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Antarctica: Is It Really Worth It?

The mythical Seventh Continent is over 4,500 miles away from the nearest landmass, averages -30 degrees Celsius and has no beaches or hotels. Is the Great White Continent really worth your time, effort and expense? Ally Wybrew finds out.  

AW: To say getting to the South Pole from the UK is a mission is an understatement. From London, it took five entire days (including a stop over in Buenos Aires) before I stepped foot on the Antarctic Peninsula. Jet lag and motion sickness combined to make it the longest, most discombobulating journey I’ve ever taken. But my hosts did everything they could to make it as smooth as possible.


Ally Wybrew in Antarctica

Ally Wybrew in Antarctica

I chose to travel with Norwegian cruise specialists Hurtigruten because, with three hybrid-powered ships in the fleet, they’re one of the ‘cleaner’ options. As a provider of expedition cruises rather than luxury-focused cruises, I was promised education over entertainment – as well as daily landings on the White Continent, something not available to ships carrying more than 500 people.

But ‘expedition’ doesn’t translate as ‘austere’: Hurtigruten’s newest vessel, the MS Fridtjof Nansen, not only has generously-sized rooms with solid amenities (even the smallest cabins come with underfloor heating in the bathroom) but also a comprehensive spa, gym and deck pool. So, once the wooziness passed, I was all set for success.  

Even with all that, is Antarctica worth it? Without a doubt. There’s a reason it’s one of Citizen Femme’s places to visit in 2023. Here are seven reasons why.

You’ll Have Encounters Unique To You

One of the most magical things about Antarctica is that it’s constantly in flux. From one minute to the next, it’s ever-changing. Icebergs calve, flip and melt, snow sheets crumble and marine life migrates in and around the expansive landmass. For visitors, it means that how they see it is entirely unique. That lake-calm, ice-clad bay, those playful penguins and that pod of curious dolphins will never look alike to anyone else. It’s the definition of a bespoke trip. What’s more, the radically changeable weather means that even with the best intentions, the itinerary will change, and the crew are prepared to enact plans B, C, D and E at the drop of a hat. On board the Nansen, the expedition team told passengers how there is no ‘bad weather’ in Antarctica, only ‘better weather’, ‘good weather’ and ‘amazing weather’. It’s their light-hearted way to set guests’ expectations: plans will change, but that just makes the experience even more unique. 

And See Things You’ll Never Forget (Penguins And Whales Included)

Perhaps it’s your first whiff of penguin guano, seeing the vast expanse of the Antarctic ocean or maybe even playing ‘hide and seek’ with a humpback whale. Whatever it is, the South Pole will deliver unforgettable moments in spades. I’ll never forget the sight of a leopard seal lounging on a growler, surrounded by murky red liquid that was the aftermath of a meal well ingested, or the incredible cacophony of a 30-metre iceberg calving, shedding a portion of itself straight into the sea before dramatically flipping over. Maximising opportunities to experience these moments is easier with an expedition cruise, as they often offer Citizen Science Project excursions. My sailing included an outing on their Humpback Whale science boat, which allowed guests to accompany professionals and help spot whales, taking GPS readings and recording details about the animals. As well as seeing the marine behemoths spout water, I caught sight of a fluke as they dove deep, and even a breach, when they throw their bodies out of the water and smash back down to the surface with a thwack.

You’ll Be One Of Few People To Experience The Region

The number of tourists to Antarctica may be increasing – in the 1960s it was mere hundreds while 2023 expects to see closer to 100,000 – but as tourism goes, the numbers are still tiny. France, for example, sees over 90 million people visiting a year, with Paris alone clocking up over 44 million in 2022. And while being out there in the snowy whiteness isn’t a completely isolated experience (you have a few hundred other shipmates after all, and you’ll likely sight other vessels during your excursion) it’s a vastly different beast from the bustling crowds of the Champs-Élysées, or the cramped sands of Playa de la Malagueta. Plus, due to its remoteness, Antarctica is a destination where, although you might be in the presence of other people, you can still experience a shinrin-yoku-like sense of peace. The Japanese art of forest bathing (where you immerse your senses in nature) has taken off so successfully around the world, in part because its scientific benefits are well documented. Standing in seven inches of crunchy snow, gazing out at crumbling icebergs and the tumultuous iron-tinted ocean, is an immersion few can dream of, and even fewer can say they’ve had the pleasure to experience.  

You'll Get Serious Bragging Rights

Not only will you be one of few to visit, it’s also common knowledge that Antarctica isn’t somewhere you can just ‘hop over to’, so it’s got travel kudos simply for its remoteness. Additionally, it’s also on many travellers’ bucket lists for being the seventh continent and comparatively few people have made it here, so having been gives you bragging rights for life. What’s more, you’ll have survived it. While the expedition ships are sturdy, safe and supremely comfortable, you do have to cross Drake’s Passage, and after arriving, it’s pretty darn cold even in the summer (two degrees celsius are the average highs). If you want to really cement that kudos, take the ‘Polar Plunge’, which involves stripping down to your bathers and submerging yourself in 2.5 degree water. Our location for the plunge was Deception Island, a live volcano whose caldera can be sailed into and passengers deposited on its ashy slopes for the dip. Chilly, but worth it.

There's A Diverse Passenger Mix

This is true of expedition ships, where an underlying interest in climate, wildlife or natural science unites people from all over the world. Expedition cruises hold fewer passengers and sail on smaller ships, taking travellers into the nooks and crannies of Antarctica where bigger cruise ships can’t venture. What’s more, there can’t be more than 500 passengers on board if you want to get off the ship and onto land, which is a key experience for most intrepid travellers. Heading somewhere as remote as the seventh continent is a uniting experience, and getting to know the other passengers can be a real joy. On my sailing, there were 31 different nationalities among the passengers so the mix of perspectives, histories and motivations fed into fantastic shared experiences. I met a 50-something man named Keith, who had taken Tom – a 20-something Japanese man – under his wing. The two were conversing through Google Translate as Tom couldn’t speak English; watching their evolving friendship throughout the trip was a real treat.

You’ll Return Enlightened

An expedition cruise is not like a luxury cruise. Rather than movies, music and Broadway shows, days are filled with lectures, workshops and ‘tiny talks’, where scientists from around the world share their knowledge of Antarctica, its inhabitants and its history. You’ll learn great pub-quiz fodder, like: the fact that icebergs smaller than 15 metres across are called ‘Bergy bits’; the biggest ‘berg ever recorded was the size of Jamaica; and that there’s a German research station that will need to be rebuilt within the next 20 years as the ice it’s situated on is about to melt away. These events will likely spark more questions than you had to start with, but with a crew-to-passenger ratio of nearly two to one, there’s always someone there to answer them.

You Can Travel In Luxury (Even On An Expedition Cruise)

Don’t let the fact that an expedition cruise isn’t classed as ‘luxury’ put you off – you’re not sacrificing much by way of creature comforts. When booking, look up which ship the sailing is going on, check what amenities it has and how recently it was built. On the Nansen, a comprehensive spa offered an array of indulgent treatments, an outdoor heated pool and two (rarely busy) jacuzzis on the top deck – as well as a generously-sized sauna that should win awards for its views. So if you’re keen to experience the world’s most remote location but cautious about the comforts, don’t be. You can have your ice-filled cake and eat it too. 

Wherever you fall on the ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ Antarctic spectrum, rest assured that it’s even more spectacular than you think, you will make memories to last a lifetime, learn about the world, and perhaps even pick up a friend or two on the way.

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