On the southward sail toward Antarctica, we made landfall at the Falklands on a 10,000-acre island in a distant corner of this wild archipelago where the landscape is so whipped by weather that no indigenous flora have survived the evolutionary edit (the gorse is an import). Living on this rock were a gentleman and one couple. The men had formerly switched wives, the infidelities bewilderingly conducted on this treeless isle where it would appear nigh impossible to lose sight of each other. From a practical point of view it seemed an extraordinary affair.
Equally peculiar was our next stop, just off the Antarctic Peninsula at 62 degrees south on King George Island. In this desolate landscape lived a group of Polish scientists: one woman, and 12 men. They had been holed up in 24-hour darkness for the polar winter at the Arctowski Research Station—one of several scientific groups here in Antarctica, a continent that grows to twice its size when the seasonal ice encircles a landmass already one and a half times the area of the United States. We were the first ship to arrive since winter's end, when the brief austral summer finally gives access from the middle of November until early March. This light-deprived isolation (studies show that a conspicuously high percentage of those who spend their winters in Antarctica suffer from some kind of psychological trauma) would likely account for the enthusiasm of one particular scientist, keen to show me the tomatoes he had been growing "under special conditions."
In this fruit, which was barely tinged with redness, there was at least a faint indication of something living. To the scientist I suspect it served a vital purpose within a vast frozen expanse where there are only two naturally occurring flowering plants. But, shut inside his greenhouse, I thought his wasn't a solely horticultural interest. I was the first woman in seven months to admire his blushing produce, traveling on a two-week package with Abercrombie & Kent.
My passage was with the Explorer, a boutique boat replaced this season by an even sleeker luxury vessel. The Explorer II, which I visited before her maiden voyage in December, is the diamond in the fleet of giant cruise ships and decommissioned Russian icebreakers that are carrying tourists to Antarctica with rapidly increasing frequency. The past decade has seen enormous interest, with some 13,571 visitors last season. This is in spite of the expense—Abercrombie & Kent's trips start at $5,995 per person—and the fact that it takes a fiendishly long time to get there. I flew from London to Buenos Aires; from there I flew to Santiago, Chile, and followed with a charter flight to the Falklands, where we finally boarded the ship that took a full two days just to sail far enough south to even reach the Antarctic Peninsula. (Travel from the United States is one stop easier, with numerous direct daily flights to Santiago from Atlanta, Dallas, and Miami.) The alternative is more formidable: five days on the open sea, departing from New Zealand.
It was a chance remark that led me to Antarctica. And from a friend who usually prefers Amanresorts to anything adventurous. "Sometimes I would go on deck at three a.m.," he told me, "and just stare at the icebergs and the horizon. It was amazing—a meditation, magical, romantic, and challenging." Indeed, Antarctica may be the last great aspirational destination, the ultimate wilderness. Bill Clinton and Moby have both cited Antarctica as the place they would most like to visit.
My fellow passengers were similarly eclectic. There was, of course, a smattering of "continent tickers" like the American management consultant who freely admitted, "I'm a list man, and Antarctica was the continent I hadn't yet done." And then there was a girl from the Midwest whose greatest show of enthusiasm, excepting a philatelic interest in a research station's stamps, was her rush to make land and hold a sign for a photo: I Made It to the Seven Continents. There were chief executives, lawyers, a Texan oil-rig builder, a Kiwi newspaper editor, a teacher from the British Midlands, and a carpenter from Colorado. There were also a cardiologist, a pediatrician, a TV presenter, a couple of academics, and two Kenyans with an obsession for snow. Not all were even amateur naturalists (the fauna is a significant draw to Antarctica). They were, however, experienced and discerning travelers, many of whom had tired of remote islands and perfect Caribbean beaches. Nor is Antarctica's clientele confined to any blue-rinse cliché.
