By Gene Sloan January 2, 2022
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There’s never been a better time to travel to Antarctica — at least when it comes to getting there in comfort and style.
The last few years have brought a stunning new crop of small “expedition” cruise vessels specifically designed for Antarctica sailings that are far more upscale and elegant than anything seen before.
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Built by longtime leaders in polar cruising such as Lindblad Expeditions and Hurtigruten Expeditions, as well as a few newcomers to the niche, these are vessels that are more spacious, more amenity-filled and more stable than Antarctica cruise ships of old — and they’re fundamentally changing the way travelers are experiencing the destination.
The best Antarctica cruise ships: Then and now
Tourists have been visiting Antarctica in small numbers since 1966, when adventure tour pioneer Lars-Eric Lindblad led a small group of “citizen scientists” to the Antarctic Peninsula on a chartered Argentine navy ship. But for many of the 56 years since then, a trip to Antarctica has meant a sailing on a relatively spartan vessel.
Like Lindblad’s chartered navy ship, many of the early vessels used for tourism to the White Continent were tough-built government or scientific ships that were designed with navigating icy areas but not necessarily comfort in mind.
My first voyage to Antarctica, back in 2004, for instance, was on Akademik Ioffe — a hardy, ice-class Russian oceanographic research vessel that was often chartered by adventure tour companies in those days for polar trips. I slept in a no-frills cabin originally designed for Russian oceanography researchers and ate with my fellow tourgoers in a cafeteria-like dining space. The crew mostly spoke Russian.
A lot has changed since then — mostly in the last couple of years.
The new crop of vessels being built for Antarctica sailings have all the creature comforts that travelers have come to expect on cruise vessels in other parts of the world, including spacious and upscale cabins, often with balconies; elegant eateries with diverse menus; spas and fitness centers; and even pools and deck-top hot tubs.
Some of the fanciest of the newcomers also have such over-the-top amenities as helicopters for sightseeing from above and submarines for seeing what lurks just under the water. At the very high end, some ships feature all-suite accommodations with butler service.
In all cases, these are ships specifically built for “expedition cruising” — a type of cruising that involves traveling to remote, hard-to-reach places on small, hardy vessels that carry their own landing craft. All of them sail with a large number of rigid inflatable Zodiac boats for landings and have strengthened hulls and other design features that let them operate in icy areas.
I’ve sailed on nearly all of these new vessels, in many cases in polar regions, and have been consistently amazed by just how much of an upgrade they really are.
Here, my picks for the 11 best new expedition cruise ships sailing to Antarctica:
National Geographic Endurance and National Geographic Resolution
Operator: Lindblad Expeditions.
These Lindblad Expeditions ships may be my favorite all-around picks for an Antarctica cruise. Sailing since July and November 2021, respectively, National Geographic Endurance and National Geographic Resolution each are designed to hold no more than 126 passengers — a notably low number that allows for an intimate experience when exploring the White Continent.
They’re also very stable ships, thanks to an unusual new sloping bow design — something that can make a big difference when sailing to and from Antarctica across the notoriously rough Drake Passage.
Lindblad was the original pioneer of tourist trips to Antarctica, and it has years of experience in the region that has helped shape the way it designed these nearly identical vessels, both specifically built for polar travel.
Each of the ships has a polar class rating of PC 5 Category A (a notch above many Antarctica vessels), allowing them to travel through icy areas with ease. They’re also loaded with observation areas for viewing the passing scenery. They carry kayaks, snowshoes and cross-country skis for polar exploring in addition to Zodiac boats for landings, and they have remotely operated vehicles — just in case you want to see what’s going on down below.
Each vessel has two glass-walled “igloos” on its top deck where passengers can spend the night under the stars. Comfortable, state-of-the-art rooms with balconies; stylish restaurants and lounges with upscale, Scandinavian-inspired decor; a spa; and a yoga studio with wall-to-wall windows round out the onboard experience.
