Antarctica’s monumental icebergs, history of heroic exploration and fearless wildlife give it an allure that is enhanced by its remoteness. The only realistic way for tourists to visit the vast White Continent is by ship. For most, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so it is important to choose carefully.
The season runs from November to March. Regulations introduced in 2011 mean that only ships carrying fewer than 500 passengers can make landings and no more than 100 people can come ashore in one place at the same time.
Landings are by rib boats, such as Zodiacs, sometimes involving wading ashore. Itineraries can never be exact because the captain can only sail where conditions allow, but on a 10- to 14-night cruise expect to spend four to seven days on or around the Antarctic Peninsula. It is well worth opting for a longer cruise that also visits South Georgia for its staggering wildlife and to see Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave.
Most cruises start at Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina and cross the 600-mile Drake Passage to reach the Antarctic Peninsula.
w A high degree of comfort is offered on luxury ice-strengthened expedition ships with French line Compagnie du Ponant (0800 980 4027; ponant.com), German line Hapag-Lloyd (00 49 40 3070 3070; hl-cruises.com) and Anglophone Silversea (0844 251 0837; silversea.com). The Fram, of Norwegian line Hurtigruten (0844 272 8961; hurtigruten.co.uk), has some hotel-style cabins.
If you are short of time or fear seasickness, you can fly over the Drake Passage to start a cruise in the South Shetland Islands, sailing for six nights aboard 85-passenger Ocean Nova. Discover the World (01737 214250; discover-the-world.co.uk) offers departures on 2, 7, 12 and 17 December from £7,200pp including return flights from Punta Arenas in Chile, but not flights from the UK.
A 19-day Great Antarctic Voyage that includes the sub-Antarctic islands of the Falklands and South Georgia aboard 110-passenger Akademik Ioffe departs Ushuaia on 31 January 2014 and costs from £5,198pp cruise-only with Wildlife Worldwide (0845 1306982; wildlifeworldwide.com).
There are two month-long voyages from Ushuaia aboard the 100-passenger MV Ortelius, departing on 9 January and 11 February, 2015, ending in New Zealand. The price starts at €18,850pp (£15,860) cruise-only in a four-berth cabin through The Cruise People (020-7723 2450; cruisepeople.com).
For more information on Antarctic cruises, see the website of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators: iaato.org.