Exploring Antarctica’s rugged “White Continent” is without a doubt a “trip-of-a-lifetime” for travelers who truly seek adventure! And just like a huge iceberg rising out of icy polar waters, the date of my trip departure looms large. I am about to embark on possibly the grandest adventure of my life – a polar exploration of Earth’s final frontier – and I am excited!
I am traveling once again with my beloved BTO Photography Tour group led by photographer Bill Bachmann (who very sadly is going to miss the trip due to recent health issues). This will be my 7th trip with BTO and my 7th continent! I am most grateful to Bill & BTO for providing me with this huge travel milestone.
I depart February 20th for the 3.5 week South America/Antarctica adventure. In this blog post, I want to share juicy details about my upcoming journey so you can travel vicariously with me. I also plan to share updates and photos “from the road” (or is that sea?) on Facebook and Instagram – so you can follow my travels (as long as the internet gods cooperate!) and share the adventure.
Summary of My Grand Antarctica Adventure
Our 19-person BTO group booked the trip through Vantage Adventures, a division of Vantage Deluxe World Travel. We signed up for the tour alluringly named: “Antarctica, Falklands & South Georgia: In the Realm of the Great Explorers – 2017.” Our Vantage tour group, which numbers 41 people, is being led by “adventure leaders” Marco & Pablo. We will join other groups on the actual ship.
For travel types like me who “want to see it all,” the Vantage trip itinerary is great. Their official 22-day tour starts in Buenos Aires, Argentina where we spend two nights. We’ll have time to explore this vibrant city before flying to the tip of Argentina to the port town of Ushuaia where we board the MS Fram, our shipboard home for the next 18 days! (see map)
It takes 2 days to cross the infamous Drake Passage before arriving at the Antarctica Peninsula where we’ll have three glorious days of exploration. Then it’s another 2 days at sea to arrive at South Georgia Island for a 2-day visit. Two more sea days take us to the Falkland Islands for 2 days of exploration. Two seems to be the magic number for this trip, eh?
From the Falkland Islands, we’ll spend four days sailing all the way up to Uruguay. We disembark in Montevideo to spend one final night there along with time for touring the city. In total, we will have spent 10 full days at sea and 7 full days of on-shore touring from the ship. It’s a good thing I LOVE being on ships and at sea!
Buenos Aires, Argentina – Tango Anyone?
I am flying into Buenos Aires one day early so I can have a little more time to explore Argentina’s exciting capital city on my own. My Lonely Planet book is packed and will be studied on the plane ride. I haven’t been to Buenos Aires before but apparently the city looks and feels a lot like Europe but with an edgy Latin American twist. We’ll have a formal city tour of the main sights like the Plaza de Mayo and La Boca district, filled with brightly painted houses.
No doubt, a real highlight will be the Tango Dinner Show we’re going to at El Viejo Almacen, one of the city’s most traditional clubs. Argentina is world famous for its sensual tango. I’ve read that the professional shows are something to behold for the pageantry and incredible athleticism of the dancers. To round out the local experience, I’ll make sure to eat beef at one of the city’s parrillas (steakhouses).
Ushuaia – Gateway to Antarctica
Ushuaia has the honor of being the world’s southernmost city. In its historic past, it has been a naval base, a missionary hub, and a penal colony. Today, the port town is the main gateway to Antarctica. After a 3-hour flight from Buenos Aires, we’ll have time to wander around the town and explore this epicenter of adventure before boarding our ship in the late afternoon of Feb. 24th.
Introducing Our Hurtigruten Ship – The MS Fram
So, you might be wondering about the polar expedition vessel that’s going to be our home for the next 18 days! The MS Fram, built in 2007, was specially designed for cruising icy Arctic and Antarctica waters. She’s part of the Norway-based Hurtigruten Cruise Line and holds around 256 passengers plus a crew of 68. (BTW, I just learned that MS stands for Motor Ship).
The Fram has a restaurant, bar, panoramic lounge, an Internet café, and a library. There is also a fitness room (for those long days at sea), a sauna and two heated outdoor Jacuzzis (oh boy!) We’re certainly not roughing it like the historic polar explorers we are paying homage to. I am sharing a cabin with my good friend Nadia. It has a small window and is definitely “cozy” (between 118-140 sf).
