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Journey to the Bottom of the Globe
Exploring the White Continent of Antarctica
By Ringo Boitano


The best seat in the house.
Photos by Deb Roskamp

nce upon a time, the joke among those in the cruise industry was that the cruise
vacation was something for the "newly wed or the nearly dead." I remember those jokes, as well as a time in my own life when I would be embarrassed to say that I was even going on a cruise. One day it occurred to me-how else could I see seven Caribbean island nations in eight days or explore a series of major Alaskan cities that are inaccessible by road in under a week? I quickly became a champion of the cruise experience. (Sure there was also the pampering, the shows and the endless buffets, but who was I to complain?) Today the cruise industry has exploded to such an extent that there are now options available for everyone from family-friendly and budget cruises to excursions that focus on ecology, wildlife, and expeditions to places on the planet long considered inaccessible.

After setting foot aboard the deck of the 650-passenger vessel, MV Discovery, I began asking guests why they chose to take an eight-day cruise to Antarctica-the coldest, windiest and driest continent in the world; a landscape which is 98 percent thick continental ice sheet and 2 percent barren rock; a continent so cruel and unforgiving that virtually no life can survive on it. The overwhelming answer from my fellow cruisers was simple: "Because now I can." It was a good answer. The more I thought about it, I realized it was mine too.

Back story
It was not confirmed until the early 1800s that there was even the existence of a "southern land," when British, American, Norwegian and Russian expeditions began exploring the Antarctic Peninsula region. In 1840 it was established that Antarctica was a continent-the fifth largest continent in the world-and not just a group of islands. Whalers and fur seal hunters braved the rough seas and brutal terrain for treasure. Following World War II there was an upsurge in scientific research on the continent, with a number of countries setting up year-round research stations. Seven made territorial claims, and the Antarctic Treaty was negotiated in 1961, honoring existing territorial claims and giving the nations the right to explore the continent for scientific reasons. The first cruise ship exclusively for the sake of tourism sailed to Antarctica in the summer of 1950, the only season in which the weather makes it possible. By 1970, as the cruise industry began to grow, so did tourism to Antarctica, and by 2005, 36 different vessels made it to the continent in one year. For many it is a journey into history; for others an unparalleled ecological and sea life experience; but for most, it is the trip of a lifetime.


Top: The Gentoo Penguins don’t seem to even notice the M/V Discovery
Bottom: Gentoo Penguins feeding chicks.

Photos by Deb Roskamp

The MV Discovery experience
FIRST STOP: BUENOS AIRES
Your 13-day journey will begin with a flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina, a world-class city that deserves a written piece entirely its own. The Discovery package offers a comprehensive tour of this city of approximately 12 million people that has a lifestyle and architecture that is more European than any city in South America. You will see a grand city of somewhat faded glory, wide boulevards, monuments, parks, distinctive neighborhoods and stylish looking people. Not to be missed is a tango show - a dance born in the brothels of Buenos Aires' immigrant quarters - and a trip to a legendary steakhouse, which features beef from the pampas. A sampling of empanadas as well as mate', a medicinal tea, which is the national drink of Argentina, should also be essential components of your stay. The Discovery package includes accommodations in a four-star hotel, situated in the heart of the city.

A 3 ½ hour flight to Ushuaia
Billed as the southernmost city in the world, the ski resort town of Ushuaia sits on the bottom tip of Argentina, where a dramatic mountain landscape falls directly into the sea. Once the home of a penal colony - which is now a museum and definitely worth visiting - this is where embarkation begins on the MV Discovery. The Discovery package, though, wisely allows guests to spend 24 hours in this remote part of the world for tours of the city and Tierra Del Fuego National Park. There's also plenty of time to sample local dishes that include Patagonian lamb and king crab.


The Stark and lonely beauty of Antarctica. Photo by Deb Roskamp

The MV Discovery
The MV Discovery is a handsome vessel with a deep hull, making it possible to negotiate Antarctica's rough seas and massive icebergs. It also features the usual creature comforts with 351 spacious cabins and suites, three restaurants, five lounges, a night club, two swimming pools, hot tubs, library, theater, internet center, health club and beauty center. I was pleased to find a complimentary expedition parka waiting for me in my cabin, something that became an essential part of my wardrobe to deal with the brisk weather conditions.

Discovery's expedition team
One of the plusses of the voyage is that a team of working polar explorers conducts
lecture programs on board. The team is easily accessible to answer questions regarding everything from polar glaciers and other ice formations to how sea life can survive in such an extreme environment. The team also educates guests on the sensitive nature of preserving this pristine continent from human harm.

Crossing the Drake
"Below 40 degrees, there is no law. Below 50 degrees, there is no God," was
the sailors' creed about crossing the Drake Passage-a merciless 400-milewide
passage between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica. Named after Sir Francis Drake (who never passed through the route) it is considered to have some of the worst sea weather in the world. If you've ever contemplated taking seasickness medication, now would be a good time to start. Those of the vessel who opted not to, spent most of the next 15 hours confined to their beds. One could not help but marvel how men in little wooden sailboats could cross this treacherous passage almost 380 years ago.


The M/V Discovery departs from Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city.
Photo Credit: Deb Roskamp

Landings
The Discovery team leads excursions on zodiac pontoon motorboats for landings on the Antarctic Peninsula and her islands. For many on the voyage, setting foot on the continent was the supreme goal. The weather, though, plays the defining factor and flexibility is a key word on any voyage. If a certain passage is clogged by icebergs, the ship's captain, ice master and expedition team leader will huddle and design another route, undoubtedly just as rewarding. When one of our landings was cancelled due to fierce winds, we explored an iceberg alley that featured mile-long icebergs floating past the vessel. Fortunately, due to overall favorable weather conditions, we were able to make two landings, one on Paradise Harbour, considered the Riviera of Antarctica, and the other on the crescent shaped Half Moon Island. Both locations offer stunning photo opportunities and close-up encounters with thousands of gentoo and chinstrap penguins. It's austral summer and the black sand seems almost warm on your feet. Parent penguins are feeding their chicks. The scope and vastness of the surroundings are unimaginable.

Antarctica-a look back
Since my return I am frequently asked what's it like to journey to this spectacular,
but almost hidden continent. No words adequately describe the experience. Quite simply, it is the most beautiful place I've ever seen. There were some days when I stood on the deck of the vessel and quite literally felt like I was on another planet. My advice: plan your trip n o w. The season is short and the demand is great. For further information, contact DiscoveryWorldCruises.com or (866) 623-2689.


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