Beyond zero, where the skin tingles

You want superlatives? The north lands hold more records than people. The world's vastest countries (Russia, Canada), largest island (Greenland) and coldest city (Norilsk, Siberia) are all in the north. Degrees, below zero Celsius or above 60N, are the key to finding solitude: the further north you go, the people thin out even faster than the trees.

You can start within Britain, on the serene slopes of Shetland which dissolve into steely seas. More substantial land masses harbour savage landscapes and peoples who transcend 20th-century political boundaries. The Inuit of northern Canada, Greenland, Siberia and Alaska share a linguistic and cultural heritage that mocks the East-West divide and absurd debris of Cold War defence installations which still scar the Arctic terrain.

Military incomers have been augmented by people running from the south: should you find yourself in a bar in Anchorage, Alaska, wait for your fellow drinker to relate his life story rather than asking questions: too many here are running away from unhappy relationships or unpaid fines. Close your eyes and put on your thermal clothing, and Alaska's largest city could be Anytown, USA. But you only have to stray a mile beyond the city limits to be at the mercy of some unmerciful forces.

Tourists are even thinner on the ground than locals. This is, of course, much of the appeal. Yet you are not obliged to travel as roughly as circumstances seem to suggest. Cruising is the fastest expanding travel industry sector, and the region of greatest growth is the coastline of Alaska.

Now that the British summer has saturated us with heat and sunshine, the appeal of the far north may be uncharacteristically strong. And if you have not rolled in the snow after a sauna, your nerves screaming with delight while your head, heart and skin adopt radically different stances on the wisdom of this operation, you have yet to experience the spirit of the north and learn how physical extremes can translate to sublimely sensual experiences.

The strongest urge to go north, though, is contained in a press release that has just arrived from Orlando. Oddly enough, the lowest fares to the heart of Florida are sold by Icelandair; so low, in fact, that a ticket to Orlando is usually cheaper than the normal fare to Reykjavik. If you needed a good reason to get off that plane along the way, try this: "Offering a slice of Merry Ol' England, King Henry's Feast ... to wash it all down, pewter pitchers of beer, chilled wine and Coca-Cola are included with dinner." If this sounds more enticing than pale but endless daylight splashing from steely seas to ragged rocks, illuminating an eerily beautiful landscape, then board that plane again. But don't expect me to join you.

Simon Calder

How to get there

Air Canada, Canadian Airlines and British Airways all fly direct to Edmonton from London. Through discount agents you should be able to get a fare of about pounds 400 return.

NWT Air (a partner of Air Canada) and Canadian Airlines both connect to Yellowknife.

And Ptarmigan Airways (001 403 873 4461) flies from Yellowknife to various destinations all over the Northwest Territories.

Who to ask

Visit Canada Centre, 62-65 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DY (0171-258 6346).

What to read

The Rough Guide to Canada (second edition, Penguin, pounds 10.99).

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