You can travel to the Antarctic in affordable comfort - there is no need to rough it like Shackleton, writes LOUISE HEALY
Few places on Earth juxtapose as many conflicting images of beauty as the Antarctic. Icebergs towering over emerald-green waters, moss-covered headlands, black volcanic craters, pristine white glaciers, violet- and crimson-tinted horizons and gigantic ice blocks overpopulated by noisy penguins. Antarctica at its most spectacular is like a type of Narnia on ice. At the end of the Earth the water is immensely blue, dotted with dazzling white pillars that resemble massive ice sculptures reaching up to the sky.
Seeing it today it’s hard to believe that about 200 million years ago Antarctica was joined with Australia, Africa, South America, India and New Zealand in the supercontinent of Gondwana.
After geological changes that spanned more than 40 million years, Antarctica settled into its final polar position and cooled dramatically. So dramatically, in fact, that if tourists were to travel to Antarctica in winter they would surely freeze – the thermometer plummets to 80° below zero. At that temperature if you threw boiling water into the air it would freeze instantly and morph into a shower of snow and ice. Tourists are not allowed visit Antarctica in winter but, as it happens, their summer is the most rewarding time to go there.
The best route to the least-visited continent, and the one most travelled, is from Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, which lies at the bottom tip of Argentina. Trips to Antarctica are nothing short of spectacular but the cost of getting there is equally amazing: cruises to the Antarctic peninsula range from €4,000 to €15,000 or more.
However, if you have time on your hands you can hit the white continent for just a fraction of the usual cost.
Ships can be fully booked months in advance so if you’re travelling solo or in a pair and want to go cheaply, plan ahead. I ventured to Argentina in January, which is peak season for Antarctic trips.
I went to Ushuaia a week early to check out the possibility of any last-minute cancellations from local tour operators. I found that if you’re willing to shop around and hang around you can get on an Antarctic tour at a day’s notice, or even a few hours’ notice, for as relatively little as €2,000.
However, while I had to wait only five days, I have heard of people waiting up to four weeks to get a cancellation on a trip.
It takes about two days’ sailing from the Argentinian mainland to reach the Antarctic peninsula. While the long and often tortuous voyage across the infamously rough Drake Passage is not for the faint-hearted (waves can reach 10m), if you’re going to be seasick you may as well be ill in fabulous surroundings.
In recent years trips to Antarctica have become more commonplace and, with most tour companies vying for customers, salubrious ships are now the norm for the voyages. Shackleton-style roughing it is not. Five-star rooms, on-board gym facilities and the finest cuisine served in plush surroundings make a modern-day trip to Antarctica unforgettable.
With just 60 passengers on board (some ships take up to 1,000 people) we set sail on the Antarctic Dream for an 11-day voyage through the Beagle Channel to the northwest coast of the Antarctic peninsula.
The time spent travelling there and back through ice-choked seas, with no land for miles, are packed with lectures about the evolution of the Antarctic, its geological make-up, its ornithology and the marine and terrestrial life of the continent.