Crossing the world's roughest seas to reach the coldest, quietest place on Earth: What it's REALLY like to be a tourist in Antarctica 

  • Tourism to Antarctica, while expensive, is growing rapidly offering an otherworldly trip that should top bucket lists 
  • After a flight to Buenos Aires, MailOnline Travel took a 12-day voyage from Ushuaia to Drake's Passage and beyond
  • Of late, there has been a growing army of under-30s headed to the South Pole keen to see its wildlife and icebergs

Antarctica: the coldest, quietest and arguably the most magical place left on earth is a once in a lifetime travel destination for certain, but getting there is no smooth ride.

The ride in question? Three days aboard a 100-strong passenger ship, bobbing (seasick) like a cork amid ten-metre high waves and crashing winter storms in temperatures that can freeze your eyelashes solid.

So is it worth it? It hasn’t been a tourist destination for long, it’s not cheap, and it’s not for the faint-hearted - but take it from a traveller who has just returned: this is a destination worthy of a place at the very top of your bucket list.

Antarctica: The coldest, quietest and arguably most magical place left on earth - a once in a lifetime travel destination for certain, but getting there is no smooth ride

Antarctica: The coldest, quietest and arguably most magical place left on earth - a once in a lifetime travel destination for certain, but getting there is no smooth ride

Annabel Fenwick Elliott embarked on a 12-day voyage around the Antarctic peninsula
... much of it spent peeking out at icebergs from the ship's portholes

And we're off: Annabel Fenwick Elliott (left) embarked on a 12-day voyage around the Antarctic peninsula, much of it spent peeking out at icebergs from the ship's portholes (right)

The planning stage for any trip is important, but none more so than with Antarctica.

Do you want a luxurious ship? Do you want an adventurous itinerary? Do you want to trek up snowy peaks with a bunch of 20-something foreigners, or do you want to float past the towering icebergs from the comfort of your jacuzzi?

I went for somewhere in the middle - organised by Abercrombie & Kent and courtesy of Polar Latitudes - which operates a sturdy five-deck icebreaker ship carrying 200 passengers named the Sea Explorer, and while it provided above-average levels of comfort, it was decidedly an expedition and not a cruise.

I shared a cabin with a charming Argentinian mother.

The 12-day voyage around the Antarctic peninsula cost £6,825 for a 14-day trip to Antarctica via Argentina, including international and internal flights.

My journey, as per the flights package, started in London, hopped over to Amsterdam, then to Buenos Aires, landing finally in Ushuaia - the southern most city in the whole world, clinging to the tip of Argentina.

It didn’t really begin, of course, until I embarked the Sea Explorer, greeted Titanic-style by rows of grinning staff brandishing champagne, and was ushered into the ship’s belly, the ‘lounge’, where I would spend much of my time.

The journey there is three days aboard a 100-strong passenger ship, bobbing like a cork amid ten-metre high waves and crashing winter storms in temperatures that can freeze your eyelashes solid

The journey there is three days aboard a 100-strong passenger ship, bobbing like a cork amid ten-metre high waves and crashing winter storms in temperatures that can freeze your eyelashes solid

First landing: It hasn’t been a tourist destination for long, it’s not cheap, and it’s not for the faint-hearted - but take it from a traveller who has just returned, this is a destination worthy of a place at the very top of your bucket list

First landing: It hasn’t been a tourist destination for long, it’s not cheap, and it’s not for the faint-hearted - but take it from a traveller who has just returned, this is a destination worthy of a place at the very top of your bucket list

Windows to the soul: Getting this close up to sleek, felt-like seals is a daily occurrence at this time of year around the South Pole

Windows to the soul: Getting this close up to sleek, felt-like seals is a daily occurrence at this time of year around the South Pole

Vessel: A penguin marches past, and in the background, the Sea Explorer - a sturdy five-deck icebreaker ship carrying 100 passengers which provided above-average levels of comfort, but was decidedly an expedition and not a cruise 

Vessel: A penguin marches past, and in the background, the Sea Explorer - a sturdy five-deck icebreaker ship carrying 100 passengers which provided above-average levels of comfort, but was decidedly an expedition and not a cruise 

I was travelling alone, fully aware that 80 percent of the voyage would be experienced onboard the ship, and therefore had a fully loaded Kindle and no expectations of much social interaction.

All this was dashed within the first half an hour, when the lounge full of passengers - as humans always do - sorted themselves swiftly into inseparable friendship gaggles.

The average passenger aboard any cruise, including Antarctic ones, is over 50; but interestingly of late, there has emerged a growing army of under-30s headed to the South Pole, and I was one of them.