The Drake Passage – Let the Games Begin!
The legendary Drake Passage extends about 1,000 km (600 miles) between Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America) and the South Shetland Islands (northernmost reaches of Antarctica). This treacherous stretch of ocean connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The weather patterns in this area are unpredictable and there is a real propensity for high winds causing VERY rough seas.
The crossing takes approximately 48 hours in favorable conditions on a ship of our size. Seasoned cruisers to Antarctica warn that the Drake Passage has just two moods (seemingly “polar opposites”!): “the Drake Shake” or “the Drake Lake.” The seas are reportedly rough more often than calm – but it’s a real luck of the draw.
One blogger described her Drake Shake as “bronco-bucking movements that threatened to toss you out of bed and fling you out of doors” in what were her 25-foot seas. Naturally, I am hoping (and praying!) for a calm, glassy crossing. But I am coming prepared with seasickness meds, including a Transderm scopolamine patch and sea bands. But hey, it’s all part of the adventure and we’ll certainly have stories to tell! Soon the reward….
Antarctica & the Antarctica Peninsula – Polar Bliss
Finally, the moment we’ve been waiting for – our first view of Antarctica and the opportunity to explore the Antarctica Peninsula for three glorious days! There the ship will cruise among islands, bays and channels, while we awe-struck passengers pinch ourselves and marvel at the stark white polar landscape, the towering icebergs, and the fascinating land and sea life (like penguins, seals, birds).
The trip brochure states “Ice, wind and weather dictate life in Antarctica, just as they dictate our route and our landings.” Thus, there is no set daily itinerary – just a list of possible places we may visit depending on the conditions. Deception Island, Cuverville Island, Neko Harbor, Port Lockroy, Paradise Harbor, Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctic Sound, and Brown Bluff are on the list.
Weather permitting, we’ll go ashore on naturalist-led expeditions where we get to visit penguin colonies! We’ll also cruise in small rubber zodiac boats among ice-laden waters and hopefully see some massive crystal-blue icebergs close up. The Fram offers the opportunity to go kayaking (for an extra fee) in these beautiful waters. Nadia & I are definitely game for this unique experience – just no falling overboard!
Paradise Harbor is one of two ports used for the Fram and other cruise ships to stop on the continent. It is home to Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins, as well as Argentine and Chilean bases. Neko Harbor is the other port. During “free time” on the ship, our naturalist guides will give lectures on topics of geology, glaciology and wildlife. I have a whole lot to learn about this new “polar world” and I will be an eager student.
Shore Landings by Zodiac
We will make our shore landings with 8-passenger PolarCirkel (zodiac) craft. Apparently, it takes an average of 15 minutes each way to reach the shore from the ship. Once there, we “gingerly” step out of the boat into the shallow waters of the beach, wearing special waterproof boots.
Soon after boarding the ship, we will each be issued our own loaner pair of Muck rubber boots – which are waterproof and insulated – to use on shore excursions for the whole trip. Apparently, you not only want boots to protect you from water, snow and ice, but all the stinky penguin poop (guano)! We also get our own Hurtigruten jacket, which we get to take home with us. They are the perfect outer layer, being windproof and waterproof.
Antarctica Weather – The Big Question!
Like many people contemplating an Antarctica trip, one of my biggest questions concerned the weather – specifically just how cold was it going to be? After all, I am a southern California girl! I was pleasantly surprised to learn the temperatures where we are going averaged in the 30s. Of course, this is before the wind chill.
Turns out, the Antarctica Peninsula is the warmest part of the continent. In contrast, the South Pole has one of the coldest climates on Earth. In January (its warmest month), the South Pole’s high temperatures average a frigid −26 °C (−15 °F). Just crossed that one off my travel list!
Glad we’re visiting just the “practically balmy” Antarctica Peninsula where temperature charts for the end of February show temps ranging from the upper 20s to mid-30s. However, wind chill can make it feel much colder and it is a very dry cold.
