Terra Incognita: Antarctica

Terra Incognita: Antarctica

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expedition cruise ship MV Polar Star breaking ice. Photo: Jad Davenport

A voyage to Antarctica and South Georgia Island reveals an otherworldly seascape of sculpted icebergs, forgotten whaling stations and toddler-sized penguins.

Beyond completing The Great Loop—the circumnavigation of the eastern half of the United States—and then embarking for a journey around the world, cruising the Southern Ocean is one of the last great maritime adventures. But if your yacht isn’t equipped for such expeditions, you can still appreciate the otherworldly landscapes of Antarctica and South Georgia Island. More than a dozen expedition cruise ships—some are converted Russian icebreakers while others are custom-built luxury yachts—spend the Austral summer from November to February exploring the White Continent. During this time, cruisers are treated to almost perpetual sunlight and temperatures that can be surprisingly mild although blizzards can erupt at any time. Home port in the season is Ushuaia, Argentina, a former penal colony at the tip of Tierra del Fuego.

It usually only takes a day or two to cross the famous Drake Passage between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, and the weather can be unpredictable, with captains joking they’ll either get the “Drake Lake” or the “Drake Shake.” Some ships will make a first stop east of Argentina in the Falkland Islands where tourists can explore one of the farthest-flung corners of the British Empire. Barely 3,000 local “kelpers” make a living here: farming, raising sheep, cutting peat or working for the Crown. The infamous 1982 war between England and Argentina (who claim the islands as Las Malvinas) is long over, but relics remain—the scattered wreckage of a helicopter on a barren slope and the red skull-and-crossbones signs warning of minefields. Still, it’s a great place to stop for a pint at a pub in Port Stanley and make a call home from the red telephone booths.