Thursday, 13 February 2014

Comparing Arctic and Antarctic cruises

Chinstrap penguins gaze out over the water in Antarctica
Oddly enough, despite describing our travels in great detail on this blog, I don't really talk about them to people in 'real life'. Partly because I have no desire to sound boastful, partly because I know that most people would rather not hear/sit through a five thousand photo slide show of someone else's holiday. However, on the odd occasion that travel has come up in conversation recently, it's the same question that I'm asked time and time again.

More and more people I know are seriously considering a cruise to the poles, spending many years with daydreams lodged firmly at the extremes of the Earth, fantasising about snowy landscapes, icy waters and heavily insulated wildlife. One key question crops up often: which one to choose?

Now that I have been fortunate enough to visit both ends of the Earth, it's a question that I have inevitably been pondering on - which did I prefer? There's no clear way to answer, but here's my personal (and by no means expert) thoughts on the pros and cons of each, based solely on my own, very limited, experience.

Dramatic curves in the Antarctic landscape

Maybe it's because Svalbard is still part of Europe and doesn't look that far away, but I was initially surprised that an Arctic cruise cost pretty much exactly the same as an Antarctic cruise (although considering that the same boats and crew are often used for both seasons, with voyages often being the same length, I don't know now why I was surprised). There may be minor differences, but on the whole, both cruises carry the same initial price tag.

However, If you can be flexible with time then it is possible to significantly slash the cost of an Antarctic cruise by shopping around for a last-minute deal in Ushuaia. As the 'local' area is also rich with activities and excursions, it's possible to take trips into Patagonia or around southern Argentina, seeking out a deal when one becomes available. This is less likely on Svalbard - Longyearbyen is a flight away from mainland Norway and limited in budget-friendly options.

Flights to either base are entirely dependent on home location - both internal services (Buenos Aires - Ushuaia and Oslo/Tromso - Longyearbyen) are well-priced, but the international flights will obviously depend on where you are flying in from. For us, living in Europe, flights to Norway were very cheap. Our flights to Argentina, on the other hand, were very pricey.

Winner: Neither. Both are similarly priced, that is, very expensive.

A polar bear sniffing our ship from a small ice floe

For guaranteed wildlife spotting, I'd choose Antarctica. If nothing else makes an appearance, you can be sure that penguins will fill the gap nicely. These small, waddling beauties are a pleasure to watch slipping on snow and ice, nosily pecking at your boot or shooting gracefully through the waves. There's also high chances at spotting seals and birds, and reasonable odds of seeing whales.

The odds for birds and whales are similar in the Arctic, with walruses a likely bet if the ship can reach particular beaches. The biggest draw - polar bears, are not guaranteed. However, these incredibly powerful and beautiful predators are well worth the risk.

Winner: Possibly the Arctic, by the tiniest amount. I loved spending days surrounded by penguins, but there is something about the heart-stopping moment that a bear first walks into view that I just can't forget.

Lapping waters on a clear day in Antarctica

This, I believe, reflects the main difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic. Svalbard, although geographically remote, is still part of Norway, with a permanent population (albeit relatively small) and a steady stream of visitors. The pack ice near the northernmost tip is everything you'd expect from polar waters, but the landscape elsewhere still feels Northern European.

It's difficult to describe, but there is something altogether other-worldly about the Antarctic. It may be the journey to arrive there - there's nothing particularly nice about the Drake passage, but you certainly feel as though you have crossed some sort of barrier - even a 'trial by water' if the trip is accompanied by a storm. This remoteness, coupled with the lack of a population (excluding the scientific bases) and the fact that it is its own continent, tricks you into believing you could be the first person ever stepping ashore onto a new land.

Winner: Antarctica. The atmosphere there is indescribably magical.

Green mosses and grass on the southern tip of Svalbard

Number and quality of landings on shore

If we assume that you are sailing on a small to medium sized ship, with enough zodiacs for all passengers to be onshore at once, then there are plenty of opportunities for landings on both cruises. When visiting Antarctica, it is important to remember that the journey across the Drake takes two days each way, during which time there is relatively little to see and no trips out on a zodiac. Local ice conditions and the time of year will determine any itinerary once you have reached the peninsula, but two landings or zodiac cruises per day are not unusual. Once ashore, there is no shortage of things to do and see. Without any threat from predators, we were able to walk around freely, hike high up snow-covered hills for spectacular viewpoints, visit penguin rookeries and sleeping seals, explore the vast quantities of bleached whale bones and pebbled beaches and even send postcards from the British post office.

The Arctic has the advantage that you begin your trip already on Svalbard, so landings can begin almost immediately upon setting off. The number of landings or cruises per day is similar, with the aim of both a morning and afternoon excursion off the ship dependent on weather, so it is likely you will spend a little more time on land here than in the Antarctic. Each landing is very different and not all involve snow and ice - much of the southern coast is green and rocky. There is scope for exploration, but only alongside armed expedition leaders and via routes that have been previously scouted, due to the polar bear risk.

Winner: For sheer number of landings, you'll get more value from an Arctic cruise. For quality, it's a tougher decision, but the Antarctic may just win with greater opportunities for a range of hikes and a more classic 'polar' landscape.

Walruses peer out from Arctic waters

Ships and companies

When it comes to choosing a ship or company to travel with, there are very similar options at both ends of the Earth. Quite often, the international companies use the same boat, following the Arctic route during the Northern Hemisphere's summer months, then travelling down to Antarctica to ply their trade there. There is a vast range of ship sizes on offer, from small expedition vessels to huge cruise liners, all reinforced or specially built to tackle the drifting sea ice. Local companies - often Norwegian or Russian in the Arctic and Argentinian in Ushuaia - are also numerous and offer decent value for money.

Winner: Neither, many companies and ships operate both routes.

Snow covered mountains on the Antarctic peninsula

Overall experience

I'm going to be completely honest here and say that Antarctica was one of the most incredible places I have ever been. I'd long dreamed of setting foot on all seven continents and our cruise allowed me to achieve what was probably my top 'bucket list' item. In fact, I had a tiny reservation before booking our Arctic cruise - would it even come close? Would I compare each day? Of course, it didn't work like that. Although there were similarities, the northern end of the Earth was distinctly different and beautiful in its own right. Antarctica may slightly tip the balance for me personally, but I'd go back to either in a heartbeat.

Milky icebergs and pale blue glaciers in the Arctic
 Chosen either an Arctic or Antarctic cruise for your next trip? Here's some posts to help prepare for the adventure:

Antarctica: Do's and Don'ts!
Packing and preparing for Antarctica
An Arctic cruise: Do's and Don'ts!

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