In Antarctica, not surprisingly, the weather is unpredictable and highly variable. So, it can be cold and windy one day and quite pleasant with bright sun and blue skies the next. In addition, the Antarctica summer brings long hours of daylight, which are great for observing the area’s wildlife.
Viewing Antarctica’s Amazing Wildlife
Besides the majestic polar landscape, Antarctica is renowned for its amazing wildlife. Of course, the adorable penguins are clearly the star attraction! I can’t wait to walk among these huge colonies of penguins. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing each of the varieties – Gentoo, Adelie, and Chinstrap penguins – that congregate on the Antarctica Peninsula’s coastal beaches and offshore islands.
Antarctica penguin chicks begin to hatch in mid-December to January. By the time we arrive in late February, the chicks will have grown and started to fledge. Also, I read that many of the penguins will start vacating their colonies (by late February to early March) to head out to sea to feed.
We’ll also view seals resting on the shore or ice floes and see many of the region’s beautiful birds, including albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters. Then there are the whales. I was excited to learn that we’re going at the best time (February and March) for whale watching! Evidently, all types of whales congregate in the Antarctica waters – Humpback, right, blue, sei, fin, sperm, minke, and killer whales.
South Georgia Island – King Penguins & Shackleton
The fact that South Georgia was included was a key reason BTO Bill chose this Antarctica tour. Travelers consistently rave about this alpine-peaked island with the largest king penguin colonies in the world. In addition, these adorable 3+ foot tall penguins are flanked by groups of fur and elephant seals (they look huge!). We’ll also visit a long-abandoned Norwegian whaling station and an old whaler’s church.
The other highlight will be a visit to the grave of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), the great British explorer who helped inspire our Antarctica voyage. His Trans-Antarctica Expedition (ultimately aborted) marked its 100th anniversary in 2016 and his remarkable story remains a legend of leadership and heroism. I just finished reading Endurance, the riveting book all about it!
It was here on South Georgia Island that Shackleton landed in 1916 after his legendary 800-mile journey aboard the 22-foot lifeboat James Caird. That journey, which came after Shackleton’s ship Endurance was lost to the ice, is considered one of the most incredible excursions ever undertaken in a small ship (and without losing a single person of his 27-man crew!)
The Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) are a remote South Atlantic archipelago with rugged terrain and cliff-lined coasts. Because of a unique ecosystem, about 70 sub-Antarctic animal and bird species make their home here, including the black-browed albatross and five different types of penguins.
We’ll visit the capital Stanley, which sits on the largest island (East Falkland). Apparently, the settlements on the islands have a distinctly British feel. We will also explore the region around North West Falkland. The Falklands War between Britain and Argentina took place back in 1982, in case you were wondering like I did. (as always, thank you Google).
Montevideo – Uruguay’s Charming Capital
Our sea journey ends on March 14th (after 4 sea days from the Falklands) with an arrival in Montevideo. Here we’ll say goodbye to the MS Fram crew and, once again, step onto terra firma. That day, we’ll tour Uruguay’s capital city and spend one final night here before flying home the next day to the States.
I will confess that I knew almost nothing about Uruguay before this trip and I have been impressed by what I have read so far. Evidently, this tiny country boasts the highest quality of life in Latin America. And Reader’s Digest named Uruguay as the ninth “most livable and greenest country” in the world. Impressive!
Montevideo, founded in the 18th century by the Spanish, has an impressive range of architecture from Art Deco to colonial styles. We’ll tour the city’s major sights, including the Old City and some of the neighborhoods and parks.
All Good Trips Must Sadly Come to an End
Spending a full day and night in Montevideo – a pleasant, low key South American city – seems to be a good way to begin our transition back into “normal life.” We will have spent many days at sea and experienced beautiful South Georgia Island & Antarctica, one of world’s best adventure travel destinations.
I have no doubt that it’s going to take quite a while to process the amazing experience that we have all been blessed to have shared. Luckily, I will have plenty of great new material for future blog posts and countless cool photos to share!
COMMENTS: Have you traveled to Antarctica? If not, is the trip on your dream list? What would you most want to see there? What questions do you have about the trip?