Antarctica is the place of the moment. Cruises sell out a year in advance, and the Andrew Harper Travel Office is deluged with inquiries. Perhaps this is because the continent is far removed from the world’s troubles. On an overcrowded planet, Antarctica’s emptiness and purity could be part of the appeal. For many, the teeming wildlife is probably the primary draw. And in an era with too few leaders of stature, maybe the nobility of explorers like Ernest Shackleton is especially magnetic. But for whatever combination of reasons, the Great White Continent is a staple of cocktail party conversations and the 2016 destination of choice.
Antarctica has exercised a special hold on my imagination since, as a boy, I read the story of the ill-fated Shackleton expedition. His ship, the Endurance, was trapped and wrecked by the ice. After a heroic journey to seek help, Shackleton returned to rescue all of his men, 100 years ago, in August 1916.
This year also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the first commercial trip to Antarctica, in 1966, organized by Lindblad Travel, as the company was then called. Lars-Eric Lindblad pioneered expeditions to places previously inaccessible to the general public, and in 1981 I sailed to Antarctica aboard his first ship, the MS Lindblad Explorer. The original company ceased operations in 1989; its heir is Lindblad Expeditions, now under the direction of Lars-Eric’s son, Sven-Olof. Since 2004, it has been allied with the National Geographic Society, and its flagship today is the National Geographic Explorer. While there are other attractive high-end cruise options to Antarctica, in light of the anniversary I decided to journey aboard the successor ship to the one that first took me to Antarctica 35 years ago.