I set foot on my seventh continent with a splash: swinging my legs over the edge of a rubber zodiac to hop into the shallow waters of the South Shetlands, a string of islands flanking the Antarctic Peninsula. Ahead of me, on a rocky promontory woven with ribbons of snow, thousands of penguins marched about their business—a comical carnival of waddling, sliding and flopping—as elephant seals barked at each other nearby.
I’d anticipated this moment for years, and yet, once I was actually witnessing this spectacle unfold in the most remote reaches of the planet, I could only stand and watch wordlessly. “It doesn’t matter if it’s your first, fifth, or 10th time,” said Silversea Cruises expedition team member Victoria Laroquevaras, who was on her fifth expedition to the White Continent. “It always has that same sense of wonder.”
The Anticipation Begins
An Antarctic adventure starts long before that sense of wonder sets in. My first decision had been easy: I was set to sail with Silversea Cruises, whose small luxury ships promise some of the most indulgent experiences at sea. The brand has launched three vessels in the past year alone—including Silver Endeavour, whose inaugural journey I’d be boarding in Puerto Williams, located in Chilean Patagonia.
What sealed the deal was Silversea’s air-bridge. Cruises to the Frozen Continent can take anywhere from 10 to 21 days, but thanks to an exclusive partnership with Antarctic Airways, some Silversea itineraries include flights from Punta Arenas to an airstrip on King George Island aboard a plane painted to resemble a penguin. For a time-strapped would-be adventurer, this option is priceless. Seeing a penguin fly? Even more so.
If only deciding out what to pack were as easy. Summer temperatures in Antarctica can hover between a balmy 30 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but temperamental skies mean it’s best to be overprepared. Silversea supplies waterproof pants, sturdy rubber boots and a scarlet parka, which left plenty of room in my suitcase for layers—thermals, tops and a fleece—along with waterproof gloves, wool socks, hats and sunglasses. I added a few sweaters for cozy days spent enjoying my time on Endeavour, along with seasickness medication in anticipation of the Drake Passage.
Adventure—and Indulgence—at the Edge of the World
After a failed attempt to find Antarctica in 1775, British explorer Captain James Cook wrote, “I can be bold to say that no man will ever venture farther than I have done and that the lands which may lie to the South will never be explored.” Defying Cook’s prediction, 105,000 tourists are expected to arrive in Antarctica this season. Their impact on such a fragile ecosystem is a serious concern, and organizations such as the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) work to regulate tourism efforts. British explorer and author Felicity Aston, Silver Endeavour’s godmother and the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica, stressed the importance of responsible travel in the region: “If I could, I’d take all the politicians and policymakers and people of influence to Antarctica to just experience it for themselves,” she said. “This is a place that changes perspectives in a way that we really need perspectives to be changed right now.”
My first day aboard the Endeavour was a blur of briefings on IAATO guidelines and zodiac training, talks that unfolded in the ship’s cozy Explorer’s Lounge as we made our way into the notorious Drake Passage. A treacherous 500-mile stretch of water separating South America and Antarctica, it can take anywhere from two to four days to navigate, depending on conditions—and luck.
Silver Endeavour, with her state-of-the-art stabilizing features, made sure we felt little more than mild swaying; that night, the ship rocked me gently to bed. I spent much of my time in the Drake feasting my way through the Endeavour’s various dining rooms: Chilean sea bass at the elegant Restaurant; lobster thermidor at the poolside Grill, a conservatory-like cube with sweeping views; and a decadent degustation at La Dame with caviar, foie gras terrine and steak with wild mushrooms. I knew that once we arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula, I’d be rushing through meals to spend as much time outside as possible, whether on deck or on landings.
My penguin encounter in the South Shetlands was a teaser for what lay ahead, and it wasn’t until my third morning that I flung open my black-out curtains to glimpse the White Continent in all its alabaster glory: an endless expanse of pristine glaciers and snowclad peaks and marble slabs adrift as far as I could see. “What we have around us is truly what Antarctica is all about,” said expedition leader Mareike Egan as we sailed into Neko Harbour.
Every day brought with it a pastiche of snow and ice, penguins and seals, silver mornings and golden sunsets, and yet somehow, I marveled at each moment anew. Cruising through the Herrera Channel, I gasped as a whale breached amid the towering icebergs. At twilight in the Neumayer strait, a luminous pastel sunset began to seep its way across the pearlescent sky. As we sailed into the Lemaire Channel, one of Antarctica’s most photogenic stretches, I went to the 10th-floor running deck to ponder the deep and boundless silence, interrupted only by the crunching of ice below the Endeavour or the thundering of a calving glacier in the distance.
The only thing I knew to expect was the unexpected—calm, sunny mornings could quickly give way to evenings mired in mist and uncertainty; a sublime afternoon with a penguin rookery might be followed by a soggy zodiac ride back to the ship, the winds lashing your face with icy fury. You can’t help but wonder at this grand continent that enticed, eluded and entrapped so many adventures for centuries—a thought that made me all the more grateful as I dined on steak and caviar, protected and cosseted from the elements.
After the Awe
Antarctica is unpredictable, temperamental—and spectacular. In the weeks after my voyage, my mind was effusive with thoughts, but my lips struggled to find the right words to pair with them. This feeling is what inspires many to return from their trips as Antarctic ambassadors, finding ways to protect and preserve this ethereal place—or that’s what advocates such as Aston hope for: “You’re all going to go home,” she mused, “and we will never know where the ripples of your influence will end and the good that it will do.”
Five-day Antarctic cruises aboard Silver Endeavour, including round-trip flights between Punta Arenas, Chile, and King George Island, begin at $18,400 per person.