Antarctica: a place of extremes. Home to the penguins, endless glaciers and the mysterious South Pole, the world's most Southerly continent is not for the faint-hearted. Antarctica is still little known as a tourist spot, but for some intrepid travellers, its remoteness and hostility is precisely what makes it a dream destination.
Antarctica is a continent quite unlike any other: it has no permanent (human) inhabitants, endures the coldest, driest and windiest conditions on earth, is almost completely covered by ice, and is not formally owned or governed by any country. Most of those who do undertake a trip to the South Pole are scientists who want to conduct experiments in the continent's unique conditions, but the rest simply want to see this awe-inspiring place for what it is.
A trip to Antarctica is an experience that will earn you bragging rights only topped by going into space. You'll come back with endless tales and memories, as well as some spectacular photographs. You'll also get the chance to experience a rapidly changing continent that's witnessing some of the most visible effects of global warming; factors that could one day change its character altogether. There has never been a better time to visit the world's largest freezer.
Of the 37,000 tourists expected to visit Antarctica this year, 10,000 will never set foot on the icy land. Most simply take in the scenery from the comfort of a passing ship, so your biggest decision as a visitor will be whether or not you want to actually step out on to Antarctic "soil".
Reaching the South Pole is undoubtedly the most epic adventure you can undertake from the UK, and you'll need to split your journey into several legs - usually starting with a flight to Chile or Argentina. From here, you can fly or continue by sea: cruises are the most popular option, allowing you to pass through the legendary Drake Passage en route to the Pole.
Check out this awesome street view of penguins in Antarctica on Google Maps!
You might have thought that Antarctica didn't experience seasons at all, but actually it has two: summer and winter. November to March is summer, while winter sets in from April to October. Knowing when these seasons occur is important for visitors as in summer the sun doesn't set, and in winter the sun doesn't rise; a detail that could at very least have a major impact on your photographs! Temperatures also plummet to lows of -50°c in the Antarctic winter, so it should come as no surprise that tourists simply do not visit at these times. February and March are the most popular times to visit, as this is when penguin chicks are starting to fledge, and whale-watching season is at its peak.
Another quirk of Antarctic life is that there is no single currency on the continent - let alone banks, credit card readers or ATMs. How and when you spend money will be entirely controlled by your ship or tour operator, with most operating a system much like a hotel, where the bill is tallied up at the end of your trip. Some ships also take credit cards or travellers' cheques; most work in US dollars.
As its tourist industry is still small, Antarctica doesn't have much in the way of traditional attractions besides the sheer wonder of simply being there. But there are a few activities that most visitors want to tick off when visiting the icy continent. These include taking trips to research stations, posing with penguins and even - astonishingly - swimming. This is possible because the temperatures in Antarctica rise towards the coast, and the glare of the sun is strong. But even here they seldom rise much above freezing. Deception Bay - a volcanic caldera on the Northwestern side - is a popular spot for swimming, and for chilling out with penguins.
Whale watching is another popular pursuit among visitors to Antarctica, and you may see up to eight species of the giant creatures from your ship or on the coast. Many cruises offer trips on inflatable 'zodiac boats' as part of their itinerary, which allows access through the narrowest straits, taking you right to the heart of the most dramatic scenery. Expect to see icebergs and other alien formations that look almost like sculptures. Once you've seen it all, you can head down to Port Lockroy, Antarctica's only post office, to share your adventure with those back home.
Visiting Antarctica truly is the trip of a lifetime. Set yourself aside from the average tourist by planning to set foot on the frozen continent that inspired and fascinated the world's most famous explorers.
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Written by Abi Silvester, a London-based writer and editor with a passion for great food, fine wine, coffee and cats; always planning my next trip! Follow her on Twitter.