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What It’s Really Like to Visit Antarctica

It’s as breathtaking as you think, but there are definitely a few things you need to know before trekking to the most remote place on Earth.

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antarcticaCourtesy Judy Koutsky

Adventure awaits!

Antarctica is a bucket-list destination for many travelers. In fact, reaching the “white continent,” as it’s known, is a major accomplishment for those who want to hit all seven continents. (This one is generally the last to be reached.) Plus, it’s a huge draw for nature lovers, penguin enthusiasts, and those looking to experience the most remote place in the world. For me, it was a personal quest. As a travel writer, I’ve visited more than 100 countries, and before this trip, I’d hit six of the seven continents. I had also wanted to go to Antarctica since I was a kid. But honestly, I didn’t know what to expect from my cruise into one of the world’s true final frontiers. Let’s just say I was more than happily surprised.

scenic eclipse shipvia scenicusa.com

Size matters

Here’s the thing that most people don’t realize about Antarctica: Ships that carry more than 500 passengers cannot let any of those passengers land in Antarctica. Those ships are cruise only. For ships with fewer than 500 passengers, only 100 passengers can land at a time. What this means is that smaller is better. On a ship like the Scenic Eclipse, which is the one I was on, there is a maximum of 200 passengers, so 100 of those passengers can be ashore and then switch with the other 100. On larger vessels, it’s a longer wait to get off the boat. Also, since there are only two landings a day on smaller ships, you’ll get to visit more places and have more experiences. Plus, the Scenic Eclipse has 192 staff members for 200 passengers, private butlers for each room, and a living room and veranda in each of its 114 suites. Talk about cruising in style. Before you set sail, here’s what travel experts wish you knew about booking a cruise.

penguins antarctica Courtesy Judy Koutsky

Penguins—lots of penguins

For most people, penguins are a big reason, if not the very top reason, to visit Antarctica, and these friendly creatures do not disappoint. You can see a variety of penguins when cruising on the white continent, and you’ll be able to see even more if you include Falkland and South Georgia in your itinerary. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see all the varieties on your trip, but there are a plethora of penguins found in the area, including the Adélie, emperor, chinstrap, king, rockhopper, gentoo, and macaroni.

Here’s a quick penguin primer so you know what you’re looking at. Emperor penguins are the largest—they can be around four feet tall and weigh 100 pounds—and have yellow and orange plumage on their necks and chests. The chinstrap penguins are adorable and literally look like they have a black strap around their necks, while the gentoo penguins are super fun to watch since they’re really fast swimmers. My favorite were the king penguins, which are smaller than the Emperor but still have the pretty plumage. And then there’s the macaroni, with their spiky orange eyebrows, and the rockhopper, which also sport colorful eyebrows as well as spiky crowns on their heads. Check out these facts (and pictures!) that prove penguins are the world’s most adorable animals.

helicopter ride antarctica zanskar/Getty Images

Explore by land, sea, and sky

Very few ships in Antarctica have both helicopter and submarine options. The Scenic Eclipse, however, does. If Antarctica is your bucket-list destination and you’re not planning on going back, these splurges are well worth it. You have to pay extra for the helicopter and submarine excursions, though the other excursions on the ship—the zodiac, kayak, and walks—are included in the price. The ship’s submarine, the Scenic Neptune, takes six guests at a time. Descending into the icy deep more than 1,000 feet, it’s an amazing way to see fast-moving seals and penguins. The helicopter ride also takes six passengers, and it allows you to get a completely different perspective of this vast, ice-covered continent from the air.

south georgia antarctica DurkTalsma/Getty Images

Don’t skip South Georgia and the Falkland Islands

As a working mom with two kids, it’s not easy for me to get away for a huge chunk of time, and many Antarctica itineraries are, quite frankly, really long. Sure, there are some shorter ones, but those only cover Antarctica. Trust me: If you’re going to commit to a trip here, it’s worth it to include the Falkland and South Georgia Islands. Falkland Island is where I saw dozens upon dozens of king penguins, only inches away. And South Georgia, which is often called the Galapagos of the Antarctic, is where you’ll see emperor penguins and a ton of other wildlife. The Scenic Eclipse offers a 19-day tour of Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands, so you can do everything in one fell swoop. This is just one of the reasons Antarctica landed on our list of the 20 places you need to go in 2020, according to travel experts.

