A cruise to Antarctica can turn out to be one of the most life-changing — and life-affirming — trips of your life, filled with pinch-me moments.

Here’s why.

It’s a land of extremes and superlatives as the coldest, driest, and windiest continent on Earth with the highest average elevation of all the continents. Everything in Antarctica is mind-blowingly big and dramatic. It holds 90 percent of the world’s ice and 70 percent of the fresh water. About 98 percent of its surface is covered in ice, more than a mile thick. It’s the least densely populated continent by far, with just a few thousand residents scattered at research stations.

As the most remote and inhospitable continent, very little is known about this desolate, frozen landmass. Almost two centuries after its discovery in 1820, the White Continent remains as mysterious and unfathomable as outer space. And here’s what I learned on my first trip: Compared to the world’s great landmarks, whether natural or manmade, it can easily put them all to shame.

It’s a place of endless wonder and beauty beyond the wildest imagining. Gob-smacking icebergs sprout in the water like marvelous sculpture gardens, their icy whites and translucent blues luminous in the inky sea. Whipped by wind and water, they assume fantastical forms, sometimes carved with crevasses, arches, and grottos where the water sloshes and gurgles. Sprawling glacial sheets cover jagged volcanic rock walls that shimmer in the brilliant sun against azure skies. Great cathedrals of ice line the horizon whose elaborate turrets, lofty spires, and extravagant towers make the landscape feel sacred, reverential. You can’t help but be humbled by such awe-inspiring scenery all around you.

It’s more remote and isolated than anywhere else in the world. It’s not just a different continent; it’s a different planet. The vast frozen landscape is otherworldly — stark, spare, and surreal in its white-on-white wilderness. As the least touched continent, it’s blessed with air so clean, so free of impurities, that the light is intoxicating. And because it’s so removed from civilization, the silence and stillness can be almost deafening. Indeed, no place else is this pristine and pure.

Yet it’s also home to an incredible intensity of life, an extravaganza of penguins and seals and whales. What’s more, they’re so unaccustomed to seeing humans, that they simply don’t fear them. You can watch thousands of pairs of nesting penguins pose and preen for visitors, while their squawks pierce the silence. You can gape at humpback whales, those showoff acrobats of the deep, as they explode out of the sea. You can listen for the distinctive high-pitched clicks of playful orcas and admire lumbering seals sunbathing on the endless ice. And you can add a variety of terns, petrels, and soaring albatrosses to your life list.

Finally, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure like no other. Only 56,000 people get to visit each year, which gives it a unique mystique unmatched anywhere else on Earth. You become part of an exclusive club, which lets you to live out your exploration fantasies inspired by such polar legends as Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott, and Roald Amundsen. Through their daring exploits, these icons famously risked their lives to forge a path into the unknown. While latter-day adventurers don’t face the same existential challenges, an Antarctic voyage can feel authentically pioneering because it’s still so rare. And when you’re out on the water kayaking amid incandescent icebergs or when you’re trekking up a snowy slope, you can easily imagine you’re discovering a whole new world.

But not all Antarctica expedition voyages are created equal. Want to know which itinerary best fits your travel style? 

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