Like the Equator, and the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the Antarctic Circle encircles the earth, but is, of course, only visible on maps. Like its counterpart, the Arctic Circle, it marks the point beyond which the sun never sets at the height of summer, and never rises in the depths of the winter.
On Ponant’s 17-day Beyond the Polar Circle cruise, you’ll travel beyond the Antarctic Circle as you sail aboard the 132-stateroom Le Boréal, but that is only one highlight of the itinerary. You’ll also visit the famous Falkland Islands, one of the last remaining outposts of the British Empire and a paradise for birders. At South Georgia Island, you’ll explore one of the most rugged and remote destinations in the world, with only a few human residents but thousands of seals and penguins. And then you’ll continue on to the Antarctic Peninsula, traveling through waters dotted with icebergs along the coast of the frozen continent. You’ll be following in the paths of some of the world’s most fearless explorers, albeit in a luxury they could never have imagined. After dipping beyond the Polar Circle, you’ll cross the Drake Passage and return to civilization when you disembark in Ushuaia, Argentina.
Along the way, lectures on board and Zodiac excursions led by naturalist guides will bring to life this uniquely fascinating region of the world.
Note: This itinerary is subject to ice and weather conditions. The expedition highlights and itinerary described here illustrate possible experiences only and cannot be guaranteed.
Itinerary / 17 days
At the end of your day exploring Ushuaia, you’ll board Le Boréal and depart on your adventure to the islands of the South Atlantic and the continent of Antarctica.
DAY 2At Sea
DAY 3Falkland Islands
Your first landfall will be at New Island, the westernmost island in the archipelago. It’s home to one small village, with only two families, and a 20-minute walk will take you through a landscape of moors and colonies of imperial shags, albatrosses, and rockhopper penguins. The smallest of the Falklands’ penguin species, rockhoppers get their name from their habit of hopping with both feet together—a trait that succeeds at charming many visitors.
You’ll next cross the Wooly Gut Strait and continue on to West Falkland. Along the northern edge of the Falklands, the island has rolling hills and stunning coastal views. As you head ashore at Grave Cove—named for the graves of whalers that overlook the beach—you may be accompanied by Commerson’s dolphins while one of the islands’ largest colonies of gentoo penguins awaits on the opposite side of West Falkland.
DAY 4/5Crossing to South Georgia Island
DAY 6South Georgia Island, Day One
You’ll see some of those soaring mountains on your first stop along the island, the Salisbury Plain. Sitting between two glaciers, this broad plain on the north coast of the island was formed by the retreat of the Grace Glacier. Today tens of thousands of king penguins live here, with seals and their young sharing the bay with them. More king penguins, an estimated 50,000 of them, await at nearby Fortuna Bay, also on the north coast of the island. The bay forms an almost perfect crescent surrounded by towering peaks. You’ll be able to step ashore here and take a walk following in the footsteps of the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who stopped here on his legendary attempt to traverse Antarctica.
Finally, you’ll arrive at Stromness, another stop on Shackleton’s journey. He sailed to this former Norwegian whaling station to find help for his crew who were shipwrecked on Elephant Island. The whaling station has long been abandoned and is closed to the public, but you’ll be able to get a look at it from the ship’s Zodiacs.
DAY 7South Georgia, Day Two
While today there are few human residents on South Georgia, the island was once a center for whaling. At Grytviken, you’ll have a chance to explore a whaling station that is now a ghost town. The station’s church is still occasionally used for services and the manager’s house is now home to the South Georgia Museum, but the rest of the buildings have been abandoned, creating a haunting setting. Grytviken is also famous as the final resting place of Shackleton.
DAY 8South Georgia, Day Three
Cooper Bay is not on South Georgia Island proper, but on Cooper Island, separated by a mile-wide channel from its larger neighbor. While all of South Georgia is a unique environment and refuge for birds and marine mammals in the South Atlantic, Cooper Island is especially so as one of several islands where the resident fur seals were never hunted. Seals, petrels and other birds, including chinstrap and macaroni penguins can be found here.
DAY 9Sail to Elephant Island
DAY 10Elephant Island
One of the northernmost of the South Shetlands, Elephant Island, is perhaps the most famous of them as it was here that the crew of the Endurance, from Shackleton’s legendary expedition, spent the winter of 1916. Miraculously, every member of the crew survived.
Today visitors to Elephant Island will find no trace of the Endurance beyond a bust of Ernest Shackleton. Penguins, however, are numerous with colonies of chinstrap and gentoo penguins, as well as a number of the island’s namesake elephant seals at Cape Lookout.
DAY 11Astrolabe Island
DAY 12Neko Harbor
Later in the day you’ll visit Petermann Island, at the end of the Lemaire Channel, a seven-mile long iceberg-dotted passage with soaring cliffs on each side. Sheltered from the sea, the waters in the channel are remarkably calm. Petermann Island, which is just over a mile long and a little less than a mile wide, was an important stop for a number of Antarctica expeditions. The initials PP, after the ship the Porquoi-Pas?, were carved into a rock by the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot on his expedition from 1908 to 1910 and can still be seen today. These days the island is an important bird sanctuary and home to 3,000 gentoo penguins.
DAY 13Crossing the Antarctic Polar Circle
Today, weather permitting, you’ll cross the polar circle, the line that runs along latitude 66 degrees, 33 minutes, south of the Equator. To the south of this line, there is at least one 24-hour day, on the winter solstice (December 21 or 22), and at least one 24-hour night, on the summer solstice (June 21 or 22). The first explorer to cross the line was Captain James Cook in 1773. Today, even though some four percent of the earth’s surface lies south of the line, there are no permanent human inhabitants. (In the past there were whaling stations at various points in history and there are still some seasonal scientific research stations).
Ponant cannot guarantee you will be able to cross the Antarctic Polar Circle as weather conditions sometimes make it unadvisable. If you do, however, it will likely be one of the most memorable highlights of your trip, as you venture into a part of the world that few people will ever have the opportunity to see.
DAY 14-16Crossing the Drake Passage
Today it still presents a challenge to navigators as the so-called “furious fifties” winds blow through at such force that it is often impossible for some ships to make any progress. The passage is also, however, an area of remarkable biodiversity with a variety of wildlife drawn to the places where the cold currents of Antarctica meet warmer ones coming down from the north, and seabirds including albatrosses and cape petrels circle above as they feed on the fish that are abundant here. You can also be assured that despite the often rough conditions, the crew of Le Boréal and the state-of-the-art ship will make the sailing as smooth as possible.