Beyond the Polar Circle

Penguins on ice with a cruise ship in distance

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.

Ponant Polar Cruise highlight image


Beyond the Polar Circle

Weather permitting, the itinerary includes a detour south of the Antarctic Polar Circle, beyond which no humans live year-round and the midnight sun never sets at the height of the austral summer.
Ponant designer label


For 30 years Ponant, the leader in polar expeditions, has been conveying intrepid travelers on awe-inspiring voyages to some of Earth’s most fascinating places. Their fleet offers the elegance of contemporary French design, excellent cuisine, flawless service, and luxury accommodations. The small ships, however, also allow passengers to get closer to the rain forests, uninhabited islands, and remote outposts that few travelers ever get to visit. Ponant is also profoundly committed to preserving the environments in which they travel, with all vessels designated internationally as Clean Ships.
Ushuaia Port, mountains in distance

DAY 1Ushuaia

You’ll board your ship in Ushuaia, which sits on a broad bay along the Beagle Channel at the southern tip of Argentina—it is the southernmost city anywhere in the world, in fact. The snow-capped Martial Mountains loom over the colorful houses of this city at the end of the world. Depending on your interests, you may want to visit the appropriately named End of the World Museum, which covers some 8,000 years of natural and human history, from the indigenous Yámana and Selk’nam peoples to later explorers and merchants who sailed around the tip of South America over the centuries. If you want to venture into the Tierra del Fuego National Park, a heritage railway with steam locomotives departs from Ushuaia. Originally built in the early 20th century to transport prisoners, it was reconstructed—with some luxury upgrades—in 1994 to offer travelers a glimpse of the soaring peaks of the park while catering to them with champagne and meal service.

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.
View out of the cabin, hat on the bed

DAY 2At Sea

You can use this day at sea to explore your home for the next two weeks, taking advantage of some of the many services and activities on board. Relax with a treatment at the spa, visit the fitness center or, if the weather is good, head out on deck to take in the ocean views. You can also attend a lecture for insights on the natural wonders of the region, or one of the ship’s shows for some lighter entertainment.

Seal on blurry grass

DAY 3Falkland Islands

If the name of the Falkland Islands is familiar to most people, it’s often because of the ten-week war in 1982 between the United Kingdom and Argentina over these remote British outposts. But before and after the war, the islands have been paradises for naturalists, drawn to the South Atlantic islands to see the many birds, including five different species of penguins, that can be found here.

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.

Inside the on-ship spa

DAY 4/5Crossing to South Georgia Island

You’ll have two full days at sea aboard Le Boréal as you sail to South Georgia Island. Ponant’s ships offer the atmosphere of a private yacht, albeit ones with a library, two restaurants, and a fitness center with all the latest equipment. Perhaps start the day with coffee on your private balcony—most staterooms have one—then maybe curl up with a good book in the library or head to the fitness center, complete with a Kinesis wall. When you are ready for a meal, choose from French and international cuisine at the Gastronomic Restaurant or the buffet lunch and themed dinners at the Grill.
Penguins on dark sand beach cruise ship in background

DAY 6South Georgia Island, Day One

You’ll arrive this morning to remote South Georgia Island. The human population of the island is only around 20, mostly scientific researchers, but it is home to countless seals, sea lions, and penguins. The landscape is otherworldly, with some 160 glaciers and peaks reaching heights of 9,000 feet.

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.
Rusted shipwreck snowy gravel mountainside behind

DAY 7South Georgia, Day Two

On your second day on South Georgia, you’ll explore one of the island’s most impressive sights, St. Andrew’s Bay at the base of Mt. Skittle, which rises to a height of 1,575 feet. With its gray beach and steep mountainsides enclosing the Ross Glacier, and fur and elephant seals in the water, the setting is dramatic. And while the Atlantic Ocean rages off shore, the bay provides a sanctuary for the largest colony of king penguins on the island—up to some 150,000 of them. The brown and orange birds making their way from the sea to the shore to feed their chicks is fascinating to watch.

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.
Emperor penguins on rocks

DAY 8South Georgia, Day Three

Having explored much of the north coast of South Georgia Island, today you’ll turn your attention to its southern coast. There is no gold to be found in Gold Harbour. The name refers to the hue that its cliffs take on in the early morning and evening, when the Antarctic summer sun sits low on the horizon. Waterfalls plunging into the bay and snowcapped peaks complete the scene while fur seals, elephant seals, and penguins are usually mildly curious about the human visitors to their home.

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.
Waiter with wine in an onboard restaurant

DAY 9Sail to Elephant Island

Today you’ll have another day at sea to take advantage of the services and amenities offered aboard Le Boréal, or you can simply relax as you travel to your next destination.
Tracks in costal snow

DAY 10Elephant Island

The South Shetland Islands, which sit near the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, have the unusual distinction of being claimed by three different countries—the United Kingdom, Chile, and Argentina. The three countries have agreed to disagree, and none makes any attempt to enforce their claims to the archipelago and the research scientists from around the world peacefully coexist.

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.

Cruise ship sailing between icebergs

DAY 11Astrolabe Island

As Le Boréal continues south towards Antarctica, it will stop next at Astrolabe Island. First discovered by the French explorer Jules Dumont D’Urville, he named the island after his ship. The three-mile-long island is uninhabited though there is a population of several thousand chinstrap penguins, as well as petrels, other seabirds, and leopard seals. If a landing is possible, the island’s 1,844-foot-tall Rogach Peak offers views of the blue-hued icebergs in the sea. Currents and weather conditions often make it impossible to explore the island on foot, but even a Zodiac cruise around the perimeter will let you spot wildlife and admire the impressive peaks.

People in inflatable raft between ice floes. Seal in foreground.

DAY 12Neko Harbor

Today you will arrive to the mainland of Antarctica itself, at Neko Harbor. Sitting beneath a towering glacier, this landing spot is frequently described as one of the most beautiful places on the continent. Although it was first discovered by a Belgian expedition led by Adrien de Gerlache, it takes its name from the Neko, a Norwegian ship that visited here at the beginning of the 20th century. You’ll head out on a Zodiac excursion with opportunities to see some of the remarkably diverse animals that are drawn to Neko Harbor. Seabirds common here include gulls, cape petrels, and cormorants while marine mammals include seals, orcas, and other species of whales. Exploring the harbor by Zodiac also allows passengers to get close to the icebergs and visit a nearby penguin colony.

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.

Ship plowing through ice and snow with penguins in foreground

DAY 13Crossing the Antarctic Polar Circle

Crossing 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.

Gulls flying over the arctic ocean

DAY 14-16Crossing the Drake Passage

The Drake Passage, which separates Antarctica from the tip of South America, is one of the most famous or, perhaps more accurately, infamous, bodies of water in the world. The passage takes its name from the English explorer Sir Francis Drake—one of his ships was blown south into it in 1578, though it would be almost another 40 years before anyone would sail along its length from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. (The Dutch explorer Willem Schouten was the first to make that journey, in 1616.)

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.
Old houses with snowy mountains in the background

DAY 17Return to Ushuaia

Your cruise ends today when Le Boréal returns to Ushuaia. You can then choose to either travel home, via Buenos Aires, or continue exploring by extending your trip with a four-night “Patagonia, Land of Contrasts” itinerary that includes stays in El Calafete and Torres del Paine National Park. Ponant can also arrange post-cruise extensions in Buenos Aires, if you want to explore Argentina’s sophisticated and fascinating capital.