Antarctic Dreaming: Planning & Packing for an Epic 50th Birthday Journey

June 2, 2017 Special Guest Author

A guest post by Antarctic passenger May Lee 

My path to Antarctica was unexpected, to say the least. A self-professed city girl, I never imagined that I’d celebrate my 50th birthday in one of the wildest, most remote places on earth, but that’s exactly what happened!

May Lee enjoys a quiet moment with a colony of Gentoo penguins perched high above an Antarctic bay, the Ocean Endeavour in the background

May Lee enjoys a quiet moment with a colony of Gentoo penguins perched high above an Antarctic bay, the Ocean Endeavour in the background. Photo: May Lee

Museums, theatre and fine dining are my idea of a great vacation, so it was with great trepidation that I agreed to accompany my father on his dream expedition in 2015, to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, his health prevented him taking that trip at the very last minute. I asked a travel buddy to join me, but he was already committed to an adventure of his own: a trip to Antarctica.

Are you crazy? I wondered. Antarctica?!

It just seemed so out there. I’d met this friend on a trip we’d both taken to Norway, where we had enjoyed Northern Lights displays so spectacular, I didn’t think that experience could ever be topped.

He went on his Antarctic expedition, and I went on to climb Mount Kilimanjaro on my own. It was surprising, the effect that such a physically challenging, wild adventure trip had on me. I felt fantastic afterwards; it was a truly great experience, and it marked my sixth continent visited, as well.

Dreamy blue skies and wispy clouds reflect back over the crystal clear waters of an Antarctic bay, and seen from a cruising Zodiac.

Dreamy blue skies and wispy clouds reflect back over the crystal clear waters of an Antarctic bay, and seen from a cruising Zodiac. Photo: Miranda Miller

When we got together to compare notes afterward, he said, “May, you HAVE to go to Antarctica. It’s even better than Norway!” I didn’t believe him, of course… that Arctic adventure had been a trip I’ll remember on my deathbed. How can you possibly do better?

I wanted to try, though. I had one continent left to visit!

What I ended up finding in Antarctica was spectacular, and while that Arctic experience was still one of the travel highlights of my life, my time spent at the bottom of the world is now right there with it. There’s no comparison--the two are just so different. But I came home from Antarctica with an entirely new perspective on this fragile, desolate area of the world, and our relationship with it.

Planning My Perfect Trip to Antarctica

Once I’d visited six continents, I knew I wanted to reach my seventh as part of my 50th birthday vacation plans. That meant beginning my research into Antarctic expedition options early in 2016, with the intention of making this trip happen by the end of the year. I already had plans to go to the Super Bowl and host friends for a dinner at the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 2016, so blowing the budget on an expensive Antarctic expedition just wasn’t an option.

A quick bus tour out of Ushuaia, Argentina, takes you to the spectacular Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, a Patagonian dreamscape. Photo: May Lee

Over a few months of searching up expedition companies and comparing itineraries and prices, I narrowed the field down to two expedition providers, one of them being Quark Expeditions. My work shuts down for one week during the Christmas holidays, so adding a week of vacation time meant I’d have a good two weeks for a birthday vacation at that point. I’m all about packing the best and richest experiences into the time I have available!

Once I was convinced of the safety of the expedition ships, the experience of their team, and the quality of the experience as reported by other passengers, price really became my most motivating factor and the biggest obstacle to making this trip happen.

I grew discouraged looking at the availability of the double and triple cabin classes available on Quark’s late December itineraries. Had I waited too long to book? Thankfully, the Polar Travel Advisors line connected me with Naomi Box, who understood exactly what type of experience I was looking for, having been to Antarctica herself. Over the course of a few phone calls, Naomi helped me find an open cabin in class with the amenities I wanted, at a promotional rate I could swing for this trip.

From there, the excitement began to build, as the countdown was on!

Packing Tips for Great Photos & Stress-Free Commercial Travel

Now, people can’t believe this when I tell them, but I traveled to Antarctica with just a 22-inch carry-on roller bag. I had no checked luggage at all, even though I planned to spend some time in Buenos Aires for New Years after my expedition.