Among the party was a glamorous 71-year-old widow from New York, traveling alone with her gala dinner jewels and a veteran's stash of travel-sickness pills. (The "Drake Lake," as they call the Drake Passage, which divides the horn of South America from the Antarctic Peninsula, is among the roughest water on the planet.) Of the 100-plus cruises she had completed, this one, she said, offered superior cuisine, service, and on-board lectures. This should debunk all myths about any Shackleton-like rigor, my own included. (The current fashion for polar literature, largely dedicated to the Scotts, Shackletons, and now their expeditioners, has a tendency to skew a tourist's preconceptions.) Indeed, I might have been the farthest from home I will likely ever travel, but Antarctica, at least in the hands of an outfitter like Abercrombie & Kent, means comfortable beds, hot en suite showers, and a constant flow of noticeably good Chilean Chardonnay—luxury extras all, as opposed to the reason you might holiday here, which in the case of Antarctica morphs into something far more visceral: the intangible, emotional reaction to complete disconnection and the surprisingly likeable strangeness of that divorce from everything familiar.
Antarctica is the largest wilderness in the world, and unlike others that carry this ubiquitous eco-adage, it is not a "managed wilderness" but unowned and unpeopled except for transient scientists. As environmentalists like to remark, it is the ultimate reminder of nature's potential before we scarred the rest of the planet. Nations have tried to stake territorial claims on the continent. There are significant reserves of coal and oil, although it is currently unviable to extract them. (It was with some prescience that Captain Cook, who got within 71 miles of the continent, turned on his heels, saying, "whatever was there wasn't worth the having.") Heated geopolitics saw warships sail southward in 1948, followed by a Chilean-Argentinean "race" to deliver children on the continent. In 1959 the Antarctic Treaty, originally signed by a dozen countries, designated it a zone of peace and science. (Significantly, the document was used as the basis for the Outer Space Treaty.) This means that the white continent remains just as it was three billion years ago, notwithstanding a growing ozone hole, research stations, tourist vessels, and millionaire, one-legged, all-women, solo adventurers with compulsions for becoming the first of their kind to flag-plant at the geographical South Pole. "It is a destination rich with history, despite being the emptiest place on earth," says Alastair Vere Nicoll, a British-born corporate lawyer who is aiming to traverse the continent next December by kite-surfing on skis. "I long to escape the lack of challenges in a city existence, to experience a part of Antarctica's peculiar status as the most difficult, romantic place on earth."
Looking at it from a statistical standpoint, Antarctica is unusual—colder than the summit of Everest yet drier than the Sahara, accounting for 90 percent of the world's ice (the average depth of which is 6,600 feet) as well as almost 70 percent of the world's fresh water. Icebergs come as big as Delaware. It rarely rains, it mostly snows, technically making it the largest desert in the world. Winds whip up to 200 miles per hour. The interior's mean temperature is minus 70 degrees F; the lowest ever recorded comes in at minus 131.8 degrees F. So hostile is it in winter it requires special equipment to survive.
In Antarctica, basic rhythms of existence are turned on their head: The summer day is four to six months long; winter is an unforgiving six-to-eight-month night. During this period, the emperor penguin incubates its young in complete darkness, without food or drink. Males huddle together in tightly packed circles, each covering an egg with a pouch above its feet. They move not more than a meter in two months, but rely on the group's body heat, with each penguin, in perfect order, taking its turn on the windward flank. The icefish carry antifreeze proteins in their ice-clear blood, while the largest land animal is a two-millimeter-long flightless midge. Antarctica is ironically also home to what may be the world's most abundant species, the shrimplike krill, which sustain the marine food chain, moving in swarms hundreds of meters across; gather them together and their biomass would be heavier than the world's human population. Statistically, and the list keeps building in this scientific nirvana, Antarctica is belittling. But see it in the flesh, and the emotional response is far, far greater.
