An Antarctica itinerary is not like a normal travel itinerary. Unlike taking a holiday in Italy or exploring Uganda, you can’t exactly choose what to see and where to stop. You’re completely at the mercy of two things: the route designed by the expedition company you’re travelling with, and the weather.
The route you do have some control over – but only through your choice of company or itinerary. Some boats only cruise and don’t make any landings, some trips are longer or shorter; some go only to the east or west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, and others (like the one I did) take in the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and maybe the South Orkneys and South Shetlands as well. It’s up to you to choose based on how much time you have, what you can afford, and what you want to see.
But of course there is no guarantee that you will get to do everything on the list. Your Antarctica itinerary will only ever be a best-case-scenario plan. If the weather is bad, the ice too thick, the swell too high or the wind too strong in a particular harbour or landing site, you’ll either go somewhere else (normally somewhere just as amazing), or nowhere at all.
So it’s best to read this itinerary not as a shopping list, but more as a wish list. We were exceptionally lucky and got to see almost everything we were promised, so this, if you like, is a highlights reel; an outline of all the most exceptional places you could go and things you might see on a trip to Antarctica. Use it as inspiration to figure out which bit floats your boat (pardon the pun!) and then shop for the package that best fits what you’re after.
So here it is: where we went and what we did on our 19-day Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica trip with Quark Expeditions over Christmas and New Year 2019-2020.
A Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica Itinerary
Day 1 – Embarkation
Most Antarctica trips depart from the southern tip of Argentina, so we first flew from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. We travelled on a charter flight that was included as part of the package – but you are obviously free to book your own flight and arrive a few days early, or make your own way there overland as part of a longer South America adventure.
Our flight was in the morning, so we had a couple of hours after we arrived to explore Ushuaia’s quiet streets, check out the souvenir shops, and grab lunch in one of the cafes. Then we were bussed to the port to join our ship, the Ocean Endeavour.
We were given a delicious welcome tea (the first of many!) as well as a welcome and safety briefing and a lifeboat drill, before setting sail at around 7 pm.
Day 2 — At Sea to the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas)
The Falklands are located about 300 miles east of Argentina and it takes an entire day to get there.
Your crew will likely offer loads of activities to keep you engaged, from lectures and film screenings to briefings and creative challenges. Quark provided a comprehensive schedule of talks from experts in marine biology, ornithology, geology, politics, history and more; the ship also had a gym, spa and sauna, and if you’re not indoors you can while away hours on deck watching the seabirds or looking for whales. You won’t be bored, that’s for sure!
Day 3 – Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas)
Morning – New Island
First landing! We started our journey in West Falkland, at New Island, which is just 8 miles long and located on the very western tip of the archipelago.
Most locations only allow 100 people ashore at a time, so we were divided into groups with staggered departures to make sure there weren’t too many people at the site at once.
We boarded the zodiacs for the first time (you’ll soon get pretty pro at the process!) and landed on the beach before walking for about 10 minutes to a cliffside colony shared by black-browed albatross and rockhopper penguins, some of whom had chicks.
We had to keep to the edge of the colony to avoid disturbing the birds, but that didn’t stop the curious penguins approaching us! We had about two hours there walking around, watching and taking photos before heading back to the ship.
Afternoon – West Point Island
Over lunch the ship moved up the coast to West Point Island, another area of West Falkland with a population of just two people! It was a longer walk this time, 40 minutes right across the island – but it was worth it to see the fantastic black-browed albatross and rockhopper penguin colony spilling all the way down to the sea. The air was thick with circling albatrosses and the squawks of the penguins arguing over space.
Day 4 – Falkland Islands – Stanley
Overnight we travelled to West Falkland and docked at Port Stanley. Stanley is the capital of the Falkland Islands, with a population of just 2,500 residents. It’s a cute, quiet town that’s very proudly British, with red post boxes and phone boxes and even a red Routemaster bus! We visited the museum to learn about the Falklands War, checked out some of the many souvenir and tourist shops, wrote and sent postcards home and then in true British fashion we headed for the pub.
