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How (and why) to visit Antarctica

A view of Antarctica

A view of Antarctica Photo Credit: Stewart Cohen, courtesy of Lindblad

With frozen beaches, a monochromatic landscape and no nightlife to speak of, Antarctica isn't your typical vacation spot. But many who've gone there say it's the most amazing place they've ever visited.

George Mallory, the first mountaineer to attempt to summit Everest, told The New York Times that the reason he wanted to do it was simple: "Because it's there." A similar attitude seems to prevail among those who make the trip to Earth's southernmost point. "Most of our passengers are seasoned travelers ... so this is the ultimate trip for them," said Chuck Cross, the president of Polar Cruises.

Beyond marking another notch in one's belt, here are some other reasons to go:

The appeal of the Antarctic

The wildlife is outstanding and you can get very close to creatures you won't find anywhere else in the world. Seals, whales, dolphins and penguin colonies numbering in the tens of thousands are the stars of the show. 

Surprisingly, it's not that cold. While the seventh continent conjures up images of tundra so frozen that even the heartiest plants succumb to frostbite, it's actually 30 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit between November and March, the months that most trips run. You'll want to pack layers, but most tours will provide specialized gear.

If you're into adventure travel, there's plenty to do: kayaking, trekking and, for the brave, a bracing swim. The history and science are fascinating, too; the best expeditions travel with experts who can give you the inside track on all things Antarctic.

There are amazing photo ops. Charles Leiter, a business owner from San Jose, Calif., who made the trip last year with his family, said people always wonder why anyone would want to go to Antarctica - until they see his photos. "I think it's the most beautiful place in the world," he said.

Keep in mind

It's not cheap. Expect to pay upwards of $8,000 for a trip in the two-week range. And that price doesn't include airfare to Ushuaia, Argentina, the world's southernmost city and the capital of Tierra del Fuego. From that minimum figure, prices can go to as much as $60,000, depending on the tour and accommodations.

Be prepared for seasickness. Even the most iron-stomached passengers fall prey to Drake's Passage. The infamous crossing can take up to 24 hours and is known for its rough waters.

Tour operators

Abercrombie & Kent: Take a tour with a team of marine biologists, photographers and naturalists who offer lectures and accompany you on landings. abercrombiekent.com

Polar Cruises: Proprietor Chuck Cross estimates he's made the trip 60 times since 1996. Polar also offers the chance to do camping, ice climbing and skiing. polarcruises.com

Quark Expeditions: Quark has the largest and most diverse fleet in the Antarctic region. It's also the only operator that has its own helicopter. quarkexpeditions.com

Lindblad Expeditions: Lars-Eric Lindblad is considered the father of eco-tourism and led the first group of citizen-explorers to Antarctica more than 40 years ago. expeditions.com/antarctica

Fast Facts

• The Southern Hemisphere's summer lasts from November to March - the best time to go.

• Christmas break is the most popular time; prices in December are usually higher.

• All of the boats have onboard laundry facilities, but prices vary from trip to trip.

• Flights from New York to Ushuaia start at $1,700 R/T. (There are no nonstop flights)

• Do your homework: Tour operators often run specials, including free airfare or total-package discounts.

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