Where to go: Antarctica
or The Arctic?
Make the most of your time
One of the main considerations is time – for most travelers, the Arctic involves a much shorter trip as it’s much closer and the distances covered when you’re there are much shorter. Antarctica, on the other hand, is reached via South America or New Zealand – for this reason, many people extend their trip to include time in Chile, Argentina or the Antipodes. The Arctic Peninsula is also a two-day boat ride each way (although plane journeys, becoming more popular, take two hours), while the Ross Sea involves almost a month-long expedition. Within each polar region, the landscapes, wildlife and cultural highlights are varied – click on the blue map pins to help you decide where to go – Antarctica or the Arctic.
The gateway to the Northwest Passage, enormous, frozen Baffin Island is a haven for Arctic wildlife, including walrus, seals, polar bears and rare bowhead whales. Meet the Inuit inhabitants, who live a traditional lifestyle and create wonderful carvings and drawings. The islands of Hudson Bay are filled with nesting seabirds, while shore excursions are the best way to spot wildlife including the enormous caribou.
Enormous glaciers calve into Disko Bay – a whale watching spot in the west. Nearby hills offer views of UNESCO rated ice fields, and there are ancient Thule culture remains. Northeast Greenland is the world’s largest national park – with 2,000m high mountains, fjords, 100m-high icebergs, narwhal and walrus. Across Greenland, discover how the Inuit live on the edge of the Arctic, alongside musk oxen and polar bears.
Sail an icebreaker on one of the world’s most elusive cruises – to the North Pole. Just one or two expeditions take place each summer, during the scant few weeks when the passage is navigable, smashing through thick pack ice to reach the top of the world – the North Pole. Voyages stop off at far-flung Russian islands, and you’ll get to “walk around the world” in seconds.
The frozen sea between Russia and the US was once known as the Ice Curtain – but today, navigating these waters is possible for a few months each year. The wilderness islands include the Wrangel Nature Reserve, whose mammoth steppe vegetation is filled with strange endemic flora. Visit the remains of a 3,400 year old Eskimo camp, and look for grey whales, polar bears, musk oxen and Pacific walrus.
Far beyond the Arctic Circle, Svalbard is the stuff of icy legend. Walrus and auks, reindeer and bearded seals, foxes and 3,000 polar bears inhabit the snowy shores and mountains, trapped by pack ice. Trek across flowering, windswept tundra, and discover glaciers and fjords. Spitsbergen, the largest island, is home to the tiny capital of Longyearbyen, where you can try dog sledding, kayaking and even coal mining.
The stark mountains of this peninsula are an icy extension of the Andes, rising 3,000m into the sky. Ruggedly beautiful, visitors can spot dozens of whales swimming around their boats, and the fearsome leopard seal out hunting. Cruising the Lemaire Channel is a trip highlight, with icebergs, glaciers and orcas. Islands are breeding grounds for penguins and seabirds; you can also visit research stations.
The stretch of water between South America and Antarctica inspires a sense of both adventure and dread. During the two-day crossing, stomachs will be churned by the waves, gales and the sense of mounting excitement. Watch giant albatross from the deck and join in the fascinating wildlife and geography lectures. And as you reach the frozen continent – you’ll never forget your first sighting of a colossal iceberg.
A bit of Britain at the end of the world, the windswept, wave-bashed Falklands have surprising biodiversity. Commerson’s dolphins may follow your boat, while enormous albatross glide above and four species of penguins nest on the shoreline. Meet the people they share the island with in Port Stanley, home to a fish and chip shop and red phone boxes, plus shipwrecks and an unsettling whalebone arch.
King George Island
One of the last outposts before reaching Antarctica, 120km to the south, the South Shetlands are home to 16 research stations – and the continent’s only hotel. The largest island is King George; its airfield can be used by those wishing to avoid the rough Drake Passage crossing. Penguins, gulls, cormorants and giant petrels nest here, and the tundra landscape supports mosses and lichens, a surreal sight.
Ross Sea/Subantarctic Islands
The specks of land
between NZ and the Ross Sea are some of the most isolated and unusual islands on earth. Strange megaherbs flourish on Campbell Island, adapted to the harsh conditions. Visit the Australian Antarctic Base and the enormous penguin colonies on Macquarie Island. Further south, in the Ross Sea, an enormous active volcano, is found on Ross Island, along with Shackleton’s Hut and a research station.
Desolate and beautiful, South Georgia, one of the exceptionally remote South Sandwich Islands, is the resting place of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. A 3,000m mountain ridge discharges glaciers into sheltered harbours, home to king penguins and enormous, barking elephant seals. The museum reveals the island’s fascinating history. Volcanic Mount Michael, on Saunders Island, has an active lava lake.
Tierra del Fuego
Most Antarctic expeditions start on this island at the end of the world. Having travelled all this way, it’s well worth allowing a couple of days for exploration. There are easy walking trails through the national park forests, and you can paddle canoes on lagoons and rivers. Expedition boats depart via the Beagle Channel, with a backdrop of ice-coated mountains giving a sense of how vast the “tip” of South America truly is.
Antarctica and Arctic Cruise Itineraries
Eastern Siberia (15 days):
Alaska ► Eastern Russia  ► Wrangel ► Herald Islands ► North Siberian coast ► Bering Strait ► Chukotka Coast
Classic cruise, 12 days:
Wildlife Cruise (14 days):
Svalbard ► Longyearbyen ► Greenland Sea ► Eastern Greenand ► Denmark Strait
Ushiaia ► Drake Passage (2 days) ► Antarctic Peninsula and islands ► Drake Passage (2 days) ► Ushuaia
Footsteps of Shackleton, 25 days:
Ushuaia ► Falkland Islands ► South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands ► South Orkney Islands ► South Shetland Islands ► Antarctic Peninsula and islands ► Antarctic Peninsula and islands ► Ushuaia