I never thought I would be standing on the edge of a ship in a penguin onesie, and willingly about to jump into sub-freezing temperature water, but there I was! “3,2,1!” the ship’s guests consisting of Silversea Explorers, Marine biologists, and Adrian the ship’s resident photojournalist all chanted as I make the polar plunge into the Antarctic Ocean. Minutes before, our bartender tried to prep us for this insane feat by serving us a few shots of whisky to warm us up and calm our nerves. Immediately after the shock to my body of jumping into an icy ocean, I swam back to the ship jumped out and ran faster than I ever have before into the hot tub where hot chocolate was served to me and the other polar plungers as we all traded stories of how insane those last 10 seconds of our lives were! This was definitely not Shackleton’s Antarctic experience, but times have changed!
Antarctica has always been a destination on most people’s bucket lists when they retire, but at first I didn’t see the draw of travelling somewhere that had nothing else to do but see huge chunks of ice and penguins for two weeks. But it is truly unlike any place on Earth. Only 100 years ago, Antarctica was exclusively for grizzled explorers, scientists, and people crazy enough to attempt to sail down there knowing that they may never make it back home for months or at all. Now we have ships with WiFi and butler service, pools and hot tubs, fine dining and wine pairing, and even a spa and gym. You can enjoy the frigid landscape from the warmth of your own bed or balcony and most of the bare-bones scientific exploration vessels of the past 30 years are now being replaced by luxury ships. Companies like Silversea Cruises have taken their Mediterranean cruise ships and retrofitted them to navigate the most treacherous waters on the planet and break through icy seas in comfort.
So if you are looking for adventure in style, Antarctica is definitely for you.
Either way you look at it, Antarctica is not a cheap or easy place to get to and most importantly you will need time to make the journey. No matter where you fly from it will be a long flight to get to the Southern-most tip of South America to the port of departure in Punta Arenas, Chile or Ushuaia Argentina. The biggest luxury for me was having the time to go since most cruises range from 12 days to 28 days round trip. It didn’t really hit me just how remote this continent was until I looked at a map. Antarctica is literally at the very bottom of the Earth and there is no escaping the multi-day crossing of the infamous Drake’s passage to get there.
We joked about how we should have downloaded a 48-hour “Drake the Rapper” soundtrack to play during the long 2-day sea crossing, but honestly Drake’s Passage is no joke. Some days it can be calm as a lake. Some days it can have 20-foot swells. Most days it’s somewhere in between, but you’ll likely spend the better part of the 48-hour journey through it stumbling through the hallways of your ship like you’re coming back from Mardi Gras at 2am.
There aren’t many places left on Earth that don’t have airports, cities, roads, infrastructure or methods of transportation to get there. Regardless of my 24-hour butler service on the Silver Cloud, I felt like I was joining the elite group of explorers that have made this rough journey before me to get there. Because crossing Drake’s passage as a World traveler is more like a “rite of passage”
Once I came out on the other side, it was like I just fell down the rabbit hole in “Alice in Wonderland” and entered an alternate dimension. Huge chunks of ice just floated by my balcony like clouds of all different sizes, all changing shape as the light hit them. At first I thought I was seeing what looked like hundreds of flying fish off the deck before I realized that they were actually hundreds of penguins surfing and jumping alongside the ship! Pods of whales were appearing as the water turned into the most perfectly clear liquid I have ever seen. Since the circumpolar current around the Antarctic Ocean is like a whirlpool around the continent, it pushes all water away from land, which means nothing can ever wash ashore there and you will never find a spec of trash or any sediment in the water. You can literally look down from your balcony onto neon blue ice and see hundreds of feet down!
Setting foot on this last continent, a place untouched by humanity, is such a surreal experience in itself. It is an incredible feat to reach the earth’s last great wilderness frontier and when you do you feel like you should be getting a stamp in your passport that takes up an entire page, but you won’t. What is crazy about this land is that it is not a country. It is not inhabited by humans or owned by any government. It is truly an untouched land only ruled by Mother Nature and it is constantly shifting, changing, melting and the weather is just as unpredictable. One moment it can be warm and sunny and the next the ocean can be refreezing over in a powerful, yet beautiful blizzard that churns up the waves. To add to the surrealism, you will cross time zones 3 times faster than anywhere else on Earth and the sun will set at 11:30pm and rise again at 3:30am, so you instantly lose track of the time, date, and where you are in the world.
I never expected Antarctica to be so mountainous. I thought we would just be seeing flat sheets of ice over the ocean, but instead the mountains along the peninsula and the islands that surround it are breathtaking white peaks, like someone dropped the Andes in the middle of the ocean. The scenery is like nothing else, and even simply taking a Zodiac ride around the water is one of the most magical experiences in the world.