Spending Christmas onboard Ocean Endeavour in Antarctica and New Years Eve in Buenos Aires made for a holiday season I’ll never forget, and all within two weeks vacation time!

Spending Christmas onboard Ocean Endeavour in Antarctica and New Years Eve in Buenos Aires made for a holiday season I’ll never forget, and all within two weeks vacation time! Photo: May Lee

Trust me when I say it’s really liberating to travel light, especially when you are likely going a great distance and may have connections en route to Punta Arenas or Ushuaia. You don’t have to cut it right down to a single carry-on, but even keeping it to one small suitcase will lighten your load in transit and reduce the clutter in your cabin.

One of my tricks is packing extra luggage inside your one carry-on piece, in case you buy souvenirs and need to expand your luggage on the way home.

Packing just a few higher quality garments is a huge help, too. There’s an onboard laundry service available, and you can always wash a few things in your sink and hang them in the cabin shower to dry.

Quark sent some great packing list information before my trip, which helped me understand what was provided onboard so I could leave some bulkier things at home.

For my photography equipment, I packed my Sony DSC-RX100. It’s a super compact point-and-shoot that also takes hi-def 4k video. I’ve done freelance photography at the daytime Emmy’s for about 20 years and loved my Nikon D300 for that purpose. However, I really didn’t want something that bulky, with its external flash and big battery pack, for this trip.

It took fantastic shots I was really pleased with, like this one, and it was easy to fit in my parka pocket and keep protected from the elements:

Gentoo penguins nest near an old station at Mikkelsen Harbour, at the northern end of the Palmer archipelago in Antarctica.

Gentoo penguins nest near an old station at Mikkelsen Harbour, at the northern end of the Palmer archipelago in Antarctica. Photo: May Lee

Making the Most of an Antarctic Celebration

I’ve done a lot of solo trips in my day, but celebrating my 50th in this indescribable place really took the cake. I found that quite a few people make this journey alone, but you’re never really on your own.

Passengers, crew and expedition team get together for a celebratory group shot on the bow of Ocean Endeavour at the end of their holiday season expedition to Antarctica.

Passengers, crew and expedition team get together for a celebratory group shot on the bow of Ocean Endeavour at the end of their holiday season expedition to Antarctica. Photo: Dave Merron

Everyone you meet onboard, from passengers to expedition team and ship crew, are there because they really, truly want to be there. The vibe is totally positive and friendly, as you’re all in this together, making this dream come true.

So many elements of the trip were surprising, not the least of which was the Polar Plunge! I could have stayed in that frigid water forever!

May Lee soars off the gangplank into an icy Antarctic bay during the Polar Plunge, a popular rite of passage on polar expeditions

May Lee soars off the gangplank into an icy Antarctic bay during the Polar Plunge, a popular rite of passage on polar expeditions. Photo: Dave Merron

Another surprise was when we first saw penguins from a Zodiac in the South Shetland Islands--I was blown away. But then once we got to the Antarctic Peninsula and went on a shore landing, we were able to sit down and have them walk right up to us! They know no fear of humans, and it really made me feel privileged and a part of something special and unique to see them in their natural environment.

Just off Useful Island, we had a real treat: the penguins put on a lengthy show as they porpoised in and out of the water.

Gentoo penguins “porpoise” in and out of the water at Useful Island as delighted passengers watch from Zodiacs and on land.

Gentoo penguins “porpoise” in and out of the water at Useful Island as delighted passengers watch from Zodiacs and on land. Photo: May Lee

But perhaps the most surprising part of all is that I almost didn’t go.

A lot of things happened in sequence to put Antarctica on my radar, then make it a reality, from my first meeting that travel buddy in Norway, to my unexpected appreciation of the adventure of Mount Kilimanjaro, to his enthusiastic endorsement of Antarctica and finally, the promotional rate I was able to secure with the help of my Polar Travel Adviser. 

My advice to you, if you’re contemplating this journey yourself, is to take a leap of faith and just go for it!

Visiting Antarctica is the most unimaginable experience; there’s just no way to explain the sheer vastness, beauty and peacefulness. If you have that curiosity about the world and love to travel, just do it. You won’t regret it.

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