seal antarcticaNicoElNino/Getty Images

No polar bears, but plenty of other animals

People always ask me if I saw a lot of polar bears on my trip—the answer is no, because polar bears are in the Arctic (the north) and penguins are in the Antarctic (the south). However, if you’re into penguins, seals, whales, and other wildlife, you won’t be disappointed. There are seals galore, including leopard, crabeater, Weddell, and southern elephant varieties. I saw plenty of leopard and elephant seals during my visit. Plus, there’s a chance to see many different types of whales, including humpback, blue, fin, and killer whales. I even got to see a large pod of humpbacks blowing water through their spout, which was a truly amazing sight. If you need a polar bear fix, check out these polar bear pictures that will melt your heart.

glacier antarcticaCourtesy Judy Koutsky

It’s so quiet

Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent size-wise, and it’s almost completely covered in ice. There are no hotels, no roads, and no people. (Well, there are scientists, but they aren’t in the tourist spots.) The cruise-ship captains from the various ships talk to one another and try to coordinate so not everyone is going to the same spot at the same time. The result is that cruise passengers, especially on a small ship, feel the solitude of the destination.

As a solo traveler, it felt almost spiritual to be in the world’s coldest, iciest, windiest, driest, and highest place on earth. I made sure to separate myself from other cruise passengers when I was on land in order to take the time to really appreciate and enjoy the quiet, the whiteness, the vastness. To be in a place where humans don’t take over, to be in a place where animals are the main attraction and I’m the minority is such a mindful, meditative experience. Even on the zodiac rides, everyone was quiet, and the only sounds were the ice crackling, the penguins talking, or the seals barking. It was incredibly soothing and peaceful. Here are another 12 of the most peaceful places on Earth.

antarctica sunsetgoinyk/Getty Images

The sunsets (or lack thereof) are amazing

Yes, I expected the penguins to be amazing, and they were. Yes, I expected the icebergs and glaciers to be fabulous, and they were. But I didn’t expect the sunsets. Technically, the sun doesn’t set for several months during the tourism season. Instead, it goes lower on the horizon in the late evening and produces the most beautiful purples and pinks that can be enjoyed for hours. There was enough light to see, even at midnight, but the time between 9 p.m. and midnight felt truly magical. It wasn’t really a sunset, but it felt like one to me. I always thought African sunsets were the best, but Antarctica sunsets are right up there because they last so long.

antarcticaCourtesy Judy Koutsky

Kayaking next to an iceberg

Glaciers are plentiful here. After all, the continent has 90 percent of the world’s ice and 80 percent of its freshwater. Watching glaciers calve (when large pieces of ice fall off the glacier and into the water) into icebergs is truly amazing, and watching this from a kayak ups the ante. That said, our guide always made sure we stayed a safe distance from the glaciers and any potential action. Another amazing part of kayaking in Antarctica? Getting super close to the penguins swimming and the seals sunning themselves. Plus, the miles upon miles of white and the lack of overstimulation made this place like none I had ever visited.

That said, the ice caps are shrinking, so you might want to consider going to Antarctica sooner rather than later. It’s on our list of the most breathtaking places to visit before they disappear.

antarcticaCourtesy Judy Koutsky

Getting up close and personal with nature

A good chunk of the cruise is divided into walking excursions and zodiac tours. (In the latter, you go out on small inflatable boats, which makes for a peaceful, intimate experience.) Walking on land in Antarctica was super amazing, because it wasn’t uncommon for us to stumble upon a penguin rookery consisting of hundreds of penguins just waiting for our visit. (Or so it seemed.) Taking a moment to watch the penguins look at one another, interact, walk, and slide on their bellies—and to walk where so few humans have walked before—was incredible. While walking and hiking, we also saw whales spouting. Taking the zodiac to cruise close to the glaciers, icebergs, and animals on land was equally satisfying.

