‘Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful’
And so it is, the myth surrounding Antarctica. This advertisement to gather a team for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition was possibly printed in 1912 and although no one has ever seen the original, the legend is kept alive – upholding the magic and mystery of the most bewitching of continents. Antarctica – a land engrained in the collective consciousness as a place of inhospitable climate, great adventure and untellable beauty; where icebergs glow gas-blue from the inside, ships battle icy seas, snow falls on snow and there are penguins – a lot of penguins.
However, never has there been an easier time to travel to this sublime wilderness, nor a more appealing one; as the world becomes increasingly crazy, the draw of unplugged nothingness overwhelms; unpolluted skies where darkness may never fall and stoic playful penguins restore your faith in the universe.
And never has it been possible to experience this in more comfort.
For those craving peace and adventure one of the draws of Antarctica is obviously it’s inaccessibility; it’s remoteness keeping visitors at a minimum and delivering days of beauty so pure and untouched that you find it hard to readjust after visiting. Historically the only way to reach this ‘last’ continent was through the infamous Drake Passage that mass of water separating the world’s southernmost continent from the tip of the Americas. A good crossing takes the best part of 2 days and although these days may pass in a blur of whale spotting, lectures, fine food and calm seas they may equally pass in hours confined to your cabin with a ship rolling like a drunken porpoise around you. It certainly keeps many people at bay but there is now another way.
Antarctica XXI is a ‘fly cruise’ to Antarctica, and a fabulous way to travel for those either time-poor or with a propensity for seasickness. Flying out of Punta Arenas (a three hour direct flight from Santiago, Chile) directly to King George Island in Antarctica (two hours). The flight itself is thrilling as you disembark almost straight onto waiting zodiacs to be carried over icy waters to your ocean bobbing home – it’s a magnificent start to your adventure and means you are able to maximise your time experiencing Antarctica’s monochrome landscape heading off almost immediately to greet the penguins of the South Shetland Islands.
A cruise adventure is almost the only way a tourist can step on the 7th continent hence there is now a vast portfolio of ships cruising the infamous waters of the Southern Ocean; from the larger luxury liners which want for nothing in terms of comfort to the smaller ice-classed vessels which can traverse more inhospitable passages. Do research well as length of itineraries varies and all have different draws. Having just joined an expedition on the recently refurbished Hebridean Sky (formerly the Sea Explorer which underwent a multi-million dollar refurb in 2016) I can recommend this wholeheartedly for those who wish to see Antarctica whilst cocooned in trappings of luxury yet enjoying the intimate excursions only possible on a smaller ship (for Antarctica XXI expeditions a maximum of 71 guests). This all-suite ship has beautiful mahogany clad cabins with generous living space. The little touches like Molten Brown bath products and chocolates on your pillow confirm that you are floating in a ‘luxury hotel’ where icebergs graze past your window.
Step outside and you are transported into days of untouched beauty and sustainable adventure – twice or sometimes three times daily excursions are varied and expertly and passionately executed by certainly some of the most professional and experienced guides in Antarctica. From zodiac cruises through ‘iceberg alleys’, walks to visit penguins, kayaking, snow-shoeing and of course plenty of time to sit in solitude and reflect upon those otherworldly vistas. Food is fabulous and as on many ships an extensive buffet breakfast and lunch are offered but unlike on many there is an à la carte dinner menu with great Chilean wines stimulating the interesting conversations amongst international passengers.
Everyone has their own reason to visit the 7th continent – for some it is just that – their 7th continent. For others it is escaping ‘reality’, their opportunity to experience stepping onto land that is the only continent on earth without a human population – a land of ‘peace and research’ (the Antarctic Treaty which protects the vast continent is an example of peace within 53 nations – a place where military activity is banned and scientific exploration is lauded). For passionate photographers it is their dream, with fantastic light and vast, spectacular vistas. Nature lovers will gasp as they watch Orkas feed or Humpback whales breach metres in front of their 10-person dingy. As a writer the use of the word ‘indescribable’ is lazy, but Antarctica is just this. Everyone will take away something truly unique and personal, everyone will try to describe it differently and be lost for words – believe me I interviewed many passengers and none could satisfactorily describe their experience, all were simply overawed. I urge everyone to see a land so utterly ancient and unique, so fantastically otherworldly and take from it your own memories which will last forever.
Lucinda Paxton is a freelance travel writer and content producer. She lives in Argentina, where as destination expert for The Telegraph Travel her mission is to uncover the country’s most desirable places to stay. When not searching for the holy hotel grail she is writing about the region’s adventure and offbeat travel offerings, or researching her #losgauchosproject (@cinderspaxton)