On a rocky beach, hundreds of thousands of noisy king penguins gather in a mosaic of black-and-white dots across grassy tussocks. Among them, fur seal pups bark, two-ton elephant seals galumph into the surf, and albatrosses patrol the air past slate gray cliffs and glaciers edging into the ocean.
Welcome to South Georgia Island, a hundred-mile-long expanse of peaks rising out of the South Atlantic 1,300 miles east of Ushuaia, Argentina. “It’s complete sensory overload,” says Eric Wehrmeister, a Lindblad videographer on the National Geographic Explorer, one of the few passenger ships that visit this remote isle. South Georgia was the promised land for shipwrecked explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew, who, a hundred years ago, sailed 800 miles across one of Earth’s most inhospitable seas in a lifeboat to get help here.
This British Overseas Territory is still reachable only by ship, and the five-day cruise from Ushuaia is strenuous, with summer temperatures in the 20s F. But brave it and you’ll see mountains no human has climbed, rare whales—such as fin-blue hybrids—and inquisitive waist-high penguins in one of the only places that remain as wild as they were when explorers like Shackleton were still filling in blank spots on the map. —Kate Siber
When to Go: October to March (austral spring and summer)
How to Get Around: A limited number of tour operators, including National Geographic Expeditions and Quark Expeditions, offer multi-week trips to South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, and Antarctica. Travel is by small, ice-class expedition ships. Depending on weather and sea conditions, activities could include Zodiac (inflatable landing craft) excursions, sea kayaking, and hiking.
Where to Stay: There are no overnight accommodations on South Georgia. Passengers sleep aboard the ship. Cabins and amenities vary by vessel. The National Geographic Explorer has 81 cabins, each with outside views and private bathrooms. Quark’s Antarctic fleet includes the Ocean Diamond, a super-yacht with 101 exterior-view cabins and suites.
What to Eat or Drink: Expedition rates typically include daily meals aboard ship. For a precruise meal in Ushuaia, take a cab up the mountain to Chez Manu. The 15-minute ride is well worth the panoramic Ushuaia Bay and Andes views and Chez Manu’s French-inspired cuisine. Menu items feature local ingredients such as king crab and Patagonian lamb.
What to Read Before You Go: The Information for Visitors to South Georgia 2015/16 booklet (Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands, 2015) details the strict guidelines that tourists must observe to ensure the protection of South Georgia’s unique flora, fauna, and cultural heritage.
Did You Know? By 1912, there were seven whaling stations on South Georgia, establishing the island as the “southern capital of whaling.” The early whaling workforce included a sizable contingent of South African Zulus, many of whom had worked at whaling stations in Natal and Angola. Other laborers of African descent included stowaways from Cape Verde. The story of South Georgia’s African connection is told in a new exhibit at the South Georgia Museum.