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The Ultimate Traveler’s Guide to the Arctic and Antarctica

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Sunrises or sunsets, coffee or tea, Wonder Woman or Superman. The world contains a virtually limitless supply of things to compare, contrast, juxtapose, differentiate. But few things so perfectly express the polarities of our planet as its literal magnetic poles – or more particularly, the Arctic and Antarctica.
The Ultimate Traveler’s Guide to the Arctic and Antarctica

Regions: Antarctica, Arctic

To Arctic or Antarctica, that is the question

Sunrises or sunsets, coffee or tea, Wonder Woman or Superman.

The world contains a limitless supply of things to compare, contrast, juxtapose, differentiate. But few things so perfectly express the polarities of our planet as its literal magnetic poles, or more particularly, the Arctic and Antarctica.

Now admittedly, there are numerous similarities between these two regions, and at first glance they’re easily confused for one another.

Nevertheless, Earth’s icy bookends are not only vastly different in terms of physical composition, they’re also highly distinct with regard to the travel-tourism opportunities they offer. Knowing which place to visit, then, can be a mind-boggling conundrum. In fact, it’s sometimes enough to turn off potential polar travelers altogether. 

But it doesn’t have to be.

If you’re currently wondering whether your first or next polar voyage should be Arctic or Antarctic, keep reading. What you learn might mean the difference between a trip that ends in a disappointed fizzle or an incurable case of polar fever.

(And if you just want the bullet points, skip ahead to our jazzy infographic at the end of this article.) 

Polar bears (Arctic) or penguins (Antarctica): the varied polar wildlife

In our experience, most travelers visit the polar regions for the animals.

More than landscapes, activities, even our vessels’ generously stocked bars, it’s usually wildlife that determines whether you fall into Arctic or Antarctic clubs. Not that you can’t love both.

And the Arctic vs. Antarctic wildlife debate typically pits polar bears against penguins.

The Arctic is the only place you can see polar bears, while the Antarctic (and sometimes sub-Antarctic) is the only place you can see penguins.

But there’s more: Going to the Arctic doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll see a polar bear. Though these white giants are not fantastically rare, they’re also not overwhelmingly abundant.

If you happen to spot one (or five) on your Arctic cruise, count yourself lucky.

The same can’t be said of penguins.

Though we can’t guarantee you’ll see penguins either, you’re likelier to spot these flightless waddlers than polar bears. 

This is especially true along the Antarctic Peninsula, Weddell Sea, and Ross Sea, where you can sometimes see large breeding colonies.

And sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia, the Falklands, and South Shetlands can also yield sizable penguin panoramas.

And let’s not forget the other animals.

The Arctic has humpback whales, belugas, orcas, much rarer narwhals, and a wide array of seabirds. You might also see reindeer, Arctic foxes and hares, musk oxen, and walruses there.

In Antarctica, you stand a better chance of encountering large marine mammals than their landed cousins.

Seals are a frequent sight, such as occasional leopard seals along the Antarctic Peninsula or the large sub-Antarctic elephant seal haul-outs of Grytviken and Salisbury Plain.

Though we won’t make our own judgments about Arctic vs. Antarctic expediton cruises here, we can say the Arctic has a greater variety of wildlife due to its connection with several lower-latitude continents.

Boreal summer (Arctic) or austral summer (Antarctica): when to go, what to do

The high season for each location is generally summer.

But summer occurs at different times in the boreal (northern) or austral (southern) zones. In the Arctic, summer is May to October. In Antarctica, it’s October to April. And as a tourist, you actually can’t even visit Antarctica outside of the austral summer.

The activities offered in each region aren’t as cleanly divided as wildlife, as you can usually do the same things in both places.

These common activities include shoreline strolls, inland hikes, and Zodiac cruises, to name just a few – and in Antarctica, helicopter flights can take you to places otherwise inaccessible, like Snow Hill Island.

Nonetheless, some activities are more favorable in certain regions.

In the Arctic, you’ll have more access to mountains that are great for hiking and skiing. If you’re inclined to water sports, some Arctic voyages allow you to kayak around icebergs or even dive beneath them, granted you have the necessary experience.

