Penguins in Antarctica

Adventure in Antarctica

Antarctica has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Despite being a warm weather gal, I love expedition cruising, exploring remote places, and seeing unique wildlife in its natural habitat. I have heard from countless seasoned travelers that Antarctica is among their favorite destinations, and knew I had to experience it for myself. In January 2024, I finally had that opportunity!

Jennifer Gillmore in Antarctica

Historically, a trip to Antarctica required a commitment of at least 2-3 weeks. This all changed when travel company Antarctica21 pioneered the “flyover” concept, allowing passengers to not only save time getting to and from, but also to skip the crossing of the daunting Drake Passage, which is home to some of the world’s most intense seas. Multiple days of discomfort on board have been replaced with an easy 2-hour flight between the southern tip of Chile and King George Island in the South Shetlands, where the boat awaits to whisk guests away into the heart of the action. The number of days spent in Antarctica is comparable to other boats sailing the full roundtrip, but the total time commitment is far less. This model has opened Antarctica to a wider range of visitors, and also allows travelers with extra time to complement that experience with another destination like Patagonia, which is an epic trip in its own right.

A jet used to fly over the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica.

Antarctica21 offers several itinerary options that can include South Georgia or the Polar Circle, but I joined their most popular, the Classic Air-Cruise program. Arriving to Punta Arenas, Chile, we gathered at A21’s stylish new Explorer’s House for an orientation and welcome dinner, where we made fast friends and shared excitement for the voyage ahead with fellow cruise mates. We then spent one night at the historic Cabo de Hornos Hotel, located on the town’s central plaza just a few blocks from the sea. The next morning we set off to the local airport, where the plane for the flight south was waiting. Antarctica21 limits the occupancy of their boats to 74 guests or less to ensure all passengers can travel together on the same aircraft to and from, which is extremely beneficial with the dynamic weather conditions that can sometimes delay flying.

Penguins in Antarctica

On arrival we were transferred a short distance to the ship, where the friendly crew warmly welcomed us. The Magellan Explorer is among the smallest passenger vessels sailing Antarctica, and was built specifically for that destination. She features multiple cabin categories ranging from portholes to 2-room suites, most with a private veranda, which is highly recommended. Some of my best wildlife viewing of the trip was from that vantage point, and I was outside watching whales in my pajamas more than once! The luxury ship also offers upscale amenities and finishes, a top-notch, international team of guides, a boutique with high-quality gear, and a variety of meal options to suit any taste or dietary need.

A view from a ship in Antarctica

Like all Antarctica expeditions, the exact itinerary varies from trip to trip, and the route is set daily according to weather forecasts. The onboard Expedition Leader works hard to ensure a nice complement of stops with a variety of landscapes, terrain and wildlife. I was especially fascinated to visit some of the places mentioned in Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, which I was listening to at the time. We took advantage of these visits by walking the beaches, wandering through penguin colonies, hiking to peaks to take in the surrounding wilderness, and weaving our way through icebergs big and small, which glowed bright blue at the surface reflecting the sunshine. Each trip additionally offers a kayaking option for up to 10 guests, which must be booked well in advance.

Penguins in Antarctica

Along the way we saw three species of penguins (Adelie, Gentoo and chinstrap), leopard and elephant seals, myriad sea birds, orca whales, and humpbacks. January is nesting season for the penguins, so we were able to see eggs and chicks in addition to the adults. I have seen whales in other places before, but there was something about the encounters in Antarctica that felt wilder and more thrilling. One day in particular stands out when we were surrounded by humpbacks in our zodiac. They were swimming slowly, appearing at the surface to blow air, and diving back down displaying their unique tails, or slapping their fins on the surface only a few feet away. Their sound amid the surrounding silence, and the setting among the icebergs, was truly an experience I will never forget. Despite the falling snow and cold temperatures, no one wanted to leave, and we were treated with an extra hour to enjoy this this spectacle of nature.

Exploring Antarctica on a zodiak

On board between activities, we enjoyed daily presentations from the guides in the form of educational lectures, storytelling, photography workshops and slideshows. On my trip the guides came from Canada, United States, Sweden, China, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and Russia. Each evening they joined guests at dinner, which added a fun and interesting element to the dynamic.

A penguin and a sea lion side-by-side in Antarctica.

After five nights on board, we flew back to Punta Arenas for one final night before heading home. Door to door, I was away for just 10 days, and in that span experienced one of the most awe-inspiring destinations on the planet. Everyone should visit Antarctica at some point in their life. I’m grateful to have visited my 6th continent with Antarctica21!

A view of the landscape of Antarctica.