I thought it was the lack of color that I liked—the abstractness of nameless views, the blankness, emptiness, and relentless indifference of miles and miles of featureless snow. Because of this whiteness, a dazzling optical illusion implies the landscape is larger still. Views are depthless. It is an implacable environment whose silence could be terrifying, but to someone en route it is mesmerizingly serene. Cirrus clouds appear as mountains, indistinguishable from the lips of glaciers and bald, shadowless slopes. But then the sun cuts through, splicing an oily slick of ice gathering on the sea. Everything changes, with a dynamism that is at once compelling and distinct. Ice cliffs reveal their broken veins—blue, gaping, almost like wounds. Sail closer still (for all landfalls in Antarctica you are ferried by inflatable Zodiac boat from ship to ice) and a crack in the berg intensifies into a flaming cobalt. I reach out from the dinghy to touch the ice, yet with the physical connection the blue disappears and I can see straight through. The lecturer, a Kiwi named Lou Sanson who has overwintered here (just one of the experienced expedition staff that give A&K a unique, intimate atmosphere), speaks of refractive particles and wavelengths of light. I prefer the unexplained mutability, somehow a symbol of Antarctica, where within minutes the sky closes in. The air has an icy grip, the snow starts to fall horizontally, and my eyes begin to sting.
Perhaps it was this beguiling lack of stasis that I found so appealing, the otherworldliness of a place where nothing is quite as it seems. There were other travelers who could watch for hours as a wandering albatross rode the Southern Ocean's winds. The birds circle here for five years before returning to breed on land. There were humpback whales, penguins, and petrels, as well as grumpy seals huddled together on Antarctic beaches like corpulent slugs. A pod of Commerson's dolphins played in front of the ship's prow, watched by colonies of Chinstrap penguins that threw up their chins as if the joke were on us. In Antarctica, everyone finds his own fixation, not in spite of the desolation but because of the landscape's ability to effect a private, internalized, imaginative world. In this way Antarctica's appeal is something of many things, but more as well.
"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success." So read Sir Ernest Shackleton's advertisement in the London Times for expeditioners in 1914. I am reminded that it wasn't so long ago you paid with your life to visit this place. It's easier now: You simply choose your boat and pay with a credit card.
The Explorer II sails six times a year with three separate itineraries. This journalist traveled on the 16-day Antarctica and Falkland Islands cruise (rates are from $6,995 per person). The most exploratory trip takes 20 days and follows in the footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Called Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia Island, it begins at $8,495 per person.
Although the new Explorer II is a 300-berth ship, Abercrombie & Kent caps numbers at 198 guests to allow for easier and more frequent transfers from ship to land by inflatable Zodiac boats. Large cruise ships are to be avoided for the simple reason that the point of Antarctica is its sense of quiet. If there are thousands of you disembarking at one time, you can be sure the penguins won't stick around for the photo shoot. All rooms have ocean views (portholes on B-deck and windows on A-deck). The best room is the Symphony Suite, with a chic, yacht-style wraparound banquette in beige suede and a cherrywood bed. Abercrombie & Kent: 800-323-7308; www.abercrombiekent.com.
In November, in concert with National Geographic Expeditions and Geographic Expeditions (an unrelated San Francisco-based adventure travel company), Lindblad Expeditions (800-397-3348; www.lindblad.com) will mount an 18-day boat-and-trekking trip to South Georgia Island and the Falklands. For an extreme exploratory experience with lecturers of a reputably high caliber, Quark Expeditions (800-356-5699; www.quarkexpeditions.com) focuses solely on Antarctica and the Arctic region. In 2003, Butterfield & Robinson (800-678-1147; www.butterfield.com) made its first Antarctic voyage with The Orion, another new upmarket expedition ship, which carries only 106 passengers. Butterfield & Robinson welcomes families with children 15 years and older. Adventure Network International (866-395-6664; www.adventure-network.com), one of the only companies that offer travel to the Antarctic interior, was also the first company to offer airborne travel to Antarctica. Highlights include Polar Dream custom itineraries, extreme skiing, and an emperor penguin photography program. But for a real Arctic adventure, Berg Adventures International (866-609-4148; www.bergadventures.com) offers a 17-day climbing trip to Mount Vinson in the Ellsworth Mountains of Antarctica.
Departures' European Contributing Editor Sophy Roberts wrote about French and Swiss ski resorts in the January/February issue.