There are no bears in Antarctica, but I find it useful to think of planning a trip to the seventh continent in Goldilocks’ terms; her three bears in particular.
You see, you don’t want your trip to this most isolated and extreme part of the world to be too luxurious. Luxury has a tendency to form a sort of bubble around you, imbuing the world with a glow that’s not entirely its own. That can be fine for Tokyo and Paris. For Antarctica, not so much.
That said, you want to be comfortable. Beyond comfortable, you want to feel at home, or as at home as you can be on the high seas — and they don’t get much higher than the Drake Passage (but more about that later) — so that your focus is entirely on what’s going on around you, this unmatchable experience, this place you never thought you’d get to see in real life. In other words, you want a ship that’s just right.
You’ll want a gym — these trips can last a while — and a sauna to defrost in after your landings on the world’s largest ice shelf whose warmest days are like Vancouver’s coldest. You’ll want cabins that have plenty of room for your stuff, but not so large that you feel you need to spend precious time luxuriating in them.
Needless to say, picking your ship is the most important choice you’re going to make. Here’s what you’re going to want to keep in mind:
1. You’re going to need a bigger boat.
Small ones will sell you on their boutique qualities, but do you want to sail in a boutique across the heaviest waters on earth? You do not. The Drake Passage, that bit of water between the tip of Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula, doesn’t have to be harrowing, but it can be if you’re not on the right ship. Look for one with some heft: 10,000 tonnes or more.
2. Size isn’t everything.
Be sure to ask about lateral stabilization. That’s the miracle of modern engineering — essentially, underwater fins controlled by gyroscopes to compensate for high winds and big waves — to help ensure your stomach doesn’t rise when the seas do.
3. High tides lift all boats.
Sea voyages to the Antarctic are called expeditions and not cruises for a reason. You won’t find casinos and floor shows on these ships. But you still want a degree of comfort, and one of the best ways to ensure that, sight unseen, is to check whether there are real suites available. If there are, whether you’re one of the ones paying the big bucks for them or not, it pretty much guarantees that the service level on-board is going to rise to the level someone who is paying that much would expect.
4. Sometimes, you just want to be you.
Travelling to the bottom of the world can be a meditative experience as you come face to face with a trip’s worth of the most awesome sights you’re ever likely to see, and you may want to take all that in solo. Most expeditions — like most cruises and package tours everywhere — charge what the industry politely calls a single supplement but which is more rightly described as a penalty for being on your own. Do a search for the phrase “no single supplement,” and if you find one, grab it. Like the blue whale, they’re there, but they’re rare.
5. Defrost setting.
Antarctica is many things — awe-inspiring, vast, home to billions of creatures, the only place you’re ever likely to see a seal with fangs — but mostly, it’s just really, really cold. And you’ll be out in it nearly every day. When you get back on-board, you’ll want to wring that chill right out of you. Some ships will offer hot chocolate, or even various forms of grog, which are both great. But you’ll really want a sauna. A jacuzzi might be nice too, but seriously, hold out for the sauna (ideally one with a view).
Do your searches, read the websites, and score the ships that look good out of five. You’ll enjoy a three or a four, but a five will pretty much guarantee that your trip of a lifetime will be a trip of a lifetime for all the right reasons.
Enjoy your travels!
From the GLP team