Needless to say that over the course of the trip, our crew of nine ate every raucous meal together, were inseparable during trips to shore, and spent more than a healthy proportion of time at the bar.

Snow clan: The average passenger aboard any cruise, including Antarctic ones, is over 50; but interestingly of late, there has emerged a growing army of under 30s headed to the South Pole, and Annabel (back right) was one of them

Snow clan: The average passenger aboard any cruise, including Antarctic ones, is over 50; but interestingly of late, there has emerged a growing army of under 30s headed to the South Pole, and Annabel (back right) was one of them

A chunk of Antarctic ice swimming in shot of whiskey
Annabel admires the view

Below zero: Needless to say that over the course of the trip, the crew were inseparable during trips to shore, and spent more than a healthy proportion of time at the bar. Pictured (left) a chunk of Antarctic ice swimming in shot of whiskey and (right) Annabel admires the view

Shuttle: Every day, the Sea Explorer (left) drops its anchor and groups of passengers are ferried to shore in small rubber zodiac boats (right)

Shuttle: Every day, the Sea Explorer (left) drops its anchor and groups of passengers are ferried to shore in small rubber zodiac boats (right)

Vista: These inflatables carry 10-15 passengers and are small enough to navigate around the most mind-blowing of ice forms 

Vista: These inflatables carry 10-15 passengers and are small enough to navigate around the most mind-blowing of ice forms 

Hush: Once the shore is reached, 'calm', 'magical' and 'quiet' are adjectives that can't even begin to do this place justice 

Hush: Once the shore is reached, 'calm', 'magical' and 'quiet' are adjectives that can't even begin to do this place justice 

To get the South Pole, you have to cross the Drake Passage, notorious as being the most tempestuous oceanic corridor in the world 

To get the South Pole, you have to cross the Drake Passage, notorious as being the most tempestuous oceanic corridor in the world. This takes three days both there and back.

The ship is designed for this, of course, with every chair, bed and table chained to the floor so as not to be thrown against the wall each time the ship is tossed to a 90-degree angle.

I was chucked from my bed more than once in the middle of the night, after which I clambered from the floor and peeked out of my porthole to see rumbling waves the height of tall buildings leaning towards the ship at every turn.

During these ominous days, most of the ship - passengers and crew - were bed-bound from sea sickness, knocked out from the anti-nausea medication. There was an excellent doctor on board to assist.

I am fortunate enough not to suffer from it at all, so I spent these days bouncing giddily alone through the zero-gravity corridors like an astronaut, and marvelling at the giant albatrosses which followed our ship the whole way.

Eye of the storm: During the ominous days as they crossed the Drake Passage (pictured), most of the ship - passengers and crew - were bed-bound from sea sickness, knocked out from the anti-nausea medication

Eye of the storm: During the ominous days as they crossed the Drake Passage (pictured), most of the ship - passengers and crew - were bed-bound from sea sickness, knocked out from the anti-nausea medication

Slant: Annabel was fortunate enough not to have suffered from sea sickness at all, so spent these days bouncing giddily alone through the zero-gravity corridors (pictured) like an astronaut

Slant: Annabel was fortunate enough not to have suffered from sea sickness at all, so spent these days bouncing giddily alone through the zero-gravity corridors (pictured) like an astronaut

As if by magic: Gradually, the thick clouds rolled away and electric blue ice sculptures appeared on the horizon 

As if by magic: Gradually, the thick clouds rolled away and electric blue ice sculptures appeared on the horizon 

Worth waiting for: All of a sudden, the sea was as calm as a lake, and the Sea Explorer emerged from the chaos and slid into a wonder world

Worth waiting for: All of a sudden, the sea was as calm as a lake, and the Sea Explorer emerged from the chaos and slid into a wonder world

Little did we know it, but a new world - Disney-like - was about to unfold before our eyes. 

All of a sudden, the sea was as calm as a lake, and passengers emerged from their cabins rubbing their eyes and gawping at the spectacle that surrounded us.

Nothing can quite prepare you for this.

Icebergs gliding past at every turn; jagged sculptures which have stood defiantly for thousands of years, looming over the ship and glittering under a sun which, in the Antarctic summer, never sets.

Penguin colonies flop about on chunky glaciers to your left, humpback whales perform back flips to your right.

The ship is always moving somewhere new, its route diverted on an hourly basis by the ever-shifting ice and the sudden howling storms.