Stanley is also a great place to pick up any essentials you may have discovered you forgot to bring before you rejoin your vessel.
If you’d like to learn more about the islands, check out this great diary from Dan Flying Solo who spent a whole two weeks in the Falklands!
Day 5 – At Sea to South Georgia
It takes two days to travel the thousand miles from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia, which for me was plenty of time to start editing the hundreds of albatross and penguin photos I’d taken! But as usual there were plenty of other ways to keep busy, from listening to lectures about the bird and animal species we would see on South Georgia, to watching for whales on the outer decks.
We also had a very important briefing about bio security. The South Georgia government is determined to protect its remote shores from non-native and invasive species that might destroy their delicate balance, so all visitors must clean their gear and boots thoroughly before going ashore. We were taught how to check and sterilise our boots, trousers and backpacks and make sure there weren’t any stray grasses or seeds caught in webbing or Velcro. From then on we were inspected before every landing and cleaned everything again every time we returned to the ship.
Day 6 – At Sea to South Georgia
We continued our journey east and south, crossing the line called the Antarctic Convergence. This is an invisible boundary between the warmer waters of the Indian, Pacific and South Atlantic Oceans, and the colder waters of the Southern Ocean that encircles Antarctica. Overnight the temperature dropped from a balmy 10-12 degrees C to about 5 degrees C. The colder water contains more oxygen and carbon dioxide, which creates an abundance of plankton. More plankton means more krill, which in turn attracts larger marine creatures like fish, seals and of course whales – so we spent a lot of time out on deck hoping to spot one!
As we drew closer to South Georgia we passed Shag Rocks, a remote group of six prominent, sharply-peaked islands that are approximately 150 million years old and home to an Imperial Shag (aka Imperial or Royal Cormorant) colony as well as other sea birds. As we slowly cruised past, dozens of them flew out to surround the boat – quite an impressive sight!
Day 7 – South Georgia
Known as the Galapagos of the Poles, South Georgia is one of the wildlife wonders of the world. Once decimated by sealing and whaling (the remains of those old whaling stations can still be visited), wildlife populations have now recovered making the island a remote, unspoiled Eden brimming with life. Truly a place to see before you die if you possibly can.
Morning – Rosita Harbour, Bay of Isles
It was too windy for us to make a shore landing, so in the morning we zodiac cruised around Rosita Harbour. In the 1900s this area was used as a safe harbour for sealers hunting fur and elephant seals for blubber, so today it’s a joy to see so many seals living happily on its shores. We cruised around the bay, watching male fur seals defending their patch of beach and trying to photograph the curious ones who swam up to the zodiacs to take a look at the intruders. They move quickly and you never know when or where they’re going to pop up, so it isn’t easy!
Afternoon – Salisbury Plain
Salisbury Plain is one of the largest jewels in South Georgia’s sparkling crown, and most expedition ships heading this way will land here if they possibly can.
The plain is not far from Rosita Harbour, on the southern shore of the Bay of Isles. It features a thin strip of shingle beach and behind it, a huge flat area bordered by snow-capped mountains. It’s a truly stunning location, but its picturesque beauty is not its main draw. Salisbury Plain is also home to the second largest king penguin colony on South Georgia, with an estimated 60,000 breeding pairs, as well as elephant and fur seals.
The penguin colony is truly one of the natural world’s wonders. Thousands upon thousands of penguins and, depending on when you go, chicks or eggs. The noise and the smell is fascinating and bewildering. I honestly didn’t know where to look or what to point the camera at.
Day 8 – South Georgia
Morning – Fortuna Bay
When Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was crushed in ice in Antarctica in 1915, he left most of his crew on Elephant Island before embarking with a small band of men to sail in a tiny wooden boat the 720 miles to South Georgia. Impossibly, they made it, but they landed on the wrong side of the island and then had to cross the mountainous interior on foot. Fortuna Bay is where they descended to the coast again before heading to Stromness Whaling Station, where they were finally rescued, 488 days after their ship became trapped.
