If Antarctica is the forgotten continent, these specks of land are the least explored part of it. Collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these five groups of islands nurture strange megaherbs and are a haven for seabirds, as the only land for thousands of miles. Further south, Macquarie Island – once considered too “harsh” to be used as a penal colony – shelters huge penguin and seal colonies.
Wherever you’re from, Antarctica is a long, long way away. So take advantage of having travelled halfway round the world and squeeze in a tour in South America. At the “end of the world”, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego are utterly magical – but if you’ve had enough of chilly wildernesses, you could always spend a few days warming up in the seductive city of Buenos Aires.
When you sign up for an outdoor adventure in a wild landscape, lecture programmes may sound rather dull. But the ships’ biologists, geographers, photographers, historians and geologists share fascinating insights about the land and creatures around you. You’ll learn to identify species, and a little knowledge means you will be even more amazed by the world passing you by on deck.
We don’t think that bigger is better in Antarctica. Larger boats (over 100 pax) may reduce seasickness, but a smaller vessel gives a more personalised service, the chance of one-on-one time with the scientists and lecturers, and access to shallower harbours. Additionally, only 100 people may step ashore at a time, so passengers on bigger ships must take it in turns.
The power of Antarctica is never clearer than to those venturing out in tiny inflatable zodiac boats – surrounded by whales and towering bergs. Cruises tend to include one or two zodiac trips a day, allowing you to get up close to seals, penguins and step onto the endless Antarctic continent. Your schedule is dictated by the weather and the ocean – simply thrilling.
Cruising through the stunning Lemaire Channel is a trip highlight. Icebergs, glaciers and sheer cliffs are the giants above the water, while humpback whales are the behemoths below. Keep an eye out for orcas too. As narrow as 1,600m in places, with plenty of loose icebergs, the channel is precarious. The scenery and mirror like waters are a dream for photographers, however – earning it the nickname “Kodak Gap”.
In the rush to reach the Antarctic, don’t miss the desolate and beautiful South Georgia along the way. A 3,000m mountain ridge discharges glaciers into sheltered harbours, home to king penguins and enormous, barking elephant seals. The resting place of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton is found here, along with a museum revealing the island’s fascinating history.
The fact that any creature can survive this extreme landscape is incredible enough – but the animals themselves are awe-inspiring. Orcas and huge humpback whales breach beneath huger icebergs and 3m-long leopard seals hunt penguins beneath the waves, while giant albatross and petrels patrol the skies. On-board lectures explain more about life on the planet’s least hospitable continent.
Want to see these enormous bears prowling the ice? Head north, waaaayy north – polar bears are only found in the Arctic.
The ghastly journey to the South Pole, which once took months and killed many who attempted it, can now be done in a few short hours. Yours for £30,000 – a flight to the bottom of the world. Ironically, this is designated a “Specially Managed Area” to protect it – but we’re not sure how flying all this way for a few short hours fits in with this. Likewise with day-long “flightseeing” tours.