Travel: Antartica

"I dare you to try to put it into words," says a member of our crew as we cross the infamous Drake Passage on our way to Antarctica, when I tell her I'm here to write a travel feature about the most inhospitable place on Earth.

"It's impossible. All anyone can say about it is that it changes you." Just under 48 hours later when I wake, bleary-eyed and woozy from sea sickness, open the curtains in my cabin and catch my first glimpse of this great white wilderness, I know that she is right.

Getting here isn't easy and it isn't cheap. I am gone for 13 days in order to spend just four in Antarctica. The travel on either end is so extensive that it is broken up by a very welcome night in Buenos Aires on either side of the trip. It takes three flights – including a 14-hour leg from Paris to Buenos Aires with Air France – to reach our ship, docked in Argentina's Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. From there comes two days of choppy sailing through waves up to 15 metres high.

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But without question, it is worth it. I know it is worth it on that first morning when I dress hurriedly and rush out on deck to find my fellow passengers moved to tears by what they see.

We are moored about 100 metres from shore near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the water is like black glass. Icebergs the size of our ship sit dripping in the summer sun. A layer of slushy broken ice moves silently across the surface of the water and hundreds of gentoo penguins are careering through the water towards land where a colony of thousands are huddled noisily.

I am struck simultaneously by both an overwhelming sense of awe and a discomfort, a feeling that I shouldn't be here, that none of this was meant to be seen with human eyes. It is a discomfort that stays with me all through the trip, but similarly, that sense of awe not only lingers, but grows as the continent unfolds before me.

I have arrived at this mysterious place with about 300 passengers on a small cruise ship. It is, quite simply, as far from Captain Scott's infamous journey as you could possibly imagine, with all the comfort of a standard cruise ship, minus the excess. Wildlife lectures replace sequin-clad lounge singers, and dressing up for dinner is considered silly.

Still, we have arrived here in the utmost comfort. It feels a bit like cheating; after all, what we can now see from the observation deck (or even from the Jacuzzi) was once available only to those who put in weeks of seasickness, who braved extreme temperatures, who risked their lives. Now – providing they can write the cheque – anyone can follow in the footsteps of Captain Scott.

The trip involves eight landings – two per day – which are impressively varied. One might be to an enormous penguin colony, another to an eerie abandoned whaling station. Then there's the British research station, Port Lockroy, as well as Paradise Bay, nicknamed by sailors because, well, you'd have to see it to understand why.

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It's summer in Antarctica, which means comfortable temperatures hovering around zero – warm and waterproof clothes suffice. We land in staggered groups of about eight and are allowed an hour on shore, where members of the crew keep us within strict but fairly far-reaching boundaries. Upon landing we disperse. Some choose to wander to a quiet spot and sit alone. Others photograph the penguins intently.

We see leopard seals lounging like big blubbery rocks on the ice, their breath steaming in the air. We see fat elephant seals yawning lazily before bouncing into the icy water. We see blue-eyed shags, storm petrels and albatross flying overhead. And then we witness something truly astounding, something in nature that has rarely been seen.

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Perhaps 15 metres from our ship, a crabeater seal appears to be resting on a chunk of floating ice. Only it's not resting, but hiding from a pod of five orcas who have spotted their next meal. The adult orcas are teaching the babies how to hunt, and they've settled on this poor seal for a demonstration.

Together all five bob their massive heads above the surface of the water and eye the seal. Then, giving the seal a perverse sense of false hope, they appear to retreat. However they're regrouping, and together they lunge towards the ice at speed, dorsal fins ploughing through the water, creating a massive wave which overwhelms the helpless seal, pushing it into the water. Every watching passenger is gripped, holding their breath, exhaling as the seal manages to flop back on to the ice.

This display is repeated about 20 times, and as the young orcas get the hang of it, the waves become stronger and stronger, gradually breaking up the ice. Once the adults are satisfied that their young have passed their exam, the seal is toppled for a final time and swiftly devoured.

Despite unforgettable sights such as these, for me, Antarctica's landscapes prove even more captivating than its wildlife. A vast, stark cuboid of an iceberg, a piece of modernist architecture in a black sea. Sculptural chunks of ice that seem to glow neon blue. Calm waters, dark but crystal clear. Jagged, snow-topped peaks so vast that all sense of scale is lost. The distant rumble as 100,000 tonnes of ice and snow breaks free and crashes into the water below. A buttermilk sun barely setting at midnight over a jagged landscape. Fields of ice floes, still, silent and haunting, and the thermal waters at Deception Island, where I went for an icy swim.

I could go on. Forget white beaches and palm trees, forget azure waters and tropical skies. This is as close to paradise as you can get.

Which is why I feel so uncomfortable being here. In order, perhaps, to soothe passengers' guilt as to the stomping carbon footprint they create during their journey to Antarctica, it's suggested to us that those who visit the continent are so moved by it that they become "ambassadors" for it, that the experience makes them more aware of environmental issues.

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In addition, we're told about the lengths to which our hosts go to ensure that our visit leaves as small a footprint as possible. When on one trip, for example, a passenger accidentally let a plastic carrier bag go in the wind, the cruise was delayed for hours while it was retrieved. (Under the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, which was signed by 47 countries, the impact of tourism on the region is tightly controlled.)

We may not be allowed to leave plastic bags here, but what of the 300 long-haul flights, what of the energy that keeps the Jacuzzi bubbling, the hot plates sizzling, the showers warm, the toilets flushing? What of the smell of fuel from the small boats and the footprints in the snow? I can't convince myself of the ambassador line and yet I'd be lying if I said I regret what has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

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And now for the final nail in the coffin of my hypocrisy: I'm glad that I've seen Antarctica, but I want it to remain untouched, unspoiled and therefore, I suppose, unseen. I want others to witness it, too, to know what it is to be changed by a place. But simultaneously I want to be the last tourist to have gone there.

So weigh it all up and go. Or don't. If you can resist it, you're a better person than me.

THE FACTS Hurtigruten is taking bookings for trips to Antarctica in 2010, with prices starting from 3,364pp for a 10-day trip in a twin cabin on a full-board basis including flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, if booked before 4 April (0845 225 6640, Fly from Edinburgh to Buenos Aires via Paris with Air France from 941 (0871 663 3777,

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• This article was first published in the Scotsman, Saturday February 13, 2010