Antarctica cruise: The last frontier for a big at-last luxury adventure

King George Island, Antarctica CNN  — 

Travelers to Antarctica always remember the first place they planted their feet on the frozen continent. For me, it was Portal Point, a narrow tip of land jutting westward from the Peninsula just north of the Antarctic Circle.

Crackling sea ice had formed a thin cap of white atop water the color of steel as a Zodiac boat zipped me to shore. I then high-kicked over its inflatable rim and took some celebratory steps in knee-deep slush, clomping out a few hundred more in route to a hilltop overlook.

All around me were blindingly white mountains donning blankets of ancient snow. Down below, doe-eyed Weddell seals took siestas on sea ice while penguins belly-surfed out of the southern seas.

This is the kind of scene travelers dream of when they embark on the complex – and extremely pricey – mission of planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica.

There’s a lot to consider, and the odyssey actually begins long before you set off from South America.

Portal Point in Antarctica. Expedition cruises to the continent are a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Factors that figure into planning

Ship size is the first thing to take into account when arranging a trip.

Smaller ships (with a higher guest-to-guide ratio) offer quicker departures from the mudroom at landing sites, more options for where the boat can visit and plenty of face time to get all of your Antarctic questions answered.

Cost, of course, is a crucial element. Travel to Antarctica isn’t cheap and most ships range from between $500 (on the low end) to $1,500 (on the high end) per person per day, inclusive of all meals, some drinks and most shore excursions. Sites such as Antarctica Cruise Guide and Cruise Critic can help you compare options.

Larger ships tend to offer a wider range of price alternatives. Yet less expensive tickets often leave out key items such as required gear (including waterproof, knee-high boots), pre- and post-trip lodging and flights to the main departure points of Ushuaia, Argentina, or Punta Arenas, Chile. So be sure those things are accounted for in price comparisons.

Sustainability is another key element. Reputable companies will belong to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, whose goal is to “advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic.”

Many companies are now also carbon neutral and will display the certification on their website.

Finally, you want to be sure to check out the kind of programming on offer. Most journeys will include a robust educational component with daily lectures that help you contextualize the sights and sounds of the seventh continent.

A rough start

All of these criteria eventually led me to Antarctica21’s Magellan Explorer, which holds 73 guests and had an educational focus.

As a bonus, it operates under the fly-cruise model, where you soar over the notoriously choppy Drake Passage in a plane (instead of enduring two wild days at sea), starting and ending your journey near the airstrip at Chile’s Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva on King George Island.

Even still, the journey wasn’t 100% smooth sailing. Those first moments at Portal Point this past December were the culmination of a long-held dream. But in the moment, they felt like a dream hard earned.

The previous night’s trip down the Bransfield Strait, which separates the Peninsula from the South Shetland Islands, was replete with roaring winds, wild waves and a level of seasickness no pill could extinguish.

It was a voyage not unlike the swinging pirate ship rides at a carnival. Yet it proved to be the only night like that on my seven-day trip to Antarctica, where the only thing you can predict about the weather is that it’ll be wholly unpredictable.

The traditional Antarctica tourism season runs from November to March and, as a rule of thumb, temperatures typically range from about 28 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (about -2 to 4 degrees Celsius), though heavy winds can make it feel a lot colder. You’ll want to get very specific information about what kind of specialized attire and gear is provided, and pack with “the onion layering system” in mind, choosing items you can put on or peel off as needed.

On my trip, the temperature hovered around freezing, but it wasn’t nearly as frigid as I’d envisioned. It was, after all, the start of the austral summer, where the sun can go almost an entire day without dipping below the horizon.