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Awe-inspiring Antarctica

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  • Summer in the Southern Hemisphere is an optimal time to visit Antarctica
  • Few tourists set foot on the land mass, but Antarctica tourism is growing in popularity
  • Visitors should plan on spending at least $3,500 for the tour itself
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By Chris Bach
CNN
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(CNN) -- Like many people, I have a "bucket list." It's something along the lines of the "top-10-things-to-see-or-do-before-you-die" lists published on travel Web sites.

Penguins are one of the many attractions for tourists.

"Set foot on all seven continents" has always been on my list. This past February, after nearly six months of planning, I was fortunate to be able to knock off two -- the most amazing being Antarctica, the other South America.

I chose an optimal time to go -- summer in the Southern Hemisphere -- and found a tour company online that was able to accommodate my needs. It is a costly adventure, especially when traveling solo, but iExplore put together a package for me that was perfect.

Plan on spending at least $3,500 just for the tour itself. Airfare is another cost, depending on where you're coming from and where you choose to connect from, as there are no direct international flights into Ushuaia, the jumping-off point in Argentina. I connected through Buenos Aires. There are certainly other companies to choose from, and I shopped around until I found one that suited my "solo-traveler" needs.

iExplore not only got me to the continent, but allowed me the opportunity to set foot on it. Many tour companies will put you on a cruise ship that sails through the area, weaving between islands and giving views of the shore. But to actually set foot on the continent is a rare and awe-inspiring treat. Photo See spectacular photos from the Antarctic journey »

One of the tour leaders on our boat estimated that the total number of people who have actually set foot on this land mass -- tourists, scientists and explorers -- would fill a very large football stadium. Think University of Michigan or Penn State University, 107,501 and 107,282 respectively. This is because tourism to Antarctica didn't really exist until roughly 15 years ago and has only recently taken off in popularity.

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There are also rules and restrictions for visiting set up by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). Take nothing away, leave nothing behind. Boots are scrubbed and disinfected upon each return trip to the boat to prevent contamination between stops.

My plan was simple. Arrive in Ushuaia, Argentina, and get on the M/V Orlova, an ice-strengthened Russian ship, to spend 10 days exploring Antarctica. After two days crossing the Drake Passage, suffering the ups and downs of the sea and learning to walk at a 45-degree angle, about 110 other passengers from around the globe and I got first sight of the peninsula.

Pick every word out of Roget's Thesaurus to elaborate on "beauty" and "awe-inspiring," and each of them ALMOST covers it. Over the course of the first four days at the continent, we ventured out in Zodiac boats twice daily and set foot on Aitchoo Island, visited research stations, passed the remains of old whaling stations and came face to face with Minke whales and elephant seals. I had the pleasure of curious juvenile penguins coming up to me to see who I was and what the strings on my jacket tasted like.

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We saw paradise in a frozen form. No traffic noise, no pollution, no road rage (though some penguins fought over stones) -- just clear skies, fresh air and undisturbed beauty for miles. Upon each excursion's return to the Orlova, my newfound friends and I could only look at one another and grin. Each time saying, "That was amazing, there's no way that they can top it at the next stop" -- only to be proved wrong.

Months later, I still wish I could be there sitting with the penguins, taking it all in, smile firmly frozen in place.

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