Exploring Antarctica aboard Hurtigruten Fram By Johanna Jainchill / June 22, 2009 Share 1 -- More on AntarcticaSee our Antarctica Dispatch series: • Dispatch, Antarctica 1: It's a long way from everywhere• Dispatch, Antarctica 2: Don't ask about the midnight buffet• Dispatch, Antarctica 3: Breathtaking scenery, passionate guidesIn addition, view our Dispatches from Antarctica slideshow to see some of the highlights.Hurtigruten officially changed its name from Norwegian Coastal Voyage in 2007, adopting its parent company's name, which has been in use in Europe for more than 100 years. The change also reflected the line's growth from a mail and freight carrier plying Norway's coast into a global cruise company that now operates 15 ships visiting three continents and both poles. As part of its expansion, in 2002 Hurtigruten added Antarctica to a roster of destinations that still includes Norway's coast as well as Northern Europe, Greenland and the Arctic. Hurtigruten went all out with its polar plan, becoming the only cruise line in recent memory to construct a purpose-built polar cruising vessel, the 12,700-ton, 318-passenger Fram, which debuted in April 2007. I experienced the Fram on a 13-day Antarctica trip in February that included two nights on each end in Buenos Aires and a half-day on each side in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. It is from there that the ship departs. Because it takes so long to get there, this package is about the shortest cruise you can take from Argentina and actually explore Antarctica. (Some large ships do sail-by visits to Antarctica that include seeing but not touching the Continent.) When it comes to trips of a lifetime, visiting Antarctica often tops the list. In fact, quite a few passengers on the cruise in February had basically been everywhere else on the planet, and Antarctica was the last continent they could check off their lists. But nobody admits a notch on the travel belt was the sole reason for visiting the "White Continent." One woman said she had always wanted to see the blue of the icebergs. Several were penguin lovers. Another man had been to Antarctica 20 years before on a Russian science expedition and had always wanted to return. This time, he did it in a bit more style. In terms of size, the Fram is somewhere between a small cruise ship and many of the Antarctic exploration vessels that hold about 100 passengers. The smaller vessels are able to go to some places that the Fram is not. But I learned quickly that in many ways, a slightly larger ship like the Fram is the way to go for a visit to Antarctica, which begins and ends with two-day crossings of the tumultuous Drake Passage, the body of water between Argentina's Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica. A larger ship turns a bit less in the water, not that it is not a rocky ride: We had good weather, but regular doses of Dramamine were a must. Also, there is simply more to do on a larger vessel, and any trip to Antarctica will mean spending a lot of time on the ship, partly because it takes so long to get there but also because passengers are restricted to one hour ashore per landing in order to protect the environment. On the Fram, there is a series of lectures given daily in two separate rooms (to accommodate the language needs of the many nationalities onboard) on everything from Antarctic exploration and the history of whaling to tips on taking photographs in polar conditions. The ship is stylish and offers many cruising comforts not found on most expedition vessels, such as a gym with modern workout machines, two open-air hot tubs, laundry facilities, an Internet area and plenty of space for lounging around the ship. The Fram still lacks amenities that people who are not accustomed to exploration cruising might look for, especially in the food department. There is no room service, and there is little in the way of around-the-clock nibbling options. Most meals are buffet-style, and after a week of being in the Antarctic and not being able to source fresh food, the options feel a bit limited. As with many small cruise ships, there is no casino on the Fram. Besides lectures, onboard activities include a cognac tasting and a staff talent show. But passengers on an Antarctic cruise don't come for the food or the gambling. The Fram is first and foremost a ship built around the destinations it visits. When sailing in Antarctica, the scenery -- some of the most spectacular on Earth -- and unparalleled exposure to wildlife are the entertainment. Hurtigruten's job is to bring its passengers as close to it as possible, and explain what they are seeing, and in this the line excels. The Fram has a team of expedition leaders that takes groups onto Antarctic islands and the mainland for visits via Polar Cirkel boats. These guides are all experts in something: They are naturalists, polar biologists or specialists in a number of polar-focused areas, such as icebergs, penguins or whales. The expedition team and captain choose where to stop based on the weather and the likelihood of spotting wildlife. The team maps out walking routes and sometimes adds unique activities to the visits, like finding a place for us to slide down a steep, snowy slope or sit atop a perch overlooking a majestic glacier. At one stop, the guides finished the visits with a 15-minute boat ride through a spectacular bay choked with massive icebergs, which we zigzagged through and then watched as a minke whale surfaced about 30 feet away. The guides were available to discuss the wildlife as we observed it and explain behaviors such as why the penguins continuously run toward the water's edge with their young. (Answer: They are trying to teach them to swim and must first coax them into the water.) Hurtigruten and the guides make sure that passengers don't take anything onto or off of the White Continent, one of the world's most pristine places. So before boarding the Polar Cirkel boats that transport us from the ship to each stop, we step into disinfectant, and when we return, we disinfect again. Then our boots and lower legs are hosed down before getting back onboard. During time on the ship, the guides are either giving lectures or are available to answer the seemingly endless questions passengers have about the continent. The main dining room, called the Imaq Restaurant, has large windows on three sides; the Fram is designed around observing what's outside. The upper-level Qilak lounge offers amazing views from floor-to-ceiling windows and a row of seats facing out to watch as the ship passes by glaciers and ice caps. The ship's smaller staterooms have larger-than-normal windows, and even the Fram's large saunas have round windows. The ship's Nordic design sensibility is seen in its blonde wood furniture and its simple color schemes. Art from Greenlandic artists adorns the ship, including a mural made of seal fur and copper frescoes on the stairwells.