Today it’s home to a stunning beach populated by King and Gentoo penguins, and fur and elephant seals. Our guides had marked out a safe route along the back of the beach and we spent a delighted hour or so wandering up and down and, as usual, taking far too many photos!
Probably my favourite thing here was the crèche full of adorable 3-week old fur seal pups sleeping or playing in the ponds.
Afternoon – Grytviken
Grytviken Whaling station was once the largest whaling station on South Georgia and the hub of the Southern Ocean whaling industry. For over 60 years it was responsible for the slaughter of tens of thousands of whales, as well as countless seals and penguins which were used to fuel the burners.
Now the machinery lies rusted; the abandoned boats and burners reclaimed by the seals and penguins. The site has a shop and museum offering souvenirs and excellent tours of the site. Shackleton’s grave is in the cemetery nearby.
Day 9 – South Georgia
Morning – Godthul
The next stop on our Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica itinerary was Godthul, a 1-mile long bay situated about halfway down South Georgia’s eastern side. It used to be used as a safe harbour for whaling ships, and a floating factory ship was moored here between 1922 and 1929.
It was too windy to land so we did a short zodiac cruise around the bay, looking for seals and penguins. It was by far the bumpiest and windiest zodiac ride we did – every time we bounced on the water a huge wave of spray came over the bow and soaked us!
Afternoon – St Andrew’s Bay
St. Andrew’s Bay is situated on the north coast of South Georgia and is home to the island’s largest king penguin colony with an estimated 150,000 breeding pairs. That means that, with chicks and non-breeding penguins, there may be close to half a million birds here. It’s one of the absolute top places to visit in South Georgia and not to be missed if the weather will allow it!
Because of the wind it was touch-and-go for a while as to whether we would be able to land. But after about 2 hours of deliberations by the captain and expedition leader, the wind dropped and we were able to make a bumpy but safe landing.
Of course it was totally worth it. The sights, sounds, and smells of the colony were absolutely staggering. Yet another very good reason to make sure South Georgia is on your Antarctica itinerary!
If you’d like to read more about this experience, it features heavily in my post South Georgia and Antarctica: What Is It Really Like?
Day 10 – South Georgia
Morning – Gold Harbour
Yet more penguins today – and I still wasn’t bored! Gold Harbour lies on the southeast corner of South Georgia, at the foot of the Salvesen mountains. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks with a glacier hanging over them, it’s yet another beautiful location, home to about 75,000 king penguins as well as a small number of Gentoo penguins.
Afternoon – Cooper Bay
Cooper Bay is situated at the southeast end of South Georgia and is home to South Georgia’s largest macaroni penguin colony. It was too wet and windy for us to land here but we were able to do a zodiac cruise to see the penguins before saying a very sad farewell to South Georgia.
Day 11 – At Sea to the South Orkneys
It’s about 1000 miles from South Georgia across the Scotia Sea to the Antarctic Peninsula, a trip that takes at least another two full days. I spent the time editing photos, listening to lectures about Antarctica, and out on deck watching for the icebergs which began to drift by as we headed south.
We still had the strong winds with us, which meant there was quite a large swell. A few people got seasick, but the crew handed out medication and candied ginger, and placed sick bags on every available surface, just in case!
Day 12 – The South Orkney Islands
The route from South Georgia to Antarctica can take you pretty much in a straight line across the Scotia Sea, but due to the wind and currents the captain decided it was better to make a curve slightly southwards to head via the South Orkneys. This was an unexpected treat, as although it had been mentioned as a possibility, it was by no means guaranteed on our Antarctica itinerary.
Laurie Island, South Orkneys
The South Orkneys are claimed by both Britain and Argentina, but under the Antarctic Treaty their claims are frozen. Both countries have research stations here and we were lucky enough to get to visit the Argentine one, Orcadas, on Laurie Island. Orcadas is one of the oldest research bases in Antarctica still in use.
