"If ice were beer, there would be about 10,000 pints per person on Antarctica; it's much harder to put 40 trillion cubic metres of ice in perspective," a marine mammal expert from Costa Rica, Juan Jose (aka JJ), tells us.
JJ's words reverberate in my ears as we disembark at Neko Harbour, an inlet on the Antarctic Peninsula on Andvord Bay. Looking at the ice mass that ascends from the pebbly beach in front of us, it's hard to believe we are exploring a mere tip of the White Continent, which in summer covers 13.5 million square kilometres - 1½ times the size of Australia.
A colony of gentoo penguins waddles up and down snow "highways", the 30-centimetre-wide trenches the birds have carved for themselves to ease movement between nesting and feeding sites. Two Weddell seals loll in the glaring afternoon sun, barely registering the arrival of 130 humans. The only thing cutting through the serenity is the irrepressible smell of penguin droppings, or guano, an acrid mix of ammonia and fermented krill.
The more energetic members of the group scamper up a hill where another guide, the French Didier, is waiting to offer an explanation of the panoramic glacial landscape - and some handy tips on how to get down safely.
In the distance, the gleaming hull of the L'Austral bobs around like a beacon of refinement. The newest - and greenest - ship in the fleet of the French-owned Compagnie du Ponant, its stylish grey and white paint job gives the appearance it was born to cruise the polar regions, despite this being its maiden voyage to Antarctica and a cruise schedule that the rest of the year is dominated by the Mediterranean and Asia. (L'Austral will visit Cairns, Port Douglas and Darwin this month.)
Having exerted myself on a steep climb the previous day, I stop halfway to the summit, where looking down the penguins already resemble patches of shiny black pebbles and the jigsaw puzzle of broken ice gives a sense of how we navigated our way to this beautiful spot. But we almost didn't make it here.
Two days earlier, another ship in the area reported that ice floes leading to the entrance to Neko Harbour made it inaccessible to all but the most hardy of ice breakers, which the L'Austral is not. But rather than take it lying down, our captain, Jean-Philippe Lemaire, suited up and took a two-hour zodiac cruise from where we were anchored to judge for himself whether L'Austral could make it through the channel to one of the peninsula's most stunning bays.
"It's not OK just to do the minimum [number of landings]," the captain tells me in his office-cabin, which is located just below the bridge and is open to passengers whenever possible except during tricky ice navigations and rough weather. Not only does the open bridge give us an insight into how the crew pilots the 142-metre ship but it's also the best place to spot wildlife, including killer whales and humpbacks.
A veteran of the French merchant navy and a co-founder of Ponant, Lemaire insists he's no "taxi driver" captain. Decisions about the following day's activities are made each evening by a team that encompasses the adventure side of the trip (captain, expedition leader, cruise director) with the cruising side of the trip (hotel manager, food and beverage manager). On L'Austral, it's all about striking a balance between expedition and luxury.
The 132 cabins - ranging from inside staterooms to the cavernous owner's suite - all offer king-sized beds, French toiletries and an in-room entertainment system, including iPod docking station - a welcome addition for travellers who, like me, are always forgetting their phone charger.
On the first morning at sea, I discover the benefits of non-slip flooring in the bathrooms and an abundance of drawers and racks to stop my belongings from flinging around the cabin as we sail through the Drake Passage.
Crossing the infamous 800-kilometre stretch of water, which extends from the southernmost tip of Argentina to the South Shetland Islands, is often referred to as "paying the Drake tax". Forget the Roaring Forties, a crossing to Antarctica takes passengers through the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties, with the westerly winds picking up speed as the ship hurtles southward.
Call it beginner's luck but we are blessed with a "Drake lake" for the ship's first crossing. (We're less fortunate on the return voyage, with 10-metre swells and 50-knot winds.) We toast this happy news on the first night in the company of new friends over a multicourse a la carte dinner with matched wines in the main dining room. Upstairs, the grill restaurant offers a buffet three times a day for those seeking something less formal, although on Antarctic voyages dress codes are not enforced as strictly as other destinations. Sadly, this means the cruise doesn't quite live up to its people-watching potential.
The main lounge is the ship's multipurpose area, serving everything from continental breakfast for the late risers to nightcaps for the night owls. While the mostly French passengers retire after dinner to the theatre for a show or film, or to the observation lounge at the front of the ship, our small group of Australians commandeers the lounge, with its cheeky bartenders and smoother ride. The price to pay for all this fun is inconsistent musical entertainment, which is high on kitsch and sometimes low on rhythm, but it makes for plenty of laughs.
The lounge is also the main assembly point for the landings, which are carefully choreographed to ensure the safety of even the least limber of guests.
As only 100 passengers can disembark at one time, we are divided into three groups, predominantly along language lines. As well as the other Australians, our group consists of a Dutch family, a Taiwanese contingent, a German tour group and the sole British couple.
