Ultimate Destination: Antarctica

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Courtesy of Voyages of Discovery

If you venture from the comfort of your cruise ship to the shores of Antarctica, its well-dressed residents may come out to greet you in their unique style.

Antarctica is the most southerly continent. It is the fifth largest of the world’s seven continents, but was not sighted until 1820.

It is very different from the Arctic, which is a frozen ocean surrounded by land. Antarctica is buried under a vast ice cap up to 15,670 feet deep.

The highest mountain is 16,050 feet in elevation. How cold is it? The lowest temperature recorded anywhere was minus 132 degrees. The highest wind speed recorded was 198 miles per hour. It is home to the world’s largest glacier, Lambert Glacier.

It is believed that 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is tied up in Antarctic ice. Only 4 percent of the continent is not covered in ice.

So why visit? Spectacular scenery!

For many years, China was the favored destination for those who had been everywhere. Books on that nation were found on many travelers’ coffee tables and it was somewhat of a game of “one-upmanship” to visit China after it opened to the western world in the 1970s.

However, since the 1990s Antarctica has become the place to visit.

How do you get there? The best way is in the comfort of a cruise ship. Unlike the earlier explorers, you can reach the continent in luxury, ease and safety. When is the time to go? During Antarctica’s summer — December, January and February.

Other facts on the continent: if Antarctica’s ice sheets melted, the world’s oceans would rise by more than 200 feet everywhere; it is the best place in the world to find meteorites because they are dark and show up against the white expanse of ice and snow and don’t get covered by vegetation. Snow falling at the South Pole takes about 100,000 years to flow to the coast of the continent before it drops off the end as part of an iceberg. The Antarctic ice cap is 90 percent of all the ice on the planet.

Several expedition type ships ply these waters, some from Russia, Scandinavia, England and the United States. Since only 100 people may be landed on the continent at one time, I would suggest your booking one of the smaller ships with not more than 600 passengers. I don’t know how the larger ships handle the landing of passengers; perhaps they just cruise by the dramatic scenery.

A company I have cruised with several times, Voyages of Discovery, sends its 20,000-ton Discovery to the bottom of the world. For its Antarctic cruises, they carry a maximum of 500 passengers, which allows all to be landed at a couple of locations during the cruise, weather permitting.

Most cruise lines visiting these southern waters supply passengers with thick, red parkas providing better comfort in the cooler temperatures. Where cruise ships visit, the average daytime temperature averages 33 degrees during the summer months.

Voyages of Discovery recently announced some rather dramatic savings for sailings this Antarctic season. You can save up to 10 percent on fares, plus for sailings in December it is offering free air and no fuel surcharges or single supplement. The free air is offered from New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. And for sailings in January, there is no single supplement on selected cabins.

On the Discovery, passengers take part in landings ashore and Zodiac cruises of scenic areas where landings are not permitted. In some shore excursions, passengers will walk among thousands of penguins.

Dr. Peter Carey, founder of the Sub-Antarctic Foundation for Ecosystems Research, heads Discovery’s 14-member expedition team. His team includes an Ice Master and six Zodiac drivers.

After the flight from the United States, you land in Buenos Aires, Argentina or Santiago, Chile. After spending two days in one of these cities with an included city tour, you usually fly to the ship by landing in Ushuaia, Argentina. From there, cruise south to such locations as Deception Island, King George Island, Elephant Island, Hope Bay the Gerlache Strait, Paradise Harbor, Lemaire Channel, Half Moon Island, South Georgia plus other points of extreme interest. Each cruise will differ just a bit as to exact itinerary. Imagine cruising between giant icebergs and glaciers.

Antarctica is one of the least visited corners of the globe and is the reason so many seasoned travelers choose to visit.

The Discovery has very sturdy construction, built in Germany with a deep draft. It is 553 feet in length and has all the amenities of a larger ship, but provides the club-like atmosphere one wants in a ship of this type. You’ll find two swimming pools, a domed roof on the top deck, a fine dining room, several lounges, bars, and the best Filipino crew afloat. The officers are British.

There will be expert lecturers on board to make the experience even more enjoyable and you’ll come home with a feeling of really having been somewhere. You’ll see zillions of penguins, seals, birds, perhaps some whales and other wildlife. This will be truly a trip of a lifetime. The icebergs will tower above you, and you’ll be clicking your camera often.

So, if there is some explorer in you, visit or call your travel professional and book a voyage to Antarctica. You can obtain much information on the Web, and if you wish to call Voyages of Discovery, dial 1-866-623-2689. Have a drink with some pieces of iceberg for me!

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