Polar Opposites: Cruising the Arctic and Antarctic

The idea of traveling to the Arctic Circle, and then to Antarctica, became a growing temptation for me, and then a goal that needed to be indulged! 

Several years ago, I stood on a promontory near Sagres, in Portugal, the southwesternmost point of Europe, and looked out at the sea, imagining the emotions that filled the minds of early 15th-century explorers who set sail from there to discover new lands and sea routes. Today, a beautiful lighthouse stands at Cabo Sao Vicente to guide vessels safely home from worldwide voyages. 

Cabo Sao Vicente lighthouse in Portugal

Prince Henry, known as the Navigator, founded a school near Sagres in 1419 to prepare sailors of the time to explore the West African coast. Previously, they had feared the “Sea of Darkness” to the south, near the equator. On early navigational charts and maps, it is said that areas beyond the known world at the time were marked with the notation “BHBD,” meaning “Beyond here be dragons.” It is not true, but I have always been fascinated by the thought, with the result that I consistently “push the boundaries.”  

Henry’s school offered instruction in navigation, map-making, and science. It is credited with helping sailors overcome their fears, leading to the establishment of a sea route to the Indies. Today, in a sense, anyone who sets out for new destinations follows in their footsteps. 

Creating Reality from the Dream 

The idea of traveling to the Arctic Circle, and then to Antarctica, became a growing temptation for me, and then a goal that needed to be indulged! 

In June of 2022, my husband and I set out on a cruise from Southampton along the coastal fjords of Norway. The “prize” was a visit to Nordkapp — the North Cape — at the top of the world. Then, in late January of 2023, we embarked on a second voyage from Chile to Argentina, on an itinerary that promised four days of sailing the Antarctic Peninsula, close to the bottom of the world.  

As part of my research for that journey, I learned that early sailors who rounded Cape Horn at the tip of South America earned the right to wear a gold hoop earring in their left ear, a testament to the feat they had undertaken the passage and survived those extremely dangerous waters. I was enthralled by that idea. 

Sadly, high winds and raging seas prevented a local pilot from boarding our vessel on the day we were scheduled to round the Horn. It is a safety requirement these days for ships planning to circumnavigate the Cape because the passage is still considered treacherous. Overcast skies even prevented a photo op. But I wore the gold hoop anyway! I had come close enough. 

Travel as its Reward 

Island Princess at anchor among the clouds of a Norwegian fjord.

Visiting Earth’s most distant regions is a thrill. However, such travel can test the bounds of language, and my descriptions are invariably spiced with exclamation points. 

I’m not particularly adventurous, and I thoroughly enjoy my creature comforts, so cruise ships, of late, have become my vehicles of choice. Besides, who can resist the pampering, the food, and the instant friendships that are forged aboard a ship?  

The Norway trip was on Island Princess, a sturdy, classic cruise ship, but not a mega-ship. It was the perfect size to navigate Nordic fjords and allow us close-up views of small fishing villages and farms along the waterline. The itinerary originally included a visit to Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Earth’s northernmost inhabited island. It is home to the global seed vault, also known as the doomsday vault, where samples of Earth’s bounty are safely stored should “the unthinkable” occur.  

Olden, a charming small town at the end of Nordfjord.

That port call was canceled just before the ship sailed from Southampton. Instead, we visited Lofoten, an archipelago known for its stunning coastline. Although at first disappointing, it turned out to be a treat, certainly a fair trade. Here dramatic peaks soar into the clouds, and communities with brightly-colored buildings are nestled onto narrow strips of land adjacent to the sea. 

The Thrill of the Unknown 

We called Tromso, a city that sprawls over two islands in a coastal fjord well-protected from the open ocean. It was on the day of the annual Midnight Sun Marathon. Runners from all over the world converge on Tromso during the summer solstice to compete in this women-only road race, first held in 1972. We enjoyed local beer at a tavern on the water with a view of the soaring modern Arctic Cathedral in the background and talked to a pair from Wisconsin who had traveled to Tromso solely for that evening’s competition.  

Traveling north, the scenery only becomes more impressive and the people even friendlier. We visited with indigenous Sami reindeer herders, marveled at cascading waterfalls, and snapped photos of immaculate farmhouses, grazing sheep, historic stave churches, and quirky trolls. We sat on our stateroom balcony late into the evening, reading by the light of the midnight sun. 

Norway is nothing if not fascinating. It’s extremely modern, but its history extends back to Viking settlements and seafaring peoples who traveled far afield to populate new lands.  

At Nordkapp, on the island of Mageroya, I had a chance to stand once again on a rocky promontory and look across the sea to the unknown beyond! For me, it felt like a prize. It was the highlight of a journey filled with superlatives. 