The details: Fares for 11-night Antarctica cruises on the two vessels start at $16,780 per person, based on double occupancy. Fares include a pre-cruise, one-night hotel stay in Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Santiago, Chile; flights from Buenos Aires or Santiago to Ushuaia, Argentina; drinks, including spirits and wines; and prepaid gratuities.
Note that as part of a 3-year-old partnership between Hyatt and Lindblad, World of Hyatt members can pay for a Lindblad cruise using Hyatt points — or earn 5 base points per dollar on eligible spending (excluding incidentals), plus the standard bonuses for Hyatt elite members, as well as elite tier-qualifying night credits. All members — regardless of status — will enjoy a $250 onboard credit to use on incidentals.
Operator: Atlas Ocean Voyages.
Just unveiled in August 2021, World Navigator is the first vessel for Atlas Ocean Voyages, an all-new cruise operator that’s focused on “luxe adventure” trips — and it’s already high on my list of favorite ships for polar exploring.
Like the Lindblad vessels, it’s designed to carry relatively few passengers (up to 184 on Antarctica sailings) and is loaded with indoor and outdoor observation areas including an innovative, close-to-the-waterline outside deck area with heated seating called The Water’s Edge. High-tech touches include a GPS that lets it hover in sensitive areas without dropping anchor.
Built tough for polar exploring (it has a PC 6 rating, one notch below the Lindblad vessels), it also is designed to be upscale with elegant, 1940s-influenced decor, such pampering touches as a L’Occitane spa (the first at sea) and butler service in the top cabins.
World Navigator is the first of five nearly identical sister vessels that Atlas Ocean Voyages will roll out by late 2024, many of which will sail regularly to Antarctica.
The details: Nine-night voyages to Antarctica start at $10,499 per person, based on double occupancy. Fares include drinks, including spirits and fine wines; shipboard Wi-Fi; prepaid gratuities; and emergency medical evacuation insurance for every passenger (the latter being a rare offering among companies cruising to Antarctica).
Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen
Operator: Hurtigruten Expeditions.
Hurtigruten Expeditions, a Norway-based expedition cruise company, has a long and storied history in polar travel, so it’s no surprise that the company broke new ground in the polar cruising niche when it unveiled the 528-passenger Roald Amundsen and sister ship Fridtjof Nansen in 2019 and 2021, respectively.
Named after famous Norwegian polar explorers, the ships are the cruise industry’s first to run on electric hybrid engines. This not only saves fuel but also allows for noiseless operation in sensitive polar areas where silence can make all the difference (near a penguin rookery, for instance, or a calving glacier).
Other unusual features include a full-blown science center with state-of-the-art gadgets and underwater drones for passenger use.
Both of these vessels sail with a maximum of 500 passengers when operating in Antarctica, which is on the high side for an Antarctic-based vessel. If you’re eager to make a lot of landings in Antarctica during a trip to the continent, Hurtigruten’s newest ships may not be the best choice. With Antarctic regulations limiting landings to 100 people at a time, these ships only can land a small fraction of their passengers at any given time.
For that reason, I am partial to the older but more intimate Hurtigruten polar vessel Fram, which carries just 200 passengers when operating in Antarctica. But Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen have one big advantage versus that ship and many others operating in Antarctica, which is that their starting rates for trips to the region are significantly lower. As bigger ships, they also may feel more stable at times.
The details: Fares for 11-night Antarctica cruises start at $7,334 per person, based on double occupancy. Fares include a pre-cruise, one-night hotel stay in Buenos Aires; round-trip flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia; beer and wine with meals; and free Wi-Fi.
Operator: Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours.
Unveiled in 2019, this super-swanky, 228-passenger “discovery yacht” was the first oceangoing vessel for luxury purveyor Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours — a brand better known for river cruises.
Like Scenic river ships, Scenic Eclipse is a high-end vessel with all-suite accommodations (and we’re talking real suites, with separate living rooms), butler service for all and a wide range of onboard dining options including a sushi restaurant. It has a whiskey bar stocked with more than 110 whiskies and other high-end liquors, plus a spa and a yoga studio.