Wasteland: Icebergs puncture the rolling landscape like jagged sculptures which have stood defiantly for thousands of years

Wasteland: Icebergs puncture the rolling landscape like jagged sculptures which have stood defiantly for thousands of years

Otherworldly: Penguin colonies flopped about on chunky glaciers, oblivious to our gawping faces as we thundered past them 

Otherworldly: Penguin colonies flopped about on chunky glaciers, oblivious to our gawping faces as we thundered past them 

Scale: Chalky icebergs the size of skyscrapers loom over the ship, glittering under a sun which, in the Antarctic summer, never sets

Scale: Chalky icebergs the size of skyscrapers loom over the ship, glittering under a sun which, in the Antarctic summer, never sets

The mission continues: Nowhere else in the world can you look out of the window and see this, as you quietly pass on by 

The mission continues: Nowhere else in the world can you look out of the window and see this, as you quietly pass on by 

Barriers of ice: The ship is always moving somewhere new, its route diverted on an hourly basis by the ever-shifting ice and the sudden howling storms

Barriers of ice: The ship is always moving somewhere new, its route diverted on an hourly basis by the ever-shifting ice and the sudden howling storms

Approximately twice a day, weather permitting, passengers are unloaded in shifts onto a fleet of inflatable boats and zoomed to shore where they are permitted to spread out and roam freely.

Penguins, having no natural land predators and thus no fear of humans, wandered nonchalantly across our path.

One of my most memorable moments came during one of these landings when I drifted off on my own, lay down behind a wall of snow and closed my eyes for half an hour. I opened them again to see a lone penguin, standing less than a foot away, staring at me quizzically.

Other landings brought pods of wedell and leopard seals, rolling around and barking, and flocks of squabbling birds. Some trips to shore consisted of nothing but sweeping, isolated landscapes and vast crevices.

Almost always left to our own devices but still under the watchful eyes of the expedition staff, we regularly had the chance to scale steep snowy peaks, or to investigate the ruins of old whaling stations and the skeletons of ship wrecks.

Sweeping views: Approximately twice a day, weather permitting, passengers are zoomed to shore where they are permitted to spread out and roam freely

Sweeping views: Approximately twice a day, weather permitting, passengers are zoomed to shore where they are permitted to spread out and roam freely

Ancient ruins: Almost always left to their own devices but still under the watchful eyes of the expedition staff, passengers regularly had the chance to investigate the ruins of old whaling stations and the skeletons of ship wrecks

Ancient ruins: Almost always left to their own devices but still under the watchful eyes of the expedition staff, passengers regularly had the chance to investigate the ruins of old whaling stations and the skeletons of ship wrecks

Uphill battle: Penguins, having no natural land predators and thus no fear of humans, wandered nonchalantly across their paths

Uphill battle: Penguins, having no natural land predators and thus no fear of humans, wandered nonchalantly across their paths

Swoop: Birds aren't particularly fearful of human visitors either, as this one proves while diving to steal a penguin egg just yards away

Swoop: Birds aren't particularly fearful of human visitors either, as this one proves while diving to steal a penguin egg just yards away

In Vogue: Other landings brought pods of weddell seals, rolling around and posing for the camera as if they were born to do so

In Vogue: Other landings brought pods of weddell seals, rolling around and posing for the camera as if they were born to do so

To my immense relief, it never once felt like we were being marched around in the manner of tourists.

To my immense relief, it never once felt like we were being marched around in the manner of tourists 

Back aboard the Sea Explorer, we piled into the lounge and enjoyed daily lectures from spirited experts in penguins, whales and glaciers.

One evening, the talk was led by the enchanting Sunniva Sorby, a member of the first female team to reach to the South Pole on foot, back in 1993.

And on our last day before heading back over the Drake Passage? 

A challenge posed every season to every Antarctic tourist, I’m told: the Polar Plunge - in which you take off (almost) all of your clothes and leap into the freezing ocean.

Our leap-off point was Whaler’s Bay, a steaming, black-sanded geothermic beach on a small land-mass named Deception Island.

I was surprised and heartened to witness almost everyone, regardless of age, peel off their ski-wear and launch themselves into the silvery deep - it only counts if you put your head under - before crashing back to shore squealing with delight.

The polar plunge: A challenge posed every season to every Antarctic tourist in which you take off (almost) all of your clothes and leap into the freezing ocean

The polar plunge: A challenge posed every season to every Antarctic tourist in which you take off (almost) all of your clothes and leap into the freezing ocean

Anchor: The leap-off point was Whaler’s Bay, a steaming, black-sanded geothermic beach on a small land-mass named Deception Island

Anchor: The leap-off point was Whaler’s Bay, a steaming, black-sanded geothermic beach on a small land-mass named Deception Island

Photo call: Dutifully, the passengers peeled off their ski-wear and launched themselves into the silvery deep - it only counts if you put your head under - before crashing back to shore, squealing with delight before posing for a celebratory snap

Photo call: Dutifully, the passengers peeled off their ski-wear and launched themselves into the silvery deep - it only counts if you put your head under - before crashing back to shore, squealing with delight before posing for a celebratory snap

EN ROUTE: MAKING THE MOST OF BUENOS AIRES

Before you even make it to the ship in Ushuaia, you’ll have many flights to get there, and from wherever you are coming, Buenos Aires will likely be your halfway point.

