An Antarctica cruise is the ultimate wishlist adventure – and exploring this extraordinary continent is easier by ship. Here Nick Dalton has the complete lowdown on Antarctica cruises.

Glaciers, shimmering turquoise and white; fields of penguins, louder than you can possibly imagine; and the intrepid allure of expedition cruising. As a truly unspoiled wilderness, it’s no wonder so many of us dream of sailing around Antarctica.

“The sheer raw, breathtaking beauty of the place, and seeing some of our most precious wildlife in its natural environment is simply unforgettable,” says Liz Jarvis, Editor of Cruise International. “Nothing is predictable about Antarctica, and that’s what makes it such a special experience.”

Andy Harmer, UK and Ireland director of CLIA (the Cruise Lines International Association) says: “Sailings to Antarctica have surged. Previously a cruise to this continent may have been viewed as out of the ordinary but the launch of new luxury expedition ships has made the region far more accessible to a wide range of travellers, from wildlife lovers and adventure seekers to experienced cruisers who want to go off the beaten track.” 

Among the newest offerings in the Antartica cruises realm is Scenic Eclipse, the ‘discovery yacht’ from river cruise line Scenic. With the looks of a billionaire’s private vessel it takes 228 guests on extraordinary voyages. A fleet of Zodiac inflatables (a staple in this part of the world) lets you step on to the ice, a pair of helicopters let you view it from above – and a mini-sub lets you view it from the depths.

Antarctica Cruises: Protecting the environment

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Impressive icescapes in Antarctica’s Android Bay

Antarctica is carefully protected; the continent covers 10 per cent of the world’s surface and has no population. Most visits are overseen by IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which ensures safe, environmentally responsible travel.

“Only ships carrying fewer than 500 visitors are allowed to make landings, at approved sites, and only one ship can visit each site at a time,” says Amanda Lynnes, IAATO director of environment and science coordination. “There’s a maximum number of ship visits allowed per day and no more than 100 passengers can be ashore at one time. These guests take nothing but memories and leave nothing.

“For the majority of guests, ambassadorship for this astounding place is part of the experience,” she adds. “By the time they reach Antarctica, they’ve received mandatory briefings, scrubbed their clothing and equipment clean and had opportunities to attend lectures and workshops about wildlife, governance and science, or even contribute to research themselves.”

Antarctica Cruises: What to expect

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The fluke of a humpback whale

This is a place of icy seas and enormous icebergs and yet Antarctica cruises offer so much more, both nature and history. At the peninsula’s tip, Brown Bluff is a cliff towering to almost 3,000ft, sandwiched by glaciers and brought alive by the sweep of thousands of seabirds.

Elephant Island is packed with history – Shackleton and his team wintered here after abandoning their ship in the ice. Deception Island is the flooded caldera of an extinct volcano with cliffs up to 50ft tall and black sand giving off steam.

Paradise Bay is Antarctica at its most imposing, huge peaks and huge glaciers. Just around the headland is Neko Harbour with spellbinding glaciers and a rocky backdrop. To the south is Lemaire Channel resplendent with seven miles of icebergs. 

Antarctica Cruises: Getting there

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Stunning landscapes in Argentina

Most Antartica cruises sail from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, at the tip of Argentina. Some bigger ships sail from Buenos Aires but while listed as the start point it’s often a place for a night in a hotel before flying south. Some cruises also list Santiago in Chile as a start point but it’s either a stop-off or ships go from San Antonio on the coast.

Cruises explore the Antarctic Peninsula which protrudes almost 10,000 miles from the main ice mass near the South Pole. Many also take in the Falkland Islands, with their stunning scenery and bird life, and, 800 miles southeast, South Georgia, once a whaling hub. Few actually cross into the Antarctic Circle, far-flung even by local standards.

The journey to the peninsula on an Antartica cruise is an adventure in itself, almost due south across 500-mile Drake Passage, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet and battle it out (it’s either Drake Lake or Drake Shake, and taking anti-motion sickness tablets and chewing crystallised ginger is highly recommended). The South Shetland Islands, part of the British Antarctic Territory, are 75 miles off the coast, home to almost 20 research stations belonging to 12 nations.

Antarctica Cruises: The nature

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Emperor penguins

Apart from the jaw-dropping landscapes, it’s the wildlife that really captures the imagination on Antarctica cruises. Penguins, more than you thought you’d ever see, are crammed on to beaches and ice floes: the rare but imposing emperor penguins, the familiar king penguins, the adorable adélie and chinstrap, and the squat gentoo.

There are coasts full of elephant seals, weighing up to four tons, like a science-fiction creature. Among the icebergs you might see humpback, killer and sperm whales break the shimmering water’s surface, and dolphins are often spotted.

Seabirds are here in their thousands too, not least the tireless, unhurried albatross with its wingspan often more than 10ft. Pure white snow petrels, the prehistoric-looking giant petrel, the screeching, aggressive arctic skua… all fill the air at spots such as Brown Bluff. 

Antarctica Cruises: Scenic

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Emperor penguins greet Scenic Eclipse in the Weddell Sea

Scenic’s 16-day Antarctica In Depth cruise on Scenic Eclipse spends six days around the peninsula and South Shetland Islands (with two nights in Buenos Aires and one post-cruise) with daily Zodiac trips around ice formations, letting you step on to islands alive with penguins and seals.

Along with the extra cost options of subs and helicopters there’s also kayaking… listen in the silence for ice cracking and whales feeding. Depending on the weather, there’s the possibility of visiting a scientific base late in the season (February to March) you might even cross the Arctic Circle. Regular departures from November to February cost from £10,781pp, including flights.