Scenic Eclipse also was the first Antarctica-bound cruise vessel to boast helicopters to take passengers on epic (and pricey) Antarctica excursions — and it has a submarine for underwater exploring, too. Having experienced a helicopter excursion from the vessel, I can say that it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
On the downside, the helicopter pad and hangars eat up a lot of space on the vessel’s top deck, as do the suites along the vessel’s sharply sloping front. The combination leaves less available room for observation areas. The result is a ship with less outdoor space for viewing scenery than is typical for small vessels operating polar trips.
The details: Fares for 12-night Antarctica trips start at $15,655 per person, based on double occupancy. Fares include a pre-cruise, one-night hotel stay in Buenos Aires; round-trip flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia; drinks, including spirits and fine wines; and prepaid gratuities.
Le Soleal, Le Boreal, Le Lyrial and L’Austral
Launched between 2010 and 2015, these four sister ships are regular visitors to Antarctica — both under the banner of Ponant, a French brand, and as vessels chartered to high-end, U.S.-based tour companies Tauck and Abercrombie & Kent.
A pioneer in polar travel, Ponant has a long tradition of operating voyages to Antarctica, and this series of ship was specially designed for such trips. They all are hardy (with 1C ice class ratings from Lloyd’s Register) but also stylish, with contemporary interiors and comfortable rooms.
Note that the onboard ambiance of these vessels sometimes can be significantly different depending on whether they are sailing on a trip marketed by Ponant (where announcements and onboard programming will be in both French and English, with many of the passengers being French-speakers) or by Tauck or Abercrombie & Kent (where the onboard experience will have a much more distinctly American vibe).
In September 2021, Ponant unveiled an even tougher polar vessel, the 270-passenger Le Commandant Charcot. Equipped with ice breaking capabilities, it’s able to sail to polar areas that most other polar cruise vessels can’t reach. Note that, currently, its Antarctica sailings are being mostly marketed by Ponant itself, which means they may draw mostly French-speaking travelers.
The details: Fares for 11-night Antarctica trips start at $11,350 per person, based on double occupancy. Fares include a pre-cruise, one-night hotel stay in Buenos Aires; and round-trip flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia.
Just unveiled in early 2022, Viking Octantis is fast-growing Viking’s first-ever expedition cruise ship, and it boasts some unusual features that make it one of the best cruise ships for exploring Antarctica.
Most notable is The Hangar, an enclosed marina that allows passengers to transfer to small Zodiac boats for landings while still in the protected interior of the ship. It’s a first for an expedition cruise ship.
Viking Octantis also has what may be the most stunning lecture hall ever at sea. Located at the back of the vessel, the high-tech room has sliding walls behind the spot where lecturers will stand that can open to reveal the surrounding scenery through floor-to-ceiling glass.
Viking Octantis is designed to carry 378 passengers, which is on the high side for Antarctica cruise ships. Like Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen, it isn’t able to land all or even most of its passengers at once in Antarctica.
Like Scenic Eclipse, Viking Octantis carries a submarine for underwater exploring, as well as kayaks. In a first for polar expedition cruise vessels, every cabin has floor-to-ceiling glass walls that slide partially open from the top to create a balcony-like feel. Public areas feature the same elegant Scandinavian design found on Viking’s ocean ships and river ships, as well as such familiar Viking venues as Italian restaurant Manfredi’s and a top-of-the-ship, glass-walled Explorers’ Lounge.
A sister vessel to Viking Octantis, Viking Polaris, will debut in August 2022 and also will sail to polar regions.
The details: Fares for 12-night Antarctica trips start at $13,995 per person, based on occupancy. Fares include a pre-cruise, one-night hotel stay in Buenos Aires; beer and wine with lunch and dinner; and shipboard Wi-Fi.
Planning an Antarctica cruise expedition? Start with these stories:
- Dreaming of Antarctica: How to book the trip of a lifetime
- Skip the Drake Passage: What it’s like flying to Antarctica on a chartered plane
- 7 tips for visiting Antarctica before it’s too late
- The ultimate packing list for an Antarctica trip
Featured image courtesy of Hurtigruten Expeditions.