by Kristy Alpert
The icy wind kissed the tip of my nose, spreading a slight chill to my rosy cheeks and down to my lips as i poked my face out of my expedition parka to see what the commotion was all about. My eyes had begun to droop as the rhythmic sound of knocking icebergs and the smooth sway of the arctic water below our inflatable Zodiac lulled me to sleep, but now I was wide awake as the other passengers in the boat began to stir and gasp. I had woken early that morning for the chance to watch the Adelie penguins make their morning trek for breakfast in the calm waters that waited at the end of the penguin highway in Antarctica. We were the only boat in sight and, as the penguins performed their morning ritual for our small group, it became very clear just how far off the beaten path I had come.
Traveling to Antarctica is still a relatively new endeavor; the first organized cruise to the white continent taking place just over 50 years ago on Jan. 23, 1966 aboard a no-frills 2.5-thousand-ton vessel designed to bring roughly 50 passengers safely in and out of the Arctic Circle.
Today, nearly 43,855 people are estimated to visit Antarctica during an annual season according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), and the fact that I was just one out of the estimated 14,566 Americans who would gaze out on the scene in front of me that year was not lost on me.
I had booked through Adventure Life (adventure-life.com), a tour operator that acts more like a personal concierge for bespoke travel experiences, and, even though I was prepared to embark upon some cool adventures while I was touring the end of the world, no one could have prepared me for the heart-warming display that awaited me in that moment.
At the sight of that first tuxedoed creature waddling his way over the hill and onto the well-worn path, a smile broke through my icy lips and immediately warmed my entire body. It wasn’t long before the “highway” was full of these foot-tall-penguins, who raced to the finish line with their chests out, chins up, and wings back in an all out speed waddle toward the water.
No sooner had the penguins finished their breakfast than I was back onboard the Hebridean Sky to begin mine, sipping my espresso and dining on petite quiches and freshly baked scones in an opulent dining room while chips of icebergs bobbed and splashed in the icy wilderness that lay just outside my luxurious digs.
Founded in 1999 by Montana resident and lifetime traveler Brian Morgan, Adventure Life began by first offering trips to South America before the company decided to venture farther south. Along with itineraries to destinations around the world, the company offers tailor-made trips to Antarctica where guests are given exclusive opportunities for spontaneous wildlife encounters with the help of trained guides and professional biologists.
Antarctica is a destination of extremes, boasting superlatives like the driest, windiest, coldest, and highest among numerous quotes from famed explorers comparing the continent to the moon. It is home to the single biggest mass of ice in the world at eight thousand feet thick, and is the fifth largest continent with nearly 5.4 million square miles to its name. Antarctica boasts roughly 90 percent of the world’s freshwater ice and just about 70 percent of the planet’s entire collection of freshwater.
Getting to the continent requires booking a flight or cruise from either Argentina or Chile, but the most traditional way to reach Antarctica is by ship where passengers can cross the famous Drake Passage in the same manner that Captain James Cook made his recorded voyage back in 1773.
Adventure Life’s 12-day Antarctic Peninsula small ship cruise offers one of the best experiences in the mysterious seventh continent by providing the chance to experience the Antarctica’s best highlights in a responsible tourism fashion while staying in sumptuous accommodations.
The trip begins in Ushuaia, Argentina, where Adventure Life hosts its guests in the fabulous Arakur Hotel and Resort (arakur. com), a member of Leading Hotels of the World. The only item on the agenda while in town is an optional evening briefing to help prepare for the trip to come, so guests are free the rest of the day to take in some leisure time at the spa and shop the amazing Argentinean leather market Paseo de los Artesanos Enriqueta Gastelumendi. For a taste of local life, head to Alamacen Ramos Generales (ramosgeneralesush.com. ar) where craft beer and lamb stew top the menu, but if refined dining and stunning views are more your style, book a table at Kuar (kuar.com.ar) for fine wine, fresh seafood, and an evening you won’t soon forget.
The ship departs mid afternoon the next day for its initial sailing through the Beagle Channel, and guests are treated to the sight of Magellanic penguin, rock cormorant, and sea lion colonies on their way to the Captain’s welcome dinner that night. The next two days are ocean-crossing days, where the ship’s Polar Experts keep the passengers in the know with numerous presentations on wild-life and history of the continent. Head outside as soon as the captain alerts you of the approaching Antarctic Convergence to witness the sharp temperature drop the moment the ship passes through.
One of the highlights for many guests booking through Adventure Life is the company’s focus on responsible travel, and while onboard Adventure Lifers will have the chance to participate in Citizen Science initiatives where they can donate their time on board to help scientists collect data for research. Some of the initiatives include taking part in seabird sighting surveys, collecting salinity samples, taking note of weather patterns along the way.
The days that follow consist of expeditions and adventures via Zodiac boats while in the waterways lining the Antarctica Peninsula. Although the itinerary is dependent upon weather conditions, most excursions include stops at the penguin highway and numerous penguin rookeries, tours of Wilhelmina Bay to spot humungous humpback whales, and scenic rides through the stunning Lemaire and Neumayer Channels. On land, excursions include possible stops at the active scientific bases of Arctowksi or Vernadskiy and visits to the historic bases of Port Lockroy or Wordie House.
Adventures do not cease once the ship begins its return to South America, as the crew continues wildlife spotting and presentations through the Drake Passage. One special presentation awaits while passing through the Beagle Channel where the crew holds a celebrative ceremony, giving guests the chance to say their goodbyes, swap pictures, and enjoy a special slideshow of their journey to the end of the world.