Base Orcadas was established in 1902 by the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition before being handed over to Argentina in 1904. It’s now occupied all year round by a small team of just 17 people and used for scientific research. We were given a tour of the station and learned a bit about how they survive the isolation and freezing winters.
Stopping at the South Orkneys was a rare privilege – the crew told us this was the first time in 5 years they’d been able to visit. If you hope to do the same, definitely book with a company that has it as a possibility on the itinerary, but bear in mind that there are no guarantees you will actually make it. It’s an excellent example of how plans can change not just for the worse, but sometimes for the better, and how brilliant the team was at seizing every opportunity to make sure we had the best trip possible.
The research station is situated on Scotia Bay. In the winter the bay freezes up and the station is completely cut off from the outside world, but since it was summer we were able to do a zodiac cruise around the bay to see Chinstrap and Adelie penguin colonies.
Then it was back to the ship for dinner and a glorious sunset (not guaranteed on any Antarctica itinerary, sorry!)
Before we left the South Orkneys the Quark team offered us the chance to do an evening cruise around another bay on nearby Coronation Island, the largest of the South Orkneys. This photo was taken at about 11.45 pm – as you can see it’s still pretty light! And it was incredibly atmospheric to be out on the calm sea in the twilight, and see the ship all lit up, floating amongst the icebergs.
Day 13 – South to the Antarctic
Today was another full sea day, travelling the rest of the way to Antarctica. Cruises that don’t stop at the South Orkneys will arrive at the South Shetlands today and have an extra day in Antarctica instead.
Day 14 – Deception Island, South Shetlands
Deception Island is probably the coolest island in Antarctica because it’s actually the caldera of an active volcano. Millions of years ago the volcano erupted and the cone collapsed into the sea, leaving behind this ring-shaped island with a very narrow channel which allows ships access into the centre of the caldera (if they’re not too big). Because it’s almost completely surrounded by land, the bay is one of the calmest and safest harbours in Antarctica, and used to be home to a whaling station.
The remains of the whaling station and some of the whales that were killed there now lie scattered on the beach.
Since this is an active volcano – it last erupted in 1967 and 1969 – there are vents spouting hot steam and if you dig a hole on the beach it fills with warm water… pretty weird given that you’re in Antarctica!
As well as entering the caldera and making a very quick landing on the beach, we also did a zodiac cruise around Bailey Head, on the southeastern extremity of Deception Island. It’s home to one of the largest chinstrap penguin colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula, with around 50,000 breeding pairs.
As we cruised near the beach, penguins were constantly arriving and leaving, porpoising through the water all around our boats. ‘Porpoising’ is the way they swim while jumping into the air as they go – it’s a more efficient way to swim fast while grabbing breaths of air at the same time.
Then it was time to weigh anchor and head for the final leg of our epic Antarctica itinerary – the Antarctic Peninsula.
Day 15 – Antarctica
When I stepped out on deck the next morning we were surrounded by ice and icebergs. It was time to go ashore for our first landing on the seventh continent!
Morning – Portal Point
The main Antarctic peninsula looks like a craggy finger reaching out into the Southern Ocean with loads of smaller peninsulas and bays all the way along it.
Portal Point lies at the tip of one of these, and it’s of particular interest because the British came here in 1956 and built a refuge hut as a base for expeditions heading up on to the Peninsula plateau. The hut has now been taken down and is on display in the museum in Stanley in the Falkland Islands, but the foundations are still there.
We had a couple of hours to walk around, check out the amazing views, pose for photos and get up close and personal with the Weddell seals that lazed around on the snow.
After our landing we did a zodiac cruise round Charlotte Bay to check out some of the stunning icebergs. The bay was teeming with humpback whales, so we spent a lot of time looking out for blows as they came up to breathe and then zooming over to get close to them. One of the most intense moments of the trip was when a group of about six whales surrounded our zodiac on all sides, just a few metres away.
