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The Ultimate Guide to Polar Cruising

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Hoping to see penguins in the wild? Head south to Antarctica.

Photo by Anton Ivanov/Shutterstock

Hoping to see penguins in the wild? Head south to Antarctica.

Should you go to the Arctic or Antarctica, and with Lindblad Expeditions or Hurtigruten? What are the polar packing essentials? We break it all down for you.

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When it comes to must-do cruising, there are few destinations that have the level of mystique and bragging rights of the Earth’s polar regions. Whether you’re looking to snap photos of wildlife or want to see the planet’s most extreme landscapes, a growing number of options will get you there.

Among the most popular are trips to the continent of Antarctica, where travelers can see penguins in temperatures that can be as cold as -60 Fahrenheit amid territory that is 98 percent covered in ice. Others might prefer to head north to the Arctic to see polar bears living in landscapes where the average temperature ranges between a balmy 32 and -40 Fahrenheit.

Depending upon your interests and travel budget, here are some tips on taking these life-changing trips.

Book a trip to the Arctic for a chance to see polar bears.

When and where to go?

The Antarctic summer takes place between November and April when temperatures are not at their lowest, giving Weddell seals and penguins a bit of respite from the extreme weather. Cruising to Antarctica is the most popular way to see the continent, not least because the ship serves as both transportation and accommodation. And most cruises take place during the continent’s summer because the ice breaks up, making it easier to sail through and around it.

If you are intent on seeing the rarer Southern Lights, a March sailing is your best option. Want to see the biggest icebergs? November is the best time because the temperature is still not at its highest point yet.

Punta Arenas, Chile, and Ushuaia, Argentina, are the main departure points for Antarctica. Beyond South America, there are also cruises to Antarctica from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Arctic is easier to reach given its proximity to North America and is popular to visit during the summer months of June through August.

Catching the Northern Lights is among the main goals of travelers to the region. Another big draw is the opportunity to witness or experience a dogsled ride.

Many travelers begin their trip in Norway. Others depart from the United Kingdom and sail to Greenland or to the northern stretches of Canada. Among the most popular places to visit on these cruises are Svalbard in Norway and along the coast of Greenland. Russia is another potential departure point for reaching the Arctic Circle.

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If you are still unsure, why not plan your journey around the animals that you want to see? Head south if you are in search of penguin colonies. (Antarctica has 20 million breeding penguins so you are bound to find a few thousand.) The continent’s Macquarie Island is well known for its royal penguins, while South Georgia Island is home to hundreds of thousands of king penguins. Gentoo penguins abound, too, and any visit to the Falkland Islands will provide a magnificent bird-watching experience.

You’ll also find numerous species of albatross birds that breed in the eastern part of Antarctica. The Weddell seal is another favorite for photographers because these docile animals seem to welcome the polar paparazzi. If whale watching is your jam, February is your best bet. What draws these animals, including baleen whales, to this area is the krill (a tiny shrimp-like crustacean), making it a prime spotting experience.

Walrus lovers should head to Norway’s Svalbard in the summer for a chance to see one.

Looking for polar bears? They are most prevalent on Wrangel Island in the Arctic where your best bet to see them is in July and August when the ice is breaking up. Walrus lover? Head to Svalbard during summertime. Norway is also the best place to spot reindeer.

Who will take you there?

Polar cruises typically put a strong focus on education and conservation. Most ships to these regions forgo casinos and evening entertainment in favor of daily lectures and educational films. Knowledgeable expedition teams tend to lead the seminars and shore excursions available to passengers.

Hurtigruten is a market leader when it comes to polar cruising thanks to a fleet of ships designed specifically for these environments. The company even offers a “Northern Lights Promise” to Arctic passengers. Every sailing between October and March guarantees a sighting of the aurora borealis or passengers will receive another six- to seven-night sailing for free to try again the next season.

Like many others, Hurtigruten also allows guests the unique opportunity to overnight in sturdy tents on the Antarctic peninsula with penguins loudly and constantly waddling past (it’s an expensive, sleepless, but magical night).

Hurtigruten’s Northern Lights guarantee applies to cruises from Norway between October and March.

Hurtigruten operates two ships in Antarctica. Later this year, the cruise line will add a third ship in the region, the MS Roald Amundsen, which is especially notable because its hybrid engines are more environmentally friendly and almost silent.

Additionally, Quark Expeditions is celebrating its 30th anniversary of taking travelers to Antarctica with a focus on sustainability across its 29 planned departures for the upcoming season. Lindblad Exhibitions has been a pioneer in these extreme regions, with 50 years of polar experience. These sailings are now the company’s signature voyages.

An important point to consider is that any ship with more than 500 passengers is not permitted to have travelers go ashore to avoid any negative impact to the landscape and wildlife. Larger cruise sailings aboard Celebrity and Holland America are subject to these requirements, although they do offer more shipboard amenities and activities.

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If luxury is paramount, operators like Ponant and Seabourn will take you there in style. Ponant is building a custom polar ship expected to launch in 2021 that serves as an icebreaker and can travel to extreme weather destinations. Scenic Eclipse is offering 12- to 30-day sailings this fall and winter that include its signature team of butlers plus the use of a submarine and two helicopters on its Antarctic sailings.

Antarctica 21 offers a flight from Punta Arenas, Chile, to the Frei Research Station on King George Island, which can help wary travelers avoid the Drake Passage (see the following paragraph).

Don’t travel without . . .

Even if you have an iron stomach, be sure to travel with motion sickness pills. What they say about the Drake Passage is true. The body of water between the tip of South America and Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands can be the “Drake Lake” with calm waters, but more likely it will be the “Drake Shake” with large swells that make the crossing quite bumpy. It is a necessary passage to reaching the coldest continent. Pressure point bracelets can make the two-day crossing more comfortable.

Binoculars are a must if you want to spot wildlife from afar. Watching penguins march around on shore or whales swimming in the distance is a daily activity. Photographers will find that a large zoom lens will enhance their experience.

As for bulky winter boots, check with your cruise line because most lines will provide a pair to wear when on shore. This helps to prevent any type of damaging substance from being introduced to the local environment where it could harm wildlife otherwise unexposed to these elements.

You’ll be glad to have the extra space in your luggage for hats, gloves, scarves, and whatever you want for a base layer. Remember that your extremities will be the coldest. You won’t ever have enough pairs of gloves (especially a pair with an inner lining). Your toes might be chilly, too, and those warming heaters that are often sold at ski shops are great for hands and feet. 

Two things that travelers most often forget: First, during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, many of the transit points like Buenos Aires, Cape Town, and Santiago can be warm (despite the cold temperatures at the polar region). Pack something that will keep you comfortable during any potential layover. Second, while traveling, you may fill up your phone or camera’s memory card quickly. Bring the necessary cords and storage devices to keep you from having to delete any potential favorite pictures.

Lastly, a travel memento tip: If you want to impress your friends and family, the post office in Port Lockroy in southern Antarctica will add its coveted stamp to your postcard and send it on the long postal journey home.

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