But if the Arctic wins at wildlife, Antarctica wins at activities: Diving, kayaking, and mountaineering are less attempted in the Arctic, while in Antarctica they’re among our most popular activities.

This is especially true on our Basecamp trips, which we don’t attempt in the Arctic. These cruises even include camping, a surefire way to feel like a polar explorer.

But though most polar trips take place in summer, winter lovers shouldn’t despair.

We also run aurora borealis voyages along the north Norway coastline all winter long. What’s more, these picturesque trips take places on small historic schooners and focus on hiking, traditional sailing, whale watching, and viewing the northern lights (aurora borealis).

Take that, Antarctica.

North Pole (Arctic) or South Pole (Antarctica): how to get there, what you’ll see

It can’t be ignored that even among most die-hard travelers, just going to the Arctic or Antarctica is a considerable undertaking.

To save you unnecessary headaches, heartaches, and airline food bellyaches, here’s a rundown of the most common embarkation points you’ll visit en route to these far-flung polar regions.

(We’ll follow this by a comparison of Arctic vs. Antarctic landscape.)

When traveling to the Arctic, you’ll often pass through one of three key ports: Longyearbyen, Tromsø, or Akureyri. Though Constable Pynt is not a port, you might fly into or out of it.

You might even visit more than one port, depending on your voyage. Norway cruises only use Tromsø, and Svalbard cruises favor Longyearbyen. Greenland trips mostly employ Constable Pynt, but they may also stop in Akureyri if they include Iceland.

All these locations are compelling, but Tromsø and Akureyri are the most culturally historic. Longyearbyen, on the other hand, is part research town meets burgeoning tourist hub. If Constable Pynt has any charm, it has to come from its complete and utter isolation.

Antarctica has fewer points of entry: Ushuaia and Puerto Madryn, both in Argentina, are probably the only ports you’ll see before pushing off to Earth’s coldest continent.

Ushuaia has developed into a charming resort town. You’ll enjoy its lively streets, its fascinating museums and galleries, and its mountainous surroundings – a fitting appetizer for Antarctica itself.

The same goes for Puerto Madryn. It offers long sandy beaches, a profusion of dinosaur fossils inland, and famed southern right whale views off nearby Peninsula Valdez.

A last word on embarkation points: Most Arctic ones require you to fly into them, while the two main Antarctic ports require you to sail the Drake Passage to reach Antarctica. And, well, the Drake isn’t known as the Antarctic “rite of passage” for nothing.

We sell great seasickness medication, but it’s something to keep in mind.

As for Arctic or Antarctic landscapes, the visual similarities between the two regions belie their major geological differences.

Indeed, they’re virtually opposites: The Arctic is a frozen ocean surrounded by landmasses, while Antarctica is a frozen landmass surrounded by ocean.

But can you tell just by looking at them?

Yes, if you know what to look for.

First, consider the ice formations: Both the Arctic and Antarctica have icebergs, glaciers, and a great deal of snow, but in general the Arctic has less of all three than Antarctica.

In the Arctic, you’ll see fewer and smaller glaciers. The icebergs are also smaller and more irregular, and the snowpack lies in fewer places and is less deep.

And sometimes it’s not there at all.

Even so, Arctic sea ice is generally thicker.

The reason for this has to do with Arctic geology: Arctic sea ice remains trapped within the abundance of surrounding land masses, therefor staying longer in freezing conditions.

Antarctica’s sea ice, conversely, can float to warmer waters in the summer and dissipate.

This degree of dissipation does not occur in the Ross Sea or Weddell Sea, however, where sea ice can stay all summer long – particularly in the Weddell Sea.

Also, Antarctica’s bergs and glaciers are larger, smoother, and more symmetrically shaped than those of the Arctic. So if you’re bothered by crooked paintings or uneven porches, you may find better peace of mind in the far south.

Sometimes cold (Arctic) or somewhat cold (Antarctica): what to pack to for the snowpack

Though both the Arctic and Antarctica are characterized by short cool summers and long cold winters, the Arctic is consistently warmer than the Antarctic.

Arctic summer temperatures usually range from 5°C (41°F) to 10°C (50°F), depending on where you go.

Just as in Antarctica, however, your location (and in particular your latitude) will determine whether you’ll experience slight shivers or Chattering Teeth Syndrome.  

