Antarctica is a bucket-list dream for many. Especially those keen to tick off all the continents. But do you need to wait until the kids leave home? Is it a trip reserved for rich retirees? Or is it suitable for your next family holiday?
In our case we fell head over heels for the place when watching Shelley Craft visit on The Great Outdoors many years ago (before kids). Within a couple of weeks we were all booked in and shopping for gear. It was about as spur of the moment as hubster and I get, but it was indeed the trip of a lifetime. Definitely worth the money and seasickness for us, but would we take the kids?
What will they love about Antarctica?
Antarctic cruises are only run during the southern hemisphere summer, mainly in December and January. At this time of year enough sea ice has melted to allow access to shore, wildlife is typically most plentiful and the days are long, up to 20 hours of sunlight a day.
The wildlife is what generally first attracts people. And rightly so. When does drifting past a seal asleep on an iceberg get boring? And what about sitting on a pebbly seashore as penguins happily wander past? These experiences are priceless and incredibly precious.
We watched a pod of orcas playing next to our ship, we camped overnight on the ice with penguins nesting nearby, we spotted seals sunbaking on their backs and penguins porpoising through the water. Any child with an interest in nature would adore every minute here. Don’t be expecting polar bears though. They’re only in the Arctic.
But it is the ice that takes your breath away. The colours, the formations, the vast cliffs and glaciers of it. The incredible purity and beauty of it. You feel blessed to witness it. And if you are fortunate enough to be nearby when a large part of a glacier falls into the water, then you will truly be in awe of the scale and potential danger of this spectacular place.
Will they have fun?
Minimum age as set by the tour company can range from 8 to 12 years, but just because they can go, does it mean they should?
On a small ship like Peregrine/Intrepid (122 passengers) or Aurora Expeditions (56 passengers), you are going to get heaps of time on land with two to three landings every day. But there are no facilities on the ship. There are cabins, a dining hall, a lounge/presentation room and a bar. You can expect the fore-deck to look like the pic above, with a similar space at the rear. This is not your Royal Caribbean cruise ship with swimming pools, jogging tracks and rock-climbing walls. The facilities are warm and comfortable, but a long way from luxurious.
The only on-board activities are watching presentations about the wildlife/historical sites/ice formations you might see, or relaxing in the lounge chatting to other, predominantly adult, passengers.
A large ship (400 passengers) will have more comfortable surrounds and a lot more space, but with a maximum of 100 people allowed ashore at any one time, your land time is going to be very limited as everyone takes their turn.
And most importantly, there is no internet access and you will spend 4 days crossing the Drake Passage (2 days each way). So take plenty to keep them occupied!
An Antarctic cruise is not physically challenging. The most you will need to do is deal with the cold (temperature ranges from -2 to 8°) and walk through snow.
But it is worth mentioning that there is no access to medical facilities once on board. There is a doctor, but if you need a hospital then you will need to wait for a helicopter to arrive. As a result, tour companies typically advise people with chronic conditions like severe asthma, diabetes, etc not to visit.
And don’t forget about seasickness. It is quite likely that passengers will get seasick while crossing the Drake Passage. I hadn’t been seasick before going to Antarctica, but I had to spend most of the crossing in bed. As long as I was horizontal I felt great. So I did lots of reading and tried to enjoy the relaxation.
The majority of passengers suffered to varying degrees. So I think it would be easier if your kids were old enough for your family to operate as a team. It might be mum and dad who go down with seasickness and are not physically able to take the kids to meals in the dining room, etc. I think it would be very important that the kids are mature enough to be able to take care of themselves.
Can you afford it?
One of the main negatives about visiting Antarctica is the cost. A 12 day expedition is about as short as you can have, like this one from Peregrine. This consists of 3 days in Ushuaia, 4 days crossing the Drake Passage (2 days each way) and only 5 days actually in Antarctica. It costs from A$9,400 per person out of Ushuaia, so you’ve still got your airfares on top of that. Ushuaia is at the bottom tip of South America. So we’re talking serious money. Perhaps it would be best to wait until you can go without the kids?
There are cruise options that depart from Australia and New Zealand, but instead of spending 40 hours crossing the Drake Passage to get to Antarctic soil from South America, you will spend 4-5 days in rough seas each way to cross the Southern Ocean that lies between Australia and Antarctica. You would have to be really keen to face that and I certainly wouldn’t be submitting my kids to it.
If you have the opportunity to do it, then good luck to you! I think the biggest hurdle is the cost and all the other wonderful places in the world that you could take them for a fraction of it.
For us I think we’ll be leaving Antarctica for the kids to visit when they can pay their own way. But wow, wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to take them!
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Is Antarctica on your bucket list?