Two Sides of the Coin 

The imaginary line that defines Arctic and Antarctic circles is at approximately 66 degrees 33 minutes 47.5 seconds North and South latitude. Interestingly, almost half of Norway lies north of the Arctic Circle, with a population of between 400-500,000. Two-thirds of Greenland is north of that imaginary boundary as well, and six other nations, including the U.S. (Alaska), Canada, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Russia, claim an Arctic land mass. 

Yes, Norway has glaciers too! Briksdalsbreen, a single arm of a larger glacier, it is part of Jostedalsbreen National Park.

Antarctica is very different. Not only are there no permanent settlements but virtually the entire ice-covered continent, except for a peninsula that juts northward towards South America, lies within the Antarctic Circle. Antarctica belongs to no single nation but is administered by an international consortium, with strict controls governing both scientific and tourist travel. Most visitors do not physically set foot on the continent, and travelers, even those on expedition ships, seldom actually cross the invisible Antarctic boundary.  

We were fortunate, despite less than favorable weather during our cruise aboard Sapphire Princess last January and February, to come close. Our most southerly latitude was 64 degrees 58 minutes south latitude, less than 100 miles north of the Antarctic Circle.  

When the sun shines, the beauty of the Antarctic Peninsula is breathtaking. Who knew there were so many shades of blue?

Polar Day – Not the Same as Summer 

Both of my trips occurred during the summer seasons — or polar day — at the top and the bottom of the Earth. Although the sun sank to kiss the horizon as we traveled north, we were still able to read late into the evening while sitting on our stateroom balcony. Weather is milder in Norway due to the Gulf Stream that hugs the country’s western coastline than in most other Arctic countries. Although sweaters and caps were comfortable attire, hardy Norwegians could be seen visiting rocky beaches and swimming in the still-cold waters.  

Temperatures in Antarctica, however, were much lower; to be fair, we visited Antarctica later in the season. The days were shorter, the sun seldom shined bright in the sky, and it did get dark at night. We only got a peek at some of the prime attractions. Deception Island was shrouded in clouds – we missed it completely — and Elephant Island was similarly elusive. Even though our crossing of the famed Drake Passage was relatively smooth, and no snow fell on the ship’s decks (Yes, that happened just three weeks before our sailing!), socks and boots, caps, gloves, and parkas were necessary for spending time on deck.  

About those Superlatives! 

Both journeys so surpassed my expectations that I would be happy to return to either the Arctic or the Antarctic. I am convinced each would feel like a “new world” on each succeeding encounter. That is exactly what Captain Todd McBain of the Sapphire Princess gave as his reason for returning again and again to Antarctica. He has sailed aboard every Princess ship to visit the Antarctic Peninsula since the line first sailed that route in 2006, and he is an ardent Antarctic Ambassador. 

In truth, these two journeys only served to whet my appetite for travel to the far reaches of the planet. I recently had another opportunity to step across the Arctic Circle when I traveled on the Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks, Alaska. It was a road trip that brought our small group of adventurers only as far north as the “Welcome to the Arctic ” sign at Latitude 66-34. But I earned a certificate that attests to my “survival” on this arduous journey! 

I am now intrigued by other journeys that will again bring me closer to the poles — perhaps a tour of Greenland or Iceland, that hoped-for journey to Svalbard, a cruise to the “forgotten islands” of the South Pacific, sub-Antarctic islands south of Australia and New Zealand, or even a day-long tour by helicopter to view Antarctica from the air.  

Travel above the Arctic Circle has become increasingly available and affordable, whether by air, sea, or highway. The seasonal changes also offer numerous options for travelers who want to experience “the land of the midnight sun” or, alternately, the Northern Lights. It’s a matter of picking an itinerary and the time of year that best suits you. Options for visiting the Antarctic are still relatively limited, typically possible only from about mid-November through mid-March. The most favorable weather is from December through February.  

An Uncertain Future for a Fragile Continent 

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) places the number of visitors at just over 105,000 during the 2022-23 season, which raises some serious concerns about environmental effects. In 2000, only about 5,000 people visited. Tourists should be forewarned that much of Antarctic travel, especially the flight-seeing tours and excursions that allow tourists to visit certain research stations, is pricey. However, the price of cruise itineraries from Australia and New Zealand to Macquarie Island with its incredible penguin rookeries, and those that include New Zealand’s Snares, Auckland, or Campbell Islands, can be quite attractive if you find yourself on that side of the world. 

The blue coloration stems from the densely-packed ice that is below the water line, or sometimes from fissures that form in the ice.

Debate continues to swirl around the growing public appetite for Antarctic tourism. There is, however, international cooperation and a determination to protect the environment. Regulation falls under the scope of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), a voluntary organization founded in 1991 by seven private tour operators. It currently sets industry standards that protect Antarctica. 

As some of the last “wilderness areas” on the planet, the polar regions — Antarctica and the Arctic countries — offer awe-inspiring sights and breathtaking experiences. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had glimpses of that beauty at opposite ends of the world, and I love sharing my impressions and my photos.  

Travel is, indeed, the greatest teacher!  

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