Spend some time in northern Siberia and you’ll encounter real cold, but take a much milder Svalbard cruise and you’ll be perfectly comfortable.

Antarctica summer temperatures are usually cooler, from -15°C (5°F) to 2°C (36°F).

Just as with the Arctic, Antarctic temperature depends a lot on where you go: Princess Elizabeth Land in deep inland Antarctica reports the coldest temperatures, though you’re unlikely to go there unless you’re researching oxygen isotope composition in ice.

Do you know what that is? Yeah, so do we. Totally.

We suggest you stick to places like the Antarctic Peninsula, Weddell Sea, or Ross Sea, which are balmy by comparison and offer many more wildlife viewing opportunities.

But since any polar voyage requires warm clothes, your wardrobe shouldn’t differ much regardless of whether you’re in the Arctic or Antarctica – except in the number of layers you strip off during your first big hike.

Or if you take a polar plunge. You might notice a difference then.

Native people (Arctic) or no people (Antarctica): your polar dose of culture

More than landscape, hemisphere, even wildlife, what most distinguishes the Arctic from Antarctica are its abundance or absence of people.

(We’re referring specifically to the people who’ve lived there for thousands of years.)

Between the two regions, only the Arctic has sustained a native population. Inuit, Saami, Yupik, Inupiat, and Chukchi are all indigenous groups who settled in the Arctic.

These groups have survived by hunting, gathering, and in the case of the Saami, reindeer herding. You can see the ruins, towns, and modern-day members of these indigenous groups in key Arctic locations. Most are located in Greenland and northern Russia.

East Greenland voyages to Scoresby Sund, for example, seek to visit Inuit ruins at Danmark Island as well as the town of Ittoqqortoormiit.

And if you walk the streets of Ittoqqortoormiit, you’ll have a hard time not encountering Greenlandic Inuit.

Alternately, your Antarctica cruise will introduce you to new cultures only if they’re sharing your ship. Due to its geological isolation, the Antarctic has never supported indigenous human life.

This is not to say that Antarctica doesn’t offer its share of historical expedition remains, however, as well as an abundant supply of scientists and research stations.

The huts of famed 1900s explorers Shackleton and Scott can still be seen there, while stations like McMurdo, Lockroy, and Cámara are occasional landing sites.

Just don’t push any buttons that are big, red, and locked behind glass.

(Scientists can be so touchy.)

Verdict: Should you take an Arctic or Antarctic expedition cruise?

This article represents our best efforts to put the Arctic vs. Antarctica debate into tidy, travel-oriented, and hopefully entertaining terms.

But asking for a be-all, end-all comparison of these two wild and wildly unique wildernesses is tantamount to making a parent choose their favorite child.

They probably couldn’t do it if they tried, and if they did it would just make everyone sad.

On top of that, such a simplistic answer would only bulldoze over the limitless peculiarities that make the Arctic and Antarctica so endlessly, incomparably precious.

In our humble opinion, which we’ve refined over a quarter century of polar cruising, the question should not be which region you ought to visit.

It should be, “What do I want to experience when I get there?”

Do you want to see polar bears or penguins?

Do you want to be comfortably cool or breathe the bracing air of real polar cold?

Do you want to be near civilization or so far from it you’ll forget reality TV even exists?

What we mean is, the Arctic and Antarctica can’t truly be compared. They exist by and for themselves. After all, there’s a reason people fly halfway around the globe to see places many travelers write off as frozen, forlorn wastelands.

And it’s not because these places lend themselves to simple measurements.

That said, we understand: It’s not easy to decide on a polar cruise. The distances can be far, the costs prohibitive, and not everyone has the option of simply trying everything.

Even within Oceanwide there are people who fall adamantly into Arctic or Antarctic clubs.

(We can’t tell you how many food fights this has led to.)

Nevertheless, we’re confident this decision will sort itself out for you based on your personal polar preferences. But what those are, only you can decide.

When you do, we hope you’ll sail with us.

Arctic vs. Antarctica infographic

Below you can find the main points of the Arctic or Antarctica dilemma summarized in this colorfully polar infographic.

May it help make your expedition cruise decision a little easier and a lot more fun!

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