Sailing to the Bottom of the World: Antarctica
Antarctica is perhaps the greatest of all wild places, where light, water, and ice make colors found nowhere else on earth, where one can stroll casually among 8,000-pound predators. It symbolizes remoteness and isolation, a frozen world unto itself.
Independent travelers are out of luck when it comes to Antarctica. Practically speaking, group travel is your only option. The vast majority of visitors go by ship and ply the relatively mild coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula, known to resident scientists as "The Banana Belt."
About a dozen ships make regular cruises to the Peninsula, most from the Argentine town of Ushuia, near the tip of South America. After a two-day crossing of the Drake Passagenotorious as the roughest stretch of ocean on earththe ships spend a week or two cruising among various islands and bays. Passengers make daily shore excursions in small Zodiacs (don't fall overboard; the water temperature is 29 degrees) to visit penguin rookeries and colonies of elephant seals. Because Antarctic wildlife has no land-based predators, they are utterly unafraid of humans. There may be no better place for up-close-and-personal interaction with wild animals.
Antarctic trips are quite sedentary; in most cases, you're not allowed to walk out of sight of the ship. But hard-core explorers with fat wallets can join expeditions to the interior to climb Mt. Vinson or explore the Holtedahl Range in Queen Maude Land.
Numerous outfitters offer Antarctic cruises ranging from two to three weeks at prices ranging from about $250 to $400 a day. (Price depends mainly on the level of cabin luxury and how many people you're willing to share with.) But more important than the outfitter is the ship you choose. For the adventurous traveler, smaller is better. Look for one of several converted Russian polar research ships that hold 38-75 people, and are crewed by Russians, the world leaders in polar navigation. These small ships offer a much more intimate, expeditionary feel than traditional passenger liners that carry from 100 to 400 passengers. (On the other hand, the smaller ships get tossed around more in the Drake Passage.)
For shore-based mountain-climbing expeditions, there's only one company to deal with: Adventure Network International (adventure-network.com), the only private company with the resources, experience, and chutzpah to operate safely on the mainland. Plan to spend $1,000 a day, and be thankful that it's even possible to do such an outrageous thing. Other outfitters may advertise and sell land expeditions in Antarctica, but you can bet ANI does all of the logistics for them.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication