No place on earth, it seems, can escape the determined traveler. Consider, for instance, the bottom of the world.
In recent years, Antarctica has been the destination for such packagers of specialized adventure trips as Lindblad Travel, Society Expeditions, Salen Lindblad Cruising and Sobek Expeditions. Their tours generally combine cruising and trekking, including explorations into the pack ice, landings by small boats on remote beaches to photograph wildlife and visits to scientific stations.. They often offer such conventional cruise-ship amenities as a pool, sundecks and meals provided by European chefs.
Lars-Eric Lindblad opened Antarctica to commercial tourism in 1965, when he led 50 pioneer travelers there (including the first women to set foot on that windy continent). They were aboard an Argentine tugboat with an icebreaker leading the way. In 1970, Lindblad was carrying nearly 100 passengers on the M/S Lindblad Explorer, an icebreaker; his firm recently replaced it with another ship.
Salen Lindblad Cruising (no longer associated with Lindblad) began cruises to Antarctica in 1982 with the Explorer. Society Expeditions entered the cruise competition in 1976, with a chartered vessel; it has now contracted to buy the Explorer from Salen in May and until then will charter the vessel.
But Sobek added a distinctly different dimension last fall: It was the first operator to arrange with the Chilean government to permit tourists to live at the Chilean Research Station on Eduardo Frei Air Base, King George Island. Last November its clients spent 10 days on the island, dividing their time between the base -- where their dormitory-style rooms were in housing also used by the Chilean scientists -- and at camps set up along the coast and in the interior near a glacier (where they enjoyed close-up views of elephant seals and penguin rookeries). Meals at the research station were prepared by Chilean Air Force chefs -- a Sobek spokesman described the food as "filling but not very delicate, good but not gourmet."
Lindblad will resume its Antarctic voyages in 1985, but details and prices are not yet available; Salen has none planned.
Society Expeditions has scheduled six 15- to 22-day cruise packages this winter with departures from Nov. 21 through Jan. 25. Cost for the 15-day program begins at $4,690 per person, double occupancy -- excluding the round-trip air fare of about $1,400 from Miami to Punta Arenas, near Chile's southernmost tip, which is the jumping-off point for most Antarctic tours.
Sobek's 15-day trip this winter runs from Nov. 24 to Dec. 9. The cost is $3,650 per person, including: overnight accommodations in Santiago, Chile, and in Punta Arenas, both on arrival and on the return trip; the charter flight to the base; a room at the research facility; all meals, and helicopter flights from St. George to Deception Island for short hikes to observe penguins. Round-trip air fare from Miami to Santiago and Punta Arenas will be about $1,200. If the Chilean government decides to back tourism to the continent and there is sufficient demand, Sobek says the air force has indicated it will regularly offer its American-built, C130 all-weather transport for the flight from Punta Arenas at a lower, subsidized fare next year. (Last fall, Sobek chartered a small, private turbojet.)
Mountain Travel, another adventure tour operator, is already planning 1986 trips to the Chilean base with an entirely different focus -- ice-climbing, a form of mountaineering that has been highly refined in Scotland, where they climb frozen waterfalls.
And Travcoa, Travel Corporation of America, has scheduled shorter visits to Antarctica next year with twin-bedded accommodations and meals at the same research station. (Chile's future plans call for a professional hotelier to maintain the accommodations for tourists, according to Travcoa.) An inaugural trip began Friday, and then starting in March the 2 1/2-hour flights will depart from Punta Arenas. For this series Travcoa has already secured permission from the Chilean Air Force to use the larger, faster cargo plane that ferries scientists and supplies year-round.
"We believe it's important to bring people to live . . . at the bottom of the world," says Travcoa president M. William Dultz, who recently made the trip to the South Shetland Islands just off the Antarctic Peninsula. "The research being done here on such things as the 27 active volcanoes, weather patterns and animal life may eventually influence us all . . . and the sights of this region are truly unforgettable."
Tour members will fly at low altitude to see Cape Horn and Drake Passage, then enter the Antarctic Circle to view mountains of moving ice fields before landing on King George Island. During their three-day, two-night visit they will ride snowmobiles to observe wildlife; walk from the air base to the Polish Research Station and the Soviet base, where they will meet the scientists; and take a helicopter flight to Pratt Island to view additional wildlife -- including off-shore whales -- and spectacular ice floes.
The Antarctic experience will be a small segment of a series of 14- to 29-day packages to South America, Africa and the South Pacific that Travcoa has scheduled for 1985, and it cannot be taken separately. The land-portion cost of the entire 14-day trip is $2,295 per person, double occupancy, exclusive of air transportation. The price covers all accommodations, meals and excursions by helicopter from King George Island, but does not include the charter flight from Punta Arenas to the base and return (no figure is available yet). The round-trip air fare to Santiago, Chile, and Punta Arenas from Miami is $1,098 (subject to change).
More information on Antarctica and other journeys from: Sobek Expeditions, Angels Camp, Calif. 95222, (209) 736-4524; Lindblad Travel Inc., 1 Sylvan Rd., Westport, Conn. 06880, (203) 226-8531; Salen Lindblad Cruising Inc., 133 55th St., New York, N.Y. 10022, (212) 751-2300; Society Expeditions, 723 Broadway East, Seattle, Wash. 98102, (800) 426-7794; Mountain Travel, 1398 Solano Ave., Albany, Calif. 94706, (415) 527-8100; Travcoa, 4000 MacArthur Blvd., Ste. 650E, Newport Beach, Calif. 92660, (714) 476-2800. Or see your travel agent.