Tell people you’re heading to Antarctica, and you’re bound to hear a collective sigh. This vast, untouched wilderness inspires serious travel envy for good reason.
Perhaps it’s the Sir David Attenborough-like scenes of penguins, whales and seals; the miles and miles of ice sheets, several metres thick; or the surreal blue icebergs adrift in icy seas.
Here’s what to expect – and why you’ll want to ditch a beachy getaway to tick this spectacular destination off your travel list this summer.
You’ll leave from the end of the world
Dubbed ‘el fin del mundo’, Argentina’s port city of Ushaia has all the post-apocalyptic feels of the world’s southernmost city – a huddle of houses almost eclipsed by snow-scratched mountains at the edge of the Beagle Channel. Between here and Antarctica there is nothing but sea. It might seem counter-intuitive to fly to South America when Antarctica is literally on Tasmania’s back door. Yet, Argentina remains one of the fastest and least expensive ways to tick off the seventh continent.
You’ll cross the world’s roughest seas
Seasoned travellers talk about Drake Lake or Drake Shake, the two extremes of crossing the notoriously choppy Drake Passage that bookends any cruise to Antarctica. It can seem daunting, yet small expedition ships like Ponant are equipped with Rolls Royce stabilisers to take the brunt of the roiling, rolling seas. The seven-metre seas we had to Antarctica were far less dramatic than my medicine cabinet would suggest. On the return, it was Drake Lake all the way.
You’ll never tire of icebergs, glaciers and snow … oh my!
Some people tick off a polar dip on their trip to Antarctica, but Ponant’s newest activity gives passengers the chance to sea kayak among icebergs deep in the heart of the Antarctic. The Lamaire Channel is the setting for our paddle, a stunning iceberg graveyard in the far south back-dropped by massive snow-covered mountains. The sea is calm and the sky a brilliant blue. We spot seals, penguins and polar birds; paddle in and around luminous blue icebergs as well as a rare emerald green bergy bit.
You’ll feel like you’re in a nature documentary
There is no shortage of wildlife sightings in Antarctica – from breaching whales and penguins to sleek crabeater seals adrift on icebergs. I marvel at the rare sighting of an endangered blue whale and see a solitary yellow-banded Emperor Penguin afloat on a tabular iceberg. We’re thrilled when a humpback whale and her calf dash back and forth beneath the ship and spot a pod of battle-worn orcas feeding.
Zodiac outings are just as exciting, with pretty fur seals and curious Gentoo penguins, bulbous-nosed elephant seals and playful Chinstrap penguins. Just like an Attenborough documentary, survival is fought up-close – juvenile penguins, still as statues, waiting to shed all their baby fur; a circle of adult penguins fighting off an aggressive, predatory Skua bird; and a leopard seal at the shoreline stalking an unsuspecting juvenile Gentoo penguin.
Once you cruise Ponant, you’ll never look back
There are plenty of cruise ships to Antarctica, but Ponant earns points for its faultless service and impeccable French style. Luxury abounds, from the elegant Champagne interiors and fine French food and wine (fresh-baked baguettes, croissants and cheese table, yes!) to the blissful spa, hammam and gym, with its panoramic views through floor to ceiling glass. Along with daily zodiac outings, there are dance and exercise classes, evening cabaret shows and enrichment talks from the naturalists on everything from whales to icebergs. My only question – how can I get Captain Charbel Daher’s morning “Mesdames et messieurs, this is your Captain speaking” as my wake up call in real life?
Ponant Antarctica itineraries run November to February each year, with the next 10-day/11-night Emblematic Antarctica cruise onboard the 268-passenger Le Soléal departing Ushaia November 24, 2019. Bonus deals apply to early bookings. Look out for the single supplement waiver available on some Ponant cruises (all the thrills without having to share a cabin or fork out extra to travel solo). Ponant’s new sea kayak is at an additional cost. 1300 737 178, au.ponant.com
Belinda Luksic travelled as a guest of Ponant.