What was the most surprising fact about Antarctica was how vibrant the colors are there. I just figured everything would be black and white between the thousands of penguins and icy terrain there, but in fact the colors of the icebergs and water are neon blues and greens of all shades. When the weather is overcast, it feels like you are walking through a black and white silent movie, only your red parka giving away the truth. However, if the sun comes out, it’s far more intense than it is up north and makes the sky and water and icebergs a brilliant, intense blue and the contrasting snow a blinding white. The shapes of the icebergs are so unique and majestic, that we found ourselves playing games from the deck of our ship just having cocktails and coming up with what we thought each iceberg looked like; the state of Virginia, a dragon, and old man’s face etc. You literally cannot take a bad photo even from an iphone there. Everywhere you look at all times of day is just spectacular.
Because Mother Nature is so unpredictable in Antarctica, you will find that your ship is constantly moving around to locate wildlife and find a calm bay to make landfall. Conditions can change rapidly, but that is why there is a captain and team of scientists, geologists, wildlife and weather experts that are there working around the clock to help you have the most enjoyable experience.
As part of IAATO’s efforts to preserve the land and animals of Antarctica, guides mark very specific trails you must stay on when you land. This is done for a number of reasons, among them so you don’t leave deep footprints that unwitting penguins fall into or disturb the natural habitats of the birds and seals. You’ll have plenty of space to hike around, but you will be with your shipmates and scientists the entire time and only limited to 2 hour windows at a time to explore. Laws limit each landfall to only 100 people at a time, similarly to the Galapagos islands, so you will rarely ever see another ship or will cross paths with other people that are not part of your trip.
Similarly to the Galapagos, Antarctica is the only other place on Earth I have been where the animals are not afraid of you. You will see large colonies of penguins that will frequently waddle right up to you and come check you out. Because they rarely see humans, they don’t fear us and they will slide right up to you just as curious about you as you are about them. The general rule is to stay 15 feet away at all time, but if a penguin lets you sit right next to them you can take a close up photo and hang out if you want. You will find yourself penguin and elephant seal obsessed and you will most likely come home with thousands of photos of every penguin you come across. They are just too adorable for words.
Relaxation and Luxurious pampering:
When I first thought about going to Antarctica the word “luxury” never crossed my mind. It always seemed like it would be a place where I lost fingers and toes to frostbite or had to be so bundled up like a mummy to be able to step foot outside. I just thought it would be a rugged experience like the explorer days of old and I would be eating fish for every meal. Instead, I found myself experiencing the most luxurious cruise I have ever been on aboard Silversea's newly refurbished Silver Cloud.
Aboard the Silver Cloud, we had 24 hour butler service where everyone knows your name and even guesses what you want before you have even though of it and a choice of 4 fine dining restaurants. My daily routine involved going to the gym, the spa, our 4pm hot tub dip where cappuccinos were delivered to us, land excursions and photo taking from zodiac boats, lectures in the theatre by the resident explorers and experts, and reading and playing board games in the library after dinner. There were times that the weather was sunny and warm enough to read books in your robes outside on deck, or on that same deck an hour later you could find yourself building snowmen or having a snowball fight! Believe it or not, there is a photo studio with computers and wifi on the ship, so even though you are “connected” for the most part you will find yourself spending a LOT of hours at sea. So choosing the right ship for you with all of the comfort and amenities is important. One of my favorite experiences of traveling to Antarctica was the eccentric and amazing people that I encountered on the ship and would have dinner with every night. Between the explorers, world travelers, scientists, and wildlife enthusiasts, you will never have a dull dinner conversation and everyone I met was so unique and interesting and were just SO happy to be there and to learn and experience everything they could.
Getting that Instafamous Shot:
If impressing your friends or getting that “insta-famous” shot is a priority for your travels, then you can’t go wrong in Antarctica. There are not that many places in the World that you can take penguin selfies while wearing penguin onesies, show off your stylish bathing suit while polar-plunging into the sub-freezing Antarctic Ocean, have a snowball fight on the deck of a luxury ship, have high tea in the most southernmost teahouse in the world in the Falkland Islands, have cocktails or cook your own seafood dinner in parkas outside while neon blue icebergs are floating by, or have scientists and professional photographers helping you to capture the most epic photographs of your life and even printing them out for you in museum quality in the ship’s photo studio.
The word EPIC actually applies to anything that happens in Antarctica, so when people now ask me where my favorite place I have ever gone to is, I say Antarctica without hesitation. It is a hidden treasure on this planet; just expensive enough and challenging enough to travel to so it remains exclusive and pristine, yet not inaccessible. But most importantly it is a place of intense, untouched, natural beauty unlike anywhere else on Earth; teeming with wildlife where you will never see anything the same twice and you will always come back with a gallery of images that rivals any National Geographic magazine.