Rather than mope around the airport in a jet-lagged state of exhaustion, my travel agent suggested I spent a few days there and explore.

Good thing I did. 

My home was the Four Seasons, and my city tour guide was Lily, a rambunctious and highly-patriotic city-dweller who steered me through the vibrant district of La Boca - home to colourful houses and Tango street dancers - with much enthusiasm.

It's worth a stop-in at Cafe Tortoni, the oldest cafe in Argentina, and a wander past the President's 'Pink House' residence, La Casa Rosada, just to say you've seen it.

We culminated our walkabout at the spellbinding La Recoleta Cemetery. Do not leave Buenos Aires without seeing this. Plenty flock to see Evita’s tomb, but around it sits a whole maze of fascinating graves to behold.

Other activities offered by Abercrombie & Kent include culinary tours, and a half-day at the Estancia ranch for polo lessons.

Culture shock: The vibrant district of La Boca, home of colourful houses and Tango street dancers
Cafe Tortoni  the oldest cafe in Argentina

Culture shock: The vibrant district of La Boca, home to colourful houses and Tango street dancers (left) and Cafe Tortoni (right), the oldest cafe in Argentina

Four walls: To lay your head, it doesn't get more iconic than the Four Seasons
It's worth wandering past the President's 'Pink House' residence, La Casa Rosada

Four walls: To lay your head, it doesn't get more iconic than the Four Seasons (left), and to say you've done it, it's worth wandering past the President's 'Pink House' residence, La Casa Rosada (right)

Do not leave Buenos Aires without seeing the spellbinding La Recoleta Cemetery
Do not leave Buenos Aires without seeing the spellbinding La Recoleta Cemetery

Eerie beauty: Do not leave Buenos Aires without seeing the spellbinding La Recoleta Cemetery (left and right) - plenty flock to see Evita’s tomb, but around it sits a whole maze of fascinating graves to behold

A cold farewell: Hearts were heavy as they witnessed the last of the towering icebergs before their ship turned homeward

A cold farewell: Hearts were heavy as they witnessed the last of the towering icebergs before their ship turned homeward

Our crossing home was much the same as our journey there, except that everyone’s hearts were heavy. I’ve never been so sad to part with new friends, or to know that in all likelihood I will never get to visit a place so other-worldly again.

Antarctica has much which makes it special.

It’s the most uninhabited, ice swamped place on earth. It’s also the only destination in the world reserved, under an international treaty, solely for science and exploration. The only place that has never seen a war, or been invaded.

On the other hand, it’s one of the most expensive locations you can visit as a tourist, certainly the coldest, and perhaps the hardest to reach.

But if you can possibly find a way to swing it, Antarctica will, and I promise you this, go down in history as the most magical holiday you’ve ever taken.

I can’t think of a single other place in the world of which you could say the same thing.

Another planet: Clearly, Antarctica has much which makes it special and a destination that should top any bucket list

Another planet: Clearly, Antarctica has much which makes it special and a destination that should top any bucket list

 Shades of Grey: The mountains are crisp, the snow pure, and the thick silver sea moves like mercury 

 Shades of Grey: The mountains are crisp, the snow pure, and the thick silver sea moves like mercury 

Conflict-free: Antarctica is the most uninhabited, ice swamped place on earth - and also the only destination in the world reserved, under an international treaty, solely for science and exploration

Conflict-free: Antarctica is the most uninhabited, ice swamped place on earth - and also the only destination in the world reserved, under an international treaty, solely for science and exploration

Final frontier: On the other hand, it’s one of the most expensive locations you can visit as a tourist, certainly the coldest, and perhaps the hardest to reach

Final frontier: On the other hand, it’s one of the most expensive locations you can visit as a tourist, certainly the coldest, and perhaps the hardest to reach

March of the penguins: But if you can possibly find a way to swing it, Antarctica will go down in history as the most magical holiday you’ve ever taken

March of the penguins: But if you can possibly find a way to swing it, Antarctica will go down in history as the most magical holiday you’ve ever taken

TRAVEL FACTS

Abercrombie & Kent's 12 day voyage was operated by Polar Latitudes. 

A 14-day trip to Antarctica via Argentina, including international and internal flights cost £ 6,825

Cruises from 10-20 nights start from £3,500 and run up to £40,000. 

 

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