scenic eclipse foodvia scenicusa.com

Factor food into your cruise choice

Sure, you’re going to Antarctica to be in the great white continent, but itineraries often range from 14 to 21 days, so you’re spending a good chunk of time on the boat, if for no other reason than to eat and sleep. Make sure to pick a ship that has a variety of dining options. Let’s face it: Eating at the same place every day can get old fast. The Scenic Eclipse has 10 dining spots, with options ranging from Japanese to Teppanyaki, from steak to salad to light bites. Plus, with room-service dining, it’s nice to have the option of eating in your room if you’re not in a particularly social mood or if you’re worn out from the day. Many ships have limited dining options, so it’s important to look into this before choosing your cruise. Don’t miss these 17 little travel hacks that will make your cruise easier.

antarcticaCourtesy Judy Koutsky

So much more than just a pretty place

What many people don’t realize—and what I didn’t realize before I went there—is that Antarctica is a cold, dry desert, and it contains thousands of microorganisms. While some people don’t love a learning vacation, I relish it. Daily talks from experts on the science, history, and animal life in the area is like being in the coolest science class ever—only with no tests or grades, just the fun of learning new things. For example, I learned that the word Antarctica means “opposite the Arctic” and that the continent circles the South Pole. Also, the land would be circular if not for the Antarctic peninsula. I really learned so much. Of course, nobody is obligated to go to the talks, but this is often one of the highlights of the cruise. Not sure if Antarctica is right for you? Get some more travel inspiration from these 80 gorgeous travel photos from around the world.

drake passage antarcticaBobbushphoto/Getty Images

The Drake Passage isn’t always terrifying

For years, I was afraid to go to Antarctica because of the Drake Passage. These are quite literally the roughest waters in the world. What I didn’t know is that the Drake Passage can either be the Drake Shake (rough waters) or Drake Lake (calm waters). Apparently, there’s about a 50-50 chance it’ll be a shake or a lake. I was fortunate on my trip: It wasn’t bad, so I guess it was more like a slightly bumpy lake.

Having said that, I did take sick sickness pills during my Antarctic voyage. Some people swear by the patch (usually worn behind the ear), but that made me sick. I just took standard OTC meds (Dramamine, in my case), and I was fine. For people who are worried about the rocking, it’s good to note that the Scenic Eclipse’s stabilizer fins are 50 percent grander than standard fins; they increase stability by decreasing the ship’s roll by more than 85 percent. It also holds the preeminent ice-class rating for a passenger vessel, making it one of the safest options in Antarctic waters.

antarcticaCourtesy Judy Koutsky

How to pack for Antarctica

So, I’m the kind of traveler who never checks luggage. If it doesn’t fit in the carry-on, it doesn’t go. I’ve been a travel writer for the last two decades, so I know it’s all about layering, but I made a rookie mistake. I brought a big, bulky jacket and, therefore, had to check my luggage. Turns out, I never wore that jacket. Most ships give you an outer layer to wear (and keep). This outer layer is ideal because it’s windproof and rainproof. That way, you just need to layer under that; for me, a fleece and wicking shirt worked best. I did bring ski pants, which I used, but in hindsight, lightweight waterproof pants would have been better; sometimes I was too warm in my ski pants.

For anyone traveling to Antarctica, I would suggest two to three wicking, quick-drying shirts and pants and then one to two extra layers (a fleece or long underwear). Aside from that, you should bring a hat, gloves, and a neck gaiter or neck warmer. Personally, I think these neck options are better than a scarf since a scarf can get in the way. And, of course, don’t forget to bring your sense of adventure! Next, check out these other one-of-a-kind adventures to add to your bucket list.

Judy Koutsky
Judy Koutsky is a New York-based writer and editor covering health, lifestyle and travel. Her award-winning articles have appeared in over 30 publications including RD.com, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Oprah.com, Parents, Forbes.com, Shape, USA Today, Prevention, Good Housekeeping, Web MD and Scholastic. You can see her writing at JudyKoutsky.com or follow her on Instagram at @JudyKoutsky