“It’s been an incredible inaugural season,” says Martin Solly, Scenic Eclipse brand manager. “We were even welcomed by a very rare sighting of emperor penguins in the Weddell Sea. Flexible itineraries and unmatched manoeuvrability combined with helicopters and submarine allow greater exploration and encounters with wildlife.”

Antarctica Cruises: Viking

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What to expect from Viking’s new expedition ship in the Antarctic

Viking has recently revealed it will be launching expedition voyages in 2022, and offering Antarctica cruises in its typical luxurious Scandi style. The 13-day Antarctic Explorer departs regularly in November and December 2022. There’s Zodiac rides, kayaking among glaciers, scenic cruising around Cape Horn, opportunities for wildlife sightings and the chance to dine with a resident scientist. From £12,995pp including return flights from the UK, and from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia.

Antarctica Cruises: Silversea

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Get out and explore on a Zodiac landing

Silversea has a whole season of round-trip Antarctica cruises from Ushuaia on three chic small ships (Silver Cloud, Silver Explorer and Silver Wind) next winter. Prices start at £10,170pp, including flights, for a 10-day voyage departing 27 February 2021.

There’s a day cruising the Antarctic Sound, just off the peninsula, with its gargantuan Larsen Ice Shelf and stadium-sized icebergs, three days around the peninsula and a day at the South Shetland Islands. Excursions include Zodiac landings and kayaking. Silver Cloud, for 274 passengers, has a choice of splendid restaurants and great views from the Observation Lounge.

Antarctica Cruises: Seabourn

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Kayaking with Seabourn

Seabourn has ultra-luxury Seabourn Venture, a 264-guest purpose-built expedition ship, with two submarines, arriving in 2021 for a winter down south, including cruises from Callao, near Lima, in Peru, all the way down the South American coast to Antarctica.

The 21-day Ultimate Holiday Antarctica from Ushuaia opens up a winter wonderland, Christmas Day at sea between South Georgia (after a three-day exploration) and the peninsula and a deep Antarctic New Year. Most cruises that visit the Falklands simply have a day in Port Stanley but this includes another four days, visiting uninhabited New Island (home to four species of penguins, including 26,000 Southern rockhoppers, with 60,000 black-browed albatrosses forming a never-ending wave above the cliffs) and Saunders Island.

Complimentary on-deck hot chocolate, bouillon and hot toddies soothe the soul during scenic cruising and there are daily Antarctic Zodiac trips, plus kayaking and sub trips at an extra cost. Departs on 14 December 2021 and costs from £21,499pp, with return flights from Buenos Aires but not international flights.

Antarctica Cruises: Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

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Sublime sights

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises operates super-luxury Antarctica cruises, mostly from Ushuaia, on new Hanseatic Inspiration, carrying a maximum of 199 guests. The Cape To Cape voyage not only lets you sample Cape Horn – it finishes in Cape Town. Five days are spent exploring the South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula and South Orkney Islands.

Two days at South Georgia involves many Zodiac landings to see the hundreds of thousands of king penguins as well as gigantic elephant seals. The former whaling station of Grytviken is now a museum – the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton sits alongside those of whalers. The finale is a crossing of the South Atlantic, visiting Tristan da Cunha, one of earth’s remotest places. The 20-day cruise departing 15 February 2021, starts at £12,730pp, including an internal flight to Ushuaia.

Antarctica Cruises: Holland America Line

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A chinstrap penguin at Half Moon Island in the South Shetland Islands

Cruise company Holland America Line has larger ships, which have their own benefits as the lofty views are that more dramatic. Lynn Narraway, UK managing director, says: “The Antarctic experience is available on our South America itineraries, meaning guests can enjoy destinations such as Brazil, Chile and Argentina before heading to the frozen continent. On these expedition-style journeys, our nimble mid-sized ships sail through iceberg-dotted waters giving unrivalled views. 

“On our 22-day itinerary departing 27 November 2020, there is the rare opportunity to experience the cosmic phenomenon of a solar eclipse from the open ocean.” 

The South America, Antarctica and Solar Eclipse voyage from San Antonio, near Santiago, is on 1,964-passenger Westerdam and features a week in Chile and its fjords, a visit to Ushuaia, a day in Port Stanley on the Falklands, the eclipse while sailing back to South America, a day in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, and finishes in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires.

Four days of Antarctic cruising pass Cuverville Island with its 6,500 pairs of gentoo penguins, Dallmann Bay, alive with seabirds, and Paradise Harbour where Argentina and Chile have research stations. Costs from £3,469pp, cruise only.

Antarctica Cruises: Celebrity Cruises

A crabeater seal takes a break

Celebrity Cruises offers another way to see Antarctica from the deck of a sleek, bigger ship. The 14-night Argentina and Antarctica itinerary (departs 3, 17 and 21 January 2021) sails from Buenos Aires. Celebrity Silhouette, for 2,886 guests, might not stop on the peninsula but sails serenely through Schollart Channel (between Anvers and Brabant Islands, not far from Neko Harbour), Gerlache Strait (rich in plankton and a place where whales gather), Paradise Bay and past ice-covered Elephant Island.

There are calls in Ushuaia, Montevideo and Puerto Madryn where the Península Valdés wildlife sanctuary is home to many sea lions and sea elephants, as well as whales and penguins. Costs from £2,249pp, cruise only. 

For more inspiration, read our Silversea Antarctica cruise review or the ultimate guide to expedition cruises.