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Antarctica is one of those once in a lifetime destinations that will really impress your friends and make your foes green with envy. Let me say up front, there is no budget Antarctica trip, no discounted vacation way down under. This is a highly specialized adventure and accessible only by select number of approximately 20 tour and cruise companies. Larger than Europe and the United States combined, it is one of the last great untouched frontiers, a marine wildlife oasis and a landscape of sheer beauty and remoteness.

Visiting Antarctica means investing in some warm thermal clothing and putting down some serious dollars, but if you are passionate about travel, no price is too high to pay for an experience like this. Late November to mid March is the tourism season for this area, coinciding with the Southern hemisphere summer and 18 to 24 hours of daylight each day for maximum visual enjoyment. Weather and ice, not calendars or clocks, set the schedule for travel here, so you may be at the mercy of the continent's changing moods and weather patterns.

G.A.P Adventures (tel. 800/708-7761; www.gapadventures.com/home) offers several memorable tours to the bottom of the planet, ranging from a ten-day Antarctica Classic cruise to a 29-day Ross Sea Region journey through Antarctica's Invercargill, Snares Island, Auckland Islands, Macquarie Island, Cape Adare, Cape Hallet, Franklin Island, Cape Evans, Cape Bird, Ross Ice Shelf, Possession Islands and Campbell Island. Cruises on the specially designed "Explorer" vessel begin and end in Ushuaia, Argentina (accessible by Aerolineas Argentinas (www.aeroargentinas.com) and other smaller regional airlines that service the Patagonia area) and all expeditions explore the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, home to an impressive array of wildlife including seabirds, penguins, seals and whales. Explorer is equipped with Zodiac launch boats that provide practically unlimited mobility and allow exploration of even the most remote and inaccessible shores.

The ten-day "Classic Antarctica" tour is priced at $3,150 per person based on triple occupancy with the first 2005 departure scheduled for November 28, 2005. The tour focuses on the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, home to some of the continent's most impressive wildlife and dramatic landscapes. Throughout the voyage a team of lecturers and guides will share their knowledge of the region's remarkable natural history and stories from its most notable expeditions. The tour includes nine-nights on board, all meals, eight expedition staff and naturalists, scheduled visits to a modern scientific research station and all shore excursions and Zodiac cruises. Airfare to Argentina is additional.

Scan Tours (tel. 800/223-7226; www.scantours.com/antarctica_cruise.asp) operates a number of cruises to Antarctica. Their 11-day/10-night "Antarctica Peninsula" cruise aboard the Grigoriy Mikheev departs from Ushuaia on March 19, 2006 and is priced at $4,220 per person based on twin share with shared bathroom (with private facilities, the price goes up to $4,830) with a $950 supplement for scuba divers. November and December 2005 departures start from $4,950. The "Antarctic Peninsula and the Polar Circle" cruise, also aboard the Grigoriy Mikheev, departs from Ushuaia on February 25 and March 8, 2005. This 12-day/11-night tour is priced from $4,990 per person.

Aurora Expeditions (tel. +61/2-9252-1033; www.auroraexpeditions.com.au) is an Australian company that runs Antarctica expeditions out of Ushuaia. Their 11-day "Antarctica Peninsula Christmas Trip" departs on December 17, 2005 and the "New Year's Trip" departs on December 27, 2005, both aboard the Polar Pioneer. They are both priced from $4,290 per person based on triple share with shared facilities (of course you can always take the Captain's Suite for $6,790 per person). A highlight of their voyages to the Peninsula is spending an optional night camping (only for the extremely dedicated adventurers amongst you). An all-inclusive surcharge for kayaking is $695 per person or a $600 diving option. The tours cruise through Drake Passage, around the South Shetland Islands, Deception Island, Gerlache Strait, Paradise Bay, Andvoord Bay, the Lemaire Channel and the tip of Cape Horn.

The lowest price Antarctica cruise we could find for the 2005-2006 season was through Affordable Tours (tel. 800/935-2620; www.affordabletours.com). Their eight-night "Antarctic Peninsula" cruise aboard Orient Lines' Marco Polo has prices starting at $2,866 per person in an inside cabin. This price represents a savings of 14% or $479 off the regular price for departures on January 5, 13, 21 and 29, 2006. The suites on all of these cruises are already sold out, so availability at this price will not last long. The cruise departing from Ushuaia spends six full days in the Antarctica region and visits Tierra Del Fuego, Crake Passage, Deception Island, Shetland Islands, Lemaire Channel, Port Lockroy, and Half Moon Island.

Some of the other companies that run Antarctica expedition cruises include:

For more information about Antarctica visit www.frommers.com/destinations/antarctica.