Afternoon – Graham Passage
As usual the ship moved on while we had lunch, and in the afternoon the next stop on our Antarctica itinerary was Graham Passage, a stunning, mirror-calm channel between steep sided, snow-capped mountains.
Quark offers various extra activities as add-ons to your trip, such as sea kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and a paddle excursion in two-man inflatable kayaks. I was signed up for the paddle excursion, so while most of my shipmates did a zodiac cruise around the bay, I went out on the water self-propelled. It was wonderful to be able to get a different perspective on the landscape, though for a photographer like me it was a bit frustrating not being able to bring all my gear!
We had been warned about this from Day One but didn’t quite know when it was coming. Turned out today was the day we’d be jumping into the freezing Antarctic waters! I was very unsure about whether or not I wanted to do this as it sounded horrific, but in the end I decided I might regret it if I didn’t give it a go. So I did, and I survived and was given a badge and a shot of vodka for my efforts!
In the meantime, the ship’s crew had filled the on-deck pool – empty for the duration of the voyage thus far due to the risk of water sloshing out on rough sea days. So we were able to enjoy the full Antarctic hot-tub experience before being treated to an on-deck barbecue to round off an incredible day.
Day 16 – Antarctica
Morning – Neko Harbour
Today we had one more chance to land on the Antarctic continent and take in the incredible beauty of this pristine place.
Neko Harbour is one of the top places to visit in Antarctica: a quiet, safe harbour full of wildlife and icebergs. It’s named after the floating whale factory ship, Neko, which once operated within the bay, and is now home to a small colony of Gentoo penguins. The colony is one of the most scenic we saw, perched on a hillside with a spectacular blue glacier right behind it. Every so often there was a huge rumble and tonnes of ice collapsed dramatically into the water.
We strolled around the landing site and watched the penguins on their nests, and made way for them as they followed their ‘penguin highways’ to and from the sea.
Afterwards we cruised amongst the ice and glaciers, looking out for Weddell and leopard seals as well as penguins of course!
Afternoon – Errera Channel and Danco Island
The Errera Channel was probably my favourite place on our entire Antarctica itinerary. The scenery is absolutely stunning: crystal-clear, calm waters peppered with icebergs of all sizes, and surrounded by craggy mountains and glaciers.
It’s one of the few places where I preferred to be on the water rather than on land. We cruised amongst the icebergs and spotted crabeater and leopard seals resting on ice floes.
I can’t really put into words how extraordinarily, breathtakingly beautiful it all was – so stunning it actually caused me a physical ache.
After the cruise we made a short landing on nearby Danco Island for once last chance to see Gentoo penguins and check out the views before saying a very tearful farewell to Antarctica.
Day 17 — Crossing the Drake Passage
This was the part of the journey I had feared the most (apart from the Polar Plunge!). Crossing the notorious Drake Passage, the worst, most violent stretch of sea in the world, is said to be a rite of passage. I was fully prepared to spend two days in my cabin, puking into a bag.
But our incredible good luck held. The sea was flat calm for the entire journey, and I was able to spend another two days editing photos and watching for wildlife on deck.
Day 18 – At Sea and Cape Horn
After a second day at sea, land finally came into view: Cape Horn, on the tip of South America, the most southern point where the open waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Our journey was almost over.
That evening we had farewell drinks and dinner, sad goodbyes were said and contact details exchanged.
Day 19 — Disembarkation in Ushuaia
Overnight we sailed along the coast of Argentina and by morning we had docked back in Ushuaia. Then all that remained was to disembark and head back to the airport for our flight back to Buenos Aires and then onwards home.
If you’d like to read more about this voyage, check out South Georgia and Antarctica: What Is It Really Like?
I travelled to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica with Quark Expeditions in December 2019 – January 2020. I paid in full for the trip. All opinions are my own and all prices correct at the time of writing.