Despite repeated warnings that "there are no clear, blue-sky days in Antarctica", the weather gods turn it on for our first landing day. It's zero degrees outside but there's almost no wind and our zodiac cuts through the glassy water like a samurai sword through a silk scarf.
Disembarking from the zodiacs bottom first - never with your back to the sea - takes practice but, by the third time we do it, becomes second nature, as does the ritual of dressing and undressing several times a day. It's far too warm on the ship for the layers of thermals required outdoors, so a typical day can require several changes of clothing, meaning cameras, gloves, beanies and life jackets are easily - and often - forgotten.
Our first landing is on Paulet Island, home to a colony of 100,000 Adelie penguins. Some of the mating pairs are already incubating eggs but others are still courting and waddling their way towards parenthood. In the middle of the colony is an unusual sight, a graveyard where eggs that have been abandoned and the carcasses of dead penguins lay in wait for the petrels and other predatory birds that roam the area.
After three nights at sea we have finally stood on terra firma for the first time since leaving Ushuaia. It's also the first time many of us have properly tested our waterproof gear, including the warm, sturdy parka that is distributed on the first day of the cruise and which passengers can take home as a souvenir.
But it's not until that afternoon that we can truly say we have stood on Antarctica the continent (and, for several of us globetrotters, ticked all seven off our lists). Our arrival is marked with a rare sight in this part of the world - a leopard seal kill. It's a fair way from the shore but we can make out the seal dismembering the bird before the gulls move in for their piece of the action. It's a stirring reminder that despite the genteel nature of much of the wildlife, we are still in the wild.
After nearly two hours ashore, we return to the ship but not before our zodiac is intercepted by another boat laden with plastic tumblers of champagne to celebrate our first continental landing. The ship's photographer is also on hand to record the moment, which is uploaded to two communal computers on board where guests can have these and other images from the cruise copied onto a CD for a fee.
Champagne quaffed and boots decontaminated, we're back in the lounge, whereupon returning from a landing we are often greeted with a mug of soup, hot chocolate or a tray of afternoon tea goodies. It's little touches like these - as well as twice-daily housekeeping, the well-equipped gym and the spa - that make me thankful I'm not on a Russian ice breaker.
Nevertheless, the blend of luxury and adventure is not always seamless. Guests re-embarking the ship after a landing are forced to carry their wet gear through the lounge (some more rustic expedition cruisers have a wet-dry room for expedition gear), where a fitness class might be going on at the time. Overheating can also induce sleepiness, especially in the theatrette, where most of the important briefings are held.
However much the purists might berate ships such as L'Austral for cotton-woolling Antarctica, most of my fellow passengers appear unperturbed by journeying in five-star luxury. While there is an element of surreality about having life's comforts (some would argue necessities in the case of internet connectivity) somewhere so remote, guests are encouraged to disconnect, although the ship does keep to a pretty tight timetable.
In the unpredictable Antarctic, time - and timing - is everything. On a sunny day at Cuverville Island, we cast off our jackets and strip down to T-shirts and ski pants, while the following morning brings steady snow as we rise to hike five kilometres across Deception Island.
The keen group of hikers assembles in the lounge at 4.45am (in the Antarctic summer the sun only sets for a few hours a day and it's rarely dark outside) for a pastry and coffee before disembarking. But before we can pull on our boots, we're told the snow is too dense for the hike, so instead we will make a beach landing to view the 300,000 gentoo penguins. Half craving the warmth of my bed, the curiosity of the sight of three MCGs full of penguins wins the day.
We set off, six to a zodiac because of the swell, and wait our turn. In the 30 minutes since the first boat arrived, the waves have doubled in size and we see a passenger on another boat fall in to the surf. He's all smiles as he scrambles up the beach but the expedition leaders call off the activity. It's the first time we've been defeated by the weather the whole trip. Instead, we cruise around to calmer waters and find an elephant seal, taking our species tally to five. It's a reasonable consolation.
A few hours later, our zodiac pulls up on the continent for the last time at Whalers Bay, a mooring site for early 20th-century whaling factory ships. Conscious that the landing could be one of our last, we savour every opportunity to photograph the rusted remnants of the stations that were blasted away by the volcano that erupted here in the 1960s and 1970s.
It will probably erupt again one day, we're told, but for now the only sign of activity is the steam coming off the beach and the black sand, which instantly warms our toes as we burrow our feet deeper in to the soil, determined to maintain a foothold in this magical place for just a few moments more.
The writer was a guest of Compagnie du Ponant and Travel the World.
LAN has connections from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. lan.com.
An 11-night cruise to Antarctica aboard L'Austral, round-trip from Ushuaia, departing on December 11, 2012, is priced from $A7415 $NZ9593 a person, twin share. 1300 804 522, traveltheworld.com.au.
What to pack
Even in summertime, Antarctica can be frightfully chilly. At a minimum you will need waterproof pants, gumboots and gloves, and lots of layers that you can alternate depending on the conditions. Polarised sunglasses and a good camera are also essential. Most cruises also have formal nights at the beginning and end, which means a suit for the men and dress for the ladies.