Planning your dream Antarctic vacation
See Chinstrap penguins taking a dive on South Georgia Island, Antarctica. (Kerry Lorimer/LPI)
Antarctica has become a top destination during the past couple of decades for several reasons. Many people come just for the wildlife: the penguins, seals, whales and seabirds are beautiful and unafraid of humans. Others want the thrill of crossing an often-heaving ocean to a remote land where people are mere visitors. Some just want to be able to attain their seventh and last continent.
Nowhere else compares to this vast white wilderness - but you cannot get there on your own. The thought of a group tour can be off-putting for those used to travelling independently, but there is no other way, and most people are pleasantly surprised by the fascinating interactions they have with their fellow expeditioners.
The good news is that "group tour" does not mean "one size fits all". An increasingly wide range of tours accommodate different travel styles and offer varying experiences. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (www.iaato.org), which promotes environmentally responsible travel, is an excellent resource for more information on planning your trip.
When to go
Tourists visit Antarctica only during the summer, from November through March. During the Antarctic winter, pack ice extends for 1,000km around most of the continent, and in any case, it would be too cold and dark for most people's taste. Although cruises later in the season may be less crowded, the longer you wait, the more wildlife will have already headed out to sea.
Antarctica by sea
Nearly all Antarctic tourism is sea-based, meaning that your transportation, meals and accommodation are combined in one neat package (your ship), so that no infrastructure has to be built ashore in Antarctica's delicate environment. This also allows you to visit many different places rather than staying in one spot, no matter how beautiful it might be.
The main activity for most Antarctic tourists is shore landings using rigid inflatable craft powered by outboard engines. With these shallow-draft boats, known as Zodiacs, you can visit penguin rookeries, scientific research stations and historic sites, and also go on "Zodiac cruises" through fields of beautiful icebergs. Aboard the ship you will attend lectures by Antarctic experts, see wildlife or adventure videos and watch for whales or seabirds.
Within a single tour, there are sometimes several options for more adventurous activities, including scuba diving, sea kayaking, camping and rock- or ice-climbing. These add-ons cost extra and must be arranged when you book your trip.
Several dozen ships now cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula each year. Smaller ships (with fewer than 100 passengers) allow much more time for shore landings, since international regulations forbid more than 100 passengers from going ashore at a time. On larger ships, passengers must go ashore in shifts. Very large tour vessels (those carrying more than 500 passengers) are not allowed to take passengers ashore, so their trips are known as "cruise-only".
Although larger ships would cause more environmental damage and create an enormous rescue challenge in case of an accident, they also offer greater comfort and more amenities. Bigger ships also tend to pitch and roll less in heavy seas, and they can cross the Drake Passage - which separates South America from Antarctica and can sometimes be very rough - much more quickly.
Antarctica by air
For those who have only a little time or who wish to avoid the Drake Passage altogether, there are flights from Punta Arenas, Chile that visit the continent for a day or two. Other flights from Punta Arenas land at a Chilean government base on the Antarctic Peninsula, where passengers are transferred to a waiting ship that proceeds on a traditional cruise. For the return home, they disembark from the ship and fly back across the Drake.
Another way to see the continent, or at least glimpse it from high above, is by taking one of the day-long overflights aboard a Boeing 747-400 that are offered once or twice a year between December and February by Australia's Qantas airlines.
Antarctica by...private yacht?
There is one further option. A small number of adventurers who can demonstrate the necessary experience and ability - and have the tens of thousands of dollars required - can charter a private yacht and crew to reach remote sites, or take a flight deep into the Antarctic interior, for mountain-climbing, skiing, camping and trekking.