It’s mid-December in Antarctica, and the expanse in front of me is absurdly cinematic. A long, rippling white plain—flat as a field and textured with wind-cut tendons—ends in a crop of snaggletooth mountains. These buttes jut upward like the bony ridge of a lupine jaw, sharp and carnivorous and ragged. One peak towers above the rest: Ulvetanna, the Norwegian word for “wolf’s fang.” The scene is made more surreal by the Antarctic summer. It’s always below freezing yet the sun never sets, and, because of this, the concept of time is transformed into something like cold smoke. You cannot grasp it, but you do see it moving slowly along the snow, in the broad-winged shadows of midnight to the skin-frying harshness of high noon. (The UV rays in Antarctica are strong).

Ulvetanna is the centerpiece of the view from Echo, a brand new, Star Wars-inspired camp run by White Desert, the British and South African luxury tour operator that is becoming increasingly well-known among intrepid travelers for its ultra-unique, off-the-grid expeditions to the Norwegian Antarctic territory of Queen Maud Land, due directly south from Cape Town. 

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Courtesy of Ali Wunderman

More luck strikes: Almost at the moment we reach the colony, the clouds pull back, a climatological curtain raise on one of the most celebrated and strangest animals on earth. There are hundreds here. The adults are in their tuxedos, with apricot dabs of blush at the neck (the same coloration exists between sexes). In the background, a penguin road, which the birds take round the clock to head to the sea to hunt. Their chicks, born a few months ago, are getting tall yet remain in their nascent plumage of ashen gray feathers. They’re both ridiculous and unexpectedly humanoid. They flap their flippers dramatically. Some are tired; horizontal and face down on the ground. Some waddle the flats in playground bully packs. Some eat snow in fits and starts. Some just wander off, for reasons nobody knows. I find a dead one, half buried, and its feathers are so dense I first think they’re fur. “Jesus, it’s a seal, how did it get here?” I ask a friend.

But for all of the novelty of the scene, a bring-it-home reverence courses beneath it: Something like this is not only an extraordinarily rare and special thing to witness, but a reminder of everything taking places in corners of the world many will never see. White Desert’s guides make sure you maintain a minimum distance from the birds, too—the penguins will often approach you, curious about the alien interlopers, but you must back up in tandem. If anyone hadn’t yet been moved by the wild wonder impelled by Antarctica, the penguins, in their social, maybe even relatable way, would have done it. 

Day Seven

I’m back in Cape Town, at the Mount Nelson, a historic hotel recently acquired by Belmond. I’m sitting in the shade on its grounds, guarding my lips and nose, which have second-degree burns from the Antarctic sun (despite regularly wearing 50 SPF lotion). Pink roses glow in the light, while the air—spiced with grass and petrol—moves languidly. 

It’s a good spot to recover, and not just from Antarctica’s physical stressors. When you’re there, the continent demands contemplation. When you’re back on developed terra firma—which suddenly feels a bit more cramped and a bit hazier—you’re left to really think about what surfaces, and all the contradictions and implications that come with it. 

Inherently, White Desert provides a premium service, and it bears the term’s traditional standards. Plated meals, personal service, and private jets are all included. But, to me, the company underscores the idea that real luxury in travel comes from a deep impart of environmental connection, community, and overarching mindfulness. Yes, White Desert is wildly expensive. I could not have afforded it on my own. (I’ll repeat again: luck was on my side.) But, while grand in scale, it does not consider itself above. The thoughtfulness around the spaces we visit, the inevitable meditation on the balance of industrialized humanity and raw nature, and the respect shown to our planet’s power—these are all things that I think can and should be interwoven with the experience of travel no matter the trip. I think, now, that to see the world through this prism is to live the truest luxury of all. 

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