Frozen splendor

By Patricia Schultz
Quark Expeditions 189-passenger Ocean Diamond.Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911, wrote, "This land looks like a fairytale." More than 100 years later, I shared his dream and visited Antarctica -- in admittedly cushier conditions -- to find its grandeur and mystery to be astonishingly intact. For those today who think there is nothing left to seek or nothing left untrammeled, the White Continent at the bottom of the world awaits. Serene, magnificent, empty, surreal and beautiful beyond words.

Although the Seventh Continent -- the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined and twice the size of Australia -- is the world's most inaccessible, it is no longer a pipe dream for adventurers who place it high on their bucket lists. And they are not all well-traveled, wealthy and retired as one might suspect. One 40-something woman who traveled with us aboard Quark Expeditions' Ocean Diamond admitted she had only one other international trip under her belt (Portugal) but had been saving up for Antarctica since she was a young girl. (Click here or on the images for more photos from the journey.) 

It was this longtime and sometimes unexplainable fascination that was everyone's common thread. Expectations were high, but the experience was even better. There is almost no way to adequately describe this vast wilderness of snow, ice, water and rock. And wildlife, an abundance of wildlife.  

Since Lars-Eric Lindblad took the first group of intrepid travelers to Antarctica in 1966, the number of expedition ships venturing into these remote waters has grown, including the recent arrival of mainstream lines like Celebrity, Silversea, Crystal and Seabourn, whose loyal clients want to combine high adventure with high luxury.

I chose Quark Expeditions because of its 20 years of experience in the polar regions, its top-drawer expedition team aboard a fleet of six chartered ships and the stellar past-passenger reviews. When not sailing the Southern Arctic Ocean, the company heads north to Svalbard in Norway, the North Pole, Greenland and Canada's high Arctic to fill out the year. I am ready to sign up for all of them.

The austral summer season runs from November to March, when typical afternoons range from the high 20s to the high 30s Fahrenheit, and our spring departure in mid-November was one of the season's first.

Shore excursions are made twice a day via 12-passenger Zodiacs.Three-quarters booked, the comfortable, 189-berth Ocean Diamond carried an interesting international mix: predominantly 40- to 75-year-old North Americans but with a surprising number of 30-somethings. To offset the steep single supplement, Quark helps pair up same-sex requests.

The steep gangplank and the twice-daily shore landings in 12-passenger Zodiacs were easily handled by everyone, thanks to the assistance of the ubiquitous crew.

Most Antarctic sailings embark and disembark in Ushuaia, Argentina, the gateway to Antarctica (other gateway cities are Christchurch, New Zealand; Hobart in Tasmania; and Punta Arenas in Chile). The southernmost city in the world, it is a ramshackle, edge-of-the-world town with a population of 120,000, though it feels like much fewer. It is also a convenient base for a precruise visit to the Patagonian national park of Tierra del Fuego. Time and budget will determine the itinerary. The popular 11-day (and longer) expedition crosses 600 (sometimes turbulent) miles south across the legendary Drake Passage, the important trade route in the 18th and 19th centuries that was all but abandoned with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.

The destination is the Antarctic Peninsula, the long sliver of the continent that is the closest point to South America. Those wanting to maximize time on the peninsula can opt for an eight-day (and longer) option to fly both ways, picking up the ship on the peninsula to explore its countless islands and bays.

South Georgia is a standout for its massive numbers of king penguins.But those heading due south will have missed what many of us who sailed east from Ushuaia on the longer 20-day itinerary held to be one of the highlights of an experience already heavy with highlights: the inclusion of the far-flung Falkland Islands (the Islas Malvinas to Argentines) and South Georgia, the historically important island so prized for its variety of wildlife that it is sometimes dubbed the Galapagos of the Atlantic.

Together with the grand finale -- the landing on the continent -- we explored three very distinct regions of the Southern Ocean where topography, climate, wildlife and history often varied greatly.

The fiercely British enclave of the Falklands is inhabited by some 2,500 friendly residents. A stroll through compact and interesting Port Stanley leads past pubs, a tea room and neatly tended flower gardens that augment the sense of Great Britain in the middle of nowhere.

Visiting a rugged outer island (population three) and its large colonies of penguins reduced us all to grade-school children. Four of the world's 18 species live in the Falklands, and they were present in abundance. The aptly named rock hopper, with its distinctive yellow feathers, was the smallest and most comical of them all (who didn't know Lovelace, from "Happy Feet," voiced by Robin Williams?).

Mountainous South Georgia Island is a standout for its massive numbers of the flamboyant king penguins, commonly 3 feet high and 30 pounds, and rocky beaches littered with fur seals and reigned over by 16-foot-long, 4-ton elephant seals attended by their harems of "cows" a quarter their size.

Guest lecturer Jonathan Shackleton at the gravesite of his cousin Ernest Shackleton.The subpolar island is also important for the once prosperous whaling station that flourished here in the early 20th century. But it is Ernest Shackleton who put it on the map for most history buffs: The British polar explorer managed to save his entire crew after they had been stranded in the Antarctic for almost two years when he appeared here in 1916 to find help. It is regarded by many to be one of the most astonishing rescue journeys in history. A small cemetery on the island holds his grave. He died here in 1922 during a subsequent expedition, and we toasted his remarkable bravery with a plastic cup of Jameson whiskey, led by Jonathan Shackleton, a cousin and family historian. As esteemed guest lecturer aboard the Ocean Diamond, Shackleton joined Falcon Scott, grandson of Robert Falcon Scott, the first Brit to reach the South Pole in 1912. It was like traveling with polar royalty.

The first shore landing by Zodiac on Antarctica is an emotional moment -- and for many, the proud accomplishment of having visited all seven of the Earth's continents.

Days at sea had been spent with a great variety of presentations by specialists and lecturers, a crash course in all things polar. We would see vast rookeries of chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo penguins, and we would commonly spot Weddell, fur, crabeater and leopard seals. Curious whales, such as Minkes, were as interested in our Zodiacs as we were in them.

We visited two deserted research stations. There are more than 40 such stations, belonging to 30 nations. All are seasonal. There is no permanent settlement nor indigenous people on the continent (and no, it is not a country).

Visits to the bridge promised a chance to spot chiseled icebergs, floating sculptures of outlandish sizes and eroded shapes that we also approached up close and personal during Zodiac cruises. Bird sightings are frequent from the bridge or observation lounge. We watched in awe as the wandering albatross effortlessly accompanied our ship thanks to its 10-foot wingspan, the largest of any living bird.

Time spent with the Ukrainian captain and his crew was a lesson in what it entails to navigate these ice floe-littered waters and manage such unpredictable weather (every day's itinerary was "weather depending," and last-minute changes were common).

Quark Expeditions offers kayaking as an optional excursion.Many passengers opted at extra cost for the chance to kayak, and an unexpected 80% of the passengers took the polar plunge. (I passed on that one, though for a minute I considered telling everyone back home -- and reading this article -- that I did.)

Were we ever cold? Actually, spotty WiFi kept us aware of the horrible winter conditions back home in New York City, and we were far more comfortable in the Antarctic, wearing the layers that Quark Expeditions had heavily recommended.

Every moment spent in this pristine corner of the world was precious -- for the sheer volume of wildlife, the vast and empty size of it all, the ethereal light well into the evening, and the sustained excitement of sharing a very special destination with a very special mix of adventurers.

"If Antarctica were music, it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare," wrote Andrew Denton. "And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it."

Amen!

Patricia Schultz is the author of the New York Times best-seller "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" (Workman).  
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