Light snow fell as I caught sight of the Antarctic Peninsula for the first time. Bundled up in my bright red, cruise-line-issued coat, a knit hat and thick mittens as I stood on the bow of the Viking Polaris, I peered through my binoculars at the magical sight laid out before me: Towering mountain peaks covered in a thick layer of ice, all surrounded by the inky black waters of the Southern Ocean.
Though I love to take cruises, I’ll admit it: At first, I was a bit skeptical about trading the chilly January weather of my home in Colorado for the snow and ice of Antarctica, which is the coldest and windiest continent on Earth. But as soon as I stepped foot on board the ship and set sail for the White Continent, I knew I’d made the exact right choice.
In fact, the trip made me want to book even more cold-weather cruises in the future.
Here’s why I loved taking a cruise to a chilly destination — and why you might, too.
Easy Packing List
In a lot of ways, packing for the cold is much simpler than trying to pack for other types of weather: Simply toss clothes in your suitcase that will keep you warm. Since you’ll be wearing a coat whenever you’re outside anyway, there’s no need to worry about looking fashionable or photogenic (and no need to try to bring trendy outfits for the ‘Gram, either).
I have always fretted about what to wear on vacation, and this took a lot of the pressure off when packing for my 13-day cruise to Antarctica. Sweaters, cardigans, T-shirts, jeans, a few hats and several thick pairs of wool socks were all I needed — in fact, it was so easy to pack that I was able to fit everything into a carry-on suitcase and avoid paying an airline baggage fee on the flight to South America.
If you’re traveling to a far-flung destination like Antarctica, there’s also a good chance the cruise line will provide you with a coat, pants and waterproof boots for the journey, too.
Jaw-Dropping Natural Scenery
Visiting a cold-weather destination on a cruise ship means you get to see some of the planet’s most awe-inspiring natural landscapes — like snow-covered mountains, “pancake ice” on the water, icebergs and glaciers — all without basically lifting a finger. These are unique scenes you can’t see just anywhere, and a cruise ship can help you reach them in comfort: no difficult trekking or backpacking required. Just kick back and enjoy the ride (while the captain does all the hard work!).
Lots Of Daylight
When you visit a cold-weather destination on a cruise ship, chances are you’re actually visiting during that destination’s summer months (otherwise, there would be too much ice on the water for the ship to get through). And since many cold-climate cruises travel to places in the far Northern or Southern Hemispheres, this means you benefit from extra long days.
In fact, if you visit places above the Arctic Circle or below the Antarctic Circle, you may even get to experience what’s known as the “midnight sun,” when the sun is high in the sky for nearly 24 hours a day — talk about maximizing your vacation time! Don’t worry, though, as most cruise ship staterooms are equipped with blackout curtains so you can get a good night’s rest, if and when you finally pull yourself away from gazing at the aforementioned scenery.
Incredible Wildlife Viewing Opportunities
If you love watching wildlife nature documentaries like David Attenborough’s “Planet Earth,” then you’ll revel in the ability to spot cold-climate creatures on your cruise. On my trip to Antarctica, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing thousands of penguins — including gentoos, adelies and even a few chinstraps — and it was truly the highlight of my trip.
When we landed at places like Cuverville Island and Damoy Point, there were busy colonies of these dapper, flightless birds waiting to welcome us. Watching them waddle back and forth along their “penguin highways” in the snow was totally adorable. From the ship, I spent hours watching them swim effortlessly through the chilly Southern Ocean like little torpedoes.
While onboard the Viking Polaris, I was also constantly scanning the horizon for whales — mainly humpbacks. When these massive marine mammals surface to take a breath, they must first expel air out of their lungs, which creates a short-lived fountain on the horizon known as a “blow.” Then, once they’ve inhaled, they dive back down, making it possible to see their Y-shaped tails above the water.
Along the way, I also spotted several types of seals and dozens of species of sea birds, including giant petrels, skuas, Antarctic terns, petrels and more. As an avid birder, these sightings were particularly thrilling for me, and there were even Viking naturalists onboard to help identify them.
Cozy Vibes On The Ship
A completely unexpected benefit of traveling to a colder climate? Appreciating the ship and its various amenities so much more. After coming in from the cold — whether from an excursion or just from being out on the deck — posting up in one of the many public lounge spaces on the Viking Polaris with a hot toddy and a Norwegian butter cookie (called a småkaker) felt like a warm hug.
This same cozy feeling extended to the spa, which had a sauna, a steam room and an open-air hot tub (known as a badestamp). The ship’s panoramic, light-filled auditorium, called The Aula, was the perfect place to listen to engaging lectures and talks about everything from birds to chemistry to geography while gazing at the scenery outside.
If it’s snowing or windy, the ship also provides a warm respite from the weather — but since nearly every wall is covered with windows, you can still marvel at the view while staying toasty and dry. My cruise cabin even had an innovative “Nordic balcony,” which was basically a massive picture window, protected by an overhang, that I could open or shut as I pleased. If I didn’t feel like standing outside on the deck, I simply pressed a button and waited for the top half of the window to slide down, giving me an unobstructed view of the surrounding Antarctic glaciers and mountains. I spent many hours perched at my open window with my binoculars, often with a warm cup of coffee nearby, too.
Stunning Photo Opportunities
Sure, you could snap a photo of the waves lapping against the sand from your beach towel (hot dogs or legs, anyone?) on a more traditional, warm-weather cruise. But you’ll capture some truly stunning photographs — and impress your friends when you return home — when you travel to cold-weather locales. That’s because, in many places, the terrain and color palette are simply more dramatic: the icy-blue glow of a glacier, the craggy gray rock of a mountain peak or dazzling white snow sparkling in the sun, for example.
Unique Excursion Opportunities
On a warm-weather cruise, you might get to choose between a beach day, a catamaran tour or an afternoon of shopping. These are all great options, don’t get me wrong. But when you take a cold-weather cruise, the excursions are unique — and probably unlike anything you’ve experienced before.
On my cruise to Antarctica, for instance, I got to board a six-person submarine (along with one highly qualified submarine pilot) and travel down 402 feet below the ocean’s surface. When we reached our final depth, the pilot switched on the submarine’s exterior lights, then traversed an underwater ridgeline that was covered with colorful starfish, algae and other aquatic plants and creatures. As if being inside a submarine at the bottom of the ocean wasn’t cool enough, my fellow passengers and I realized we were likely the first and only people ever to lay eyes on that particular section of the seafloor.
On a cold-weather cruise, you might have the opportunity to kayak beside a glacier, take a helicopter ride, zoom around in search of seals on a speed boat, go dog-sledding, catch a glimpse of the northern lights or even spend the night inside an igloo-style ice hotel, to name a few options.
Bottom line: Cruises are the perfect way to get outside your comfort zone and experience a new-to-you destination — particularly one that’s in a colder climate. You only have to unpack once and someone else takes care of all the little logistical details that can make planning a vacation a bit of a hassle. The next time you’re daydreaming about getting out of town, consider taking a cold-weather cruise. You won’t regret it, I promise.
Which cold-weather destinations are you most excited to visit?