorial. This stone plinth was put in place to honour sailors who fell victim to the treacherous Cape waters. The quirky Cape Horn Monument is another point of interest and features an albatross in flight – the symbol of the Cape Horn Captains Brotherhood. If you have time, stop by the Chapel of Stella-Maris which is so small it could easily be mistaken for a wooden shed.
Stanley, Falkland Islands
The British-owned Falkland Islands are renowned for the swathes of exotic wildlife that inhabits its lands. Colonies of hundreds of king, gentoo, rockhopper, macaroni, royal and Magellanic penguins waddle fearlessly around Gypsy Cove and Volunteer point. You can take organised tours with a penguin expert who will tell you all about the lifestyle and habitats of these sleek-backed friends. It is likely that your cruise ship will dock at Port Stanley, the capital city of the Falkland Islands located on West Falkland island. Strong British influences can be felt here, particularly as you will see iconic red telephone boxes dotted about all over town. Port Stanley is awash with marine and military monuments, such as the Historic Dockyard Museum and the Battle Memorial at the Government House. The port’s pretty little harbour is lined with postcard-worthy wood-clad houses painted in vibrant colours. Quaint villages including Port Louis and Salvador are home to local residents on East Falkland island. Aside from these two central land masses in the archipelago, cruisers can also visit the smaller islands of Carcass Island, Sea Lion Island, Pebble Island and the Jason Islands. Prepare to discover yet more gorgeous wildlife on these remote islets including elephant seals, albatross and sea lions.
Ross Island is located in the western Ross Sea and is a dependency of New Zealand. It is entirely volcanic and is used principally as a hub for scientists and ecologists who wish to learn more about the region. Four towering volcanoes: Mount Erebus, Mount Bird, Mount Discovery and the appropriately named Mount Terror dominate Ross Island’s landscape. Gaze up in awe at the magnificent Mount Erebus which has an incongruous permanent lava lake in its crater and is the only active volcano on the island. Learn about the early expeditions to Antarctica by the explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton at their self-constructed huts – the former at Hut Point and the latter in Cape Royds. It is also possible to visit the US research station McMurdo to discover more about the research carried out, there and from the Ross Sea you can view the staggering 30-metre-high Ross Ice Shelf.
South Georgia Island
The uninhabited and naturally beautiful South Georgia Island is another UK Overseas Territory and is situated east of the Falkland Islands. During the summer months, you will find an army of two million fur seals and half of the world’s population of elephant seals. Cruise ships arrive at Right Whale Bay in the north-western section of South Georgia where hundreds of penguins gather. The other wildlife hotspots on the island are at Gold Harbour, Prion Island and Elsehul Bay. In the southeast of the island, you will find the deep blue Drygalski Fjord, from which a spectacular glacier rises high above the water. Make sure you stop by at the South Georgia Museum which was once a whaling museum. Today you can learn here about the history of the island, through collections of its discovery, its wildlife and its maritime past. There is also a small exhibit concerning the 1982 Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina.
Best cruising experiences in Antarctica
Look out for wildlife
Despite its subpolar temperatures, the Antarctic is alive with splendid wildlife, from the penguin and albatross colonies of the Falkland Islands to the sea lions and elephant seals of South Georgia Island. Two bird species, the Cobb's Wren and the Falkland Flightless Steamer Duck, are both unique to the Falklands. Antarctica is also a particularly fantastic spot for whale watching. Prime locations for seeing humpback and minke whales include the Drake Passage crossing and Wilhelmina Bay. Along the Lemaire Channel you might also catch a glimpse of orca whales or dolphins.
Cruise the Antarctic Sound
Sailing through the hauntingly quiet Antarctic Sound – a labyrinthine body of water covered in a patchwork of thick icebergs – is an eerie but unforgettable experience for cruisers. These massive chunks of ice pepper the water after breaking off from the ice shelves which line the Weddell Sea. In this area, you will also see swathes of Adélie penguin colonies and in the southwest of the Sound, you will spot the million-year-old volcano, Brown Bluff.
Go dog sledding
In the town of Ushuaia in Argentina, dog sledding is a popular activity. Nunatak Adventure at Tierra Mayor takes adrenaline-seeking travellers on a thrilling dog sled ride through the valleys. On board a traditional sled you can go speeding through the ancient forests of Valle de Lobos seated behind a pack of adorable huskies.
Experience sea-kayaking or scuba-diving
Get to know the waters of Antarctica on a more intimate level by following experienced guides through the snow-covered landscapes on sea kayaks. There is no better way to get close to the continent’s marine wildlife and to view its stunning ice formations, than from the helm of your own kayak. Braver travellers might dare to get even closer to Antarctica’s penguins and seals by taking a plunge in the icy waters and scuba-diving to the darkened depths.
Try ice camping
For those who prefer to sleep on solid ground, ice camping is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Cruisers have the opportunity to spend the night in a tent on one of the freezing Antarctic shelves under the dazzling starlit sky. Layer up and tick off this incredible and unique activity from your Antarctic bucket list.
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