Breaking the ice the conventional way can be challenging enough on any cruise. The adventuresome, however, can do it literally -- on a real icebreaker.
When it's winter in North America, it's summer in Antarctica, and polar cruising is an ideal way to witness the stark beauty of the frozen continent.
In its inhospitable season, Antarctica has been described as the coldest, driest, windiest place on Earth. December, however, is the height of austral summer -- when the ice-burdened sea surrounding the Antarctic peninsula relinquishes its mantle and swarms with krill, the keystone of the polar food chain. As a result, the abundance of life during the breeding season is astounding.
Some of the world's largest penguin rookeries are found here; and late December introduces the full range of these personality-plus creatures -- from emperors and chinstraps to huge Adelies.
Cruisers-cum-explorers can keep a lookout for seals that haul ashore in staggering numbers. And of course, there are whales by the ton.
No two cruises to polar regions are alike. Some follow the frozen footsteps of such explorers as Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen. Many ships penetrate ice-choked waters; others ply past mile-long icebergs in the Ross Sea or navigate the Ross Ice Shelf, a 150-foot-high floating ice barrier the size of France.
Polar passengers need to be flexible, though; ice conditions frequently can restrict voyages. Most ships carry fleets of inflatable Zodiac boats that can carry passengers close to icebergs or set them ashore. Some even have helicopters for "flight seeing." All have naturalists.
Cruise operators claim sincere efforts to conduct cruises that avoid disturbing nesting animals and that follow sound principles of conservation in this pristine region.
Among the many offering the chill of a lifetime:
* Quark Expeditions has three extended journeys to Antarctica and subantarctic islands aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a working Russian icebreaker designed for challenging conditions in seas of northern Siberia. (Dec. 4-29, and Dec. 27 to Jan. 20, with fares from $9,995; and Jan. 17 to Feb. 12, starting at $10,495. Air fare additional.)
A shorter 12-day trip aboard the icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn departs Dec. 19. Fares start at $4,995, plus air. For more information, call (800) 356-5699.
* Among Abercrombie & Kent's Antarctica cruises on the Explorer are four 10-day departures run consecutively from Dec. 17 through Jan. 17, with fares from $5,750; air fare to Chile is not included.
* Research associates and naturalists from the San Diego Natural History Museum accompany passengers aboard the 38-passenger Professor Molchanov, a steel-built, ice-strengthened polar research vessel (Jan. 23 to Feb. 5). This vessel visits Deception Island, where geothermal activity often creates water warm enough for swimming. Fares for private-bath cabins start at $6,349; cabins with shared baths are slightly lower. Air fare is additional. For more information, call (619) 232-3821, Ext. 203.
* A 19-day cruise aboard the new Hanseatic celebrates Christmas and New Year's in Antarctica. Party animals needn't worry, though; the Hanseatic actually is a luxury ship and even has a beauty salon and sauna. The 188-passenger vessel rates just below icebreaker status. Cruise-only rates for its Dec. 18 departure start at $8,495. For more information, call (800) 285-1835.
* Faculty directors from Brigham Young University lead study cruises through the Chilean fjords to the northern tip of Antarctica aboard the 100-passenger Terra Australis. A Feb. 2 departure combines culture, geology and art history with Antarctic wildlife. Fares start at $4,175 and include round-trip air from Miami to Santiago. For more information, call (800) 525-2049.
* How about the north polar region? Finnair offers a three-day NTC experience that includes a trip on an icebreaker in Europe's largest ice field. It also includes guided snowmobiling on ice and, for the truly hardy, ice swimming. The cruise/tour runs regularly from Helsinki throughout the six-month Arctic winter (December through May). Fares start at $520 and include air from Helsinki to Kemi, Lapland's seaport city; hotel stays, and a day trip on the icebreaker Sampo. For more information, call FinnWay Tours (800) 526-4927.
Here are some books that can help to prepare you for your polar encounter: "The Worst Journey in the World" (Carroll and Graf, 1989), Apsley Cherry-Garrad's reissued classic; Roland Huntford's "The Last Place on Earth" (Atheneum Press, 1986), a tale of the 1911 Scott-Amundsen race to the South Pole; John Maxton-Graham's "Safe Return Doubtful: The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration" (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988), a collection of historic adventures; and George Gaylord Simpson's "Penguins: Past, Present, Here and There" (Yale University Press, 1976).