The Next Best Thing To Antarctica

Traveling to all 7 continents.

It’s sort of a standard bucket list item, except for that one continent that sort of gets in the way.


I used to harbor this ridiculous pipe dream about going to Antarctica, where I would go all intrepid and film wild polar bears while giving David Attenborough-style voice overs. I’d ride narwhals and eat seal fat and have an overall amazing time.

Then certain niggling facts began to seep into my reality.

1) I hate being cold. I really, really hate it. Being cold makes me angry at the world. Some might even say rageful.

2) It’s expensive. We’re talking upwards of $5,000 for a 10 day trip, based on my on-the-spot google research. I doubt any of my belongings have the Arctic seal of approval, so add some more dollars to buy appropriate gear.

3) I wouldn’t be doing it for the experience. I’d be doing it to tell other people about the experience. That’s never a good enough reason to do something.

Luckily, I found an alternative to Antarctica.

Bet you didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?

I bring you the International Antarctic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand.

International Antarctic Center
Lending a hand during an expedition. I do what I can.

I lived in Christchurch for six months, working as a subject recruiter for clinical drug trials (that is another story). Besides being the South Island’s largest city, it’s also a jumping-off point for trips to Antarctica.

For people who want to experience the 7th continent without making the trip, the International Antarctic Center might be the next best thing. If you still aren’t convinced, take a look at the tagline on the website:

That’s the International Antarctic Center: The World’s Best Antarctic Attraction.

I wasn’t aware there was more than one, but there you go. An all-day pass is pricey at $65NZD (about $50USD), but come on – it’s the World’s Best.

Hagglund Ride

Hagglund New Zealand
The mighty Hagglund. Image credit: mendhak, Flickr

Your day pass entitles you to a ride on the Hagglund, an all-terrain monster specially equipped for tearing across the Antarctic ice. It’s like a miniature tank that rolls through an outdoor obstacle course while you are strapped into the back seat. Unfortunately, most of my photos and videos are on a CD-ROM somewhere in Indiana, but you can watch the official Hagglund video here.

Snow and Ice Experience

This is an indoor play area that is kept at an appropriately polar -5° C, to match real Antarctic conditions. Coats and overshoes are provided so you don’t freeze to death. The ‘experience’ looks like the penguin enclosure at the zoo, except it’s filled with people frolicking around igloos and ice slides. If you’re not brave enough to go inside, you can watch through the glass.

Snow and Ice Experience - igloo
My elfin friend Bridget looks right at home in this igloo.

Be prepared, though, because every hour the playground morphs into something sinister as the Snow and Ice Experience becomes…dun dun dunnnnn….

The Antarctic Storm

The wind picks up to 40 km/hour, lightning flashes and the temperature plummets when the artificial storm rolls into town. Audio from an actual Antarctic blizzard plays in the background, with piercing warning sirens and howling winds. Everything went dark and the conditions became unbearable. It only lasted for a few minutes and I knew it was fake, but I still hid in a tent.

Antarctic Tent at International Antarctic Center
Wimping out as the storm rolls in.

Penguin Encounter

These little penguins, native to New Zealand, have been rescued and rehabilitated. Most can’t be released back into the wild due to injuries, so they’re well cared for at the center. On this day, the penguin keeper was covering their webbed feet with protective booties so they could safely run across the stones. They weren’t pumped about waiting in the plastic box, but it must be better than re-opening old wounds. You can watch them at feeding time or even get a penguin backstage pass. I didn’t get the backstage pass – what penguins do behind closed doors is their business.

Little penguins
Waiting their turn for protective booties.

Learn Stuff Area

This is my general name for the rest of the International Antarctic Center. It’s the science-musem part – a place where you can watch movies, learn about life in the Antarctic, and touch a molting leopard seal corpse. And who says no to touching a molting leopard seal corpse?

Not me.

Leopard Seals at the International Antarctic Center
OK, maybe it's not a real leopard seal corpse. Maybe it's a very real imitation.
Please touch International Antarctic Center
See, I told you. You can touch this stuff.

So there you have it. The next best thing to Antarctica, minus the thousands of dollars and enduring cold.

Go ahead and cross that seventh continent off your list.

I won’t tell.


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    1. Man, David Attenborough would just laugh in my face. Clearly I should have paid more attention in the ‘Learn Stuff Area’ of the Antarctic Center. I feel like they might have mentioned that there.

    1. They were so cute waddling around – I couldn’t tell that any of them were injured, but I think many were. I’ve never been to Tasmania – sounds like beach penguins are yet another reason to go!

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