Travel Special: ISLANDS IN THE NORTH

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The Independent Culture
At the top of the world (off America's northernmost tip), Baffin Island stretches from north to south further than from Nova Scotia to Florida, most of it untouched and unexplored except by the Inuit, its aboriginal and, until recently, nomadic people.

Much of Baffin Island is unserviced by modern transport, with a great variety of terrain from Polar desert and Arctic oases to rolling tundra, lush valleys and some of the world's highest cliff faces.

Travellers, the firm specialising in unusual journeys to the earth's wildest places, works with the Inuit people, guests staying with local families. Tours also include husky dog-sled journeys through the wil-derness, and trips to the floe edge where most of the wildlife can be found - polar bears hunting seals, the rare humpback whale, the ivory-tusked narwhal and the walrus.

Norway's Lofoten islands are tipped for `97 as an atmospheric alternative to the mainland by independent holiday specialists STA. Deep within the Arctic Circle, with spectacular snow-capped peaks, the midnight sun is visible from June to mid-July, and you can even swim in the Arctic from silver-sand beaches. Puffins, cormorants, gulls, guillemots and eagles are constant companions. Holidaymakers stay in rustic "rorbus", the rust- coloured fishermen's cottages balanced on stilts over the water, many of them in Mortsund, a fishing hamlet on Vestvagoy Island.

Europe's best summer capital Stockholm is a series of 14 islands linked by 15 bridges, where you can swim almost in the city centre, or sail your dinghy to work.

After the long, dark days of winter, squeaky clean Stockholm seems to be on holiday the entire summer; musicians busk in the cobbled alleys of Gamla Stan, the old town; open-air chess games are played with giant pieces, concerts performed in flower-filled parks, sails flutter on sparkling water visible at every turn.

The spectacular Carl Milles sculpture garden graces the island of Lidingo, while swimmers and sunbathers head for splendid isolation on one of the 24,000 other islands (only 150 are inhabited) and skerries that stretch 40 miles from Stockholm to the Baltic on boat trips that can last from three to 12 hours.

Iceland's tourism has been given the all-clear since the end of November, with roads and bridges repaired after the eruption of the Loki Volcano on 1 October, which led to the melting of Europe's largest ice cap, the Vatnajokull glacier.

Away from its uninspiring capital Reykjavik, nature is at its most impressive, with lava fields and hot springs, waterfalls, glaciers and boiling mud pools. Skidoo riding and ice-climbing, ice fishing or whale watching appeal to the adventurous.

The situation needs watching for independent travellers, however; if melting icebergs create quicksands, only escorted tours may be allowed to some areas.

Baffin island: Travellers (015396 20196) do a two-week Arctic Odyssey Tour in April costing pounds 2,350 inclusive of all flights, transport and most accommodation and meals.

Lofoten islands: Flights from pounds 354 to Tromso and then by boat from STA (0171 361 6161). InnTravel (01653 628811) offers four nights on the Lofotens plus three nights on coastal steamer, from pounds 699, also including return flights.

Stockholm: Flights to Stockholm from pounds 192 (STA). Six-day Archipela-go tours from Scantours (0171 839 2927) on board MS Waxholm - pounds 620 including flights.

Iceland: One-week tours including flights from pounds 880 from Scantours. Flights to Rekjavik from pounds 288 (for students & under 26s) with STA.

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