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The term “bucket list” is often overused, but when it comes to traveling to Antarctica, it is the only phrase that truly applies. On a quest to visit all seven continents, my son and I had our sights set on Antarctica for years. So, to celebrate his high-school graduation, we packed our parkas and headed south.
There was just one problem: I am extremely susceptible to seasickness. Just the thought of spending a few days on the floor of my cabin’s bathroom while the ship crossed the often-turbulent waters of the notorious Drake Passage gave me considerable pause.
Thankfully, I discovered the fly-and-cruise option from Antarctica 21. The first operator in the world to offer this premium service, Antarctica 21 flies passengers onboard DAP Airlines from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Frei Station, a Chilean-Russian research base on King George Island off the coast of Antarctica. There, my son and I boarded the company’s 240-foot Ocean Nova, our home for the next week.
A voyage to Antarctica is not for everyone; only the most intrepid families venture here. To justify the expense, your clients’ children must love nature — the focus of any Antarctica cruise. They also need to tolerate structured activities and be able to entertain themselves during downtime, as there are no kids’ clubs onboard — and quite possibly no other children. And, perhaps most important, they should be old enough to appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. While Antarctica 21 sets a minimum age of 8, I recommend bringing children 13 or older.
Although the region’s environment is remote and forbidding, the ship itself is comfortable. Guests gather in the panoramic lounge to socialize, play games and take in the scenery. And when it comes to dining, Antarctica 21 has superb food quality — an amazing feat when you consider the logistics involved in feeding 46 crew members and 72 passengers when the nearest grocery store is more than 600 miles away.
Visiting Antarctica is like experiencing another planet — it’s undeveloped, unspoiled and unbelievable. I was impressed with the quality of Antarctica 21’s expedition team, many of whom had spent several seasons in this surreal world. In fact, one of our guides, who has been coming to Antarctica since 1965, even has a mountain range there named after him.
The expedition staff, along with the bridge crew, expertly spotted wildlife and alerted passengers. We saw more whales than we had ever seen before; humpbacks and orcas breached and splashed not far from the bow of the ship.
But the real showstoppers were the penguins. While we visited several colonies on the cruise, the afternoon spent at Baily Head was our most incredible wildlife encounter. After landing on a black-sand beach, we were surrounded by 106,000 chinstrap penguins. The colony stretched up the mountainside, where chicks had just hatched 10 days earlier. We watched parents waddle to the sea in search of krill; then they’d return and make the arduous journey back to their nests of hungry chicks.
The cacophony of cackling penguins was as constant as their pungent odor.
Some wildlife viewing was on land; other times, the expedition team would take passengers out on zodiacs. These excursions were also opportunities to view icebergs and calving glaciers. I found myself mesmerized by the indescribable shades of blue in the compacted ice.
Passengers can also snowshoe and sea kayak during the cruise. Both activities involve an extra fee ($195 per person for snowshoeing, and $895 per person for sea kayaking) and should be booked when placing the reservation.
Although my son and I enjoyed gliding through ice floes with penguins popping up all around our kayak, we both agree that snowshoeing is a better value. Often, the guided snowshoeing hikes across freshly fallen snow led to jaw-dropping vistas.
On one return trip, we had an encounter with a lonely baby seal who had cuddled up to our gear bag left along the shore. He was not too happy about losing his new “mate.” That’s just one memory of hundreds from our unforgettable voyage to the White Continent.
The DetailsAntarctica 21www.antarctica21.com