Expansive, pristine and uninhabited by human beings, Antarctica is often referred to as “The Last Continent.” For many world travelers, this nickname is especially meaningful because it’s literally the last continent they need to visit in order to complete their bucket list.
I recently checked Antarctica – my seventh continent! – off my own bucket list on a Viking expedition cruise and it was the trip of a lifetime. Quiet and absolutely stunning, Antarctica is unlike any other place I’ve visited. With luxury expedition ships making it easier than ever to experience this majestic continent, it’s no wonder Antarctica is now a top travel destination for the first time ever, according to a Squaremouth survey.
Every day – really, every minute – in Antarctica is a little different but it’s always spectacular. Constantly changing weather means you’ll see icebergs in a variety of shapes and sizes, some tinted with blue, some fallen off and floating on the water, some home to penguins and seals.
On Viking Polaris or Octantis, you’ll be able to enjoy all of it from the comfort of your stateroom, which features what they call a “Nordic balcony” – a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling window that opens halfway down so you can breathe in the fresh air and take photos without the glare of glass. While you’re on your cruise, you’ll have sunlight pretty much 24/7 along with views that never set. Use the binoculars in your room to hone in on that speck you see in the distance. It just might be a lounging seal.
Zodiacs, kayaks and submarines
As long as weather conditions permit, you’ll have daily opportunities to explore Antarctica on zodiacs, kayaks, special operations boats and even submarines. Viking houses four yellow submarines, appropriately named John and Paul (both on Octantis) and George and Ringo (both on Polaris), and they’re a special way to see what’s going on under the water. Each kind of boat offers its own unique experience, giving you different perspectives on your surroundings and the wildlife that live there.
Walk on untouched land
As magnificent as the scenery is from the water, though, it’s impossible to describe the feeling of actually walking on Antarctic snow and ice – something few people have done and only 100 at a time are currently allowed to do. You’ll pinch yourself each time you look around, take in the breathtaking scenery and think of the explorers who came before you.
Because it’s home to millions of penguins, one of the things that makes Antarctica so special is the fact that you get to see hundreds of them – most commonly, gentoos, chinstraps, and adélies – up close and personal. Sure, you’ve seen them at the zoo or aquarium but that doesn’t begin to compare with watching them go about their daily lives in their natural habitat.
You’ll grin, you’ll laugh and you’ll admire the tenacity of these black-and-white beauties as they waddle their way up and down the penguin highways – the well-worn paths they travel back and forth between their nests and the sea – sometimes face-planting, sometimes running into traffic jams but nevertheless persisting.
You’re also likely to encounter more whales than you’ve ever seen before. During the first few days of our cruise, guests constantly ran out to the deck to take photos when someone spotted a whale. By the second week, everyone was so used to seeing them, we would all just nod and take a quick glance. Humpbacks were the most common sighting and, one memorable day, the ship seemed to be surrounded by them. These majestic creatures are just a joy to behold.
Become a citizen scientist
Both Viking expedition ships feature Expedition Central and The Science Lab, where real-life scientists from Cambridge University, Cornell University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conduct actual research projects. Guests are always welcome to ask questions, learn more and join in, making them more invested in taking care of the stunning landscape they’re getting to experience firsthand.
On my cruise, we were encouraged to take photos of whale tails – which are as individual as human fingerprints – for scientists to track. If we discovered a whale they hadn’t already been tracking, we’d get to name it ourselves.
Science talks – which were much more interesting and vibrant than they sound – were often held in the beautiful Aula, an auditorium/lecture hall inspired by the University of Oslo’s Atrium, where the Nobel Peace Prize used to be awarded. A coffee station is set up outside of it and popcorn is served on movie nights.
Viking Octantis and Polaris also regularly launch weather balloons for the US National Weather Service and each launch turns into an onboard party. The helium-filled biodegradable balloon has a radiosonde attached to it to measure and transmit atmospheric data like temperature, wind and relative humidity. It was fascinating to be part of this and to see the results of the launch.
Polar class comfort
I chose Viking for my Antarctic journey because, although I was fine with the idea of unpredictable conditions outside, I wanted the comfort and consistency of their intimate, luxury ships inside. Plus, I’m a big fan of the brand’s “thinking person’s cruise” philosophy and loved that I would be surrounded by books which I could enjoy in any one of the cozy nooks and spaces aboard the ship.
Weeks later, I still think about this journey daily. Having seen what’s at stake, it’s made me even more determined to do my part to save the planet. It’s also reinforced my belief that the experiences that come out of travel are more valuable than anything I could buy. Antarctica may be “The Last Continent” but I’m hoping this trip was just my first one there.